The Ten Essentials comprise the basic equipment that many consider essential in the backcountry. These items are recommended as the very minimum materials necessary to increase the likelihood of survival when in the field. The Ten Essentials are normally carried in a small, separate waterproof container or pack so that they can always be carried on person, and are thus less likely to be lost. In the event that a hiker loses the bulk of his equipment, these ten essentials ensure that the individual will have the fundamental materials needed to have or improvise the human needs for food, shelter, and fire, and in some instances, the ability to navigate out of dangerous circumstances. Although they are referred to as the "Ten Essentials," the list is generally supplemented by a several additions, such as a plastic tarp, duct tape, sewing kit, etc.
The Ten Essentials were first described in the 1930s by The Mountaineers (Pacific NW)|The Mountaineers, a hiking and mountain climbing club. Many hikers, backpackers, and climbers rigorously ensure they have the ten essentials with them .
According to the standard textbook Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, the ten essentials are:
- Compass (optionally supplemented with a GPS receiver)
- Sunglasses and Sunscreen
- Extra Food and Water
- Extra Clothes
- First Aid Kit
- Fire Starter
The textbook recommends supplementing the ten essentials with:
- Water treatment device (water filter or chemicals) and water bottles
- Ice axe for glacier or snowfield travel (if necessary)
- Repair kit, including duct tape and a basic sewing materials.
- Insect repellent (or clothing designed for this purpose)
- Signaling devices, such as a whistle, cell phone, two-way radio, unbreakable signal mirror or flare.
- Plastic tarp and rope for field expedient shelter.
Not every expedition will require the use of an essential item. However, carrying these basics makes sure that one is prepared for unexpected emergencies in the outdoors. For instance, if a hiker experiences a sudden snow storm, it is imperative that he have fresh clothes and fire starter to keep himself warm; otherwise it is likely that he will suffer hypothermia, and perhaps death. In most circumstances, the Ten Essentials will transform a potentially life threatening experience into a mere discomfort.
- A map and compass prevents one from getting lost in the field. Losing one's bearing in unfamiliar terrain raises the risk of anxiety and panic, and hence, physical injury. Maps that cover the relevant area in sufficient detail and dimension (topography, trails, roads, campsites, towns, etc.) and the skill and knowledge to use them are indispensable when traveling through the outdoors, especially when the place of travel lacks signage, markings or guides. Even a basic compass can help an individual find his way to safety.
- A flashlight protects against physical injury when traveling in the dark. A flashlight is also useful for finding things in the pack, observing wildlife in dark crevices and folds, and for distant signaling. Extra batteries and bulbs are highly recommended.
- Extra food and water can prevent or cure hypothermia and dehydration, common illness that can be serious risks in the backcountry where immediate medical response is not possible. These items also minimize the likelihood of panic. It is not recommended that one eat food when there is no water, as the body requires water to metabolize food.
- Extra clothes protect against hypothermia. Multiple layers of clothes are generally warmer than a single thick garment. By having the ability to simply take off a layer of clothes, one can avoid overheating, which can cause sweat and dampen clothing. Moreover, a change into dry clothes is the fastest way to become warm. Extra clothing is also useful for protection from the elements, including thorns, insects, sun, wind, and often cold. If necessary, they can be cut into bandages, used as a tree climbing aid, made into hotpads, pillows, towels, or makeshift ropes. For overnight trekking, one should keep one set of clothes dry for wear in the evening. One can wear the "day" clothes during the next day's hike when they are drier.
- Sunglasses help prevent snowblindess. Sunlight, especially when reflected in snow, can seriously limit visibility, and jeopardize one's ability to travel safely.
- A first aid kit usually contains items to treat cuts, abrasions (blisters), punctures and burns. Additional items might address broken fingers, limbs, cardiac conditions, hypothermia, frostbite, hyperthermia, hypoxia, decompression sickness, insect and snake bites, allergic reactions, burns and other wounds. If applicable, include any personal medications.
- A knife is useful for opening packages, building shelter, shaving wood for tinder, eating, field surgery (after sterilization), cutting rope and clothing, etc. A heavier ax or knife is more effective when one has larger needs for construction or for collecting firewood.
- Matches (or a lighter) and fire starter (tinder and kindling) to light a campfire is useful for preventing hypothermia and to signal for aid. In an emergency, a fire increases one's psychological will to survive.
- A water treatment device (filter or chemical treatment) make water potable. All water, including that from streams, lakes, or pools, needs to be treated for bacteria and viruses in order to ensure safety. Most backcountry travelers carry a water filter: low end models are inexpensive and provide protection against many pathogens, but not viruses. Some more expensive filters and improved chemical treatments get rid of most health risks, including giardia and other protozoa and viruses. Treating the water reduces the likelihood of gastrointestinal diseases. Since some chemical treatments such as iodine or chlorine may leave a bad taste, many suggest mixing in a flavor to hide the taste. These include powdered lemonade or fruit drinks, or other Tang, Gatorade, or Crystal Light.
- A whistle is a compact, lightweight, and inexpensive way to signal for help. Although a person cannot shout for a long period, he can whistle for extended amounts of time. Moreover, the sharp sound of a whistle travels over longer distances than the human voice, and provides a much more distinct sound. Although environmental factors such as wind, snow, and heavy rain may drown out a voice, the sound of a whistle is clearly distinguishable in the field.
Other "ten essentials"
Other outdoor organizations have variations of the Ten Essentials pertinent to local conditions. For example, Utah's Wasatch Club lists extra water in place of food, as Utah is mostly desert terrain, and water is more difficult to find.
The Spokane Mountaineers list "thirteen essentials," which supplement the list with emergency shelter such as a space blanket, signaling device, and toilet paper and trowel (for sanitary disposal of human waste. The toilet paper also doubles as tinder for starting a fire).
- Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, 6th edition, Mountaineers, pages 35-40, (1997), ISBN 0-89886-427-5
- Backpacking.net list of ten essentials
- The Spokane Mountaineers Backpack School manual