No matter how long the hike or where you’re headed, the first step is to always be prepared, especially if you’re headed into the backcountry. You may be going for a routine hike and don’t think you need to bring a ton of stuff, but the 10 essentials for hiking should become crucial pieces of your hiking gear.
You probably won’t need any of the items on most of your hikes, but there may come a time and place when your hike takes an unexpected turn, you or someone else suffers an injury or gets lost on the trail, and you’re in dire need of emergency supplies — which is where these 10 hiking essentials come into play.
After all, it’s better to have something and not need it than to need it and not have it. Plus, having these items securely stored in your hiking backpack means you can enjoy the beautiful landscapes surrounding you!
This list of 10 essentials for hiking was coined in the 1930s by The Mountaineers organization to help people going into the backcountry be safer in their journey. While technology, life-saving techniques and the hiking essentials items have evolved over the years, the list remains as crucial as ever.
10 Essentials for Hiking
- Navigation: Compass, map, GPS, altimeter, satellite messenger
- First-Aid Kit: Bandages, splint (ankle stabilization), medical wraps
- Emergency Shelter: Emergency sleeping bag or lightweight tent
- Fire Starter: Lighter, matches, magnesium fire sticks
- Water: More than you think you’ll need (or lifestraw if hiking near water)
- Food: More than you think you need (compact space/hiking no-cook meals)
- Protection: Sunglasses, sunscreen, bug spray
- Clothes: Extra pair and jacket in case of wetness
- Light: Headlamp, flashlight, solar-powered lantern
- Repair Kit: Knife, duct tape, rope
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The most important thing you can bring on any hike is your navigation tools. No matter how short or long the hike, bring a topographic map and compass and practice using them on the trails. These will be your key to getting to a safe location if you get lost and need to find your way back to safety.
A topographic map (also known as a topo map) shows the surrounding terrain in detail, including the elevation, steepness of slopes, point of references, water sources and so much more. Topo maps are printed with contour lines that help you figure out what the terrain is and which spots are safer to go if you get lost.
A compass is a vital tool for all hikers that gives you a defined direction of where you’re going if you get lost in the backcountry. While smartphones have compasses, getting a standard compass is critical because it doesn’t rely on batteries. Plus, it’s so light you won’t even know you’re carrying it.
While you can download a GPS app for your phone that works while you have no service, getting a handheld outdoor GPS device is a better option because they’re built for rugged terrain and will last much longer if it accidentally takes a beating.
Altimeters gauge barometric pressure to estimate your elevation level, which also helps to track where you are in relation to your topo map and lets you gauge how much longer to the peak and how much time it would take to get back down to a safe location.
A satellite messenger or personal locator beacon is a last-resort option if you get injured or fall ill in the backcountry and need to be rescued. When activated, it sends an emergency message over the government and commercial satellites and drops a GPS locator to your position so emergency personnel can locate and save you.
2. First-Aid Kit
A first-aid kit should be carried at all times. If not for yourself, it can be used to help anyone else who may have been injured on the trail. The most important items to have in your first-aid kit are medical wrap and splints to stabilize an injured ankle, adhesive bandages and tape, gauze pads, over-the-counter medication like Tylenol or ibuprofen, disinfecting ointment and medical-grade gloves.
While you can buy first-aid kits that include all of the aforementioned items, it’s never a bad idea to add some of your own items into the mix. If you cut easily, you may want extra bandages. If you get blisters easily, bring some extra gauze pads, and so on.
3. Emergency Shelter
As someone who frequently hikes close to sundown (because it’s important to get a hike in after I finish work for the day), bringing an extra emergency shelter is critical in case I get lost or injured and wind up stranded on the trail overnight. Emergency shelters can consist of anything from waterproof sleeping bags to lightweight tarps and tents.
I carry two Mezonn Emergency Sleeping Bags in my hiking backpack at all times. They’re bright and reflective so people can spot you from a greater distance, they absorb 90% of your body heat inside the bag to keep you warm through cold nights, they’re the size of my hand and they’re less than $11 each. They’re also tear-resistant, windproof and waterproof.
I carry two because one can be used as a sleeping bag and the other can be used as a makeshift tent to block the excess wind or rain coming down. They’re so light that I don’t even realize I’m carrying them. And, hopefully, I’ll never have to use them, but I like to be prepared for anything. While I hope nobody ever needs to use them, accidents happen more often in the backcountry where there aren’t designated trails.
4. Fire Starter
If you get lost or injured in the backcountry and need to hunker down for the night, you’re going to need a fire. It keeps you warm, keeps the bugs away and especially helps when it’s wet outside. You can go with a lighter or matches (as long as you keep them in a waterproof container), but I always carry my Swiss Safe magnesium fire starters everywhere I go.
They’re designed to start a fire instantly in any condition — rain or high winds included — by utilizing magnesium rods to create a spark. They’re tremendous because they’re less than 2 ounces, waterproof, generate 16,000 strikes at 5,500 degrees Fahrenheit and they’re less than $15.
You’ll also want to carry some form of tinder packed in a waterproof bag or container. Tinder can be sheets of toilet paper or regular paper, an old dryer lint ball you saved up (those light up instantly), lint from your clothes, dry leaves and anything else that has the potential to light immediately. If the conditions are wet, magnesium fire sticks and tinder become life-savers.
When you’re going on a hike It’s always important to carry more than enough water to get you through the hike and, if you’re hiking in an area with lots of ponds, lakes, streams and rivers, to carry a water purifier or filter to weed out all the harmful materials in case you run out of your own drinking water.
When beginning a hike, you should always take a full bottle of water with you to start your hike. From there, if you’re hiking near water sources and run out of water, a personal water filter like a Life Straw or Sawyer filtration system can help you filter your water so it’s safe to drink.
Whether it’s a pack of beef jerky, CLIF bars or one of the many freeze-dried meals from Mountain House, you’ll want to always pack at least an extra day’s worth of food for your hikes. While you should try to pack items that don’t need to be cooked, you may be able to get away with eating freeze-dried meals that have been pre-cooked. They won’t taste as well, but they’ll do the trick
Packing protection can save you from the sun, insects, bear and other large predators — on any hike through the backcountry. For the sun, pack sunglasses and sunscreen. For insects, pack insect repellant to keep you from being bit.
For bears and larger animals, especially if you’re hiking through bear country, you need to pack bear spray. If a bear is charging you, bear spray is the last line of defense and may be able to stop it in its tracks so it doesn’t attack. Bear spray may also deter other predatory animals like big cats, coyotes and wolves. Bear spray is basically a military-grade version of pepper spray.
Weather conditions in the backcountry are known to change at the drop of a dime, going from clear skies to howling wind and rain. You don’t want to be caught in one of those flash storms wearing a t-shirt and shorts. If you’re hiking pretty much anywhere outside of the desert, a rain jacket can keep you dry and warm.
If you’re hiking at altitude in cool weather, you’ll need to bring a jacket. And no matter where you’re hiking, it’s always a good idea to bring a change of clothes. You’re probably working up a sweat on the trails and, if the weather turns cold, you don’t want to be cold and wet. That’s a bad combination.
If you get caught on the trail after dark or at sunset, things will start getting dark quickly, and you’ll need to have a light source to guide you back down to a safe location. A tilting headlamp with multiple brightness settings and an infrared light is the best option because it allows you to carry on with your normal activities, like using your trekking poles, getting water or cooking food.
Another good option is a solar-powered outdoor light that can hook onto your backpack, belt or something else. The MPowerd Outdoor Pro is a great option because it has four brightness settings, a built-in clip for easy charging and collapses flat so you hardly notice you’re carrying it.
10. Repair Kit
No matter how long or how intense the hike is that you’re going on, having the proper tools to repair your hiking gear in a moment’s notice is extremely important. Making yourself a kit that includes a knife, duct tape, rope and even some zip ties should be everything you need to repair any hiking gear you have.
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