The "Ten" Essentials
Back when I was in Scouts, the Ten Essentials was a common topic of discussion. We would often go over each item when preparing for a trip to make sure we were totally prepared for anything. As an Eagle Scout (and honestly even just as a responsible outdoorsman) the Ten Essentials are still a piece of my kit that I put a lot of thought into. Though I don't always adhere to the common list of Ten Essentials, which is as follows:
Repair Kit and Tools
Instead, the essentials I choose to bring on my adventures has sort of evolved beyond this simple, yet rigid (and sometimes lacking) list into a more dynamic system that is tailored to each trip. This fluidity allows me to still be fully prepared for any situation, but yet not be weighed down with unnecessary items. I also feel that tailoring your essentials to each adventure forces you to think about what kind of situations you might face and you'll end up that much more prepared as a result. Here's my list of 'Ten' Essentials and the criteria I use when planning my adventures.
In this day and age, most of us have our cell phones on us at all times. A hike should be no exception. A phone call should really be your first line of defense if you get in trouble. Though if your only Essential item is a phone, you've made a mistake. You can't always rely on a signal, or the battery. If you're going WAY out there, consider a Sat Phone or PLB. But perhaps the best thing to do is make sure someone knows your itinerary and knows when to call search and rescue. There are lots of people that would be alive today had they done this one simple thing. This item can be something you DO, instead of something you BRING. This is arguably the most important thing you can do to keep yourself alive.
My trusty old Garmin Geko
Your ability to navigate in wilderness terrain can be the difference between having a fun and successful trip and becoming totally, hopelessly lost. If you do become absolutely lost, you're likely looking at a night out in the wilderness at a minimum. That being said, most of the trails I go hiking on are well travelled, and are trails I've done numerous times. It is extremely unlikely I would get lost or otherwise require navigation on these types of trails. Typically I don't bring any type of navigation if I'm doing one of my 'go to' hikes. If I truly am 'stepping into the unknown' so to speak, I go online beforehand and study trail maps and trip reports, as well as look at Google Maps in the 3D mode, which shows you the approximate topography. All of these can be useful tools to prepare before you head out. Again, this item can be something you DO, rather than something you BRING. If I'm going somewhere I know navigation could be tricky, I bring a GPS.
A typical cool-weather layering system
Weather changes quickly in the mountains. What starts as a nice day can quickly turn into a dangerous situation if you aren't prepared. It amazes me how many people I see on the trails that don't bring any extra layers. I always carry a fleece jacket with me, even if the forecast calls for clear skies with temps in the 90s. If the weather is on the colder side, I'll add a synthetic puffy, hat, and gloves. And of course, a hardshell is seldom optional. Though if the temps are warm and the sky cloudless, I generally feel comfortable leaving it behind. Think about the worst kind of conditions you might face and layer accordingly. Simple as that!
Though most day hikes end well before dusk arrives, if you or a member of your party gets injured, lost, etc., you may be looking at many long hours in the dark. There are very few occasions in which you should feel confident leaving this at home. I'd recommend a headlamp that gives off a lot of power (70+ lumens) for your Ten Essentials kit. Think about it: if you end up needing a headlamp on a day hike, it typically means something's gone very wrong. You're either needing to do some route finding, manage an injury, find help, etc. - do you really want the most ultralight headlamp you can find? I carry a Black Diamond Ion, which packs a powerful 100 lumens into a 1.9oz. package. Perfect for any emergency I might encounter on the trail.
This one all depends on what you're doing. I always carry a basic first-aid kit, adding a trauma kit for ice climbing or mountaineering (lots of sharp objects here!). However, I almost never carry anything more than that. Unless you happen to be a medical professional, don't go overboard with first-aid equipment. You should be prepared to treat basic injuries, but anything more serious and you need to get help. Adventure Medical Kits makes some great ultralight and waterproof kits (I carry the .3 or .5).
There are numerous methods for making fire. I won't go into depth about all of them here, but I believe the best option for hiking is flint and steel. However, this is one Essential item that can often be left at home. Here in the northwest, it's generally warm enough to not warrant a fire, or it's so wet you'd be lucky to get one going no matter how hard you try. Going above the treeline? No fuel up there. That being said, a fire can be a huge benefit it you do get stuck in the wilderness. Just consider the conditions when deciding on this one.
7. Repair Kit & Tools
It's always smart to have a knife or blade in the outdoors. Though unless you intend to build your shelter from tree branches, a Rambo-style survival knife is overkill. Those type of knives certainly have their time and place, I carry a Gerber LMF II when the situation calls for it. But for most activities, all you really need is a lightweight pocket knife. I carry a leatherman skeletool - everything you need and nothing you don't. I typically don't bother with a full-on repair kit for day adventures, usually only some duct tape. Paracord can be useful too.
Though a human can go about 3 weeks without food, a survival situation in the wilderness will quickly deplete your energy. Bringing some extra calories will provide added energy and motivation, and may ultimately increase your chances of survival. I'd recommend something with lots of protein and/or fat - I like Epic Meat Bars. These energy sources leave you fuller, longer. Carb based energy sources are going to give you an initial boost and then soon leave you feeling hungry. Starbursts or tootsie rolls are good to bring as well because their wrappers are great for fire starting.
We might be fine without much food, but the same is not true of water. It's rare for a human to last more than 3 days without it. Add in 90 degree temps and low humidity and you're looking at way less than 3 days. You should have access to plenty of water for your needs. Note that I didn't say you had to carry it - just have access to it! If you have a purifier or filter, you can collect water on the go. There are numerous methods for purifiers on the market. I use a SteriPen. The amount of water you carry will depend on the conditions you'll be facing and whether or not you can filter water. It's always better to err on the side of caution when considering your water needs.
Shelters provide numerous benefits in the wilderness, all of which will increase your chances of survival. Your shelter can be something you carry, or something you build. Like I mentioned earlier, if you want to build a shelter out of tree limbs, you want a survival-type knife. Or, if your adventure takes place closer to the winter solstice, a shovel (and possibly a snow saw) will be required. And, of course, there are places where you couldn't build any type of shelter, like especially rocky or flat areas. Sometimes it's simply best to bring a shelter with you. Obviously you could as elaborate as you want when you carry a shelter. But why carry more than you have to? For most situations I simply carry an ultralight space-blanket type bivy sack.
11. Sun Protection
Generally speaking, this one only applies when you're going to be facing long periods of time in the sun. Here in the northwest, that isn't very often. When I'm in the sun, I find that simply being covered is better than reapplying greasy sunscreen all day long. But choose whichever works best for you. You'll want to consider sun protection when deciding on your layering system. Also remember that being on the snow increases your sun exposure. And don't forget a good pair of sunglasses!
12. Animal Protection
The wilderness is full of animals, most are harmless, but occasionally you might face the prospect of encountering something more dangerous. Being able to mitigate these risks will result in a safe, enjoyable adventure. Failure to do so may result in your death. Bears are most dangerous when surprised. A bear bell is a cheap way to make sure that doesn't happen. I usually pack a revolver into bear country as a backup. Bear spray is another option. Mosquitos are more annoying than dangerous, but they do carry diseases and can turn a fun trip into a nightmare. I have found that 100% DEET works best, but do your research on DEET poisoning before using it. Each part of the country has different animal challenges. Going into the desert? Have you thought about what you'll do if you encounter a venomous snake? Even moose, elk, and goats can become dangerous if provoked. Be prepared, smart, and alert, and you'll be safe.
Here are some examples of how I plan out my essential items:
Tiger Mountain Hike (WA):
2-3hrs, 2000' gain, temp.: 40 degrees, chance of rain
1. Communication: cell phone
2. Navigation: none - well known trail
3. Layers: fleece, puffy, hardshell, gloves
4. Illumination: Black Diamond Ion headlamp
5. First-Aid: A.M.K. .3 kit
6. Fire: none - too wet
7. Tools: maybe a small leatherman
8. Nutrition: 1 clif bar or Epic meat bar
9. Hydration: 1-2 liters in camlebak
10. Shelter: bivy sack
11. Sun Protection: none
12. Animal Protection: none
Day Hike to Camp Muir:
7-8hrs., 5,000' gain, temp.: varies, clear skies
1. Communication: notify family of itinerary (no cell signal)
2. Navigation: map, knowledge from past trips
3. Layers: Sun hoodie, gloves and puffy for camp muir, hardshell/windshell
4. Illumination: Black Diamond Ion Headlamp
5. First-Aid: A.M.K. .5 kit
6. Fire: none - no fuel available
7. Tools: Leatherman and duct tape
8. Nutrition: A variety of snacks, possibly an MRE
9. Hydration: 3+ liters
10. Shelter: bivy sack
11. Sun Protection: sun hoodie and sunglasses
12. Animal Protection: none
Your 'Ten' Essentials can vary widely based on what you're doing. The most important thing to do is to evaluate what risks you might face and what you could bring or do to mitigate those risks. Always make sure you have whatever you need to be safe and comfortable in the outdoors. Don't depend on others for water, first-aid, etc. And always make sure someone knows when to expect you back. You alway hope you'll never have to use your emergency equipment, but if you find yourself in a bad situation, you'll be grateful you planned ahead. Do as the Scout motto says: 'Be Prepared' and chances are, you'll always manage to get back in one piece.