nullReader Wayne left a comment on a recent post on REI Dividends. New to hiking, he wanted to know if I had any other additions to make to the Ten Essentials List — a list of ten “always-have-’em” items first developed by outdoor clubs in the 1930s. And, of course, he also wanted to know if there were any items he could skip on his usual 2-3 hour day hikes …

The overly cautious and responsible answer is that yes, you should take everything with you all the time. The reason most accidents happen is because people weren’t prepared to deal with a situation on the trail, or that they didn’t know how to deal with an accident or injury once it occurred.

The fact that you’re only going on short hikes is irrelevant. Hiker Hell is full of stories of people who just went out for a quick hike and never came back.

OK. That’s the disclaimerish part of the post. Anytime you hike, you do so at your own risk … but you also have to calculate what the chances are of you needing to bring an emergency shelter and fire starter when you’re just making the loop around Runyon Canyon.

Here are the Ten Essentials, with what I actually think of them for dayhiking:

1. Map – NECESSARY: I will never, ever, ever leave my apartment to hit the trail without having a map of the area in my bag. A physical, paper map is absolutely essential to anyone spending time in the wilderness – they’ll help you if you get lost, they’ll help you locate landmarks and options if a route is closed or more difficult than you thought, and you don’t have to worry about batteries running out. Of course, it’s not good enough to have a map – you have to have a good topographical map – not just a sketched out diagram from the web – and you have to know how to read it.

2. Compass, Supplemented with a GPS Receiver – OPTIONAL / NECESSARY: Personally, I always take a GPS receiver with me, but that’s mainly for keeping track of trails for the web site. Honestly, if I wasn’t doing that, I wouldn’t take a compass, either. But that’s because I’m very confident in my ability to read a map and determine directions from the surrounding landscape. If you’re not confident in your cartography skills, compasses are cheap and light, and you should consider them necessary.

3. Sunglasses and sunscreen – NECESSARY: A decent pair of polarizing lenses will do wonders for you. Not only will they prevent sun and snow glare, but they’ll also shield your eyes from drying winds AND errant branches and brush. I’ve been in enough thorns-swinging-toward-my-face situations to always put the sunglasses on before I head out. Sunscreen is ALWAYS important, even on cloudy days. You’re going to be spending a few hours outside in direct sunlight, and you’re probably going to be sore the next day. You don’t want to have a sunburn, too.

4. Extra food and water – NECESSARY: … to a point. I don’t pack full MRE’s on my day hikes, but I always take a few more bars or pieces of fruit than I plan on actually eating. And I always take more water than I plan on drinking, too. It adds a little bit of weight to your pack, but if you spend more time on the trail than you were planning to, you’re going to be thankful.

5. Extra clothes- NECESSARY: … again, to a degree. I dress in layers, and will usually take the top layer with me even if it’s feeling warm at the trailhead. But it’s nothing too fancy — a fleece pullover for the top, a hat and gloves, and convertible pants are my dayhike “extra clothes.”

6. Headlamp/flashlight – NECESSARY: I used to not take a flashlight with me. Then I got caught in the dark coming off an unnamed peak near Matilija Creek. The only light we could muster was by the dim glare of my GPS receiver and by setting a poor girl’s scarf on fire. Now I always bring a flashlight.

7. First aid kit – NECESSARY: This is another never-leave-home-without-it item for me. I picked up a lightweight medkit from REI that came with gauze, bandaids, tweezers, a signal whistle, antihistamines, painkillers, and all sorts of other goodies. I supplemented it with some duct tape, chewable pepto bismol, some hand warmers, blister bandagaes, and a few other items, and have actually used it quite a bit on the trail – mostly for minor things. If you get a headache in the middle of the woods, that hike back to the car gets a lot nicer when you’ve got aspirin to take. Also, you’ll look like a hero if you come upon someone who has a cut or sprain and doesn’t have a kit. Well worth the money.

8. Fire starter – OPTIONAL: If I’m car camping or backpacking, I’ll bring some matches or a lighter. Otherwise, you probably won’t need this on a dayhike.

9. Matches – OPTIONAL: See above.

10. Knife – RECOMMENDED: I always take a Swiss Army Knife with me, but I’ve very rarely used it. Still, the potential uses for a knife are pretty strong, so it’s probably worth taking one along.

How often do you leave one of the Ten Essentials at home? And have you ever been caught wishing you’d packed it?

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Casey Schreiner

Founder and Editor-in-Chief at Modern Hiker
Since founding Modern Hiker in 2006, Casey's work on the site has appeared in regional and national publications, including the Los Angeles Times, National Public Radio, the Associated Press, CNN, New York Magazine, High Country News, and others. He has broken several national news stories about outdoor vandalism and policies and his first book "Day Hiking Los Angeles" is available for pre-order.
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This post was written by Casey Schreiner on March 11, 2009


  • Erik says:

    I’d like to add a few items. i usually go out by myself so self sufficiency is a must in any occasion and i carry everything you mentioned above accept a gps and most days a compass unless its unknown location.

    over the past couple years iv’e added a few essentials i consider absolutely MUST cram into daypack or wear.

    first must have is a decent watch. someone in group should have one and i make a point to know the time of sunset before going out. i’ll mark my start time and figure out the halfway point from that time to sunset. if its a dayhike thats the maximum amount of time i will hike into where i’m going unless i prepared for a night hike. it seems like common sense but i personally have broken this rule in the past and gotten lost after dark once because of it. in lightweight day clothes that was a very uncomfortable experience.

    Paracord or equivelent. this option occured to me after being out several miles and twisting my ankle. i realized if i had broken it or severely twisted it and not being able to walk back on it, i might need to lash together a makeshift crutch or splint. many, many uses and its so lightweight and stowable.

    survival straw or water purifying tabs. again very, very stowable. iv’e been out on brutally hot hikes here in southern california or much longer than intended hikes and used up all my water. water which i though was more than i would drink all day. passing sometimes multiple water sources i wouldn’t drink from it occured to me a simple purifying straw would allow me to feel safe drinking from them.

    fourth, a spaceblanket. usually a first aid kit essential. iv’e made it a mandatory day pack essential. you never know when an unexpected injury or situation could make us vulnerable to exposure threats especially if you tend to go out alone sometimes. again an item that is super light and takes up hardly any space.

    fifth, a windproof, waterproof, lightweight outer layer (pants optional). iv’e been in the santa monica mountains, which are really relatively tame places to hike and had the weather change on a dime. at one time almost by 40degrees in the course of a couple hours. being sweaty and wet and having the weather go from nice to cold and windy or worse, cold, windy and raining can be a potentially serious problem if your far enough away from your car or civilization. the space blanket is a nice backup by the way in this situation for yourself or another hiker in trouble. why i carry both.

    these last two are optional but i always carry now even in summer. a nice lightweight wool hat and a thin lightweight pair of gloves. reason is iv’e had a couple close calls with exposure in places iv’e hiked many times. you could be two miles from your car but if your sick, injured lost or whatever that could be several hours or more. if you have hiked longer than you should have and the sun is getting ready to set you will be very thankfull for these items.

    hope these help. i know we all try to minimize weight and gear carrying on simple day hikes. i’m especially sensative to carrying more weight than i need to. it can be uncomfortable at times but iv’e realized from experience that you will get used to a pound or two of extra bulk relatively quickly and, unless its the simplest of dayhikes where i know there will be lots of other hikers, the benefit far outweights the extra bulk.

  • Sharalyn says:

    had a similar experience last year at matilija! it was terrible, but still one of my favs. I’ve honestly never considered some of the items on here, and appreciate you posting them in a list!

  • What’s car camping? Sounds illegal.

    • Maggie Jones says:

      Car camping is the alternative to backpacking. It’s camping out near where your car is parked – usually at a campground. Your car camp becomes home base to strike out on day hikes but you don’t have to carry your tent, water, cookware, etc with you when you hike. Perfectly legal and generally expected at campgrounds.

  • Its not good to miss the essential things and gears while going for camping or hiking. as the most of accidents happen when some one forget to take essential things such as flash lights and GPRS.

  • Rob says:

    Trash bag to pick up after yourself.

  • benrussak says:

    I usually bring with me a credit card sized mirror (for signalling distress) and a similar sized magnifying plastic thingy in a sleeve so I don’t have to worry about bringing my glasses. I also keep an old drivers license in my essentials bag for reasons I hope never occur!

    Also, a tip for the uninitiated about bringing a bit of duct tape: just wrap what you might need around a pencil or pen, it’s not as cumbersome as bringing a ginormous roll and you’ve got something to write with should you become inspired, or meet someone on the trail you want to exchange phone numbers with.

    Great site, btw… hope to see you on the trail someday!

  • nancy says:

    hi! i am wondering what you use for your paper topographical map – do you just print out a google map of the area? Or where do you buy forest/trail maps? i’ve been using your site for hiking inspiration and i love it – and i always am a little paranoid about getting lost.


  • Raphael says:

    For day hikes in our area, I don’t really see a compass being too helpful. Or even a map. In our region, if you get lost, go downhill, and follow a stream, and you’re going to hit a starbucks soon enough. I kind of trust my sense of direction. But I spend good parts of my days studying topo maps, so I might have better bearings in this region than most!

    Water and sunblock are completely essential, tho, even for a short day hike. Food? If you’re stranded for a day or two, most of us won’t perish from hunger.

    And I often keep a headlamp with me for just the reason you describe.

  • Chas says:

    Caveat: I live within 1/4 mile of Sandia Wilderness so most hikes don’t involve driving. If I’m going for less than about two hours I’m walking and rarely take much beyond water (can see houses, people, etc.) Longer than that I take pretty much what you recommend except first aid items. On a keychain in my pack I have pocket tool (knife, pliers, etc.), led light, and whistle. I’ve used the pliers and whistle more than I ever thought – the other items almost never except food and clothing. I haven’t needed something I didn’t take.

  • Wayne says:

    Thanks for the timely reply post.

    After posting my question I became immediately aware of why I should bring the Ten Essentials – prepare for worst case scenario and all – and I’ll more than likely add all of the essentials to my gear in due time.

    As of now, I have a first aid kit (which I’ll need to supplement), a headlamp (added this recently when I heard a cousin’s story of being unintentionally out past dark and having a hard time finding her way back), a small pocket knife (really wanted one of those cool looking multi-tools but couldn’t justify to myself the expense at the time), a Klean Kanteen (considering adding a hydration pack), and I also got a pealess whistle (got separated from a small group and while not lost their cries to “find” me went unheard).

    I’ve only been out hiking a few times and all of those times I went with nothing more than a water bottle, if that. Each time, I went with a couple of others who also didn’t bring anything more than that and GPS equipped cellphones, we didn’t expect to be out more than a couple of hours, and we kept to local trails like the Rocky Peak one. Of course, being naive/ignorant we also tended to go off the trails and would get somewhat lost – meaning we didn’t always know where we were but we always knew where we came from and could either backtrack or at least see where we had to get. Anyway, these mini-adventures have sparked an interest and a case of poison oak. And with that interest I’ve become a member of REI and really thirsty for hiking knowledge.

    By the way, I’m assuming the extra clothing you carry are the layers you wear and maybe the gloves you pack and would probably only pack extra clothing if expecting you might get wet on your hike?

    • Modern Hiker says:


      The extra clothes I pack are usually for chillier weather. Temperature can change so much in the wilderness, and if your return route is on the north slope of a shady mountain, you’re probably going to want a knit hat around just in case. And yes, if it looks like it might rain, I’ll throw a lightweight poncho in the pack, too.

      Even though this might look like a lot of gear to have, the good thing about hiking is all of this stuff is built to last — I’ve had the same basic Ten Essentials Kit for almost three years now, only replacing a few things here and there as I used them up.

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