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The Ten Essentials

The ten things you should never enter the wilderness without.

1. Navigation: Examples of nav gear include a map, compass, altimeter, GPS device, personal locator beacon (PLB), or satellite messenger. I recommend that you always carry a compass even if you have a GPS and it’s a good idea to have a physical map of the area that you are hiking in as well. Dedicated GPS systems and GPS navigation apps on your smartphone are great tools but being electric devices, they can malfunction or go dead. Any time I go into the woods I take note of what direction the main road is in so that if I get lost, I know which direction to go in to get out. If you went east into the woods from the road, that means the road will be to the west. Then, if you get lost you know to go west to at least get back to the road. I often end up carrying multiple compasses with me inadvertently. I pack one good navigation or map compass, have a digital compass on my ProTrek watch (along with barometer and altimeter), there is a mini-compass on my torch lighter, and I carry a whistle with a compass, thermometer, and magnifying glass. I keep that survival whistle within reach on almost every hike I go on. It's an inexpensive item that comes in quite handy and could even save your life. I keep mine on a retractable tether that hangs from the side of my pack where I can reach back and grab it while hiking and take a look at the compass or the temperature. Whichever types of navigation tools you choose to take with you it is important that you study them and know how to use them before you hit the trail.

2. Headlamp: The reason I (along with most other hikers/backpackers) list a headlamp, not a flashlight or a lantern, is because a headlamp is an extremely useful hands-free tool. They are small, lightweight, and hands-free, so if you are going to pack just one illumination device, it should be a headlamp. I would recommend something like the NITECORE NU17 as is it USB rechargeable, has good battery life, lightweight (1.62 oz), has multiple light settings, is waterproof, and is very reasonably priced (usually under $25). It is 130 lumens which I have found to be plenty for navigation at night and the I love the low-light settings for when I'm at the campsite.

3. Sun Protection: This is more than just sunscreen, although it should include sunscreen (spf30). UV blocking sunglasses, a brimmed hat and SPF lip balm is also essential. Something to cover the back of your neck is also a good idea. Remember that just because it is overcast doesn’t mean that there are no harmful UV rays. Things like snow or water can reflect even more of those rays into your eyes and onto your skin. Some hats have a built-in flap to cover your neck but you can achieve the same protection with a bandana or a buff/neck gaiter. In extreme conditions, such as desert hiking, some specialty gear like a sun shirt and gloves may be needed. These items are made of lightweight, breathable material that is specifically designed to block out the sun's rays, while helping you wick away moisture, helping you to cool off.

4. First Aid (including foot care and insect repellent): If you did not include nail clippers in with your hygiene kit there should be a pair in your medkit. Bug spray is often listed along with the first aid, but it could almost be its own 11th essential item. I use a variety of insect repellents as… well…I hate the little buggers, especially ticks. I treat my pack and outer layers with Permethrin which is one of the best things to ward off ticks. You, however, do not want it in contact with your skin, which is why you only use it on your gear and outer layers. Picaridin is arguably better at warding off mosquitoes. I usually use both, along with other common bug sprays. The “sport” varieties are a good option as you won’t sweat them off as fast, but you will still need to reapply often in buggy conditions. Medkits are essential and again will vary depending on your specific needs, preferences, and experience. Although the contents may vary from person to person, everyone should carry a medkit/first aid kit. For example, my daughter carries her own bandaids and antiseptic wipes, while I carry a much more substantial kit as does my wife. You can build one from scratch or you can buy a premade kit and tailor it to your needs. If you buy a premade kit you should familiarize yourself with the items in it and how to use them. Every med kit should have wound care items (such as bandages, gauze, and antiseptic), blister care items (such as moleskin or Leucotape), a pain reliever/fever reducer, and any required medications. Don’t forget items such as a rescue inhaler if you have asthma or an EpiPen if you are severely allergic to something. Other basic first aid items to consider include:

        Assorted adhesive bandages


        Athletic tape


        Antibiotic ointments

        Antacid tablets

        Antidiarrheal pills

        Rehydration salts


        Small mirror

        Eyewash/Visine/saline solution

        Blunt tip scissors

        Razorblade or knife

        Bee-sting kit

        Tick key/remover

        Antiseptic towelettes

        Burn dressing/cream

        Splints and elastic wraps

5. Knife or Multi-tool (plus gear repair kit): For some, this is a no-brainer if you (we) never leave the house without one…or two…or three.. This, however, is another item that I have simplified greatly over the years. I used to carry a multi-tool, a pocketknife, a machete, and sometimes an additional fixed blade. Yes, I know I am a little blade obsessed, but each had a specific application. Anyways, in an effort to simplify and cut weight, I am now down to just carrying a multi-tool that clips onto my pack. Honestly, it will do just about everything that I would use all the others for. You will have less bulk, less weight, and won’t have them in your pocket banging into you all the time. If you are like me, this may be a hard adjustment to make (just psychological, lol) but I have not missed my extra blades out on the trail. The next step in blade rehabilitation will be downsizing from my Leatherman Signal to an even smaller option such as the Gerber dime (Angela carries one) although that may be too small for me.

6. Fire: Fire is a key element to survival. You should always pack some sort of fire kit even if you don’t think you will ever need it. Your fire kit should include, at minimum some type of water and windproof ignition source, IE torch lighter, electrical arc (aka plasma) lighter, or waterproof matches, and some tinder. A ferrite rod and some magnesium are good to have tucked away for emergencies, but I like to have a lighter in my kit. There are a lot of ready-made tinder options on the market, but you can also make your own at home. Jute cord, char cloth, sawdust, dryer lint or a cotton round (found in the makeup section) soaked in either petroleum jelly or wax are all examples of household tinder items. My fire kit usually has a torch lighter, a cotton round soaked in wax, a pencil sharpener (to make wood shavings out of small pencil-sized sticks), a little baggie with some sawdust and lint, and a piece of birch bark. Please, if you are going to use birch bark, source it responsibly and do not peel large patches off live trees unless it is a legitimate survival situation. I got my birch bark from downed trees. If it is going to be extremely cold, I usually pack some fire starter gel and a little fire log just in case of an emergency and I need to start a fire in a hurry. And don’t forget to pack your fire kit in a watertight bag or container so that it is nice and dry when you need it.

7. Shelter: Although you may not always carry your tent, you should always have some kind of shelter in your pack. You never know when an emergency may arise and suddenly turn your day hike into an overnight ordeal. This emergency shelter may be in the form of a tarp, a bivy, a poncho shelter, some Tyvek, or even a large, heavy-duty contractor trash bag. Don’t Die In The Woods (yes that is the name of the company) makes a super lightweight and compact emergency bivy that is made out of that space blanket material. The point is, pack something that will provide some shelter from the elements in case of an emergency. Walmart also sells a lightweight camping tarp that folds up nice and small. I have used them for tent footprints, rain flies, and a windbreak while camped on the Lake Superior shore during a nasty storm in mid-October.

8. Extra food: Make sure to pack a little extra food. In the event of an injury that causes you to be out on the trail longer than expected or, if you get lost, or stranded due to injury, it's better to have a little extra than starve to death or suffer other injuries due to being weak from not having enough food. Don’t go crazy overboard, remember you’ve got to carry it all, but make sure to pack a little extra.

9. Extra water:  Water is another thing that you don’t want to run out of while out on the trail. I would also say that backup filtration or filtration parts are part of this as well. I feel it is always a good idea to carry a water filter with you even if you are just going out for a day hike. Again, you never know when you may become stranded. If it is an overnight or multi-night hike, I would recommend carrying some kind of backup water treatment or at least have backups for the parts that may fail. If using a squeeze system carry a backup bag or make sure you have a bottle that will function with it. If traveling in a group, make sure everyone has their own filtration. Water is essential to life, you will die of dehydration long before starvation, and drinking untreated water even if it looks nice and clear could make you extremely ill or even kill you.

10. Extra clothing: As I mentioned in the clothing section, you don't want to pack like you would for a typical vacation. That being said, you want to make sure that you do have some extra clean, dry clothes. I would recommend packing one full change of clothes for overnight and multi-night hikes. You also want to make sure you have the right types of clothing. Remember to layer up and know that just because you are warm while hiking doesn’t mean that you will stay warm once stopped, or when the weather changes, or when the sun goes down. For more info on selecting the right kind of clothing check out the clothing section under the GEAR tab.


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