Some backpackers who don’t mind lugging the extra
weight bring everything but the kitchen sink (and, hey, there are
portable backcountry sinks on the market, don’t you know) with them into
the wilds. At the other end of the spectrum are the ultralighters with
their minimalist gear.
There’s no rulebook dictating the contents (or
weight) of your pack, but there are certain essentials all backpackers
ought to have on hand to cover their bases. After all, only you know
what special gadgets and creature comforts will make a backcountry trek
most enjoyable for you, but no matter what you need the basic
wherewithal to deal with an emergency if it arises—and simply to adjust
to changing conditions in order to stay happy and comfortable out there.
Let’s review the things to
have in your backpack as defined by one of the most widely referenced
lists of backpacking must-haves: the Ten Essentials espoused by the
venerable climbing organization The
Mountaineers. Originally a list of
specific tools, the Ten Essentials now refer more to “functional
systems,” as the group puts it. Make sure you’ve got the equipment
necessary to account for these systems in your pack anytime you hit the
These days, many outdoor
enthusiasts’ minds jump to GPS receivers and smartphone apps when they
hear the word “navigation” (and speaking of: check out our recent
overview of some of our fave offline navigation apps right
here). But such digital tech, practical
and fun as it is, only supplements—doesn’t replace—old-school
map-and-compass skills. If the screen
fails, you’ll be very thankful you brought along the hard-copy topo map
to reference and a ruggedly housed compass for getting your bearings.
Other pieces of navigational equipment might include
an altimeter as well as the associated chargers/backup batteries for any
(2) Sun Protection
It’s all too easy to focus on rain, snow, or frigid
cold and forget that life-sustaining, seemingly friendly sunshine can be
its own unpleasant and dangerous element. Spending days outdoors, often
at high elevations, backpackers are inherently vulnerable to sun
exposure, which can induce negative effects in both the short term
(sunstroke, sunburn, snow blindness) and the long term (melanoma).
So be sure you’ve got a good sun hat in your pack as
well as sunscreen of appropriate SPF rating and sunglasses with UV
protection. A bandanna also comes in handy in this department.
This Essential refers to those extra layers of
clothing besides your basic backpacking wardrobe that you need in order
to to stay comfy in a cold camp, or to stay alive in threateningly
inclement weather. Examples might include a set of long underwear, an
extra wool hat or a balaclava, a pair of overmitts, and an additional
pair of wool socks.
Have at least a couple of sources of artificial light
in your pack, headlamps being by far the most useful for backpackers.
You’ll also want extra batteries (and a solar charger, depending on the
model). Some backpackers sacrifice a little extra weight to carry a
small hand-crank flashlight, such as you might also keep in your
household emergency kit, which provides good back-up illumination if
your primary lamp malfunctions or bites the bullet.
(5) First-aid Kit
Among the absolute fundamental things to have in your
backpack is a fully stocked first-aid kit. It's not just about carrying
those ointments, bandages, and swabs, either: You need to familiarize
yourself with the contents and their use before striking off into the
boonies. Ahead of every outing, inventory the kit and replenish any
supplies that are low or tapped out.
Even if you don’t usually
make campfires (perhaps out of Leave
No Trace principle), you should have the
means to do so in case getting a flame going becomes a matter of life or
death. In a waterproof container, carry a lighter, matches, and a flint
along with tinder: which could be dryer lint, fatwood, rolled-up
newspaper strips, petroleum-jelly-soaked cotton balls, or char cloth, to
name some common examples.
Practice using these
materials to start a fire at home or in a front-country campsite in a
variety of weather situations so you’re proficient: If you actually need
to start an emergency fire in the backwoods, conditions aren’t likely
going to be optimal. (We’ve got a primer on the basics of lighting
emergency fires here at the Mountain House blog you
might take a look at…)
This part of the original Mountaineers Ten Essentials
list simply went by “knife,” and that should still definitely be part of
your backcountry gear list: A well-made knife is one of the most useful
and versatile tools you can carry in the outdoors, a truth that hasn’t
changed much in literally thousands
of years. A multipurpose tool is a handy substitute or supplement.
Other examples of repair implements you might carry
among your backwoods survival gear to patch or mend gear and clothing
include a needle and thread, duct tape, webbing, and safety pins.
Carry at minimum a one-day reserve supply of food in
case your backpacking trip is extended unexpectedly—by a bad storm, for
example. An extra packet or two of Mountain House is a great thing to
have among these backup provisions, as are high-energy, snack-type items
that don’t require cooking: jerky, trail mix, chocolate, dried fruit,
and the like.
Have at least one water
bottle’s worth of water on your person and also (of course) the means
treat backcountry water sources for more:
a purifier or filter, for example.
(10) Emergency Shelter
Presumably, you have a tent or bivy on hand when
you’re backpacking, but members of the party who aren’t carrying the
primary sleeping shelters should have emergency versions on hand in case
they become separated: bivy sacks, tarps, ponchos, or emergency
blankets, for example.
Winter backpackers could count their snow shovels and snow saw in this
category, as such tools allow them to construct snow caves, igloos, and
snow shelters if
the elements really get nasty.