The Ten Hiking Essentials [for beginners and intermediate]

by Thomas Sorheim | Last Updated: April 9, 2021

In hiking, we often talk about the hiking essentials, or rather “The Ten Essentials.”   

The Ten Essentials were formalised in 1974 by The Mountaineers in Seattle, albeit the list dates back to the 1930s.

The list has always sought to answer two fundamental questions:

  1. Can you prevent emergencies and respond positively should one occur?
  2. Can you safely spend a night (or more) outside?

The list is as relevant today as it was 90+ years ago. 

It is important to remember that the ten essentials are a guide that should be tailored and adjusted according to the hike ahead of you. Add extras as needed, such as digital maps, extra food, water, clothes, etc. 

Also, while it originally was a list of items you should bring, modern advances have adjusted the list, and it has become more of a system of reference. 

Without any further ado, here are the ten hiking essentials.

  1. Navigation
  2. Headlamp (illumination)
  3. Sun protection
  4. First-aid
  5. Knife
  6. Fire
  7. Shelter
  8. Nutrition (and extra food)
  9. Hydration (and extra water)
  10. Extra Clothes

What to wear hiking, you ask? We have a guide on what to wear hiking as well.

Navigation

compass and a map

Navigation skills are essential for hikers. Knowing where you are and finding your way back if lost may save your life one day.

Therefore, serious hikers have a map and a compass in their backpacks and know how to read and use them.  

Today we have a wide variety of navigational tools at our disposal.

Topographic map

A map of the area you are hiking should always be in your backpack, preferably packed into a waterproof map sack. A zip bag can work as well. However, a proper map sack is a good investment in your safety. 

Suggested reading: How to read a topographic map.

Compass

A compass should always accompany your map in your hiking backpack! 

The most experienced hikers may know how to read directions by looking at the sun and the stars. However, for the rest of us, a compass is an affordable and wise investment! 

Compasses come in many different variants and sizes. Our clear recommendation is to get a standard baseplate compass equipped with a sighting mirror. This adds another layer of safety, as you can use it to signal a helicopter or rescuer during an emergency. 

And don’t forget, a compass does not run out of battery! 

Suggested reading: How to use a compass.

Global Positioning System (GPS)

GPS’s have become increasingly popular among hikers. 

And we get it! We love them too! 

The GPS allows you to find your location on the digital map accurately. There are good GPS options for your phone/apps, like GAIA or TopoMaps. 

Mind you, GPS systems using satellites are the best, as cell service is minimal if at all available in the mountains (obviously depending on where you are hiking). 

If you want to invest in a GPS device, make sure you get one designed specifically for the outdoors, as they will be waterproof and build more rugged. 

If you get a GPS app for your phone, we strongly recommend having some sort of water protection for the phone in case of rain. 

NB! 
Don’t forget that a GPS or a phone with a GPS app installed runs on electricity. Your tech can never 100% replace a map and a compass. 

If you use devices in the backcountry, a solar-powered power bank/charger may be a wise investment. 

But once again, don’t forget a map and a compass

Altimeter watch

Some of us gadget nerds (yes, you know who you are) like to have a little bit more than needed, just for the fun of it. 

An altimeter watch is an addition to your navigation arsenal and will give you a barometric sensor that measures air pressure and gives you a close estimation of your altitude. Coupled with a GPS and a map adds a three-dimensional understanding of where you are in the terrain.

altimeter watch

Personal Locator Beacon (PLB)

If you want to take your safety and tech regime to the next level, a PLB is your answer. 

A PLB is a satellite alert system that – when activated – will send a distress signal and alert emergency services about your location via governmental or public satellites. 

A PLB is not something that you will find in the backpack of many beginner hikers…

You can read more about Personal Locator Beacon here.

Headlamp (illumination)

a girl sitting next to the tent with the headlight

A headlamp or a flashlight is something we always carry in our backpacks. 

Things happen from time to time when hiking. Maybe you misjudged the distance and time the hike would take, or you spent more time enjoying the greatness of nature, and you lost track of time. No matter the reason, having a light source is an intelligent choice. 

Today we have a light source in our pocket in the form of our phones. However, it is both weak, handheld, and does not precisely use changeable batteries. Therefore, we recommend that your phone only serves as a backup and not the primary source of light. 

The best option is, in our opinion, a headlamp and extra batteries. 

The headlamps are super convenient, as you will have your hands free and can hold your navigation, trekking poles, or others. 

Headlamps are great for hiking in general! They are, for example, handy when cooking food on an overnight hike. Your hands are free, and the light source will follow where you look. 

Just remember to check your batteries before you go, as well as bring a few extras!

Sun Protection

a person with the hat in the mountains

Nothing is quite as lovely hiking in the backcountry when the skies are blue, the sun is shining, and there is no wind. But just as one has to respect the sun and make sure we protect ourselves from it, to get the most out of our time in nature. 

Even if the weather is cloudy, sun protection is valuable and must be on top of mind. Not only can the UV rays come through the skies, but the weather may also clear up, and the sun begins to bake. 

Sun protection in the form of sunscreen, SPF lip balm, sunglasses, a hat for hiking, and sun protection clothes are essential.

NB! If you are hiking in a group, we recommend making sure there are at least one extra pair of sunglasses in the group as a whole, in case someone loses theirs. It happens all too often.

First-aid

The first-aid kit is one of the items you always want to bring with you hiking, but hoping you never need to use it. Accidents happen, and being prepared can save you a lot of agony and problems. 

There are many pre-assembled kits you can buy, or you can build out your own. No matter what option you choose, make sure you have at least treatment for blisters, adhesive bandages of various sizes, gauze pads, adhesive tape, disinfectant, pain-killers, pen and paper, and preferably also latex gloves. 

And most importantly, know how to use the equipment. You may also want to know how to splint a broken arm or leg.

Here at LeisureHiking.com we simply use a pre-assembled kit.

NB1 
Remember to fill up your kit as soon as you get back home if you use any of the items during your backpacking trip. 

NB2
If you hike in a group, you want to make sure there is more than one kit in the group as a whole.

Knife

hiking knife

A knife is a handy and versatile tool to bring hiking. It can be used from cooking to gear repairs, or first aid and other emergencies. 

There are many kinds of knives, from single blade knives to multitools with multiple extra features like a can-opener or screwdriver. 

I have a small swiss army knife (multitool) that I use for small practical things. And I use my big Norwegian Sami knife for chopping wood or other heavy-duty tasks. 

We would recommend that every hiker in a group have a knife. 

Fire

Lighting a fire to keep warm or cook food is an essential skill for hikers. 

Emergencies happen, and light a fire (even in nasty weather) can mean the difference between life and death. 

As an avid hiker, I always carry a fire starter and a lighter. And so should you! 

A firestarter/fire flint is a neat device that does exactly as the name suggests, start fires. It does not take much space, and it will give sparks in the harshest of conditions. 

In addition to the two fire-starting devices, we like to carry cotton balls soaked in vaseline (petroleum jelly) in a water-tight container (or plastic bag). These cotton balls also happen to be called “fire starters” – confusing, I know. 

The (cotton) fire starters can easily be made by mixing vaseline into cotton balls as per the instructions in the video below. These are great to have and will easily ignite a fire. 

There are also various fire starter tablets or pads you can buy on Amazon, Rei, or other outdoor gear/sports shops. 

NB!
We do not recommend the regular flimsy matches you will get at the convenience store or the local bar. 

A stove is highly recommended as an emergency heating and water source if you are planning to hike above the tree line and/or snow.

Shelter

Protection from the elements in the event you get caught out and need to spend the night outdoors should always be in your backpack. 

If you go on a multiday hike, you will always have a tent and a sleeping bag. But on a day hike, you want to bring the essentials and not drag along a tent and a sleeping bag “just in case”.  

A cheap, small, and lightweight space blanket is an absolute minimum. But we would also recommend you to bring along some sort of tarp or bivvy. They are generally quite affordable. 

A tarp or a bivvy is a favorite amongst ultralight hikers on multi-day hikes. 

To the extent it is possible, you always want to have a separation between your body and the ground when sleeping outdoors, as it will suck out the heat from your body. Therefore having some sort of material between yourself and the ground is recommended (at least keep this in mind if you get caught out and try to find some sort of distancing between yourself and the ground).

Nutrition

chocolate bar called Kvikk Lunsj

You should always plan to bring more food than you need! 

Not only should you plan to bring enough food to give you the needed energy/calories for the length of the hike, but also bring extras in case of emergencies. 

On a day hike, we like to bring some “comfort food” to enjoy with friends and family while up in the mountains, such as chocolate and fruits. 

In Norway, where I am from, we have a “tradition” that we always bring a bar of chocolate called Kvikk Lunsj (meaning “quick lunch”, very similar to Kit Kat) and oranges, in addition to lunch and coffee/tea/hot chocolate. 

As a general rule, our recommendation would be to always bring enough food, preferably nutrient-dense food, such as nuts, dried fruits, nutrition bars, and jerky, in addition to whatever you bring for lunch. 

Hiking with kids can sometimes be a challenge. Having some extra sweets for motivation is wise to bring. 

I have vivid and beautiful memories from my childhood of the “hiking breaks”, where I always would get hot chocolate and the aforementioned “Kvikklunsj” chocolate. I will never forget how tasty the salami sandwiches were in the mountains! A cherished childhood memory that I today try to instill in my own children. 

Hydration

Water is the mother of all life. Hydration is essential for humans to function properly in daily life, and even more so during physical activity. 

Hiking is no exception!

Water will help cool you down when hot and help warm you up when cold. Water will keep you sharp and energized, while dehydration will make you sluggish and lose power. 

But how much water do you need to bring? 

A good rule of thumb is about half a liter of water per hour when doing moderate hiking. A human will need about 4 liters of water / 1 gallon a day, more when active. 

Obviously, your water needs will vary depending on weather conditions and how much and hard you hike, so please adjust your water accordingly/plan accordingly. 

Carrying heaps of water in your backpack is going to be very difficult and heavy, so making sure you hike in an area with plenty of water in the form of lakes, rivers, etc is wise. You want to “check water sources” to be part of your pre-hike prep routine. 

Having some sort of backpacking water filter can be advantageous depending on where you hike. 

Personally, I have been blessed with growing up hiking in a country where pure fresh clean water is plentiful and never needed to bring a water purification kit. But when I hike in other countries, a water purification kit will always be in my backpack. 

If you have hiked on snow, a hiking stove is recommended for water melting and cooking. 

Another thing you may want to consider is to use a water bladder/hydration pack such as a camelback (which is both a brand as well as the slang term for a water bladder). These typically sit in your backpack, contain 3L of water, and come with a tube and mouthpiece you connect on your shoulder straps for easy access and drinking. 

Many backpacks today are hydration bladder compatible, meaning that they have a pocket inside dedicated to the hydration pack.

a man with hydration pack

Extra Clothes

Be vary that the weather can change quickly on the mountain or in the backcountry! 

Remember that the temperature at the beginning of, or at the bottom of the mountain may be substantially different than on the top of the mountain. 

Once when I hiked up Galdhopiggen, the highest mountain in Norway, the sun was shining and I started out in shorts. By the time I reached the peak, I was wearing pants, gaiters, 3 layers of clothing, a beanie, and a buff. 

Planning for the unexpected should be your mantra as a responsible hiker. 

In other words, carry extra clothes beyond what is required for the trip. 

At a minimum, I would advise an extra layer of clothing, such as a wool shirt and pants, and possibly a synthetic layer such as a fleece. A wind jacket should always be in your backpack. Extra socks are advisable – and I strongly recommend wool socks! 

I personally always hike in wool socks, no matter in the middle of summer or during the winter. 

A beanie, baklava, or gloves is something you should consider as well. 

Wonder what to wear hiking? Read our guide on What to wear hiking.

Beyond the hiking essentials

Daypack

A good daypack is a must. You cannot go hiking without bringing any equipment, food, and water with you. 

A hiking daypack typically comes in 20-35L configurations. Obviously, it will depend on the length of the hike, the amount of equipment you bring along, and more. 

Personally, I will usually hike with a 50L backpack, but that is because I hike with the kids. If I were to strap too much equipment on them, they would never manage past the first half-hour. So at least for now, I carry most of our hiking gear in one bigger backpack. 

The kids will typically only carry a hiking waist pack with their water bottle and hiking snacks and a few bits and pieces of gear. 

If I hike without the kids, I will use my Osprey Stratos 36L backpack.

Trekking poles

hiking boots and trekking poles

Trekking poles or Nordic Walking Sticks are popular among some hikers. They are certainly not essential, but rather a tool you can use for increased stability and to some extent reduced impact on your knees. 

Those who enjoy multi-day hikes and are fans of the ultralight backpacking philosophy can use hiking poles for both support while hiking, but also as poles for their tarp if this is their preferred shelter. 

You can read more about hiking poles in our guide here.

Footwear

hiking boots

Great footwear can mean the difference between a great day at the mountain or a painful one. 

Depending on the terrain you will be hiking on, you want to choose boots or shoes accordingly. 

There is an ongoing debate about the need for big hiking boots vs hiking shoes vs sneakers. 

Obviously, if you going on a short walkabout on a path in the local area, sneakers will do just fine. But if you are serious about any hiking outside the small walk “in the neighborhood”, I would strongly recommend you get a proper pair of hiking shoes or hiking boots. 

The argument for hiking shoes is that they are lightweight and offer enough grip and support. And I get that. For many hikes, hiking shoes are probably ok.

However, I must admit that hiking boots are to me as essential as a good hiking backpack. You cannot (should not) hike up in higher altitudes where they may be snow in hiking shoes. 

Maybe I am just frugal or old-fashioned, but hiking boots = footwear for hiking! 

I can use my hiking boots on the walkabout in the nearby forest, or trekking on a nature path in the backcountry. But I can equally well use them for hiking up to a peak where the mountains are covered in show and you need gaiters and the full monty. 

In other words, with one good pair of hiking boots, I can use them for multiple kinds of hikes and save me some cash on hiking equipment.

Rain Jackets and Pants

Rain jackets and pants are something you want to consider bringing with you, especially if you know you are hiking in an area prone to rain. 

Nothing sucks more than hiking soaking wet and cold when you get caught in the rain without shelter or rain protection. 

A rain poncho may be another lightweight alternative.

hikers are hiking in the woods

Toilet paper and trowel

Keeping nature clean for other hikes is good karma for you, and great for the future of the planet. 

Nothing is more disgusting to find toilet paper in nature. If you have waste you cannot bury, bring it with you back and put it in the trash. 

Although I try very hard to go to the toilet before a hike, there will be times when nature calls and you gotta do what you gotta do! 

Having toilet paper and a trowel in your backpack is a considerate way to go about your business while leaving nature to enjoy for the people coming after you! 

Suggested reading: How to poop when hiking.

Hand sanitizer

hand sanitizing

Good hygiene is always important, also on the mountain. People often forget that soap and water are not available in the backcountry and washing your hands may be a luxury. Wasting valuable water for a hand wash is something you may not be able to afford. 

Bringing a hand sanitizer in your backpack will enable you to clean your hands efficiently and prevent you from touching your food or drinks with dirty hands. 

In the current climate, getting your hands on some hand sanitizer should probably be one of the easiest things to do.

Tools, Repair gear, and Emergency Tools

Bringing a few small items useful for repairing your gear should it break can be worth bringing along as well. Anything from duct tape and tenacious tape to an emergency whistle can be great additions to your first aid kit. 

As a side note; many new backpacks have emergency whistles integrated. Therefore you may want to keep this feature in mind when you buy your next daypack.

Gloves

a man's hand with the glove on and a compass

Gloves are something you want to consider if you are planning to hike very high up in the mountains, or where the peaks are snow-covered. 

And obviously, if you are hiking in the shoulder seasons where there are chances of rapid weather changes, a pair of gloves in your backpack may come in handy.

A mask

And last but not least, a mask! 

In these pandemic times, there is no better time to go out in nature, into the backcountry, and up in the mountains. 

Hiking and outdoor activities are at an all-time high and you risk running into more people than before on the more popular mountain trails. 

Having a mask ready to put on, if you meet other hikers in a tight passageway may be a nice and considerate thing to do.