The 10 Essentials For Outdoor Trips You Should Never Be Without

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Packing the 10 essentials is a good habit to be in whenever you’re heading backcountry, even if it’s just for a casual day hike. If everything goes as planned, you probably won’t touch them - and that’s good. The whole point is that it’s better to have them in case of emergency.

Have you ever finished a hike just before the sunset, but you had no light or headlamp? It went well, but could have gone wrong if you had broken your ankle or injured yourself? The 10 essentials are here to help you avoid that kind of situation!

Has a seasoned trail runner, and multi-day trekker, I always refer to this list before I leave. I really enjoy solo mountain runs just before sunset, but I can tell you… when it comes to packing, I am always very careful. Being the last man on the trails feels like a privilege, but this should be paired with extra care regarding safety.

The original list of 10 essentials came about in the 1930s when the active group The Mountaineers based in Seattle, wanted to help people be better prepared for their outdoor adventures. Specifically, the system was built to help the hikers respond positively to two questions:

  • “Can you respond well to an accident or emergency?”
  • “Can you safely spend a night, or more, outside?”

Since then, the 10 Essentials have evolved to focus on a system rather than on specific items. Nowadays, it is composed of the following elements:

  1. Navigation
  2. Illumination
  3. Sun Protection
  4. First aid
  5. Knife
  6. Emergency Shelter
  7. Fire
  8. Extra Clothes
  9. Extra Water
  10. Extra Food

Make sure you are able to follow your path even if the weather turns rainy or foogy. Plenty of navigation options are available:

  • GPS devices: it’s easier than ever before to figure out where you are and where you should go using a GPS. Just make sure you have enough battery or a map compass as a back-up
  • A map and a compass: Keeping it the traditional way is definitely the safest and most reliable possibility to proceed! Just make sure you know how to use a compass. Be aware that maps can get soggy and useless, so buying the waterproofs versions can be a smart investment
  • An altimeter: A nice to have if you can afford it. During the ascension of a pass, the elevation matters much more than distance!

2. Illumination


Illumination is your ticket to get back to safety if you’re out for too long and trying to find your path in the dark.

  • Headlamp: I like headlamps the most because they keep the hands free, and bring light in the direction you look at. LED headlights are especially useful because they’re quite bright and have minimal energy consumption.
  • Phone: You can often turn a smartphone into a flashlight in an emergency, but that drains the battery fast and could stop you from using it to call for help later. Only use your smartphone for illumination as a last resort.
  • A homemade torch! If you’re particularly desperate, you can make a torch. However, this is often less reliable (and less handy…) than other light sources, especially if you need to travel at night for a long time.

3. Sun Protection

Sun protection

Sun protection comes in several forms, but sunglasses and sunscreen are an absolute must. Hiking might not seem like the same kind of sun exposure threat as a trip to the beach, but hours in the mountains on a sunny day can severely burn your skin. Any opaque object, including clothes, can double as sun protection in a pinch.

The goal here is to avoid damaging your eyes or burning your skin. Fortunately, addressing this issue is usually straightforward and simple.

4. First Aid

First aid

First aid kits are arguably the most important thing you can possibly bring on a hike. You can deal with the sun by hiding in the shade, but lacking a first aid kit can be put you in big troubles.

A good kit will be quite comprehensive, including bandages, gauze pads, adhesive tape, pain medication, sterile gloves, disinfectant, blister treatments, and more. If you’re traveling with other people, you should have one larger kit or several smaller ones.

Oh, and don’t forget to have a first aid guide. Most people don’t train to use the components of a first aid kit, and in an emergency, it’s easy to panic and use things incorrectly. 

If possible, keep your first aid kit in a waterproof and shockproof container. The last thing you want to do is to hurt yourself tumbling into a river, then open your first aid kit just to find the water has contaminated and ruined everything.

5. Knife and Repair Kit

Knives are among the most versatile tools you can bring with you outdoors. Knives can help you start fires, construct shelter, repair items, defend yourself, and even prepare food. There’s really no good reason to be without a good knife, even on shorter trips.

Repair kits are more useful the further you get away from civilization. Most better repair kits contain a mix of zip ties, safety pins, repair tape, cords, fabric, and duct tape. They may also have repair parts for things like poles, filters, and sleeping pads, or at least something you can jury-rig into a solution.

The important thing to understand about repair kits is that their goal is to be good enough but not perfect. Something is good enough in an emergency if it gets the job done without exposing you to more danger. It may not be an ideal solution, but as long as you can get back to safety, that’s really all that matters.

6. Emergency Shelter

Shelter is the most important thing you can have after freshwater. While you don’t need a family-size tent for a three-hour hike around a meadow, an emergency bivy or a large survival blanket tarp can provide outstanding protection in an emergency. The best options can provide insulation and a more-or-less waterproof barrier in at least one direction.

7. Fire

I feel like I don’t need to explain why a source of heat, sanitize water and cook food is useful in an emergency, but this list wouldn’t be complete without it. Just knowing how to build a campfire will suffice in a pinch, but a few fire-starting tools can turn a chore into a simple task.

The important thing to understand here is proper fire safety. Even in an emergency, be careful and do everything you can to stop your fire from spreading outside its designated area.

8. Extra Clothes

Extra clothes can seem bulky, and they often are, but they’re also crucial for survival if you suddenly find yourself exposed. A sudden burst of rain can soak your gear and threaten your health, while wind chill can make everything worse.

Try to bring extra clothes that will help you survive. Warm full-body underwear, a face-covering hat, socks and gloves, and an extra jacket or vest usually suffice. Your goal here is to cover as much skin as possible. If you’re hiking in winter, try to bring extra insulation for all parts of your body. 

Just like the first aid kit, make sure you keep these in a waterproof container if possible. Having extra clothes doesn’t help if a sudden a storm ruins them.

9. Extra Water

For the basics, bring enough water for your trip and a bit more than necessary, just in case. In addition. you can also bring with you a water filter. Water filters can range from straws that you can put into practically any freshwater source to pills or even portable water collectors.

Don’t forget to refill your water whenever you can. It’s often hard to predict when you’ll get your next chance, especially in emergencies, so don’t hesitate to go out of your way to get more water as needed.

10. Extra Food

Finally, extra food can help you survive a trip whenever things go wrong. Smart hikers will have at least an extra day’s (or enough to go for a few more hours for days-hike) worth of food for each person in the group. Try to avoid foods that make you too thirsty. Salty foods, in particular, can make you go through your water much faster.

The Bottom Line

Sounds like a lot of items to carry? The good news is that you can fit all of them in a small bag which fits in regular backpack, and at a very reasonable weight!

A good trick is to have a kit prepared that you can quickly grab when you go. Some items such as the survival blanket, compass and first aid kit are never leaving my backpack, plain and simple. I never regretted to carry them, should it be only for the peace of mind it provided me. Of course, depending on your project you can definitely remove 1 or 2 elements if you feel they are unnecessary. But remember, preparation ahead of time is the secret to managing an emergency.

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