Walk into any sporting goods or outdoor store and immediately you will see just how much stuff there is for hiking. It’s easy to get overwhelmed, and it’s also easy to get confused. Isn’t hiking just a walk in the woods? Why are there so many types of equipment?
Well, while hiking is much more than just a simple walk, the fact is that you don’t need to own the entire contents of a Cabela’s or REI to enjoy yourself and be safe on the trail. Here are the ten pieces of gear that you really need– the things you should never leave home without. These are the things that should always be in your backpack, the things you should never leave home without.
The original version of this list was published in 1974 by The Mountaineers, a Seattle-based organization for climbers and outdoor adventurers. Based on systems they had been developing since the 1930s, the list was intended to help people be prepared for emergency situations outdoors. Over the years, the list has evolved into systems rather than identifying individual items. Here are today’s Ten Essentials.
1. Emergency Shelter
If something happens and you are incapacitated and have to wait for rescue, or the weather turns bad and you need immediate protection, an emergency shelter can save your life. Your tent is not an emergency shelter unless you are carrying it at all times.
If your tent isn’t an emergency shelter, what is? Your emergency shelter should be light enough that even if you’re an ultralight backpacker or trail runner, you should feel comfortable carrying it in your backpack. It should be able to protect you from the wind or rain, and if it can help you maintain your core temperature, even better.
Some options for emergency shelter include:
- Ultralight tarp: Designed for use as shelter, these tarps come in different shapes for versatility and are very good at resisting rain. See examples here.
- Emergency space blanket: This option is inexpensive, weighs just a few ounces, packs down very small, and can help keep you cool (reflective side out) or warm (reflective side in). They aren’t always very durable, but packing a second one won’t take up much room in your pack if you’re worried. See example here.
- Bivy sack: Designed for emergency weather protection on multi-day mountain ascents, these are very effective at protection. See examples here.
- Large plastic trash bag: This option is extremely cheap, weighs next to nothing, and packs down very small, but does not offer much protection. It can work in an emergency, but there are better and safer options.
REI’s SOL Emergency Bivy is another good choice. This bivy sack weighs 3.5 ounces, comes with an emergency whistle, and has an attached tinder cord for easy fire starting.
2. Extra Clothing Layers
Even on the nicest day, the weather can be unpredictable. A sudden storm can roll in; weather conditions can get suddenly wet, windy, or cold. And even if the weather stays nice, anything from an injury to tripping and falling in a stream can be made better and safer by having an extra change of clothes with you.
But clothing can be heavy, so what should you bring with you? Common options include an extra set of underwear, a hat, extra socks, and a lightweight but warm jacket or vest. If you’re hiking in late fall to early spring, when the weather is colder, bring an extra base layer and something that insulates your legs. If it’s summer, make sure that your extra clothes are moisture-wicking and comfortable in the heat. Regardless of the season, extra clothes made from merino wool are a good option, since this material is lightweight and insulates even if it gets wet.
If you’re still unsure what extra clothes to bring, check out our guide to layering and our guide to choosing base layer materials. These can help you think about clothing seasonally and make sure your backups are appropriate.
3. Fire-Starting Supplies
Fire-starting supplies are vital in case of an emergency. This means having a source of flame and something to jumpstart your fire in case of wet conditions. The flame source can be a disposable butane lighter or even matches, so long as they are waterproof and not too flimsy.
Choosing a good firestarter is extremely important. You have lots of options here, including:
- Magnesium & flint stick: You can scrape off magnesium, and use a flame or spark to get a fire started. This is a “go to” solution for many survivalists. See example here.
- A simple lighter: Lighters work really well, but they often need help in wet environments. A little magnesium stick and a lighter make a combination for a high likelihood of success.
- Dry tinder carried in a plastic bag: You can pick this up on the trail, but it does take up space and requires that conditions be dry to begin with.
- Candles: These are functional and easy to find, but don’t put out a lot of heat.
- Priming paste: This is extremely flammable and burns well, is lightweight and one tube is enough for many uses.
- Firestarter nuggets (resin-impregnated chipped wood clusters): This option burns hot and is lightweight and inexpensive.
- Dryer lint: Lint is free, lightweight, compresses well, and an incentive to clean the lint trap in your dryer!
Hot Snot is an excellent choice for priming paste. If you prefer firestarter nuggets, Lightning Nuggets are a popular option. The company Coghlan’s also makes a single-use fire disc that is easy to toss into your bag and forget about until you need it.
4. First Aid Kit
A first aid kit is absolutely essential for any hiking trip. The length of your trip and the number of people with you will impact what you need to bring, but at the bare minimum, your kit should include:
- Various sizes of adhesive bandages
- Gauze pads
- Adhesive tape
- Triple antibiotic ointment
- Bactine or other antiseptic liquid
- OTC pain medication
- Alcohol wipes
- Blister treatment
- Disposable nitrile gloves
If you want to pack a premade first aid kit, we recommend the Surviveware Small Waterproof First Aid Kit. You can also easily put a first aid kit together yourself. If you want to DIY it, we have a guide to preparing a hiking first aid kit here. We will note that some of the pre-made first aid kits are a bit bulky for one person. If backpacking in a group, a kit like this is highly recommended, and by yourself, you can create a smaller more compact DIY kit.
Always have food with you when you hike. Choose high-energy, shelf-stable options like power bars, nuts, dried fruits, freeze-dried food, and jerky. You should pack at least one extra day’s worth of food with you.
You have lots of options when it comes to hiking food. Here are some of the guides we’ve put together on the subject:
- No-Cook Camping Food Ideas
- The Ultimate Guide to Healthy Backpacking Food
- Best Hiking Food
- Vegan Hiking Food
Some of our favorite snacks to keep our energy levels high:
- Clif or Honey Stinger Gels
- Naked Protein Cookies
- Nature valley bars
- Extra gatorade powder or skratch labs powder
A headlamp isn’t only necessary if you’re planning a night hike. Sometimes you may find yourself in the backcountry after dark. Maybe the sun set earlier than you thought it would; maybe you’ve gotten lost, or there were issues with the trail as you returned to your vehicle.
A good headlamp is bright enough to use– for most people, this means it’s between 100 and 300 lumens (although you can always go brighter). When choosing a headlamp, look for one that is light enough to be worn comfortably and has good battery life.
There are a lot of good headlamp options out there. Check out our guide to choosing a headlamp for several great recommendations!
7. Knives or Multi-Tools
A good knife has many uses while hiking. Cooking, first aid, gear repair, cutting kindling– everyone in your group should have a knife. We have written a full guide on the best hiking knives here if interested in reading further.
Your basic hiking knife has a single folding blade. Other knives may have screwdrivers, can openers, fold out scissors, and other attachments. These knives and multi-tools can also be useful, but don’t just grab the biggest one with the most attachments. Not all multi-tool tools are actually useful, and they can sometimes skimp on quality for quantity of attachments.
The Leatherman Skeletool Knife and Skeletool Multi-Tool are good options for backpacking and hiking. The construction is durable and the reduction of metal along the handles means these knives are lighter than many other comparable options.
8. Navigation Tools
The type of navigation tools you need while hiking vary widely depending on how you hike and where you hike. If you’re a casual hiker who sticks to trails in areas that always have cell service, your phone and a backup battery might be all that you need. But if you do any backcountry hiking, you need more.
- Map: A topographic map should accompany you on any trip that involves anything more than a short, well-marked footpath or frequently visited nature trail.
- Compass: A compass, combined with map-reading knowledge, is a vital tool if you become disoriented in the backcountry. Don’t rely on your phone; carry a standard baseplate compass. They are lightweight and don’t rely on batteries– and the kind with sighting mirrors can even be used to flash sunlight as an emergency signal. To choose a compass, check out our guide to choosing the best compasses for hiking.
- GPS device: A GPS device allows you to accurately find your location on a digital map, and in an emergency, let other people find you as well. You can use your phone with a GPS app, or you can get a dedicated GPS device.
- GPS watch: If you wear a smartwatch, consider getting one with gps and mapping capabilities. In our guide to smartwatches for hiking, we make note of good options with altimeters.
- Personal locator beacon (PLB): A PLB can be activated in an emergency and used to alert emergency personnel if you need help. When these are activated, they determine your position using GPS and send a satellite message.
The ultimate navigation tool for hikers is the Garmin InReach. While this is a pricey piece of tech, it has everything. It allows you to track and share your location with family and friends and comes preloaded with topographic maps, on-screen GPS routing, a digital compass, a barometric altimeter, and an accelerometer. We actually use the Garmin InReach mini for all of our trips.
These devices allow you to trigger an interactive SOS to the 24/7 search and rescue monitoring center, and with a satellite subscription, it has 100% global satellite coverage that enables two-way text messaging from anywhere on the planet. If you’re serious about backcountry hiking, one of these is the GPS system for you. A subscription is required for use.
9. Sun Protection
Sun damage to your skin and eyes is a serious concern, so always have your sunglasses, sunscreen, and sun protection clothing. Not doing so can result in short term-issues like sunburn and snow blindness, as well as long-term issues like skin cancer.
You should have a quality pair of sunglasses and always wear sunscreen. Your sunscreen should have an SPF of at least 30 and should be water-resistant so that you don’t sweat it off. Be prepared to reapply at least every couple of hours.
We have a list of the best sunscreen for hiking if you need help choosing a sunscreen. There are lots of good sunglasses out there, but we recommend polarized sunglasses to reduce glare and eye strain.
It’s vital to carry enough water for your adventure and have a method to treat water. This could be a filter/purifier or a chemical treatment– the odds are good that you simply won’t be able to carry enough water with you if you’re on a long hike. Most people need about a half liter per hour during moderate activity in moderate temperatures. To start, carry at least one water bottle or reservoir, and be prepared to find a potable source or make potable water on your way.
LifeStraws are very popular portable water filters for emergency use. You can also use water purification tablets. For a more complete look at your water purification options, consult our guide to choosing a backpacking water filter as we recommend carrying a squeeze filter, or a gravity filter for most use cases. This allows you to carry less weight, while always being able to get clean water as long as you stay near ponds, lakes, or streams.
Before you go hiking again, check your pack. Do you have the Ten Essentials? If not, it’s time to re-pack– don’t hit the trail without them! You’ll find that most hikers find the 10 essentials list too long, and don’t travel with all 10 essentials. While you likely won’t ever need your emergency bivy shelter or maybe even your compass, we strongly encourage you to bring them every single trip no matter what. It could save your life, or someone else’s life. Accidents happen every single day in the wilderness, and those that are prepared have survived situations where they would have died without the 10 essentials.
As you do adventures that take you further away from cell service, or where rescue operations are more difficult (like at higher elevations or in the mountains) the ten essentials just become more and more important.
Max DesMarais is the founder of hikingandfishing.com. He has a passion for the outdoors and making outdoor education and adventure more accessible. Max is a published author for various outdoor adventure, travel, and marketing websites. He is an experienced hiker, backpacker, fly fisherman, trail runner, and spends his free time in the outdoors. These adventures allow him to test gear, learn new skills, and experience new places so that he can educate others. Max grew up hiking all around New Hampshire and New England. He became obsessed with the New Hampshire mountains, and the NH 48, where he guided hikes and trail runs in the White Mountains. Since moving out west, Max has continued his frequent adventures in the mountains, always testing gear, learning skills, gaining experience, and building his endurance for outdoor sports. You can read more about his experience here: hikingandfishing/about