If you just want the list, skip the guilt trip that follows this sentence.
I already know what you’re thinking:
“Hey, I’m just taking a stroll through the local park. I’m not taking no essentials. What could happen?”
How about this: You’re “strolling” and get distracted – hopefully by the sound of, say, a pileated woodpecker strumming on a snag and not because you’re swapping texts on your cell. You trip over a root and break your ankle. This happens to be one of those fine days when you “have the park all to myself.”
No one finds you until the next day – or so. And the scalding sun turns into rain, turns into chilly night. Right off, you can use nine of the 10. As for the 10th, you don’t need navigational help because you aren’t going anywhere.
It takes only one time. To become seriously ill. To allow a bad injury to turn into deformity. To get dead.
So haul the 10 essentials. Every time out. Make it a habit, so the time you need something on this list, and your well-being is on the line, you have it.
(Note: I didn’t number this list; believe me, there are 10 here. I don’t want to imply one is more important than another, so you can skip something. I do list, sort of, in order of likelihood of need and increasing you’re-screwed factors. It may guide how you pack the items).
Navigation: Getting lost is a “bridge” disaster: It will lead to a lot of other bad things. This means at least an accurate map and functional compass, but it also means knowing how to use both, singularly and together. Or they’re just taking room in your pack or pockets and giving you a false sense of security. Don’t just get a map from the gas station, either. A hiking map of a more confined area will be more accurate. Green Trail and the U.S. Geological Society make maps of quadrants and update them every few years. Protect your maps from rain and other water intrusions with a plastic bag or sleeve. GPS units can be helpful, but keep in mind that batteries run out.
Hydration: Water is going to come in handy about, oh, 10 minutes into your hike. So bring some for ongoing need. But if you run out, you are going to need a way to filter more water. Humans have cast so many nasties into the environment that gone are the days when you could just dip your hands into a creek and slake your thirst. That’s a good way to get the runs – or worse – making hydration ultra-critically important. Under-hydration can lead to heat stroke, hypothermia and altitude sickness, which are the leading causes of emergency action in the parks.
Nourishment: Hey, you’re exercising! Congratulations! This means you need fuel. But in an emergency, you’re going to need sustenance. This doesn’t mean stuffing a pack with your favorite food. You’re going to raid that one late night (at home; I may or may not be speaking from experience here) and, when you need it on the trail, it’s going to be gone. So it’s best to pack something that will last – meaning it will keep and it will survive your cravings.
Insulation: No, this doesn’t mean carrying a roll of that fiberglass stuff you line your attic with. And, no, your belly doesn’t count, either. If you’re getting serious about hiking, you should be getting into the habit of wearing layers that are easy to add or shed, depending on need. Wool is great because it warms and also breathes when it’s hotter, doesn’t get smelly (right away, at least), and will insulate even when wet. I do think that a jacket that will protect you from the wind and moisture is the dead-bottom minimum here.
Sun Protection: It’s a common misconception that people of color are immune to sunburns and skin cancer. That misconception leads to late-stage (read: life-threatening) diagnoses. At the very least, the sun ages you more quickly. So use sunscreen, even to slake your vanity. Sunglasses, on the other hand, are not just for fashion and seeing more clearly in solar glare. Your eyes need protection from UV rays, which can lead to, among other things, cataracts. A billed cap is a great starting point for both skin and eyes. Lastly, don’t forget to protect your lips!
First Aid: The longer and more involved your hike, the more extensive kit you should carry. Most outdoor stores sell appropriate kits, or you can put together your own (in which case, make sure it’s useful). From time to time, make sure you maintain your stock of everyday items, such as bandages and moleskin (for blisters). I always toss in some insect-bite solution. As with the map and compass, you will need to know what you’re doing. It’s always good to take wilderness first-aid courses.
Tool/Repair: This used to be simply “knife” on the 10-essential list, but the more enlightened will carry multi-tools (aka, Swiss Army Knife; you never know when you’ll need a corkscrew out in the wild). It’s also good to carry some kind of repair tape, for ripped packs, jackets and even boots. If you’re planning on carrying serious camera gear, as I do, make sure you include tools (eg., hex keys) that will keep that gear tight.
Illumination: In some cases, you know you’ll need illumination (aka, headlamp or flashlight) because you’re hiking somewhere to catch sunrise, or hiking from somewhere after catching sunset. But you always should have illumination for the times you’re out longer than expected (things happen) and it gets dark. Depending on where you go shopping, you could encounter a dizzying array of choices. If you are going to be cooking (or photographing, etc.) on an overnighter, you’ll want task lighting to be included. If you need to preserve night vision, you’ll want red-light capability. But for 90 percent of the time, you have need something small, light and powerful enough. Don’t forget extra batteries. I also carry one of those little LED keychain flashlights, just in case. If you read my “What’s in My Pack” piece, you’ll see I’m big on redundancy.
Fire: The fire you’ll want isn’t just for roasting hot dogs. You could need it for warmth, or as a distress signal. So you need something reliable, plus you need starter material, such as cotton balls or lint from your dryer. Then seal it all up in a plastic bag. There’s nothing like needing to light a fire and hauling out that book of matches from the corner tavern and finding it soaked and useless. For that reason, I actually carry a metal firestarter because it will work in wet conditions and produce a hotter spark.
Shelter: Yeah, this one gets me, too, though I can see why I might need it. What, are we supposed to carry tents? You don’t have to go that far. I carry one of those foldable ponchos; I once used one in the pouring rain during a wilderness gauntlet. I also carry a rolled-up, inflatable pillow. I use it for photographing low to the ground, but it also could serve an important purpose: The biggest concern during an emergency overnighter is sleeping on completely exposed ground. This literally will suck the warmth right out of your body. You’ll want to sleep or sit on top of something.