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Backpacking: What are The “Ten Essentials”?

Anytime you read through a backpacking guide or gear checklist, you’ll run across that term- the “ten essentials”. But, what are they, exactly, and why do they matter? The Ten Essentials, developed by Mountaineers Books, describes the ten things needed to survive an emergency in the wilderness. Read them over, make sure you’ve got them, and get home safe no matter what happens!

10 Essentials: The Background

What are the ten essentials?

The Ten Essentials as we know them were first published in 1974 as part of the third edition of Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills. The book, developed by expert mountaineers and climbers, has been an essential guide for anyone interested in tackling the world’s tallest peaks.

Read More: What’s the difference between backpacking and mountaineering?

Why Do The Ten Essentials Matter?

The Ten Essentials are important because they are the foundation of common-sense backpacking and hiking. They’re called “essential” because they’re required for survival when a fun trip turns sour. If a storm derails your trip, you or a hiking buddy is injured, or you get hopelessly lost, the Ten Essentials will keep you alive until help arrives.

When Do I Need Them?

The Ten Essentials are really only necessary when you’re far enough away from civilization that any situation could turn into a crisis. If you’re only a few miles from home and you have cell service, you can safely leave a few of the ten items at home. If you’re heading into the wilderness, though, make sure you have each of the Ten Essentials with you, to ensure you and your group can make it home safe!

Backpacking Basics: The Ten Essentials

1. Navigation

compass in front of an alpine lake

Your phone is only as useful as the nearest cell phone tower. If you’re headed into the backcountry, make sure you’ve got a way of getting your bearings. It’s not just finding home after you get lost that matters; you need navigation that will prevent you from getting lost in the first place. A detailed topo map and compass (provided you know how to use it) are the simplest, but modern GPS devices are great, too. GPS devices sometimes feature a “beacon” function that can send an S.O.S signal with your exact location to SAR teams.

2. Light: Headlamp, Flashlight, or Both

person with headlamp in front of starry sky

Hiking during the day? You might not think you need a flashlight, but leaving it at home is rather foolish. A sprained ankle, a deviation from the trail, or any other event that keeps you from getting back on time, though? You’re going to regret not being able to see at night. Pack a flashlight, a headlamp, or both, to ensure that any delay doesn’t turn into something dangerous!

3. Sun Protection

Hot sun at Joshua Tree National Park

Sunscreen, yes, but also- long sleeves, long pants, hats, and sunglasses. Being burnt to a crisp by the hot sun makes everything about hiking more difficult. Sun poisoning and sunburns on your eyes can turn an annoying sun into something deadly. Make sure you’ve got what you need to stay safe underneath a hot sun.

4. First Aid Kit

First Aid Help GIF by Four Rest Films
Via Giphy

This one needs no explanation, but it’s still one of the last things on our minds when we pack. Prepare a first aid kit, put it in your pack, and keep it there so you’ll never have to worry about forgetting it. At minimum, make sure you’ve got bandages, antihistamines, water purification tablets, insect sting relief wipes, and ibuprofen.

5. A Knife, Hatchet, or Both

camping knife in a forest scene

Perhaps more than any other tool or utensil, your knife will get a lot of use. From cooking and food prep to cutting wood to make an emergency fire or shelter, a good knife is invaluable. If you like, you can also bring along a hatchet, but don’t think that a hatchet is nearly as versatile as a solid pocket knife.

6. Fire-Starting Capability

Three friends around a campfire

Waterproof matches, tucked in your first aid kit, are the easiest way to check this box. However, a fire starter that will last for years and many fires is a great tool, too. If you get stuck somewhere, fire is crucial for survival- it’ll keep you warm, safe, and the smoke can help you get found.

7. Shelter: Tent, Bivy, Etc.

tent in front of a starry sky

Whether it’s a tarp, a bivy sack, or a tent, you have to have something to keep your body from freezing overnight. Even on short hikes, if something happens that prevents you from getting back, you need to be able to stay safe until help arrives. Tents are the most obvious form of shelter, but bivy sacks and bivy shelters are lightweight options that work just as well.

8. Day’s Supply of Extra Food

Via Giphy

If you’re an ultralight backpacker, you might cringe at the thought of bringing two full pounds of extra food. If you want to stay safe and protected, though, bring at least one day’s supply of extra food. For a two-hour hike, it’s understandable if you don’t want to pack three meals; in that case, stuff a couple of extra protein bars in your bag.

A few hundred calories and a few dozen grams of protein may sometimes be the only thing between you and starvation. If you’re sitting on cold, hard ground with a broken leg, food is an absolute necessity!

9. Extra Water (Or Water Purification System)

Water bottle in the woods

Two to three liters of water, at minimum, should accompany you on any trip. If you don’t want to pack that much water, make sure there is a water source somewhere on the trail and that you know how to get to it. Bring a Lifestraw or some other water filtration system so that you can turn dirty water into something useful.

10. Extra Clothes

If your clothes get wet, torn, or otherwise ruined, you’ll never regret having that backup pair of pants. Even in the hottest areas, temperatures drop fast when the sun goes down or at high altitudes, so make sure you’ve got warm clothing either on your body or in your pack!

Wrapping Up

The Ten Essentials aren’t the most groundbreaking thing in the world, but they really aren’t supposed to be. What they are supposed to be is common-sense survival items. If you’re planning a backpacking trip or mountaineering excursion, bring the ten essentials with you!

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