The 10 Essentials of Backpacking Gear

The Ten Essentials of backpacking and hiking equipment is a pretty well known idea but it has evolved over time. I favor the newer concept of the Ten Essential Systems so that’s what I have here, though the classic list is also at the bottom. This list contains basically the common minimum items you should carry with you to ensure a safe and responsible excursion beyond the cozy confines of civilization. This mostly goes for multi-day backpacking trips, but it can be useful to carry these on long day-hikes or climbs in wilder places as well.

Not every one of these items will be used on a trip, and not every adventurer will choose to bring every one of these either, but they serve to guide hikers as a great starting place for their pack lists. As always, the items carried in your pack should be tailored to your trip’s conditions, season, terrain, etc.

Keep in mind that just having this equipment does not guarantee safety; indeed nothing does. Knowing how to use these items, having skills and experience, and making good decisions in the wilderness are what make the difference and are the biggest essential of all.

The Ten Essentials concept was introduced by the book (and the climbing community behind it) titled Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, and evolved into the systems structure there as well. This outdoor bible is continuously updated through new editions and I recommend it if you are looking for more thorough information on outdoor skills. There is some technical climbing covered in the book but the majority of it is applicable to backpacking.

Ten Essentials

waterproof topographical trail map1. Navigation [map, compass]

You should always carry a detailed topographic map of the area you are hiking, and make sure the area covered contains every place you’ll visit. It needs to be protected from water as well which means either a waterproof map or a reliable container. You should always have a compass as well, and preferably be able to navigate using the map and compass. Even if you know your route will be well marked and obvious, bring a compass anyway. A GPS enabled device, or an altimeter can be nice bonuses.

2. Sun Protection [sunglasses, hat, sunscreen, clothing]

You can have a rough time without good sun protection so make sure you have sunglasses (or at least some eye protection that comes with a hat), sunscreen (don’t forget lips or the tops of your ears). Clothing is mentioned too because it obviously provides good sun protection, but also because you may choose to wear more than otherwise even if it’s hot out (like pants instead of shorts, or something covering the back of your neck).

3. Insulation [extra clothing]

You have already packed your regular clothing to wear while backpacking/hiking, but this essential point is intended to cover you for the worst possible weather you may encounter for the time of year and location of your trip. Weather can be unpredictable, obviously. This will ensure your survival and relative comfort if you have an unplanned stay overnight in the wilderness. Now if you are already backpacking with a sleeping bag and shelter, of course you have a big leg up here. Those things can certainly keep you warm. But for those trips, it’s still helpful to imagine the Insulation bullet-point like this – you are peak-bagging one day, tent and sleeping bag back at basecamp while you’re on a mountain, and the weather comes quickly, unexpectedly, and fiercely.

4. Illumination [headlamp, flashlight, batteries]

A light is a must in the wilderness. Don’t backpack overnight without one! Even if you plan to be back at the car on a day hike or climb before dark, it’s good to have one just in case. It can be used for signaling in emergencies as well. Everybody should carry their own.

5. First Aid Supplies

Do your best to not get in trouble in the first place. Beyond that, carry a first aid kit that includes a minimum of gauze pads, rolled bandage-wrap, several types of adhesive bandages, battle dressing, tape, scissors, soap. Knowing how to use everything in the kit (along with some first aid training ideally) can make a huge difference as well. Kits of different sizes are now sold with a targeted number of people and days in mind. Insect repellant is also really helpful to have so it’s thrown in here.

6. Fire [protected matches, lighter, firestarter]

Campfire in Pecos WildernessCarry with you materials needed to start and sustain an emergency fire. Even if your area prohibits open fire, keep the option open for emergencies. A lighter is really convenient but bring matches too. Use waterproof matches, or normal matches in a well-protected container. Run of the mill matchbooks aren’t reliable enough. Firestarters can really help when firewood is damp. If there is no firewood on your trip, you’ll need to have a stove and fuel (which you’d probably already have if you were overnighting).

7. Repair Kit and Tools

These are tools that can be helpful for first aid, preparing food, and repairing your gear in the field. Knives and multi-tools are useful. Duct tape is extremely versatile. You might want to have a repair kit for your sleeping pad if it’s an inflatable (though it may be difficult to find the leak). A trowel is needed for digging catholes, and also helps for completely extinguishing fires.

8. Nutrition [extra food]

You should carry enough food to last for an extra day or so in emergencies. It’s best if this food doesn’t require cooking and doesn’t spoil.

filtering water into Nalgene9. Hydration [extra water, water treatment]

Carry enough volume in water containers to get you through the longest period you may go without having fresh water nearby. Always err on the side of having more than is needed. Collapsible water bladders work great for this but it’s good to have a bottle too since it can’t be punctured easily. Carry a filter or purifier and/or chemical tablets or drops so you can treat the water.

10. Shelter

Shelter is number one in a survival situation. Again, if you are backpacking and planned to be out overnight, you’ll already have some shelter. However, if you expect to just be out for a day, having a bare minimum of shelter available can make all the difference in the event you need to escape from rain/wind/snow/sleet/etc. Since this is geared toward day-trippers, options that are small and light include tarps, bivy sacks, large trash bags, reflective emergency blankets. Overnight backpackers may want to throw one of those items in as well if the weight penalty is low and they can have multiple uses.

I would also recommend everyone carry a whistle for use in emergencies. That’s something that fits with every type of trip. For overnight trips, a sleep system (sleeping bag and pad) are obviously important as well. As I mentioned above, the sleeping bag also serves well under the Insulation item. These may not have been included since they don’t make sense for every trip.

Classic Ten Essentials

  1. Map
  2. Compass
  3. Sunglasses and sunscreen
  4. Extra clothing
  5. Headlamp/flashlight
  6. First aid
  7. Firestarter
  8. Matches
  9. Knife
  10. Extra food



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