Whether you’re taking a quick day hike into the woods behind your house or an extended trip in the wild backcountry, ensuring that you have your ten essentials on you at all times can be the difference between life and death. Mistakes, like misjudging sunlight and losing the trail, can happen to even the most experienced hikers. Depending on where you are, the weather can also be unpredictable and can lead to dangerous conditions like hypothermia. While we can’t control these aspects of nature, we can be prepared for them when they happen and it starts with knowing your ten essentials.

There are some in the ultralight community that will tell you that bringing all ten essentials will weigh you down and increase your risk of getting caught in a storm, not making it to camp before sundown, etc. Do not listen to these few ill-informed individuals. The best way to stay safe in the wilds is by being prepared and having the tools necessary to provide yourself with water, shelter, food and a means of calling for rescue. 

All of these items can fit into a standard-sized daypack and while it won’t be as liberating as hiking without a pack, at least you’ll have the peace of mind knowing you’re prepared for the worst. After all, you should never be hiking without a pack anyways. To help you plan for your next trip, or refresh your memory, here is the most widely accepted ten essentials list. 

1. Navigation

Some of the most dangerous situations in the backcountry can be avoided by simply knowing where you are. Luckily, technology has advanced significantly when it comes to wilderness navigation technology. On that note, the most important (although probably the most expensive) piece of equipment on this list is a Personal Locator Beacon, or PLB. Usually about the size of a small flip phone, a PLB can alert local authorities of your location and call for evac. However, as the fees for evac may be quite high, you’re only going to want to use this gadget in the worst of situations.

Also, make sure you pack some form of GPS device. While there’s a number of high-quality GPS devices for sale, I’ve found that my smartphone works just as well. There are a couple of apps I use to navigate without cell service: AllTrails and Gaia GPS. Both of these apps require a premium membership to access their offline GPS services, but since using the two, I haven’t hiked a trail without knowing exactly where I am at all times. AllTrails even has a neat tool that will tell you your elevation at your current location. 

If you’re going to be using a smartphone for your GPS device, make sure it has a sturdy, water-resistant case, you have an extra battery-packed and the phone is turned on airplane mode to conserve battery power (don’t worry, it’ll still track your location in real-time). And, as always, never leave for any trail without a topographic map and reliable compass. 

2. Light source

My personal favorite light source is a weather-resistant LED headlamp. If you’re shopping for one, make sure it can tilt downward so that you can see what you’re working on, whether it’s cooking or tying up a knot. Also, being able to dim the light to a low red light is super handy when you don’t want to blind your fellow hikers. Make sure to bring extra batteries on you as well. While flashlights are still a great option, being able to use your hands while still having light can be a much safer and more convenient option. 

3. Sun protection

Sun protection is one of the most undervalued and most forgotten pieces of gear. Prolonged sun exposure can lead to a host of conditions such a sunburns, skin cancer and snow blindness. Ensure that the sunscreen you are using is blocking both UVA and UVB radiation and is at least SPF 30. When hiking in high mountainous regions with snow and white granite, make sure to bring sunglasses as the reflected sun will burn your corneas, resulting in extreme discomfort and near blindness.  

4. First aid

While you don’t have to carry the whole medicine cabinet in your pack, make sure you have a small first aid kit that is stocked with medical tape, bandages of different sizes, gauze, antiseptic wipes, anti-inflammatories and insect repellent. One of the most common mistakes that many hikers make is not replacing first aid components after each trip, so make sure to double-check your first aid kit is ready for the trail.

5. Knife

I could go on and on about the uses for a knife. From first aid to cooking to fire starting, your knife is going to be one of the most used items on the trail and in any survival situation. While a sharp and sturdy blade should be sufficient, some people opt to carry a small multitool on them for extra convenience. And although there might arise a situation where a knife can be used for self-defense, there are better tools that can help protect you from wildlife attacks (bear spray). So do yourself a favor and leave the Bowie knife at home. 

6. Fire

While most experienced hikers try to avoid making campfires while in the backcountry, they can be very necessary in a wilderness survival situation. However, unless you know how to make a bow saw and have incredible patience (and a bit of luck), you’re going to want to bring a lighter or two, waterproof matches and a small magnesium fire starter. While that might seem excessive, keep in mind that these items weigh basically nothing and can be potentially lifesaving. 

7. Shelter

In terms of the ten essentials, your shelter should be very minimal and temporary. For warmer months, I usually opt to bring a tarp which I can use to make an A-frame tent with my hiking pole. Although there’s no need for a full tent, bringing a bivy sack on even short trips is another common practice for climbers and hikers. Bivy sacks are basically minimalist survival tents that with a fraction of weight, you can keep yourself dry and warm in almost any environment. Check out the video below that describes how a bivy sack is used.

8. Water

While most people won’t forget a water bottle on their hike, many will forget to bring a water purification system. The most common ways to purify water are by using iodine tablets or water filters. As I’m not a huge fan of the taste of iodine, I generally stick to small and portable water filters like the Sawyer Mini. When looking for a source of water, try to find a part of the stream that is running swiftly and avoid stagnant water.

9. Food

Did you know that the human body can go up to three weeks without food? At the same time, keeping your body fed with necessary nutrients can help you with decision making and give you the energy to survive until help arrives. For these situations, I always carry a few protein bars and some homemade beef jerky in my pack. In addition, it’s also recommended to carry some fishing line and tackle (unless you’ll be hiking in the desert of course).

10. Clothes

Finally, you’re going to want to carry an extra set of clothing should you need to spend an unplanned night outdoors. This can be as simple and lightweight as a waterproof shell, thermals and socks. To prevent your extra set of clothing from getting wet, make sure to store them in a dry bag or plastic gallon storage bag. 

Again, there’s no better way to keep yourself safe in a survival situation than being prepared. It’s the one aspect of adventuring in nature that we have full control over and we should always be taking take advantage of this. As this list was created to help others on their own travels, please feel free to share this with any friends and family that frequent the outdoors. Feel like we missed an essential item? Let us know in the comments section below. Happy trails!