The 10 essentials – a systematic approach to hiking safely

In my two posts about hiking in the White Mountains I’ve unsurprisingly referenced safety a few times, and the importance of having the right kit; not only for the hike you plan to do, but for the hike you might have to do if things go wrong.

Ten essentials

How, though, do you assess what is necessary and avoid forgetting key items? One long-standing approach is the ‘ten essentials’, originally listed in a mountaineering book in 1974 and now adopted and adapted by Scouting and other organisations. This lists ten essentials for any hike as follows:

  1. Map
  2. Compass
  3. Sunglasses & sunscreen
  4. Extra clothing
  5. Headlamp
  6. First aid supplies
  7. Fire starter
  8. Matches
  9. Knife
  10. Extra food

It’s a decent list, and certainly a solid checklist for anyone going into the wilderness, but it’s really only a starting point. My view is that it’s a bit too focused on items rather than the purpose of the item. Recent editions have therefore adapted it to be, if you’ll excuse the jargon, a more ‘solution-focused’ list, with the emphasis on the challenges you may need to solve, rather than specific items to solve them.

A solution-oriented 10 essentials

  1. Navigation
  2. Sun protection
  3. Insulation
  4. Illumination
  5. First aid
  6. Fire
  7. Repair kit and tools
  8. Nutrition
  9. Hydration
  10. Emergency shelter

I much prefer this list. It recognises that while the functional aspects of what you take with you stay the same, the exact items vary. Taking ‘a knife’ isn’t going to be adequate for a hike through dense jungle, for example. Equally, what is correct ‘sun protection’ varies considerably from just ‘sunglasses and sun cream’ depending on where you are going.

Some of the ten essentials (conveniently in the right order, going clockwise from top-left). Obviously the exact combination of items depends entirely on your requirements.

Using this list let’s you assess each point in turn and ask yourself not ‘do I have this item’ but do I have what I require from this category for the conditions I expect to face, plus realistic emergencies.

Multilayered essentials

I think the other benefit of this functional approach is that you can assess it at several levels.

For example, first off, do you have what you require from each category for the hike/trip you expect to be doing? And then go back through it and think about each item in turn from a point of view of emergencies or unexpected scenarios. If you are in a large group, you could even assess it again from a group point of view.

As an example, if I was looking at the illumination point; on my first pass I might decide I need a headlamp as I expect to be hiking in the dark. On the second pass I decide to take a handheld flashlight and some cylumes to mitigate a broken or lost headlamp or getting lost in the dark. On the third pass I decide to take a large lantern-style flashlight for the group. Or whatever. Obviously a lot of people can make decisions like that easily enough without needing to be quite so formulaic about it, but the benefit of following a list is it prompts you to think of things you might otherwise not have.

That sort of systematic approach makes it much easier to be confident that you are neither forgetting important emergency items nor focusing so heavily on worst-case scenarios that you forget basics.

The 10 essentials in different forms

The other way some people use the ten essentials is to think about taking it several times in different forms. In particular, some hikers might choose to carry some version of the ten essentials on their own person in a very cut-down form, to act as a final layer of resilience if they are separated from their equipment. Although my own survival kit wasn’t actually planned in this way, it contains many of the essentials: insulation in the form of a foil blanket, tools in the form of a mini knife, illumination with a mini torch, matches for fire, hydration sort of covered with water purification tablets, and so on. Most of the essentials can be covered in some form in a very small kit like this, but of course what is important is to see it as you repeating the essentials several times at different trade-offs of size versus effectiveness, not “ah well, because I have my tiny Swiss Army knife that’s ‘tools’ ticked off. Into the jungle I go.”

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