The 10 Essentials to Carry When Hiking | Visit Rainier
Climbers heading up mountain

The 10 Essentials

If you are new to hiking you may be wondering just what are the Ten Essentials and why do hikers need them? The Ten Essentials are not vitamins – they are 10 items that every hiker should carry in his/her pack regardless of the season or difficulty of the hike (with the exception of nature trails). Even an easy hike or snowshoe trip can turn into a grim scenario for survival if for any reason you are unable to get back to the trailhead.

According to The Mountaineers organization the 10 Essentials are:

  1. Navigation
  2. Sun protection
  3. Insulation
  4. Illumination
  5. First aid supplies
  6. Fire
  7. Repair kit and tools
  8. Nutrition (extra food)
  9. Hydration (extra water)
  10. Emergency shelter

Back in 1980 when I was starting to hike the list was pretty much the same though worded differently:

  1. Map and Compass
  2. Sunscreen
  3. Warm clothing
  4. Head lamp, flashlight
  5. First Aid Kit
  6. Fire-starter (matches in a water-proof container)
  7. Knife
  8. Extra food
  9. Extra water
  10. Emergency shelter

Regardless of how the 10 Essentials are phrased, here’s what you need to know and why you need them:


Navigation has probably changed the most as hikers are turning to Global Positioning System (GPS) for getting around in the mountains; others still rely on map and compass. Many hikers believe that even with a GPS, knowing how to read a map and compass is an important skill. What if you drop the GPS into a stream or it falls off a cliff? If you’ve got a map and compass (and know how to use them), your chances are better at getting out safely. Also, you cannot rely on cell phones – in fact you shouldn’t rely solely on ANY electronic gadget (no matter how much fun they are) for getting around in the mountains.

Sun Protection (Sunscreen)

Even on cloudy days hikers, need to apply sun screen on a regular basis; on a glacier even more is needed. As much as we love the sun it doesn’t always love us back, especially over long periods of time. In addition to hands and face (or other areas of skin exposed to the sun) when hiking on snow, apply sunscreen to the tips of your ears, the back of your neck, under your chin and apply sun block on your lips. If you’ve ever run into a climber descending a glacier on a sunny day with swollen lips, you’ll see why. Sunglasses will protect your eyes; hats will also help protect you from the sun’s damaging rays.


Insulation is just a fancy word for extra clothing. On trails other than nature trails on a nice day, your pack should be big enough to carry gloves, a wool hat, socks and a dry layer (polypropylene tops and bottoms are recommended) and a wind shell (some rain jackets act as wind shells in addition to repelling rain). Even the best rain gear will fail over an extended period of being out in heavy rain, wind or wet snow. Worse, hypothermia can result as a consequence of being exposed to the elements. Never wear cotton – once it’s wet, it stays wet. Wool will stay wet as well but wool will still insulate you and is a better choice than cotton. Hypothermia is when the core of your body temperature drops to such an extent that you cannot function and it can kill you; hence, the extra clothing. Shivering is often the first symptom of hypothermia; it is the body’s defense system against being wet and cold. In the early stages of hypothermia you will find it increasingly difficult to use your hands to get in or out of your pack or change into dry socks.


Illumination is just a fancy word for a head lamp or flashlight (with extra batteries and bulb). It might be romantic to think about hiking by moonlight but you’re much safer with a light source.

First aid supplies (or kit)

You can purchase these at outdoor retail outlets. First aid kits range from minimal to heavier-duty kits more often used by hikers who venture off trail or climb. The most common injuries for day hikers are blisters, sprained ankles, abrasions from tripping over a slippery root or rock, hypothermia and heat exhaustion caused by not drinking enough water. Heat exhaustion can usually be reversed by drinking water and resting in the shade; heat stroke can kill. A first aid kit should also include personal supplies: medications that you’d need in case of an extended stay. If you wear glasses or contact lenses, leave a spare pair in your pack, even on a day hike.


Really? I am not making fun of The Mountaineers (I have been a satisfied member since 1980) but you can’t carry fire around in your pack. What is important is having the means to build a fire if needed (an unplanned bivouac or accident). Carry matches and fire-starter (there are several items that suffice as fire starter including lint from your clothing dryer). You will, of course, need matches (in a waterproof container) or a cigarette lighter to get one going. Back in the 1980s we used film canisters to keep matches dry. In the digital age you might find it harder to buy film.

Repair Kit and Tools

In the 1980s this was listed simply as a knife; a Swiss Army knife is still considered a good all-purpose tool. Even in the 1980s we couldn’t see a knife repairing much of anything without duct tape and/or perhaps needle and thread. You can make your own repair kit or purchase one at an outdoor outlet.


Nutrition was previously listed as“extra food” in addition to lunch. With so many diets to choose from (low fat, low fiber, low calorie, low sugar, etc.) you might well wonder what would suffice as extra food. First of all, a hike is no time to start a diet. If you are already on a diet then you probably know what you are doing. Otherwise at the very least carry a few nutrition bars that you like (don’t buy something you won’t eat – you don’t want the emergency food to become the emergency!), a package of cashews or peanuts, a packet of hot chocolate or a dried soup mix (just add hot water, assuming you have the means to build a fire or light a stove). The extra food should provide fat, fiber, protein and sugar. Sugar will give you an instant “fix” but it wears off quickly.

Hydration System

In the 1980s it was simply “extra water”. I don’t carry a hydration pack because I’ve seen too many of them leaking on items in the car en route to the trailhead. You also need to treat your water either with water treatment tablets or a water filter system if you drink water off the mountain. I still prefer iodine tablets; they are lightweight, easy to use and can be stashed in your pack in case of an emergency. Why do you need to treat water? Animals drink and defecate in streams and lakes. You don’t want to pick up Giardia (we’ve also heard it called “Beaver Fever”), a digestive illness that can impact you for several weeks. Giardia may require a course of antibiotics to recover. If you don’t use a hydration pack, you can also carry water bottles.

Emergency Shelter

An emergency shelter can range from tarps and nylon cord (to attach the tarp to trees), bivvy bags (used by climbers to bivouac – these are lightweight but expensive), emergency blankets, space blankets, ponchos, and even large heavy-duty plastic bags.

Since the beginning of Time we have needed shelter from the elements; this is unlikely to change!