How-to: The Ten Essentials – Again

The 10 Essentials has been re-imagined, re-vamped, and re-visited by countless outdoor individuals and groups over the years. However, the core list remains the same, and is crucial to having a safe, and fun time in the woods. Over my twenty plus years of camping, hiking, and exploring backwoods spaces I’ve come up with my own essentials, most of which I carry on my person at all times in the woods.

The original “ten essentials” was devised by The Mountaineers, a Seattle based climbing organization, back in the 1930’s. Their intent was simple: to educate climbers and outdoor adventurers on what was needed to spend a night (or more) out in the woods safely.

The “classic” list consists of the following:

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

Interested readers, who want to know more about The Mountaineers list (amongst other climbing and mountain climbing skills, can read “Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills”, which is still being published, and is now in its 8th edition.

My list varies from this a bit, and is more traditional in nature, meaning that I don’t include many of the modern tech gadgets some other groups have incorporated. That’s not a snub. I come from a tech generation, and almost always have my cell phone on me. However, devices always have a tendency to fail, and I never want my survival to rely upon a modern device.

  1. Map & Compass (Navigation) – To me, these shouldn’t be lumped separately. They are two tools, devised to be used together. Notice I don’t include a GPS for reasons stated above. I’m not against a GPS, and it would be completely useful for giving a rescue service coordinates, (along with a satellite phone), however; we’re talking essentials. Oh, and should I need to mention it – if you don’t know how to use a map and compass then take a class. It’s simple once you know how and there’s little use in carrying items you don’t know how to properly use.
  2. Knife – some include this on a repair kit, but for me it’s always an item unto itself. This is much more than a repair kit. It’s your single most useful tool in the backcountry. Well, aside from a small hand axe. However, for the most part I’m not going to carry a hand axe on a day trip into the woods. My choice? The classic Buck 110.
  3. A means to make fire – Waterproof matches, striker (better), a “Bic” lighter, or another useful device. Many folks I talk to also carry a couple small firestarters. I typically don’t. In the northeast, where I spend most of my time in the woods, there is always access to birch trees, or cedar, both of which will start a fire even if damp. In fact, you can completely submerse birch bark in water and it will light. Try it. If you’re ever on a trip with me you might just catch me randomly foraging for bits of bark as I come along it, stuffing it into a pocket for use later. (and it always gets used.)
  4. First aid kit – I always carry a personal kit. A standard store bought kit is great to get going. However, like most everything I have, it’s slightly customized. Add a SAM splint, a whistle and some extra bandages. Also be sure to pack any medications you might need, and an extra pair of glasses (if needed). Just know what’s inside and how to use it.
  5. Headlamp with an extra set of batteries – You can debate as to whether or not this should simply be “illumination”, or “light”, but I go with a headlamp. It’s hands free and today’s LED lamps are bright, often with strobe functions, which helps when alerting would-be rescuers of your location and need for assistance. I also carry an extra set of batteries, because more often than not they come in handy.
  6. Rain gear – Nine times out of ten this simply means a lightweight rain/wind jacket. The key component is that it keeps you dry. Don’t get “rain resistant” gear. Get it as waterproof as possible, while maintaining breathability. (Always a challenge.) Also, this is one area where I’ll tell you to avoid inexpensive options. Experience has taught me you truly do get what you pay for. Also, test it out. I’m prone to gear up and hop in the shower. After five minutes I turn off the water, check all the usual spots for leakage, and if I’m still dry, then I’m good to go.
  7. Extra clothing – This typically consists of a pullover fleece, but I let the season and the weather dictate what this truly means. One thing holds consistent no matter what time of year. Layers rule. Oh, and don’t pack anything made of cotton. “Cotton kills”. Get a pair of jeans wet and they’ll dry sometime next week. For example – on a rainy, spring day hike up in the White Mountains, or Maine, I’ll likely not only pack a fleece pullover, but a wool/fleece hat, a lightweight pair of gloves, and an extra pair of wool socks. Think about the weather and pack accordingly.
  8. Extra water and a means to purify – Here’s the rule on “how much water” you should bring: If you’re sitting around home or office you SHOULD be drinking two liters of water per day. That’s just proper hydration. On the trail you’ll want even more. I can easily go through three liters for a day hike. If you add an overnight element where I’ll use water to cook with, and make tea/coffee, then it goes up to four-plus liters. However, one liter of water equals approximately two lbs of weight and I don’t need all the extra weight in my pack. The question then becomes, should I carry one liter or water or two? The answer? Consider your re-supply options. How do you know where you can re-supply? Go back to essential item number one. Know where you can resupply, whether a hut, a spring water source, or other source of fresh water. And always bring a means to purify. For me, that means tablets. People snub their nose at tablets, but they’re lightweight, pack small, and can be carried on your person. Key words: on your person.
  9. Extra food – This means you’re prepared for what you’ll eat for the duration of your trip, plus some. For me, this often means bringing some extra trail mix, or an energy bar. The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, in their pamphlet “You Alone in the Maine Woods”, recommends instant soup, hard candy, dried fruit, and coffee or tea bags. Think about weight and calories. I always look for calorie dense food as it, not clothes, are your primary source of heat in the woods.
  10. Emergency shelter – This last item doesn’t always make my pack, but it does make this list. It is one example where I’m going to tell you to do what I say, not what I do. Here’s why though: I’ve been building shelters from natural materials in the woods since I was in the scouts. I was very lucky to belong to scouting troops that were really into camping and bushcraft, and we practiced those skills year round. However, if you’re not adept at finding natural shelter in the woods, or building a really good shelter that will keep you warm and dry, then bringing a lightweight tarp is a brilliant move on your part. Most tarps work in conjunction with a trekking pole, providing a great way to efficiently stay dry (and even maintain some heat) in the most harsh conditions.

Throughout this list I talked about not only WHAT to bring, but WHY. One thing I really wanted to shine through was not only the importance of the list, but how to make it practical. The best way to make it practical is through practice. Ultimately these items aren’t going to save your life. You are. It’s your skill set, and knowing what you’re capable of that will see you through to the next day. The other “item” that might go on this list is “common sense”. The woods is no place for a game of ego and pride. Take an honest self-assessment of your capabilities and stick to it. If the weather is bad, turn back. Survival is accomplished in the mind.

Finally, find some time where you can employ and practice these skills. I live by the adage that you should never learn a skill, or test of a piece of equipment when you need it. Use your backyard, or another spot. If you’re car camping then use that opportunity to hone your backwoods skills by making your fire with traditional skills, or cooking without all the big equipment. Don’t rely on the easy means available to you. Challenge yourself. You’ll find it’s not only fun, but satisfying as well. Additionally, take a weekend wilderness first aid course, and learn to use your map and compass. If you haven’t used those skills in a while, do it just to brush up.

Have some additional ideas? Other items you like to have that I didn’t mention? Comment or reply back. I’d love to hear from you. In the meantime, I’ll see you out on the trails!

Photo credit: Owen Parry and Upknorth