10 (Modern) Essentials Every Hiker Should Carry

When you hit the trail, these are the 10 items you should always carry in your daypack.

10 (Modern) Essentials Every Hiker Should Carry
Whether you’re out for a day or weeks at a time, the 10 essentials of hiking will keep you safe on the trail.

When the third edition of the classic book Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills was released back in 1974, it quickly became a must-read for any outdoor enthusiast. The book was jam packed with practical advice, clever tips, and fascinating stories not only for climbers, but for hikers and backpackers, too. It was also the first published version of an iconic list of hiking essentials that remains just as relevant and important more than 45 years later.

The “10 essentials of hiking” were designed to provide hikers and backpackers with a list of outdoor gear that they should take with them every time they hit the trail. Over the years, the list has been updated and modified a bit, but its purpose has remained largely unchanged––keeping us safe in the backcountry.

Whether you’re heading out for a day hike, or spending weeks on the Appalachian Trail, these are the 10 classic essentials redefined for the modern age that you should always carry in your daypack, plus a few extra items thrown in for good measure. 

1. Navigation

Photograph by Kraig Becker
Even in the 21st century, navigating by compass is still an important skill.

When the 10 essentials were first introduced navigation meant knowing how to properly use a compass and map. Those skills are no less important today, but the advent of GPS technology has brought new options to the category. Now, we can carry dedicated GPS devices with detailed maps of just about any place in the world. We can get navigational cues from our watches or even use our smartphones to help us find the way. That said, a good compass never runs out of battery life nor does it ever require a cell phone network to function properly. Carry one.

2. Sun Protection

Proper sun protection isn’t just about wearing sunscreen. It also includes wearing sun glasses, a wide-brimmed hat, and even outdoor apparel that offers some level of protection from the sun’s ultraviolet rays. Also, don’t forget to bring protection for your lips as well.

3. Insulation

The options for bringing insulated clothing to keep us protected from the elements has expanded greatly since the publication of the original 10 essentials list. Today we not only have hydrophobic down that can resist water on an impressive level, but we also have our choice of a dizzying array of synthetic insulations such as PrimaLoft, Polartec, merino wool, and aerogel. The best part is that these insulators come in a variety of weights and garments, ranging from the ultra-packable variety for use in moderate temperatures to the thick and bulky, which are designed for use in extremely cold environments. 

Quick Tip: There’s an old adage amongst hikers and backpackers that says, “cotton kills.” Avoid wearing cotton clothing when hiking as those fabrics can take a long time to dry and offer no real temperature control in warm or cold environments. Instead, look for apparel made from merino wool or synthetic materials that are designed to be fast drying and have moisture-wicking properties.


4. Illumination

Photograph by Kraig Becker
Headlamps are lightweight, bright, and endlessly useful. Don’t leave home without one.

Getting caught out on the trail after dark can spell disaster, which is why you should always bring a flashlight or headlamp with you even if you only plan to be out for the day. Modern flashlights and headlamps often use LED bulbs and rechargeable batteries, which allow them to run longer and brighter than previous-generation models. Just be sure they are full charged before you set out for your hike. 

5. First Aid Kit

Photograph by Kraig Becker
A good first aid kit can treat everything from bug bites and rashes to serious injuries.

The modern first aid kit not only comes equipped with bandages, adhesive tape, and gauze pads, but it includes insect repellant as well. It should also be stocked with options for treating blisters (the most common trail injury), bug bites, and the aches and pains that come from build your own medical bag to meet your needs or you could simply buy one from Adventure Medical Kits and get everything you need in one compact, lightweight and affordable package.

6. Fire Starting

There may be times when you’ll need to start a fire while on the go, which means bringing a lighter or a pack of weatherproof matches

Alternatively, you could use a plasma lighter, which comes with a built-in rechargeable battery to create an arc of energy that can be used to get a blaze going in a fast, efficient fashion. 

Quick Tip: Whenever you set out on a hike, be sure to let someone know when you’re going, where you’re going, and how long you plan to be away. That way, if something goes awry they’ll know where to start looking for you.


7. Knife or Multi-tool

When the 10 essentials were first created, carrying a knife with you into the backcountry seemed like a no-brainer. Today, it makes more sense to pack a multi-tool instead. Not only will you have access to at least one or two knife blades, you’ll also get screw drivers, pliers, can and bottle openers, wire cutters, and much more. A good multi-tool puts an entire toolbox in your pocket or backpack, serving as a great back-up should the need arise.

8. Food

Whether you’re out for a few hours or making an extended hike for days, be sure to bring extra food. On a day hike, that means packing an extra energy bar or two for those “just-in-case” scenarios. If you’re planning a longer expedition, always pack an extra day or two’s worth of food. That’s easy to do now that there are plenty of tasty options for freeze-dried meals, which weigh next to nothing, don’t take up much room in your pack, and are quick and easy to make. 

9. Extra Water

Photograph by Kraig Becker
Always carry plenty of water with you into the backcountry and have the ability to create more in an emergency.

Staying hydrated on any outdoor excursion is even more important than having enough food. Hydration packs make it easier than ever to carry water with us in the backcountry and there are plenty of good water bottles that can help us to do the same. That said, bringing a filtration system with you means that if you run out you can always make more drinking water no matter where you go. There are even bottles that will remove harmful materials for you. 

10. Extra Clothes

Weather conditions can change quickly, bringing colder temperatures, rain, and snow even though the forecast doesn’t call for it. That’s why having an extra layer of clothing or two in your pack is always a good idea. Bring a rain jacket just to be safe and an insulating layer doesn’t hurt either. You never know when you may need more clothing, either for yourself or someone else in your hiking group. 

One More Essential

The list of 10 essentials remains just as relevant today as it was when it was first published. If I were going to expand on it, however, I’d suggest adding a portable USB battery pack to your list of items to bring on any hike.

One look at the list above and you’ll see a number of gadgets mentioned, including smartphones, GPS devices and headlamps. Keeping those items charged while on the go is incredibly important, which is why a portable power source is a must-have for modern backpackers. 

About The Author: Kraig Becker is a freelance writer, journalist, and consultant who covers mountaineering expeditions, polar exploration, adventure travel, and other outdoor pursuits. He is the editor of The Adventure Blog, the founder of The Adventure Podcast, and a contributor to online and print outlets like National GeographicPopular MechanicsGear InstituteDigital TrendsOutdoorX4 Magazine and others. He serves as the Adventure and Outdoor Travel Expert for about.com and is currently working on his first book, Reaching Beyond Boundaries with co-author Don Mann.