There are millions of ways to pack your hiking pack. But no matter what extras you like to carry — selfie stick, ostrich jerky, a six pack of IPAs — there are certain survival items you need to bring on every trip. In today’s post, I’ll break down the 10 essentials of hiking gear — those basic, ass-saving pieces of outdoor equipment you need to have in your pack every time you hit the trail!
To learn more, play the video clip above, or read the transcript below for the quick and dirty version.
The 10 Essentials of Hiking Gear
Hey guys, it’s Sarah from Miss Adventure Pants! I’m here to talk to you about the 10 essentials of hiking gear that every hiker, backpacker, and climber needs to carry in the backcountry.
Start With the Basics
When you’re a brand new hiker, knowing what gear to buy can be overwhelming.
We have an REI flagship store here in Denver. It’s like a three-story mall of nothing but outdoor gear. And standing in the store with endless choices, it’s hard to know where to start.
So let’s get back to the basics and talk about the 10 essentials of hiking gear you need to be safe and comfortable on the trail.
Think About Systems
Some really smart outdoors person, I don’t know who, came up with a concept called the “10 essentials.” It used to be 10 individual items, like a map, compass, knife, et cetera. That’s since evolved into 10 essential systems you should keep in mind as you pack.
The basic idea is, if you have the 10 essentials of hiking gear in your pack, you’ll be able to survive for a few days in the backcountry. Because what if for some reason, you had to stay out overnight? Or maybe there was an accident or you got lost? These things happen all the time.
And even if you don’t run into trouble, the 10 essentials can make your hike a lot more pleasurable. For example, I don’t know how many times I’ve run out of water, then kicked myself for forgetting the water purification tablets.
These 10 essentials of hiking gear can be scaled up and down. Say you just want to walk around City Park with your dog. You probably don’t need to pack a fire starter or emergency shelter. But you might want to bring extra layers or a simple first aid kit.
Let’s Do This
So here’s my trusty Deuter day pack that I’ve had since 2009. I’m going to take things out system by system and talk about them. Here they are, in no particular order.
1. Sun Protection
The most obvious part of this system is sunscreen. Today I’m carrying Rocky Mountain Sunscreen in SPF 50. It’s a really natural, moisturizing, greaseless formula that I love. And it’s made by a company right here in Denver.
The travel size is really light and easy to carry in your pack or pocket. If you’re going backpacking for a few days, you can easily carry two or three of them.
Other things you’ll want to carry are SPF lip balm and sunglasses. Sunnies are especially important if you’re going to be near water, sand, snow, or to some degree, grass. Those are all very reflective surfaces, so your skin and eyes will burn faster.
These are special “glacier glasses” for snow. They actually have a guard that closes off the gap between the glasses and your face so no sun can reflect into your eye.
And here’s a Beko, which is really good at keeping the sun off your nose. You use a little strip of Velcro to attach it to the bridge of your glasses.
UV Buffs are great too. If you’re in super sunny conditions and don’t have time to put on sunscreen, just slide it over your nose and face like a ninja. It’s a little uncomfortable, but it’s better than getting horribly sunburned.
Finally, bring along a sun hat with a brim. Baseball caps work fine. You can also buy caps with a flap that covers your neck.
- Glacier Glasses: Women’s Julbo Monterosa, men’s here
- Buff: Buff UV
- Sunscreen: Rocky Mountain Sunscreen SPF 50
- Nose Cover: Beko Xtreme Gear
- Sun Hat (not pictured): Outdoor Research Sun Runner Cap
2. Extra Food
Of all the 10 essentials of hiking gear, this is one I never forget!
Food’s so individual, I’m cautious about making recommendations, because everybody’s got different dietary needs and sensitivities. But here are some general tips.
First, simple carbs are a good source of fast energy when you’re going hard during a hike. I personally love Clif Shot Bloks, but other people use candy, goo, gummies, or even jelly beans. You can also mix some electrolyte powder into your water for a little extra umph.
Bars are a mixture of carbs, protein, and a little fat to give you longer-burning energy.
And finally, it’s always good to have treats you love on trail, especially if you’re hiking at higher-altitudes where appetite can be an issue. My two guilty pleasures: Honey Stinger Waffles and Fritos.
My favorite navigation device is my smart phone. I have a simple, inexpensive app called Topo Maps [iPhone only] that shows my location on … wait for it … a topographic map.
Now, a few important caveats. First, if you’re going use your phone for wilderness navigation, it’s really important to have an extra battery or power pack, especially on longer trips.
You also need to have a backup navigation system. Because if your phone is anything like mine, it randomly powers down when its cold. And it considers cold to be 40 degrees F on some days.
So a good backup would be a topographic map and compass. Learning the basics of compass navigation can really save your butt. For example, let’s say it’s cloudy and you’re on top of a mountain. How do you know which direction to talk off? Right, you ask your compass.
A Quick Word on Emergency Beacons
It’s not technically one of the 10 essentials of hiking gear, but another navigation/location aid to consider if you do a lot of backcountry travel out of cellular range is a satellite messenger or personal locator beacon.
My satellite messenger is called SPOT Gen3. If I get in trouble, I hit a button on SPOT to send my location to GEOS International search and rescue dispatch. (Note: this requires a yearly subscription.) And if I have a minor issue, like car trouble at the trailhead, I can use another button to signal my mom or a friend in Denver to call for help.
There are also fancier satellite messengers like Garmin inReach SE+ that allow you to text back and forth with your contacts.
And finally, there are simpler options called personal locator beacons. Basically, if you’re in a life-threatening situation, you hit the button, and the device starts pinging a global search-and-rescue satellite network. Personal locator beacons are a lot cheaper over the long term, because unlike satellite messengers, they don’t require an annual service subscription.
As with any technology, be sure to bring extra batteries for your beacon or satellite messenger.
You just never know when something crazy is going to happen in the backcountry that will keep you out after dark. That’s where illumination comes in handy.
I always carry this lightweight headlamp (Black Diamond Spot) in my pack. As you can see, the on-off switch actually locks. This is a cool feature, because I know it won’t turn on by accident in my pack and drain its batteries.
Be sure to carry extra batteries for your headlamp. You can also carry an extra bulb if your headlamp takes one. (Many of the popular ones now use LEDs.)
It’s also good, even if you’re just out hanging around your town park, to have a backup light source. It can be as simple as an LED keychain that attaches to your pack. That way, if you forget your headlamp or run out of batteries, you have something to fall back on.
- Headlamp: Black Diamond Spot
You never know, especially in the backcountry, how long you could be out in an emergency. Here in the Rockies, nighttime temperatures can dip near freezing, even in the summer. So it’s a good idea to have what you need to build a small fire.
Your fire system has two components. First, you need something to ignite it. Here’s a UCO Stormproof Match Kit. They come in a waterproof canister with a striker on the side. These matches are crazy; once they’re lit, you can actually dunk them under water, and they’ll flare up again when you take them out. I also bring along a lighter as a cheap, easy backup.
The second thing you need is a fire starter. There are tons of options from commercial ones to things you make yourself. I really encourage you to test your fire starter before you rely on it in a survival situation. I’ve seen really expensive commercial ones that were just crap. They didn’t burn at all.
My favorite low tech fire starters are cotton balls coated in Vaseline. I’ve also got one called a trioxane tablet, which is available from most Army-Navy surplus stores. It’s made of nasty chemicals, and you have to be careful about getting it on your hands. But when it comes to fire power, trioxane burns like crazy.
Other things that can work: dryer lint, paraffin, Fritos (seriously).
- Matches: UCO Stormproof Match Kit
6. Repair Kit
Traditionally, one of the 10 essentials of hiking gear was a knife, and that’s evolved into a repair kit.
I carry a multi-tool (which includes a knife) for basic repairs on trekking poles, snowshoes, crampons, and Kahtoola microspikes.
If you’re going to be out for a day or two, consider bringing a patch kit. This goes double if you have an inflatable sleeping pad or use a reservoir for hydration. A portable bike patch kit works for small punctures.
And here’s a cool product called Tenacious Tape by Gear Aid. It’s waterproof and can patch holes in clothing, tents, and sleeping bags.
Cheap parachute cord is great to carry in case you have to improvise a shelter or a guy line breaks on your tent. You can even use it as a shoelace.
- Fabric Repair Tape: Gear Aid Tenacious Tape
Your body needs water to function well, hike far, and stay alive. So you never want to run out and have to make a choice between dehydration and giardia.
Most people do well carrying two liters of water on day hikes. (You may need more for longer trips or during hot weather.)
There are a couple of ways you can carry water while hiking. Some people use good old 32 oz. Nalgene bottles. A lighter alternative: 20 oz. Gatorade bottles.
Using a hydration system with a bladder lets you hydrate while staying hands free. I use a 3-liter Camelbak bladder for longer hikes, and I’ve never actually run out of water.
What if you drink all that water and run out? Or what if you’re on a longer trip and need to refill? For a quick fix, I’m a big fan of Portable Aqua water treatment tablets, which work on a liter of water in 30 minutes. You can also buy a two-pack that contains a neutralizer to take away the yucky iodine taste.
SteriPEN is a device that purifies water using UV light. It kills just about every pathogen but won’t get rid of pine needles, moss, or other floaties. So if you’re sensitive to that, strain the water through fabric (try your buff) before drinking.
- Water Bottle: Nalgene Wide Mouth, 32 oz.
- Purification Tablets: Potable Aqua with neutralizer
- UV Purifier: SteriPEN Adventurer Opti
- Bladder: Camelbak Antidote Reservoir, 100 oz.
8. First Aid Kit
Here’s a recipe for a really complete backcountry first aid kit that fits into a gallon size freezer bag:
This one has all the big guns for a true wilderness emergency. I’ve included a flexible splint that you can mold around an injured leg or arm. There’s also a clotting sponge to help stop heavy bleeding.
In the wintertime, I carry chemical warmers, which can totally save your fingers and toes from freezing.
And the disgusting brown mess in this baggie is called tincture of benzoin. Ever had trouble getting bandages to stick to a sweaty foot? Well, rub a little benzoin on and that tape will be on there for a month. It’s like magic.
Here’s my blister kit, which includes moleskin and some little manicure scissors to shape it with.
I keep medications like aspirin powder and Benadryl (antihistamine) in a separate baggie. I don’t usually take those on shorter trips, but they’re nice for overnights.
And here are two pairs of rubber gloves, in case I have to help out someone else. (Or you can give them to the person who’s helping you as a precaution.)
In the summertime, I throw in some insect repellent wipes and an anti-itch stick.
I also recommend carrying a paper and pen. This allows you to leave notes for rescuers — for example, if you’re in one place but have to move. Also, if somebody gets hurt, and you need to send runners for help, you can write down location information, patient information, cell phone numbers, and things like that for them to carry.
Other useful items: ace bandage, safety pins, triangle bandages, gauze pads and Band-Aids in different sizes.
And you don’t have to carry the giant backcountry version everywhere. You could totally scale this kit down for shorter hikes or family outings.
- Splint: Adventure Medical Kits C-Splint
- Clotting Sponge: QuikClot Advanced Clotting Sponge
- Chemical Warmers: HotHands Toe Warmers
What if you have to stay outside overnight? You obviously don’t carry your tent everywhere. So here are some lighter shelter options.
One is a nice lightweight tarp (Grabber Outdoors All Weather Blanket). This one has a reflective inner surface to reflect heat back to my body. If I had to camp overnight, I could wrap myself up with this or improvise a little shelter with my trekking poles.
Another fantastic product I just discovered this year is the SOL Escape Bivvy. Which sounds like it should stand for “shit outta of luck,” but actually it’s Survive Outdoors Longer. It’s basically a mummy bag made of tough nylon with a reflective interior. It’s waterproof, and if you’ve got some warm clothes on, it’s going to hold in heat and protect you from the elements.
(You can also put the SOL bag over you sleeping bag to keep warmer or protect it in wet conditions.)
If all of this sounds like overkill, take along a large trash compactor bag. It’s not fancy, but it’ll hold in heat and give you some protection from rain.
10. Extra Layers
So let’s round out our 10 essentials of hiking gear with a little fashion advice. Always carry some extra clothing layers you can throw on if you were injured, tired, or have to stop moving for awhile.
- Extra socks come in handy if your feet get wet or sweaty. My favorite hiking socks are made by Darn Tough Vermont.
- I also carry micro fleece tights to slide on for extra warmth.
- And of course you’ll want a rain jacket and pants. For short trips, you can use super lightweight ones that pack down to almost nothing.
- Even in warmer conditions, carry a lightweight winter hat and gloves for emergencies.
So there you have it: the 10 essentials of hiking gear. And now my desk is totally buried. Which raises the question: how should you organize all of this stuff?
I do it by placing each system in a Ziploc bag or stuff sack. Then, before a hike, I go through and pull out the things I don’t think I’ll need. And sometimes if I’m just strolling in the foothills, I’ll leave whole systems (like fire) at home.
It’s also nice to make a list of the 10 essentials of hiking gear and tape it to your gear bin. That way you can quickly double check that you’ve packed everything you need.
Need More Gear Tips?
Some other ways you can learn about gear:
- Surf on over to my Recommendations page to see all my favorite clothing, boots, books, gadgets, and online retailers.
- Hop in my Facebook Group so our helpful community can answer your questions.
- Follow my Pinterest Hiking Gear Board for gear reviews and tips from around the web.
So, thank you for watching this post about the 10 essentials of hiking gear. It’s been a lot of fun. Hope to see you next week for our live chat and have a great weekend!
Originally published June 23, 2017. Last updated Sept. 22, 2018.