The Ten Essentials for Hiking traces its roots back to The Mountaineers, an outdoors club in Seattle founded in 1906.

The first list was published in the 1930’s. Since then the list has been revised, updated and modified many times to suit different hiking conditions, seasons and changes in hiking technology.

Most of the lists found around the Internet lean toward long distance, back country hikers. Some lists are geared toward day hikers – 6 to 8 hours on the trail and double digit mileage.

But most hikers don’t fall into the above categories. Most recreational hikers head out on trails for about five or six miles, or hikes under fours. These can be called “Front Country” hikes. These are also the hikers who get in the most trouble because “we won’t be gone long.” This is an effort to get casual hikers better prepared for the unexpected on the trail.

In no particular order, here is a version of the Ten Essentials tailored for the needs of half-day hikers.

Water – Two half-liter bottles is a minimum. Carry a liter for every hour expected on the trail in warm weather.  Leave a bottle in the car for each person in the group for the end of the hike. Some hikers like to carry energy drinks or thirst quenchers, but one bottle should be plain water. If you have to wash out a bad scrape or wound, water works better.

Emergency Shelter – This could be as simple as a large plastic trash bag or a good quality survival blanket. Shelter is more important than water.  Invest $10 and get a good survival blanket for each hiker.

Whistle – For emergency signaling. Takes less energy to blow a whistle and is heard over longer distances than just shouting.  Three short blasts is the universal distress signal.

Sun protection – At least wear a wide brimmed hat. Sun block cream is essential if the hike will take you through a lot of open areas.  Lip balm is light and adds sun protection.  It is also flammable and makes another source to help start a fire in a pinch.

Map – With the ability to print trail maps from the computer, there is no excuse not to have a map. Trails frequently intersect other trails. It is a good practice to study a map of the trail before you start. Plan where to rest or make photo stops. The paper makes good kindling if you have to start a fire.

Compass – Goes with the map. Even without a map, a compass is important in case of a wrong turn. Study the map ahead of time. Using a compass can make the difference between heading back to the car, or deeper into the woods. Don’t depend on GPS or cell phone navigation. Batteries go dead. Frequently you will be out of cell phone range, or down in a valley where the signals are blocked.

First Aid Kit – Small commercial first-aid kits are available for less than $8, or you can make your own. Pack a 1 quart Ziploc™ bag with the following: several Band-Aids™, 3 or 4 two inch gauze pads, small tube of anti-bacterial ointment, small bottle of hand sanitizer, small pack of tissues or toilet paper, 3 or 4 rubber bands and 4 to 6 safety pins. Use an unlabeled pill bottle to carry a couple of aspirins, stomach tablets, antihistamine and a couple of cotton balls. Empty the bag and you have a way to carry a quart of water.

Pocket Knife or Multi-Tool – Indispensable if things go wrong on the trail.

Fire Starting Material – Bring a couple of ways of starting a fire with you.  The easiest thing to carry is a small disposable lighter and a pack of “gag” birthday candles – you know, the ones that don’t go out when you blow on them? Pretty handy when you are trying to start a fire in a breeze.  Fold up a square foot of aluminum foil (heat reflector / wind break) and put the whole thing in a sandwich size Ziploc™ bag.  Remember the hand sanitizer and cotton balls in the First Aid kit?  Hand sanitizer is mostly alcohol so pour it on the cotton balls and it makes a fire easier to start. You can carry “strike anywhere” matches and a fire flint too.

Extra Food – Even if you’re not planning lunch on the trail, food is important. In addition to whatever snacks you bring along, also carry something extra: granola bars, GORP, fruit bars, energy bars and Pop-Tarts™ are easy to carry as emergency food. A pack of gum helps ease hunger if you get stuck waiting for help, too.

Insect Repellent – Don’t let a nice visit to the wilderness be ruined by the bugs.

Know the Rule of Threes:

You can go:

  • 3 days without water
  • 3 weeks without food
  • but only 3 hours without shelter or warmth.


A standard size disposable lighter will produce  flame for about 60 minutes. 
Get one with clear sides so you can see the fuel level.

Five Additions

    1.  Flashlight – Good planning for a half-day hike should make this unnecessary, but . . .  the return trip up out of a ravine may take longer than expected, or the hike got off to a late start. Or you have to stay with someone who got injured. Check the batteries before you go!The 10 Essentials is about planning for the worst, and being prepared. Don’t forget many cell phones have built in lights. Just using the lighted face is better than nothing.
    2. Duct Tape –  Wrap about 6 feet of duct tape around an old credit card.  Duct tape is flammable, so it helps with fire starting. Slit open a 40 gallon trash bag.  Fold a 6 inch piece over each corner of a split open trash bag. Use safety pins from the First Aid Kit in each corner as grommets. Tie to trees with shoe laces or para cord for a quick shelter.  Duct tape can also be used to bind wounds, secure splints, repair clothing etc.
    1. Para-Cord Wrist Bracelet – Real para-cord bracelets are made out of nylon cord with a 550 lb break point. Cheap ones have an 80 lb break point, so read the label.  When unraveled, the bracelet provides about 8 feet of cord with dozens of uses in an emergency from holding up a temporary shelter to suspenders.
    2. Hot-Hands™- Small, dry chemical hand warmers. They come in different sizes.  Once the package is opened and the bag crumpled up they produce heat for up to 6 hours. Carry two or three.
    3. Gloves – Light weight nylon mesh mechanics gloves will save your hands if you have to scramble over rocks or need to break off branches to make a shelter or a litter.  If you get stuck after dark they help keep your hands warm.


The Ten Essentials does not include clothing for hiking. Some points to consider:

Wear sturdy shoes – Back country hiking boots are not necessary for half-day hikes but, at a minimum, good quality walking shoes are a must.

Proper Clothing – Among hikers, cotton is known as “Dead Man’s” clothing. Invest in a reasonable quality set of nylon or nylon/cotton blend hiking clothes.

Nylon deflects moisture, dries faster after a rain and stays warmer if you have to wait out a storm or a rescue. Wear nylon or wool or nylon/wool blend hiking socks that dry fast and keep your feet from moving around inside your shoes.

Web Belt – A nylon military or scout style belt with a detachable brass buckle doubles as a survival tool. It can be tightened as a tourniquet, used as a sling, support for a splint or to tie limbs for a shelter.

Bandanna – There are entire websites devoted to hundreds of uses for the bandanna.

It’s a sweat band, sling, signaling cloth, compress, water filter, ear muffs, sun shade, shoulder pad, dust mask, carry bag, neck protection, ground cloth, fly swatter,  etc.

What if things go wrong?

Preparing for a good hike also means preparing for when things go wrong.

Leave your hiking plans with someone and notify them when you are off the trail.  If you are overdue, your contact will know where to send Rangers to look for you.

This list is not definitive or exhaustive.  You may think of your own variations. At the very least it starts a conversation about being prepared on the trail.

Compiled and edited by Mark Richie,
CTC Life Member, WFA, Certified Master Trail Builder