The Complete Beginner’s Guide to the 10 Essentials

Hiking gear in the forest
Average read time 5 min

When I started hiking a long time ago, I knew nothing about the 10 essentials. I learned by trial and error, lots of error. People smarter than I started talking about essential items you needed to survive or be safe when out in the backwoods. Over time I’ve created my way of doing things, cheats, to make sure I have all I need when I head out, you will too. Most people I talk with, especially new hikers, think of the 10 as items on a list.

If you think that, stop it.

I want you to think of the 10 essentials of a system of survival.

You’ll soon find out that the ten essentials are more than a list. Each part of the system has purposes or functions that meet specific needs. During your time hiking, at one time or another, you will use each item. You may not use every item each time you go out, but you will use them, never think about leaving them home.

I get the NYSDEC online newsletter. One of my favorite notices is the weekly search and rescue report. I have learned by reading these that people get caught out in the woods unprepared, even at the most basic level.

The 10 Essential System

As you hike, you will need to navigate, deal with the environment, provide for your body’s nutritional health, keep up your equipment, and be ready to stay in the woods for longer than expected. Sounds simple? Maybe. Let’s take a look.


Must: You need to carry a map (I.e., a water-resistant topographic map) and a working magnetic compass for navigation. YOU need to know how to use these two items. If you don’t, here is a good little guide you can carry with you to get started or contact your local hiking club and see if they have a clinic.

Bonus: You can also carry a GPS. A GPS is extra, NOT in replace of your map and compass. Remember, your GPS is electronic and is only as good as its batteries. If desired, an altimeter may come in handy.

Tip: Even though it is not on the list, I suggest that you make copies of any guide-book sections of the trails you will be hiking. For most hikes, this will be a few pages at most. It is lightweight, and you will have the written description of your trip at your fingertips.

Tip: Put all these items in one large ziplock bag.

Dealing with the environment & being ready to stay in the woods for longer than expected

Must: You must have sufficient insulation and weather protection for your hike, and these should meet the needs for the coldest possible weather during the current season.

Examples but not limited to:

  • Hat
  • Gloves
  • Base layer
  • Mid layer
  • Jacket/pants (waterproof/breathable)
  • Fleece
  • External layer
  • Socks
  • Proper footwear
  • Extra clothing
  • Sleeping bag in winter

Sun protection is a must any time of the year. You can get sun-related illnesses even in winter!

  • Sunglasses
  • Sunscreen for lips and skin
  • Clothing for sun protection

Bonus: Items such as Gators or bug nets are very useful but are optional.

Sometimes you get slowed down and return late (at night), or for any number of reasons, you could get caught out overnight. At times you may run into bad weather during your hike and need to take shelter for a short time.

Must: You need a way to shelter yourself if you get stuck out or caught in extreme weather. Using a tarp, bivouac sack, space blanket, along with an insulated sleeping pad, will do the trick. Along with shelter, you will need to keep up your warmth.

Must: Building a fire is essential. Fire building is a learned skill to execute well in the backwoods. Practice this or contact a hiking group that has a clinic in fire-making. There is a reason the Boy Scouts spend so much time on this skill. It is a required task for the Wilderness Survival merit badge. You’ll need a butane lighter, matches in a waterproof container, along with some fire starter.

Must: You must carry a headlamp or flashlight with extra batteries. One of the interesting things that happen when you hike, and the sun goes down is that it gets DARK. Backcountry dark is not the kind of dark that many people experience in the city or suburbs but one where you cannot see beyond your nose. Be ready for this.

Provide for the nutritional health of your body

You shall not try to lose weight while hiking! You need to feed and hydrate your body sufficiently to be safe in the backcountry.

Must: Have adequate food for your entire hike PLUS one day. Be well hydrated before your trek and carry 2 liters of water on the trail. Either have extra water or know that you can get additional access if you get stuck out longer than expected. Always have a water purification method with you (tablets, filter, or stove).

Bonus: You can use a carbohydrate based replacement drink to give you extra energy.

You may have to fix stuff, including your body

Must: This is relatively simple carry a first aid kit. You can make one or buy one. If you make one make sure that it has all the needed supplies to handle basic first aid for the backwoods. Look for a first aid kit that has signaling devices in it (whistle / reflective paper).

Tip: You should also have taken at least an introductory first aid course if you plan to hike regularly. If you plan on extended outings, consider taking a wilderness first aid training class. Like your map and compass, your ability to deal with emergencies comes with training.

Tip: Even though not part of the list, toilet paper, and simple anti-bacterial hand wash should be in your pack. Some of the backcountry water-borne illnesses may be due to poor potty hygiene, not lousy water.

Must: Fixing your equipment is a reality in the backwoods. Whether it be replacing a shoelace or fixing a busted backpack, you’ll need the essential tools to do this. These items may include knives, multi-tool, scissors, pliers, screwdriver, trowel/shovel, duct tape, cord, cable ties.

Tip: Some of your “repair” items can be used or be part of your first aid supplies. You can find creative ways to use all of them in different situations.

The “List”

The list below provides the function, items/comments, and some examples of where you may find items. The list is limited, and there are many suppliers for high-quality equipment, do your homework before you buy.

FunctionItem(s)Possible Source
NavigationMap and CompassSuunto Compasses
Sun protectionSunglasses, sunscreen for the lips and skin, and clothing for sun protection
Insulation (Extra Clothing)The term “extra clothing” refers to additional layers that would be needed to survive the long, inactive hours of an unplanned bivouac.
IlluminationHeadlamp or Flash light - Extra batteriesBlack Diamond Equipment
First-Aid SuppliesCarry and know how to use a first-aid kit, but do not let a first-aid kit give you a false sense of security.Adventure Medical Kits
FireCarry the means to start and sustain an emergency fire. Carry a butane lighter or two. Common firestarters include candles, chemical heat tabs, and canned heat.
Repair Kit and ToolsSee above. Swiss army knives or multitools are handy.Swiss Army Knives complete product assortment
Nutrition (Extra Food)For shorter trips, a one-day supply of extra food is a reasonable emergency stockpile in case foul weather, faulty navigation, injury, or other reasons delay the planned return.
Hydration (Extra Water)Carry extra water and have the skills and tools required for obtaining and purifying additional water. Sawyer MINI Water Filtration System
Emergency Shelter See aboveSOL Emergency Bivy

The best thing you can do as a beginner to prepare yourself for safe hiking is to get educated. Hike with experienced people. Join hiking clubs that offer regular outings. For technical or more intensive backcountry activities, consider guiding services that do instruction.

Happy hiking.

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