by Samarth Vasisht
The so-called “ten essentials” are a constantly debated and altered list within the backpacking community. Understanding what comprises the ten essentials and, most importantly, bringing them on every trip is a simple and easy way to ensure that you have a great time in the backcountry.
1. Navigation. Bring maps, a compass and, if needed, a GPS. Most importantly, know how to use these tools. Look around for a local backpacking or cartography club and take a topography class. Just understanding a topographical map and being able to read it is essential to staying safe in the backcountry. If you’re traveling into an area with poorly marked trails, bring a GPS. Getting lost in the woods is the worst, and it’s always nice to know where you are and how to get back if needed. Before you leave make sure to mark water sources and possible campsites on the map so that you can better plan your day.
2. Sun Protection. Ensuring that you stay healthy while backpacking is also very essential to having a good time and being able to continue comfortably. Sunscreen is great, but what’s better are clothes that are UV treated. Wear clothes that can protect you from the elements as well as keep your skin out of harm from the beating sun. If you heat up quickly and don’t like to have on long sleeve clothing, put a bit of sunscreen in a small bottle and reapply regularly; sleeping with sunburn is never comfortable. Also remember to bring sunglasses or a hat in order to protect your eyes from harmful UV rays. It might not seem that dangerous, but over time your eyes will thank you.
3. Insulation. Clothing matters. Especially during the colder months, it’s important to layer efficiently and have clothes to be comfortable at night. I also like to throw in sleeping bags/quilts into the “insulation” category because having a good, efficient sleeping bag or topquilt/underquilt combo is very important to have in the backcountry. With buying clothing and insulation, I always suggest a merino wool base layer, a fleece or a down insulated layer, and then a dependable hardshell to ensure that you stay dry. Additionally, having good socks and an insulating hat are also great ways to keep warm as it gets cold, especially at night. With sleeping bags, I always suggest renting or borrowing before buying. A good sleeping bag is an expensive and worthwhile investment, but there’s little reason to spend that money without knowing how you sleep outdoors or your needs space and weight-wise. I personally love down and would never go back to synthetic insulation, but to people who are in damp climates or are canoe/kayak camping, synthetic insulation is a better call. Remember to make a good investment and ensure that you understand your needs before buying a sleeping bag. Go to a local outdoor shop or talk to your friends to see what they think would be best for you, and of course, do your research.
4. Illumination. Headlamps. These are honestly the best investments you can make in your camping purchases. They’re super useful around camp and are great for just having around the house or for walking around at night. I always have mine clipped to my hammock ridgeline for easy access. Buy something cheap but functional. Make sure to have a red light mode and adjustable brightness settings. For most situations, you really don’t need anything more than 100 lumens, unless you expect to be night hiking or doing some adventurous spelunking.
5. First-Aid. First aid kits are important to carry but vary greatly from person to person. My suggestion is to get a pre-made first aid kit and then take out everything that you don’t really need. This is a great way to get most of the needed supplies. Finally, if you have any specific injuries that tend to act up, add the necessary treatments to your kit, throw it all in a small dry bag and leave it in your pack.
6. Fire starting. Fire starting is one of the things that I personally enjoy the most when camping. It’s a great way to unwind after a long day, and just having the warmth of a fire is awesome to be around. Fire starting can also be very frustrating if you don’t have very dry wood, knowledge or the proper tools. I usually prepare my fire kit by getting balls of lint and rolling them in Vaseline, and then finding a mini lighter and a couple matches. Throw this all in an old pill bottle and you’ve got yourself a fire kit. With fire starting, start small and make sure that your tinder is dry. As a ground rule, if it’s rained in the past 36 hours, you’re probably going to have a rough time finding enough dry wood to start a fire. Also remember to research and understand fire restrictions in your area, properly put out your fire, and stay safe.
7. Repairs. With repair kits, you take a lot of risk. Most of the time nothing will go wrong, but if something does go wrong and you don’t have the tools to fix it, well that leads to a terrible trip. I like to keep my kit pretty small and usually only take a multi-tool and some duct tape. If I know I’m traveling into bad conditions (…and camping in a tent) I’ll bring a pole repair kit. Other than that, most problems can be solved with a bit of ingenuity and tape.
8. Food. This is arguably the most important part of the camping list, and also the most option filled. Remember to always pack an extra day’s worth of food and stick to high calorie, high protein diets. If you want to cook your food, there are a plethora of freeze-dried food options; but if not, energy bars, dried fruit, and some trail mix will definitely keep you full. Camping days start early, so remember to eat a healthy, energy-filled breakfast and, most of all, stay hydrated.
9. Hydration. Depending on where you travel, hydration can be the easiest thing to manage or the most difficult. It’s important to stay hydrated when camping, and the best way to do that is to get a filter of some sort. I use a squeeze-based filter, but pumps, gravity filters, and chemical treatment options are all viable ways to obtain clean drinking water. A good ground rule to stick to is 4 miles/liter of water, but often times this can change based on weather, terrain and available water sources. My best suggestion is to get a hydration bladder and take a sip whenever you’re thirsty. Usually your body’s instincts will allow you to remain properly hydrated. Maintaining a proper electrolyte balance is also an important factor to think about when backpacking. I usually carry a 1 L bottle and make a electrolyte mix every morning out of water and a mix that you can get at most grocery stores. This ensures that I am both staying hydrated and that my muscles are less likely to cramp over the duration of the day.
10. Shelter. Having some sort of shelter is important to have so that you can comfortably rest after a long day of hiking. These shelters can vary from a simple tarp to a hammock set up that keeps you sheltered from the elements. When the weather is unpredictable, I will sometimes carry an emergency blanket or bivy, which is great for if your primary shelter fails and you need to stay warm. But most of all, remember to follow Leave No Trace guidelines and ensure that the space that you camp in will be available for future generations to enjoy as well.
This list of the ten essentials is what I see as the 10 most important things to have when backpacking. The list varies greatly from person to person, and you develop your own list of essentials as you spend more time backpacking. Just remember to enjoy the outdoors and share it with the people around you, and everything else will usually fall into place.