If you’ve done any hiking, camping, or backpacking, you’re probably familiar with the 10 Essentials you should always have on you. There’s a lot to say about this life-saving checklist and a lot that has been said, but whether you’re hearing about the 10 essentials for the first time or have been carrying them for years, the beginning of the season is the perfect time to check your inventory on these items and brush up on the skills required to use them.
In today’s high-tech world there are plenty of navigation options to pack in case you get lost – map and compass, altimeter, GPS device, personal locator beacon, and satellite messenger, to name a few. Our advice? Pack two types of navigation and make sure one of them doesn’t need to be charged. Survival kits like the Origin come with button compasses that are lightweight backups.
Whatever your chosen means of navigation, practice using it until it’s second nature to you. When you’re lost and struggling to keep it together, you don’t want to be struggling to remember what “red in the shed” means.
Even the shortest day trip can go wrong. Packing a headlamp with extra batteries can keep you from getting stuck in the dark.
Traditionally this portion of the 10 essentials refers to sun protection, but we like to expand this to include protection from wildlife as well. Think of this essential as items that protect you from needing to use your first aid supplies (see #4).
You might think a tan sounds great, but save it for the beach. When you’re in the backcountry, sun burns (or worse sun poisoning) are a risk that’s not worth taking, so pack and wear plenty of sunscreen, grab a hat, and consider protective clothing. Remember that as you go up in elevation, those sun rays get stronger and stronger, so you can burn faster and worse than at lower elevations.
We can’t stress this one enough. Not only will bug bites leave you itching and welt-covered, but with insect-borne diseases on the rise, they can have serious, long-term health consequences. Lyme disease, EEE virus, West Nile virus, and more are transmitted by ticks and mosquitoes – for all these diseases, the best treatment (and sometimes the only treatment) is prevention.
Not all repellents offer equal protection either – look for bug sprays that use active ingredients that are CDC-recommended for repelling disease-carrying insects and are registered with the EPA, which means they’ve undergone extensive testing to prove their effectiveness. Be careful to check how long the repellent is effective (aka hours of efficacy) and reapply accordingly. If you’re not going to remember to reapply, be especially picky about choosing a long-lasting repellent.
Consumer Reports conducts extensive testing of a variety of bug spray brands and ingredients every year that can help you choose the right repellent for you. This year, Ben’s 30 bug sprays earned top ratings, with recommendations for both the wipes and continuous spray.
Although Consumer Reports emphasizes that DEET repellents (like Ben’s) consistently perform the best in their testing, if you’re looking for a DEET-free bug repellent, they recommend Natrapel as an effective alternative, both the picaridin and lemon eucalyptus formulas.
This time of year, bears are waking up across the country. The vast majority of the time, a bear wants to avoid you as much as you want to avoid it, but following bear safety best practices can help prevent an unwanted encounter. Carry bear spray on your person at all times and know how to use it properly. Counter Assault bear deterrent is the farthest-reaching bear spray on the market, reaching up to 40 feet.
#4 First Aid
Pack a first aid kit and know how to use what’s inside! Sprained ankles, blisters, and cuts are all common outdoor injuries an outdoor medical kit should be equipped to treat. Our Mountain Series medical kits are specifically tailored to treat on-the-trail injuries. When picking a kit, consider how long you’re heading out for and how many people are going with you – we provide guidelines for this on the front of our kits.
When it comes to knowing how to administer first aid, we highly recommend taking a wilderness first aid course as part of your 10 essentials prep. NOLS and SOLO schools both offer excellent courses. The WFA course can be done in a weekend and equips you with basic skills you won’t regret gaining. Our Mountain Series medical kits all come with wilderness first aid guides with helpful tips and treatment advice to help you identify and treat a range of injuries and illnesses, so make sure to familiarize yourself with the contents.
At the minimum, we recommend packing a knife, gear repair items, and a signaling device – these tools can go a long way towards getting you out of a bind in the backcountry.
As with everything on this list, you should adjust based on your specific trip and needs, but a basic starting place for gear repair items includes duct tape (check out these ultralight mini rolls) and safety pins. Signaling devices help rescuers find you and come in a variety of options including survival whistles and signal mirrors.
Fires provide warmth, light, and the ability to boil water and cook food – and that’s not to mention the psychological benefit of sitting next to a cozy blaze. Always carry a fire starter that you’re comfortable using and make sure to periodically practice your fire building skills.
The best emergency fire starters are waterproof, ignite quickly and easily, and have a long burn time that gives you plenty of time to add kindling and build your fire. This Fire Lite Kit contains waterproof kindling and a dependable striker, while adding less than an ounce of weight to your 10 essentials kit.
A good emergency shelter provides protection from the elements – wind, rain, snow, and cold. Avoid the mistake of thinking that on multi-day trips your tent counts as your emergency shelter – that’s only true if you have it with you at all times. If you’re taking day trips away from your camp site and leaving your tent behind, you’ll need another form of shelter.
We recommend packing a heat reflective emergency blanket or bivy sack. Survive Outdoors Longer shelters are waterproof, windproof, and 90% heat reflective to help preserve precious body heat. Plus, they have a track record of saving lives.
#8 Extra Food
How much extra food you should carry as part of your 10 essentials depends how far and for how long you’re going into the backcountry. In general, pick food items that have a long shelf life and require no cooking. There are a bunch of great options for pre-made, ultralight freeze dried meals, or you can try making your own with these recipes. Carrying a survival kit like the Scout that includes an emergency fishing kit definitely won’t hurt.
#9 Extra Water
Staying hydrated is key to backcountry safety. Make sure you’re carrying more than enough water for your chosen activity and also pack a way to purify water if you run out and need to rely on backcountry sources. Boiling water is effective but time consuming (you have to build the fire, boil the water, then let it cool before drinking).
The RapidPure Pioneer purifier straw weighs less than 3 oz. and removes 99.99% of viruses, bacteria, and parasites, making it the perfect emergency water purifier to keep at the bottom of your bag.
#10 Extra Clothes
The weather can change unexpectedly, especially in the mountains, so when you pack your bag think about what clothing you would need to survive outdoors if you were stranded, unable to move for an extended period of time. Think in layers – water-wicking base, insulation, and rain gear to name a few.
Remember: the weather at the top of a mountain can be completely different from the weather at the bottom, especially in the spring. The snow may have been gone from your home for weeks, but that doesn’t stop there from being four feet of snow and plenty of ice halfway up the trail you’re taking. Add in some summit wind chill, and you’ll be appreciating those extra layers!