As a part of our backpacking for beginners series, our resident backpacking expert Jason shares tips on The Ten Essentials of Outdoor Travel as established by mountaineer and wilderness guide. Our Backpacking for Beginners Series will include the following articles:
- Ten Essential Systems for Outdoor Travel
- Essential Backpacking Gear
- Planning Your First Backpacking Trip
- Packing your Backpack Properly
- Tips For The Trail
Below are some related articles you might like:
- What to Consider When Buying a Backpacking Pack
- Guide to Buying a Backpacking Tent
- What to Buy FIRST for Your First Backpacking Trip.
- Getting into Shape Before a Backpacking Trip
- Top Considerations When Buying a Sleeping Pad
Backpacking has become more accessible than ever.
I remember camping as a kid: my dad had a giant tent and it was complete with cots, pads, sleeping pads, plush pillows, fans in the summer, heaters in the fall – and we always camped in a campground with showers, flushing toilets, often a pool and game room. Does this sound like you?
My dad and I really loved camping. He and I would sit for hours around the fire at night and just talk. In the morning and evenings, we’d fish in our small fishing boat on the nearby lake. I like to think my dad would have probably been more… well… rugged about the whole thing if he didn’t suffer from arthritis in his back. The truth was, If my dad didn’t get a good nights sleep while camping, he wasn’t just going to be a bit grumpy while fishing the next day, he was probably going to pay for it over the next few days with crippling back pain. Not cool. I understood the need for added amenities, and I got to enjoy them too, so I wasn’t complaining.
As I got older, I made friends with some guys that liked to canoe camp and fish – a hybrid, I’d say, between car camping and backpacking – you have more room to carry more gear in a canoe, but not enough room (or weight capacity) to bring the “kitchen sink”.
When I was introduced to backpacking in college, I learned the hard way those first few times that just because it might fit inside your pack (or strapped haphazardly to every open surface on the outside), doesn’t mean it needs to come. A loaded pack’s weight adds up quicker than you think and can quickly become an obnoxious but necessary companion on an otherwise peaceful trip.
Over the years I’ve found myself bringing less and less, and feeling better and better about it. There is something so special about carrying only life’s essentials on your back. It’s also rewarding and freeing when you begin to eliminate items from your pack that you once considered “essential”.
While campground camping is convenient – and right for a lot of people – backpacking allows you to get deeper into the backcountry, more immersed in nature, further away from others, and (at least I’ve found) much more in-tune with yourself. As with many once-considered “extreme” activities, backpacking has become more accessible than ever. Let’s dig into what you need to get started.
So, what’s considered the “backpacking essentials”?
You can’t discuss the “backpacking essentials” until you talk about The Ten Essentials for Outdoor Travel first. This is an industry standard list that covers two basic questions:
- Can you respond effectively in the face of an emergency?
- Do you have what you need to safely spend a night – or more – in the backcountry?
This list used to be ten specific items but has been adapted over the years to be a list of essential “systems” that should be in your pack, even when you plan to go hike for only a few hours. They should be in EVERYONE’s pack in your hiking party, every time, no exceptions. This is about safety, preparation, and ability to survive/handle an emergency situation, however rare. We’ll go through each of the ten systems below:
The Ten Essentials
Notice that right off the bat, the first essential isn’t just about packable items. This also assumes you possess the knowledge to use navigational tools correctly. This is also where most people go wrong. They go out for a day hike, without a map, take a wrong turn, and get lost. (Hence the creation of The Ten Essentials list.)
Be sure to ALWAYS have a topographical map of the area you’ll be in and ALWAYS carry a compass. You may choose other navigational tools like a GPS device or route markers as well, just be sure to bring the compass and map for backup. Many wilderness experts will also protect their map in lamination or a map case to keep their maps safe from the elements.
A Great Compass:
2. Sun Protection
This system includes sunglasses, sunscreen for your skin and lips, and clothing for sun protection. We’re hoping this one is pretty straightforward, but too many people underestimate the power of the sun to exhaust, burn, and flat out ruin a good time while backpacking. Bring sun protection with you, every time, whether you think you need it or not.
3. Insulation/Extra Clothing
You will be way warmer while hiking than when you’re resting in the campsite after a day on the trail. Also, many wilderness spaces, especially mountains and deserts, can have wildly variable weather patterns and temperature fluctuations. I’ve been in the mountains too many times when the weather has gone from 70 and sunny to snowing literally in a matter of minutes.
Based on the environment, season, and activity be sure layer your clothing and pack extra clothing to stay comfortable in the WORST possible conditions you might experience – even if you don’t expect it.
Even if you plan to make it to camp or return to your car before dark, it’s important to carry a headlamp or flashlight with you. Bring enough batteries that your lighting will still function in the event your batteries drain. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been so grateful I have my headlamp. Even on hikes where I spent more time taking pictures and exploring than I planned, I appreciated the flexibility to be able to extend my hike into darker hours.
A Headlamp We Love:
5. First Aid
Another knowledge + tools = essential system equation. Obviously, the best course of action is always to avoid injuries and accidents through proper preparation. It’s not enough to simply bring a first aid kit with you. You should understand how to apply first aid as well. You should have a relatively good understanding of the variables unique to wilderness first aid – where professional responders might be hours away – versus urban or classic first aid – where responders are mere minutes away.
If you’re interested or potentially planning on leading beginners down the trail with you, you might consider a wilderness first aid training course. However, most often, a thorough read through a wilderness specific first aid guide book will likely be sufficient.
First Aid Kits to Consider:
Waterproof butane lighters, waterproof matches, flint and steel – whatever you decide to pack as a fire starter must be absolutely reliable. Fire starters like waxed cotton balls, tinder tape, or other emergency fire starting elements are wise to bring along, just in case. Fires can be used for warmth, cooking, signaling a rescue, and even crucial psychological comfort. Fire is indispensable.
In places where firewood is nonexistent, bring a backpacking stove as an alternative heat source and cooking element.
7. Tools and Kits
This system is probably the most varied from backpacker to backpacker, but almost always includes an adequately sized knife, and elements to repair gear in the field. Many backcountry travelers choose to bring a multi-tool with them as well. Other items that might go into your kit include: duct tape, safety pins, needle and thread, cordage (such as paracord), extra clips, shoelaces, and hardware items potentially need for field repairs on things like skis, snowshoes, cramp-ons, tents and stoves.
Properly performing gear can mean the difference between surviving and not in a backcountry emergency. Be sure your knife is sharp (and large enough to handle camp tasks) before heading out and that you have everything you’ll need to field maintain your gear in the case of a malfunction.
8. Nutrition/Extra Food
Many experts recommend bringing an extra day’s supply of food than you’re expecting to be out. This will ensure that you have food to sustain you in the event of fouls weather, bad navigation, or injury. This emergency food supply should NOT require cooking, be easily digestible, and non-perishable (or at least store well for a long period of time). Popular choices include beef jerky, nuts, candy bars, granola, & dried fruits. Teas, soups, cocoa, and freeze-dried meals also serve well as emergency rations but require a fire or stove AND a good source of water in order to utilize them. Be sure your extra food suits the situation.
9. Hydration/Extra Water
Water supplies tend to deplete quickly. Not only does your body require more water due to the exertion of backpacking, often the environment we’re in can dictate and increase water usage; i.e. the desert, high altitudes, hot and humid temps like the jungle or tropics.
Be sure to consider how much water you’ll need each day of your trip and plan accordingly. In the desert, for instance, you’ll need to pack more water because of the lack of availability and hot temps. Similarly, near the ocean, you’ll need to account for the lack of fresh water. This means bringing plenty of water to begin with but also packing a method of filtering water in the backcountry.
International backpackers should consider water purification methods that include the elimination of viruses common in foreign water sources.
Water Filters We Love:
10. (Emergency) Shelter
Often the most ignored essential on the list, especially by day-hikers, the shelter shouldn’t be avoided when backpacking. Whether it’s a tent, tarp, or emergency blanket, having a waterproof shelter – just in case – is critical. In hot, sun-baked environments, one of these will also protect you from the sun – a difference maker even during a quick rest.
Summary of The Ten Essentials
The above systems were devised and combined by wilderness experts to address a variety of outdoor travel settings. Practice wise backcountry travel by packing these items with you on every trip: day-hike or extended trip.
Next, we’ll explore the additional items you’ll want for your overnight backpacking trips – including gear specific to backpacking/backcountry camping and clothing choices you’ll want to consider.