10 Essentials For Hiking

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You’re going on a front country trail for a simple day hike. Why would you need to pack a headlamp, extra food or clothing? What could go wrong? 

More than you might think! For example, sudden weather changes or an injury could extend your time on the trail, not to mention losing your way on the trail later in the day! 

In the 1930s, The Mountaineers, a Seattle-based organization for climbers, created the original 10 Essentials list, which has evolved into the 10 Essential Systems (the 10 Essentials) listed below.

The 10 Essentials

  1. Navigation & Communication 
  2. Illumination – headlamp 
  3. Nutrition – extra food 
  4. Hydration – extra water 
  5. Insulation – extra clothing 
  6. Firestarter
  7. First aid supplies 
  8. Sun protection
  9. Multipurpose tool and repair kit 
  10. Emergency shelter 

1. Navigation & Communication 

A key part of your day hike checklist is navigation and communication.

Navigation 

This is knowing your location and where you’re going on the trail. One or all of the following items should be part of your navigation toolbox: 

  • Bring a guidebook of the specific area and either bring it along with you or at least take photos of the relevant pages or a photo of the map posted at the trailhead.
  • Carry a trail map of the specific area. You can download official trail maps from the Parks Canada and Alberta Parks websites or purchase a map from a local retailer. 
10 Essential Systems Checklist For Hiking

Taking a photo of a map posted at the trailhead can also be helpful.

  • If purchasing an inReach® device is outside your budget, there are free and paid map apps, such as Canada Topo, Gaia, Fat Map or CalTopo, that will download an area map to your cell phone. These will work without cellphone coverage. 
  • Remember, you must download these apps before you hike! You can’t rely on being able to access Wi-Fi or digital data links when you’re in the woods.

Important: Don’t rely solely on crowd-sourced hiking apps. They may be a good place to start your research, but always check the official trail reports and trail closures listed on the Parks Canada and Alberta Parks websites. 

Communication and signalling devices 

Cell phone coverage is never guaranteed when hiking or driving in the mountains. If possible and within your budget, purchase a satellite communication device such as a Garmin inReach® or a SPOT messaging device.

inReach® and SPOT Satellite Messenger® (SPOT) communication devices 

Both devices use satellite connections to communicate with other devices, including non-satellite devices, such as your cell phone.  Here are a few key points to know about them:

  • They both require a monthly paid subscription plan to keep them activated.
  • They can also be used for navigation.
  • They are handy to pack in your car when taking a long road trip with limited or spotty cellphone service. 

You can learn more about these devices and their plans from the following websites:

Important: Even if you have one of these devices with you, it’s always a good idea to leave a Trip Plan with a responsible individual who is not hiking with you, and instructions as to what to do if you don’t arrive home on time. 

Whistles

These are an important part of your communication strategy. Every member of your hiking party should carry a whistle. Here are some key points to keep in mind about whistles:

  • Purchase a durable plastic whistle, not a metal whistle. Cold metal in the winter can stick to warm lips! 
  • Pealess whistles are much preferred. Frozen peas will not provide the level of sound required to get attention, making the whistle useless. 
  • Attach the whistle to your pack in an easily accessible location, such as a top pocket, so you can find it easily when needed.

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This JetScream whistle is loud!

Safety tip: Learn the SOS signal

  • The standard emergency SOS signal is three loud, three-second blasts, three times in a row.  Then wait three seconds before the next three blast sequences. 
  • Make sure that everyone in your group has the same understanding of this protocol. 

2. Illumination – headlamp 

If you end up on the trail at nightfall or are heading out before sunrise, you will need a headlamp with a minimum rating of 250 – 350 lumens, as this will provide enough light to hike safely in the dark. 

Before you hike:

  • Make sure every walking member of your hiking party has a headlamp.
  • Always check headlamp batteries regularly and pack extra batteries. 
  • Charge rechargeable headlamps before you go.
  • If possible, pack a portable charger to recharge headlamps if your time is extended on the trail.
  • Carrying a flashlight will only leave you with one free hand, which is why headlamps are strongly recommended for extra safety.
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The Petzl Actik Core Headlamp is provides more than enough light. (photo from Amazon)

3. Nutrition – extra Food 

Always carry a full day’s supply of high-energy snacks in case you need to extend your time on the trail. You can also use this emergency supply if you get delayed on the way to or from the trailhead.  

Here are some non-perishable, high-energy snack suggestions to tuck in your backpack:

  • Dried fruit
  • Granola and protein bars
  • Beef jerky
  • A nut-based trail mix. (as long as there are no nut allergies in the group)

4. Hydration – extra water

Many of the hikes in this book are near sources of water, which provides an option to gather, filter and replenish your water supply, but do this only if you can filter or purify your water safely.  Here are some options to carry on your hikes. 

Water filters

If it is in your budget, consider purchasing a small water filtration device. Here are a few examples:

  • The SteriPEN® Ultra UV Water Purifier is small and compact. The pen emits ultraviolet light that kills the harmful bacteria in the water. A smile icon pops onto the screen once the purification is complete.  Just remember to charge it before you head out for a hike.
  • LifeStraw® is another option for lightweight water purification. You can choose from a LifeStraw® Personal Water Filter or a LifeStraw® Water Filter Bottle.

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A SteriPEN ultra will remove 99.9% of harmful bacteria from the water.

Water purification tablets

  • Water purification tablets are less expensive, take up less room in your pack and are a good backup to keep on hand.

5. Insulation – extra clothing 

in addition to the clothing you are wearing for the day, packing extra warm clothing, even in the summer,  will help keep you warm if you need to spend extra time on the trail due to poor weather conditions, an injury, getting lost, or an animal encounter.

Here are the suggested extra items to pack in a water-resistant bag,  often called a dry bag:

  • Pair of wool blend socks.
  • Long shirt with some thermal properties for warmth.
  • Lightweight wool blend hat.
  • Lightweight mitts or gloves.
  • Seasonally appropriate insulated jacket or vest.
  • Hand & toe warmers for extra warmth.

Pack an insulated ground pad 

  • It will keep you dry and add warmth and insulation from the cold ground if you need to sit or lie on the ground for extended periods. 
  • Purchase a small pad that can be folded into the backpack or attached to the outside of your pack.
  • These don’t need to be expensive; a simple, inexpensive camping foam pad is sufficient.

The Therm-a-Rest Z Seat Cushion Insulated Sitting Pad is compact when folded and can be easily attached to your backpack. (photos from Amazon)

6. Fire sources

Always remember to carry three sources for fire making: matches, a wind-proof lighter, and a flint and steel. 

Matches

  • Purchase waterproof matches and place them into a waterproof container to ensure no moisture gets to them. 
  • Remember that there is no such thing as guaranteed 100% waterproof matches.  

Lighter

  • Lighters don’t always work at high altitudes or when it’s cold.
  • Pay the extra money and buy a wind-proof lighter.

Flint and steel

  • These are not always easy to use, so practice using them at home a few times before you need to use them in an emergency.  

Water Proof Matches and the RKR Outdoor Ferro Rod Flint and Steel (photo from Amazon)

7. First Aid supplies

Carrying a basic first aid kit is necessary for any day hike. A variety of first aid kits suitable for hiking, from basic to advanced, can be purchased online or at local outdoor gear shops, pharmacies and retail stores. 

Separate your first aid supplies into a primary first aid kit and a quick access first aid pouch

a. Primary first aid kit  

This kit contains the things that you would need for more serious injuries, such as sprains, breaks, deep cuts and lacerations. It can go at the bottom of your pack as it is not needed very often. Just remember to have a backpack that’s large enough to include it.

b. Quick access first aid pouch 

This kit is perfect for minor “owies” (scratches, bumps, bruises) and life-saving prescription medicines such as EpiPens, insulin, inhalers, and heart drugs. 

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Contents of a quick access first aid pouch.

8. Sun protection

A sun hat, sunglasses, sunscreen and sun protective clothing are all necessary for proper sun protection.  It is important that all members of your hiking party, including little ones, be protected from the sun. 

a. Sun hat

  • Wearing a hat keeps you cool and also reduces the possibility of heat exhaustion or sunstroke.
  • Make sure that every member of your hiking party has a sunhat.
  • Wear a wide-brim hat that shades your face, ears and neck to avoid sunburn.
  • Drawstrings are an excellent way to keep hats on in windy conditions.
  • Most hats for little ones can be adjusted to fit as the child grows.

DYK: For every 1,000 meters of elevation gain, the sun’s intensity increases by 15-20%. 

Trail tip: Cover up, use sunscreen and stay hydrated. Also, remember that the sun’s intensity is substantially higher in the middle of the day compared to early morning and evening.

b. Sunglasses 

 Sunglasses don’t need to be expensive to provide adequate protection. 

  • They should protect your eyes from the UVA and UVB sun rays, which are present even on cloudy days. 

  • Sunglasses with larger lenses will provide better protection.

  • Wraparound lenses are best, as they keep all UV rays out of your eyes. 

c. Sunscreen and lip balm that protects from UVA and UVB sun rays

  • Apply sunscreen and lip balm with a minimum of SPF 20  is recommended; a higher SPF rating is encouraged. 

d. Sun protective clothing

The more skin you can cover up, the better your protection. Ultraviolet protective clothing (UPF) comes in various UPF ratings. The higher the rating, the better the ability to block UltraViolet rays (UV). This clothing can be an expensive option.

  • Tightly woven clothing, like a summer weight wool top, will limit the penetration of UV through the fabric and will provide UV protection without the high cost of some UPF clothing brands. (Canadian Cancer Society)

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Im being sunsmart and wearing my Tilley sun hat, a pair of wraparound sunglasses, and a long-sleeved shirt with a UPF Rating of 30. I applied sunscreen on my legs and face before I left for my hike, and packed a small bottle so I could apply more sunscreen during the hike.

9. Multipurpose tool and repair kit

Your multipurpose hiking tool should be small, lightweight and simple.

  • You don’t need one with 30 different features, as that adds extra weight. 
  • The Leatherman tool and Swiss Army knives are two popular multi-purpose brands.

When choosing a knife or multipurpose tool, ensure they have the following features:

  • Knives – a few different sizes.
  • Saw blade – for use on small twigs and branches.
  • Scissors – strong enough to cut through thick material.
  • A flat screwdriver to help tighten the tiny screws on the hiking polesà

Swiss Army Knife (photo from Amazon)

The Leatherman Wave Plus is the multipurpose tool that I use. (photo from Amazon)

Repair Kit 

Here are a few suggested key items to place in your repair kit:

  • Duct tape or a strong weatherproof tape such as Tenacious Tape.

  • Zip ties, paracord or long shoelaces.

  • Safety pins

  • Scissors and a small knife (if not already available on your multipurpose tool)

10. Emergency shelter

An emergency shelter will protect you from the elements: rain, snow, sleet, hail, wind, and sun. You can survive for three (3) hours without shelter in a harsh environment, but with proper cover, you should be able to survive for three(3) days.   Here are a few suggested types of emergency shelters. 

Heat-reflective emergency blanket or bivvy bag

 

  • The metalized fabric retains 90% of your body heat, keeping you warm!

  • Lightweight, easy to pack, waterproof, and windproof. 

  • Ideally, each person in your hiking party should carry one.

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A SOL Heat-reflective emergency blanket is lightweight to carry and easy to pack in you backpack.

SilTarp Shelter

This is a lightweight, rectangular-shaped, silicone-impregnated nylon tarp that you can turn into a tent-like structure.

  • Some have handles allowing the tarps to be turned into a soft stretcher to carry injured individuals, which is a great additional use for these. 

  • They are expensive compared to other hiking shelter alternatives and take up a bit more room in your backpack than the SOL heat-reflective emergency blanket. 

  • They come in different sizes. If you purchase one, make sure it is large enough to cover your family should you need to use it. 

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Make sure your SilTarp Shelter covers everyone. Millie, my dog, decided to photobomb this photo.

Packing the 10 Essentials is an important part of preparing for a day hike.

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