James is hitting the trail, all his yummies packed in, his iPhone in a bulletproof case, extra batteries charged up. Nothing can possibly go wrong. In a pinch, one call and help comes within hours. After all, phones don’t need cell towers in close proximity to work in 2020, do they?
Alas, they do. And emergencies still happen, so you need to be prepared. The Ten Essentials is a checklist that helps you cover all the bases of the right camping gear.
A Brief History of the Ten Essentials
If you google it, the internet will readily tell you the notion of the Ten Essentials dates back to the 1930s, when The Mountaineers, a Seattle-based organization, were the first to introduce it via their climbing courses.
This is just partly true.
Ever since humans stepped into the wilderness, they kept asking themselves: Is it safe there? What are the dangers? How can we survive possible emergencies? And ever since they’ve been asking such questions, they’ve been answering them.
Evolutionary, we’re descendants of those who gave the best answers.
Over the years, this knowledge kept accumulating, and eventually it was formulated into something we now know as the Ten Essentials. The “original” printed list looked like this: map, compass, sunglasses, extra clothing, headlamp, first-aid supplies, firestarter, matches, knife, and extra food.
Original is quoted for a reason. To think of it, people have been exploring the wilderness and writing lists for many millennia. Given our love for round numbers, odds are, the original ten essentials were introduced centuries ago, somewhere in between now and the day the decimal system was born.
This is, of course, arguable. What is unarguable, is that humans are now much more capable of coping with emergencies. And the contemporary Ten Essentials are certainly to be thanked for at least part of it.
The Contemporary Ten Essentials
Technological advances have had their effect on the original list of essentials. The idea has remained the same, but the variety has increased drastically. Rather than a list of ten items, it now looks more like a list of ten systems:
- Navigation. Map, compass, altimeter, satellite phone, personal locator beacon, and extra batteries for them. Not only should they help you find the path to safety—they should help rescue teams locate you.
- Sun protection. This includes both sunscreen and clothing.
- Insulation. The basic outdoor outfit plus extra layers of clothing for emergencies.
- Illumination. LED headlamps and extra batteries.
- First-aid supplies. Compact and waterproof, and of course, you should know how to use them.
- Fire. You need a perfectly reliable means not just for cooking, but to light an emergency fire.
- Repair kit and tools. A knife, multitool, tape, needle and thread, cordage, cable ties—the list can be infinitely long.
- Nutrition. The longer the trip, the more extra nutrition you should pack in.
- Hydration. Always carry extra water. Learn how to get, filter, and store it.
- Emergency shelter. You should always carry something to protect you from rain, wind, and heat loss. The exact items depend on the type of journey you’ll be on.
This picture helps you compare the two lists:
As you can see, the new list is much more comprehensive. Now, let’s break down each of the items in more detail.
Technology makes life comfortable. Our ancestors spent hours learning about celestial navigation and how to draw measurements based on the altitude of Polaris, and you can just press a button with your finger.
Not to mention that your casual calculations are much more precise. But unlike Polaris, your phone might be off when you need it. Hence, five essential tools:
A physical, printed topographic map in a protective case is a must. It requires no electricity and can be your backup option. Also, sometimes it might be handier to use it as your primary map for several reasons:
- It tags points of particular interest.
- It labels campsites, picnic areas, and bathrooms and toilets.
- It provides extra information about trails and surrounding lands.
This bullet list is, of course, about Green Trails Maps. They are no doubt the best choice for everyone who’s going to stay on trail.
There are the designated versions for the majority of the popular trails, and they come in different formats, including waterproof, tear-resistant, and ultralight options.
If you plan on leaving the trail, you might opt for USGS maps.
A map is nothing without a compass. Many types exist, and aside from the electronic one on your phone, a magnetic compass is the most familiar and simple.
The magnetic compass is small, requires no energy supply, and is not affected by obstacles—this makes it a reliable backup option. Reliable, because it relies on the Earth’s magnetic field, which is stable under all conditions.
The downside is that a magnetic compass doesn’t point to geographical north—instead, it points to the magnetic north, which changes its location over the course of centuries and is currently somewhere in Canada. To use a magnetic compass, you need to learn how to count and set magnetic declination.
This video will help:
On the contrary, gyrocompasses find geographical, or so-called true north, by exploiting the rotation of the Earth. The downsides are the size, the longer startup time, and the need for electricity. Frankly, this “species” is nearly extinct, but it’s nice to know that they existed. And yes, they still might be useful in some rare cases.
GPS compasses share the best of both worlds. They find true north, cost less than gyrocompasses, and are easy to use.
Probably the best possible option is to have a GPS compass paired with its magnetic counterpart as a backup solution. If you’re an active backpacker, consider buying a smartwatch with an embedded GPS compass and altimeter.
As the name implies, this gadget measures the altitude of an object. Along with a printed map, it helps you locate yourself. For hiking, opt for pressure altimeters: in comparison with GPS altimeters, which can be off by several hundred feet in certain situations, they offer significantly better precision (because they rely on atmospheric pressure and not on satellites).
Cell phones rely on having a cell tower nearby to transmit their signal. But trouble can appear even within the cell mast range—the signal is sensitive to obstacles.
Satellite phones exploit physics to overcome such situations: instead of using towers, they connect to the network via orbiting satellites. This makes them indispensable in certain situations. If you need to call, you will call—these phones can be used almost everywhere on the Earth’s surface.
Personal Locator Beacon
PLBs are used to indicate a person in distress. This beacon is a personal electronic transmitter that emits a signal of a certain frequency reserved for emergency situations. Satellites detect the signal and send it to the nearest rescue center.
Help is dispatched after verification via registration details provided upon purchase, which takes about an hour on average. But despite the delay, this is a tried-and-true system that has saved many lives.
2. Sun Protection
The sun gives life, yet it takes life, too. According to the WHO, 80 percent of skin cancer cases could be prevented by avoiding UV damage.
What now? Stay at home, windows shut tight? Negative. Instead, you should learn how to defend yourself from UV radiation when basking in the sun.
Sun Protective Clothing
If you’re new to hiking and backpacking, chances are you’ve never heard of sun protective apparel. In fact, there’s a rating system—Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF)—used to gauge a fabric’s efficacy in blocking UV rays.
The rule of thumb is that if a piece of clothing has a UPF rating label, it already offers some UV protection. Ratings below 15 indicate poor or no protection at all. For example, a regular white cotton T-shirt has no UPF rating, but if it did, it would be around 5.
By the way, the UPF system is easy to understand. Essentially, every number indicates a fraction of ultraviolet radiation that passes through the garment. For example, UPF 10 means that only 1/10th of the UV rays pass through, and UPF 50 points out that only 1/50th of the rays are allowed.
It’s worth saying that the UPF system is most relevant for those who are sensitive to the sun. If you’re not, then opt for any clothes that aren’t white cotton t-shirts and wear a hat.
Even if you wrap yourself up in multiple layers of UPF 50+ clothes, odds are your nose will be left basking, not to say burning in the sun.
This is where sunscreen shines (both territorially and figuratively). Similar to the UPF system, all sunscreens are classified by their sunburn protection factor, or SPF. It works exactly as its previously described counterpart: an SPF of 30 allows only 1/30th of UV radiation through (in other words, it blocks nearly 97 percent of the rays).
But with sunscreen, everything is not as straightforward as it seems. In fact, two types of UV radiation exist: long-wave ultraviolet A (UVA) and short-wave ultraviolet B (UVB). They are different, yet both are harmful.
UVA rays account for more than 90 percent of all the UV radiation Earth is exposed to. In daylight hours, their intensity is distributed uniformly throughout the year.
Physically speaking, their wavelength is long enough to penetrate clouds. But you don’t feel them, and this makes UVA rays even more dangerous. They don’t burn you—they age you; UVA rays penetrate into the innermost dermis and damage the DNA in skin cells.
UVB rays are shorter and don’t penetrate deeply. They can’t even penetrate glass and only burn superficial layers of your skin. The intensity of UVB rays fluctuates—you can feel it as clouds roll by.
Scientists used to believe that only UVB rays are dangerous, and UVA are safe. Now we know this is absolutely not true—both are harmful—but the toll has already been taken: the SPF system only indicates protection against UVB rays.
Yes, manufacturers recently started adding ingredients for UVA protection, which is now vaguely marked as “broad-spectrum protection.” But UVA protection is not rated and it’s hard to tell how effective a given product is.
What sunscreen should you get then?
To keep it simple, broad-spectrum SPF 30–40 sunscreens are universal soldiers. They offer enough protection from UVB rays, while somewhat protecting you from UVA rays. Significantly higher SPF numbers often indicate sacrificing UVA protection.
- Apply it 30 minutes before sun exposure.
- Cover all exposed skin.
- Never scrimp on sunscreen.
- Reapply it every two hours.
Roughly a century ago, one wise president said: “Keep your eyes on the stars, and your feet on the ground.”
An urge to keep your feet on the ground is essentially why you’re reading this guide. The stars though… They are bewitching, they are magical, and they are so bright.
But why are they bright? This is because they are extremely hot due to the nuclear reactions deep inside. In essence, basking in the sun is no more than sensing the residual UV radiation emitted when hydrogen is being converted to helium inside a thirty-million-degree core. So romantic!
In reality, photons don’t care about sublime matters—they travel almost a hundred million miles only to terminate the DNA of your eye cells. Romance? No, this is war, and your sunglasses will become a barrier no vicious photons can cross.
Decent sunglasses should filter 99–100 percent of both UVA and UVB light. In addition, they are usually marked by Visible Light Transmission (VLT), which has nothing to do with UV protection but is still important.
This picture will help you pick out the proper VLT percentage:
There are two major types of sunglass lenses: polarized and photochromic. The former greatly reduce glare but interfere with the visibility of LCD screens. The latter automatically adjust to the intensity of light; they darken on sunny days and become lighter in the absence of UVB rays within minutes. However, the glare protection of photochromic lenses is not ideal.
Sunglass lenses come in four materials: glass, polyurethane, polycarbonate, and acrylic. Glass is the best option but can break on impact. Acrylic is the cheapest and the worst one. For outdoor activities, choose between the other two: they both offer decent impact resistance and good optical clarity. Polyurethane is slightly better and proportionally more expensive.
Always consider carrying a spare pair of sunglasses, no matter whether you travel alone or in a group.
Nothing can be as annoying on a trail as a poor choice of hiking clothes. At first, you get too hot. Then, you unzip the outer layer and eventually get too cold. You zip it back up, rinse and repeat until you ultimately get wet.
This vicious cycle is ridiculously easy to break out of. All you have to do is to learn how to dress up in layers properly. Here’s the basic idea behind the layering principle:
- The first layer is to draw moisture away from your body. Choose synthetic fabrics that have high wicking abilities and avoid cotton. Cotton holds moisture and makes you feel cold and wet.
- The second layer is to insulate you. This layer should keep you warm. The best choice of fabric is fleece-based material.
- The third layer is to protect you. This is your outer layer, also called the shell layer. It adds some insulation, but its main job is to shield you from wind and rain. Hence, waterproof materials are best.
The layering system helps you adjust layers to the weather to avoid sweating or shivering. And because contemporary fabrics are lightweight and compact, these multiple layers don’t feel like a burden to carry.
On top of this system, you should also apply your common sense. For example, you can exploit the tried-and-true technology of buying pants that convert into shorts and get breakaway sleeves.
By the way, if you’re thinking about camping in winter, we dive deeper into the layering principle and into winter clothing in general in our winter camping guide.
Technology is a torch that illuminates the world, and decent illumination always starts with the LED acronym, which stands for light-emitting diode.
Arguably, the best possible type of flashlight is a waterproof LED headlamp that allows you to adjust the direction of the beam based on your current needs. Keeping your hands free is a killer feature on a trail. Opt for models with an embedded strobe function—it helps send a rescue signal in case of emergency.
Never forget to pack several spare batteries. Given the efficiency of LED bulbs, it will make them shine for dozens of hours.
As for incandescent lamps, just forget about them. Our tiny little space ball is already getting warmer, so why heat it up even more?
5. First Aid
Things happen. And albeit the worst things happen at sea, carrying a first aid kit is crucial in any terrain.
But don’t let your kit give you a false sense of security. At a minimum, you need to know how to use it: how to stop the bleeding, apply an antibacterial ointment, roll up a bandage, treat burns and insect bites, make a compress, rewarm tissues after frostbite, and perform other basic operations.
Then, you need to make sure your kit contains all the essential supplies: sterile gloves, cleansing wipes, adhesive tape, gauze, various bandages, creams, eyewash, hydrogen peroxide, antiseptic, painkillers, tweezers, topical antibiotics, and any personal prescriptions on top of that.
What exactly you should pack into your first aid kit depends on the character of your trip, but carrying the bare minimum is essential even on a one-day hike.
Fire boils water, cooks food, gives warmth, light, and shelter, and sends a rescue signal. And even though fire is dangerous, a lack of fire on a trail can kindle a plethora of emotion.
Luckily, you no longer need to rely on Prometheus to defy the gods to simmer a kettle. Instead, you can rely on technology. Tried-and-true butane lighters and matches are mandatory, as well as packing them into a waterproof container. Firestarters help light up wet tinder, and stoves excel in high-altitude conditions.
Even a tiny thing called a magnifying glass can save your life in an extreme situation. Also, remember the fabulous technique your prehistoric ancestor used to impress his prehistoric dame of heart, aka starting a fire with a bow drill.
If you’ve never seen it, here’s how it’s done:
7. Repair Kit and Tools
Tools help you solve a variety of problems and tasks that await you on a trail. The rule of thumb is the longer the journey, the longer the list of tools.
But even on the shortest trips you should include these two things: a knife and a repair kit.
A knife must have a folding blade—a fixed one can be harmful and even life-threatening if you slip on a trail. It might also be tempting to think that the knife in a multitool will suffice, but no, it won’t. First, you might lose it, and losing two items is less likely. Secondly, a decent knife in a multitool is either a fantasy or a rip-off.
A repair kit should include a multitool with at least a couple of screwdrivers and a pair of pliers. Other important things are duct tape, cable ties, cordage, needle and thread, and replacement parts for your other equipment.
Essentially, if you’re not an experienced hiker, you should contact your group leader and ask them what tools to pack in. Conversely, if you’re leading a group of inexperienced travelers, you should pack as much gear as possible.
There’s nothing mysterious about nutrition on a trail. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel and conduct weird experiments. Basically, you should just follow the rule of three B’s:
- Bring extra food. The longer the journey, the more extra food you should take. The bare minimum is an extra one day’s supply.
- Bring calorie-dense foods. You might be the biggest fan of watermelons, yet carrying them uphill is a dubious decision.
- Bring food you know. Hiking is about discovering magnificent views, not about pursuing lurking pangs of diarrhea.
Evidently, you must have the means to cook the food you bring; otherwise, you can end up chomping on your favorite crunchy farfalle.
Unless you’re going on a one- or two-day hike, there’s no way you can bring enough water with you. You will have to refill it.
Not only does this require thorough itinerary planning, but it also means you’ll need to have multiple water containers. Plastic bottles are durable and handy but don’t pack small when empty. But hydration bladders do, and this feature makes them a must-have item for a long-term overland voyage.
In addition, you should carry a means to purify water from creeks and puddles. Obviously, drinking from the latter is something you would like to avoid, but it might just happen that you won’t find a crystal clean shimmering pond anywhere around.
Remember, water is much, much more important than food. Depending on your build, you can last up to several months without food; without water, up to several days.
10. Emergency Shelter
An emergency shelter is something you should always carry with you. On longer-term trips, it should come in addition to your main fancy multi-room tent or whichever one you prefer; on shorter-term trips, it can be your only shelter.
But the rule of thumb is that you never step on a trail without an emergency shelter, no matter if you’ve already set up a camp on a beautiful glade right beyond that hill.
But what exactly is an emergency shelter?
The exact setup might differ, but it should protect you from three things: rain, wind, and a loss of heat. Usually, it’s a bivy sack for warmth and a tarp-like material to shield you from rain and wind. In addition, an air sleeping pad can help insulate you from the wet ground (and also packs small and weighs literally nothing).
For some, it might sound absurd and even irritating to carry a bivouac on a day trip. Yet, this is what all experienced hikers eventually come to, either the hard way or the easy one. By the way, certain down sleeping bags weigh less than a pound and pack really tight.
The Bottom Line
Thinking of it one way, the Earth is just another giant rock drifting around the next incandescent star in the endless outer space.
Yet the Earth is beautiful.
No human life is enough to explore its every nook and cranny, with all the variety of landscapes, from shallow lakes to rocky mountains. Even ten lives are not enough. But this doesn’t mean your only life can now be short; conversely, it is here to give you the maximum amount of fun.
The Ten Essentials is a system that makes sure this comes true. It has been evolving over the years, absorbing all the cutting-edge technologies. Just look at your smartphone—it took substantially less computing power to land a man on the moon, and now you can just loiter around with the might of a hundred thousand Apollo 11s in your pocket.
And this is the main problem. Our skyrocketing increase in technological power gives you a false sense of safety. Remember, the bigger the possibilities, the greater the potential hazards and side effects.
The Ten Essentials are great, but they are nothing without common sense. So don’t forget it when packing in all that gear.