The 10 Essentials: Gear You Need to Survive a Backcountry Emergency

Have you ever ever wondered what you should pack in case you get into an emergency situation on a hike that doesn’t go as planned?

What should you carry in case you get hurt, lost, or run out of food or water?

No matter how experienced an outdoor adventurer you are, there is always the potential to get into trouble in the backcountry, and you should always take this possibility seriously.

A  list called the “Ten Essentials,” which was first developed back in the 1930 by an outdoor education and advocacy nonprofit called The Mountaineers, has become the most popularized piece of literature aimed at at answering these questions.

It is important to keep in mind that the Ten Essentials is not a set of rules or a list of specific gear.

Rather, it is a framework or list of guidelines designed to help outdoor adventurers pack the key items of gear that would allow them to survive to survive an emergency and at least one night outside.

As you will see, the pieces of gear you choose for each essential guidelines should be chosen based on the type of trip you plan on taking.

In this guide to the Ten Essentials, you will learn:

  1. why each essential is so important for survival
  2. exactly how to choose the right gear that will help you survive a backcountry emergency
  3. the tried and true gear that I recommend and have personally used for many years when packing the 10 essentials

The Ten Essentials

1. Navigation

These days, there are an endless number of advanced tools to help you navigate in the backcountry.

Many hikers rely smart phone apps (e.g. Hiking Project, All Trails, etc.), that provide detailed and accurate navigational data, including your current location on a trail map, even without cell service or internet.

However, if you think the old days of carrying and knowing how to use a map and compass are over, think again.

What would happen if you were to rely on your phone to navigate and it ran out of battery, got dropped in water, or for whatever reason, just stopped working?

How would you find your way back to the trailhead if you got lost?

Apps can be very practical and useful for most people, and there is nothing wrong with using them, but you must have a backup, and know how to use it.

A good rule to follow in the backcountry is to never rely on something for your survival that is battery operated.

If you do rely on battery operated equipment, make sure you have a backup (or two or three).

In order to avoid getting lost, it is also important to carry:

  • a topographic map: always carry a printed topographic map and know how to read it. These maps provide critical information about where to find water sources, altitude, landmarks, campsites, and more. National Geographic makes some of the best topographic maps available and they are available for virtually any area you could imagine hiking in the U.S. You can learn more about these maps here. Another great resource is the website caltopo.com, where you can plan your trip and print a detailed map for free.
  • a compass: a compass with a baseplate is an essential tool that will help you orient yourself to the landscape using your topographic map. The compasses are super light and you never have to worry about them running out of batteries.
  • a GPS device: GPS devices come in all forms and sizes, from large handheld devices to wrist watches. These devices use data collected from satellites orbiting the Earth and allow you to see and track your exact position on a digital trail map. They do not require cell service or internet, and often come with other practical features like altimeters (see next) and digital compasses.
  • an altimeter: altimeters allow you to track your elevation. I wouldn’t consider this tool essential (i.e. potentially optional), but when used in combination with a topographic map, it can help you important information about where you are on the trail.
  • a personal locator beacon (PLB): this is another tool that is not essential, but could potentially save your life. These devices typically have a button that you can press in an emergency, which will send a signal (via Satellite) to the nearest search and rescue monitoring center. This signal will provide search and rescue with your exact location so that they can immediately send a team to find you. Personally, I don’t consider a PLB optional and I always have one on me. I use, and highly recommend, the Garmin InReach Explorer+. It is a bit pricey and does require a small monthly subscription to operate, but it could be THE tool that saves your life one day. I love this device because not only does it have the SOS feature, but it is also a GPS device with topographic maps, a compass, an altimeter, and it allows you to send text messages and check weather. In other words, it checks every box and then some.

2. Headlamp

When things don’t go as planned and you end up in the backcountry after dark, it is crucial that you have a way to see.

Having a source of light will not only help you find your way back to the trailhead, but also the necessary resources and supplies you need to survive if you had to spend the night outside.

For this reason, you always want to have a headlamp or other type of flashlight.

Headlamps are ideal because you can see in the dark and use both of your hands at the same time. They are also small and compact.

My favorite headlamp that I use is the Petzl Actik Core Headlamp, which I recommend for the following important features:

  • it is small yet very bright
  • it has a rechargeable lithium ion battery that you can buy extras of
  • it has a red light option, which is important to preserve your night vision and reduce light pollution

You can also find decent cheaper headlamps like this Petzl Tikkina. Although they are usually not super bright or feature rich, they work great if all you need is light.

Pro tip: always remember to charge your headlamp the night before you leave for your trip and carry extra charged batteries. I love these Petzl spare batteries which I use for my Petzl headlamp.

4. First Aid

This essential should be pretty self-explanatory.

You never know when you could get hurt in the backcountry, and it is important to be prepared for potential injuries.

You can find many first aid kits on the market that can have everything you need if you choose the right one.

At the bare minimum, you should choose a first aid kit that includes:

  • blister treatment
  • bandages and gauze
  • pain killers
  • disinfectant

I always carry this Adventure Medical Kits Ultralight Watertight First Aid Kit. It is perfect for one person on a short day hike. I love it because it is super light and waterproof.

Keep in mind, however, that the type and length of your trip, as well as the number of people in your group, will affect the size and contents that should be in your first aid kit.

It is also very important to understand that even if you have a kit, it is worthless if you don’t know how to use any of it.

I highly recommend that if you spend any decent amount of time in the backcountry that you take a wilderness first aid course so that you are prepared to deal with medical emergencies.

A google search of “wilderness first aid course” and the city or state you live in should give you some options.

5. Knife

Knives are one of the most versatile tools you can carry because they can be used for everything from food preparation and gear repair to first aid and more.

Knives can be especially important to have if you get into an emergency situation as it is a tool that can be used to build shelter, start a fire, hunt, and for self-defense.

There are many different types of outdoor knives out there with a multitude of features design for specific uses, so you may have to do some research to find what works best for you.

In my experience, a folding pocket knife works best for all of my hiking and backpacking trips.

My favorite knife that I always carry is this Benchmade Griptilan Mini. It is a high-quality knife that is comfortable to clip onto the waistband of my hiking pants. It also is great for left-handed people (like me) because it has an ambidextrous design. They are made in the USA, too, which is also a bonus.

In addition to a knife, I’d also recommend that you carry a multi-tool and gear repair kit if you plan on a long day hike or backpacking trip.

I always carry the tiny Gerber Dime multitool, which I love because it is so small yet has so many practical tools that I use all of the time.

Other essential repair tools I always carry are string, safety pins, repair patches, and duct tape.

Pro tip: wrap a strip of duct tape around your water bottle (e.g. Nalgene) so you never forget it.

6. Fire

It is absolutely critical that you always have the tools and skill to start and maintain an emergency fire.

You should always carry:

  • a tool to ignite a fire
  • fire starters
  • backup fire igniter

Best Tools to Ignite a Campfire or Camp Stove

The most common fire starting devices that hikers and backpackers use are disposable butane lighters that you can buy at almost any convince store.

Make sure you carry at least two lighters that you have tested before you leave for your trip.

You can also carry use a flint lighter that you have to strike, but I find that these are not as easy to use as the butane lighters. For this reason I recommend that you carry flint lighters with you as your backup.

My favorite backup lighter is the Outdoor Elements Firebiner. Not only is it super light and reliable, but it also functions as a sweet carabiner/multitool that I can clip to the outside of my pack.

I don't ever recommend carrying matches because they don’t work well in wet conditions and are not reliable in the backcountry.

Best Fire Starters

A fire starter is used to get a fire going once you ignite it. They will sustain a flame for at least a minute or two so that you can get a larger fire burning with kindling and wood.

This is especially useful when you are trying to start a fire in wet conditions.

You can find many homemade options for fire starters on the internet like cotton balls doused in petroleum jelly, as well as other commercially made products.

I carry and recommend UCO Sweetfire Fire Starters because they work great and are also environmentally friendly.

Always opt for a fire starter that doesn’t have harmful chemicals when you can.

When to Bring a Stove

If you are going to be hiking in an area that you know has little or no firewood, it is advisable to bring a camp stove.

My favorite stove is the the Jetboil Campstove because it is light, efficient, and I have never had any problems with it other than the igniter breaking.

If you carry a backpacking stove, don't forget to bring fuel with you. You will want to purchase this type of fuel if you have a Jetboil. I also recommend getting a butane canister recycling tool like the Crunchit so that you can recycle your fuel canisters.

Pro tip: it is common for Jetboil stove igniters to stop working, so always bring your fire igniters/starters with you even if you do decide to bring a camp stove.

7. Shelter

A proper shelter can be the difference between life and death if you are faced with sleeping out in the cold.

Lightweight shelters designed to keep you alive in the most extreme survival situations include:

  • tarps
  • bivy sacks
  • emergency blankets
  • tube tents

These shelters are built to keep you dry and reflect body heat in order to prevent heat loss and reduce your chance of getting hyperthermia.

There are two shelters that I like and recommend. The first is the S.O.L. Emergency Bivy, and the second is the Go Time Gear Life Tent.

The bivy sack and tent are the two best types of shelters because they can protect you from elements like wind and rain, and they efficiently trap body heat.

The bivy is ideal if you are day hiking alone, especially in a treeless area like the desert. They are also very light. I use to carry the one mentioned above in my daypack while doing paleontological field work in the Utah.

The tent is best to carry if you have a partner with you and are going to be in forested areas where you will have the ability to tie it properly to a tree. I actually always have the Go Time Gear tent in my bag.

8. Extra Food

It is important to always have more food for you need in case you get lost, injured, and/or stranded.

A good rule of thumb is to carry at least one day of extra food on you.

It might be more depending on the length of your trip and the type of conditions you expect.

For example, if you are going to be doing a winter hike or snowshoe trip, you might want to carry even more extra food because eating will raise your metabolism and increase your body heat.

The emergency food you pack should:

  • not require cooking
  • be easily digestible
  • be calorie dense
  • store for long periods of time

Things like granola bars, nuts, and dried fruit are great examples of good emergency food.

Keep in mind, however, that if you are in a very cold environment, your food might freeze to the point that it is too hard to eat, so choose foods that you can eat even when the temperature is below freezing.

9. Extra Water

Water is the most essential thing you will need to survive if you are in the backcountry longer than expected. The average person cannot survive more than 3-4 days without water.

It is therefore critical that you not only carry more than you think you will need, but also the tools and skills to find and properly treat it in the event that you run out.

Water is very heavy, so I find that a lot of people don’t carry enough to get them through an emergency situation.

You should NEVER drink untreated water, even if it is from a crystal clear high alpine stream, because it could contain harmful protozoa, bacteria, and viruses.

Some of the most common of these bugs are Cryptosporidium, Giardia, Salmonella, and E. coli, all of which could potentially wreck your gastrointestinal tract and make you severely ill.

Microscopic organisms are invisible to the human eye, which can make “clean looking” water potentially dangerous.

Some methods for treating water included:

  • water filters (e.g. pumps and gravity filters)
  • UV light purifiers
  • chemical treatment tablets
  • boiling water

My two favorite methods for filtering water for hiking and backpacking trips are:

  1. Sawyer Mini Filtration System
  2. Steripen UV Water Purifier

I actually use both of every time I treat water to ensure my water has no germs.

Both of these tools are super light and effective, so I always have them in my pack.

No matter what, I also recommend that you always carry a LifeStraw for extra insurance. I'd argue that a LifeStraw might be one of the most important items in your pack.

You can learn more about each of these water filtration methods, including the pros and cons of each method, in my water treatment guide here.

Water treatment, however, should not be used as a replacement for carrying an abundant supply of water unless you are absolutely certain (from researching maps, reading recent trip reports, etc.) that there will be a place to collect and treat water on your hike, AND you are confident that you will not get lost (i.e. you know how to navigate).

How Much Water Should You Carry on a Hike?

This depends on the length and intensity of your hike, the temperature, humidity, altitude, and other environmental factors that you will be hiking in.

A general rule of thumb is to drink about half a liter (i.e. half a Nalgene) per hour of moderate activity in a temperate climate.

You will need less water when hiking in:

  • a colder environment
  • a humid climate
  • a low altitude

You will need more water when hiking in:

  • a hotter environment
  • a dry climate
  • a high altitude

Determine how long you plan on hiking (note: always overestimate how long it will take to complete your hike), and aim to always have as least 1/2 a liter in your pack for every hour that you plan on being on the trail before you finish your hike or resupply at a water source.

Also, you should take into account how abundant water will be along your hike.

Study your map to see how many rivers and streams you will encounter along your trail.

This will give you an idea of how much extra water you should take and opportunities to resupply water in case you get too low.

For example, if you are hiking in the desert (e.g. Utah, Arizona), I highly recommend that you take way more water than you think you need, a carry as much as you possibly can.

Not only do you need to drink extra water in hot, dry regions to stay hydrated, but there is virtually no water to resupply with in most parts of the desert. If you get lost, dehydration could quickly become life threatening.

When I was doing paleontological work in the Arizona desert, I always started my day with over a gallon of water in my pack. It was heavy, but necessary.

When I’m hiking up in the mountains where I am familiar with the trail and know there will be a river to fill up my water supply, I usually only take 1-2 liters with me, along with the Sawyer Mini, Steripen, and LifeStraw.

10. Extra Clothes

Weather can be highly unpredictable and change dramatically, especially in certain regions of the country, like the mountains and the desert, where afternoon storms are both erratic and dangerous.

Here in Colorado, even when you check the weather ahead of time (which you should always do as part of you pre-trip planning), the forecast often turns out to be wrong.

This is why it is so important to have extra clothes in your bag that you could put on if you need to brave the elements in a way that you didn’t expect.

When deciding what extra clothes you should bring, choose items that would protect you from the most extreme weather conditions that you could potentially get caught in.

The best way to dress when on outdoor adventures is to layer your clothing.

Ideally, you should be prepared to add or remove layers depending on the environment and your level of comfort or activity level.

As someone who lives in Colorado and who gets cold quite easily, I always carry:

  • extra warm layers (e.g. fleece, warm jacket)
  • high quality rain gear (e.g. rain coat, water resistant pants)

The type and amount of extra clothes you carry will depend on your trip type and length, but I’d recommend always carrying rain gear and at least one warm layer.

You might also consider carrying:

  • an extra pair of socks
  • a hat (if not already wearing)
  • gloves
  • a neck gaiter
  • compressible down jacket

A final tip here is to avoid wearing/bringing cotton clothing because this fabric is heavy, absorbs too much sweat, and isn’t great for regulating your body temperature compared to other fabrics like merino wool, down, or synthetic fabrics (e.g. polyester).

3. Sun Protection

As you probably know, exposing your skin and eyes to the sun for a prolonged period of time can lead to sunburns, premature aging, and increase your risk of developing cataracts and skin cancer.

When you spend time outside, you expose yourself to harmful rays from the sun called ultraviolet (UV) radiation.

In order to limit this exposure while still enjoying the outdoors, it is recommended that you use sunscreen, sun protective clothing and sunglasses.

Here are some guidelines on how to choose each of these three items and some of my personal recommendations:

Sunscreen

  • Choose SPF 30 or higher, which will block at least 97% of UV rays.
  • Choose a sunscreen that blocks both UVA and UVB rays. It should be labeled “broad spectrum” on the bottle if it does.
  • A water/sweat resistant formula is ideal if you plan on doing prolonged physical activity outdoors.
  • Reapply sunscreen about every two hours.
  • Don’t forget your ears, back of your neck, and lips (e.g. use a SPF 30 lip balm).
  • Check the expiration date to make sure it hasn’t expired.
  • Bonus: choose a sunscreen that doesn’t contain chemicals known to harm coral reefs and marine life. I highly recommend that you learn more about this problem here.
  • Bonus: choose a sunscreen that is biodegradable - remember, leave no trace!

My favorite sunscreen right now is Alba Botanica Soothing Sunscreen. Not only does this sunscreen check all the boxes listed above, including the bonus points, but it also smells and feels great on your skin.

Sunglasses

  • Choose sunglasses that block 100% of UV radiation
  • Choose sunglasses that are waterproof, drop-proof, and can take a beating.
  • Bonus: choose a pair that wraps around your eyes so that they protect your eyes from light coming through the top and sides.
  • Bonus: choose sunglasses with polarized lenses. Polarized lenses filter reflected light and reduce glare and reflections (e.g. on water), therefore helping you to see better.

I have worn these Oakley Radar sunglasses nearly every day for about 6 years now for all of my outdoor workouts and adventures, and I have nothing but good things to say about them. They are extremely comfortable, provide to notch sun protection, and have held up very well considering all of the wear and tear they have gotten. They also look really cool!

Sun-protective clothing

  • Wear a hat to cover your face.
  • Some fabrics are designed specifically for sun protection and have what is called an Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF). Clothes with a UPF rating of 50+ will block about as much light as SPF 30 sunscreen.
  • Choose clothes with synthetic fibers (e.g. polyester) and denser weaves as these tend to be better at blocking the sun.

Sun protective clothing was an important part of my wardrobe when I was working long days in the desert sun as a paleontologist. My favorite summer outdoor sun protective shirt is the REI Sahara Button-Up because of how light, attractive, and well-made it is while still looking outdoorsy/professional.