The Hiker’s Handbook: What to Bring

In previous posts, I broke down where to find reliable information, how to incorporate a knowledge of climate into your planning, and various means of determining what the weather will be like when you hit the trail. I even talked a bit about the sunk cost fallacy, a thinking error where we fail to recognize when it’s time to cut our losses because we already invested too much in achieving a goal.

The next step in developing good preparation is the recognition that anything can happen on a trail. Any number of hiker errors, physical conditions, injuries, or encounters can end with a hiker taking a helicopter ride. However, what you bring with you into the wilderness can create a massive reduction in the odds that your hike will become an emergency situations. To understand what you need to bring, it’s time to look at the Ten Essentials.

The Ten Eleven Essentials

This classic, widely accepted list of items for hikers is designed to give you everything you need not only to have a successful hike but also to survive an unplanned night in the wilderness. If you have all of this on you, and you’re able to keep your wits about you, you’ll have the tools and self-reliance to work your way through almost any situation occurring on a trail.

Navigation

It’s hard to have a successful hike if you have no idea where you’re going. Even if you’re on a guided hike led by somebody who purports to know what they’re doing, it still helps to have at least one, preferably two different means of navigating. Map, compass, and the ability to use both in tandem for route-finding remains the gold standard, as map and compass aren’t susceptible to equipment failure. Apps and GPS units can be a good fallback navigation method, but both are prone to fail and may feature misleading information. The skillful use of both forms of navigation can ensure that you never get lost, which removes one of the chief hazards of hiking.

A Light Source

Even if you only plan to hike during the day, having a reliable light source (and spare batteries) helps if you end up stranded or delayed through the course of your hike. Do not rely on the flashlight in your cellphone, as it will drain your phone’s battery life when you may need it for emergency communication. A headlamp is a great option, as it can be used hands-free. Bring extra batteries (preferably lithium, which lasts much longer) so that you don’t have to worry about your headlamp not working after not using it for a long time.

Sun protection

Sun, and the heat it produces, can cause a number of problems, ranging from dehydration, sun burn, or heat related injuries. A variety of forms of sun protection used together is the best form of protection. This includes sunscreen (applied every two hours), a wide-brimmed hat to keep the sun off of your face and neck, light-colored, loose-fitting clothing, preferably with some UPF factor, and even solar umbrellas. Sometimes the sun is just too much, especially in exposed areas like the desert, the tropics, or chaparral habitats. On hot days, your best option may be staying out of the sun entirely.

First aid

A good first aid kit will give you the ability to treat most minor and some moderate injuries that occur on the trail. Minor injuries include cuts, cactus spines, splinters, blisters, minor sprains, burns, abrasions, headaches, stings, bites, and even exposure to poison oak (use a mild soap and water, since the toxin is an oil). Always carry your own first-aid kit, and don’t rely on other hikers to be able to provide first aid. It’s also worth noting that you can receive first aid training in a basic first aid/CPR class, and you can even take it a step further by becoming trained in wilderness first aid. 

Knife

Before you start having visions of grandeur where you take out a cougar using a Rambo-sized machete, remember that a knife (and preferably an attached multi-tool) is an all purpose tool that comes in handy in a number of ways – and no, I’m not talking about having to cut your own arm off. You don’t need a broadsword or a lightsaber or even a machete. You just need a blade of about 3-5″ that you can turn to any time a sharp edge is needed (like when you need to cut the avocado to spread on your turkey sandwich). Multi-tools are a great option, as not every problem can be solved with a knife.

Fire

The ability to start a fire helps you if you’re stranded in cold conditions where hypothermia poses a significant risk. Waterproof matches are the most reliable since lighters run out of fluid, and other matches won’t strike when damp. However, there is some gray area here. One time a lost hunter set a signal fire during October near Cedar Creek as a means of helping rescuers find him. Santa Ana winds kicked up, and a wildfire started. By the time the blaze died, the Cedar Fire destroyed nearly 250,000 acres of habitat and killed several people, and it remains one of the worst fires in California history. Fire, therefore, should be used as the absolute last line of defense, and probably only if you’re going to freeze to death. If you want to help rescuers find you, consider using a locator beacon.

Shelter

Shelter allows some protection from the elements, should you have to spend a night outdoors. This includes rain, snow, and cold. The need for a shelter doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to carry a tent with you. You can use a bivy, or you can even create a makeshift tent using a rain poncho, some string, and your trekking poles. Whatever method you use, make it light so as not to encumber yourself too much.

Extra food

If you bring a bar and an apple, you’re probably carrying enough nutrition for a three hour hike. However, if something turns that three hour hike into a two day survival situation, the bar and the apple aren’t going to cut it. Bring extra food, preferably in calorically dense forms such as nuts, peanut butter, chocolate, etc. This will help keep your stomach full in the event that you have to spend an unplanned night somewhere.

Extra water

Not carrying enough water is one of the most common mistakes people commit on a trail. Your best bet is to carry more water than you’ll be able to drink. I almost always carry a gallon on me if I’m planning to hike more than 5 miles, and something like 6 liters if it’s a much longer hike. And yes, also bring electrolyte supplements in some form or another, as sweating leaches those electrolytes from your body, and water is not enough to replenish them. If you have more water than you need for a day hike, it may end up being just enough to get through an unplanned night or two. Think about Aron Ralston drinking his own urine in a slot canyon, and you’ll understand why it’s important to tank up.

Extra clothes

The tank top/yoga pants and the shorts/wicking tee crowds might thrive on a day hike on a warm day, but that type of clothing will do very little to insulate you should weather change, as it frequently does in the mountains and deserts. Extra clothes in the forms of layers (one for wicking, one or more for warmth, and one water resistant item for weather) will help keep you warm should weather change or should your day hike turn into an unplanned night hike. The same can apply for headwear (a lightweight beanie) or even your hands or feet (an extra pair of thick wool socks or gloves).

The Eleventh Essential

This last essential, which I’ve taken it upon myself to add to the list, isn’t necessarily an object you carry around in your pack. Instead, it’s the knowledge you carry in your head about what you can expect on the trail. You arrive at this knowledge through preparation, which includes studying a variety of information sources to find out what kind of conditions are present on the trail. It includes studying maps ahead of time and throughout your hike to understand the topography as a means of remaining oriented. It includes understanding rules, regulations, and trail safety/ethics considerations that you’ll need to abide by as you hike. It includes understanding what the weather conditions will be like and how they may evolve throughout the day. It includes leaving a detailed itinerary with a loved one, sticking to the itinerary, and reporting back upon your hike’s completion.

 

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