By now, on one hike or another, I’ve forgotten each and every one of the Ten Essentials for hikers.
And always regretted it.
I’ve left the trail map in the car. I can’t seem to remember to check the freshness of my headlamp batteries and I forget to replenish the supplies in my first-aid kit. When airport security confiscated my trusty Swiss Army knife out of my day pack, I assured myself I could do without a pocket knife for a week of day hiking. (Naturally, I needed it several times.)
How many essentials are there in the Ten Essentials for Hikers?
No, this isn’t a whimsical question like “Who’s buried in Grant’s tomb?”
Some hiking experts count 12 or even 14 essentials. And what about the day pack, essential to carry those essentials, shouldn’t that count as an essential? New hikers argue that a cell phone should be the eleventh essential while veterans insist it should be “common sense.” Some Ten Essentials for Hikers lists include matches and fire starter as two separate essentials, some count them as one essential. Some lists include water, some don’t. Items that usually finish just out of the top ten but that are considered essential by some hikers include signaling devices (whistle and mirror) and insect repellant.
A Ten Essentials for Hikers list was first circulated in the 1930s by The Mountaineers, an outings club located in Seattle. Since then it has become a kind of gospel among hikers and an essential teaching tool in outdoor education programs.
Even if you’re positive about where you’re headed and how to get there, it’s wise to bring a map with you on the trail. GPS maps are great, and consider a paper map back-up.
You can find good trail maps at specialty outdoors stores, travel bookstores and a number of on-line outlets. Use care when you select a map off the rack. Many maps sold to tourists are okay for civic sightseeing, but don’t show the backcountry in the kind of detail we hikers require.
Maps in trail guidebooks and from local and regional park authorities vary in quality from great to abysmal. Funky hand-drawn maps or poor-quality reproductions are indicators that you should purchase additional maps of the region in which you intend to hike.
Forest Service maps are available at ranger stations and various commercial outlets for a small fee. They’re general maps, showing roads, rivers, and trails. The Forest Service usually keeps its maps fairly up-to-date.
Topographic maps show terrain (elevations, waterways, vegetation and improvements) in great detail.
A compass and map go hand in hand. Once you figure out how to use them together, you’ll find yourself hiking around the backcountry with increased confidence. Add (but do not substitute) a GPS unit to your hiker navigation system.
Some of the features to look for in a good compass:
• One that registers 0 to 360 degrees with two-degree increments
• Liquid filled to protect the magnetic needle and reduce fluctuation
• Adjustable declination to be able to adjust for the difference between magnetic north and true north
• A base plate that can be used as a straight-edge for determining distances on maps
• A pop-up mirror for making sightings
Okay, I admit it, I do love the Compass in my iphone.
“Drink before you’re thirsty” should be the hiker’s mantra. Bring plenty of water for your hike, plus some extra. And drink it! As ridiculous as it sounds, The Trailmaster has observed many hikers who remember to pack water, but don’t take the time to drink it.
Try to bring your entire water supply for the day with you so that you don’t have to rely on trailside streams. It’s still possible in some locales to drink from a very select number of backcountry creeks and springs without ill effect, but each individual water source should be carefully scrutinized.
With a few exceptions, I reluctantly advise: Don’t drink untreated water. Many hikers assume water is pure, and then, 48 hours later, get a queasy feeling that tells them their assumption was wrong. Even clear-looking waters may harbor the organism Giardia lamblia, one of the causes of “traveler’s diarrhea.” Treat any backcountry drinking water with purification tablets and/or a quality filter.
4. Extra Food
Don’t be shy about bringing more than you think you might eat. Your hunger—or the day’s plans—may surprise you, and you’ll want to be prepared.
On a day hike, weight is rarely an issue, so you can pack whatever you wish. Remember to pack out what you pack in. The day you hike is not the day to diet. Calorie counters rejoice: There’s a lot of calorie burning on a hike and quite an energy cost. You’ll need all your strength, particularly on steep grades. Energy bars, Gorp, or trail mix, with fruit, nuts, raisins, and M&M’s are good high-octane fuels. A sandwich, fruit and cookies make a good lunch. A continental spread featuring sourdough bread, a fine cheese and a splash of chardonnay is also nice.
Snack regularly and avoid a big lunch. Exertion afterward sets up a competition between your stomach and your legs and your legs lose, leading to weakness and indigestion.
5. Extra Clothes
Wherever you travel, there’s a good chance you’ll encounter some old-timer who loves the old adage, “If you don’t like the weather in (pick a region), then wait five minutes.” It almost doesn’t matter where you’re hiking, the weather often changes quickly and with little warning. The trick is to be prepared.
If you start out on a warm sunny morning, dress accordingly (t-shirt, shorts), but bring along a long-sleeved button-down shirt, pullover and a pair of lightweight pants. Vice versa, of course, if it’s cold. The extra shirt is especially nice when stopping or sitting down to rest on the trail. It’s surprising how chilly you can get when you stop moving, particularly when you’re in dry weather, windy places, or at high altitude.
Extra clothes also come in handy after an unexpected fall into a creek or on a wet, muddy trail. Depending on the climate, dry clothes might be the key to saving an otherwise lousy hike.
6. First-Aid Kit
While you don’t need to lug along your entire medicine cabinet, there are a few essential items that will make any trip much safer and more comfortable. It’s important to be prepared for a range of mishaps: blisters, cuts, scrapes, sprained ankles, among other things.
• A small assortment of adhesive bandages in various sizes.
• Antiseptic towelettes
• Antibiotic ointment
• Sterile dressing a small roll of adhesive tape for larger cuts
• Antihistamine and ibuprofen tablets for allergies and aches
• Anti-diarrheal tablets (not a necessity, but if you need them will make your trip a whole lot more pleasant)
• Moleskin, for blisters
• Ace bandage—really helpful in the event of a sprained ankle
• A couple of safety pins. These can help with the oddest of medical and non-medical mishaps—a torn t-shirt, a broken zipper, you name it.
• Some hikers swear by homeopathic products such as Rescue Remedy cream, tincture or tablets, and arnica for aches and bruises.
Larger injuries are less common on the trail, and for those, I suggest you consult a more comprehensive first-aid manual.
7. Pocket knife
From slicing salami to cutting an ace bandage to rigging emergency shelter, a pocket knife is an indispensable tool on any hike. Knives really run the gamut of price, utility and style, and you can find yourself paying as little as five or as much as $70 for one of these gadgets. Almost any pocket knife will do on a day hike, as long as you keep these criteria in mind: your knife must be clean, sturdy, and sharp.
Few know basic wilderness preparedness as well as the Boy Scouts—and The Official Boy Scout Handbook offers guidelines for caring for your knife that are worth noting:
• Keep your knife clean, dry and sharp at all times
• Never use it on things that will dull or break it
• Keep it off the ground. Moisture and dirt will ruin it.
• Wipe the blade clean after using it
• Treat the joints to an occasional drop of machine oil so that the blades will keep opening easily.
Keep your knife sharp by using a sharpening stone. You can find these at most hardware stores. Sharpening a knife is not rocket science; learn how to maintain a sharp blade and keep this vital hiker tool in tiptop shape.
8. Sun Protection
No matter where you live, or what season it is, hikers need to take precautions against the hazards of the sun’s rays. Overexposure can leave you fatigued, dehydrated, and painfully burned. A combination of a hat, sunglasses, sunblock and the right clothing can keep you properly protected from the dangers of too much sun.
It’s important to be extra sun-savvy when hiking in high altitudes, long stretches of un-shaded or reflective terrain(on sand dunes or near water, for example), and when the sun is at its most intense—roughly between the hours of 10 and 2.
Although you may have no intention to stick around on the trail past sunset, it’s still a good idea to carry a flashlight or headlamp every time you head out for a hike. It’s easy to underestimate just how long a particular hike might take, and you might find yourself scrambling down the mountain as dusk approaches. Without a light source, you’re far more likely to lose your way, take a fall, or worse, panic.
Many seasoned hikers have stories about getting stuck on the trail after dark. And most will tell you that packing a flashlight is a classic case of “better safe than sorry.”
It’s easy to bring one with you. A light can be inexpensive, lightweight, and—if you bring along a set of extra batteries—pretty reliable. Headlamps are now more popular than ever. They’re just as good (or better) than regular flashlights, and they have the added benefit of allowing hands-free illumination.
Because of vastly improved battery technology and capacity, as well as compact and powerful electronics, the flashlight is one “essential” that’s been greatly improved over the years.
Be sure the flashlight selected throws a strong enough beam to light up a trail in total darkness. Check with store clerks (or read-up online) about beam-strength. Many cheaper lights may be great for nighttime reading, but won’t help you navigate a dark trail. Some lights, boast a high-intensity beam that can adjust from “spot” to “flood”, or from a bright, focused point of light to a wider, slightly dimmer beam—kind of like the zoom lens on a camera. All of the best ones are waterproof. So if you get stuck in the dark when it’s raining, you’ll be able to find your way.
10. Matches and Fire-starter
The traditional fire-starter is foolproof kindling for starting emergency fires in the wilderness.
Then of course, there is, a box of matches. It’s best to buy the waterproof or “stormproof” variety for trips on the trail.