The 10 Essentials – A 21st Century Update
A topographic map to identify the characteristics of the landscape during your hike remains the required navigation equipment. With a printed board, you don’t have to worry about battery life or electronics failing or dropping. Likewise, a compass is infallible and simple; orienting a map using a compass should be one of the first skills any hiker or backpacker learns.
The precision, versatility, reliability, and ever-shrinking size of GPS units have made them more ubiquitous, and many – like the Garmin Oregon 750t ($ 550) – have mapping programs. Readability and screen size remain limited, but in inclement weather, poor visibility, off-road travel and climbing, GPS, an altimeter, and a personal locator beacon are invaluable.
From slicing cheese to cutting kindling to building a fire, a knife is the most essential tool. The size and design of your knife, whether its blade is fixed or foldable, should be determined by how you use it. Multi-tool products like the Victorinox Swiss Army Hiker 13-Function Pocket Knife ($ 27) and the 18-Tool Leatherman Wave + ($ 100) will have you tackling almost any situation.
Any backcountry skill that has remained vital since the days of prehistoric humans requires no defense. The ability to create heat, cook food and melt snow for potable water regularly saves lives. A standard lighter hardly ever breaks down – so bring two. Windproof and weatherproof matches like those in the UCO Survival Stormproof Match Kit ($ 3.50) are a smart save. A stove, fuel and a pot are practically essential on a multi-day trip.
This one is obvious. Always have a bright, reliable and fully charged headlamp. They come in handy when you want to keep your hands free to handle equipment and set up camp. Check out the Black Diamond Storm 400 multi-function headlamp ($ 50) and the Petzl Actik rechargeable core ($ 70).
Water planning varies based on two main factors: how long you plan to be there and the availability of natural water sources.
For the day hike, it’s easiest to carry as much water as you think you’ll need for the entire outing, with a little extra.
For longer trips, know the distance between water sources along your route and use a water treatment method appropriate for the environment and the size of your group. For groups of four or less, water bottles with built-in filters come in handy, like the LifeStraw Go Water Bottle with Two-Stage Filtration ($ 40) and the Katadyn BeFree Water Filtration System ($ 40 – $ 60, three sizes). For any group – but especially larger ones – pump filters like the MSR HyperFlow Microfilter ($ 120) and gravity filters like the Katadyn Base Camp Pro 10L ($ 100) are more effective.
In addition to burning exposed skin, the sun can accelerate dehydration and exacerbate symptoms of altitude sickness – and the sun becomes more intense with increasing altitude. Wear covering sunglasses that protect the eyes from UVA and UVB rays; a broad spectrum sunscreen (that is, it blocks UVA and UVB rays) with an SPF 30 or higher; and a sun hat, ideally with a wide brim.
First aid kit
Oh, the many injuries that can happen in the backcountry, especially when you don’t bring a first aid kit. Be prepared for blisters, drops, cuts, and other injuries with a basic kit like the Adventure Medical Kits Ultralight / Watertight .7 ($ 29).
If you can only afford one rain jacket, you should buy a lightweight hooded jacket. These jackets, classified as “hard shells”, are essential to protect you from strong wind and wet weather, because a woven “soft shell” jacket will not provide you with the necessary protection. The Marmot PreCip Eco Jacket ($ 100) is a good option. You want your rain jacket to be snug, but roomy enough to allow for layering in cold weather. In an emergency, a rain poncho can be used as a makeshift shelter.
Pack all the food you plan to eat, plus an excess amount determined by a careful calculation of how long your return home could be delayed – hours or a day or more. During a day hike, this surplus can be made up of additional bars. On a nature backpacking trip, this can add up to an extra day of food.
As with the two essentials above, decisions about clothing are dictated by the circumstances. Ultra-runners, for example, go into the mountains for hours with minimal clothing, but they rely heavily on their endurance and experience to avoid serious injury. Many day hikers and backpackers need to think about what they might need to survive an unexpected evening, given the environment and the potential extreme weather conditions.
This usually means a layering system that includes a waterproof and breathable shell, adequate insulation layers and base layers that wick moisture and dry quickly, as well as a warm hat – and usually gloves.
Bonus: duct tape
Then there’s the good old duct tape (or equally durable tape) to fix everything from tearing the tent to delaminating the boots. Tip: Always keep duct tape with you by wrapping a little around the handle of a hiking stick.