The 10 Essentials for Backcountry Travel

While a comprehensive hiking or backpacking list depends on many factors (season, climate, terrain, distance, activities, and personal preference), certain outdoor gear is considered essential whether you’re heading off on an extended backcountry bushwhack or exploring the trails in your local woods.

For safer and more prepared front and backcountry travel, make sure you have the appropriate gear from each of the ten essential systems listed below.

 

1. Navigation

While the 10 essentials can vary depending on the trip you’re taking and whom you ask, a detailed topographic map and compass have been at the top of the list since its 1930s debut by The Mountaineers club. Now, navigation tools may also include a GPS receiver or altimeter, but those are in addition to a map and compass, which never need batteries and work even in dense tree coverage. Of course, these tools only work if you also have the know-how to use them. Consider signing up for a navigation course.

     Tips:

  • Store your topo map in a ziplock or other protective case or waterproof covering.
  • A compass with a sighting mirror works as a signaling device in an emergency.

2. Sun Protection

Sunglasses, sunscreen (for skin and lips), and appropriate clothing is necessary for sun protection year round, but is especially important when on water, ice, snow, and at higher altitudes. The higher you go the more ultraviolet rays you’re exposed to, increasing your risk of serious sunburn and skin damage, including cancer.

Sunglasses protect your corneas from ultraviolet light year round. Sunglasses, glacier glasses, and goggles also can help prevent snow blindness from sunlight reflecting off snow.

Sunscreen should be at least 15 SPF (though 30 is preferable), block UVA and UVB rays, and be applied anytime you go outside, even on cloudy days. Reapply frequently, including lips, particularly if you’re sweaty or wet.

Clothes supply varying degrees of sun protection depending on their material, weave, color, and moisture content (a wet, cotton T-shirt is practically useless). Some clothes are treated to absorb more UV radiation and come with specific UPF ratings, which can be useful for desert hikes and other very sunny treks.

    Tips:

  • Carry a backup if you rely on contacts or prescription glasses.
  • Carry an extra pair of sunglasses for group outings.
  • Fashion emergency eye protection from cardboard or cloth cut with small slits.
  • Wear a cap or brimmed hat to shield your face.
  • Don’t forget to cover your neck.

3. Insulation (extra clothing)

You checked the weather forecast before you left the trailhead, right? Even if it calls for clear skies and warm temperatures down below make sure to pack at least an extra layer, usually including wind and/or rain gear. Weather can change quickly, especially above tree line.

What you bring will depend on the season and outing and could range from a raincoat and long underwear tops and bottoms in summer to an extra insulated jacket, pants, gloves, and hat or balaclava in winter. No matter the season, avoid cotton, which loses its insulating value when wet.

Still not sure what to bring? Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills suggests you ask yourself this question: “What is needed to survive the worst conditions that could be realistically encountered on this trip?”

    Tips:

  • Extra socks can be used on feet and hands.
  • Don’t judge by how you feel hiking uphill; you’ll cool off once you stop moving.
  • Anticipate whether you’re likely to warm up or cool down and adjust layers in advance; your clothes will stay drier and your temp better regulated.

4. Illumination

It was supposed to be a short day hike with you at home before dinner, but somehow you found yourself out after dark. A headlamp or flashlight can make the difference between an inconvenient nighttime walkout and an emergency situation.

Headlamps are widely preferred by backcountry travelers for their hands-free design, compact size, and light weight. Even on short day hikes a light should be carried; small emergency ones can be easily stashed in a pack. Always bring spare bulbs and batteries that fit your model of light.

    Tips:

  • A light can be used as an emergency signaling device; some have a strobe option.
  • You can carry fewer extras if your light, camera, and/or GPS receiver use the same batteries (just be sure your headlamp and GPS won’t die at the same time).

5. First-Aid Supplies

First-aid kits range from the basic, suitable to treating blisters and minor cuts on a day hike, to expedition-worthy kits geared toward extended travel and large groups. You can make your own or buy a pre-packaged one, but at a bare minimum you’ll want: bandages in various sizes, gauze pads, disinfectant, over-the-counter pain medication, blister treatment, and any prescription medications.

Any first aid kit is useless without the knowledge to use it. Consider taking a wilderness first aid course and periodically brush up on your skills. Even if you’ve already passed a course, a small first aid guide inside your kit will help you—and your trip partners—deal appropriately with medical emergencies.

     Tips:

  • Personalize your first aid kit to the individual medical needs of you and your party.
  • Include feminine hygiene supplies if your group includes women.
  • Include a pencil and paper.
  • Store all first-aid supplies in a waterproof container or pouch.

 

6. Fire

Being able to start and sustain a fire, even in wet, cold, and windy conditions, is essential. A fire can help prevent hypothermia by providing heat for survival, allow you to make a hot drink, illuminate surroundings, act as a signal, and boost morale. Because fire starting is so important, but can be difficult to do in emergency conditions, especially if you’ve never practiced, you may want to carry more than one type of fire starter for back-up systems.

Windproof pocket lighters are easy to use, but don’t dismiss the value of having waterproof, windproof matches. A fire starter, as the name implies, helps ignite wet wood quickly. You can buy commercial fire starters or make your own from lint or cotton balls soaked with Vaseline. Store any matches and fire starters (even water- or storm-proof ones) in a waterproof container.

    Tips:

  • As their name implies, strike-anywhere matches don’t require a special striking surface; safety matches do, limiting their usefulness.
  • Don’t rely on flimsy packs of matches.
  • Know how to build a sustainable fire beyond the first step of lighting the tinder.

7. Repair Kit and Tools

A pocket knife or multi-purpose tool can be used to repair broken gear, cut rope, prepare food, remove splinters, assist in first aid, and tackle other unforeseen challenges. Multi-tools include a range of implements beyond a blade—screwdriver, awl, pliers, and scissors—but each tool means more weight. You don’t need three screwdrivers, two wire strippers, and a corkscrew. Choose a multi-tool with a good knife and only the implements you’d reasonably expect to use.

     Tips:

  • Wrap duct tape, the all-purpose fixer, around a water bottle.
  • Zip-ties are small and light and can be useful for gear repairs.
  • A sturdy sewing needle and thread, or even dental floss, can help you repair critical gear in the field.
  • Consider carrying a maintenance and/or repair kit for stoves and other gear on longer expeditions.

 

8. Nutrition (extra food)

Even on day hikes, bring along extra food, like energy bars. That’s in addition to adequate food supplies for your outing. Your group may move slower or eat more than expected. For overnight trips you’ll want an extra day’s worth of food. Extra food should be easy to prepare, store well, and be high energy.

    Tips:

  • Hungry people can be cranky people. Don’t skimp on snacks.
  • Choose foods you and your partners enjoy.
  • Carry out all trash and food scraps.

 

9. Hydration (extra water)

Carry enough water per person and know where water sources are located on your route. A general rule of thumb is to have 3 to 4 liters (or 1 gallon) of water per person per day. The amount of water needed varies widely though, based on factors like temperature, humidity, and personal fitness and exertion levels.

Water availability is another factor. A water filter, purifier or chemical treatment (like iodine tablets) will allow you to treat water on the trail and carry less on your back. Always treat water, even if it looks clean, unless you want to experience Giardia or other unpleasant bugs.

    Tips:

  • Drink your fill and top off water bottles before starting out from the trailhead.
  • Leave extra water in the car for your return.
  • Monitor hydration through urine output—volume, clarity, and frequency should remain normal. Clear and copious is a good sign.
  • On longer, more strenuous hikes and backpacks, sports drinks and gels help replace electrolytes.
  • Dry air dehydrates you faster in winter.
  • Have a way to melt snow for water in winter conditions.

 

10. Emergency Shelter

Shelter is a new addition to the classic 10 essentials list and what you carry will depend on the season and conditions. If you’re backpacking, you’ll probably already have a tent, bivy, or tarp, but even on day hikes you need to be able to fashion a shelter from rain, snow, and wind.

Consider carrying an ultralight tarp, emergency blanket, or lightweight emergency bivy sack. In winter conditions, emergency shelter becomes even more important and may mean carrying a four-season bivy or small tent, even on day outings.

    Tips:

  • Each person in a large group can carry a heavy-duty plastic trash bag.
  • In winter, know how to safely build a snow cave.

11. Common Sense

You’ve packed up all of your necessary gear, told someone where you were going and when you’d return, and are ready to hit the trail. Don’t forget the most important item of all—your common sense. The most-technical and award-winning gear available won’t keep you safe if you keep climbing into an oncoming thunderstorm or get swept away trying to ford a storm-swollen stream. Respect your limits and abilities—and those of your entire group—and you will come back to enjoy many more outdoor adventures.

Extras

A signaling device, like a whistle or signal mirror, can help rescuers locate you if you get lost or hurt. The better you’re able to make yourself seen or heard, the better your chance that a search and rescue team will find you. Make sure kids know that whistles are for emergencies only.

Don’t depend on a cell phone or other communication device for rescue. However, a cell phone or locator beacon may allow you to alert others if you’ll be late or can help search and rescuers locate you. Keep your cell phone off until you need it though, and reserve it for emergencies only.  

Remember the insect repellent.

 
Editor's Note: To learn more about any of these essential systems or for in-depth information on all things mountaineering and backcountry travel, get a copy of Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills (now in its 7th edition, 2004), published by The Mountaineers.

Filed under: Gear News, Outdoor Skills

Related Content

Navigation Tool Reviews  |  Outerwear Reviews  |  Light Reviews  |  Water Treatment Reviews  |  Clothing and Accessories  |  Chemical Water Treatments  |  Pump and Gravity Water Filters  |  Water Purifiers  |  Water Treatment and Storage  |  GPS Receivers  |  Compasses  |  Altimeters  |  Navigation Tools  |  Flashlights  |  Headlamps  |  Lights  |  Tarps and Shelters  |  Bivy Sacks  |  Tents and Shelters

Comments

nogods
26 reviewer rep
98 forum posts
April 17, 2008 at 2:28 p.m. (EDT)

I think the article and the list it contains is defective because it does not relate the "essentials" to needs. Is the article directed to "essential to survival" or "essential to enjoyable backpacking experience" or something else?

If the "ten essentials" list is intended to address survival then I think it is poorly drafted, off target and fails to inform people of the most critical survival essentials.

For example, when one is truely lost, navigational aids are useless. If you can determine your location with your navigational aids then you are not lost. You might be off your intended course but you are not lost. But when you can't determine where you are from those navigational aids, then those navigational aids cannot tell you where you should go. At that point, survival experts will tell you it is time to admit your are lost and start planning for your rescue.

So although navigational aids are essential for not getting into a survival situation in the first place, navigational aids are not essentiial to surviving if you do become lost.

In fact, the last thing an SAR team wants is the subject wandering around aimlessly while they are trying to find the subject.

I believe that every essentials list should start with the most important item for survival - the information you leave with a responsible person about your plans and expected return time. That essential can't be bought in a store. In fact, you leave it at home rather than carry it with you. But any list that doesn't have that item as the number one essential for survival is not a list of essentials for survival.

If the list is aimed at enjoyment rather than survival essentials, then there are things on the list that are not necessary. For example, I often hike in the high peaks wilderness area of the Adirondacks. In that area, campfires are prohibited except for emergency situations. So I only need a fire starter in an emergency situation. I don't and can't use a fire starter for enjoyment.

That's why I think the list needs to be refocused on whatever needs it was intended to addressed. if it is a list of survival essentials then it should relate items to survival needs. If it is a list for enjoying oneself in the backcountry, then it should address things that add to one's enjoyment.

As it stands now, it seems to be an incomplete list aimed at both survival and enjoyment. as I already mentioned. it is missng the first essential item for survival. As to enjoyment, it is missing toilet paper.

rexim
0 reviewer rep
171 forum posts
April 17, 2008 at 3:42 p.m. (EDT)

If you define "truly lost" as having absolutely no idea where you are or how you got there, you might be right. That rarely, if ever, happens; if it does, you might as well just sit down and comntemplate your navel.

However, if you had proper navigational aids, you might not be "truly lost" in the first place. If you did manage to get less than "truly lost", but knew there was a road 20 miles due north, a compass might be pretty useful for walking a straight line on an overcast day.

Does that make it "essential" to have navigational aids? I don't know, but I know I never walk far without a compass and a map, and I've only been a mite bewildered a few times.

However, I agree that a list of "10 essentials" is of dubious utility, since it appears to be largely a matter of commons sense that one who is planning an overnight trip into the backcounntry will take a tent, and clothes, and food, and water, and a knife, etc. Thus, the people who are the most likely to read such a list are the people who least need to read it.

Bill S
TOP 10 REVIEWER REVIEW CORPS
2,329 reviewer rep
5,251 forum posts
April 17, 2008 at 8:09 p.m. (EDT)

nogods said

Quote:

I think the article and the list it contains is defective because it does not relate the "essentials" to needs. Is the article directed to "essential to survival" or "essential to enjoyable backpacking experience" or something else?

I will have to say that I am baffled by this response and the rest of the post. Are you playing a game of semantics (as it appears), or do you just not understand the basic concept of being safe in the outdoors? What's your point?

If you are playing semantics, then you do not really need anything in the way of gear when you head into the hills and woods. Furthermore, each person's idea of being comfortable and enjoying the woods and hills is different. That is, nothing is truly "essential" to heading out.

I would suggest you read the section of MFOTH where the Ten Essentials idea is discussed (in case you are so new to the outdoors that you don't know, MFOTH is the most complete compilation of outdoor knowledge in a single, relatively small - compared to all there is to know about the outdoors - volume. It means "Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills", published by the Seattle Mountaineers, and is currently in its seventh edition).

One thing you completely misunderstand/misread about the Ten Essentials is that this is a list of things you should take with you. Your itinerary for your emergency contact is something you leave and is a part of the "before the trip" preparation - you better not have it with you. If you are going to play that semantic game, then there are a whole lot of things that come far ahead of even having an itinerary to leave with someone.

Comment to rexim - Unfortunately, "common sense" is not so common, and too often what passes for "common sense" does not make sense at all. I think what you really mean is that the Ten Essentials are intuitively obvious to someone who has the experience and has developed the judgment, preferably under the guidance of an experienced mentor. The Ten Essentials are a reasonable basic guideline to someone who has little experience in thinking about and preparing for the "reasonably unexpected". On the other hand, I often do not take a tent for an overnight backpack ("shelter" does not equal "tent")

nogods
26 reviewer rep
98 forum posts
April 17, 2008 at 9:25 p.m. (EDT)

Bill, you apparently don't get the point. The "ten essentials" is a bogus list. It does not offer a good guide to either a new or experienced backpacker. Calling something "essential" without relating it to a need or function is a meaningless abstraction. As I pointed out, the list in the article is incomplete no matter how you try to characterize it. A list like that is not educational. All it does is makes a nice chart to help sales at an outdoor store.

I expect those who claim to have some expertise in a subject area to act responsibly when disseminating information. Not listing the first survival essential in a list of suggested “essential” gear is irresponsible.

MFOTH is just one of many resources for information on backpacking and hiking, and it is directed more toward mountaineering and technical climbing. But if it spews the “ten essentials” as a beginning point for someone venturing into the wilderness then it is woefully deficient.

To survive and unexpected stay in the wilderness you need to stay dry and warm, you need water, and you need food, in that order. Most importantly, you need to have a positive attitude and a way of getting yourself extracted from the predicament. The armed forces survival instructors all use the rule of 3’s when teaching survival:

You can survive:
3 weeks without food
3 days without water
3 hours without shelter
3 minutes without air
But not three seconds without hope.

You create that hope by knowing that someone will come looking for you and will know when to start looking because you left the necessary information with a responsible person before you set out on your adventure. That is the first essential of survival. Experts who teach survival know that. Anyone ever caught in a survival situation has learned that lesson. The second essential is a positive attitude about your ability to survive until you can self-extract or be extracted from the situation. If you think you can’t survive the night then you are probably right.

Discussion of gear takes place only after the student fully comprehends those first two essentials, for without them, the gear is useless.

BTW, my first winter climb of Mount Marcy was in February of 1974. In June of 1975 I hitched to Alaska from NY, went through Anchorage, then Mt. McKinley Park for 2 weeks, then Fairbanks, and then hitched to Spokane and on to Glacier for a week, then to Colorado. At that point I cheated and flew back to NY. I lived solely out of my Kelty Serac, which I still have and occasionally use along with my Svea 123R. And I haven't stopped. This past January I climbed Wright Peak with my youngest son who is now a college student majoring in outdoor recreation. So I’ve been there and done that. The armed forces instructors are right on this. Anyone who says otherwise is irresponsible.

Bill S
TOP 10 REVIEWER REVIEW CORPS
2,329 reviewer rep
5,251 forum posts
April 17, 2008 at 11:34 p.m. (EDT)

Sorry, nogods, I do understand the point you appear to be trying to make. What baffles me is that you so completely misunderstand what the intent of the Ten Essentials list is. It is not a gear checklist (and certainly does not pretend to be anything like a complete gear checklist), and it is not about surviving a total disaster. It is only one part of the entire process of heading into the outdoors (and a part which you misinterpret). It is not something to be taken out of context and in isolation.

Further, you miss the most important part of dealing with not only the wilderness, but any other situation - prevention is the best remedy.

But then, gee, I guess by your standards, I have no experience, never having had to "survive" or been "rescued". I've only spent a few dozen periods of a week or so sitting through blizzards in my tent or snow cave over the years, with winds only up to the 50 to 70 knot range, at altitudes of 14-17 thousand feet in Alaska and Antarctica, and only spent 20 years of my life living in the desert, with just a few week-long backpacks with no food or water other than what we could scavenge from the desert plants and animals and the occasional spring or catch from a thunderstorm (crossing Death Valley in summer was kind of fun), plus just a few treks in Central American jungles. We never felt we were surviving, just living as one is intended to live. And I guess I don't know what it is like to be "truly lost", since the only time I was lost in my life was at age 5, when I took off to explore Tegucigalpa on my own (I didn't feel I was lost, since I found my way to the central Plaza, which is where I was headed).

So how is a winter hike up Marcy "surviving"? That was kind of a traditional winter trek when we were living in New England, along with the traditional winter hikes in the Presidentials and Greens. And how is hitching from NY to Alaska and spending time in McKinley Park "surviving"?

By the way, that's my last word on this thread. Why bother with any more comment?

NatLeaKer
9 reviewer rep
47 forum posts
April 18, 2008 at 12:32 a.m. (EDT)

Ahem... I believe the 10 Essentials are a guideline only? Nothing replaces experience, but it is good for a novice (like me) to learn something without having to do it the hard way. My ten essentials list may be different than someone else's, and it will change depending on whether I'm ice climbing or going for a hike in the dunes. My list is constantly evolving, too.

And while a human may survive three weeks without food, it is often difficult to think one's way out of a sticky situation if you're low on certain vital nutrients. A positive attitude comes with knowing you are well-equipped to face the worst in whatever your adventure might be. Thanks to various 10 Essentials lists I have found in the past year, I've enjoyed pushing my limits and seeing what a carefully-planned kit can do to keep me safe and yes, enjoying the outdoors.

NatLeaKer
9 reviewer rep
47 forum posts
April 18, 2008 at 12:36 a.m. (EDT)

Sorry, OGBO, was preparing my comments before you posted your latest reply...

Alicia
TRAILSPACE STAFF
501 reviewer rep
2,991 forum posts
April 18, 2008 at 7:08 a.m. (EDT)

I prefer the updated 10 essentials “systems” list precisely because it is not a list of stuff to carry (i.e. thinking if you have a map, compass, matches, etc… that automatically means you’re prepared and ready to go), but rather of concepts (like Navigation and Shelter) essential to safe and prepared backcountry travel.

The list is not a comprehensive gear list or a survival list (nor does it pretend to be), but a starting point for being prepared. The concepts imply that you evaluate what to bring (or not bring) based on an understanding of the importance of each, as well as the specifics of your trip.

For example, Navigation means setting your path based on your knowledge of where you are and where you’re going, for which a map and compass are invaluable tools. Blindly wandering through the woods while carrying a map or compass is not navigating; it’s being lost (and making the situation worse).

So, obviously knowledge and experience are most important, but the appropriate gear can be essential for putting that knowledge to work. I’d rather know how to navigate and have a map and compass with me, than simply know how to navigate but forget the map and compass at home, potentially creating a survival situation.

Shelter means different things to different people for different trips. It does not have to mean carrying a standard store-bought shelter (such as an emergency bivy or tarp), but rather of having a thorough understanding of the importance of shelter and being able to and knowing how to make the appropriate shelter should you ever need to in the conditions you’re venturing into.

As has been said already, the list is a starting point and open to interpretation depending on an infinite number of variables, but that doesn’t make it defective. It makes it adaptable for the individual.

By the way, we acknowledged the importance of leaving your info with someone under the #11 Common Sense section. Perhaps we need a Basic Survival 101 article as well, but that wouldn’t replace this list.

Also, specific gear lists are something I’ve shied away from publishing, thus far, because their variables are so many.

f_klock
110 reviewer rep
762 forum posts
April 18, 2008 at 7:49 a.m. (EDT)

Alicia,

As a survival instructor, I can tell you that "Basic Survival 101" IS the updated list plus #11.

An actual basic survival class might consist of:
The Rule Of Threes -
Generally, the human body can survive for:
3 minutes w/o oxygen
3 hours w/o shelter (of any kind)
3 days w/o/ water
3 weeks (or more)w/o food

S.T.O.P. -
Sit
Think
Observe
Plan

and of course, "The list" + #11

There really isn't that much more to be said except: Learn how to use the items on the list. Spend a "Survival Night" in your own back yard before heading out. Don't just go to you local outfitter and get the items, throw them in a pack and think you're prepared. Practice doesn't make perfect, it keeps you alive until you are rescued.

Alicia
TRAILSPACE STAFF
501 reviewer rep
2,991 forum posts
April 18, 2008 at 7:59 a.m. (EDT)

Thanks a lot, f_klock. That's good to know.

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