In the 1930s, The Mountaineers described a list of ten essentials for the backcountry. The original list of ten essentials was published in Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills. The essentials enable you to respond positively to an accident or emergency and safely spend a night (or more) out in the backcountry.
Over the years, the listed has been adapted by many hiking and backpacking clubs, but the basic principles remain unchanged. The essentials should be considered a minimum list of items to carry with you. The Idaho Trails Association also maintains a more exhaustive backpacking checklist that includes nonessential items as well.
You should always carry a map of your destination. A map is essential if you become lost or disoriented in the backcountry and need to find your way back. Topographic maps are ideal. They are available from the U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Forest Service, and many other public and private vendors.
A compass is also another important tool that all hikers should carry with them. The compass and map go hand-in-hand. Learn how to use them. If you get lost, a compass will aid you in determining your location and heading. While the temptation might be to substitute a modern GPS unit, you should always carry a map and compass for backup. If your GPS unit malfunctions or loses power, there is a much greater chance that you will be lost and stranded.
Before heading out, be sure to let a family member or friend know where you are going and when you plan to return. Leave a map of your destination or a list of specific trails or locations. You might also provide contact information for search and rescue officials so they know who to contact in the event that you do not return on time.
There are three things you can do to protect yourself from the sun’s ultraviolet rays. Choose sunglasses that block 100% of ultraviolet light (UVA and UVB). The same UVB rays that can burn your skin have been linked to the development of cataracts. If you’re hiking on snow, glacier glasses can provide improved protection.
To protect your skin, use sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of least 15 through 30 that blocks both UVA and UVB rays. The SPF number refers only to its ability to absorb sunburn-causing UVB rays. Measuring how sunscreen performs against age-inducing UVA rays is a topic under discussion at the Food and Drug Administration. Active ingredients considered most effective against UVA light are avobenzone, ecamsule, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. You may need to reapply as often as every 2 hours. An SPF-rated lip balm is also worth considering.
You can also protect your skin with clothing. Some synthetic clothing comes with an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF). If you don’t like sun screen, long sleeve shirts, pants, and hats will help limit the amount of your skin exposed to ultraviolet light. Be sure to apply sunscreen to any remaining skin not shielded by your clothing.
When selecting clothing for your trip, consider the worst weather conditions you could reasonably encounter, and then plan to bring one additional layer. Deciding what articles of clothing to bring also requires a fundamental understanding of how to use different layers of clothing according to weather conditions. You should also understand what types of fabric are appropriate for the outdoors and which types are not. Below, we describe methods of using layers to keep dry and warm. Sometimes different terminology is applied in other resources describing how to layer your clothing, but the clothing articles used generally remain the same.
The base layer is the most critical layer. It helps to insulate your skin and transfer moisture (perspiration) away from your body. Base layers may consist of briefs, sports bras, long underwear, socks, and even glove liners. It’s basically another term for underwear. Base layers come in different weights, lengths, and styles depending on personal preference and season(s) of use. Be sure to read product labels and instructions in determining what conditions these articles are designed for. If product labels aren’t available, consult a sales associate for professional information.
Select underwear that matches the season. For warmer conditions, briefs, boxers, and sports bras will do. Long underwear adds an expanded layer of insulation to your extremities for those cold winter days. Long under wear (also called thermal underwear) is available in lite-weight fabrics for aerobic activity or mild conditions, mid-weight fabrics for moderate activity or conditions, and expedition-weight fabrics for low activity or cold conditions. Thermal underwear is available for your upper and lower body.
Similarly, socks come in a variety of lengths and weights depending on the types of weather conditions you may encounter. Longer and thicker socks are used for cold conditions, while shorter, lighter socks are used for warm conditions. For the coldest of conditions, you might also wish to layer your socks by wearing an additional pair over the top of the first pair. Make sure your socks consist of a material that wicks moisture away from your skin to help keep your feet warm and dry.
Leave cotton clothing articles at home. Cotton does not wick moisture away from your skin. Cotton retains moisture. Appropriate fabrics for base layers include merino wool or synthetic fabrics (such as capilene and polyester). These fabrics wick moisture away from your skin so it can evaporate. Non-wicking fabrics will either leave you laden with sweat or feeling cold and damp.
As with your base layer, the secondary layers you might use will depend on the season. Examples of secondary clothing articles for warmer conditions include t-shirts, tank-tops, running shirts, shorts, and baseball-style caps. They may be designed to fit snugly or loosely. As with any season of use, we advise against wearing items made out of cotton, which retains moisture. Again, use wool or synthetic fabrics designed to wick moisture away from your skin.
For mild weather, pants and long-sleeved shirts may be in order. Hiking pants are often designed so that the leggings may be removed or unzipped when weather conditions or temperatures vary from cool to warm. Light fleece jackets can be used to add an extra layer of warmth, while maintaining breathability. If you get too warm, light-weight fleece jackets can be tucked away into your backpack.
For colder conditions, consider wearing fleece or wool pants between your thermal underwear and your snow pants. Heavy fleece jackets or wool sweaters will also help insulate your upper body and can be worn between your thermal underwear and your jacket or windbreaker. Fleece jackets are popular insulators because they are light-weight, breathable and provide some insulation capacity even when wet. Down jackets and their synthetic equivalents also work well for preserving upper body heat and stuff conveniently into a storage sack when you’re not using them.
Fleece or wool hats can be used to further maintain upper body heat. Ounce-for-ounce, hats maintain the greatest ability to preserve body heat.
While the base and secondary layers help to wick moisture away from your body and maintain heat, they will not stand up well against wind or precipitation. Shells are used to protect against these elements and may include mountaineering jackets, ski jackets, windproof jackets, rain jackets, snow pants and rain paints. These articles are designed to block precipitation and wind. They may also provide some capacity to hold in your body heat while allowing water vapor to escape.
For consistent cold and wet conditions encountered in alpine environments, consider water-proof, breathable shells made out of Gore-Tex or an equivalent fabric. Mountaineering jackets and shells tend to be pricey, but they are durable, resistant to abrasion and versatile. They often suffice for a wide variety of weather conditions. Some models are designed with a fleece jacket insert that zips inside the shell for insulation as a secondary layer.
Use water-resistant, breathable shells for mild weather, light precipitation, and high activity levels. Water-resistant shells tend to be made out of nylon fabrics and are less expensive than water-proof shells. They block light precipitation but may not stand up against heavy and persistent precipitation.
Water-proof, non-breathable shells are also available at affordable prices. Used primarily as rainwear, these light-weight articles are manufactured with durable, polyurethane-coated nylon which is water- and windproof. They pack lightly and compactly. However, they don’t work well for high endurance activities because they trap moisture and perspiration inside, leaving you sweaty and stinky.
Soft shell models are also available, which provided descent protection against wind and rain, but the primary emphasis is on breathability. Soft shells are essentially a hybrid system because they combine the insulative properties of many secondary layers with the resistance to rain and wind provided by many conventional shell layers. They are also designed for mild and cool conditions, but should not be used in cold or persistent, wet conditions.
Whether or not you plan to spend the night in the backcountry, you should always plan to carry some kind of illumination for dark conditions. You could carry a flashlight, but a more convenient and compact way to illuminate your surroundings is to use a headlamp.
Traditionally, flashlights and headlamps where designed to use incandescent light bulbs. Newer models use light-emitting diodes or “LEDs.” LEDs are much more durable, compact, and efficient than incandescent light bulbs. The chance that you will break a filament, drain your battery power, or carry additional weight is lessened if you use a flashlight or headlamp with LED lights.
High-output LEDs (the 1- and 3-watt varieties) provide light output that is comparable to the output of incandescent bulbs. Some models include a “strobing” (flashing) option, which can help to aid in the location of stranded individuals during dark conditions.
It probably goes without saying that first aid supplies are a must when you are planning a trip in the backcountry. Many injuries incurred while hiking or backpacking are minor and require only basic treatment. However, should a more serious injury occur, your ability to respond to a medical emergency in the backcountry depends on your access to first-aid supplies and whether or not you or one of your companions have been trained to administer first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).
Pre-assembled first-aid kits take some of the guess work out of deciding what supplies to carry. Always be sure to check your supplies for expiration dates and replace any items that may have expired before you head out.
While many hikers carry first-aid supplies on their journeys, fewer have ever taken classes or received certifications in first aid, CPR, or wilderness first responder (WFR). We strongly encourage hikers and backpackers to consider these courses and certifications. Refreshing your skills on a regular basis is also highly recommended.
Ideally, you’ll never need to start a fire to survive in the backcountry. If you pack the right clothing and gear to protect yourself from the elements, then you should be able to stay warm and dry. But even the most prepared backpackers and hikers might find themselves in a circumstance where they need to build a fire for warmth or to dry out.
In order to build a fire, you’ll need two basic elements. First, you need an ignition source, such as matches, a mechanical lighter, or flint. Never take flimsy match books into the backcountry. Match books can become easily damaged and are susceptible to moisture. Carry waterproof matches in a waterproof container. Even if you prefer to use a mechanical lighter, carry waterproof matches as a backup.
You will also need a fire starter, which is not to be confused your ignition source. Examples of fire starters include kindling, dry tinder, candles, priming paste, and heat nuggets. Fire starters help to carry and sustain a flame long enough for your primary fuel source to ignite. In many cases, sticks, dry pine needles, and other natural materials can serve as a fire starter, but might not ignite in wet conditions.
Campfires are also enjoyable in non-emergency situations. We recommend avoiding campfires to reduce your impact on the backcountry, but if you choose to build a campfire, consider using a fire blanket or fire pan to limit your impact. Don’t cut down live trees for firewood use. Instead, use dead logs and limbs.
Before you head out, you should also check for any rules or regulations about the use of fire. During dry conditions, the Forest Service and other federal and state land managers often prohibit campfires. In some locations such as national parks or wilderness areas, there are on-going restrictions or limitations on the use of fire. Campfires may be restricted in high-use areas. You should also check to see if a wildfire is burning in the area. Sometimes trails are closed when wildfires are burning nearby.
Repair Kit and Tools
If you go to the store looking for a hiking repair kit, you won’t find one. There is no such thing as a pre-designed and packaged hiking “repair kit.” Instead, this loose phrase is used in reference to the idea of having basic tools and materials for unforeseen applications. It’s sort of like being the MacGyver of the backcountry.
A pocket knife and duct tape will often suffice as a basic “repair kit.” If your tent, sleeping bag, coat, sleeping pad, or other items are punctured, duct tape can serve as a temporary patch until you get out of the backcountry where you can find a longer-term solution or purchase new gear. Some hikers wrap strips of duct tape on top of each other around the shaft of their trekking poles or their water bottles. If you were wondering why, now you know.
From repair jobs to cooking, knives have been a basic backcountry tool for eons, but modern multitools are more versatile. Multitools are like the Swiss Army knife your grandfather handed down, only better. In addition to a blade, multitools often include screwdrivers, can openers, small saw blades, pliers, files, and other convenient implements that fold into the handles. Many hikers and backpackers prefer multitools over pocket knives because of their versatility.
There are a few things to keep in mind when deciding what foods and snacks to bring along on your journey. Always bring enough food to spend an extra night and day out in the backcountry in case you get lost or stranded. Having extra food will buy you some additional time.
You should also consider bringing some foods that do not need to be cooked. Snack bars, nuts, and dried fruits are good examples of ready-to-eat foods with nearly infinite shelf lives. Foods that do not require preparation will keep you nourished if you run out of fuel for your burner.
Although many backpackers choose not to bring canned foods because of the added weight, resist even the greatest temptations to bring a can of tuna or other strong-smelling foods. Foods with strong odors may attract bears or other wildlife for which encounters are not desired. If you’re hiking in bear country, you should also take extra special precautions when preparing or storing foods.
It’s easy to become dehydrated when you’re hiking or backpacking. You should always have at least one extra water bottle on hand. Hydration packs are also a convenient way to stay hydrated. Hydration packs are like any other backpack except they include a separate compartment for a water bladder. A full water bladder can be inserted into the compartment and removed for refilling. A tube extends from the bladder with a mouthpiece or valve on the end of it and offers a quick and convenient way to drink water without taking off your pack.
You should also have a method for treating water that comes from sources in the backcountry. Without proper treatment, there is a risk that you might contract giardia or other unpleasant or threatening diseases. Water purification filters are the best option for hikers and backpackers. Chemical treatments, such as iodine tablets are also available. Be sure to read the instructions for your water treatment method thoroughly before use. These products will describe the drinking water threats that they treat. Not all treatments are created equal.
You can also avoid dehydration by planning ahead. Review maps and guidebooks of the area before heading out. Maps and guidebooks often illustrate and describe sources of water, such as springs, lakes, and streams. Bear in mind that some sources of water are only available seasonally. In the same way that you plan for where you’re going to camp, plan for the water sources you’ll rely on along the way to stay hydrated.
Backpackers are usually prepared for an overnight stay in the backcountry. There are a variety of lite-weight tents available for all seasons of use. However, day hikers are usually not prepared to spend a night out. Day hikers that become lost or injured may be faced with no other choice.
Emergency shelter options include an ultra-light tarp, bivy sack, space blanket, poncho, or even a large trash bag. Even overnight backpackers with tents should consider carrying an emergency shelter option, such as a bivy sack. Bivy sacks are windproof, waterproof, and reflect your body’s heat back to you.