10 Essentials for Hiking and Camping: Explained in Detail

backpacking gear placed on a floor

When you think of the 10 essential pieces of hiking gear, you probably think “backpack” and “hiking boots” would be a good start. But while these are definitely useful for hiking, technically you could do without them and still survive.

The 10 Essentials for Hiking and Camping are known throughout the outdoor community and are solely for the purpose of keeping you safe. That is to say, I didn’t choose what was included on this list. Outdoor safety experts have concluded that all trippers should carry these ten items if they are to be safe in the wilderness.

However, while this list exists in a hundred forms online with what to bring, none of them explain why you should be bringing it. So in addition to sharing with you what safety gear to bring on any day hike, I’ll also explain why it’s important and a few tips and tricks I’ve found along the way.

Okay, enough chit-chat. Let’s get going.

Note: While carrying this gear is an excellent start, if you want to spend a prolonged amount of time in the wilderness, I highly recommend taking a course on wilderness first aid training.

10 Essentials of Hiking Explained

1. Navigation and Communication

The general rule is to always bring a topographic map and compass with you when you go into the outdoors. Even if you have a GPS, you should still know how to use a map and compass (what if your GPS dies?).

Admittedly, there are a few circumstances where even the most risk-averse hiker doesn’t bring a map and compass. When hiking on a popular, well-defined trail in a national park, for instance, not everyone brings a compass and map. Should they? Technically, yes. But for total transparency, there are a lot of people who will tell you it’s unnecessary.

My advice? Here are some criteria to consider, and if you answer yes to even just one of them, you should bring a map and compass:

  1. You will be hiking overnight
  2. You likely will not see any other people on the hike
  3. There will be no cell service
  4. A park ranger or park staff has told you to bring a map and compass

If you answer yes to at least one of the above, I encourage you to bring a map and compass.

And if you don’t know how to read a topographic map and use a compass, there are dozens of YouTube tutorials to help, and (last I checked) both REI and MEC run local sessions on map and compass reading.

For communication, if you are hiking somewhere that has cell reception, you should bring a fully charged cell phone. If you are somewhere without cell reception, one person in the group should have either a satellite phone or an InReach.

Tip: Carry your map and compass in a waterproof case or Ziploc bag to avoid them getting wet. Also, if hiking with a cell phone, consider bringing your charging cable and a powerbank.

2. First Aid Kit

I’ve written an entire blog post on what to pack in a wilderness first aid kit. It’s a pretty comprehensive list, and you don’t need to bring everything for a day hike. At a minimum you should include:

  • Pocket CPR mask
  • Hand sanitizer and a few pairs of latex gloves
  • Anti-septic wipes, band-aids, a few large bandages and some gauze
  • Polysporin
  • Tylenol, Advil, Gravol and chewable baby Aspirin

I also keep a travel-size bottle of sunscreen, a few energy bars and Aqua-tabs in the first aid kit, but you’ll read more about those below.

>>This is a great wilderness first aid kit if you go on long trips.

3. Fire Starter Kit

When going into the wilderness, you should be able to make a fire at a moment’s notice. So what should you have in your fire starter kit?

  • Waterproof matches & lighter in a plastic bag
  • Flint and steel
  • Fire starter

Okay, maybe I’m a bit overkill, but I’ve always travelled with both matches, multiple lighters and flint and steel as a backup. Now that I’m writing it down, it definitely feels overkill!

At a minimum, I recommend having a lighter and flint and steel. The reason to bring caveman-era flint and steel is that, unlike matches and a lighter, if you get flint and steel wet it still works.

You should also bring a little fire starter. It may be difficult to find dry pine needles or birch bark suitable for building your fire. If you need to make a fire quickly, you should use all the advantages you can and fire starter offers a little cheat to help you.

Tip: Put cotton balls covered in vaseline in a small plastic travel bottle. The soaked cotton balls will catch the spark from the flint and steel quickly and can help you start a fire. You should practice lighting a fire with flint and steel in your backyard before you need to use it in the wilderness.

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4. Emergency Shelter

On an overnight camping trip, you’ll already have a tent and sleeping bag with you. But if you are out on a day hike and unexpectedly need to spend the night in the wilderness, you should have an emergency shelter. Any protection you can get from the wind and rain will keep you significantly warmer.

A bivy is a typical emergency shelter. It basically looks like a giant, usually orange, metallic sleeping bag that closes over your face. It’s orange to make it visible to other people, and the material traps your body heat to keep you warmer.

And a bivy packs incredibly small and inexpensive (the one I linked is $17). So it’s easy to buy once, throw it in your backpack and (hopefully) never have to use it.

In addition to the bivy, you can carry two industrial size garbage bags and some thin rope and duct tape to create a make-shift tarp. If it’s raining hard or windy, you get a little added protection.

Tip: Try making a garbage bag tarp in your backyard before you try it in an actual emergency. YouTube has tons of tutorials on this.

5. Headlamp

On a similar note to the above, if you find yourself spending the night outside it would be helpful to have some kind of illumination. Bring a headlamp and an extra set of batteries.

Bringing a headlamp might seem like a matter of convenience, but let’s say you’re stuck overnight and the fire dies. It’s really difficult to look for suitable wood in the dark. Likewise, if you’re injured you want to be able to check on your injury or rummage through your backpack to find things.

And no, your smartphone flashlight is not an acceptable substitute. That’ll quickly drain your battery and isn’t hands free.

Read more: What to Wear Hiking: Hiking Clothing Explained

6. Knife

A knife has so many purposes in the wilderness. Cut a large branch into smaller pieces for a fire. Cut a gauze bandage into the exact size you need if someone is injured. Heck, cut the arm of your shirt to tie around a wound if it won’t stop bleeding. Even outside of survival purposes, a knife is just a helpful thing to have. >>This is the knife I use.

Tip: Personally, I carry both a pocket knife and a folding saw (which is easier to use for cutting wood).

7. Nutrition

Always pack emergency meal(s) and snacks just in case you are out longer than you anticipate. Another reason to always carry extra food is in case someone starts to feel faint or ill. Even for non-diabetic hikers, low blood sugar can cause you to feel faint, light headed or even confused. If someone in your group is acting this way, their blood sugar may be low and needs to eat something ASAP.

If you are out for a day hike, this might be a few energy bars or some trail mix. For example, I keep three Clif bars in my survival bag so that I always have them. Personally, I don’t touch these until emergency strikes (even if I get a little hangry).

If you are out for multiple days, you should pack several extra meals. A general rule I’ve used is to pack one day’s worth of extra food for every five days you’re out. For example, if you’re doing a ten day trip, bring twelve days worth of food.

This will keep you fed if you get delayed due to bad weather or an injury.

Tip: I like to carry a bag of dates with me on trips. Dates have one of the highest glycemic indexes of any food. If someone is feeling faint or you suspect their blood sugar is low, dates deliver a boost of sugar-filled energy quickly.

8. Water Purification

Wherever you go hiking you should bring more water than you think you will need. A general guideline for day hiking is to bring 1-2 L of additional water. But what if something happens and you’re stuck overnight?

It’s likely you will be staying near some source of freshwater (a lake, river or mountain stream) but who knows how clean it is? The last thing you want is giardia when you’re stuck in the wilderness.

So for that reason, I carry a strip of two dozen Aqua-tabs in my survival kit. Put one tablet into one litre of water, wait 30 minutes, and drink clean water.

If you don’t like Aqua-tabs, you can also bring a Sawyer Squeeze Water Filter or a water bottle with a built-in filter, like the Epic Water Filter Outdoor water bottles.

You could also bring a water pump, but that takes up a lot more space, especially if you aren’t out for very long.

9. Sun Protection

Even if you consider yourself one of those people who “never burn”, you should still carry some sun protection. If you gain altitude or are paddling on the water, the sun can be even more intense.

And honestly, as inconvenient (and sometimes painful) as a sunburn is, I’m more concerned about heat exhaustion. To avoid heat exhaustion (or worse, heat stroke), wear a hat and sunglasses, drink plenty of water and take frequent breaks when the sun is highest in the sky.

I usually try to bring a bottle of sunscreen and a hat on any day hike. But just in case I forget, I have a travel size bottle of sunscreen in my first aid kit and a Buff to cover my neck and head.

I have started hiking / camping with a Tilley hat and – oh my goodness – it is amazing. Totally indestructible. Expensive, but such high quality and the best warranty of any piece of gear I own. (You can also find it on Amazon.)

Tip: I also carry a travel size bottle of bug spray. Not necessary for survival, but so helpful if the mosquitos are swarming!

10. Insulation

This isn’t included in my survival kit specifically, but I also bring WAY more clothing than I think I will need (and you should too).

Even if it’s warm at the trail head, the weather can change abruptly. Especially if you’re gaining elevation.

So throw a pair of wool socks and a fleece jacket (plus mitts and a hat if hiking at altitude or outside of summer) into your backpack. A waterproof rain jacket should also be included. Basically, you want to be prepared for the weather to change suddenly.

Tip: While I don’t keep large clothing items in my survival kit, I do have a thin pair of gloves and wool socks that stay in my survival kit all the time. 

Bonus: Watch

A watch isn’t included on the official 10 essentials, but I think it’s really helpful to bring with you. I know your phone has a clock on it, but what if your phone dies?

“But Mikaela, why do we need to know what time it is? We’re enjoying the great outdoors!”

Excellent point, Reader, but if someone gets injured and I want to know what their pulse is, the watch is helpful. Or, I can tell how long it has been since someone was sick or since I gave them medicine. It’s just helpful to know what time it is. >>This is the watch I take on trips.

Read more: Stay Warm & Dry: Comprehensive Guide to Layering Clothing for Hiking

Conclusion – 10 Essentials of Hiking & Camping

I know carrying all 10 essential items for camping sounds like it’s going to take up a lot of space, but what else do you really need to carry for a day hike? A camera and lunch, perhaps.

But if a little extra space keeps you safe and offers some peace of mind, isn’t that worth it?

Before I had the foresight to always be prepared, I got lost on a trail when I didn’t have cell service. And honestly, it was one of the scariest moments of my life. Eventually, I found the trail again, but I just kept thinking “it’s getting dark, I have no more water and no way to start a fire. Where the heck did the trail go?!?!”

Learn from my mistakes. Always be more prepared than you think is necessary.

I hope you’ve found this post helpful! Now share it with your adventure buddy to make sure they are being safe as well!


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