The 10 Essentials for Outdoor Adventures

by Chris on November 15, 2010 · 19 comments

in Travel, Travel & Leisure

Every man has a different idea of what constitutes a “necessity” when venturing out into the wilderness.  For one man, a fire source and a good blade may be all that is required, while for the next, GPS and a full outdoor kitchen setup might be considered indispensable.  While experienced hikers, climbers, and other adventurous sorts most likely have their packing list down to a science, those who are just beginning to branch out into the wilderness can certainly benefit from a standard, universal checklist.  Cue the Ten Essentials.

The Ten Essentials and the Ten Essentials (Systems Approach)

Originally published by The Mountaineers (a Seattle-based outdoor recreation group) in the 1930s, the Ten Essentials is a list of necessities that every hiker, climber, camper, and adventurer should have on hand while in the wilds.  The list is by no means exhaustive and should therefore not be looked at as a packing checklist.  For example, it does not mention such essentials as a proper sleeping bag and tent or a good set of boots.  What the Ten Essentials provides is a list of items which you will likely find yourself in need of when the unexpected occurs.  With these items in your pack, you will find yourself much more capable of responding well to all variety of desperate situations.  First listed in The Mountaineers publication Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills nearly seventy years ago, the original list is beginning to show signs of age, but is still quite applicable today.

  1. Map
  2. Compass
  3. Sunglasses and sunscreen
  4. Extra food and water
  5. Extra clothes
  6. Headlamp/flashlight
  7. First aid kit
  8. Fire starter
  9. Matches
  10. Knife

In a recently updated version of the list published in 2003, The Mountaineers have moved away from the specific articles listed in the original Ten Essentials, opting instead for a “systems” oriented list.  In doing so, they have specified the ten essential systems which must be available in the event of an emergency, thus allowing the reader to decide which items within each system fit their potential needs the best.  For example, the first system, Navigation, could be represented in a climber’s pack by a topographical map and compass, or by a full feature GPS unit and spare batteries.

  1. Navigation
  2. Sun Protection
  3. Insulation
  4. Illumination
  5. First Aid
  6. Fire
  7. Repair Kit/Tools
  8. Nutrition
  9. Hydration
  10. Emergency Shelter

Sure, you may not need some of these articles when just venturing out for an afternoon hike, but keep in mind that the unexpected can and does occur.  Trail markers vanish, bad weather appears from  nowhere, and all other forms of disaster conspire in an effort to keep you from getting home in time for dinner.  Armed with the Ten Essentials, however, you’ll be more than equipped to deal with these situations and even prepared for an unplanned night or two in the wilds while you sort out the situation.  It happens.

Let’s take a more in-depth look at these systems and examine what articles fit the bill for each:

Navigation: As mentioned above, the navigation system could include traditional forms of orienteering such as a good topographic map of the area you are in and a compass, or it could include a GPS unit.  Just remember, should you choose to rely solely on GPS, you put yourself at risk of poor signal coverage, dead batteries, water damage, and other mishaps that could leave you without a navigational aid.

Sun Protection: Sun protection of some sort is a necessity no matter where you intend on hiking or what the weather conditions are like.  SPF 30 sunscreen that blocks both UVA and UVB rays is the standard, although you can always go stronger if you think it is necessary.  In addition to this, proper sun protective clothing (long sleeves, hat, etc) is a good idea, and of course you’ll want to pack some sunglasses.

Insulation: Most experts agree that you should pack or wear enough layers that in the event that you unexpectedly have to sleep outside you will be warm through the night.  Remember, layers insulate much better than large outerwear does and are easier to shed individually as the temperature rises and drops.

Illumination: The standard for hikers and climbers alike has always been the headlamp.  A good headlamp will provide you with adequate lighting while allowing you to keep both hands free.  Modern LED headlamps can be quite bright and have long battery lives.  In addition, a handheld high lumen flashlight can provide you with a much brighter light when things go bump in the night.

First Aid: A proper first aid kit is indispensable, and yet it is also the most often neglected.  Your kit should be kept in a watertight container and should hold the following:

  • Assorted adhesive bandages
  • Roll bandages (gauze)
  • Large triangular bandages
  • Medical tape
  • Painkillers
  • Antiseptic
  • Soap
  • Needle and thread
  • Scissors
  • Blister care
  • Safety pins
  • At least a three day supply of any prescription medication you may be on

Fire: There are a lot of options when it comes to fire.  Two of these, waterproof matches and a keychain fire striker, should be considered an indispensable part of any kit since they are light, small, and reliable.  In addition to these, you can also consider tinder kits, emergency flares, windproof lighters, etc.

Repair Kit and Tools: First and foremost, your repair and tool kit should contain the most important outdoor tool, a good knife.  Personal preference plays a large role here, but you should be sure to have something sturdy enough to chop firewood with, and yet not so large or heavy as to be unwieldy.

Nutrition and Hydration: These are the two most self-explanatory systems and really depend on where you will be and what you will be doing.  If you are hiking in a local state park that only covers a couple square miles, you likely won’t find yourself in the kind of bind where you need to carry three days’ worth of food and water.  If you’re planning on wandering about in Denali National Park for a bit, however, you better prepare for the worst and pack an extra couple days’ worth of food and water.  As an alternative to packing loads of water, consider purchasing either chemical water treatments or a water filter if there will be water available in your environment.

Emergency Shelter: This is a tricky one, and again depends on location and season.  At minimum, you want to have an emergency blanket, or “space blanket” with you.  They take up virtually no space and will help you maintain your core temperature.  Other considerations are a lightweight tarp either for ground cover or to use as a shelter from wet weather or sun, a collapsible tent, or solid knowledge of how to make a lean-to utilizing nature’s bounty.

Other Items to Consider

There are other considerations as well.  For example, if you are in a tropical climate, you will undoubtedly want to bring insect repellent, or otherwise suffer the consequences.  Signaling and communication devices, such as a cell phone, GPS locator, whistle, mirror, etc, could be extremely useful in a pinch.  In bear country, you definitely don’t want to find yourself in the woods without a firearm or bear mace.  These, along with other considerations, provide solid evidence that although the Ten Essentials are critical, there is one essential not listed that you absolutely cannot go without…Knowledge.

The Ultimate Essential

Without a sound knowledge of the environment you are entering and how to survive in it, you are only asking for trouble.  Find out what the wildlife is like, how quickly weather patterns change, what type of environmental hazards are present (i.e. poison ivy, venomous snakes, hungry cannibals with a penchant for head shrinking) before you even begin to pack, and you will know what you do and don’t need.  Just remember, the best way to be prepared is to expect the unexpected.


Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills by The Mountaineers Society

National Geographic’s Complete Survival Manual by Michael S. Sweeney

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Dan November 15, 2010 at 10:51 pm

I am involved in Search in Rescue, most people don’t know how to use a map and compass. Even a lot of people on search teams, it is a skill that needs to be in constant use or it goes bad fast. When you are lost stay put, don’t try and find your way back. Staying in 1 place increases your chances for survival and makes our job a lot easier

2 Sean Grogan November 15, 2010 at 11:02 pm

good shoes! can’t bet them! and a watch is also helpful thing to add

3 Jack Scott November 15, 2010 at 11:43 pm

Sean Grogan is quite correct when he suggests carrying a watch with you. I recommend a good analogue watch, for a very specific reason. If it has an hour hand, you can use a watch as an approximation of a compass. Depending on conditions (time of year, whether you have a full sun or just a brighter cloud, where you are in your timezone, effect of daylight savings) it can be very good. And it’s a cool party trick too.

4 Nathan Oberg November 16, 2010 at 3:23 am

No knife will be large enough to “chop firewood” protect that blade and break wood over a stump or rock…or just push the end of a long log into the fire. However, I can do more things with a razor sharp 3/4 axe than a Swiss army knife.

5 John Graham November 16, 2010 at 6:01 am

First Aid, God yes. The wife & myself found ourselves with that particular item on last years camping trip – boy did I live to regret that!

6 Ryan Tyler November 16, 2010 at 6:58 am

Pretty good list, but I’ll add one more thing: experienced, or at least fit, hiking partners. I still remember the hiking trip where I discovered the difference between someone that is thin and someone that is fit.

7 Rob November 16, 2010 at 11:37 am

The 10 essentials, oh this brings me back to the tenderfoot days. I remember Wilderness Survival Merit Badge up in the Sierras. These might not be absolute essentials, but are they sure ever nice. I wouldn’t dream of leaving them behind after those 3 days.

Also, you forgot the Towel (Hitch-hikers’), the Duct Tape (Red Green Show), the WD-40 (for unsticking the Duct Tape), and the Windex (antiseptic, Big Fat Greek Wedding). You can’t escape pop-culture, even in the woods.

A CD or DVD works great as a signal mirror, by the way.

8 Mohkev November 16, 2010 at 2:43 pm

I have to agree with Dan in stating that the Navigation system is missing a key piece; The knowledge on how to use it. A map and compass will not do you any good without training.

9 Clint Flatt November 16, 2010 at 9:59 pm

You forgot Whiskey and Cigars the rest you get from watching Suvivorman.

10 Kyle November 17, 2010 at 3:53 pm

The Backpacker’s Field Manual is a must have for campers, backpackers or any outdoorsman. A guide with all the basic survival tips, techniques and more. We take one with us on all our backpacking trips. Even if we don’t use it, it’s worth having.

11 Native Son November 17, 2010 at 6:14 pm

REI has the full list with recommendations on their web site.

12 Big Fully November 18, 2010 at 1:27 pm

Anyone a Mantracker fan? You wouldn’t believe how many people on there cannot read a map and compass.

13 Steve November 19, 2010 at 11:27 am

Here’s a simpler method for using an analog wristwatch as a compass (when you can locate the sun):
-round the 24-hour time to the nearest hour (adjust for standard time);
-divide that number by two;
-situate your watch so that number (time/2–you may need to remove your watch) is pointed toward the sun;
-the North/South line runs through 12 and 6 (in the Northern Hemisphere).
For example let’s say it’s 1800 hrs (6 pm) EDT. I’ll adjust for standard time (1700 hrs), chop 17 in half (8 1/2), take my watch off and–keeping the face facing upward–point the part of the dial between 8 and 9 at the sun. Then, 12 on the dial will face North, and 6 will face South.

14 Minimalist November 19, 2010 at 12:14 pm

If someone were to lug all that equipment around it would be a tremendous strain on your body. If getting outdoors is made unnecessarily uncomfortable it will not be enjoyable: you will not go out as a result. To repeat what some others have said earlier if you don’t know how to use the equipment you bring it does you no good. Rethink what you actually need. Take time to educate yourself, you will find that you can safely get by with a lot less. A good start would be to read “Lighten up!” by Don Ladigin it’s a short book packed with great information. Some of the suggestions maybe a little extreme even for me like cutting the handle off your toothbrush; however, it will give you a lot of ideas how to simplify your kit. The base weight (without food and water) of my pack is under 10 lbs. and contains everything I need to be safe and enjoy being outside. And, a pack this light can be achieved without a lot of money invested.

15 Shadowe November 20, 2010 at 6:17 pm

Other important information is missing as well: Ever hear the phrase “Cotton Kills”? I’ve told people to wear layers before… and they end up wearing several T-shirts that will quickly turn useless, heavy, soggy, and clingy the moment they start sweating or get wet.

That’s a lot more common than someone being somehow able to read google maps or their GPS just fine but magically losing the ability to tell what they’re looking at the moment it’s on paper instead of an LCD.

16 Ned November 23, 2010 at 4:08 am

Item #1 is always Toilet Paper! Other than, this is a great, comprehensive list.

17 Grits November 23, 2010 at 11:07 pm

Know how to use your knife so you don’t create a bloody emergency. I recommend a simple Swiss Army knife rather than anything Rambo-esque … at least until you have significant skills in backcountry travel.

And I agree that knowledge/skills is of prime importance.

18 Carter November 30, 2010 at 7:04 pm

haha yes, toilet paper is pretty important! I love those classic camping and survival books and your “9 ways to start a fire without matches is a great reference.

19 Jaymz December 1, 2010 at 5:19 pm

Never, and I repeat, (I) never go out into the wilderness without a trusty sidearm that is high enough in caliber to kill anything that may try to kill you. Learn how to use it and hit what you aim at. A few well placed shots and you are eating pure protein.

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