WHAT TO CARRY: THE 10 BACKPACKING & HIKING ESSENTIALS
It’s a loaded question for any prospective backpacker or hiker, knowing you can only fit but so much in a pack:
What should I carry while out on the trail?
Whether you are preparing for your first trip into the backcountry, or a seasoned thru-hiking expert, analyzing your gear selections will become a habit for every adventure. One of the underlying joys of backpacking involves the process of discovering how little you, truly, need to survive and thrive in wild, rugged environments.
Despite the increasing trend towards ultralight, or minimalist, backpacking, there are certain items that you should always consider. These essentials should become an integral part of your packing strategy, regardless of trip length.
Below, we’ll define these hiking ten essentials for hiking, providing experienced insight on why they are important. We’ll, also, guide you into selecting the right items, within each category, to ensure that you are always prepared for the unexpected.
Evolving over time, a definitive list of essentials for backpacking and hiking first appeared in print within the 1974, 3rd edition of the popular mountaineering book series: Freedom of the Hills. The origin of that list, however, can be traced back to climbing instructional courses offered in the Pacific Northwest, in the 1930’s, by The Mountaineers, a non-profit outdoor community organization. Organizers of this 12,000+ member community stress that the purpose of the 10 hiking essentials list has always been to answer two questions:
“Can you respond positively to an accident or emergency?”
“Can you safely spend a night, or more, outside?”
The classic essentials, those that formed from The Mountaineers classes and were popularized by Freedom of the Hills, involved a list of 10 items:
This served as the standard checklist for backpackers and hikers for nearly 70 years. As hikers and their gear evolved, so did the ten essentials list itself. In the 2003 edition of Freedom of the Hills, this transformation was confirmed with an updated list of essentials, which now focused more on systems and less on the specific items chosen within each. The modern-day list of the 10 essentials used by most experienced outdoor travelers is as follows:
Further reading: For a fuller checklist then check out our article on what to bring on a day hike (with downloadable checklist) and our backpacking gear checklist (with downloadable checklist) for those longer overnight trips.
Because they’re essential!
Ok, on a serious note, there are a number of reasons you should have these items covered on every trip. First and foremost, they are an integral part of your enjoyment and participation on most outdoor trips. Is it possible to hike for an entire day without food or water? Yep. Would it be much fun? Nope. Have you tried performing camp chores at night without the use of a headlamp? Would you enjoy hiking through a buggy swamp without head netting or bug spray? What about sitting in camp on a 28℉ night without proper jackets or insulation?
You get the idea. Without key gear items, many common trail scenarios would be downright miserable or dangerous. Even items that aren’t frequently used can become essential life-saving tools in the event of an emergency. Bearing the extra weight and bulk is justified due to their importance when, or if, they are needed.
Most of us think of using a compass and map when referring to navigational tools for backcountry travel, however, this category has grown to include GPS devices or cell-phone applications. For those traveling off-trail, deep within wilderness boundaries, or regularly experiencing the need to orient & direct their travel, the necessity for reliable navigation is obvious.
Albeit less obvious, carrying navigation tools can remain incredibly important for those who spend the majority of their time on-trail or closer to civilization. While it is possible to navigate many trail systems around the globe without a map (some A.T. hikers will hike over 2,100 miles without one since the trail is so well marked), its use may be paramount in the event you find yourself lost or confused. There have been numerous accounts of lost hikers who were found only hundreds of yards from a trail, without ever realizing it was there. A map can, also, be a fun way to orient yourself at a summit, identifying notable mountains in the distance or how far you have until reaching your next camp.
Remember, you should always carry a physical map even if planning to rely on electronic versions. Batteries, which lose power in cold temperatures, shouldn’t be your only source of navigational power in the wild. Carry a map and know how to use it!
Consider sun protection (both UVA & UVB) even when hiking through regions that won’t be hot or sunny. Don’t make us quote mom’s everywhere with the reality that you can still damage your skin (any tanning or ‘burn’ is evidence of such damage) on cloudy days, particularly at higher elevations.
This can be achieved with traditional sunscreen on exposed skin. Additionally, you can protect your skin with a UV protectant hiking sun hat or clothing, like this hoody from Black Diamond, a favorite among outdoor professionals. This is growing in popularity, as it saves you from having oily, sticky skin throughout the day.
Perhaps the best way to address your insulation (clothing) for future outdoor trips is to familiarize yourself with the concept of dressing in layers for outdoor travel (you can also check out our hiking clothing guide). When done correctly, this method allows you to be prepared for drastic changes in temperature, commonly experienced in wild, rugged places.
The general idea is for one layer to wick moisture away from your skin, a second layer to trap warm air, and a third to keep out the elements (wind & rain). Always be prepared to experience temperatures at least 10 - 20℉ below what is forecasted.
Having light never seems that critical...until you don’t have it. It can be crucial in the event you need to attract emergency personnel or travel at night. Beyond that, it just makes life so much easier in camp. Small tasks such as cooking, hanging bear bags, or even finding zippers to get in/out of your tent can be frustrating without light.
Lanterns can be nice to have in a group camping environment but have little use elsewhere on the trail. Overall, we prefer the use of a headlamp, which keeps both hands free while still providing ample light where you need it (Check out our guide to the best backpacking headlamp). Remember to always pack extra batteries, and keep a headlamp in your pack even on day trips where you expect to be done before nightfall. We have passed many hikers stumbling down the trail in darkness, with no light, because they expected to be done earlier.
We’re not going to waste much time explaining why you should carry first-aid supplies on a hike. It should be obvious. Instead, here are some considerations to keep in mind when selecting which kit to bring:
With the newer systems approach to the essentials, ensuring that you will have the ability to start a fire can be done in a number of ways:
Fire starting tools are important for several reasons, particularly in those environments where the overnight temperature will be below 60℉ (hypothermia can happen at temperatures well above freezing).
A spark is, commonly, used to start most backpacking stoves. A fire can, also, be used to help cook meals in the event of a stove malfunction, purify drinking water, keep you warm on an unplanned night in the backcountry, or even signal for help in dire emergencies.
Your ability to repair critical gear items should grow, proportionally, with the length of your trip and/or the depth of wilderness that you will be exploring. Common items carried by many hikers and backpackers include duct tape, multi-tool or knife, spare cordage and patches to seal small holes in sleeping pads (these often come with the purchase of a new pad).
Develop the habit of customizing your repair kit for each and every trip. For example, there are several items that I carry in a repair kit while on a canoe or kayaking excursion that I would never care to bring on a backpacking trip. At the end of the day, it’s hard to beat the versatility of a single folding sheath knife and some duct tape, which find a space in my pack on almost every adventure.
Carrying the right food to take hiking or backpacking is a delicate balance of needing to bring enough to replenish the crazy number of calories burned while on the trail, while not, unnecessarily, weighing yourself down with several days of extra food.
A prudent hiker will always carry enough food to survive an additional 24 hours over what is expected on their trip.
Nuts, trail mixes, jerkies, chocolates, cheeses, meal bars and dried fruits are common choices, providing the needed calories for an extra day hiking without relying on a stove to cook them, which you may not have in an emergency.
How much water to bring backpacking? Consider three aspects related to hydration before heading out on any day hike or overnight backpacking trip:
We are big fans of the small, lightweight SteriPEN Ultra, which kills over 99.9% of all bacteria, viruses, or protozoa in 90 seconds, or less. A filter is not, typically, necessary unless your water sources are known to be filled with heavy sediments (muddy). If you choose a UV filter, keep in mind that they rely on battery power and so we still carry backup iodine tablets just in case.
A common mistake made by day-hikers is to forego any kind of shelter. A small emergency bivy or tarp takes up minimal space inside your pack, yet provides critical warmth, insulation, and protection from the elements in an unexpected night out. Even circumstances that don’t require spending the night can benefit from a bivy.
Imagine breaking your leg only 2 miles from the trailhead on a popular hike. While it’s unlikely you would need to spend the night, being so close to the trailhead and amongst numerous other hikers who can seek help on your behalf, you may be sitting idle for multiple hours while rescue personnel reaches you with the proper equipment. If it’s cold outside, that may be a serious problem, especially now that you won’t be generating any heat from movement.
That new $300 down-insulated sleeping bag is so incredibly warm...until it gets wets. Don’t forget to waterproof critical items inside your pack, either with waterproof stuff sacks or a pack liner. Contractor grade trash bags are a simple, cheap, lightweight option for waterproofing your pack. Traditional pack rain covers are heavy, bulky, expensive and rather ineffective when backpacking in rain for several days of steady drizzle.
We, typically, consider bug protection alongside sun protection as one of the ten essentials. Since it is not officially part of the modern essentials list, however, we’ve included it here. Bug sprays are effective (look for picaridin - just as effective as DEET without the carcinogens) but protection can, also, come in the form of permethrin-treated clothing or bug-netting.
Bonus Tip: Remember to wipe excess bug spray or sunscreen off of your skin at the end of the day. The oils & chemicals found in each can be harmful to your sleeping bag insulation.
Some adventures may require more reliable forms of communication, or signaling, than a cell-phone. These are, most often, used in big mountain ranges or extreme areas of isolation, far away from cell service. Popular options include:
Remember, the goal of setting out into the unknown is not just to survive but, also, thrive! Below are examples of items that may not be essential to your survival, but essential to your comfort.
Having a panic time, and leaving it with someone you trust, is, perhaps, the single greatest step you can take to avoid backcountry emergencies.
What is a panic time?
It is a predetermined time by which you would advise your friends or family to start contacting authorities if they have not heard from you. Remember to consider the time to reach cell coverage once back in your car and always give yourself a reasonable buffer to allow for minor changes in your expected exit from the wilderness. For example, if I plan to be out of the woods by 3:00 pm, my panic time might be 8:00 or 9:00 pm.
Be sure to leave a contact list for the closest rescue personnel, as well as an intended route description. That is, likely, the key information that will help clue rescuers to your possible location in the event of an emergency.
If you’ve followed our advice to here, yet still find yourself in a bad situation, remember to relax. Take a few moments to compose yourself before carving out a game plan for how you will proceed. It, often, feels grimmer than it truly is.
One of the first topics discussed in survivalist courses is the proper order for survival tasks. If an unexpected night out is quickly becoming evident, focus on shelter and your ability to protect yourself from the elements. If that’s taken care of, start considering your hydration. How much do you have left? Is there a water source nearby? Be smart about what you do with your time when every minute counts.
If you’ve, smartly, carried the ten essentials that we’ve discussed in detail above, then you’ll have a plethora of tools at the ready. That, my friend, is the whole point!
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In addition to his role as an outdoor adventure guide, Chris Olson seeks to share his passion for, and experience in, the great outdoors through writing and photography. He has backpacked, hiked, climbed, kayaked, biked, and skied throughout much of the eastern United States, as well as iconic locations such as Zion National Park, Newfoundland, and Puerto Rico. His passion for fresh air, and beautiful places, reminds us all of the simple joys to be had from spending time outside!