The 10 Essentials of Hiking

I once went on a hike with my friends and at a point, we were stranded. I volunteered to go ahead and find out the route. Before I knew it, the sun had set and neither did I identify the trail, nor could I get back to my friends.

I had to wait until the next morning, and by the time my friends had gotten help to find me. 

Since then, I never underestimated the essentials of a backcountry expedition. In this article, let us take a look at the 10 essentials of Hiking, and some helpful tips beyond the 10 essentials that I’ve penned down based on my personal experiences.

The Ten Essentials of Hiking by The Mountaineers

The Ten Essentials of Hiking, was coined by the Mountaineers in the third edition of the book Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills. 

While you determine what keeps you safe, and what goes into your hiking daypack, the essentials should be in place. They turn out to be life-savers in emergency situations, and that’s why you should be aware of them. 

1. Navigation

Staying on your route and knowing where you are, is of foremost importance when it comes to backcountry hiking. The five navigation tools that aid us in this, are as follows: 

Map

Being from a digital era, we have gotten too used to digital maps. And to us, paper maps feel old school. But wait until the battery dies out, or you find yourself at a dead-end street while the instructions still say “In 200 metres, Take Left”. 😉

A topographic map is what should be your primary tool for navigation. Their depth of information and reliability makes them a safe bet. It’s best to keep it inside a resealable plastic pouch to protect it from rain.

A Topographical Map used for navigating in hikes

A Topographical Map that is typically used for navigation

Even if you are on a hike that doesn’t require topographical maps, I’d suggest you learn how to use them on trips like these. They’ll prepare you for challenging hikes ahead.

Compass

The map tells you where you are, but it’s the compass that tells where you should head next. They are portable, self-sufficient, and quick in orientation.

A compass used for navigation in backcountry hiking

A compass used in backcountry hiking

It’s wise to carry a magnetized compass which is made of lightweight base steel material. Make sure to understand how to use them in conjunction with maps.

GPS Device

Global Positioning System shortly known as GPS, determines your location on a digital map. There are two ways you can use this:

Sl.No

Using a standalone GPS device

Using the GPS app on phones

1.

You save your hiking route from a laptop to the GPS device.

You save the online/offline hiking route in the GPS app on your smartphone or smartwatch.

2.

Rugged and Weatherproof.

Fragile and requires extensive care.

3.

Comparatively more difficult to use. 

Easier to use.

4.

Self-sufficient, and more reliable.

Subjected to battery drainage and network issues. 

Personal locator beacon (PLB) or satellite communicators

PLBs and Satellite Communicators come of use when you are in an emergency situation. Say you are stranded in the middle of the forest without being able to contact anyone. They send your location info to commercial or government satellites which are used for the rescue operations. 

Altimeter

Altimeters measure two things to determine the elevation: Air pressure with Barometrics, and Location using GPS. Often it’s either of them or a combination of both. If you expect to be on a high-altitude trek, knowing your altitude can be important for your health precautions.

However, Altimeters are not an absolute must in most of the cases. The most common ones are Altimeter watches, whereas you also get digital & analog Altimeters easily.

2. Headlamp 

Headlamps not only illuminate your path at night, but also relieves you of the pain of holding it in your hands all the while. A light source at night is something you can’t do without, so make sure to carry enough replacement batteries. 

A head lamp used by a hiker at night

A head lamp used by a hiker at night

If you have a rechargeable one, it is wise to start your hike with a fully charged lamp. Weatherproof and Waterproof headlamps are also some features you could consider while buying one. 

Other objects of illumination are torches, lanterns and mobile flashlights. Nonetheless, Headlamps work best. 

3. Sun protection

Personally, this would top my list. Whenever I’ve hiked on bright sunny days, sun strokes & tans have always been very kind to me.

Sunburn, sun stokes or snow blindness are short term effects, whereas exposure to UV rays, premature aging of the skin, cataracts and skin cancer are long-term effects of continued exposure to sun.

Sunglasses

The eyes are most vulnerable to radiation, and hence require more care. Sunglasses protect your eyes from harmful UV radiation. There are two types of UV rays; UVA and UVB. Look for glasses that block at least 99% of UV light, including both UVA and UVB.

Eyes are sensitive when exposed to sun, snow, ice, water and high altitudes. This gives you more reason to wear them all along your hike, even on cloudy days as the sun's rays can still penetrate through cloud layers. It’s best practice to carry a spare sunglass, just in case.

Protection from Sun is an important essential of hiking

Protection from Sun

So, how do you choose your sunglasses? What do you need to consider?

Sunglasses are measured by VLT (visible light transmission), or the amount of light that can penetrate through the glasses.

  1. Glacier glasses should have a VLT of 5-10%.
  2. Sports Sunglasses ( doesn’t involve water or snow ) should have a VLT of 5-20%.

Sunscreen

Prolonged exposure of UV rays on skin can cause premature ageing and skin cancer after some years. Using sunscreen limits exposure of UV rays on skin.

  • Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen that blocks both UVA and UVB rays.

  • Use a Sunscreen with a sunburn protection factor (SPF) of at least 30. SPF 15 is good enough for short hikes and less exposure. If you expect snow and water, SPF of 50 is recommended.

  • Reapply once in every 80 minutes ( depending on the weather, the time of day, etc.), or apply a heavy coating in the morning when you start the hike. Sunscreen takes about 20 minutes to start working after application. 

  • Apply to all areas that are exposed. Regardless of whether you are using a sun hat.

  • Lip protection is also important.

4. First aid

Firstly, we try to avoid sickness and injury as much as possible during our hike. If at all something goes wrong, we need to be aware of the next courses of action. While packing a first-aid kit, you can either go for pre-assembled kits or you can curate your own kit to suit your individual needs.

Beyond owning a first-aid kit, knowing how to use them is of paramount importance. Hikers usually tend to underestimate this aspect, and panic when they have to use the first-aid kit on the hike. To avoid this, you can take a first-aid class to learn how to basic first-aid and CPR(Cardiopulmonary resuscitation), or watch videos by the manufacturers. Many first-aid kits also have instructions clearly written on them.

Here’s a useful video we found on the topic:

The first-aid kits have to be weatherproof, compact and sturdy. If you get first-aid kits from Outdoor shops, these aspects are taken care of. 

Here’s what a basic first-aid kit should include:

  • Bandages
  • Antiseptic
  • Gauze pads and dressings
  • tape
  • Roller bandage or wrap
  • Skin closures
  • Blister prevention and treatment supplies
  • Tweezers
  • Nonprescription painkillers
  • Nitrile gloves
  • Anti-inflammatory
  • Antidiarrheal
  • Antihistamine tablets
  • A needle
  • A topical antibiotic
  • Personal Prescriptions

5. Knife

Knives are indispensable assents of backcountry hiking, with it’s uncountable uses. They help in cooking, gear repair, first-aid, personal safety and what not! 

Pocket knives are best suited for backpacking and hiking. Along with a knife, a multi-tool repair kit is a valuable essential. You realize how important it is only when you are in desperate need of it.

A loud whistle can also be carried for emergency situations. 

6. Fire

When you go deep into the woods, you may run into situations where you would need to start an emergency fire. In that case, you need to have the means to start a fire and sustain it. 

Image of an emergency fire setup in an backcountry hike

An emergency fire setup in a backcountry hike

To start a fire in the wild, you’ll need the following:

  • Waterproof matches or disposable butane lighters

  • Fire starters: Cotton balls coated with Vaseline, Stoves, Chemical heat tabs, wood nuggets coated with chemicals, or a Fire Steel.

Here's a video on the topic:

7. Shelter

With sun protection covered, we also need to consider the other elements of Mother Nature - wind, rain and snow. Having an emergency shelter is an absolute must if you predict any of them, even on one-day hikes. They insulate you from the weather and retain your body heat, which keeps you warm, just like you are inside a cocoon.

The most common option for emergency shelters are Bivy Sacks ( get single use ones because they weigh very less ), ultralight tarps, emergency space blankets, plastic tube tents or in the worse case, just a large trash bag. Anything that works, right?! An insulated sleeping pad can be used to reduce heat loss while sitting on wet or snowy terrains.

Also, the weight of these shelters are close-to-none, and hence should be an indispensable part of your backpack.

8. Extra food

Pack an extra day’s food every time - this is a thumb rule for packing food for hiking. In case of emergency situations such as an injury or unpredictable weather, your hike can get extended, in which case you need to be prepared. 

While you are packing food, look for options that store well for long days, are calorie-dense, and are easily digestible. Nuts, dry fruits, sandwiches, granola energy bars, and candies are the best options. If you can cook, coffee, tea, cocoa, and soups work best in keeping your body warm.

Check out this article for Backpacking food ideas

9. Extra water

Hydration is very important during hiking to make sure that you stay rejuvenated. There are two things when it comes to hydration: 

  1. Carry sufficient water. When you start out on the hike, fill up your water bottle or hydration pack. Hydration packs help you drink water without slowing down the pace, but are heavier and difficult to clean. 

  2. Have a means of purifying water on the hike. It can be a water purifier or filter, chemical treatments or stoves for melting snow. 

A hiker carrying water and water purifier while hiking

A hiker carrying water bottle while hiking

For adults, ½ a litre of water per hour, and for children, ¼ th to ½ of a litre is ideal in moderate weather conditions. Based on your circumstances, carry as much as needed. 

10. Extra clothes

Packing extra clothes basically mean thinking about what you would need if you run into unplanned circumstances on your hike. The weather can turn nasty, it can rain heavily and they result in Hypothermia. 

Hypothermia is when your body temperature gets low, and cries for more warmth. To help prevent it, carry an extra set of the below clothing:

  • Underwear
  • Thermals
  • A set of top and pant
  • Gloves and Socks
  • Jacket
  • Hats

However, you also need to make sure that you don’t overpack and end up carrying heavy backpacks while hiking. Go for Dry-Fast Layers and Lightweight clothing. 

Download the 10 Essentials of Hiking Checklist below:

Beyond the Ten Essentials

Essentials vary from person-to-person based on a number of things; personal preferences, type of hike and terrain, the duration, previous experiences, etc. While the Ten Essentials can feel like an overdo, we feel that they have missed out on some of the basic stuff.

Not to worry, we got you covered. 

Planning your trip

Planning your trip is key. If you ask me, this is the most important essential of Hiking. There are so many factors to consider, some of which we will be listing below.

Weather Information

Don’t look outside your windows and predict the weather. Look up a reliable weather app, and check for the weather details for the entire day instead of just the overview of the day.

A Chosen Route

It’s quite possible than your destination has more than one hiking routes. It can feel adventurous to think of figuring out your route as you hike, but it’s dangerous. You could get lost, even with a chosen route at hand! 

Make a plan of which trail you are going to follow exactly, and have it outlined in your topographic map, or load it in your digital devices.

A well laid out path

A well chosen path

Read Guidebooks

Read a guidebook on the hike you are going to take, read about the other hiker’s experiences and have some handy tips in your hands. They are also a great way to get to know about the difficulty level of the hike and the nature of the route. 

They also have an emergency number that you can contact in case of any mishaps in your expedition. 

Bonus Tip: Stick to your trails and avoid shortcuts if it’s not an already-well-known path. Save your adventures for the next time you hike the same trail. 

Mobile Phones

When you go hiking, it is best to understand and separate the functions of your mobile phone and other devices. 

Phones are to be reserved only for communication in an emergency situation. For location, navigation and altitude, strictly use GPS devices. Using your phone might seem easier, but it can drain up the battery and strand you in the middle of wilderness. 

Proper Hiking Gear

The Ten Essentials does not talk about one of the most vital factors when it comes to hiking; The Hiking Gear, mainly Hiking Boots. There are hiking boots designed for different types of terrains and weather. Hiking Boots are worth the investment, and should never be underestimated because sometimes it just takes one slip to sprain your ankles.

Hiking Boots which are important essentials for hiking

Hiking Boots of a hiker 

Hiking pole is another accessory that I can’t do without on any of my hikes. It makes the ascend and descend so much easier. 

Other things that you could take on your hike are Binoculars and Umbrellas. Taking Trash bags are a great way to make sure that no litter is left in the forests. The goal is to make it a little better for the next person who will be on that trail. 

Hiking Boots vs Shoes vs Trail Runners: A quick video guide to choosing Hiking Footwear.

Download the 10 Essentials of Hiking Checklist

Feel free to check out the Car camping checklist and Backpacking checklist by Outdoorily. 

Below is an Infographic on the 10 Essentials of hiking.

The 10 Essentials of Hiking by the Mountaineers

Summary

Now that we have broken down the ten essentials of hiking, along with some super useful tips based on personal experiences, it’s time to pack your bags and go hiking. We wish you have an adventurous and safe hike!

Did you enjoy reading the article? Was it helpful? Do you have any useful points to add?

Let us know in the comments below 🙂

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