No one likes a heavy pack but the annals of hiking are filled with tales of those who skimped on weight and paid the price. Like your friend. The one who scoffed at the notion of stuffing a sleeping bag into his pack in summer. How cold can it get in the semi-darkness of a short summer night?
They found out.
As far back as the 1930s The Mountaineers, a Seattle-based band of outdoor adventurers, compiled the seminal Ten Essentials list outlining the mandatory items hikers, campers and climbers should carry with them into the wilderness.
The list stood explorers in good stead for the remainder of the century, but an update is in order to take account of modern technology so we’ll highlight our own Ten Essentials list after going over the classic one.
The Classic Ten Essentials
- Sunglasses and sunscreen
- Extra clothing
- First-aid supplies
- Extra food
Google maps don’t count. Sorry to break that to you. There are no charging sockets in the great outdoors and if your battery dies or your phone takes an inadvertent dip in the river where will you be? Lost, probably.
Paper maps may seem like an anachronism in the modern age but they have the potential to save your life, particularly detailed topographical maps that allow readers to orient themselves with very few landmarks.
In fact, rei.com insist that “a topographic map should accompany you on any trip that involves anything more than a short, impossible-to-miss footpath or frequently visited nature trail.”
If your super smart smartphone has a compass, that’s great, but it doesn’t render a good old-fashioned compass redundant. Unless you fancy navigating by the stars or think you can find north by the growth of moss on trees.
Backpacking.net explore in detail the technical features hikers should look for in a compass. The minimum features they suggest are a dial that goes from 0 to 360 degrees, with 2 degree increments for ease of reading; a liquid filling to protect the delicate magnetic needle; and a straight-edge to assist with map reading.
Sunglasses and Sunscreen
It’s November in the north of Scotland. Why would you bring sunscreen? Mother Nature can be sneaky, that’s why. Windy conditions in the hills can push produce temperatures so low you might expect sunscreen to freeze on your skin, but if the skies are clear and you leave your skin exposed for five or six hours you’re risking serious damage.
Indeed, some of the coldest places on Earth can amplify the effects of the sun. Glaciers and mountains capped with ice can produce such searing light those without eye protection can go snow blind.
Sunglasses and sunscreen should be in your kit on every trip. Both should be capable of blocking the UVA and UVB rays which can damage the skin and eyes.
Mountaineersbooks.org define extra clothing as “additional layers that would be needed to survive the long, inactive hours of an unplanned bivouac.” Thin but efficient items like thermal underlayers and waterproof trousers are good bets since they take up relatively little room in a pack. Rei.com also recommend “an insulating hat or balaclava, extra socks and a synthetic jacket or vest.”
Socks are a camper’s best friend. You can never carry enough pairs of socks.
A source of artificial light should always be in your pack - or on your head, in the case of headlamps. We’ve all been on walks that have stretched on for longer than expected and your light could be the difference between making that last mile back to a warm bed or shivering in a ditch all night.
Headlamps are the ideal light source as they’re “hands free” but flashlights have their place, too. Indeed, they’re so small and pack-friendly you’d be well advised to take one as a backup even if equipped with a head torch.
First Aid Supplies
Rough and tumble is part of life outdoors and one of the reasons we love it so much, but even small injuries can be problematic if you’re a day or two away from civilisation.
First aid supplies are understandably one of the ten essentials, but, as twohikers.org advise, “you don't have to be prepared for cardiac bypass surgery on the trail. Keep it simple.”
Pre-prepared first aid kits will contain most of what you need but feel free to tailor them to your own needs. Bandages, plasters, antiseptic cream and aspirins are the staple of first aid kits, but additional items like treatments for blisters, burns and bug sprays can be priceless on the trail.
In order to start a fire you’ll need something that takes flame easily. Sources of tinder are almost infinite. Thin, dry material from twigs to leaves to lint gathered from tumble dryers (or even belly buttons, according to Practicalsurvivor.com) will ignite from a match and provide a foundation for a wood fire.
However, experienced campers often carry their favoured firestarter with them to enable them to start fires quickly in emergencies. Magnesium blocks with a striking flint and chemically-treated fire sticks are two man-made sources of tinder capable of starting fire in even damp conditions.
Cotton balls soaked in vaseline can also be effective. They’re flammable and waterproof and can be assembled at home.
Matches are useful for starting fires. Unless you enjoy rubbing two sticks together until they smoulder.
Campers are generally advised to use waterproof matches capable of surviving changeable conditions.
Budding trekkers discover early on that a knife is the ultimate multi-functional tool. One minute you’re carving up food with it, the next your stripping bark from trees or prising away at some non-compliant piece of equipment.
Once again, twohikers.org suggest keeping it simple. “We're not talking here about the 40-tool, everything-including-the-kitchen-sink Swiss Army variety,” they state, arguing that one or two blades will do. Other sites applaud the multi-functionality of Swiss Army knives, but suggest that you don’t go overboard. “If you don't actually use a feature, then you probably don't need to be carrying it around,” seems like sound advice.
Is food underrated? It’s true that humans can survive prolonged periods without food, whereas dehydration can kill in days, but trekkers are advised to pack an extra day's worth of food to see them through tough times.
Some benefits of food are more obvious than others. Rei.com note that “the process of digesting food helps keep your body warm.” Could be handy for that frozen bivouac.
Our Recommended Ten Essentials
The explosion in handheld technology in recent years has given trekkers more means of navigation than ever before. However, this doesn’t dilute the importance of a compass and map.
Keep both in your pack and be sure you know how to use them. This youtube tutorial will help you learn the basics.
The location tracking abilities of handheld GPS devices and modern smartphones allow hikers to quickly pinpoint their location, but don’t be lulled into a false sense of security by these devices - both rely on batteries and satellite connections that can cut out at any time, hence the reason “a traditional compass is an indispensable backup.”
Seasoned hikers might also consider bringing along an altimeter to help them get a fix on their elevation and don’t neglect pre-walk research as a navigational resource.
A cynic might suggest that insulation is just a fancy modern term for the Classic list’s “extra clothing,” but clothing technology has moved on since the 1930s and picking the right materials can make a huge difference to your comfort and ability to endure changing conditions.
Cotswold Outdoor argue that finding the right blend of base layer, mid layer (or insulating layer) and outer layer is the key to comfort on the trail. Check out their site for a guide that will help you pack the right gear for a range of conditions.
Sunglasses and sunscreen are still the mainstay of sun protection, but modern rating systems will help you pick exactly the right gear.
When purchasing sunscreen pay attention to the SPF rating, which indicates the strength of the protection offered. An SPF of 15 is generally the minimum level of suggested protection but hikers would be advised to wear SPF 30, since they’ll be out in the sun for extended periods.
Cracked lips often testify to the neglect lips endure where sun protection is considered. SPF rated lip balm will help protect them, while hats and other pieces of clothing that offer shade will also dilute the effects of the sun.
This is something lacking from the classic list that could save your life if things go wrong. While many campers will carry a tent with them, day trippers or campers who dump their tents and set out with a day pack should make sure they bring along an emergency shelter.
Emergency blankets and ultralight tarpaulins are common forms of shelter that add little weight or bulk to packs but afford valuable protection from the elements. If you don’t fancy investing in one mountaineersbooks.org note that a “jumbo plastic trash bag” will do much the same job.
Bet you never thought a bin liner could save your life.
Headlamps and flashlights (ideally both) are the primary options for outdoor trips. It’s worth noting rei advise that every member of a party carries their own light. If one member of the group becomes separated the light could help them find their way back or be used as a signalling device.
Qualities to look for in any light you’re taking outdoors are: water resistance, since you may have to use the light in the rain; lights with on-off buttons that are unlikely to activate themselves in your pack (thus draining the battery); and lights with replacement bulbs within their housing.
Spare batteries are a good bet, too!
Here’s one that hasn’t changed since the classic list. Take precautions against your own clumsiness!
Source of Fire
Gearjunkie.com tested various firestarters and felt that waterproof matches and Bic lighters were the most reliable across a range of conditions. Packing both in a waterproof container should provide you with the flame required to start a fire, but don’t neglect tinder - the material you’ll light to get the fire going.
Tinder can be collected on the trail but check out the “Firestarter” section of the Classic List for advice on tinder you may want to carry with you.
Knife & Tools
A multi-tool knife with a few blades will be invaluable on the trail but don’t be tempted to go overboard and buy one with too many features. Indeed, sectionhiker.com feel that “scissors are more of a necessity than a knife” and should be packed along with a roll of duct tape, and some safety pins for repair purchases.
Those heading into the great outdoors are advised to bring along an extra day’s worth of food with them. Chocolate, nuts, dried fruit, granola and jerky are common examples of food that keeps well on the trail and provides valuable energy.
A surprising omission from the classic list, water deserves some serious attention. Carrying plentiful water may seem so obvious it barely counts as advice, but having the “skills and tools required for obtaining and purifying additional water” is equally important.
Carrying a water filter or purifier will allow you to treat and drink water from natural sources. Boiling water before consumption or treating it with chemical tablets is another way of ensuring you’re never short of the stuff of life.
Other Equipment To Consider
Most people are so inseparable from their phones these days it seems redundant to suggest bringing your phone along on the trail. As erratic as signals in the wilderness can be, if you can get one you’ll be laughing (or checking Facebook).
Radios may seem hopelessly out of date nowadays but with a range of 100 kilometers a handheld radio could make the emergency call that saves your life.
There’s a lot of doom-mongering on this list but it’s best to be prepared. A whistle has one valuable function on the trail: it will outlast your vocal cords. Handy if you need to holler for help.
Anyone with any familiarity with midges knows the value of insect repellent. Bring it or risk having your entire trip ruined by innumerous, indefatigable biting pests.
Toilet Paper and Trowel
No one (with the exception of teenage boys) likes to talk about it but shit happens and when it doesn’t happen in the vicinity of a flushing toilet you’ll want to tidy it up. A toilet paper and trowel will make it look like it never happened. Which is what everyone wants.
Space blankets are super high-tech. They started life in the US space programme and make use of thin shiny foil to bounce heat away.
If you’re too hot a space blanket draped above you will reflect away the sun to provide shade. If you’re too cold a space blanket will reflect your heat back to you for warmth. Handy for the vagaries of a camping trip.