The ten essentials first appeared in mountaineering literature back in the 1930s. It includes the ten or so items that you should always have on you or in your backpack. Many of these are items you will use frequently while other many become necessary to keep you alive should something unexpected occur. Over the years, the list of ten essentials has been updated in various ways and many versions of this list now much more than ten essential items on it.
The 10 Essentials
Other lists include:
The Original Ten Essentials
At some point in your journeys, you will need a map to navigate to where you were planning on going, or will need one in case of an injury, weather change, washout of a bridge or other unforeseen event. Being lost and not knowing your way out can kill you.
Mountaineers or cross country trekkers may benefit from the detail found on a 7.5 minute (1:24,000-scale) map. Trail walkers on the other hand may only need a 15 minute (1:63,360-scale) map to get by.
And as with most things, if you need a map, you will also need to know how to read one.
Whether you are orienteering or traveling through small villages and towns via mass transit, you will need a compass. Those using one to navigate cross country will need a good one that is liquid filled, has a jeweled bearing and 2 or 3 degree increments on it.
For subway travelers, a mini compass on a wrist watch or hanging from your pack should be sufficient.
A compass should be firmly tied down to your pack or waist bag so that it doesn't become lost.
A Suunto A10 or Silva Polaris is a basic trekking compass and able to exceed the needs of most trekkers.
Without water, you die. Without clean water or water treatment gear, you may be forces to drink contaminated water - which in some settings can become life threatening. Always carry a little more water than you think you will need and/or carry enough supplies to treat water if you are traveling where water acquisition is not in question.
For more information, see our Water Purification For Travelers page.
Being without food is bad for moral and can decrease your mental and physical performance. People in the outback should always have at least an extra day's worth of food and urban travelers may want some extra snacks to get by should a bus break down or just incase nothing palatable or affordable can be found.
5. Extra clothing
Should you end up caught up in a hurricane or trapped unexpectedly overnight, you will need extra clothing. Water proof breathables are nice but tend to be expensive and often heavy.
A mylar space blanket can serve as a ground cloth, tarp or emergency blanket. The vapor barrier and metallic nature of a space blanket will reflect the majority of lost heat from your body back at you. Unfortunately, you will also trap condensation against your body and end up pretty wet if wrap up in it all night long.
For more information, see our Backpack Clothing page.
6. Matches & Fire starter
Fires are important for heat, cooking, signaling, water purification and moral. You should always have waterproof matches and preferably a fire starter with you. A great compact fire starter consists of cotton balls soaked in petroleum gauze and packed into a plastic film canister. Other fire starters can be more fancy or as simple as tearing up some of your clothing.
Matches should be stored in a waterproof container and should either be the strike anywhere type and if not you should also store the strike material in a waterproof container also.
7. First-aid kit
Basic medical first aid supplies and the knowledge in how to use them can become quite important.
The most important of these two is wilderness medicine knowledge. This will help you avoid problems as well and better treat them. Basic wilderness medicine knowledge should also help you use items commonly carried by trekkers or found in the outback to treat common injuries, etc.
Prior to any wilderness travels you may with to take a wilderness medicine course and do some self study with "Mountaineering First Aid" 3rd edition, by Lentz, Macdonald, and Carline, published by The Mountaineers or other wilderness medicine guides.
A kit should include some small adhesive bandages, multipurpose gauze and antiseptic. More complete kits might also include some adhesive tape, a sterile surgical blade, oral and topical medications, rubber/vinyl gloves and perhaps needle and suture.
A sharp blade or multitool is a must for any trekker. The are needed for first aid, cutting cord, opening packages, food preparation, cutting moleskin strips, making repairs and any number or camp craft and survival tasks.
A small folding blade is usually adequate for most backpackers, but the multiple blades and tools found in Swiss Army knives and multitools can become incredibly useful to any traveler. Unfortunately, the folding knives and multitools with multiple blades and tools can be quite expensive and heavy.
9. Headlamp or flashlight
Even if you are just planning on traveling during the day, you never know what may delay your travels or what you might run into. Maybe you will want to explore a newly discovered cave, maybe someone will get sick and delay your return to civilization, maybe the train will get stuck in a tunnel and you will need to walk out.
Those planning on walking at night should have a good headlamp with spare batteries and bulb for hand's free dependable lighting. Day hikers may just need a mini keychain light for occasional use and minimal weight.
Ultraviolet radiation from the sun can cause a significant amount of damage to your eyes and even put you at risk for developing retinal cancer. With short term intense exposure of UV light, you can become temporarily or permanently blind. This is particularly a problem in high altitude areas where the intensity of UV rays from the sun is increased and multiplied as it reflects off the snow and ice back at you.
It wasn't too long ago when many of the sunglasses made did not offer any protection from UV light. These in fact increased the level of UV light exposure to the inside of your eye, since the shaded lenses dilate your pupils.
Some low altitude trekkers will get several sunglasses from a dollar or pound store. These are usually sufficient for eye protection and are not a great loss if they become broken or lost. High altitude trekkers or climbers may prefer higher quality protection and go with wrap around polycarbonate lenses or glacier glasses with side shields.
Bolle' emerald green lens for true color. They are rated 100 % UV protection. Cost is about US $40.00.
Nikon makes some nice ones with polycarbonate lens. They are very lightweight, cost is about $110.
Common Additions to the Ten:
A shelter can be as simple as a tarp or poncho for areas where it might rain or it could be some form or shovel to allow you to dig a snow cave should you become lost, stranded or if the weather turns bad. In some environments and situations, you may not survive overnight without some protection.
A space blanket, often considered a separate and essential item, is very packable and can be used as a tarp.
The sun can be pretty harsh on one's body. Not only can it cause some pretty debilitating sun burns, exposure to the sun can lead to heat exhaustion, dehydrations or even heat stroke.
Those trekking through areas where they may expect to encounter a lot of UV radiation should cover up with long sleeved shirts, full length pants and headgear. Sunscreen is also important for any exposed skin and even on overcast days, fair skinned travelers can become sun burned. UV lip balm may also be necessary.
When traveling in the wilderness and abroad, you may not be able to carry all the treated water you need for an entire trip. And if your trip entails possibly drinking fecaly contaminated water, a method to purify water is a must. You should also always carry a container for water, even if it is just an empty disposable bottle.
For more information, see our Water Purification For Travelers page.
The sound of a whistle travels a long ways and can be of great use if you become separated from the rest of your group, become completely disorientated and lost or become injured.
Whistles can be made from wood, metal and plastic and come with or without a trapped ball. In subfreezing conditions, you may choose to avoid whistles with a floating ball, as they may become frozen and avoid metal whistles that can freeze to your lips and fingers.
You can use a mirror for long distance signaling where there is good sunlight. This is a must for those traveling through the desert.
GPSs should not take the place of a map, compass and good orienteering skills but can be vital in certain situations. They are a must for artic and flat desert travels and generally so for geocashing.
Bugs can not only annoy you greatly, they can suck you dry, make it difficult to walk if bitten on the feet or spread a large number of diseases. Insect repellants such as DEET or lemon eucalyptus may be necessary in some parts and a mosquito net is certainly essential if there is any possibility of being stationary or spending the night in some parts of the world.
See Insect Repellents and Protection for more information.
If you are in a wet and/or cold environment, it may be necessary to have a bombproof method for starting a fire. This may include a bottle of fuel, or any number of fire starter options.
For extended trips, this becomes necessary.
For more information, see our Backpacking Sewing page.
These take up little room in our pack and can be used as keep you warm even if you are soaking wet. They can also work as a tarp, ground cloth, wind blocker or to reflect heat from a fire back at you.
In an emergency, this can be used as a vapor barrier sleeping bag, tarp, ground cloth, backpack, canteen and visual signaling device.
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