Ten Essentials for Backpacking and Hiking – The Ultimate List

Ten essentials is a list of backpacking necessities that everyone should always carry with them. Whether you’re a pro or a beginner hiker ten essentials should always find a place in your backpack regardless if you’re planning a day trip or embarking on a multi day hike.

The list of ten essentials had been put together to increase your safety while pursuing outdoor adventures, prepare you for a possible emergency situation as well as provide you with all the gear essentials you would require to safely spend an unexpected night in the wild.

Below I provide you with a complete list of the ten essentials as well as additional list of other backpacking necessities you might want to always have with you. Please note – below items are not listed according to their importance – they’re all equally important and you should always carry all of them.

FREE pdf checklist: Download this free checklist to always pack your ten essentials!

Ten Essentials

1. Navigation

You should always carry a map of the area you’re hiking and be able to read it and follow it’s directions (dah!) Getting familiar with your map and the route you want to take before you go on a hike is something I highly recommend. Know where you’re going, how to get there and how long it’s going to take you.
Having a map is good but having a compass and knowing how to use it with or without a map is even better. Don’t be fooled, GPS units are cool but they run on batteries and those don’t last forever. Compass is lightweight and in combination with a map it’s the best tool to ensure you’re not getting lost. At first learn how to find north  – it’s easy and will give you the basics you need.

2. Sun protection

SunscreenLip BalmSunglassesHat & sun-proof clothing
Always carry a small tube of a proper sunscreen with you. Prolonged exposure to the sun is not good for your skin and can cause unnecessary troubles. Doesn’t matter if it’s high summer or winter sunscreen will come in handy many times. Remember that on high altitudes due to lower temperatures you don’t feel the sun so much but it burns just as good as on hot summer beach. I recommend getting at least SPF 30 cream – make sure it blocks UVA and UVB rays.
When thinking about sun protection don’t forget your lips. They’re a delicate part of your body and require protection just like everything else. Good SPF rated lip balm will ensure you get some sweet kisses after you come back home.
Are a must in almost all backpacking and outdoor situations. Exposing your eyes to direct sunlight over prolonged period of time can truly hurt them and you won’t feel it until it’s bad. Remember the higher you get the stronger and more intense the ultra rays become.  For spring to fall activities I recommend glasses with 100% UVA UBA protection.  For winter hikes bring a pair of special glacier glasses with side shield that protect your eyes against snow reflected light.
A hut is a must during all your summer outdoor activities. You can go for a simple baseball-like cap or get yourself one with a special neck protection. Additionally if you’re really sensitive to sun consider using special lightweight sun protection clothing.

3. Insulation

Weather conditions in the mountains can change within minutes. From one moment to another you might be exposed to rain, cold wind, hail or even snow. Additional layers of clothing are one of the most crucial parts of the ten essentials. When planning what additional clothing to take consider the current season, where will you hike (backcountry or near city trails) and think about what would you need to survive the worst possible conditions you could realistically face. Typically apart from what you’re wearing I would recommend taking the following items:

Rain GearInsulation jacketHat, gloves and socks
 Getting wet in the mountains without having a proper protection can be dangerous that is why carrying water and windproof jacket and pants is so important. They will keep you dry in rain or dampness and will provide an additional layer to trap heat generated by your body. When buying your rain gear essentials keep an eye on couple of features:

  • pit zips
  • two way zipper
  • adjustable hood
  • hem adjustment cord
  • size (big enough to enable layering underneath)

My personal recommendation is Marmot PreCip Jacket and Marmot PreCip Pants – both lightweight, with all the necessary features and doing a great job in keeping me dry and warm.

In the situation when temperatures drop really low you need an additional insulation layer. Paired with what you’re already wearing and the rain gear it will keep you nice and toasty. Insulation jackets can be different from fleece through wool to synthetic. Which one you choose is mostly up to your personal preference. Based on my wet and cold experience I always recommend synthetic like Arcteryc Atom LT Hoody – they’re lightweight, packable and keep you warm even when wet. And believe me this is no bull – been there, done that. Warm when wet? It works.
those additional items can really increase your comfort levels as well as provide some serious warmth. While you’re covering your torso and legs why leave your head and hands exposed – makes no sense. When getting seriously cold seal all those warm air leakages. Additional pair of socks is no brainer – who enjoys cold, wet feet? Brr..

4. Illumination

Is a most common choice among hikers. They’re small, lightweight and give enough light to hike when it’s dark, send emergency signals or just keep you through the night if necessary. They offer light while keeping your hands free which is undoubtedly a plus when you’re in the outdoors. LED headlamps have typically a long battery life but never forget to take an extra set with you.

5. First-aid supplies

 There are many pre-designed first aid kits out there. For starters I would recommend getting one like Adventure Medical which contains most crucial first-aid items. Most probably however you will build your own medical kit that will reflect your personal needs. Remember when building your own kit you should always include the below:

  • blister treatment
  • adhesive bandages
  • disinfection wipes
  • sterilized bandages
  • painkillers
  • adhesive tape
  • nitrile gloves

Apart from having a first-aid kit it is important that you actually know how to use it. Refresh your first aid course knowledge, attend one or at least inform yourself by reading some books on the topic. All this knowledge might be very helpful one day.

FREE pdf checklist: Download this free checklist to always pack your ten essentials!

6. Fire

It can happen that you’ll need to spend an unexpected night out due to misjudgment, injury or weather – in such cases you want to be able to make a fire. Trying to light an emergency fire should not be the first time you do it so make sure to practice before.

Fire making
There are numerous items you can use to start a fire with and plenty of fire-starters. There are three things I carry with me:

  • normal lighter
  • fire-steel (in my pocket)
  • cotton pads covered with Vaseline (as a fire-starter)

I would recommend having a lighter or fire-steel always with you just in case you lose your backpack. As for the fire-starters Vaseline cotton pads work great. You can also use things like small birthday candles, dryer lint covered in wax, wood scrapings etc. Pack them in a small ziploc back to make sure they stay dry.

7. Repair kit and tools

When going backpacking you don’t need a big, fatass Rambo style knife. A well sharp blade can be as small as 3 inches as long as it’s there and you know you can rely on it. Make sure you always carry it in one of your pockets – forever together is the motto here. If you’re more of a McGyver type you might want to invest in one of the tools like Leatherman Charge AL.

If you’re not carrying an inflatable sleeping pad or a tent you don’t need any special repair kit. Couple of safety pins and a roll of duct tape will suffice. For ease of use you can wrap some tape around your lighter or trekking pole so that you don’t have to carry the complete roll.

8. Nutrition

While hiking your body is using much more energy than usually so make sure you provide enough fuel to keep yourself going. Don’t wait with eating until you’re hungry – snack regularly throughout the day to keep your energy levels high. On top of the food you would normally take you should always carry an extra for any type of unforeseen events. Recommended amount is one day supply. Additional food should have long shelf life, be high caloric, compact and require no cooking. Most popular choices are power bars, gorp (nuts, m&ms, dried fruit mix), jerky, candy bars, tortillas & peanut butter or nutella, salami, hard cheese etc.

FREE pdf checklist: Download this free checklist to always pack your ten essentials!

9. Hydration

WaterWater purification
Water is one of the heaviest things you carry while backpacking that is why many people don’t bring enough of it. Before you go on a hike you should drink at least 1 liter (~1 quart) of water. My favorite way of carrying water is a 2 liter water bladder which I stow in my backpack. If you’re not a camelbak type you can use either Nalgene or fold-able bottles  or just a normal plastic pop bottles. Make sure you drink regularly especially in a cold weather. Staying properly hydrated will keep you in shape, help you digest and protect you from hypothermia.
If you’re embarking on an extended hike study the are you going to visit and mark those water sources where you know you could resupply.
As important as carrying water is to have some kind of purification system with you. You can use water filters, chemical tablets or drops as purifiers – all options are lightweight and super useful when you run out of water and need to draw it from streams or lakes.
 Remember – always have enough water or know where to get it from!

10. Emergency shelter

Tarp, bivy sack etc.
When it happens that you need to spend an unexpected night out it is good to have some kind of basic shelter that will protect you from cold and elements. All types of emergency shelters are typically lightweight, these can be tarps, emergency blankets, bivy sacks, vapour barriers etc. When you’re forced to stay a night in the outdoors remember not to lay directly on the ground. Use your backpack, brunches or anything else that will isolate you from the ground and prevent heat loss.

There it is – your ten essentials you should always carry with you on every backpacking or hiking adventure. Now to be honest these are just basics, a bare minimum. There are couple of more backpacking necessities that you can add to your ten essentials list. Which additional items you take depends on the duration of your trip, area you’ll be hiking, season, weather conditions and your own personal preference.

Ten Essentials – backpacking necessities list extension

1. Navigation support

GPS and phone
Apart from a map and a compass you can also carry a GPS unit or mobile phone with a navigation app. Those two devices can be useful if you want to record your route or quickly check where you currently are. However they should not be deemed as a replacement for a traditional navigation tools. When you take your phone make sure you saved a number to the closest ranger station it will increase a reaction time in case you need help.

2. Hygiene

How to poop
Toilette paper and a trowel are very useful for obvious reasons. We all love outdoors and we should all work towards keeping it in a best condition. That’s why when “the nature is calling” dig a cathole, use it and bury your waste. Now if you use toilette paper don’t bury it together with your waste. In this case you have two options – first, put the paper in the cathole, burn it and bury the ashes with the rest – or the second, carry out the paper you used is a separate ziploc bag. Don’t forget to clean your hands afterwards! It might seem like a lot of screaming about nothing but be honest do you enjoy those paper mushrooms growing along the trail?

3. Insect repellent

DEET rules
Oftentimes you’ll need something to keep all those critters at bay. Especially ticks have been becoming a serious issue. To protect yourself use insect repellents that contain DEET. It’s been tested and proven safe for use and it really works. Another option to protect yourself against mosquitoes, ticks and other bugs is to treat your clothing with Permethrin. You can buy special solutions to put on your clothes and other gear. This thing is great well worth trying.

4. Others

WhistleNylon cordInformation sheet
Whistle is a great piece of gear that can be very helpful when calling for help ar trying to let people know where you are. These days almost every outdoor company equips their backpacks with a small whistle however they’re weak. Get yourself a proper, plastic, loud whistle – it’s weighs nothing and will outperform your vocal cords anytime.
Nylon cord is light and has multiple uses, from hanging your whistle (!) to making new shoelaces. Doesn’t weigh a ton so be insured.
Emergency information sheet is simple piece of paper (packed in plastic) saying who you are, whom to contact in case of an emergency, what are your allergies, blood type and medications you need to take. It takes little time to prepare and can be extremely useful.

So there we have it – list of the ten essentials plus six more backpacking necessities for you to use. However I didn’t mention one of the most important things you should take for each adventure e.x. common sense and good judgement. None of the above will help if people behave irresponsibly and stupidly. Use your brain and knowledge and you’ll stay safe on every trail you’ll hit.

FREE pdf checklist: Download this free checklist to always pack your ten essentials!

 I’m curious – what is/are your personal essential item(s) you always carry? LET ME KNOW IN THE COMMENTS, TWEET ME OR WRITE ME ON FACEBOOK!

Keep hiking!

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Meet the Author

Trail Maiden i.e. Karo is an optimistic outdoor fanatic. She has founded trailmaiden.com to share her knowledge and experiences with all the nature loving hikers out there. When not hiking she's planning her next trip or her next tattoo but knowing her it's probably both ;)

2 comments… add one
  • Trail Maiden Apr 27, 2016, 9:13 am

    Hey Valerie,

    I think it would be probably more suitable for camping however it looks like an interesting meal heating alternative. Good luck!

  • Valerie Klaskala Apr 26, 2016, 7:08 pm

    I think one of our easy heat kits, with additional heaters. would be perfect for your list.
    A must have for hiking and backpacking. Safer and more effective than any other in the market.

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