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On every hiking or camping trip it is important not to forget the Ten Essentials at home. With several years and a few hundred miles of trail behind me, I have adapted my own list based loosely on REI’s 10 Essentials list. These items have saved the day for me on several occasions.

1. Navigation:

A map and compass, when used properly, can be one of the most powerful tools in your pack. Even the most basic map provides you with vital information such as major trail intersections or points of reference that may become handy if you need to get off the trail quickly. While a compass might seem like a strange, analog piece of equipment in the modern hiker’s pack, when paired with a map and basic orienteering skills you may find your GPS to be extra weight in your pack.

Bottom Line: Always carry a map, compass, and the knowledge of how to use them!

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2. Hydration:

The rule of threes states that you can only live 3 minutes without air, 3 days without water and 3 weeks without food. Hydration is important for any physical activity, but when it comes to being outdoors you have to plan ahead so that you don’t fall victim to dehydration. For day hikes it’s relatively easy to carry an extra water bottle but if you are planning on a more strenuous day or multi-day trip, plan on carrying a minimum of 2 quarts of water a day (the hotter it is outside, the more you will need to carry).

Water often makes up a majority of your pack’s weight, but you can carry less by strategically planning refill locations such as streams and springs along your route. Always check with land managers and locals to be sure the water source is reliable, especially during droughts when the last thing you want is to be miles from another water source. Never consider an outdoor water source safe to drink so be sure to pack a treatment method such as a water filter, iodine tablets, or even a stove to boil it (boiling should be a last resort as it takes time and fuel).

Bottom Line: Extra water may add to pack weight, but dehydration is not fun at all.

3. Nutrition:

As the rule of 3’s states we theoretically could live without food for 3 weeks, but the thought of even missing one meal is a scary thought!  Always plan on carrying extra snacks like trail mix or an extra small meal–you never know when it will come in handy. While an extra bag of trail mix or a Power Bar might not keep me alive in a long-term survival situation, food is a great morale booster and keeping the hunger monster at bay just may save the trip.

Bottom Line: You never know when you may need something extra to eat.

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4. Sun and Insect Protection:

As a native Floridian I have had my share of lobster moments. Sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat are crucial for staying out of the sun and avoiding sunburn.  With all of the research on skin cancer must I say any more?

As for insects it really depends where you are and when you are going. For the most part I carry insect repellent to help ward off pesky misquotes and ticks. DEET has gotten some bad press in the last few years but after trying different “natural” alternatives, nothing keeps the clouds of mosquitos away for me like DEET.

Bottom Line: Save yourself the pain, pack sun screen and insect repellent and put it on!

5. Insulation/Extra Clothing:

It is important to always prepare for the worst. I always pack a rain jacket and rain pants which can serve to keep me dry. These items also double as wind protection for more blustery days. During the summer in the Southeast a light jacket may not be needed, but in higher elevations, temperatures can drop significantly at night. Plan ahead and don’t be left out in the cold.

Bottom Line: Know where you are going and plan for the worst type of weather.

 6. Warmth:

Always carry at least one way to start a fire (if not more!). From my personal experiences I have learned to carry at least two methods of starting a fire. Bring along a cigarette lighter, a small box of matches, and a small flint and steel if you can. This won’t add much weight to your back, but will save you a lot of time and effort.

Bottom line: Carry something to start a fire with; rubbing two sticks together is a lot harder than it looks.

7. Illumination:

It may seem silly to pack a flashlight and a change of batteries for a short day hike but after spending one dark night out in the Black Water Swamp of Central Florida I never leave home without one. A flashlight could become a game changer if your day hike takes longer than expected and you find yourself out after dark. I personally carry a small headlamp; that way, I am always ready for adventure.

Bottom Line: Don’t be left out in the dark.

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8. First Aid:

You don’t need to carry an entire hospital with you, but the basic bandages, tape, and medications (i.e. pain relievers, anti-diarrheal, hydrocortisone cream, personal medications, etc.) will almost certainly come in handy. My theory on first aid kits is to only carry items that I know how to use. If your first aid kit has a suture kit in it and you don’t know how to use it, why are you carrying the extra weight?

Bottom Line: Always carry a basic first aid kit and know basic first aid.

9. Shelter:

For overnight excursions this is obvious, but for day hikes it may sound just plain silly–but you can never be too prepared. I always have an emergency thermal blanket in my backpack. These blankets are made out of a thin layer of metallic “fabric” that is extremely good at reflecting body heat. During my night in the Black Water Swamp, two thermal emergency blankets kept hypothermia at bay as a cold front blew in from the north and dropped the temperature into the low 40’s (COLD!!!). On another more recent trip, I loaned my rain jacket to my girlfriend and turned my emergency blanket into a windbreaker/rain jacket that I think may have keep me warmer than my jacket!

Bottom Line: Emergency blankets are small, light and cheep. Throw one in the bottom of your pack so you always have it!

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 10. Tools: the Whistle and Knife

I am sorry, but the Boy Scouts have dropped the ball. They have put whistle as Number 12 on their essentials list. My father always made the argument that the whistle was the most important piece of equipment and I agree. The best thing you can give a kid when they go for a hike is a whistle tied to their belt loop with a lanyard. While the first mile with young kids armed with whistles can be noisy, the fact is that a whistle can always make a noise unlike your voice which you can lose from yelling for help all night. Many outdoor brands have taken note of this and have started to include whistles built in to their pack sternum straps.

A  knife is the ultimate outdoor tool. In general it is not about the size of the blade so keep your bowie knife at home and pack a smaller more useful knife like the good old Swiss Army knife or a simple folding blade. Be sure to learn how to use it properly (a quick YouTube search is a good start). If not you may find yourself using item #8.

Bottom Line: ALWAYS carry a whistle and a knife.

With these 10 essential pieces of outdoor equipment you’ll be prepared for almost anything mother nature throws at you.

What is one essential piece of equipment you always bring on your outdoor adventures?

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# Comments

  • mtbikerchick

    The headlamp is one I never thought of, but you’re right – you never know when you might need it! I also always have chapstick and my cell phone with me.

  • Jeff Barber

    Great list! So, along with the items in #3, what do you think about carrying something like a fishing line/hook? I suppose this is just like the first aid kit–if you don’t know how to use it, it’s sorta worthless. Knowledge of wild edibles (ala Kyle’s recent post) might come in just as handy.

    +1 on a cell phone. They don’t work in a lot of places but when they do, they can be a life saver! (I know this from personal experience.)

  • FLTrekker

    A cell phone is not a bad idea.

    If you do not have coverage your phone spends extra energy constantly searching for a signal depleting the battery. If you switch to flight mode your phone turns off the network and WiFi thus saving your battery for more important things like taking pictures and keeps me from getting distracted by text messages, phone calls and emails.

  • SarahHikes

    I have to agree with Julie on the chapstick. Being out in the woods without it is almost as scary to me as not having food or water. It sounds ridiculous but that stuff is highly addictive.

    Good article, though. It definitely covers all the basics 🙂

  • alison

    I have different size sutures in my first aid and duct tape. The tape has come in handy more then once.

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