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What Are The 10 Essentials? (Must-Have Hiking Gear)

If you’re new to hiking or backpacking you may have heard other hikers talking about the 10 essentials. If so, you’re probably wondering what the 10 essentials are and why it’s so important to carry them.

Basically, the 10 essentials are 10 important items that you should always carry with you when hiking, backpacking, or adventuring in the outdoors to ensure you’re safe and prepared on the trail. Some of the 10 essentials are things you’ll likely use regularly, like extra water and food, while others are included for emergency situations that you’ll hopefully never encounter.

This post dives into each of the 10 essentials and provides my gear recommendations. Keep in mind, I always recommend using things you already own and building up your outdoor gear arsenal over time. For example, you don’t need to splurge on an emergency GPS to start hiking (although it can be an invaluable resource over time), but you should have some way to navigate on the trail.

What are the 10 essentials?

Breaking Down The 10 Essentials

While most heavily trafficked trails are fairly easy to follow, if you’re heading deep into the backcountry or into less-maintained terrain it’s important to have a reliable navigation system to help keep you on route in case you get lost. There are many apps, like AllTrails and Gaia GPS, that allow you to download maps to your phone. While these resources can be helpful, remember that phones can die and the data may not be reliable.

Carrying and knowing how to use a map and compass is the best way to navigate in the backcountry. Make sure you know how to read your map and use your compass before you go. If you’re planning on relying on your cell phone as a navigation source be sure to bring a backup charger

Map Recommendation: National Geographic Maps | Price: $14.95

Compass Recommendation: Suunto A10 Compass | Price: $24

Solo hiking female. Emergency GPS.
Solo hiking in the San Juan Mountains.

2. Illumination

Even if you’re just planning on getting out for a day hike, it’s important to carry illumination in case you find yourself out after dark. A trail may be longer or more difficult than you anticipated, causing your hike to take longer than expected. Stay safe and don’t worry about having to navigate in the dark by always having a headlamp handy. If you’re planning on going for a sunset hike, then carrying a headlamp is extra important.

Headlamp Recommendation: Black Diamond Cosmo 350 Headlamp | Price: $34.95

3. Sun Protection: 

Hiking on a warm, sunny day can zap your energy quickly. Adding a sunburn into the mix can make you feel even more lethargic. Wearing proper sun protection not only prevents sunburns, but will also help you feel more comfortable on the trail.

Sun safety is always important, but it’s extra critical at higher elevations where you’re more susceptible to getting a sunburn. Even if it’s a cloudy day in the mountains, be sure to bring some extra protection, like sunscreen, sun clothing, a hat, and sunglasses.

Sunscreen Recommendations: Drunk Elephant Umbra Sheer Sunscreen | Price: $34

MyChelle Dermaceuticals Spray Sunscreen | Price: $22

Sun Shirt Recommendation: Black Diamond Alpenglow Hoody | Price: $95

Read my review of the Black Diamond Alpenglow Hoody!

Hat Recommendation: Outdoor Research Oasis Sun Hat | Price: $45

Woman taking a selfie wearing sun protection while paddleboarding in Idaho.
Wearing a hat + sunglasses + my favorite sun shirt while paddleboarding in Idaho.

4. First-Aid Kit: 

Accidents and injuries can strike at any time on a hike. From scrapes and scratches, to sprained ankles, to headaches, to broken limbs, there are a LOT of ways to injure yourself on the trail. Always keep a small first-aid kit in your backpack as one of the 10 essentials. There are many pre-packed, outdoor first-aid kits on the market, but you may need to make adjustments to your kit depending on your medical needs.

The exact items that you need to carry in your first-aid kit will depend on the environment you’re hiking in, the time of year, and your personal medical needs. Helpful items to pack include: bandaids, moleskin, antibiotic ointment (Neosporin), antiseptic wipes, tape, gauze, ibuprofen and/or acetaminophen, Benadryl, whatever you personally need in the event of an emergency or an unexpected night in the backcountry (epipen, inhaler, extra medication, tampons/menstrual cup for period hygiene etc.).

First-Aid Kit Recommendation: Adventure Medical Kits Mountain Series Hiker Medical Kit | Price: $29.95

5. Knife: 

A knife can serve a variety of purposes in the backcountry. You can use it to cut clothing or gear. You can use it to open food packages or slice things up. A knife can also be used as a tool for self-defense against wildlife and (God forbid) dangerous people (that’s obviously an extreme situation, but it’s one reason why it’s important to carry a knife when hiking alone as a woman).

There are a variety of knives on the market that you can choose from depending on your outdoor adventure of choice. A folding knife, multitool, or pocket knife are all useful options.

Knife Recommendation: Gerber Scout Clip Folding Knife | Price: $59.95

6. Fire:

Being able to start a fire can serve a number of benefits in emergency situations. A fire can provide warmth on a cold night. It can dry wet clothing. It also creates smoke, which can make your location easily visible in the event emergency officials are looking for you. Helpful firestarters to carry on a hike include a lighter, matches in a waterproof container, and flint. 

Of course, always consider fire bans before starting a fire unless you are in a truly dire, life or death situation!

Fire Recommendation: UCO Stormproof Match Kit | Price: $8.95

7. Emergency Shelter:

You never know what type of emergency situation you may encounter while hiking. If you become lost or seriously injured, you may end up needing to spend an unexpected night in the backcountry, which is why emergency shelter is one of the 10 essentials. 

If you’re going backpacking you’re probably going to have a tent with you. On a day hike you can carry something small like an emergency bivvy or space blanket. These items barely add any weight to your pack, but can keep you warm during an emergency and potentially help save your life!

Emergency Shelter Recommendation: SOL Emergency Bivvy with Rescue Whistle | Price: $18.95

8. Extra Food:

Always carry extra food with you on a hike in case you’re out on the trail longer than expected. You want to keep your energy levels up, especially on challenging trails, so make sure to pack more snacks than you think you need.

I always keep a few extra bars in my pack on a day hike in case I get hungry or end up hiking further than expected. If you’re heading on an overnight or multi-day backpacking trip consider packing a couple of extra meals, and whatever you need to cook them with (I’m a big fan of the Jetboil Flash), in case you end up spending an extra night in the backcountry.

A couple eating granola bars on a hike.
Always make sure to carry enough fuel (+ a little extra) on your hike!

9. Extra Water: 

Staying hydrated while hiking is critically important. Always bring more water than you think you’ll need, especially if you’re hiking in the desert or high elevations. A general rule of thumb to follow is carrying 1L per hour of hiking that you plan to do, but you may need to adjust the amount based on the season.

It’s also a good idea to carry a small filter like a Sawyer Squeeze to get clean water along the trail if necessary. If it’s hot out or you’re going on a strenuous hike, you may also want to carry electrolytes, like Liquid IV, to assist with hydration.

Water Bladder Recommendation: Osprey Hydraulic Pack 2.5L | Price: $33

Water Filter Recommendation: Sawyer Squeeze | Price: $40.95

10. Extra Clothes: 

Depending on the time of year and location where you’re hiking, you may encounter a variety of temperatures or weather conditions on the trail. Make sure to dress appropriately for the conditions and carry extra clothing, as needed. 

Helpful pieces of clothing to pack include a rain jacket, a warm jacket, a windbreaker, extra socks, etc. You want to ensure that you have whatever you need to stay warm and dry in the event things go south and you have to spend an unexpected night in the backcountry. Be sure to avoid cotton and stick to moisture-wicking fabrics like wool or polyester.

Rain Jacket Recommendation: Patagonia Torrentshell Rain Jacket | Price: $179

Windbreaker Recommendation: Patagonia Houdini Jacket | Price: $109

Puffy Jacket Recommendation: Patagonia Nano Puff | Price: $239

When Do You Need to Carry The 10 Essentials?

Ideally, you should always carry the 10 essentials when you head out on a hike or into the backcountry. There are so many potential risks when you get outdoors and you don’t know when you might find yourself in an emergency situation.

Even the most experienced, well-researched, and prepared adventurers can have accidents. The key to making it out of an emergency situation alive may just lie in having one of the 10 essentials at your disposal.

With that being said, I know every trail and outdoor adventure aren’t created equal. Some hikes are inherently more risky than others. I also recognize that buying every single essential may not be economically feasible when you’re just starting out.

When you’re packing for a hike, consider the condition of the trail, how heavily trafficked it is, your experience, and the weather/season. Aim to carry as many as the 10 essentials as possible, and prioritize investing in any essential items you don’t have yet.

At the end of the day, it is ALWAYS better to be overprepared than underprepared on a hike. Most of the 10 essentials aren’t large or heavy items, so just leave them in your backpack so they’re always available if you need them!

Woman hiking alone in Rocky Mountain National Park while carrying the 10 essentials in a large backpack.

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