There’s this moment I get to share with every first-timer I pack fit. We’ve discussed the kind of hiking they want to do. I’ve measured them. I’ve gone through a few pack options and shared some of my experiences on the trail. I’ve put them in front of a mirror and shown them all the ways a pack should fit and feel. And then it comes, this moment where they’re holding their new pack, confident in the choice we’ve made together. Our eyes meet, and without saying a word, I know the next question that’s burning in their heart: “What the hell do I put in this thing?”

It never fails.

No trip is safe without the Ten Essentials. I know it sounds dramatic, but it’s the simple truth. I’ve heard too many stories about how having, or sadly, not having the Ten Essentials, has decided life or death on the trail.

Before we get too deep into what they are, I want to explain the motivation behind this list. The concept is simple: if anything goes wrong out on your trip, and you’re forced to delay your return, these ten things will keep you alive for at least 24 hours in the wild. That’s it. Humbly, you don’t have any business being outdoors without these items. Let’s get into it.

Navigation

A current map of the area you’re hiking in and a compass. Your compass doesn’t have to be fancy, just accurate and you should know how to use it with your map.

This Suunto compass can also double as an emergency signaling mirror.

Sun Protection

This should be in the form of sunglasses and sunscreen. I also carry lip balm and I always have a hat. There are also clothes out there with UV ratings that can help, too.

Insulation

Always bring clothes that can layer with your current outfit. I like to at least bring a fleece jacket and a rain shell. When in doubt, just make sure you’re bringing enough clothes to survive the coldest weather you will encounter that season and in your area, over night.

Illumination

I never leave without at least two options for light, specifically in the form of a headlamp and a handheld flashlight. Also make sure you bring enough back up batteries for both.

First Aid

A simple, small kit will do. Just make sure if you have any special needs (prescriptions, EpiPen, etc.) that you take them into account. Make sure you can stop bleeding and dress a wound. Also include insect repellent in your kit.

Fire

Stormproof matches in a waterproof case. Include a windproof lighter, as well. I’ll also pack some tinder (paper, wood chips, etc.)

I’ve only used UCO matches.

Repair Kit/Tools

You should be able to temporarily fix anything that you bring with you. I carry a multitool with a folding blade, and a fixed blade knife with a full tang (the metal of the blade travels all the way through the handle). I use the folding knife for delicate cuts to repair gear or to dress a wound. I use my fixed blade knife to break up firewood or anything else that requires more force. My repair kits always include zip ties and duct tape, and a small sewing kit. And if there’s something you can’t fix in your pack, bring a backup.

The SIGNAL includes a fire starter and a whistle.

Nutrition

In addition to the food you’ll need on your hike, you should have another entire day’s rations with you. Meal bars are best here because they don’t require cooking or refrigeration. They also only weigh about 3 oz and and pack a whopping 300 calories, enough to replace an entire meal, if necessary. Check out my article, Meal Bars: The Lazy Hiker’s Best Friend, for more info.

Hydration

If you’re traveling near water, make sure you have a water filter that can remove particulates, bacteria, and protozoa. If you’re not near water, it is recommended that you have at least two liters of water per day on you.

Emergency Shelter

This can be as elaborate as a full tent or as simple as a reflective emergency blanket.

I also keep one of these in my car.

I apologize for the serious tone of this post, but I want to make sure that while you’re out there seeing nature, that you respect what nature can do. It’s your responsibility to be prepared when you step out on a hike because the environment never takes you into account. I will also be releasing a series of short posts that go into further details about the gear I like to round out my Ten Essentials with more specificity soon. Happy heavy hiking.