It takes time and practice to figure out who you are as a backpacker. Regardless of your backpacking style there are basic rules and equipment you will need. I can tell you to pack the “Ten Essentials” but theory only goes so far. My purpose is to make theory applicable and let you experiment from there.

Theory One: The Ten Essentials

Great, but what is that?  When I started solo hiking/backpacking, I had no idea what people were talking about. On the other hand, the concept was familiar. My dad was an excellent outdoor teacher but he had never once called it ‘The Ten Essentials.’ He showed me what to pack and made sure I knew why.

When I was new at the solo game new at the long distance backpacking game and I followed what people I thought knew what they were doing said. Sadly some of them either did not really know or we failed to communicate effectively. Most of them had deviated away from essentials to essentially cool gear. I have seen people pack things they said were ‘essential,’ which I have never needed or thought I might need. Don’t get me wrong, I like cool gear, but it is less than essential if it does not fit into the ten essentials.

1) Navigation: You need to know where you are going, and how to get there. GPS’s fail, cell phones die. Being lost is unpleasant at best and deadly at worst. You need to own and know how to use a topographical map and a compass. You also need to be mentally and emotionally prepared to be lost. Before any trip mentally imagine yourself getting lost and imagine what your steps to get unlost will be. Anything more than a map, compass and mindset is optional.

2) Sun Protection: Sunstroke can kill you in the back country. Sunburn can be anywhere from irritating to life threatening if it blisters and becomes severely infected. Cover up as needed with: sleeves, pants, hats, bandanas and sunglasses. Wear sunscreen, keep hydrated and find shade when necessary.

3) Insulation: Hypothermia and Hyperthermia can and will kill you if you let them. Dress in layers. Each piece of clothing (except a pair or two of socks) should have a job when it gets cold and wet. You need one of each type of layer and you use them all if it snows in July (and it does snow in July in some places.) The layers are: a base layer (x2 in cold environments), a comfort layer, an insulating layer (x2 in cold environments) and an outer layer respectively. No matter where you hike layering does not change, what the layers consist of changes but the layers are the same. What you need to know more than anything is controlling body temperature means modifying (heating or cooling) your core’s (torso, groin, head and neck) temperature. Your limbs take care of themselves if you take care of your core. These layers can be washed and you do not need more than 2 pairs of anything except socks which shall be washed if you value your feet. After those layers, you can pack whatever the heck you want for spares, but you do not ‘need’ any spares.

4) Illumination: Hiking in the pitch black is dangerous at best and deadly at worst. A day will come and for some reason you will have to hike in the dark to prevent something much worse than hiking in the dark. On that day, you will be glad you packed a headlamp and batteries on every trip, and will never question the need again.

5) First Aid: After the first four points this one is obvious. Infections, wounds, insect stings, burns and blisters. If you are cracking this bad boy out, at best you are one step above serious trouble and at worst dying of something. I hope you never need this kit but when you do, you need to know: what is in it, how to use it, and how to signal for help. Pack a kit you know how to use. If you are specially trained your kit may have different things. Do keep the weight low by multi-purposing items where possible but don’t end up in a situation where you should have had something and don’t.

6) Fire: This goes hand in hand with insulation and first aid. If you need a fire to keep you safe and alive, you need a fire fast. An emergency is not the time to find out lighters don’t work well cold and not to have a back up. Emergencies are also not the time to discover your matches have been soaked and can’t light, or to figure out how a flint works, or to try to remember how to trail scout a bow drill. You need at least two reliable methods of ignition with you. Fire requires oxygen, heat and fuel. To start a fire you need a source of heat, tinder, kindling, fuel wood and a way to at least partially extinguish it if it goes rogue. Being caught in a forest fire, you started, trying to save your skin is ill advised. High wood is dry wood. You need to practice this skill at home in a variety of conditions till you can have a blaze going in 20 minutes or less.

7) Repair Kit: For your own sake do not forget duct tape, you need it in the first aid kit and it works well as tinder and for gear repairs. Add in zip ties, TearAid Type A and a cutting apparatus. Most things can be repaired with those. Additionally consider some gear specific supplies such as O rings for water pumps and stoves, tent pole sleeves if you have a pole type tent, a spare buckle or two, needle and thread, a little bit of wire, paracord, a tiny tube of Superglue (can be used for first aid as well) and or a commercial outdoor glue. Watch the weight but don’t end up looking like a numpty borrowing a strangers repair kit or worse having a long hike with something very essential like water filtration being faulty.

8) Nutrition: You need fuel, hikers need tons of carbs, fats, nutrients and good nutritional understanding. If you hate something at home you will still hate it in the backcountry. Find things you like to eat and experiment. Your least likely cause of death in the backcountry is starvation. However, being hungry lowers judgement and reasoning. Make sure you have enough and consume enough calories to keep your wits and pay attention to the other factors which can kill you if misjudged. Do your homework, figure out how many calories you need and figure out how to maximize caloric intake, while reducing weight and improving taste.

9) Hydration: You need water to function, you will loose motor skills, reasoning and die extremely quickly without water. Drink lots, save carrying one litre by drinking one at the source before you leave. Make sure you have more than enough to get to the next source. There are tons of products designed to filter, boil, treat, or pump water to make it potable. This can be as cheap or as expensive as you like. The major point is make sure the water you drink does not kill you or make you so sick you wish it would. Liquid bleach in a dropper bottle is cheap and can make water safe if you know how to use it or you can spend money on a purification system. The choice is yours, whatever the choice know how it works so you don’t accidentally drink some nasties with your H2O.

10) Shelter/Emergency Shelter: sually a night out in the backcountry is a planned event for a hiker. Occasionally, not so much. When planned: A good light, compressible sleeping bag, an insulating mattress and a shelter are required. Pick a tent/bivy/tarp which is light, stable. Make sure you know how to set up, how to repair and pick a campsite to minimize condensation and effects of wind and precipitation. If you are planning any other kind of shelter, know what you are doing. Snow caves can be a lifesaving skill and a fun overnight outing; they can also be deadly, learn from a professional who can guide you through the ins and outs.

As for emergency shelter: for a thousand reasons you may end up out for a night you were not planning, make sure it is not a night you are unprepared for. If you get lost on a day hike, lose your pack down the river or in any other bad situation: you need to be mentally prepared to protect yourself from what will be a miserable night. You should be equipped with an emergency bivy and/or a space blanket, paracord and some tyvek or large plastic garbage bags (preferably the bright orange ones) to get you through the night. I like to include these items even when I have a tent and full sleep system in case I become injured or otherwise incapacitated and cannot perform basic tasks such as setting up a tent or uncompressing a sleeping bag.

Now that we have a list of what are essentials which go on every trip there are a thousand things you can add to your kit. Ranging from nifty to comfortable but remain optional: plates, deodorant, pillows, toilet paper and hand sanitiser(not optional as far as I am concerned) bowls, cups, sporks, stoves, pots, pans, chairs, changes of clothes, extra sweater, wipes, one more pair of socks, GPS, camera, phone, toothbrush, bear canisters/bear spray (depending on the location this may be mandatory) stuff sacks, trek poles, pack liners, towels, trowels, bathing suits, umbrellas, cooking utensils, solar chargers, iPods, flask of something stronger than water, guide books… Need I go on? Pick your optional gear and keep tabs on if you use it or not. If not don’t pack anything you don’t use along for the ride.

Up next: Pack a Backpack Like a Boss: Part 2!

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