Because it’s great to have the newest, coolest kit, but it’s not so great when experienced outdoor types think you have “all the gear, but no idea”!
We’re out to have fun, and don’t want to get too boring and serious, but every year people are injured or killed while hiking. And many of these people could have avoided accidents, or prepared for the possibility better.
Back in the 1930s, The Mountaineers, a Seattle-based group of like-minded climbers and adventurers first attempted to answer the important question of what ought to be considered essential.
The answer is based on what you would need in order to be able to respond to an accident or emergency situation, and what you would need if forced to spend a night or more, sleeping rough.
This version of the list is slightly updated from the original, but the principles are exactly the same.
The essential items are by-and-large not expensive, so there’s no excuse not to have them! (Even though I’m the first to admit I often hike a bit lighter than this…)
• Navigation – a map & compass PLUS the knowledge of how to use them. GPS can be great but it can be unreliable, so you still need a backup. Your map should be a proper, topographical one, and either waterproof, or you can keep it in a waterproof pouch.
You can get hiking compasses that also have an unbreakable mirrored surface that can double as a signalling tool to attract attention if you get into trouble.
• Sun Protection – sunscreen & sunglasses are a must. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve seen newbies get sun-burn even on days that seemed cold. SPF 15 is a minimum, and SPF 30 is better. Don’t skimp on it, and reapply every 2 hours.
Nearly everyone forgets to put screen on their necks, for some reason. I always use SPF lip balms, as well, as I hate it when I get back from a hike and my lips are purple from the sun.
Your sunglasses need to be capable of blocking 100% UVA and UVB rays. Wraparounds are an advantage, as they protect the sides of your eyes as well.
• Insulation – Extra layers of clothing should be carried. A number of thinner, lighter layers are often best. Consider what the worst conditions you may encounter could be, and what you may need to survive them. Bear in mind also that if you get injured and go into shock, your body heat reduces rapidly.
A hat or balaclava doesn’t take up much space, and is worth considering since 90% of body heat is lost through the head. Waterproofs are a must, since weather can change so quickly in the wilderness.
Use your head with this; on a summer hike a cheap cagoule will probably be okay, but if you are winter walking, you’ll want something more sturdy, along with some waterproof trousers. Spare, dry clothing in a waterproof bag is something I have been thankful of many times. An emergency foil sleeping bag can be a lightweight but potentially life-saving option, and cost virtually nothing.
• Lighting – If you find that you need to walk in the dark, you will be thankful you took some light with you. Lots of mobile phones have little torches, but I don’t really recommend them. They are not a strong light source, can easily slip out of your hand, and are quite fragile.
Far better is a head-torch. They are hands-free, so you can put up a tent in the dark, or scramble down a rock-face if you really have too. I’ve still got the same head –torch I bought 15 years ago, a clunky Petzl model. The batteries are harder to find nowadays, but it’s really built to last. More modern ones have the advantage of being more light-weight, a have a flashing option as well. Do take a spare bulb and batteries with you!
• First Aid Kit – You can buy these ready packed at most outdoor stores, and they will generally have a small leaflet explaining how to use them. I personally always keep a few blister pads as well, and those elastic knee supports, as they can make walking with a twisted knee a bit more tolerable. Some over-the-counter pain relief is always a good idea.
• Something to Start a Fire – waterproof matches, a lighter, whatever. I’ve never had to use these in an emergency situation, but as a lifelong smoker, I’ve always got something to start a fire. You should too. But don’t smoke, it’s bad for you.
• Camping Tool or Swiss Army Knife – It doesn’t really have to be a multitool, although these are nice as it means you know you’ve got what you need right there. A screwdriver, a knife, a can-opener, a pair of scissors is all you will probably ever need.
• Water – Don’t overlook this, or how much you actually need. While you can go some time without food, dehydration can be deadly, not just in itself, but in how it can disorientate you and affect your judgement. You need to have 3 quarts, or 3 litres, per day. Camelbaks are a popular option as you can carry them around on your back. A collapsible water carrier plus water purification tablets are a good idea for a long trek, or if you are a real survivalist.
• Food – Even if you are unlikely to starve, having something to eat is essential. Eating can help you to raise your body temperature, and can also raise your spirits and energy when they are at a low ebb. I personally like to carry a few energy bars, dried fruit, nuts, and I am a big fan of Biltong, and other dried meats.
There are lots of freeze-dried foods out there, but I have to admit I don’t find many of them very palatable.
• Shelter – Sometimes, when the worst comes to the worst, there’s no choice but to just set-up camp where you are. A tarp or a bivy bag or your emergency foil sleeping bag mentioned early will be very useful, when you’ve simply got to stop for the night, whether through injury or just tiredness.
Useful stuff that didn’t make the Top 10
• Backpack – since where else are you going to put all this stuff, really? It doesn’t need to cost a fortune, but it needs to be comfortable, and it needs to be easy to organise, and it needs to be fairly waterproof.
• Mobile phone – There’s no getting away from it, they are one of the most useful inventions. And you’re never going to find a pay phone, so better take your phone and make sure it’s fully-charged. For big outdoor treks, think about getting something sturdy like a JCB phone, they are WAY cool.
• Whistle – your mobile phone’s great if you know the number of who you are trying to call. But when your phone’s broken, and you are injured, you can still blow your whistle. And it’s surprising how far the sound can carry.
• Toilet Paper – Doh! You’ve been caught short on the mountains and are relying on the local flora to attend to your hygiene. Spag moss is adequate for the purpose, but how much nicer if you remembered to bring some toilet paper. Be nice, though, to the beautiful surroundings you came to enjoy, and also bring along a ziplog bag to dispose of your used paper properly, or bury it.
Top Tip: Toilet paper is also excellent for helping to get a fire started.
• Compassion – If you are trekking with others, be happy to give advice about what they need to take, and don’t assume they know it all. And, if during a trek they need to benefit from your foresight, don’t be smug about it, okay?