Most of you, if you have been around outdoors activities for any length of time, especially if you like to propel yourself in the outdoors with your feet, have heard about the “10 Essentials”, that short list of things you should never be about when you are away from civilization. Since emergency preparation is also about what you need when the comforts that we are used to go away, reviewing both the list of Essentials and the uses of those items can be of great use to both outdoor adventurers and those who would give up the conveniences of home only involuntarily.
The 10 Essentials lists goes back to 1930, when a group of Seattle mountain climbers, who often were involved in rescuing unprepared folks from the mountains, published a list of those items that if everyone carried them, could keep them from serious inconvenience, injury, or worse. Despite some revisions over the years, the list has stood the test of time, and if you are not familiar with it, let’s fix that:
Unless you are on a short nature trail, riverside walk, or someplace where it is impossible to get lost or lose direction, you should have a map, preferably a topographic one, of the area. This used to mean a trip down to the camping store to buy a government-issued “quad”, but today, computer programs, subscription websites, or even Google Maps can supply you with a usable map. You also need a compass so you can know which end of the map is up, and about five minutes of training to know how to use them together properly. Young tech-savvy folks will bring up GPS units, and they will be right, at least for day hikes, they work great. Grizzled old guys will whisper back “batteries”, and they will also be right, the longer the hike, the more right they are.
This is the one function of the list that really should be customized for every hike. For a short jaunt on a sunny day with zero chance of cold or wet, and where you will encounter plenty of other hikers, you can take your chances and save the weight. But the sad voice of experience has shown that if you are going more than a couple of miles, especially in real mountains, you need a rain jacket and a light fleece or sweater, even in warm weather. And what if you sprain an ankle and your three hour tour suddenly goes overnight? If in doubt, toss something in the pack. For the protection part, a space blanket, bivy sack, or light nylon tarp can make the difference between discomfort and sad newspaper story, especially if you are forced to spend the night unexpectedly.
You might only be a mile from the car, but if the trail is thin and night falls, one wrong turn means you are lost, with no way to find your way back to the trail or consult a map. An inexpensive headlamp with spare batteries weighs a couple of ounces, toss it in there. In the past, a spare bulb was recommended, but modern LED lights make that precaution unnecessary.
4. First Aid Kit:
You don’t-hopefully-need a Paramedics bag, but even a bare bones kit can keep you or your companion safely moving down the trail. For day hikes, one with bandages, tape, gauze, moleskin for blisters, some antibiotic cream, and over the counter pain meds should be sufficient. As the length of the trip and the size of the group increases, add more as caution dictates. I have a pretty complete kit from my Scoutmaster days that came in handy a few times, it weighs about a pound and a half.
In 1930, this always meant matches in a waterproof matchsafe. That’s still a good option; personally I have a couple of butane “cigarette” lighters in my kit. Scouts love magnesium sparkers. Since any emergency fire you have to light will probably be under less than optimum conditions, like wet and windy, a small supply of dry tinder or fire starter is highly recommended.
6. Pocket Knife:
This doesn’t mean a big old hunting knife, but one that also can function as a repair tool. I have a nice little Swiss Army Knife; the scissors have come in handy more than once. Multitools such as Leatherman or Gerber also have devoted followings; accounts exist of feats just short of brain surgery being performed with them. Whatever you choose, keep the blade sharp before you leave home. Dull blades increase the odds of you needing that First Aid Kit referenced above.
7. Sun Protection:
Unless your trip takes you only through deep forest, a pair of sunglasses should always be on your face or at least in your pack. In high snowy country, snow blindness is a real hazard. And there is a reason that experienced hikers are usually seen with broad brimmed hats and long sleeved shirts, while neophytes are working on their tan-at least until they get home that night to the misery of a nice, red, sunburn. Cover up. And don’t forget to smear sunblock on the skin that is still exposed.
8. Extra Food:
If you are out a few extra hours, having some extra calories for fuel can come in handy. If you are out an extra night, those calories could save your toast. Rule of thumb: If you make it back to your car with no food in your pack, you didn’t bring enough. You can always chow down on the extra on the ride home. Some folks keep an emergency supply of edibles that they don’t really like as a hedge against eating it in non-emergencies. To each their own, pass me that jerky.
This may be #9 on the list, but is probably #1 in importance. You can go a few days without food-though you won’t like it-but a few days without water is likely to be fatal. Always drink up before heading out, drink more than you think you need to during your hike, and just like food, you should still be carrying water when you arrive at your destination. Now since water is bulky and heavy, that leaves you two options: Carry a lot if you are in country where you can’t rely on finding water along your way, or carry a way to purify more. Filters are convenient, chemical treatments are lighter. I’m an Aqua Mira fan myself, but others are free to form their own opinions, just make sure you never run out.
10. Toilet Paper and a trowel:
This is more an essential for the land than for you. No one, and I mean NO ONE, wants to find your stinky deposits, anywhere, especially near the trail. Get off at least 200 feet from trails and streambeds dry or wet, dig a cathole at least six inches deep-most trowels have a scale-and bury what comes out. Some heavily traveled areas now require that you pack out everything, including solid waste. If that’s the case, doubled up zippered plastic bags need to be part of your kit as well.
Other items may be on your personal essentials list, and that’s OK. A whistle for signaling, a mirror or CD for the same, or a cell phone-though a lot of backcountry, especially far from the city will have sketchy to nonexistent coverage-are all good ideas. Feel free to add whatever makes you comfortable, but remember you are carrying it all on your back. Most of the items on this list can fit all together in a small stuff sack that you just toss in your day pack when you leave, so no digging them out separately from your gear bin before every trip.
Remember, the purpose of being prepared isn’t just for emergencies, it’s also so that you can relax and enjoy your adventure, be it on the trail or even on the freeway. Stay safe out there!