Whether you’re headed out on a day hike or an extended backcountry trek these twelve essentials should always be packed along for the adventure. Often in an effort to cut weight we leave things behind, and assume that due to the appearing benign terrain and distances of some day hikes, and even a few overnights, we just don’t need certain pieces of gear. Well, all assuming does is make an ass out of you and me (ass-u-me). These light essentials are always worth their weight and are better to have and not need than need and not have.
The average person should drink up to sixty-four ounces of water a day, and that’s just your average person. We aren’t talking about someone who’s pushing the limits on a hike or alpine trek. I recommend packing two thirty-two-ounce bottles or one bottle and a bladder. The bladder can be a collapsible stand-alone or one with a hose that can be carried in the specific pouch that many packs have now. In addition to these containers it’s also a good idea to carry some sort of filtration system, specifically one that works in conjunction with your choice of container or can be used independently like a filter straw.
I like to think of water to the body as the same as oil to an engine, because essentially they’re the same. Without oil an engine will burn up and seize, the same is said about your body without water. You wouldn’t drive a long distance without properly oiling your vehicles engine. Why would you push your body without properly hydrating it?
Weather Specific Clothing:
Weather can be unpredictable especially in the mountains. I always carry a light rain jacket, which has come in handy numerous times. I also carry a set of thermals especially for over-night stays in the backcountry. Temps drop at night, sometimes significantly, and if you’re cold you aren’t doing yourself any favors. Being soaked and underdressed can eventually lead to hypothermia, even in summer, which can lead to a bad time on the trail. Grand Teton and other mountainous areas have been known to get snow in August. If you’re unprepared deep in the wilderness you could find yourself in a bind in a hurry.
One spring a few years ago a buddy and I were hiking in Tahoe National Forest along the Yuba River. It was a nice warm sunny day, but quickly the temp started dropping and it began to flurry. Soon the flurry turned to an all out snowfall and we were freezing. However, we were prepared, we set up a quick shelter and added a layer or two of thermals, which saved us big time from the unforeseen storm. I could also tell several similar stories about how the rain jacket I carry has prevented much undue pain.
Be ready or be sorry.
Protection from the Sun:
We now know a lot more about the effects of the sun on our bodies and the damage extended exposure has. Its effects include burns, dehydration, and over time melanoma can become a concern. It’s always a good idea to make lathering on the sunscreen a habit before any outing. Thirty SPF is a good standby but I’ve even used up to fifty SPF in desert environments and other times that I’ve been fully exposed. It’s important to remember that everything burns when unprotected and open to direct light so SPF lip balm, hats, and sunglasses are a must. long sleeves and pants are great protection from the sun but if heat is a concern then you're back to lathering on the sunblock.
You only have one body so take care of it and you’ll enjoy several trails to come!
Wilderness is just that, wilderness. While great effort is put into maintaining trails and trail markers this should never be taken for granted. It's still very possible to get turned around and lost no matter how well marked the trail is. A map of the area you’re exploring should always be close at hand. Along with your map you should have a compass and know how to use both together. Your compass can also be used as a signal device in emergencies. Packing a GPS is also a good idea but shouldn’t be relied on solely since they require batteries that will eventually die and leave you high and dry.
I’ve been stopped on trails by fellow hikers, and asked how much farther a landmark is—or worse—where they even are, just to find that they have no map or any other location reference. Don’t be this person, set yourself up for success no one else can.
You never know when a knife or muti-tool will come in handy, and they do. They have several uses. And which you decide to carry is completely up to you and your intended use. I usually carry a multi-tool on my belt and have used the pliers to handle hot cookware, the knife to prep food, and the other tools to fix equipment. In emergencies they can be employed to build medical apparatuses such as splints and trim excess bandaging.
A solid med kit is a must on any trail. We never intend for an injury to occur but unfortunately they do. Your med kit should contain materials to treat everything from a rolled ankle to significant bleeding. Preventing an injury from going from bad to worse can be managed by anyone with the right preparation. Too many wilderness athletes have had their lives threatened—or worse—due to lack of planning and know how. Check out my article on how to make the perfect lightweight med kit for any backcountry adventure.
Know before you go; the life you save could be your own!
With today’s technology it’s becoming harder and harder to actually find a place that you can’t get a cell signal. Use this to your advantage and pack your phone; you may need to call for help!
If you’re planning an overnighter you’ll most likely have a shelter of some kind. Packing a shelter on day hikes is a good idea as well, even if it’s just an emergency blanket. As I mentioned above, snow has been known to fall in higher elevation even in summer and you may need to set up a covering to reset gear or add a layer, which you will certainly want to stay dry for, this is true for unexpected rainfalls as well. A shelter is a must in emergencies too, you don’t want an injured or over heated hiking buddy exposed to the elements. Shelters are great for signaling aircraft and search parties too.
Food is fuel and without proper fuel you won’t get far. This could mean the difference between making it to your destination or making it back to the trailhead after an exhausting trek. Food will also keep you warm if you’re held up under your shelter in inclement weather, and if you’re stuck somewhere for an extended time you’re going to get hungry.
I suggest Packing a few calorie rich trail mix bars or fixing up a custom bag of GORP made from your favorite trail friendly ingredients. I like to throw together a mix of almonds, peanuts, chocolate or yogurt covered raisins, shelled pistachios, and shelled sunflower seeds, which is easily carried and eaten along the way. Sounds like good trail fuel, right?
Fire Making Materials:
A small fire is essential when you’re held up in the cold or needing to dry soaked clothes. A fire can also be a great survival tool in an emergency especially when hypothermia is a threat or when caring for an injured buddy. And like a shelter it can be used as a signal device. Fire making materials are super light and hardly noticed in your pack, but they are worth their weight in gold! Take a look at my article on fire making materials.
When my buddy and I were held up in that snowstorm under our shelter in Tahoe National forest, we built a small fire just outside of the shelter for the time it took to add a few layers, it was a lifesaver!
Paracord bracelets have become very popular, and for good reason, paracord is a great tool, (and they look cool too) but you don’t need to tie a bracelet to carry it, just packing a good length works just fine. Paracord offers numerous uses. You can use it to quickly string up your shelter or hammock, tie gear to your pack, secure and repair clothing, and for the really industrious, start a fire. The list goes on and on. I usually pack about five or six feet of paracord and keep it either in one of the external pockets or pouches of my pack.
Inevitably the sun will go down. And whether you intend to be out in the backcountry after dark or you unintentionally, for whatever reason, end up trekking after sundown you should always have a headlamp or small flashlight. Rather than find yourself blind in the backcountry. Having a light will not only keep you on the right path it will save you from unexpected falls or worse. A light will enable you to continue using your map or signal other hikers. After all light travels farther than sound if you need help.
Additional Essentials and Considerations for Winter:
Set yourself up for success and prevent undue pain. Like the saying goings: if you're going to be stupid you better be really tough...
What would you add to this list? Let us know below.