Gear to Bring on Every Hike: The 10 Essentials

Day hiking is one of my favourite things to do. You can get a long way from civilization,  see beautiful places and don’t have to carry a huge pack to do it.

Even though it’s only a day hike, things can still go wrong. You could fall, get stuck out in a storm or find yourself lost. Just because it’s a day hike doesn’t mean you can throw away all your safety practices.

If these things can happen kilometers away from help, probably out of cell reception, what can you do to be as self-reliant as possible and get you and your hiking partners back to the car safely?

The 10 Essentials is a checklist for safety and survival gear to bring hiking. To be prepared for anything, pack gear from these 10 Essential categories every time you hike:

  1. Navigation
  2. Headlamp
  3. Sun protection
  4. First Aid
  5. Knife
  6. Fire
  7. Shelter
  8. Extra Food
  9. Extra Water
  10. Extra Clothes

The 10 Essentials

Since the 1930’s, hiking and scout groups have been refining their packing lists, making sure they had the most useful items in their packs at all times. A group called The Mountaineers put together an excellent book called Freedom of the Hills. Over 9 editions they’ve refined and narrowed these items down to an easy to remember list: the 10 Essentials.

The 10 Essentials are more like 10 categories than 10 items. Most of the categories can include more than 1 item or a couple different items. What you bring for sun protection could just be sunscreen or it could be sunscreen, SPF 30 chapstick and a hat for shade.

Think of the 10 Essentials like a checklist that you can use to pack your bag for a day hike. When it’s a nice round number, it’s easier to remember.

A note on reliability

Keep in mind reliability when packing your 10 Essentials. A map and compass are far more reliable than a GPS for your Navigation section. If you drop the GPS (like when I smashed my Garmin GPS on some rocks) and it breaks or the batteries run out then you won’t know where you are. Compasses and maps are much more reliable.

Let’s dive in.

1. Navigation

Without navigation tools you won’t know where to go. On smaller hikes or well signed ones, you won’t need much. On most hikes it’s a good idea to take a map and compass so you know where you are going. Even if you know the area well, it’s nice to have. You can change plans on the fly and take different routes by checking the map.

GPS are great navigation tools as well but they run on batteries and can break if dropped. I bring a GPS on every hike to record my track and take waypoints but I try not to ever rely on it completely.

Satellite communicators like an inReach, Spot, Zoleo or Somewear Global Hotspot let you text friends and family or call for help even if you’re out of cell range.

2. Headlamp

Light! Headlamps are popular to bring on hikes but regular flashlights can work as well. I’ve had to use mine when we were late getting back to the car. It’s nice to know you can keep moving after dark. If you don’t have light, you’ll be stuck stumbling around in the dark at night. Don’t forget extra batteries or battery pack for when the batteries run out. Each member of the group should have their won.

The Petzl Actik Core Headlamp with the Core rechargeable battery is an excellent headlamp for doing anything outside.

3. Sun protection

Getting sunburnt sucks. Getting burnt while travelling is even worse. Sun protection can include chapstick with sunscreen in it, sunscreen for everywhere else, hats and sunproof clothing.

Sunglasses are a big one here too. Lots of studies have recommended sunglasses when you are out in the sun. I hate squinting all day so if there is a hint of sun, so always have my sunglasses with me. Better pairs will have a VLT rating which is the Visible Light Transmission or measured amount of light they let through. 20% is a lot. 5% is great for very bright days on the snow or water.

Jublo sunglasses with photochromatic lenses have always been my favourite. The lenses change in the light. Some models go from almost clear to dark and others darken down to 5% for long days on the snow or water. Recently the Julbo Arise come on every single trip.

4. First-Aid

Bandages, cut-cleaning supplies and pain and allergy drugs are a good start to a first-aid kit. It’s easy to bring a lot of this stuff but you can pay attention to what you use most and create your own. Adventure Medical Kits makes great pre-made kits.

Always know what’s in your kit and how to use it. Prescriptions and other drugs can be very nice to have. I always have an EpiPen as well in case we run across a wasp nest.

5. Knife and Repair Kit

A multi-tool or knife are the main ones in this category. Being able to fix broken gear on the trail is really nice. Don’t bring the kitchen sink though. Think about things that might break on your gear and what would happen if you couldn’t fix it. Would it be a big problem? Could you make it back to the car? A good knife is a great survival tool so make sure you have one of these around. Check out the survival videos on youtube to get some lessons on what you can do with it.

Small zap straps, some duct tape and extra cord or rope can go a long way to repairing your gear. If there are some specific items like tent poles or snowshoe straps that you have seen break before, add something to repair them to your kit.

The Leatherman Skeletool has been my go-to multi-tool for a long time. It’s got a blade, pliers, a couple screw bits, carabiner/bottle opener and only weights 142 grams (5 oz).

6. Fire

Fire is great for keeping you warm and everyone’s spirit’s up. Bring some sort of firestarter and good fuel for getting things going when it’s wet. Cotton balls or dryer lint in a waterproof container and a flint make good firestarter kit. Try to practice starting a fire when it’s wet. It ain’t easy.

A small flint like the UST Strikeforce is nice to have in your pack all the time.

7. Shelter

This might be an emergency blanket or small tarp. Emergency bivy sacks are small, lightweight and wrap right around you. Think about spending an extra night out when you go and what gear at minimum you’d want to do that. You won’t be bringing a 3-man tent and full sleeping bags but aim for the minimum that you can carry that would get you through the night and moving the next morning.

The SOL Emergency Bivvy could keep you alive if things go sideways on a trip.

8. Extra Food

Food! I always bring too much but personally I would rather have too much than too little. Try to bring a second day’s worth just in case you get stuck out overnight. Bring nutritious food that you know agrees with your stomach and is easy to prepare. Long hikes suck if you’re feeling sick. Experiment with the carb/fat/protein ratio your body likes the most. Everyone is different.

9. Extra Water

Humans can’t go long without water. We need it. Try to drink a ½ litre per hour. You’ll feel and hike much better if you are properly hydrated. Water is heavy so if you can’t carry enough, bring a pump or water purification drops so you can get more on the way.

For emergencies, small water purification tablets are easy to pack and make almost any water drinkable.

10. Extra Clothes

This is basically warm and dry clothes. If you are going to spend an extra night out on the trail because you took a wrong turn or someone got injured, you’ll be very happy you have extra clothes. Check the temperatures and weather for the next couple days and see what you should bring with you. Trying to get home in the dark in soaking wet clothes, isn’t much fun and can be dangerous if you can’t get warm.

Now go hike!

Day hikes are great for so many reasons and 99% of the time, they go off without a hitch. For those rare occasions when things go sideways, having these 10 Essentials in your pack might save your life. 

Note: This posted was originally published July 29, 2014 and updated since.

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