Again With the 10 Essentials (February 2023)

A “near historic” snowstorm (we got the “historic one earlier this year) is currently menacing Minnesota. Outside doesn’t look all that inviting at the moment and so we’re, reluctantly, staying inside (and off the snow-clogged roads).

I should be shoveling snow. Instead, I’m ducking (temporarily) a date with the snow shovel by returning to a topic near and dear (or not) to every hikers heart: the 10 Essentials (10Es).


A while back, I shared my take (since revised) on the 10Es – that almost sacred list of things you are supposed to have along on every hike (or backpack), long or short, easy or epic.  It’s hard to imagine that anyone who has done, or has even thought about doing, a hike or backpack of any sort hasn’t heard, at least in passing, of this famous (or infamous) 10.

When I started hiking, backpacking, and mountaineering lo’ those many years ago, the 10Es were drummed into us.  And I’ve carried some version of them ever since.  But recently, most notably in a 2022 post in Backpacker, the need to carry some or all of the 10Es was called into question.  Heresy(!) cried the old guard; Meh(?) said the younger set.

But that Backpacker article got me to thinking.  Have I been carrying these 10 things around with me for years and years, for no good reason other than force of habit?  Could I have, instead, experienced a delicious sense of freedom on the trail by not being burdened by these things?  Could I have been merrily skipping instead of wearily plodding?  Clearly, I needed to take another look at the 10Es – one that went beyond “always done it that way” to whether they are still useful and still matter.

Back to the Past

But, first, let’s take a look back to give some context to the 10Es.  The idea of having a minimum set of gear appears to have emerged from the (Seattle) Mountaineers way, way back in the 1930s.  Their goal was to have you equipped for a backcountry mountaineering (as opposed to a hiking or backpacking) trip, one where you could easily get well beyond any chance for quick help.  Let’s just note that the Greatest Generation came up with the “essentials” idea, not the oft maligned Boomers.  Just saying…

Anyway, back then there was no Global Positioning System (GPS) or satellite phones or cell phones or InReach or SPOT or Iridium or All Trails or Gaia or Avenza or helicopters or even much in the way of guidebooks.  It was paper maps and a magnetic compass, bolstered by dead reckoning.  And, if you got in deep trouble, you either saved yourself or relied on others in your party or someone trekked to the trailhead to call for help.  You might wait a long, long time for a rescue.

This list of “essential” gear came into wider view in the 1960 (first edition) of Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills, where such items were marked with an * and called essential for the first time.  It may have been 30 years later, but you still didn’t have any quick means of calling to the outside world for help if you got in trouble in the backcountry.  So, the primary reason for the 10Es still stood – giving you a chance to stay alive “out there” until help could arrive.

The 10Es became a separate list called the “10 Essentials” in the 1974 (third edition) of Freedom of the Hills.  And, even though 1974 is within living memory (at least for some of us), the 10Es reason for being still stood, as there were still no easy, quick ways to call for help if your luck ran out in the backcountry.

And Up to the Present

So fast forward to 2023.  Things are a tad different now in so many ways (and some not).  But the big 3 that relate to hiking and the 10Es are:

  • (1) We now have near ubiquitous communication from anywhere to anywhere (e.g., only a few segments of the PCT seem entirely without cell service),
  • (2) Hiking (which was something only odd people did back in 1974) has gone mainstream, with all kinds of off- and online resources to get you on (and off) the trail, and
  • (3) From what we’ve seen on our hikes, most of today’s hikers aren’t going way out back of beyond or going without modern means of communication.

The 10Es or Not?

So, if you can call for help from nearly anywhere and you aren’t going on a hike or backpack way out back of beyond, do you still need to carry all 10Es every time on every hike you do?  Well, it depends.

First let me say that going on any hike or backpack carries with it a profound moral obligation not to put others at risk because of your lack of foresight or preparation.  Yes, accidents happen to us all.  So you need to:

  • (1) Be prepared (both in terms of skills and gear),
  • (2) Be ready to self-rescue if possible,
  • (3) Have some means of mitigating a suffer-fest (either yours or someone else’s) if you have to wait for a rescue, and
  • (4) Above all, not put others (like volunteer Search and Rescue (SAR) personnel) at risk because you were poorly prepared or equipped for prevailing conditions.

For the “Big” Hike or Backpack

If you are going on an 24-hour day hike or a multi-day backpack in a remote location or on one that is off-trail or deemed exploratory or anticipated to be epic (in a good way), particularly where cell service is questionable and access difficult, I think you should take along all 10Es. And you should do a lot of “homework” about where you’re going and what conditions you might face.

I’m not including canyoneering or mountaineering here because those involve training, gear, and skill sets in excess of those required for either extreme hiking or backpacking.

There are a lot of lists of the 10Es out there, but I found the one suggested by REI to be particularly useful. True, they use it to sell you stuff, but that’s to be expected.




  • Sunglasses
  • Sunscreen (skin)
  • Sunscreen (lips)
  • Insect repellent (wipes / bottle)
  • Head net (for bugs)


  • First aid kit (simple)
  • Hand warmers
  • Toilet paper + plastic bag to pack out
  • Lens towel



  • Butane lighter
  • Matches in waterproof container
  • Fire starters (tinder)



  • Non-perishable, high energy extra food (canned sardines ?)



Let’s note that:

  • (1) The contents of this list are largely irrespective of season; they’re with you all year, through all 4 seasons, and
  • (2) They do not address any other gear (like a daypack, backpack, the clothes you’re wearing {some people like to hike clothing-free – in which case, double up on the sunscreen}, trekking poles, snowshoes, etc.) that you’ll need for your chosen outing in a given season.

For a Less Epic Hike

For most other day hikes, particularly in well documented or well signed locations like state and National parks, with reliable cell coverage, I think you can get by with fewer than the full 10.

In thinking about which of the 10 to leave behind, I simply asked myself: Have I ever, in all the years I’ve carried the 10, not used one of them while on a hike or backpack, either for myself or for someone I was traveling with?

I’ve never had an issue on a hike or backpack that required the emergency use of a bivy sack (#7) or the starting of a fire (#6), so I felt comfortable leaving those off.

BUT, there are two items on this list (and one not on it) that you should always have along with you on every hike or backpack, no matter what – call these the Indispensable 3:

(1) Everything under NAVIGATION (#1)

Getting lost can turn a simple day hike into an epic one in an instant. And set in motion a whole lot of unpleasant consequences (both for you and your next of kin).  And once you’re lost, it’s often remarkably difficult to get yourself found again (I know this from personal experience, a failing The LovedOne will not let me ever forget).  See also: The Cold Vanish by Jon Billman. So, in short, stay found.

Because staying found is so very important, I will not trust that to just one thing, like my cell phone.  I realize that many hikers use their phone as a combo GPS, camera, and distress caller (assuming they can get a signal).  But, cell service can fade, batteries can drain, it can get too wet, it can get dropped; in short, it can fail and there you are lost in the woods.  So, all other considerations aside, this makes just a cell phone a potential single point of failure. I’m more comfortable with separate camera, PLB, and GPS devices plus a paper map(s) and a magnetic compass. Redundancy matters!

The items on the NAVIGATION list are among the few 10Es that require some training.  A PLB is designed to be easy to use – the instructions are right on the case.  Provided you’ve tested it regularly as recommended in its instructions, you can set it off pretty easily. I’ve used every item under NAVIGATION hundreds of times – but have used my PLB only once, which lead, fortunately, to a happy ending.

Using a GPS – at least its most basic functions – requires a little more training and practice (dealing with its idiosyncrasies requires training, practice, and near infinite patience). Pre-loading your planned route and the appropriate maps (at the appropriate scale) is a big help too.

How to read a map (topo and others), use a compass, and relate both to the terrain around you requires the most training and experience.  Unfortunately, cell phone map apps have dealt a near death blow to map and compass – which is cold comfort when you’re lost in an area without cell service. 🥺

(2) Everything under HYDRATION (#9)

You need water – probably more than you think – all year round, not just on summer hikes in the desert.  If you are not exercising and the air temperature isn’t a blast furnace, you might last a few (exceptionally tormented) days without water.  Add exercise and heat, and you might last only a few hours.


What’s not on the 10E list is the “homework” you need to do before you go out there. Sure, being free spirited and impulsive is fun, but it’s a touch safer to know something about where you’re going and what conditions you might face before you get there.

No excuses here, as you have much readier access to a lot more information than was available back when the 10Es were born.  But always try to tap and compare multiple sources of information whenever possible – guidebooks go out of date and some (or a lot) of the stuff on the Internet can be a bit (or a lot) dodgy.

Weight Should Not Be an Issue

Back in the day being “equipped” often meant carrying around what felt like a sack of concrete – actually, it probably did weigh that much. Now, however, thanks to the continual evolution in outdoor gear toward lighter, stronger, and more compact, it’s easier than ever to carry just enough to avoid censure (or doom) due to insufficient equipage.

My updated collection of the 10Es, excluding food and water (but not the water bottles), comes to just 4 pounds (1.2 kg).  This seems like a small enough weight penalty to pay for some stuff likely to help with any unforeseen not too major issue you could to experience on a non-epic day hike.

If a hike does go not too far sideways, you may not be comfortable, but you (probably) won’t die – which I’ve always thought of as a good thing. Of course, it is possible to mess-up in such a spectacular fashion that no number of essentials will do you any good. So, don’t go there…

A Case in Point

A much more recent article in Backpacker helped push me along in my rethinking the 10Es. This one was about a person who was fined nearly $300,000 (plus probation) for starting a wildfire as a result of trying to signal for help.  The federal court ruled that this person “…was reckless and negligent in his preparation for a hike of this magnitude from the outset.

I’m not a lawyer, so let’s just stay with the 10Es, many of which he did not have, including:

  • No GPS device (he relied on his cell phone mapping app which proved useless because there was no cell service)
  • No paper map
  • No compass
  • No headlamp or flashlight (he relied on his cell phone’s light, which was too dim to be useful and quickly drained his battery)
  • No first aid kit
  • No extra food and an insufficient amount of water
  • With a dead cell phone, he had no other way to signal for help (no PLB, InReach, SPOT, etc.) – so he started a forest fire as a signal, which worked – he was rescued by Forest Service personnel sent out to fight the fire.

And he apparently didn’t do his homework. Lacking a clear idea of where the trailhead was (or what it looked like) and not having any navigational equipment along, he couldn’t know that he was 50 miles (80 km) from the moderate trail he was supposed to be on and instead was on a strenuous trail he was unprepared for! He was, in short, lost from the very beginning! One can persuasively argue that being lost from step one was what precipitated all his other troubles, which were only made worse by his lack of equipment. At least he survived…

Closing Thoughts

I’m not trying to be all holier than thou here. Accidents happen, even to the best prepared and most experienced of us. Acts of God and all that. I have not been immune to those. Nor have I been immune to occasional acts of stupidity – which, fortunately, did not result in too much harm to myself and none to others and there was no need to call SAR. It’s simply that once you heave yourself off the couch, and totter forth into the great outdoors, sh*t can happen – even to the best of us – by accident and/or by stupidity.

Because, well, life is, and always will be, a little (or a lot) like shooting craps.  May you always roll sevens; but if (or when) a challenging hike rolls you snake eyes, the 10Es could be really, really nice to have along.  Even if gambling is anathema to you, think of the 10Es as a hedge on your hiking bet. 😉

So, don’t be shy, gather your 10Es, do your homework, take a chance, and get out there! Somewhere in the great outdoors, a hungry, lonely chipmunk is yearning to share a snack with you. Or all the snacks you have, whatever…

“But if you judge safety to be the paramount consideration in life you should never, under any circumstances, go on long hikes alone. Don’t take short hikes alone, either – or, for that matter, go anywhere alone. And avoid at all costs such foolhardy activities as driving, falling in love, or inhaling air that is almost certainly riddled with deadly germs. Wear wool next to the skin. Insure every good and chattel you possess against every conceivable contingency the future might bring, even if the premiums half-cripple the present. Never cross an intersection against a red light, even when you can see all roads are clear for miles. And never, of course, explore the guts of an idea that seems as if it might threaten one of your more cherished beliefs. In your wisdom you will probably live to be a ripe old age. But you may discover, just before you die, that you have been dead for a long, long time.”

Colin Fletcher ~ The Complete Walker III (1984)

6 thoughts on “Again With the 10 Essentials (February 2023)

  1. $200/month? That will leave him some money to quit hiking/backpacking and maybe take up golf. There, at least, each of the points on the trail are clearly numbered – all 18 of them. 😏


  2. Your condensed list makes a lot of sense. From working with SAR, at least in Southern CA, the critical items are navigation and water. The classic rescue is someone off route that ran out of water.

    That fire starting guy who owes the $293,000 gets to pay it back at $200 per month. He will have it payed off in just a bit over 120 years. Judging by his judgement skills he will probably not last that long.


  3. Great (and thoughtful) update on the essentials! But you forgot that one essential: half a bottle of a warm Pepsi. 🙂


  4. Yes, it pains me to read a about a rescue, especially when an “experienced hiker” is the subject. Yes, accidents happen, but “experienced” suggested some hubris might be involved. Maybe. But I’m also starting to think that, from the media’s point of view, “experienced” can just mean that that person hiked a lot, regardless of whether they were equipped to do so.


  5. I agree, especially with the indispensable three. As well marked as the trails in the Smoky Mtn are, several people become injured, disoriented or hypothermic every year with rescue required. These rescued people are mostly seasoned hikers who didn’t have the equipment needed to help themselves.


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