The Ten Essentials

The Ten Essentials is a list of items deemed by many hiking authorities to be necessary for safe travel in the wilderness. They were first described in the 1930s by The Mountaineers, a hiking and mountain climbing club in Washington state.

According to Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, the ten essentials are:

  1. Map - trails aren’t always obvious, and sometimes you’ve got to improvise. Have a good topo map, and better still, know how to read them.
  2. Compass – goes with the map, but you’ve got to learn how to orient yourself. The Brunton 9020G is a great value.
  3. Sunglasses and sunscreenDon’t have your trip cut short because of sunburn or snowblindness.
  4. Extra food and water – just in case your journey takes a longer than you expected.
  5. Extra clothes – can protect against cold or heat.
  6. Headlamp or flashlight – the sun does set eventually, and this is a handy way to see at night.
  7. First aid kit – even a blister can be a bitch if you don’t have a first aid kit.
  8. Fire starter – fires can warm you, and signal help. Tinder-Quik fire tabs make this easy.
  9. Matches – um, to light the fire start in #8.
  10. Knife – infinite utility, from cutting cheese to field surgery. Ditch the heavy and bulky in favor of simple and light.

There is no expectation that you will actually use all of these items on a hike, but that in the case of an emergency, they could make the difference between life and death. I would add that this list covers essentials for safe travel in the wilderness. A hike on a trail in town doesn’t require the same rigor. That said, I’m continually amazed to see “hikers” attempting trails ill-equipped and under-prepared. I’ve seen people hiking towards Half Dome wearing street shoes and carrying nothing more than a 16 oz. bottle of water. Yikes!

I would recommend that you carry all of this (and know how to use it) on any backpacking trip or wilderness day hike.

Is that it?

No, there’s more! In the backcountry, the list should really be expanded to include a few more essentials, including:

Of course, if these were included in the Ten Essentials, it would have to be renamed the Sixteen Essentials, and that just doesn’t roll off the tongue the same way.

Ahem… what about TP?

Some people consider toilet paper a “luxury” item. Consider using leaves or a smooth rock to wipe. Or consider TP part of your first aid kit. Or fire starter. Or add it to your list. No one will mind. Keep in mind that in some places (the desert; Mt. Whitney) you’ve got to pack your poo out, so a zip-loc bag would be essential.

Going Light

Carrying all this might sound like quite a load, but you can do it pretty efficiently if you’re creative. Make your items do double duty (i.e. toilet paper = fire starter). Carry a small pen knife rather than a big (and heavy) Swiss Army knife. Use found items where possible (i.e. a stick or a tent stake to dig a hole rather than a trowel). They key is to be creative.

Keep your ten essentials handy. I keep mine in my day hike pack, and swap out maps and other items depending on the kind of hike, the location and weather.


  1. says

    I love your 10 Essentials list! Although many of these things seem pretty obvious, many people (including myself) seem to forget a few of these each time. I especially like the fact that you have a map and compass on there. Only until recently have I really started using these things along with a GPS. It is a great skill to know how to use these two, for there have been many times when my GPS has run out of battery life or I don’t get a signal (mostly in canyons).

    Extra food and water is also an essential, as many times your trip doesn’t go exactly as planned. I was backpacking Zion Narrows one summer and I came to a group of students who didn’t know what to do, as they had planned to do the hike in one day, not two like most people do it. They ran out of sunlight, but didn’t have extra gear to stay the night. Luckily, I had extra food and water and a person in my group donated a tent to them for the night.

    This is a short and sweet article, but with solid information every hiker and backpacker needs to follow. Thanks!

  2. Lupe says

    Great list. I like to include some rope when I’m out. Just in case I have to lower myself or my equipment down for whatever reason.

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