10 Essentials Every Hiker Should Always Carry

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The new rules on what to bring with you when you hike

[Question] What’s the deal with the “Ten Essentials”? Do I always need to carry all that stuff, even for a day hike?

[Answer] The answer is no, but yes. The cool thing is nowadays, you can buy mini pre-packaged Ten Essential kits, throw one in your pack (or packs), and forget about it. The other day, I picked up one that held the “12 Essentials” in a canister the size of playing cards.

The Old-School Rules

To really answer the question, though, let’s take a look at the original Ten Essentials, first published in 1974 in the classic tome Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills. The list included:

  1. Map
  2. Compass
  3. Sunglasses and sunscreen
  4. Extra clothing
  5. Headlamp or flashlight
  6. First-aid supplies
  7. Firestarter
  8. Matches
  9. Knife
  10. Extra food

I would argue that you do always need to carry some facsimile of this list on every hike, near or far. You never know when you might get lost, injured, or experience extreme weather. But that doesn't mean you need to stick to it exactly.

The New Rules

Expert hikers and backpackers will tell you they customize the Ten Essentials to meet their personal needs. Most, including myself, will also have various versions of the Essentials in various packs. I have one I keep with my paddling gear that’s totally waterproof, one that’s ultralight for backcountry skiing, and another larger kit I carry for peak bagging.

Freedom of the Hills updated the list in 2003 to reflect new technologies and that it's more important to consider specific systems, like insulation and nutrition, than it is to get hung up on specific items. So the list now most commonly reads something along the lines of:

  1. Navigation: Smartphone and GPS devices are sweet. But pack the ultimate, battery-free backup: a map.
  2. Sun protection: Essential year round.
  3. Insulation: Think layers—carry extra gloves and an extra hat in the winter.
  4. Illumination: These days, there are so many options in LED, rechargeable headlamps, and lanterns. Pick the one that's most versatile for the type of backcountry travel you do most.
  5. First-aid: Focus on the most common maladies (like blisters), but be prepared to improvise with other items, too (like a bandana). Consider adding insect repellent depending on your hiking location and the season.
  6. Fire: A lighter is small and light. It's good to keep one in your pack just in case.
  7. Repair kit and tools: This can include a knife, which of course I always carry, or a multi-tool (which didn’t exist in 1974), duct tape, and a maybe trowel for burying poo.
  8. Nutrition: Bring enough food and gels to share. The average hiker should consume at least 200 calories per hour. According to our parent company, REI, for a full day on a backpacking trip, "a reasonable goal is 1.5 to 2.5 pounds of food (or 2,500 to 4,500 calories) per person per day depending on your size, weight, and exertion level."
  9. Hydration: Without exercise, you should consume roughly half your weight in pounds in ounces of water. (So, if you weight 160 pounds, you should aim to drink 80 ounces of water each day.) Then, add more water, depending on your hike. A short, partial day hike requires an additional 20 ounces, according to the Mayo Clinic. The distance you'll travel, location of the trail (higher altitude means a higher risk of dehydration), whether you'll have access to a water source, and weather will all play a role in what you pack. But I like options, so I carry several water bottles, purification tablets, and a lightweight water purifier on almost every hike.
  10. Emergency shelter: I might leave this one out if it's summer, I have plenty of clothing, or I'm on a short hike very close to home.

Long story short, think about what mishaps the Ten Essentials are helping you avoid and tailor it to your specific outings and activities. Play with it, modify it, learn how to use it, and carry it on every single hike.
This is the first article of Gear Bible, a column filled with expert advice to answer all of your hiking questions. Have a question of your own? Submit it to the editorial team here.

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