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So, what are you tossing in your pack before heading out on an adventure? Do these items tick all the boxes on the list of ten essentials? Let’s find out!
Keep reading to get all the details on what items are included in the “ten essential” systems that you should be taking on every. single. adventure. The first thing you’ll find as you scroll down is a list of these systems with a few brief examples. Keep on scrolling to get a more detailed look at each system, why they are important and how to get everything tucked into your pack without packing your entire gear closet.
The “Ten Essentials” are ten systems that you should have with you for every adventure into the wilderness [or even not-so-wild-ness]. This list of ten systems started as a list of ten items and was created by The Mountaineers, an organization in Washington state that wanted to provide a very useful resource for adventurers who may end up in precarious situation far from civilization. With time the list of items was upgraded to a list of systems. Each systems contains items you may need to survive in the wilderness if your adventure takes a left turn from a fun experience to an emergency situation.
Original Ten Essential Items: map, compass, sunglasses/sunscreen, extra clothing, headlamp/flashlight, first-aid supplies, fire starter, matches, knife and extra food.
Current Ten Essential Systems: navigation, illumination, sun protection, insulation, first aid, shelter, heat source, repair kit, extra food, extra water.
Keep scrolling down, we will go into detail for each system providing information on the system and tips on how to make the most of your gear and space with multi-use items.
In the perfect world you won’t need to use any of the gear your stash in you “Ten Essentials” go bag. Unfortunately this is not a perfect world and it is paramount that we head into the wilderness prepared for the worst case scenario. This is where the ten essential systems come into play.
The ten essential systems are meant to provide you with the basic items to survive an unexpected overnight in the wilderness.
This may mean an extra night after multiple day of backpacking or a night tacked onto a simple day trip. You never know when something may go wrong on the trail, so head out prepared.
On a personal note…the idea that anything and everything an go wrong while you’re out on the trail is a bit intimidating. It’s scary to think about all the possible scenarios that could end in an injury or even death. It’s not fun to think about, but it is a very real risk as you take on wilderness adventures. However, it is best to take on the unknown with preparedness rather than fear. Get to know your ten essential systems intimately. Use them as your safety net, as one more thing in your arsenal to take on the wilderness with confidence!
**BONUS** Take your trail knowledge to the next level, especially if you live in “snake country” >> How to Prevent [+ Treat] Snakebites.
You navigation system can be multiple things. The most fool proof option is a map and compass…assuming you’re comfortable using them. Reading a road map and navigating with a wilderness map are two very different skill sets. It is strongly recommended that you take a map and compass navigation course to learn more about topography lines, local declination and other navigational tricks. The Kula Academy has some excellent virtual navigation courses to get you started.
A GPS device is also a great piece of gear to add to your navigation system. There are a lot of options when it comes to GPS devices — handheld GPS maps, GPS watches with breadcrumbs, personal location devices with maps, etc. We have all of these devices and swap them out depending upon what our current adventure calls for. The most important thing to remember with GPS devices is power and that you know how to use the one you have. Be sure they are fully charged or have new batteries before you leave…then pack along a portable charger or extra batteries, just in case.
Cell phones can technically fall into the “GPS device” category but we do *not* recommend them as a reliable navigational device. There are too many things that can happen with a cell phone. They don’t stand up to cold weather, they are not water proof, they are handled more [easier to drop], they do not have consistent service…the list goes on and on. Having a cell phone with you is an excellent idea, but do not depend upon it as your only form of navigation.
Always pack some form of illumination in your adventure pack! Even if you’re headed out in the middle of the day. Heidi always has a mini Nite Ize flashlight tucked into the side pocket of her go-to trail pack, just in case. This flashlight is a tiny, lightweight light that packs a punch. Since it is always in her pack she never has to remember it…and she has needed to use it more than once [as a backup light and a primary light!].
Another great option is a headlamp. In most cases a headlamp is preferable to a flashlight as it allows your hands to be free for scrambling, navigating or assisting with others in the group. Great lightweight headlamp options include the USB rechargable Biolite 200 Headlamp and the Black Diamond Spot 350 headlamp that runs on AAA batteries. Both are easy to tuck into an seldom used pocket and have “lock out” abilities so you don’t need to worry about the headlamp turning on accidentally and draining the battery. The biggest difference between the two headlamps recommended above is the power source. The Biolite requires a USB power cord and battery pack to recharge while the Black Diamond only requires three AAA batteries.
The system of sun protection includes a variety of ways to take on the hot, hot heat of the sun. Your specific adventure plans and location will determine which of the following you’ll need: sunscreen, sunglasses, hat and/or sun shirt/pants.
Yea, that’s a lot of options. If you’re headed in the desert you will likely want to include all of these items as the sun is far less forgiving on the sand. If you’re planning a mountain adventure you…will likely still want all of the items, with the possible exception of the sun shirt/pants, because the sun is also relentless at high elevations.
People often think of sunscreen and sunglasses when talking about sun protection, which is accurate. However, a hat with a brim and a sun shirt are also great items to have available. A sun shirt is a long sleeve, lightweight top that has a UPF [Ultraviolet Protection Factor] rating, ideally from 30UPF – 50 UPF. The added perk of a sun shirt is the multi-purpose use as a light layer or cooling layer [add water, you’ll cool down quicker!]. Some good sun shirt options can be found in Patagonia’s Capilene line and Columbia’s Omni-Shade line.
Yes…even in the heat of summer you need to have some insulation options! There are a few reasons for this. Even in the hottest places the nights tend to get much cooler without the heat of the sun. You’ll want an extra layer if you’re stuck outside overnight! More importantly, if you are injured while adventuring your body will shunt your blood to your core, leaving your extremities cold. Having warm layers of insulation available, even in the desert, can help prevent hypothermia.
How much insulation you pack along will vary by where you will be exploring. In the hot, humid southern states you may not need more than a long sleeve baselayer. In the desert and high mountains [both areas tend to drop 20-40F overnight] an insulated puffy jacket or fleece may be necessary.
There are a LOT of options when it comes to first aid kits. You can purchase a pre-made kit at REI, Moosejaw or Outdoor Gear Exchange. They all over great options for a variety of trips. Many pre-made first aid kits are targeted toward the activity and how many days you’ll be in the wilderness. If you do purchase a pre-made first aid kit be sure to spend some time going through what is provided. You may notice you want to add a few items [or more ibuprofen, bandages, etc] but most importantly you’ll become familiar with what is available to you…before you need it in an emergency.
The other option is to create your own first aid kit [or “ouch pouch”]. This requires a bit more work but you’ll be able to specialize the kit toward what you expect to need on different adventures.
If you are stuck outside for an unexpected overnight you will want some form of shelter, especially if there is inclement weather! What you use for shelter will change by the adventure you’re going on. When choosing an emergency shelter take into consideration the weather forecast, the terrain conditions and the expected exposure. If you are going above treeline be prepared to overnight above treeline…even if it would be easier to stay among the trees. Emergencies don’t choose the easiest places to happen, so be prepared for the more challenging option.
A lightweight shelter option is an emergency blanket. They seem so light and thin it is easy to dismiss how functional they can be. The emergency blanket will protect you from the elements while radiating your own body heat back to you. An even better lightweight option is an emergency bivvy. An emergency bivvy is made with the same material as an emergency blanket, but in the format of a sleeping bag. This will allow you to wriggling into the bivvy rather than struggling to tuck the blanket around you.
Other shelter options include a tarp, a full sized bivvy bag, a tent and a combination of trekking poles and layers. Whatever you choose be sure you know how to use it, before you need it!
This system is one that greatly benefited when it moved from being a singular item to a variable system. When the “Ten Essentials” list was created this item was just “fire starter and matches”. Today we have so many more options for a heat source [and regulations around where fires are allowed!].
The primary purpose of having a heat source is to provide the life saving warmth of…heat. A heat source will also allow you to make food, warm up water or create a light for rescuers to follow.
You’re heat source can come from fire starters [waterproof matches, flint sticker, etc] or from small cook stoves [JetBoil, MSR PocketRocket, Biolite CampStove 2,etc]. These all have pros and cons that change by the environment you’ll be using them in. If you’re backpacking and already have a campstove with fuel, check! If you’re headed into a really wet area or an area that is extremely dry and have matches, maybe not-so-check.
If an essential piece of gear breaks do you have a backup plan? This can apply to anything from your shoelaces to your tent poles to your backpack strap. Obviously you cannot carry along enough items to be perfectly prepared for any mishap, but there are a few things you can carry along that will help in a variety of situations.
Duct tape is almost a foolproof freebie. It can be used to tape a tent pole together, patch a hole in your pants, secure a bandage…the list goes on. However, duct tape does have limitations. It isn’t great at sticking to wet surfaces and you can only carry so much.
Paracord [nylon cord] is another great item to carry. You can use paracord to secure a shelter, become a [not-so-comfortable] strap on your backpack, act as a shoelace or attach a brace to you body.
Other items you may want to have in your repair kit include a scissors/knife, sewing kit with heavy duty needle/thread, a multi-tool and anything you may need to make a specific gear repair [like tubes for a bike or appropriate screws for skis].
If you’re out overnight you’ll want food! Foraging may be an option, but that requires you to be able bodied, knowledgeable about the local foliage and near something edible. It is best to plan ahead and pack extra food. What you pack will vary by how long you plan to be gone and where you’re going.
A few extra gels or nut butter packets may be enough if you’re going on a day hike or trail run. For backpacking trips an extra meal is easy enough to add to your pack. Other great options include granola bars, nut mixes and candy bars. These are all food items you can tuck into your pack and forget about until the moment you need them.
There are a few ways to ensure you have extra water available during an adventure. You can pack extra water before you set out [an extra handheld on a run, an full hydration bladder on a hike] or you can pack a way to get clean water along the way. If you’re going out on a long adventure it may be best to bring a way to collect and purify water.
A few great, lightweight water purification options include water filters [such as LifeStraw or Mini Sawyer], ultraviolet purifiers [such as a SteriPen] or a chemical with strainer [such as Potable Aqua or AquaTabs]. It is a good idea to have a back up plan for your preferred water treatment plan. For example, always have a chemical treatment stashed in your pack as a back up. The chemical treatments don’t taste great and take more time but they require no maintenance and can be used in conjunction with your t-shirt/top as a strainer. There are also larger water filter options for longer trips
The ten essential systems will help ensure you are prepared for anything the wilderness has to throw at you. Hopefully you won’t need them…but if you do, they’ll be there!
There are a lot of creative ways to multi-purpose gear and pack along the ten essential systems without overloading yourself or taking away from the fun of adventure.
If you have any creative tips, please share them! If you’re looking for ideas on how to downsize your ten essential systems, reach out in the comments, via firstname.lastname@example.org or on Instagram / Facebook!