TOP 10 ESSENTIALS
Build the kit that works best for you.
... I HAVE SEEN LISTS OF SOMEWHAT NON-ESSENTIAL “10 ESSENTIALS” AT BACKPACKING STORES. UNFORTUNATELY, THEY WEREN’T PARTICULARLY DESIGNED FOR YOUR PROTECTION ON THE TRAIL BUT FOR THE WIDGETS THE STORE WAS SELLING.
We’ve all heard about the “10 essentials,” right?— the stuff we should always carry in our packs in case we get lost or simply because we should always have certain things when we’re out in the wild. As a cautionary list for adventurers, the “10 essentials” goes way back to the early days of the Sierra Club, and it has evolved over the years. And I have seen lists of somewhat non-essential “10 essentials” at backpacking stores. Unfortunately, they weren’t particularly designed for your protection on the trail but for the widgets the store was selling.
THE TRADITIONAL 10 ESSENTIALS
Here is one classic list: 1. Map and compass (that’s two items!) 2. Sunglasses 3. Sunscreen 4. Extra clothing 5. Headlamp/flashlight 6. First aid supplies 7. Fire-starter 8. Matches (really?) 9. Knife 10. Extra food So, even from the very beginning, 10 was never
10, which illustrates that this concept is really a way to think about your basic needs.
WHAT I CARRY
In my classes, I am often asked what to carry regularly on the trail, as well as what to carry in a bug-out bag, meaning a pre-loaded bag you grab for evacuation. Each perceived situation is different, but in reality, all the basic needs are the same. Here is my essential list of items I nearly always carry in what I call my “survival pack.” (Don’t confuse it with “everyday carry” [EDC].)
• A knife; and the more, the better. I carry a Swiss Army knife, Leatherman multi-tool, big sheath knife, folding saw and Florian ratchet clippers. That’s really five items (with a lot more functions ... if you itemize the tools on the SAK and the Leatherman).
• I also carry a fire starter—but usually not matches. I carry a magnesium fire starter and a BIC lighter. That’s two more items for getting a fire started.
• I also carry (and I suggest that you do the same) some form of cordage. This can be a simple, $3 ball of twine or a roll of parachute cord. I don’t recall ever seeing cordage on any list, but it is amazing how many things you can do with it. These first three categories above are what I consider my “holy trinity”—the things I should always carry in all circumstances.
• I usually don’t carry extra clothing, but it depends on the circumstances. At the least, I will carry sunglasses, reading glasses, a few kerchiefs, gloves, a small hat and perhaps a few other small items.
• I carry a small LED flashlight—always one that uses AA batteries, which I think are the most economical and readily available. I don’t usually carry a signaling mirror or a whistle, but I think those are good ideas (I can usually make a signaling device or a whistle from trash or other scavenged items, if needed).
• I nearly always carry a small first aid kit containing a spectrum of items for dealing with injuries from trail accidents.
• Although I rarely carry much food, I have carried nuts, dried fruit and even salad dressing (yes, salad dressing, because, if you know wild plants, you can make a salad just about anywhere).
• I do carry a small, compact fishing kit with line, some hooks and a few sinkers. Fish are everywhere. And sometimes, if I am thinking really “apocalyptic,” and my mind wanders into a Book of Eli-type future, I will make a point to bring some seeds along in my kit in case I have to really start over.
EACH PERCEIVED SITUATION IS DIFFERENT, BUT IN REALITY, ALL THE BASIC NEEDS ARE THE SAME.
• I don’t typically carry a stove, but I often carry a stainless steel Sierra cup I can also use for cooking. I also carry a stainless steel water bottle (oddly, this is something I don’t find on other lists).
• Yes, I carry a roll of toilet paper. And let’s be honest: Tissue paper and wet wipes will always come in handy. If you can’t use them, someone around you will appreciate them or trade for them. Plus, even in the aftermath of a major disaster, we don’t usually plunge from the Modern Age deep into
the Stone Age. You’re going to be interacting with other people after a disaster in some capacity. In the very beginning, your credit cards and ID should have some value. When your plastic is refused, your paper money will likely still be useful. If things really drag on, your paper and plastic will be worthless, and people will only trade or barter for coins or items of intrinsic value. And although I see “map and compass” on nearly every list I have ever seen, I rarely carry them. If I know I am going into unknown terrain, I will get a map of the terrain and bring it, along with my compass.
Let’s forget the pretense of “10” essentials and think more in terms of a systemic approach. What you carry is wholly dependent on who you are, where you live, your skills, your family circumstances and needs, the overall climate where you live, how well you get along with neighbors, urban versus rural surroundings, which disasters your area is most prone to (earthquake, flooding, mudslides, tsunami, fires, looting ... and the list goes on). Ten is not 10. What’s important is to evaluate your situation and think through the 10 categories of systems that should be addressed. Also, in designing your kit for a theoretical situation, are you thinking long term or short term? Are you traveling and doing so openly or incognito? Is it a bug-out bag or a get-home bag? Or, is it the last bag you’ll ever have as civilization sinks into the west? 1. Navigation: In today’s world, this can be handled with a modern smart phone with its built-in GPS system. However, would that be up and running in the aftermath of a major disaster? Maybe not. It’s a good idea to keep a copy of a topographical map of your local area handy—“handy,” as in your pack, folded neatly, along with a standard compass. The map-and-compass combination has stood the test of time. Yes, your GPS device is great under ordinary circumstances, but it does require batteries and some training. 2. Sun Protection: This refers to such things as a hat, sunglasses, lip balm and sunscreen. These are somewhat personal and individual choices, depending on your needs. A bandanna could also fit into this category for a head covering. 3. Insulation: Everything that keeps you warm from the cold falls into this category, including even things that insulate you from the sun and wind. So, the very clothing you choose to wear is the first line of defense. A space blanket, although woefully inadequate for any serious insulation needs, seems to find itself in every survival kit. It is small, compact and cheap—but only marginally valuable as insulation. A Mylar bag or suit is far more useful if you want something compact. Modern synthetics, such as Polartec, are great for lightweight, compact blankets, and those that pack small might be useful in a longer-term survival kit. A multi-functional bandanna would also fit into this category. A bandanna can be worn as a hat, neck protector and a headband, and it’s useful in so many other ways (see the sidebar on the facing page and on page 18). 4. Illumination: Yes, fire can be illumination, but this heading refers to your lightstick and your flashlight. Good flashlights these days can be very inexpensive—and also very bright via the latest LEDS. Suggestion: Don’t buy any with hard-to-get batteries. Stick to AAS (and maybe AAAS and Cs). A lightstick has its place, but it’s a one-time-use item, so I never carry one. Candles are OK for a campsite and for help with getting a fire going, so I often carry a few candles that are kept in a sealed plastic bag. 5. Fire: This is an important category and should include several butane lighters for a quick light
TEN IS NOT 10. WHAT’S IMPORTANT IS TO EVALUATE YOUR SITUATION AND THINK THROUGH THE 10 CATEGORIES OF SYSTEMS THAT SHOULD BE ADDRESSED.
(lots of folks carry matches. I would carry stick matches rather than book matches) and, at the least, a magnesium fire starter. A ferrocerium rod is OK, but it’s already built into the magnesium fire starter. 6. First Aid: There are many portable first aid kits available for purchase everywhere, from supermarkets to pharmacies to online sources. Buy the kit that fits your particular needs. Remember: Your knowledge of how to handle basic medical emergencies is far more important than the stuff in your kit; that is, if you don’t actually know how to respond, the stuff in your kit is not very useful. So, yes, get a kit, but also enroll in an emergency first aid course, at which you will learn real-world skills. In addition, a bandanna could also fit into this category. 7. Tools/repair Kit: This rather broad category includes your knives and other fix-it gear. For me, this means at least one Swiss Army knife, a Leatherman tool and at least one sheath knife. This category can also include a small amount of duct tape, a repair kit for glasses (if you wear glasses), and some rope or twine. I sometimes carry a roll of paracord and sometimes a roll of jute— depending on the circumstances. I never fail to use some sort of twine. If you feel the need to carry any weapons, they’d fall into this category. 8. Nutrition: You probably can’t carry all the food you need for an undetermined, indefinite period of time. So, in an emergency pack, you should carry some protein bars, which will last a long time. You should plan for your immediate nutritional needs, as well as an intermediate length of time. This means carrying nutritious foods that will keep for a long period of time (dried meat or vegetarian jerky, dried fruits and nuts, and maybe some whole-grain crackers). Include vitamin and mineral pills. And just in case your situation drags on, you should have some basic fishing gear (a small pouch can hold line, hooks and a few sinkers) and some snares. 9. Water Purification: You should carry a water container of some sort, either plastic or metal. You should also carry a means to make raw water potable, whether it’s a small Sawyer water filter or one of the pump models (such as a Timberline or MSR). Additionally, consider the possibility of carrying a water key—the small keys you can buy at any hardware store that will turn on water spigots anywhere. 10. Other: This category includes anything else you might need to carry to improve your situation. One suggestion you should not overlook is the necessity of carrying some actual cash/coins—as much as you can afford to have handy for emergencies.
Below: A selection of some of the items in the author’s pack
Right: Trainer Keith Farrar shows the Doan magnesium fire-starter—one of the ideal tools to carry on a keychain.
Left: Trainer Keith Farrar conducts a class on fire-making using a variety of implements.
Above, left: A map and compass should be used together for proper navigation.
Above, right: This selection of essential pack items includes (from top left) a tube tent, water bottle, first aid kit, food bars, knives, flashlight, round signaling mirror and fire-starting devices.
Right: Keith Farrar turns a tarp into a shelter. Notice the value of having some cordage.
Right: Students learn to set up a simple tent during an outdoor class. Many tents pack very compactly but still provide ample living space.
Near left: The author’s “holy trinity”: cordage, fire starters, knife
Right: A comprehensive selection of items from a personal first aid kit
Far left: A compass with some common items used for signaling
Right: This Timberline pump water filter can make raw water safe to drink.
Right: For a different perspective, here are some of the tools from outdoor leader Francisco Loaiza’s bag.
Left: The author carries this collection of tools and knives.
Near right: Because you never know what might arise, don’t forget to carry cash in both paper and coin currencies.
Far right: These lightweight and long-lasting food items provide simple nutrition for up to a few days.