The Hiking 10 Essentials: Must-Have Gear on the Trail

Heading into the mountains? Learn more about the hiking 10 essentials and the must-have gear you need whenever you hit the trail.

Anyone venturing outside needs to be prepared for whatever might happen on the trail. From medical emergencies to getting caught out at night, there are plenty of mishaps that occur on your adventures.  That’s why you need the hiking 10 essentials with you at all times in the mountains.

Whenever you head on a day hike or backpacking expedition, there are a few pieces of gear that you should always have in your pack. The most important items to keep on you when you go hiking are referred to as the ten essentials of hiking because they include all the gear you’d need to survive a night in the wilderness.

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at these ten critical pieces of gear. From first aid kits, emergency shelters, water filters, and more, here are ten key pieces of gear you should always carry when you’re in the great outdoors.

The Ten Essentials of Hiking

The ten essentials of hiking and backpacking are the bare minimum gear that you ought to bring with you while outside. Carrying all of this gear might seem like a drag, but having this equipment on hand can help you survive a backcountry emergency.

With that in mind, let’s dive right into our list of the 10 essentials of backcountry travel that hikers and mountaineers should never leave home without:

1. First Aid Kit

First up: a first aid kit. Although you hope to never have to use it, a first aid kit equips you with everything you need to manage common medical emergencies on the trail. These emergencies can be as simple as a sprained ankle, or as complex as a broken leg. 

The first aid supplies you’ll bring will depend greatly on your personal medical experience. At the end of the day, medical supplies are only useful if you know how to use them. So there’s no real point in bringing a suture kit if you’re not an emergency room physician.

That being said, all hikers should bring an assortment of trauma and bleeding management supplies for soft tissue injuries, sprains, and fractures. Your first aid kit should also have over-the-counter medications for managing pain. You may also consider adding prescription medications to your first aid kit if you’re a medical professional.

If you’re new to wilderness medicine and outdoor safety, it’s often best to buy a pre-assembled first aid kit. These normally come with the basic things that you need for adventures on a variety of trails so you don’t have to search for individual items on your own.

However, if you’re already an experienced hiker or if you’ve taken a wilderness first aid or first responder course before, you may want to build your own medical kit. Just make sure that you know how to use all of the equipment that you carry so you’re ready for any emergency.

2. Headlamp

While a headlamp might not seem like a life-or-death piece of equipment, the reality is that anyone who spends enough time in the mountains will eventually get benighted on the trail.

If you’ve ever tried to hike down steep, rugged terrain in the wee hours of the night, you’ll know that it’s not easy to do. Tripping on a rock and breaking your ankle in the middle of the night certainly isn’t going to make the situation any more fun. 

Therefore, bringing a headlamp on all your adventures outdoors—no matter how short—is nothing short of essential.

Keep in mind that a headlamp is only useful if you have batteries to power it. You should always carry spare batteries before heading into the mountains. Trust us when we say that it’s no fun carrying a flashlight that doesn’t work when you’re trying to find a campsite in the middle of the night.

On the topic of flashlights, note that headlamps are the preferred choice for outdoor adventure. While flashlights are affordable, they require one of your hands to operate. Using a headlamp means your hands are available for navigating down rugged trails.

3. Knife

Most people who head outside carry a knife, so it should come as no surprise that knives have made our list of the 10 essentials for hiking. A knife is one of the most useful and versatile tools available because you can use it for everything from food prep to gear repair.

That being said, you’ll often see people outside that pack large knives on every trip. If you truly prefer to carry a long fixed-blade knife in your pack, by all means, go for it. However, you can usually get by just fine with a small, relatively lightweight folding pocket knife.

Alternatively, you could carry a multi-tool instead of a standard folding knife. Multitools that come with a pair of pliers or a set of screwdrivers can be particularly helpful, especially in emergency situations or when you have broken gear.

Keep in mind that multitools tend to be heavier and more expensive than classic pocket knives. But if you want extra functionality in your gear, they’re a great thing to carry in the woods.

4. Fire Starting Tools

Campfires have long been a popular part of outdoor adventure, but they can be indispensable tools in an emergency, too. In addition to keeping you warm and comfortable if you’re stuck outside overnight, a fire can be a convenient way to cook food or to signal to search and rescue teams. They can also provide some protection from the bugs.

However, unless you’re a skilled survivalist, you’ll likely find that starting a fire without special tools isn’t particularly straightforward. As such, it’s essential that you bring fire starting tools, like a lighter or a set of waterproof matches, on every adventure.

In addition to lighters and matches, you might also want to bring some firestarter. When you’re working with wet wood or rainy conditions, purpose-built firestarter can help get your fire going quickly so you can sit back and enjoy the heat.

There are plenty of commercially available firestarters out there, or you can make your own. 

Some folks choose to take little cotton balls and dip them into petroleum jelly to create their own fire starters. You can place these highly flammable cotton balls into an old medicine bottle and pack it on your hike. Then, place the cotton balls in your firepit for some extra help getting things going in the rain or snow.

5. Navigation

A solid set of navigational skills is a must for any outdoor enthusiast. But proper navigation in the wilderness requires having the right gear on hand for the task. This means bringing a paper map and compass on every hike, no matter how short. It’s also worth bringing a purpose-built hiking GPS as an additional tool for navigating off of a paper map.

While it might seem easier to use your phone’s GPS app for your trip, doing so is fraught with issues. Phones can and do break and they don’t perform well in cold, wet conditions. If your phone’s GPS app stops working, you’ll be out of luck if you don’t have a map and compass on hand.

Note that a map and compass are great tools, but if you don’t know how to use them, they’re really just extra weight in your pack. Learning how to read topographic maps and how to navigate using a compass should be a priority for any new hiker. 

At the same time, hikers shouldn’t overlook the importance of using GPS devices and maps together. While you can’t rely solely on a hand-held GPS, using one to aid your map reading skills can be very helpful. Just don’t forget to bring spare batteries!

6. Sun Protection

If you enjoy hanging out in the sun, the idea of having to protect yourself from it might seem a bit odd. But sun protection is a vital part of any hiking packing list, regardless of the time of year.

In fact, the sun’s rays can create conditions that are just as hazardous as any foul weather. Bluebird skies can quickly lead to sunburns, which can increase your risk for dehydration. In very hot and dry climates, this can happen particularly quickly, and it could result in a life-threatening condition known as heat stroke.

Furthemore, in high-elevation and snowy environments, the sun’s rays can injure your eyes. Snow blindness is a real and very painful condition that should be avoided at all costs.

To protect yourself from the sun, be sure to bring sunglasses, a wide-brimmed hat, and UPF-protective clothing for your skin. You can get purpose-built sun shirts that are made from light, moisture-wicking materials that are especially great to wear in hot and sunny climates.

7. Extra Clothing

Regardless of what the weather looks like when you head outdoors, you always need to bring extra clothing during your adventures. Conditions can change at a moment’s notice and if you don’t carry the right clothing, you can get dangerously cold and wet in a storm.

Nevertheless, the extra clothing you bring will depend greatly on where you’re hiking and what time of year you’re venturing into the mountains. For winter trips, an assortment of spare jackets and gloves with insulation is essential. But even summer trips warrant bringing an extra jacket or two, liner gloves, and a warm hat (in addition to a sun hat).

You should also always bring a rain jacket on your travels. Even in the desert, a rain jacket can be useful on the trail because it can protect you from the wind. Additionally, in very wet locales, rain pants are a must have in your pack.

8. Food

We humans need food to fuel our adventures, so it should come as no surprise that you should have extra food with you in your pack. Light, relatively easy to eat snacks should always come with you on the trail.

Furthermore, you should always bring a little more food than you think you might actually need. If you get lost or end up taking longer than you planned, having extra tasty treats on hand will make your journey that much more pleasant.

9. Water

While we can actually survive a surprisingly long amount of time without snacks, we humans won’t make it very far without water. Therefore, water should be at the very top of your list when you’re thinking of the 10 essentials that you should always have in your pack on the trail.

The problem with putting water in your pack is that it’s heavy. Trying to carry gallons of water while hiking simply isn’t feasible, especially if you’re looking to venture out onto longer trails. 

This means that trying to carry large amounts of water shouldn’t be your goal on a standard hiking trip. Rather, you should come prepared with a water storage system and a water filter or purification device.

Common water storage systems include water bottles and hydration packs. In addition to a storage system, you’ll also need a way to treat your water for safety purposes and to reduce the risk of waterborne illnesses in the backcountry. That’s why you need to carry a water filter or water purification tablets on every hike and trip outside.

10. Shelter

The final item on our list of the 10 essentials of hiking is a shelter. If you’re going backpacking, you’ll likely already have a shelter in the form of a tent that has enough space for everyone in your group. But, just because you’re going on a day hike doesn’t mean that you can forgo bringing a shelter on your trip.

Rather, day hikers should always carry some form of emergency shelter. This could be as simple as an emergency tarp or space blanket or as high-tech as a bivy sack. Regardless of which option you choose, be that a bivy or a tent, your shelter should be able to provide insulation and protection from the weather in an emergency.

Bringing a shelter on the trail for a day hike might seem like overkill. But if you need to spend an unexpected night outside, the hours will go by much faster in a tarp or bivy than they would if you were exposed to the elements.

Bonus Essentials: 5 Important Gear Items to Consider

At this point, you’re a veritable expert in the 10 essentials of hiking. But these 10 items aren’t the only things you should pack with you on the trail. In fact these 10 items are just the bare minimum you’ll need for safety on a hike. To complement the original list of hiking essentials, consider packing the following, too:

11. Appropriate Footwear

Hiking is hard. It involves moving over varied terrain, both on- and off-trail that can be rough and dangerous. Therefore, you should always wear appropriate footwear with you while hiking.

For many people, this means a pair of lightweight hiking boots or hiking shoes. For others, that might be a pair of trail runners. Regardless of what you wear, be sure that it fits well, has good traction, and is comfortable enough to wear for hours on end.

12. Communication Device

Cell service is non-existent in many wilderness areas, so you can’t rely on your phone if you need to call for help. Many people now bring a satellite communication device, like a Garmin InReach or a satellite phone with them on hiking trips.

These devices can provide more reliable communication with search and rescue teams, cutting response times down from days or more to just a few hours.

13. Trash Bag

A trash bag might seem like a silly thing to bring hiking, but it’s a great addition to your checklist if you want to practice Leave No Trace. Pack a small lightweight trash bag or plastic baggie so you can carry garbage that you find out of the mountains.

14. Repair Kit

When equipment breaks on the trail, what do you do? If you pack a repair kit, you can handle nearly anything that comes your way.

A small repair kit complete with duct tape, a multi-tool, and other similar items can prevent a minor inconvenience from becoming a real disaster on a trip.

15. Rain Gear

Technically, we already included rain gear under “extra clothing.” But rain gear is so important that it’s worth mentioning again.

Whenever you head outside, don’t forget to bring waterproof jackets and pants with you so that you can stay warm and dry when foul weather rolls into the mountains.


Here are our answers to some of your most commonly asked questions about the ten essentials of hiking:

What are the BSA 10 Essentials?

The BSA (Boy Scouts of America) have their own list of the ten essentials that differs slightly in wording from the more commonly used list of equipment. The Scout 10 essentials include a pocket knife, first aid kit, rainwear, extra clothing, flashlight, water storage, matches and firestarters, trail food, map and compass, and sun protection.

What Should You Not Take on a Hike?

Hiking is all about packing light so that you only have the essentials in your pack. Things that you shouldn’t bring on a hike include cotton clothing, jewelry, sensitive electronics, and expensive items. You should also avoid bringing large containers of toiletries, like sunscreen or anything that might get damaged in foul weather.

What are the Ten Essentials of Hiking?

The ten essentials of hiking are a first aid kit, extra food, water, navigation tools, emergency shelter, spare clothing, knife, fire starters, head torch or flashlight, and sun protection.

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