The original Ten Essentials list was assembled in the 1930s by The Mountaineers, a Seattle-based organization for climbers and outdoor adventurers, to help people be prepared for emergency situations in the outdoors.
In 2003, the group updated the list to a “systems” approach rather than listing individual items (for example, map and compass now fall into the Navigation “system”.)
Updated Ten Essential “Systems”
- Navigation (map and compass)
- Sun protection (sunglasses and sunscreen)
- Insulation (extra clothing)
- Illumination (headlamp/flashlight)
- First-aid supplies
- Fire (waterproof matches/lighter/candles)
- Repair kit and tools
- Nutrition (extra food)
- Hydration (extra water)
- Emergency shelter
Classic Ten Essentials
- Sunglasses and sunscreen
- Extra clothing
- First-aid supplies
- Extra food
Map and compass are now viewed as 2 components of a navigation system. Add a wrist altimeter, toss in a GPS and, well, you can see how the systems approach to the Ten Essentials can easily total more than 10 individual items.
A topographic map should accompany you on any trip that involves anything more than a short, impossible-to-miss footpath or frequently visited nature trail.
A compass, combined with map-reading knowledge, is a vital tool if you become disoriented in the backcountry. Have high-tech GPS receivers made compasses obsolete? No. A compass weighs next to nothing and does not rely on batteries. So even if you rely heavily on a GPS for navigation, a traditional compass is an indispensable backup. Note: A compass equipped with a sighting mirror can also be used to flash sunlight to a helicopter or rescuer during an emergency.
An altimeter is a worthwhile navigational extra to consider. It uses a barometric sensor to measure air pressure and provide a close estimate of your elevation—information that helps you track your progress and determine your location on a map.
2. Sun Protection
Sunglasses are indispensable, and you’ll need extra-dark glacier glasses if you’re planning prolonged travel on snow or ice. All sunglasses sold at REI block 100% of ultraviolet light (UVA and UVB)—a key function of quality lenses. UVB rays, the rays that can burn your skin, have been linked to the development of cataracts.
When choosing sunscreen, health experts advise choosing 1) a formula that offers a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15, though SPF 30 is recommended for extended outdoor activity and 2) one that blocks both UVA and UVB rays.
Depending on many factors (time of day, sweat and more), you should reapply as often as every 2 hours. And don’t overlook SPF-rated lip balm.
Lightweight, synthetic sun-protection clothing comes with an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF). Your activity level (and resulting perspiration) and the temperature are the factors that will determine if you choose to wear pants or shorts (or long sleeves vs. short sleeves) while outdoors. You’ll still need sunscreen for your face, neck and hands.
Conditions can abruptly turn wet, windy or chilly in the backcountry, so it’s smart to carry an additional layer of clothing in case something unexpected prolongs your exposure to the elements.
The authors of Mountaineering suggest this strategy: “Extra clothing should be selected according to the season. Ask this question: What is needed to survive the worst conditions that could be realistically encountered on this trip?”
Common options include a layer of underwear (tops and bottoms), an insulating hat or balaclava, extra socks and a synthetic jacket or vest.
Headlamps are the light source of choice in the backcountry because they allow hands-free operation, they’re small and lightweight, and they have long battery life.
Many headlamps offer a strobe mode. It’s a great option to have for emergency situations; headlamps offer their longest battery life while in strobe mode.
Flashlights and packable lanterns also have value. Some flashlights cast very powerful beams and are useful for signaling during emergencies.
Always carry spare batteries. Every member of a backcountry party should carry his or her own light.
5. First-aid Supplies
Pre-assembled first-aid kits take the guesswork out of building your own kit, though many people personalize these kits to suit individual needs. Any kit should include treatments for blisters, adhesive bandages of various sizes, several gauze pads, adhesive tape, disinfecting ointment, over-the-counter pain medication, pen and paper. Nitrile gloves also deserve consideration.
The length of your trip and the number of people involved will impact the contents of your kit. It’s also a good idea to carry some sort of compact guide to dealing with medical emergencies.
Matches headed into the backcountry should be of the waterproof variety, or they should be stored in a waterproof container. Take plenty and ensure they are kept dry. Convenience-store matchbooks are often too flimsy and poorly constructed to be trusted for wilderness use. Mechanical lighters are handy, but always carry some matches as a backup.
Firestarter, as the name implies, is an element that helps you jump-start a fire. The ideal firestarter ignites quickly and sustains heat for more than a few seconds. Candidates include dry tinder tucked away in a plastic bag; candles; priming paste; heat “nuggets” (chipped-wood clusters soaked in resin). Even lint trappings from a household clothes dryer can work.
7. Repair Kit and Tools
Knives or multitools are handy for gear repair, food preparation, first aid, making kindling or other emergency needs. A basic knife should have at least 1 foldout blade, 1 or 2 flathead screwdrivers, a can opener and (though some people will call this a luxury) a pair of foldout scissors. The more complex your needs (if, for example, you are leading an inexperienced group), the more options you may want in your knife or tool.
If you carry a self-inflating mattress, consider bringing a repair kit for it. If you’ve had to endure a punctured pad deep in the backcountry, then you know it’s an item worth carrying.
Here’s a classic tip for carrying the basics of a poor-man’s repair kit: Wrap strips of duct tape (the universal fix-it product) around your water bottle or trekking poles so you can repair who-knows-what in the backcountry.
8. Nutrition (extra food)
Always pack at least an extra day’s worth of food. It can be as simple as a freeze-dried meal, but it’s even better to include no-cook items with long storage times: extra energy bars, nuts, dried fruits or jerky.
The process of digesting food helps keep your body warm, so on a cold night it’s smart to munch some food before bunking down—just don’t leave animal-attracting leftovers inside your shelter.
9. Hydration (extra water)
Mountaineering suggests always carrying at least 1 water bottle and a collapsible water reservoir. You should also carry some means for treating water, whether it is a filter/purifier or chemical treatment.
When beginning extended travel, consult your map and try to identify possible water sources. Try to resupply at the last obvious water source before beginning a stretch of unpredictable water availability.
10. Emergency Shelter
Shelter is a new component in the updated Ten Essentials, one that seems targeted at day trippers. (Most overnight wilderness travelers already carry a tent or tarp.) The thinking is, if getting lost or injured leaves you stranded in the backcountry, something is better than nothing if you have to deal with wind or rain. Options include an ultralight tarp, a bivy sack, an emergency space blanket (which packs small and weighs just ounces), even a large plastic trash bag.
Beyond the Top Ten
Here are a few other add-ons to consider:
Insect repellent: Your most effective options are: lotion or spray repellents containing DEET or picaridin, and/or clothing that has been treated with permetherin.
Whistle: For summoning help, it will outlast your vocal cords.
Ice axe: For crossing snow fields.
Personal locator beacon (PLB): A PLB can help search-and-rescue workers find you in an emergency.
Communication device: Two-way radios, a cell phone or a satellite telephone can add a measure of safety in many situations.
Signaling device: As noted earlier, some compasses come with sighting mirrors. If yours does not, consider taking a small mirror to signal rescuers in an emergency.
Knowledge: Having items in your pack has no value unless you understand how to use them. As one search-and-rescue leader told us, “People talk about the Ten Essentials, but the most important essential is between your ears.”