Last updated October 12, 2019
When you’re new to the outdoors, it can be overwhelming with how much you need to learn. Between staying safe, learning the lingo, finding the right gear, and the seemingly million other things, it’s hard to know where to start. Luckily, we’re here to help! When you’re heading into the outdoors, there are ten hiking essentials that you should always bring. You likely won’t use most of it, but you never know when something’s about to go wrong and it’s better to be prepared.
The 10 hiking essentials
The original 10 hiking essentials were created by The Mountaineers, a Seattle-based outdoor club, in the 1930s to help people prepare for emergency situations in the great outdoors. The list was first published in Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills in 1974 and included a map, compass, sunglasses and sunscreen, extra clothing, light, first-aid, fire starters, matches, a knife, and extra food.
Throughout the years, the 10 hiking essentials have evolved from individual items into systemic groups. Today, the groups are:
- Sun Protection
- First Aid Supplies
- Repair Kit & Tools
- Emergency Shelter
Whether you’re heading out on a short day hike or a multi-day trek, it’s important to be a prepared hiker. No one heads out thinking they’ll end up in an emergency situation. Pack these 10 hiking essentials and hope you never have to use them. I know it can sound confusing and overwhelming! But don’t worry, we have all the details below.
Knowing where you are when you’re exploring the great outdoors is oh-so important. Nature’s not like the highway where there are signs every half kilometer. No, in nature you’re lucky if you see even one sign, which means you need to have your own ways to navigate.
Navigation these days includes five main tools for exploring in the outdoors. At the bare minimum you’ll want to pack a topographic map and compass, but a GPS, altimeter, and personal locator beacon are also highly recommended.
If you’re hiking on anything other than a well-marked, short nature trail, you should always bring a topographic map. If you’ve never seen a topographic map before, they can look pretty intimidating. Luckily, REI has a great resource so you can learn to read the map.
You’ll also want to make sure your map is either waterproof or enclosed in waterproof material. A map
Before you head out on your hiking adventure, you’ll want to know how to read your compass. Your compass, along with knowing how to read a map, is extremely important if you get lost in the outdoors.
Although most phones and GPSs include a compass, nothing beats a good ol’ compass that doesn’t need batteries. Plus, compasses weigh next to nothing and take up very little space.
You always want to know where you are when you’re adventuring in nature. A GPS helps you quickly find exactly where you are without a map and compass.
Thanks to smartphones, you likely already have a GPS on you. However, smartphones are pretty fragile and can easily get broken, especially when you’re trudging up a mountain. Unlike your smartphone, GPSs built for the outdoors are usually pretty durable and able to withstand lots of punishment. Regardless of which GPS you decide you go with, remember that they run on batteries. Always carry extra batteries in case your original batteries die.
Choosing a GPS can seem overwhelming, but thankfully REI has written a helpful guide for choosing the right GPS.
An altimeter watch is a helpful navigational tool, but it’s more of a luxury than a necessity, especially if you’re just getting started. It uses a combination of air pressure and GPS to figure out your approximate elevation, which you can then use to figure out where you are.
For an altimeter watch to be helpful, you need to how to read a topographic map.
Personal Locator Beacon (PLB)
Personal locator beacons are only used in emergency situations to alert emergency personnel you need help in the backcountry. When you active a PLB, it transmits your GPS location to government or commercial satellites and lets emergency crews know you’re in trouble. PLBs work in remote areas where phones don’t always have service.
2. Sun protection
I don’t want to hear about “how good your tan is” and that “you never get sunburnt”. You need to protect yourself from the sun every time you go into the outdoors.
Proper sun protection not only helps prevent you from getting sunburnt, snow blindness, or heat exhaustion, it also helps prevent premature skin aging, skin cancer, and cataracts. Pretty worth it if you ask me.
Even if you think you don’t need much sun protection because your hike is only an hour, it could easily end up being longer and the sun can quickly wear you down.
Quality sunglasses are worth investing in when you spend lots of time outdoors. They protect your eyes from harmful, and potentially damaging, sun radiation. Good sunglasses will block 100% of UVA and UVB rays. UVB rays burn your skin and have been linked to cataracts.
Sunglasses aren’t only for sunny, summer days. Snow blindness is real and you’ll need extra dark glasses if you’ll be spending lots of time around snow and ice.
Never forget your sunscreen. When you spend time outside, your skin is exposed to ultraviolet rays. Those rays cause sunburn, premature skin aging, and skin cancer. Sunscreen helps block that exposure, so make sure you choose the right sunscreen.
Choose a sunscreen that:
- Has an SPF of at least 15, although you’ll want SPF 30 if you’re spending lots of time outside.
- Blocks UVA and UVB rays.
You should always apply your sunscreen generously and on all of your exposed skin. Reapply it often throughout the day as well. You should also use SPF lip balm.
Sun Protection Clothing
Proper clothing is another great way to block UV rays from damaging your skin. There are plenty of lightweight clothing options that have built-in ultraviolet protection.
When you’re buying clothing specifically for sun protection, check its ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) rating to see how good it is at blocking those nasty rays. In addition to lightweight clothing, always wear a hat. A hat with a full brim is wonderful at protecting your beautiful face from the sun.
Weather in the mountains can, and often does, change rapidly and unexpectedly. A hot, sunny day can become a wet, windy day without much notice. An injury, even something as simple as a rolled ankle, can force you to spend more time outside than you planned. To keep yourself safe, always bring extra clothing.
When you’re deciding what to bring, think about the worst realistic situation you might find yourself in. What would you need to survive if you had to remain in one place for a long time?
Layering will be your best friend. Pack fabrics that wick and dry quickly, such as merino wool and synthetic fabrics (never bring cotton!). Clothing like rain gear, long underwear, hats, gloves, an insulated jacket, and extra hiking socks are just a few things you should consider packing on your hikes.
Learn about layering your clothes with MyOpenCountry. It might just be the difference between a happy hike and hypothermia.
Being able to see in the wilderness is more important than you know, so always make sure you have a light with you. Even if you’re just planning a day hike, you need to be prepared for a problem that causes you to hike back in the dark.
Most hikers prefer headlamps (us included!) because they leave your hands free for other things. If you don’t have a headlamp, a regular old flashlight works, too. Always remember extra batteries. Having a flashlight is no good if it’s dead.
PS: Your phone’s flashlight is not a light source. It’s weak and drains your battery quickly.
5. First aid supplies
You need to always carry a first-aid kit. You also need to know how to use it. The size of your first-aid kit will depend on the number of people in your group, how long you’re hiking for, and the risk involved in your adventure.
You can either buy it premade or create your own. We find it’s easier to go with a premade one and then add items as needed. Make sure your first-aid kit includes blister treatment, adhesive bandages of numerous sizes, antibacterial ointment, medical tape, pain medication, protective gloves, scissors, SAM splint, and gauze.
Before you head out, make sure everything is up-to-date and not expired.
If you find yourself in an emergency in the backcountry, you need to be able to start a fire. If you don’t know how to build a fire, Outside Magazine has a great guide on how to start a fire.
In addition to knowing how to start a fire, you the right tools. The right tools make starting a fire a hell of a lot easier than banging two rocks together. You should bring a butane lighter and waterproof matches. Splurge for quality matches — gas station matches don’t usually hold up well. Fire starters are also great and can be lifesavers in wet conditions. Tinder, dryer lint, and flint are great fire starters.
If you’re hiking somewhere where there’s little firewood, consider bringing a small stove for heat as well.
7. Repair kit + tools
In the event you need to perform an emergency repair, the proper tools will save you not only your time and energy, they’ll also save your sanity. A good knife or multitool is so versatile that it should be in your backpack every time you hike. They’re handy for repairing gear, preparing food, and building fires and shelters.
You should also bring a small gear repair kit. Your kit should include duct tape, zip ties, safety pins, cordage, and fabric repair tape. You should also include repair parts for your gear (water filer, tent, stove, etc). The more remote the area you’re exploring, the more in-depth your repair kit should be.
Going hungry isn’t fun. You need to be prepared to deal with a delay or emergency every time you go hiking. Bring enough food for at least one extra day — or more if you’re going on a long trek.
Enough food doesn’t mean you need to pack full meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Instead, bring things like high-energy bars and dry food like nuts or jerky. You just need enough to keep yourself going.
Being properly hydrated on your hikes is perhaps one of the most important things. Bring more water than you think you’ll use and drink steadily throughout the day. Bring a hydration pack, water bottle, and even an extra collapsible water reservoir. Always carry a filter or chemical purification system so that you can refill your water whenever possible.
Remember that most people usually need about a half liter per hour of moderate hiking in moderate temperatures. Use that as a guideline when deciding how much water you need.
We’ve also written about staying hydrated in the hot weather.
10. Emergency shelter
You should always carry some type of emergency shelter. It will help protect you from the wind, rain, and even sun in the event you become stranded on your hike. Your tent will do you no good if it’s back at camp.