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The Ten Essentials w/explainers

September 10th, 2009

Below we will discuss the ten essential items (or groups of items) you should address before venturing out in the woods.  Many novice hikers do not take into account all of these and then end up getting into trouble.  Packing these items whenever you step into the backcountry, even on day hikes, is a good habit to acquire.

  1. Navigation
  2. Sun protection
  3. Insulation (extra clothing)
  4. Illumination
  5. First-aid supplies
  6. Fire
  7. Repair kit and tools
  8. Nutrition (extra food)
  9. Hydration (extra water)
  10. Emergency shelter

1. Navigation

Map and compass are now viewed as two components of a navigation system. Add a wrist altimeter and GPS.

A topographic map (in a protective sheath or case) should accompany you on any trip that involves anything more than a short, impossible-to-miss footpath or frequently visited nature trail. Handout maps, the type offered at visitor centers or entrance stations, usually provide only simplistic line drawings of trails and do not show the topographic details necessary for route finding. If, for example, you stray off the trail or need to locate a water source, you need a topo map.

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

This involves sunglasses, sunscreen (for skin and lips) and, for optimized protection, lightweight, skin-shielding clothing.

When choosing sunscreen, health experts advise choosing 1) a formula that offers a sun protection factor (SPF) of least 15, though SPF 30 is recommended for extended outdoor activity and 2) one that blocks both UVA and UVB rays.

You should reapply as often as every two hours. And don’t overlook SPF-rated lip balm.

3. Insulation

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 (you get hurt or lost, for example) prolongs your exposure to the elements.

Common options include a layer of underwear (tops and bottoms), an insulating hat, extra socks and a synthetic jacket or vest.

4. Illumination

Headlamps are the light source of choice in the backcountry. Reasons:

  • Hands-free operation (their No. 1 advantage over flashlights)
  • Low weight
  • Compact size (so they occupy minimal space in your pack)
  • Long battery life (in models using light-emitting diodes, or LEDs)

Because LEDs can handle rugged use (no filaments to break), offer vastly superior battery life and are perpetually evolving to higher levels of performance, it is quite likely most, and maybe all headlamps will be LED models.

Many headlamps also offer a strobe mode. It’s a great option to have for emergency situations. Headlamps offer their longest battery life while in strobe mode.

Always carry spare batteries— Every member of a backcountry party should carry his or her own light.

5. First-aid Supplies

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.

6. Fire

Matches headed into the backcountry should be the waterproof variety, or they should be stored in a waterproof container.  Storm matches from REI are good – take the striker panel with you. 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 (and possibly sustain) a fire.  The ideal firestarter ignites quickly and sustains heat for more than a few seconds.    My favorite is WetFire, it comes in small white cubes from which you create a tiny pile of shavings.  These shavings are easily ignited with a Steel Scout striker and will create a flame that burns for a minute or two, plenty of time to get a fire started.  Other  candidates include dry tinder tucked away in a plastic bag, lint trappings from a household clothes dryer, cotton balls with Vaseline, Esbit fuel tablets.

7. Repair Kit and Tools

Knives or multi-tools are handy for gear repair, food preparation, first aid, making kindling or other emergency needs. A basic knife should have at least one foldout blade (more likely two), one or two flathead screwdrivers, a can-opener and (though some people will call this a luxury) a pair of foldout scissors.

If you carry a self-inflating mattress, you probably do not carry a repair kit for it. Typically, 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 one extra day’s worth of food. It can be as simple as a freeze-dried meal, but it’s even smarter to include no-cook items with nearly infinite 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 one 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 along a ridgeline or in alpine conditions, it’s wise to consult your map and try to envision 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.)  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.

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