Maybe you have recently become interested in hiking and don’t know where to start, or perhaps you’ve been dabbling and you have decided that you want to get serious about it. It is daunting when you first begin to realize just how big this endeavor is, from finding the right clothes and gear to building your own physical endurance. Getting ready to tackle the worthwhile hikes takes work and can often seem like a never ending battle, but the payoff is well worth it. I swear every time I knock an item off of my “to-buy” list though, it seems that three more get added. The process of building your “kit” involves research, money, and plenty of trial and error. When we’re first collecting our gear we tend to get distracted by the flashy items, or even the lower price tags. We may know what we need in theory, but with so many options out there it can be hard to weed through if we don’t know what we’re looking for. It is not uncommon for people to replace a lot of the items they initially purchased within a short amount of time, having realized they don’t suit their needs. Maybe they bought a water bottle that is too heavy because they loved the color (guilty), or maybe they simply selected items that were too bulky and not packable (yeah, guilty again). If you don’t pay attention to these details you can end up with a bag that is way too heavy, or a collection of items that don’t even all fit in it. It is a good idea to look at what other people recommend and see what their trials have determined before purchasing willy nilly.
On the flip side, we can also allow ourselves to get tripped up by solely listening to other people rather than doing the research ourselves. Don’t get me wrong, if someone who has been hiking for 50 years says one item works better than another, I am going to pay attention. I am not going to run out and buy it right away, which in the past I may have done, but I am definitely going to look into it. It is important to remember that everyone is different, so what works for them may not work for you. Advice and reviews are a valuable resource to have, but don’t always cater to your needs as an individual. The more unnecessary trial and error we go through means we can end up spending more in the long run, rather than making the initial investment on the right product. It took me months to even find the right day bag, I started with the Osprey Daylite because the price was right and so many people recommended it. Reviews claimed it was spacious, comfortable, and sturdy so it seemed perfect. Yet, I found that it did not fit properly on my shorter, wider, and curvier frame and caused quite a bit of discomfort under my arms and around my bust. Then I tried the Kelty Ruckus which was more comfortable around the chest area, but it carried all of the weight on the bottom of the bag and pulled my shoulders down, giving me head and back aches. I finally settled on the Gregory Jade 28 which has been amazing, it was more expensive than the others but it fits all of my needs and is easier on my back, so in this instance the larger investment was required and I wish I had made it from the beginning. Obviously there are some items that you can get away with spending less on and some that require the splurge, but knowing which is which is key to avoid having products that wear out or break quickly, or are tough on your body as my bag was.
So the time has come and you’re ready to start getting your gear together. You’re wandering around REI or your local supplier, speaking with experienced hikers, looking at products, and doing research online to find everything you need. Everywhere you turn you come across this one phrase over and over, like a broken record: The Ten Essentials. I swear, it is like the Gospel According to Hikers. And for good reason, since every single item has a purpose that could at least make your hike much easier, or at most potentially save your life. These are the things that you need to survive should something happen while you’re out in the wilderness, but they aren’t necessarily the only things you’ll want.
Here I will show you what I keep in my own bag, starting with my ten essentials and then beyond.
THE TEN ESSENTIALS:
Probably the most important thing that you’ll want is your navigation, including at least a map and compass. Some people also have a GPS locator, which isn’t a bad idea. Should you get lost, the other items may not have to be used if you’re able to navigate your way out on your own! Be sure that you learn how to use these items ASAP as well, there are plenty of tutorials online and I have even seen free or low cost classes offered. If you can’t read then it won’t do you any good.
Next up is your first aid kit. There are plenty of single person, one-day first aid kits out there but I feel under prepared with those. If I am injured on hike, who is to say that I won’t be out there longer than a day? And the injury could be more severe than these kits allow for. I personally prefer to go a bit overkill with my first aid kit, so I added some extra tools and supplies into my small kit.
Hydration is extremely important, obviously even more so when you’re in hotter climates. Making sure that you have plenty of water, and then some more, is key. Dehydration is no joke in any weather conditions, and you won’t get far if your body is missing its most valued element. My day bag has a 1.5L bladder (which is still somewhat small) and I carry an additional insulated water bottle in the size sleeve. A lot of people recommend just using Smart Water bottles because of the size and durability of the plastic, and because they are much more lightweight than most reusable bottles. The one that I have is definitely heavier than I would prefer, but with the heat in southern California during the summer I had opted for something that would stay cold. Recovery and energy drinks are also ideal to keep with you, and you can generally get these in single serving packets. As long as you have a small container (perhaps a small collapsible cup) to put the water in, you can mix a quick beverage that will restore your electrolytes, give you more energy, and just help keep you going.
And on that note, you’ll also need to make sure that you have the other necessary fuel: food. Walking alone, even on a mostly flat trail, burns plenty of calories. When you’re hiking for hours and gaining hundreds or thousands of feet of elevation, your body is losing an enormous amount of fuel. And just like a car, eventually you’ll be running on fumes until you break down altogether. It is recommended that you bring at least an extra day’s worth of food, in case of emergency. Be sure to do your research on the types of foods that provide the necessary energy, and find things that work for you. Unfortunately I have many dietary restrictions and allergies, which can make it difficult for me to find food to bring with me. I like the bulk trail mixes at Sprouts and the bags at Trader Joe’s, they usually have a good variety of ingredients including nuts, fruits/berries, and chocolate. Turkey Jerky is my other go to, but I have yet to find good brand that does not use soy sauce so I have been getting Turkey/Buffalo mixed jerky bars or sticks instead. These are great because they are single serving (if I get hungry I just eat an entire bag of jerky, rather than rationing it) and they take up less room than a jerky bag.
You can read more about some of my favorite trail foods in my post Soy Free Snacks for the Trail.
Now what happens if you’re injured or lost, and the sun is going down? This is where your headlamp is going to come in handy. Any form of light will suffice in a pinch, such as a flashlight, but a headlamp allows you to not only see right in front of you, but keep your hands free as well. If you’re having to navigate or find your way along a trail at night, you’re going to thank your lucky stars that you had this with you. Having a backup flashlight is a good idea as well though. I also tend to bring a Luci lantern because it is solar powered, and it is so lightweight that it doesn’t add to much to my bag. The extra light could be quite helpful in an emergency.
I chose this particular headlamp from Amazon because it features multiple settings of both regular and red LED lights, including a sensor that turns the light on and off by waving your hand in front of it. It is rechargeable via USB so in the event that the battery gets low or dies, I can recharge it on my solar charger. Plus there is no waste of disposable batteries! For only around $10 I’m pretty pleased with this little guy. I ended up purchasing one for Jeremy as well because he was jealous and had spent three times as much on a lamp that wasn’t even as bright as this one.
And if you get stuck out there at night, or even if you just hit some bad weather on your hike, you may need to build a fire to keep warm or make food. Having weather/waterproof fire starters is extremely important. You could, and should, put together your own fire kit (more on that later), but at the very least you should have waterproof matches or fire starters.
You are also going to need your emergency shelter/blanket. This will provide some protection from the elements and help you survive should you find yourself stuck outside in the cold, or overnight.
When it comes to tools, at the very least you’re going to want a good, solid, sharp knife. You can do a lot with just a quality knife, and it could help you with building a fire, emergency/first aid situations, preparing food, and much more. A multi-tool would be wise to include as well, as these serve a variety of purposes.
During the day, having protection from the sun is a must even if it doesn’t feel hot outside. A solid pair of sunglasses will protect your eyes and allow for better visibility, and an ample supply of sunscreen should be kept and reapplied frequently throughout the day. Remember that the sun’s rays are stronger at higher elevations, so even if you don’t feel hot your exposed skin could still be getting cooked. I generally prefer natural sunscreens but keep this small bottle on my bag for touch ups throughout the day.
And on the reverse side, you will need protection from the opposite elements as well. Extra clothes, especially multiple layers, are important to have, should the weather change or your current clothes become too dirty/damaged. The key item that you will want though is a rain jacket. You don’t need to go super heavy duty with this, but a lightweight shell that packs small is a necessity. Find something that is water resistant or water proof, but also breathes so that you don’t get sweaty underneath it. You’ll want a large enough hood that you can pull over your face, and be sure that the waist, wrists, and neck/face area are tight enough or can be tightened to keep water out. Packing these items in a dry sack is also advisable, so that even if your bag gets soaked with rain (assuming you don’t have a rain cover) your extra clothes will say dry.
So now that we’ve covered the Ten Essentials, let’s go over my own personal additions. Some are pretty obvious, and though they aren’t considered essential they are still widely regarded as necessities by hikers.
MY EXTRA ESSENTIALS:
Toilet paper. Some people can go without, but I am not there yet. I have seen that female thru hikers have suggested using a bandana for urine, and just hanging it on the outside of your backpack to dry, and maybe some day I will get to that point. I have a roll of toilet paper in a Ziploc (with the cardboard removed so it can pack flat), a separate Ziploc for used paper, and a trowel. Some people also suggest forgoing the trowel and just using a stick, as it saves room/weight in your bag.
And since you won’t have a sink readily available to wash after going, hand sanitizer will be your new best friend. You can pour a little bit of water on your hands to rinse first, but really you won’t want to be touching your drinking water with soiled hands, nor do you want to waste any of it if you can help it. This is one of my favorite formulas, since I generally opt for the more natural items, and I keep one in my bag and one in my purse for daily use. I also love the Dr. Bronner spray which Jeremy keeps in his bag.
A hiking trip can go downhill pretty quickly when you find yourself swarmed by mosquitoes and realize that you don’t have your insect repellent with you. Not only are they just pesky when they are buzzing around you, but we all know how torturous their bites can be. Not to mention the diseases that they can carry! So even if you don’t think you’re going to need it, do yourself a favor and pack the bug spray. I use the doTERRA spray which is made with essential oils, and it definitely works but the scent is strong so if you’re sensitive to smells maybe look elsewhere. I have seen some great options on Etsy, so I recommend looking there if you’re like me and prefer natural ingredients.
In addition to your extra clothes and rain shell, you want to make sure that you have a pair of socks and even some gloves. If your feet get wet you’re definitely going to be thankful for a fresh, dry pair of socks. If the weather turns for the worst, or you’re stuck outside overnight without proper gear, you may even end up having to double up on the socks for extra warmth. The same goes for the gloves, you may be hiking in the warm sunshine one moment and then in freezing rain the next. Protect your fingers and hands by getting a light but warm set of gloves. Jeremy has a pair of Smartwool gloves that he wears when it is chilly, and then a pair of waterproof Sealskinz gloves for rainy weather. And if it is really cold he can wear both, ensuring that his fingers are kept dry and warm. I have the same Smartwool gloves, which I absolutely love, but I definitely need to add some waterproof gloves to my bag. Waterproof socks aren’t a bad idea either, Jeremy just picked up these wool socks from Showers Pass that are waterproof and keep the feet nice and toasty.
When you need to signal for help, the most commonly recommended items are mirrors and whistles. A small handheld mirror can be used to reflect light, which can be seen at pretty great distances. A good quality emergency whistle should be loud enough to be heard from far away as well. I like this little guy because the additional thermometer helps to keep track of how quickly the temperature is rising and falling. Plus it has a little compass for quick checks!
There are many options out there for emergency kits, which usually contain some type of fire starter, mirror, whistle, blanket/shelter, etc. These kits that I came across are a good example, they contain some basic emergency items (including some of your essentials) in a small package for a pretty low price. Of course you could find something of better quality, or put together your own kit, but for beginners it may be worth considering a pack like these. You can find something similar at Amazon, REI, Backcountry, or most other outdoor retailers.
Though sunglasses and sunscreen are going to help protect against the sun, a hat of some kind will offer additional relief. I have a wide brimmed hat that I usually take with me, as you may have seen in my pictures. This shades the top of my head, face, neck, and even my shoulders depending on the angle of the sun. I see a lot of people hiking with trucker caps as well, which definitely shade your face but can leave the back of your neck exposed (assuming hair isn’t covering it). The extra shade will go a long way in keeping you from overheating.
In the event that you don’t have a hat, or you’re noticing the heat on your neck and shoulders is becoming too much, you can tie a bandana around your head/neck for some relief. This helps if you have already received a sunburn as well, so that the sun does not continue to harm the skin and cause discomfort. Bandanas have many other useful purposes though, and no not just for peeing in the wilderness.
- Filter large debris out of water
- Use them to compress a wound or tie around as a tourniquet.
- Tie around the neck for added warmth when weather conditions cool unexpectedly.
- Create a makeshift pouch, should anything small need to be carried.
- Use as a face mask to protect against cold air or heavy winds, especially when there is a lot of dust in the air. If for any reason you’re around a wild fire and the area is smokey, this will provide some protection from inhalation.
- If you’re cooking on fire, use it to pick up hot items so that you don’t burn your hand.
- And for that matter, if you have a 100% cotton bandana it could be used as tinder to get a fire going in an emergency.
- Assuming that you’ve selected a color that is bright enough, some recommend using it as a signal for help by tying it up above where you’ve set up camp.
- Use it as a wash cloth, or to dry your face and/or hands
- Don’t be afraid to destroy it if necessary. You can create cordage by either cutting it into strips with your knife, or by unraveling the fibers and re-twisting them together into a cord.
- Pieces can also be used as trail markers. Ideally you don’t want to leave them out there, so if you’re marking the trail for yourself please be sure to collect them on the way out. You could also use them to mark the trail when you’re lost, to assist others in locating you.
Like seriously guys, get a bandana. Or two.
Not only do I have a bandana in my bag, but I also have a keffiyeh. No, I don’t wear it every day or use it as a fashion statement, but when it comes to surviving in the hot, dry desert I am going to listen to those who have been doing so for thousands of years. These scarves are large and square like a bandana, and also made of cotton. They can be used for all of the same uses as a bandana, plus a few extra advantages because of the larger size.
- They can be wrapped around the head, face, neck, and shoulders all at once for multifaceted protection, or draped like a shawl. I have used it like this for protection against the elements, as well as annoying mosquitoes. It has kept me cool in the sun, warm at night, and bite free.
- It can be used as a sling in the event of injury.
- Use it to dry your body if you don’t have a towel
- Roll up as a pillow, or for some extra warmth as a blanket (it isn’t large enough to cover the body,or thick enough for really cold temperatures, but it can help)
- There are probably many other uses that I am forgetting
You may remember my post Learning Self Awareness at Switzer Falls, where I ran into some trouble of my own making. When I had to make the trek back up, this is what we used to cool me down. We soaked it in the creek and draped it over my shoulders so the cold water would keep me from overheating and becoming ill. Honestly I don’t know if I would have made it back without it, I probably would have had to sit out there for hours until the darn sun when down. I am definitely glad that I have this item in my bag, and I actually have two. I usually only have one in my day bag, but I bring both for longer trips.
Something else that is advisable to have as part of your emergency kit is a hand/pocket saw. Something small and compact, such as the fold up type or just the chain with handles. Should you be stuck outdoors and have to build a fire, you may be required to cut a few branches from a tree that are too thick to snap off (plus the saw allows for a cleaner cut and less damage to the tree).
Paracord is another item that I would definitely recommend, due to the variety of uses. You can use it to hold up your emergency shelter or hang your food up in the trees to keep if from animals. It too can be used in first aid situations, such as creating a tourniquet or sling, or to tie on a splint. Honestly there are so many uses that I am not even going to list them, check out this post on Backdoor Survival that gives a thorough list (though not all are for the wilderness): https://www.backdoorsurvival.com/44-fantastic-uses-of-paracord/ Rather than buying a whole roll of it (though they are cheap), you can also get paracord bracelets which are great because they are convenient and save room in your pack. They usually come with a few extra perks, like a buckle that includes a whistle and flint for starting fires, and even a compass. As long as the paracord is of a durable strength, it can hold lot of weight and withstand quite a bit of force.
If you have any electronics on you then a solar charger is going to be a necessity. My phone and headlamp are both chargeable via USB, so this little USB solar charger comes with me any time I go out. I charge it fully before leaving the house (it can be charged via USB itself) and then top it off throughout the day. I hang it on the back of my bag so the panel can get direct sunlight as I am walking around, and set it out in the sun when I’m stopped at a campsite. In addition two having two USB ports, it actually has a flashlight which has both a steady beam and SOS flash. And just in case you needed any more perks, it is water resistant, has a small compass on the backside, and comes in 4 color options. I really do love this thing!
I like to keep a headband and a few hair ties with me as well, and sometimes I even bring a small comb. These definitely come in handy when your hair gets sweaty, wet, or just in the way. Since I have bangs I have had issues with rain, wind, sweat, etc. where I wish I had pulled them back.
And last but not least, lip balm and eye drops! Each of these seemingly insignificant items can be so easily forgotten, yet they can make all the difference in world. Trust me on this, you do not want to leave either behind. Chapped burning lips are insanely frustrating, and dry eyes can be torturous. Since I wear contacts it is very easy for my eyes to dry out, but even if you don’t wear them I would recommend keeping some eye drops handy.
It may seem like a lot of items just to lug around for a simple day hike, and when I know for sure that I won’t be out long I won’t necessarily take all of this. But you never know what can happen when you head out on a new, long trail in the desert or forest. Perhaps you don’t use an item on this trip, but on the next you could be grateful to have it. There is a reason why the Boy Scouts’ motto is “Always be Prepared”, getting caught in an emergency when you’re not prepared can be disastrous.
Take time to research each item before purchasing if you can, to ensure that it will suite your needs. And remember that weight and size should always be factored in to ensure that your bag is not overloaded.
What do you all think, is there anything that I left out which you would recommend adding to the essentials list?
What items have you found to be crucial to your hiking trips?
Leave a comment below and let me know!
Disclaimer: Though this post does contain affiliate links, I have received no compensation for my review of any of these products. These have all been purchased on my own, and any statements and opinions that I express are strictly from my own experience.