Essential Gear for Backpacking

Formerly the 10 Essentials, now up to 15.

1. Map- A map of the area will let you know what type of terrain you will be travelling through. Study it before you go out. Make sure you know how to read it, especially if it is a topographic map.

2. Compass- Will help you know where you are going. Learn how to use it before heading off into the wilderness. It’s useless without knowledge.

3. Flashlight- Can use it to signal for help if lost after dark or find your way into a late camp setup.

4. Knife- Now recommended to be a Swiss Army type, or one with multiple tools. Good for food preparation, medical needs (cutting moleskin) and effecting repairs on gear. Don’t get options you don’t need. I may upgrade to a multi tool some day, but the three blade pocket knife my father gave me has served me well.

5. Extra Food- Even if you’re only going to be out for a day bring extra food. Pemmican, or something calorie loaded, light and compact and requires minimal preparation. It should be at least one meal more than you’ll need, possibly even a day’s worth. You don’t know if there will be a sudden change of weather that will force you to hole up somewhere.

6. Emergency Blanket/Shelter- The mylar “Space Blankets” you can get at any store or gas station are a good choice. Better still are the “All-Weather Blankets” that are reflective mylar on one side, plastic tarp on the other, and reinforced grommets in the corners. Light, compact and will keep you warm and dry. With a couple of tent stakes (or rocks, or logs, or trees) and some rope, you can create an emergency shelter.

7. Extra Clothing- Remember NO COTTON. If you’re cold and wet the fun is gone. Extra socks are extremely important. Extra pullover fleece shirt can prevent hypothermia. Hats are useful for warmth and protection from the sun.

8. Sunglasses- No, not just to look cool. In almost any environment you can have UV damage to your eyes- especially snow blindness or in mountainous areas. UV intensity increases with altitude gained (there is less Ozone to block the sun’s rays).

9. First Aid Kit- Mostly for minor injuries. Include dressings like Band-Aids because you can’t improvise those with duct tape. Taking a First Aid course is also good planning (many times you can take these through the Red Cross or through local schools).

10. Waterproof Matches or a Lighter- water and windproofed. If you are stuck out in a thunderstorm, you’ll thank yourself for getting the right ones.

11. Fire Starter- Something that will light easily and quickly. In Boy Scouts my brothers put lint in a paper egg carton and filled it with melted paraffin. Works like a charm. You can also get manufactured chemical fire starters.

12. Water Treatment- Filter/Purifier/Chemical Treatment/Boil. Treat any water you did not bring from home. You can get extremely ill otherwise.

13. Plastic Whistle- Metal whistles with a pea can freeze up, so go with plastic. Will help if you are lost, in danger, need help, are hurt, etc.

14. Bug Protection- Either insect repellant containing DEET or bug clothing. Your choice.

15. Sun Protection- Sun burns are NOT fun. Once I was burnt on a cloudy day. It was so painful I could not sleep. Clothing, light colors especially, and hats are good. All the books say SPF 15 for sun screen, but I don’t go below 45. If I can find it, 50 is what I get. Lip balms now come in SPF. Carry it with you.


16. Duct Tape- it is the handy man’s secret weapon. You really can fix anything with it- gear, clothes, tools… you. Keep some with you somewhere at all times- easy to keep if you wrap a length of it around a trekking pole.

17. Parachute Cord- This can be used to repair gear, for tent rope, fishing line, boot laces and much, much more! (Thanks to Mercy Donovan for this suggestion)

18. Phone Card- even in these days of cellular and satellite phones, a phone card can be used to call home or scrape a stinger or thorn out of skin.

Always keep these with you and you’ll be prepared for nearly any situation.


18. A towel.

(Note: while the towel was introduced in The Book as a throw-away gag, it’s also pretty close to real since most people will help you if you at least try to help yourself).