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ten essential gear items

Ten Essentials Plus Four


Backpacking ten essentials: the first ten items in this list are the selections of essential backpacking gear which The Mountaineers refer to as The Ten Essentials and promote as critical and essential items which belong in your backpack as insurance against the unexpected. Although you may not use all the backpacking ten essentials every day, they can be life savers in an emergency.

Also, if you shop with prudence, these essential gear items can be lightweight, as well.

As a supplement to the ten essentials, we have added four additional backpacking essential gear items which are pretty important to our health and welfare in the wilds, as well as suggest some small, lightweight, purchase options for many of the "essentials".

The most important essential , however, is not on the list--"Common Sense". Having the right gear is one thing, knowing how and when to use it is quite another. Most often, it's not a person's equipment that saves their bacon. It's their experience, know-how, and good judgment.

Conversely, it is generally inexperience and lack of good judgment that gets people into trouble. Not only must we have the proper equipment -- including the ten essentials plus four -- and know how to use them, but we must also cultivate knowledge and wisdom related to the backcountry activities that we engage in--thru self-study, courses, and leveraging off the experiences of others.

Lastly, we have added a brief section discussing other gear that could be essential depending upon the nature of your backcountry activity.


JIM's 10 Essentials ]


The Ten Essentials

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1. Map
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2. Compass
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3. Flashlight / Headlamp
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4. Extra Food
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5. Extra Clothes
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6. Eye Protection
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7. First-Aid Kit
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8. Pocket Knife
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9. Waterproof Matches
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10. Firestarter
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11. Water / Filter / Bottles
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12. Whistle
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13. Insect Repellents or Clothing
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14. Sunburn Preventatives
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 *   Other Considerations
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1. Map:

Always carry a detailed map of the area you will be visiting. If alpine scrambling or otherwise navigating cross-country consider the 7.5 minute USGS maps--they reveal considerable detail. For traveling on trails, the 15 minute series Green Trails is a good choice, among others. The point is to carry a map appropriate for the area you will be in and the activity you will be undertaking--and know how to use it.!!

2. Compass:

Carry a compass, at all times, in the backcountry--and know how to use it ! Some features to look for:
  • 0 to 360 degrees, preferably, in 2 degree increments;
  • liquid filled, which protects the magnetic needle and its jeweled bearing and minimizes fluctuation;
  • a base plate--3" to 4", in length-- which can be used as a straight-edge for taking map bearings and determining distances on maps;
  • an adjustable declination to account for the difference between Magnetic North and True North. The compass responds to Magnetic North, whereas, maps are based upon True North. Therefore, the compass needs to be adjusted to compensate. An adjustable declination feature lets you turn a small screw to "permanently" adjust declination to match the geographic area you will be in, so that you don't need to calculate your bearing each time.
  • a fold-out mirror for sightings. The mirror allows for more accurate readings because you can position the mirror such that the mirror and the distant objective are both visible at the same time.
  • a clinometer is useful for measuring vertical angles and, thus, measures slope steepness. This feature is helpful in determining avalanche potentials, and for determining position on a map.

The following compass is lightweight and would be the minimum you would want to carry. This would suffice as an emergency gear item while backpacking entirely on trails.

  • Suunto A-30 L; weighs 1 oz, 0 to 360 degrees in 2 degree increments; liquid-filled with straight-edge.
For serious backcountry travel where map and compass will be used for navigation, the following the following time-tested compass is recommended:
  • Suunto MC-2G Navigator; weighs 2.6 oz, has all the features itemized above, plus luminous bezel and markings.

3. Flashlight / Headlamp:

Flashlights and/or Headlamps are important even on day trips. You never know when you might need to spend the night or make that last mile or so after sunset. Here's some features to look for:
  • lights which are water resistant--they function reliably in all weather. Look for rubberized bulb housing and battery compartments, or at least adequate rubber gaskets.
  • lights which come with extra bulbs stored inside their housing.
  • lights which have rotating head or body as the on/off mechanism. Avoid lights with on/off switches which can accidentally be turned-on as it is jostled about in your pack.
  • lights which come with or will accept bright beam bulbs such as xenon, krypton, or halogen. Also, always carry several spare bulbs--they are light.

It's a good idea to carry a small lightweight hand-held light in addition to a headlamp. In the hand held light use a regular bulb which requires less battery juice than the bright-beam bulbs. Use this light for simple around the camp chores, to conserve batteries. In the headlamp, use a halogen (or other bright-beam bulb) and use this light when you are path finding or otherwise require a bright beam.

Suggestions for a small, lightweight, high-quality hand held light:

Powerful LED flashlights, the brightest LED keychain micro-lights & more

4. Extra Food:

Whenever you go out, even for a day trip, bring extra food in case you are delayed by emergencies, foul weather, or just get lost. The mountaineers suggest a one-day supply. At the very least, bring one good meal more than what you need. The food should require little or no cooking. If your extra food will require cooking, make sure you also carry extra fuel for your stove.

5. Extra Clothing:

In addition to the basic layers you would normally take on an outing, bring extra clothing which would get you through an unplanned bivouac through the worst conditions you might come up against. Extra clothing means a little extra beyond what you would normally carry, just in case of emergencies.

Suggestions for the basic kinds of clothing that you should be carrying on "ALL" hikes can be found here!!  For Day Hikes only, click here!!

In addition to the extra clothes, carry an emergency shelter such as a waterproofed tube tent or mylar Space Bag (or blanket). The Space Bag only weighs about 2.5 ounces but will completely encase you and keep you warm and dry. Another option is a VBL (vapor barrier liner ) like the Western Mountaineering "Hot-Sac" VBL. The VBL can be used on a regular basis to add warmth to your sleeping bag as well as serve as an emergency shelter. It's a little heavier than the Space bag -- 6.5 ounces.

Bill Fusfield's Comments on Extra Clothes ]

6. Eye Protection:

Healthy eyes are critical for safe backcountry travel. In addition to packing an adequate supply of prescription contact lenses or eyeglasses (if required), proper consideration of sun protection for your eyes is of utmost importance.

Your eyes can experience damage from the intensity of mountain skies, ultraviolet rays, and light reflecting off of snow. As elevation increases so does the intensity of ultraviolet rays. Adequate eye protection is a must!

Bolle' makes a lightweight pair of glasses with a virtually indestructible polycarbonate lens. They are optically correct and have emerald green lens for true color. They are rated 100 % UV protection. Cost is about US $40.00.

For traveling on snow, get a pair of glacier glasses with side shields which reduce reflective light reaching the eyes. Good, quality glacier glasses typically cost in the $50 to $150 range. Nikon makes some nice ones with polycarbonate lens. They are very lightweight, cost is about $110.

There are many other brands of sunglasses and glacier glasses which are less expensive and provide adequate protection. Shop around, but be careful. Try to stay with reputable brand names. Your eyes will know damage, long before you feel discomfort.

Subject: Sunglasses
Just a bit of trivia for you. When Reinhold Messner climbed Everest solo, he abandoned his pack for the last leg of the descent. He did, however, make sure he took along TWO pairs of sunglasses. Makes sense - you won't get home if you're blind.

7. First-Aid Kit:

Carry first-aid supplies for minor injuries. In particular, carry plenty of adhesive band-aids and sterilized bandages, because they can't be easily improvised in the backcountry. What to carry ? A good book to reference is Mountaineering First Aid : A Guide to Accident Response and First Aid Care, published by The Mountaineers.

This booklet was used as a text when I took the Mountaineers' MOFA (Mountaineering Oriented First Aid) course. I use it now to refresh my memory. It is easy reading, small ( 5 1/4 x 8 1/2 inches ), brief ( 95 pages ) and inexpensive ( $8.95 ). It identifies what items to carry, as well as what to do in emergency situations.

Once you are familiar with the supplies you need, you can purchase a kit or make your own. If you purchase one, you'll most likely need to add to it ( items like CPR mask, rubber gloves, etc. ) since most commercially prepared kits are inadequate.

Also, If you spend any time in the backcountry, it would be a good idea to enroll in a mountaineering first aid course.

(NOTE: Within the "Weight-Saving Tips" page at this site, are many improvisations which can be used in emergency situations--"in lieu of packing the kitchen sink").

8. Pocket Knife & Tools:

Your basic backpacking tool kit. A good example of a single piece of gear which has multiple uses. For example, a Wenger "Master" Swiss Army Knife has a locking blade; "slip-joint" pliers/wire crimper/wire cutters; springless self-sharpening scissors; wood saw; nail file/cleaner; corkscrew; awl/reamer; can opener; cap lifter; tweezers; and toothpick--all at a weight of about 6 ounces. Swiss-Army knives are available with more and less features.

At a minimum, knives are useful for first aid, food preparation, cutting moleskin strips, cutting rope and making repairs. However, scrutinize your needs before you go out and buy a honker like the Victorinox Swiss Champ which has many tools you probably don't need and weighs 1/2 pound ! If you don't actually use a feature, then you probably don't need to be carrying it around.

A very good source for backpacking knives & tools: Backpacking Knives & Tools !

Leatherman multi-tools: new keychain tools from Leatherman

9. Waterproof Matches:

Carry matches which have been waterproofed or wind and waterproofed, or else carry extra strike-anywhere matches--along with something to strike them on-- in a waterproof container. Keep these matches separate from your regular match or butane lighter supply. Keep them available for emergency situations.

There are many commercially prepared waterproof/windproof matches available on the market, e.g., "Hurricane" and "Cyclone" brands of wind & waterproof matches and Coghlan's waterproof safety matches.

10. Firestarter:

Fire starters are useful for quickly starting a fire, especially in emergency situations. They are also useful for igniting wet wood. There are several commercial fire starters available: magnesium blocks w/striking flint; chemically-treated fire sticks, etc.

In addition, numerous home-made fire starters work just fine: plumber's candles (wax); compressed balls of dryer lint mixed with or covered with melted paraffin; small strips of waxed cardboard (from old produce boxes); small flammable containers--individual egg-carton cups filled with mixtures of wood shavings, wax, & lint; etc.

11. Water / Filter / Bottles:

Carry plenty of fresh water. If you are familiar with the area in which you are traveling, and can be sure that water sources are available, carry enough water to get you there.

If you aren't bringing your water from home or a public source, treat the water you draw from the backcountry, regardless of the source. These days, everything is suspect.

Use water filter, purifier, chemical tablets, or boiling to treat the water before consuming.
For transporting inside your pack, use lightweight water bottles, such as Nalgene 16 oz and 32 oz lexan polycarbonate or high-density polyethylene wide-mouth bottles. Some folks use other containers such as old plastic pop bottles. That's okay too. Be careful they don't crack and/or leak, though.

12. Whistle:

For emergencies: when you're lost, someone else is lost, or you're hurt and need help, etc.

Caution: Metal whistles, with a pea, can be a problem in the mountains. Your "pea" can freeze up, and what happens when you put your lips on frozen metal ?

A better choice would be a pea-less plastic whistle like the Fox 40. It is ultra-light and very shrill. Cost about $6.00. REI sells em.

13. Insect clothing or repellents:

I don't know about you, but summer really "bugs" me. Three ways to deal with the biting flies, mosquitoes, knats, etc. are to (1) let them eat you (2) use repellents or (3) wear clothing. Since the first option doesn't cut it, there are numerous commercial repellents on the market. Most of them are DEET based. REI Jungle Juice works okay but the stuff gets everything oily. There are many good creams but they need to be reapplied more frequently. There are extended duration DEET products which do not soak into the skin as fast and provide up to 12 hours of protection.

I've found, recently, that the bugs seem to be getting immune to the juice, so I've been wearing an ultra-lightweight bug-netting jacket and pants. This has been successful, except when I bend over and expose my lower back where the jacket rides up. If you go this way, make sure the garments are very baggy. Many bugs have long stingers that easily penetrate tight fitting netting.

14. Sunburn preventatives:

Remember, the higher the elevation, the greater the intensity of the sun. Although each of us has a different capacity -- a.k.a. different pigmentation -- for withstanding the sun's onslaught, the message is the same--the penalty for underestimating your need for protection is severe.

In sunny conditions, wear light-colored clothing and cover exposed skin, at least, with SPF rated sunscreen appropriate for you, at least 15. Wear coverings over the neck and ears. OR (Outdoor Research) and other manufacturers make baseball-style caps with skirts which cover the neck and ears. Carry an SPF-rated lip-balm, as well, and reapply frequently.

Other Considerations:

The 14 essentials listed above are clearly focused on wilderness safety, in general. Here are some other items that you may consider essential.

    Travel Medical Insurance: One obvious safety consideration, especially when traveling/backpacking away from home, is emergency medical insurance. Since you never know when a medical emergency might occur, getting insurance can seriously help you in a time of need.

    Portable Phones: Another item of safety gear is the portable phone. They are convenient for short term usage, and in case of an emergency, you will have a way of contacting each other.

    Avalanche Safety: When hiking, backpacking, climbing, skiing, etc., in areas where there is avalanche danger, consider the following:

  •  Snow Shovel
    In avalanche country, especially, make sure everyone has a small, lightweight snow shovel. If only one person has a shovel and that person gets buried, what are you going to dig them out with ? If you ever go alpine snowshoeing with me, please bring your snow shovel !

    I have a very nice ultralight, Voile, mini shovel with telescoping handle. Very light and practical, but strong and functional.

  •  Wands
    Thin bamboo poles with a colored flag on one end. They are trail markers. When you're out in snowy conditions, especially overnight, these little poles, placed strategically along your route, can help you find your way back out.

    The ones that I use are about 3/8 of an inch in diameter and 4 feet long, with a small red flag on one end.

  •  Avalanche Beacon & Probes
    Beacons are getting less intimidating (a.k.a. user friendly) since the invent of the Digital Beacon which, basically, pinpoints the buried victim and allows the searcher to proceed straight ahead to the spot without conducting time-consuming and harder to learn grid searches. Be that as it may, beacons are a must for Winter backcountry travel into potential avalanche country - as are probes. Beacons will allow you to find the area where the victim is probably located and the probes help to pinpoint the spot to dig. The BC Access Tracker DTS digital beacon has become the top-selling avalanche beacon in the world.

    WORD TO THE WISE: although this may seem rather silly, don't be surprised to see it happen. If you are well prepared in the backcountry and taking good safety precautions, for your best interest, make sure everyone else in your group has a beacon/probe/shovel and knows how to use them. It's nice that you carry those things and know how to use them, but that won't help you if you're the one that gets buried. Whether partners are carrying analog or digital beacons, make sure they know how to use them. Do a little practice before setting out into avalanche country.

  • Weather Station: Another item of gear that can be beneficial, if not essential when hiking in the mountains or boating/canoeing on big water, is a weather station.

  •  Brunton ADC (Atmospheric Data Center) (ultralight handheld weather station (altimeter, barometer, anemometer, hygrometer, compass)

    • Altimeter
      It measures altitude and used together with your map and compass can help pinpoint your location. I use mine, also, extensively, to check barometric pressure (to detect changes in the weather). You see, the altimeter altitude reading has an inverse relationship to the movement of barometric pressure. If you notice a sudden, dramatic, unrealistic altitude increase on your altimeter (over a two hour period, for example) it may indicate an equally dramatic lowering of barometric pressure (which could mean an impending storm). Anyway, its a good tool to have and know how to use to stay "unlost" and to have "sort of a clue" about impending weather conditions.

      is an instrument for determining the pressure of the atmosphere and hence for assisting in forecasting weather and for determining altitude

      is an instrument for measuring and indicating the force or speed of the wind.

      is an instrument used for measuring the moisture content in the environmental air, or humidity.

    Other Useful Safety Gear:

  •  An emergency shelter like the 1 pound 2 oz. Hilleberg Windsack

    In Scandinavia, this traditional piece of equipment is given a place in most everyone’s backpack when walking, skiing or climbing in the mountains. It provides superb protection against wind, and poor conditions. The Windsack is windproof and water repellent. It has an extended range of applications: protection from the elements on a break, emergency bivouac in a sudden snow storm, a sleeping bag cover in a snow cave, or as a shelter from the wind when you are working on your tan! As a piece of safety equipment the windsack should always be given a place in your pack (in winter together with your snow shovel). It is excellent protection against hypothermia when you have to sit out a storm in the mountains. And it is so light that you do not have to do without it on any kind of trip. Three people with smaller backpacks or two people with larger ones have room in a Windsack. The Windsack is both roomy and light. Three people can use it without any problem. At the top there is a zipper with four runners allowing you to stick out your head or to vent out air. At the bottom hem there is a draw cord. The top corners have pockets for ski tips.
  •  or the Hilleberg Bivanorak - which is a bivy bag, a sleeping bag cover, emergency shelter and ordinary rainware, all in one.

  •  An emergency shelter or tarp like the ultralight, minimalist MSR E - Wing or MSR Zing

  •  In an emergency, keep yourself warm with an ultralight Vapor Barrier Bag like the Western Mountaineering Hot Sac VBL

  •  A listing of emergency gear items (e.g., emergency kits, water treatment, blankets, shelters, hand/feet warmers, etc.) Emergency Gear

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The Ten Essentials