The Ten Essentials of Wilderness Backpacking

The ten essentials are items that you should carry every time you venture out into the backcountry. The original version of the list was developed in the 1930’s by The Mountaineers, a Seattle-based recreation club, and has since been widely adopted.

You’re unlikely to use all of these items on every trip. In fact, if everything goes well, you may not need any of them. But being prepared can save your life if things take a sudden turn for the worse.

1. Navigation

You should always carry a paper map of the area and a small compass. Most hikers these days use a GPS app on their phone for their primary navigation, but if you’re lost and your phone is out of battery or has been dropped in a creek, the map and compass will help you find your way back to the trail.

2. Illumination

Becoming lost is especially easy at night. If the sun is setting and you haven’t reached a safe place to camp, you may need to keep moving in the dark. Carry a headlamp or a handheld flashlight to ensure that you can still find your way or set up camp after the sun has gone down. It’s of course also essential for midnight bathroom trips.

3. Sun Protection

A mild sunburn after a trip to the beach can be a minor nuisance, but severe sunburn in the wilderness can be very dangerous because it exposes you to extreme dehydration and infection. Ultraviolet radiation is more intense at high elevation, and snowy conditions amplify it by reflecting light back up from the ground. Carry and use sunscreen to prevent burns. Sunglasses are also important—navigating in the snow without them can be difficult, and over time can even cause snowblindness (caused by sunburn of the cornea). And you might also want a sun hat.

4. First Aid

A first-aid kit will help you treat minor injuries in the backcountry and prevent them from becoming infected. You should have some elastic bandages and antibacterial ointment for cuts. A small selection of medications is also useful:

  • Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) can be used to reduce swelling after a twisted ankle or bumped head. Note that acetaminophen (Tylenol) reduces pain but not swelling, and is therefore less useful in the wilderness where you may need to continue to use the injured body part.
  • Loperamide (Imodium) is useful for treating diarrhea.
  • Antihistamines such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl) can treat allergic reactions to bug bites or stings.

Finally, some kind of blister treatment is extremely useful. Many people use moleskin but we prefer leukotape—it’s more durable and just as comfortable to wear.

5. Repair kit

In the original Mountaineers version of the list, item five was a knife. A knife is still a vital component of any repair kit (a [Victorinox Classic or a razor blade are more than enough for most purposes), but you should also bring some duct tape (roll about 2′ of it around a straw or pen). And if your sleeping bag is inflatable, bring the patch kit that came with it, too.

6. Fire

Being able to start a fire could help you to stay warm if you’re trapped by a storm or lost. This could be a lighter or some matches. Since you’re cooking your meals on the trail, you’ll probably already have this one covered without any extra gear.

7. Shelter

You’ll have your tent, of course, but if you plan to hike away from it during the day (say, if you’re camping in the Colchuck Lake Zone but plan on dayhiking up Aasgard Pass to see the upper basin) then you should bring some kind of emergency shelter with you in case you’re caught in foul weather. A great option is a mylar space blanket like this one which weighs just a couple of ounces. Wrapping yourself in one of these shields you from rain and windchill, and helps trap body heat so you can stay warm.

8. Extra food

Eating enough calories is important for keeping your energy levels up on a strenuous hike. Being hungry makes you get cold faster, and in extreme cases can accelerate the onset of hypothermia. When you day-hike away from your food cache, bring a couple extra snack bars beyond what you think you’ll need, just in case you’re out longer than you plan to be.

9. Extra water

Water in the Enchantments is plentiful, so as long as you’re carrying a means to filter it then you shouldn’t have too much trouble finding enough to drink. But it’s still good to be conscious about how much you’re carrying and top up at the next opportunity when you’re getting a little low. We usually recommend carrying one to two liters per person and topping up once you’ve drunk more than half of what you’ve got with you.

10. Extra clothes

A gorgeous morning in the mountains can quickly turn into a miserable afternoon. You should always have an insulating layer (like a fleece or puffy jacket) and a rain jacket with you, in case a storm rolls in. A hat and a pair of spare socks are also a good idea.