The Ten Essentials are the basic first aid, safety, and emergency items that you should have on any outdoor adventure. Additional items will be needed for various activities like a PFD when kayaking.
Sure, you might not need any of these items while you’re out, but should you have the need you’ll be very glad to have them. Your survival may depend on one or more of the Ten Essentials.
Many years ago, I carried little more than the water I needed for a hike. As I’ve matured as an outdoorsman, I realize the value of being prepared. These days, whether I’m leading a group of hikers or on a fun outing with my wife and girl, I’m prepared. I’m the protector.
At minimum, each person should have the Ten Essentials.
The Ten Essentials (updated)
The Ten Essentials list debuted in the third edition of “Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills”. It evolved out of courses first developed in the 1930s by The Mountaineers, an outdoor community founded in 1906. Back then the essentials included a list of individual items: map, compass, sunglasses and sunscreen, extra clothing, headlamp or flashlight, first-aid supplies, fire starter, matches, knife, and extra food.
Today, the list is a group of 10 functional systems that were most recently updated in the 9th Edition of Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills.
Overview of the Updated Ten Essentials
- Navigation: Map, compass, altimeter, GPS device, and personal locator beacon (PLB) or satellite communicator
- Headlamp: Plus extra batteries
- Sun protection: Sunscreen, SPF lip balm, sunglasses, and sun-protective clothes
- First aid: First aid kit including foot care, insect repellent if needed, hand sanitizer, and mask or other face-covering
- Knife: Plus repair kit for gear
- Fire: Matches, lighter, tinder, and stove if needed
- Shelter: Carried at all times (i.e. emergency bivy sack)
- Extra food: More than the minimum expectation
- Extra water: More than the minimum expectation or purification method
- Extra clothes: More than the minimum expectation
Detailing the Ten Essentials
There are many different outdoor adventures: hiking, camping, rock climbing, kayaking, fishing, snowshoeing, etc. The items from each system of the Ten Essentials should be tailored to fit your tip and the weather conditions.
Revolutionary, technological advancements have developed in navigation safety. Outdoor enthusiasts have five indispensable, navigation tools for their adventures: map, compass, altimeter, GPS device, and personal locator beacon (PLB) or satellite communicator.
Getting lost is not uncommon, the use of multiple navigation tools for planning routes and navigating during trips increases confidence and dramatically reduces the chance of getting lost.
Be prepared. Know how to use each of your navigation tools before your trip.
Carry a printed, topographic map that you keep in a waterproof map case. Laminating your map is a great choice too.
Whether it’s your main navigational tool or a backup, maps are a must. It’s much easier to see your entire route on a traditional map and electronic equipment can fail, can break if dropped, and batteries die.
Sure, you may not feel the need for a map on a well-marked, impossible-to-miss hiking trail that you visit often, but could you easily find your way if you got caught on the trail after dark when trail markers and landmarks can easily be missed?
Need a map? The internet, ranger stations, and outfitters are all great places for obtaining maps. I love the large selection of maps at REI.
Tip: I like dividing up my navigational tools. My map is usually in a pocket.
Altimeters through the use of a barometric sensor and/or GPS data provide an estimate of your elevation. Your elevation in combination with a topographic map can help you determine your location whether it’s clear, overcast, foggy, snowy, day, or night.
Altimeter watches are easy to keep up with and come with other useful tools like compass, temperature, and common watch features.
A compass is a vital tool for helping you find your way in the backcountry. It’s easy to use too!
Your smartphone probably has a compass. Altimeter watches, GPS devices, and satellite communicators have them too but a standard baseplate compass should always be carried. It’s a crucial navigation tool to have in your arsenal. It doesn’t rely on batteries, takes up little space, and weighs next to nothing.
For a GPS (Global Positioning System) device, you can use your smartphone with a GPS app or a GPS device specifically designed for outdoor use. Either choice will accurately provide your location on a digital map.
Smartphone with GPS App
You can use a GPS app on your phone if your adventure will be within the range of cellphone towers. It’s an inexpensive option but GPS apps quickly drain batteries and your phone isn’t designed for rugged outdoor use.
If you rely on your phone for GPS service, invest in a protective phone case from Pelican or another reputable manufacturer.
Due to the fragility of many phones, they are better used as a backup to a designated GPS device.
Tip: When I’m not using my phone as a primary navigation tool (which is rare), I keep it in a Pelican personal utility case for safety.
Specifically Designed GPS Device
GPS devices specifically designed for outdoor adventures are rugged and weatherproof making them far better than phones in many environments. Look for a GPS device like the Garmin eTrex 32x that has support for GPS and GLONASS (GLObal NAvigation Satellite System) satellite systems for tracking in more challenging environments than GPS alone.
Whichever route you choose, a power bank for recharging your phone or GPS device is highly recommended. Running out of battery life isn’t an option if you are relying on GPS.
Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) or Satellite Communicator
Emergency help is occasionally needed in the backcountry where cell phone service is unavailable. When activated, PLBs and satellite messengers determine your position using GPS and send a message using government or commercial satellite networks. These are invaluable navigation tools that can save your life.
Note: A satellite subscription plan is required to send and receive satellite messages on these devices.
A light for illuminating your way on outdoor adventures is an essential navigation tool especially if the sun sets on you after getting lost.
Take a light source on all trips even a short day trip. You never know when you’ll be out longer than expected.
Headlamps are the best light source. They keep your hands free for other tasks whether it’s using your GPS device, trekking poles, or making s’mores.
Flashlights and lanterns aren’t bad to have on certain adventures either. I always take my lantern when car camping.
- Don’t skimp on quality.
- Always bring extra batteries.
- If you have a rechargeable headlamp, bring a power bank for recharging.
- Bring a backup headlamp if possible.
- Look for a headlamp with red light night-vision. The red light will preserve your night vision on night hikes and insects aren’t all that attracted to red light. Red light is also great for keeping insects out of your tent at night.
Protect your skin and eyes from the sun year round with sunscreen, SPF lip balm, sunglasses, and sun-protective clothing. Failure to use sun protection can lead to sunburn and snow blindness in the short term and premature skin aging, skin cancer, and cataracts in the long term.
Sunscreen and SPF Lip Balm
An SPF of 30 or more that blocks UVA and UVB rays should be applied to all exposed skin. Don’t forget to apply SPF lip balm too.
Sunglasses that block 100 percent of ultraviolet light (UVA and UVB) should be worn. Consider polarized lenses for decreasing glare especially when around water though they make it hard to see LCD screens.
Take an extra pair of sunglasses! Retainers too! I have lost so many pairs over the years especially kayaking, canoeing, and fishing. Sunglass retainers really help.
If you need a prescription pair of sunglasses, check out the options over at Warby Parker. I have a pair that I’ve enjoyed for years.
A hat with a brim and clothing with ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) ratings offer effective protection from the sun… UPF ratings indicate the protection against UVA and UVB light.
Carry and know how to use the items in your first-aid kit.
Your kit should start with a pre-assembled first-aid kit that includes foot care and insect repellent if needed. Personalize your kit to suit your medical needs, the nature of your trip, the length of your trip, and the number of people joining you. Be sure to include any personal medication that you or others in your group may require.
My Medic has the best first-aid kits out there. Need other first-aid supplies for your kit? They have those too… airway, bleeding, burn, hydration, medication, outdoor, specialty, sprain, fracture, and topical.
Note: Make sure you have hand sanitizer and masks or other face-covering in your first-aid kit. Many parks now require you to wear a face-covering in certain areas.
Knife and Repair Kit
Knives are essential tools for gear repair, first aid, food preparation, and much more.
A knife with a single blade may meet your needs. Other times multitools with a knife are best. Sometimes you need both. If you only take a multitool, make sure its options meet the needs of your adventure(s).
Every person in your group should carry a knife.
Repair kits are indispensable on many outdoor adventures. Camping, kayaking, float tube fishing, and climbing all have different needs so your repair kit will need to be tailored to your trip. Common items for most repair kits would include duct tape, zip ties, cord, wire, fabric repair tape, safety pins, and repair parts for the gear you bring.
Tip: Pair your repair kit with a multitool to breeze through repairs.
In case of emergency, you need to be able to start and maintain a fire. This starts with a lighter, a fire starter, or matches. Take two options with you in case one fails or is lost. You may also need a backpacking stove if your outdoor adventure takes you above the treeline where firewood is unavailable.
Bring your own tinder and keep it in something watertight. Lint from your clothes dryer works well. I always save my dryer lint for this purpose. Other options are flatwood or commercially prepared tinder.
Flatwood is my favorite kindling. It’s the highly flammable heartwood of pine trees. You may have heard of it referred to as heart of pine, lighter pine, or pitchwood.
Always carry an emergency shelter. It can protect you from the elements if you’re injured or stranded. A bivy sack, ultralight tarp, large plastic trash bag, or emergency space blanket are all compact, lightweight options for emergency shelter.
Getting lost, faulty navigation, foul weather, injury, or other reasons can delay the completion of your trip. At minimum, pack one extra day of food that’s high in nutrition, easily digestible, requires no cooking, and has a long shelf life.
Dehydrated meals, US Army meals ready to eat (MREs), energy bars, granola bars, dried fruits, nuts, trail mix, and jerky are all great choices.
Proper hydrated on outdoor adventures is of utmost importance. The lack of water can be debilitating. There are times when the completion of trips are delayed. Always carry extra water and a purification method.
How much water should you bring or have available? Drinking a half-liter of water per hour is a good starting point under moderate conditions. Need for water increases with the demands of the trip and should be adjusted accordingly.
The amount of water required partly depends on:
- Weather conditions
- Difficulty level
- Your physical condition
- Your age
Be prepared for sudden changes in the weather and for the hottest and coolest conditions of the season. Weather is unpredictable and you never know when an injury could force a night’s stay in the backcountry.
Wet, sweaty, dirty clothes don’t provide the same warmth or comfort. The option to change into an extra set of dry clothes may prevent hypothermia.
Consider taking long underwear, an insulating hat, a balaclava, socks, gloves, a vest, a jacket, and a coat.
Whether it’s a day trip or an extended trip into the backcountry, you should always carry the Ten Essentials and other necessary gear for your particular adventure. Knowing what gear to take and what unnecessary gear to leave behind is often a matter of experience and sound judgment.
Stay safe, dry, and comfortable, and by all means have a load of fun!