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The first time I’d heard of the 10 essentials was in our son’s Boy Scout Handbook. It was this succinct list of survival items that every Scout should have on outdoor adventures in case of an emergency. Both of our boys assembled their items, and stowed them in their packs (just in case). Eventually, I would assemble my own 10 essential kit. Mine was in a heavy plastic box and had extra items in it, but I felt pretty satisfied knowing that having this carefully curated little kit with me could possibly save my life.
Like a good first aid kit, these items only work if you know how to use them before you get in a pinch.
You might not ever use all 10 items, and may sometimes wonder if you need to carry them all…but you’ll be glad you have what you need, should the unexpected happen.
Today’s lists have evolved from the original list first published the 1930’s, but they’re still pretty similar and can be customized to meet your own needs. There are so many resources on this topic and REI has a great list and article here. But today, I’m sharing what’s in my pack and why.
Putting together your own 10 essentials kit is fun and you may already have many of the items. If you need a recommendation, I got you. This post is chock full of links to the gear I use or something similar if it’s no longer available. Let’s go!
The 10 Essentials List
- Sun protection
- First aid
- Extra food
- Extra water
- Extra clothes/Insulation
What’s in my Pack
I always have a compass in my pack and tie a whistle to it for signaling. If I am hiking anywhere even slightly remote, I have a paper map. If I’m exploring a small, local park with resources at the ready, I use the trail signs and orient myself before heading out. I also use a Garmin InReach as a navigation tool, emergency beacon and a way to stay in touch with family back home on remote and multi day trips. I have an old model that is no longer available, but it’s going strong and my family likes the peace of mind of being able to see my location and knowing I’m safe. IMPORTANT: if you are using electronic navigation tools, like a phone and gps, always bring a paper map and compass as a back up and know how to use them. Check your local outdoor organizations: REI and Midwest Mountaineering offer navigation courses that can help you build these skills.
This item can really keep you out of trouble if you are out on the trail longer than expected. I always have a small flashlight in my pack and occasionally throw in either my Black Diamond or UCO headlamp if I think I will be out after dark. Which ever you choose, make sure you have fresh batteries, or pack a spare set.
I’m a redhead, we burn real quick. I learned later in life to LOVE hats, so I almost always have one on. I like trucker hats, but wear a wide-brimmed sun hat or bring a lightweight reflective umbrella when its really sunny. I have a sensitivity to most sunscreen and have to use the zinc oxide based stuff that makes me look ghastly and must be reapplied often. Here are a couple of other sun-blocking favorites I’ve discovered that minimize the amount of sunscreen I have to wear (and so I can just bring a small container along in my first aid kit). I love using arm sleeves as an alternative to a long sleeved shirt (I have REI and Craft), and check out these nifty sun gloves I snagged at at sale and just started wearing! I’m also a big fan of sun shirts (especially Columbia) and any clothing with UPF protection. Almost all of my hiking clothes have sun protective fabric, its so much easier, and your skin will thank you!
I probably have a few extra items in my first aid kit…but I’m a group hike leader AND a Mom, so I’m usually worried about other people. I carried this great pre-made kit for a couple of years (it even has a small wilderness medicine book included) then honed it down to be a bit smaller and lighter. A few notes about the first aid kit:
- Know whats in there and how to use it.
- Put it on the top of your pack so it is easily accessed and others can find it
- If you are carrying a group kit, have a removable tag that you can attach to your backpack so everyone knows who has the group first aid kit.
- Consider packing a small snack sized ziploc with footcare/blister items that you can keep handy in your hip/front/top pocket of your pack for quick access.
I used to carry this cool Mora Firestarter Knife on hikes, but now go back and forth between my Swiss Army mini classic and Gerber Dime multi tool because they have multi purpose features. The big knife still comes along when I think I’ll need it for fire-making, cooking, etc. I love having scissors, and 9 times out of 10…whatever I needed my knife for, can be handled with the scissors…and pliers are really handy for repairs. I also carry a tiny repair kit that consists of a few safety pins, tenacious tape, duct tape, a couple of zip ties and a needle and thread. I have used this kit many times and once zip-tied my friend’s snowshoe back together on the trail when it broke.
It may seem silly to carry around something to make fire with on every hike…but these small items won’t seem so silly if you get stuck out in the cold or need to signal for help. I carry a mini bic lighter, waterproof matches, some cotton balls soaked in vaseline and cotton dryer lint in a tiny snack sized ziploc. My mora knife also has a flint built into the handle, so if I have that along, I can make a fuzz stick and use that to get a blaze going.
I always have an mylar emergency blanket in my pack, no matter what time of year it is. They are lightweight, cheap and could save your life. I have used these blankets in first aid situations on the trail, and as a back up to keep myself warm when I got cold on a Spring backpacking trip. These reflective blankets can keep you warm and dry in a pinch and their shiny material can also be used as a signaling device. I also have a Big Agnes ultralight tent footprint I found at an REI garage sale that weighs so little that I usually have that along if I expect iffy weather and might need to pitch a quick shelter with my trekking poles. For a cheap and totally versatile shelter, add a big black plastic contractor bag to your 10 essentials.
Can I get a “woop woop” for trail snacks? Pack a couple of additional high calorie protein and sweet snacks in addition to anything you plan on eating on your hike. I like bars and energy bites because they are high calorie and you can leave them in your bag for a while. The sugar will give you a boost and the protein will stay with you longer. I’m not a doctor or dietician, so please make sure to consider any dietary needs you have and pack what works for you.
This one’s really important. Always have extra water. When I lead group hikes, I recommend participants bring a full 1L bottle, and more if there isn’t a place to refill your bottle on the hike. I’ve used a few filters and chemical treatments over the years, but my go-to is the Sawyer Squeeze (I don’t care for the mini or micro due to slow flow, and it’s not worth the slight weight savings to me) and CNOC Vecto collapsible container for easy, light weight filtering on the trail. The bags that come with the Sawyer squeeze are difficult to fill and the CNOC opens at the wide end, so you can scoop up water in a jiffy and let gravity do the rest. Lifestraws are an affordable lightweight option as an emergency backup. I have one that I’ve never used, but think they are great if you are not already planning on filtering larger quantities of water. I also keep four water filter tablets in my first aid kit that I got for free at an outdoor expo, since they weigh almost nothing. Maybe you could split a pack with some friends.
Know your conditions before you go, and customize based on forecasted precipitation and low temps. This could be a rain jacket, puffy coat, fleece layer, warm hat, gloves, long sleeved shirt, cheap emergency poncho, or a combo. I always have a cheap plastic poncho and often have my Enlightened Equipment Puffy since its so light (unless we have really warm night temperatures). Remember, you might not need this on your hike, but if something goes awry, you want to be able to stay warm and dry in your unexpected conditions.
Number 11! A trash bag!
Last but not least! You won’t find number 11 on any of the official 10 essentials lists out there, but this one is near and dear to my heart. Anything can be your trash bag…if it’s reused or something that would otherwise go in the trash, even better! Bringing an 11th essential on every hike is a way that you can help preserve nature and keep it beautiful by cleaning it up along the way! Check out The 11th essential website to learn more and give my friend Britany a shout! p.s. Your bag can be used for other things in an emergency too, its a great item to have along!
Don’t forget your essentials!
Your items only help you if you bring them along. I speak from experience. I like to switch out between a tiny day pack, regular day pack and my backpacking pack depending on where I’m headed. Since I switch packs, I used to worry about becoming disorganized and leaving something out every time I played ‘musical backpacks’. Now I just have two small bags that go in every pack on every trip. I love these little bags made by Basswood & Birch, here in Minneapolis. The only essential item that is not in these bags is my water bottle and additional insulation that I may need based on temperature. My mylar blanket and cheap poncho typically cover most situations, but it’s so great to know that’s all I need to think about.
I’ve been using the time I would normally spend on the trail walking in my neighborhood every day and enjoying my garden! My next few posts will build on the basics. Since most of us are sheltering in place during the Covid-19 pandemic, this is a great time to hone those outdoor skills so we can be ready when we can all hit the trails and venture out to our favorite spots again.
I hope you enjoyed this post. Do you have a favorite 10 essential item we should know about? A story about how an essential item saved you in a pinch? I always enjoy hearing your feedback, and about things you’ve learned along the way. If you have question or a topic you’d like to know more about, please share that too. You can always use this space to drop me a note or head on over to the Wandering Pine Facebook page to continue the discussion.