The 10 Essentials

Recently, we’ve been enjoying a show available on NetFlix called Man, Woman, Wild. The husband and wife team have to survive for a half week with limited supplies in wild and inhospitable locations around the world, often only equipped with knives, the clothes on their back, and sometimes items scrounged from their broken down vehicle. It’s interesting and exciting to see what creative ideas they come up with for their basic survival needs. But the biggest thing I take away from the show is what hardship they put themselves in by omitting a few basic items. Almost every time, it’s lack of water and no easy means of starting a fire that causes them hours of extra work, expends valuable energy, and sometimes even results in suffering.

Ten Essentials
Example Ten Essentials

Although this is a reality show, the “reality” is that these survival experts would probably never put themselves in such a perilous position. They’d be carrying what is known as The 10 Essentials. This list of items will vary slightly depending on where you read it, but contains items generally agreed upon for safe travel in the backcountry.

The 10 Essentials

  1. Navigation (map and compass)
  2. Sun protection (brimmed hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen)
  3. Insulation (extra clothing – vest, windbreaker, fleece, hat, zip-on pants, etc.)
  4. Illumination (headlamp/flashlight)
  5. First-aid supplies
  6. Fire (waterproof matches/lighter/candles)
  7. Knife or multi-tool (food preparation, repairs, building shelters, or making other tools)
  8. Nutrition (extra food)
  9. Hydration (extra water / purification system)
  10. Emergency shelter (tent, tarp, space blanket, trash bag)

While you may not need all these items for short, familiar hikes within view of civilization, you’ll definitely want to carry them when heading out for multi-hour hikes in the backcountry. Even well-known areas become quite deserted towards the end of the day, and you can’t rely on mobile phone coverage when you leave the pavement.

Sonora Peak
Be prepared when heading out into the backcountry

Survival skills are a whole other topic, but should you become lost or injured, and not able to make it out when expected, you need to prioritize your actions. A good way to remember what to do is the rule of threes.

  • You can survive for three hours without shelter.
  • You can survive for three days without water.
  • You can survive for three weeks without food.

Having your ten essentials will greatly assist you in acquiring shelter, water, and food, which will greatly improve your chances of survival or being comfortable in an emergency situation.

Shelter and Exposure to the Elements

Exposure to the elements can quickly lead to hypothermia.  If you’re backpacking, you’ll already being carrying your tent or tarp as an emergency shelter.  On a day hike, you’ll have the clothes on your back, and extra layers in your pack. When packing for the day, be aware of the time of year and the weather you’re likely to encounter.  A space blanket or trash bag can be used to keep the wind and rain off of you, and can even be incorporated into a survival shelter.  Having the means to make a fire can keep you warm, help you signal for help, or even provide a way to sanitize water.  Remember to keep your fire starting implements in a waterproof container.  Keeping your eyes and skin protected from hours in the sun is also vital.

Arc Dome Wilderness
Filter or treat your water


Since water is so heavy, we don’t typically carry much more than we’ll need for the day.  If things don’t go as planned though, you’ll want to find water after you have your shelter figured out.   Water in the backcountry should be filtered and treated though, since water borne illness can be just as dangerous as dehydration.  Water filters are nice, since you can immediately drink the water after filtering, but may be too bulky for a day hike.  Water treatment tablets (such as Portable Aqua) may be a better choice for just-in-case situations, since they take up very little room and weight in a pack, and can treat several quarts of water.  They do take a half hour or more to make the water safe to drink though. The other option, as mentioned above, is to sanitize water by boiling it.  Another tip:  pre-filter dirty or silty water with a bandana before treating it to remove the larger debris.


Although you can survive for several days without food, carrying extra food with you is still a good idea. You may need the extra energy in case your hike ends up being more miles than expected.  Keeping your metabolism up with food in your belly will keep you warmer. Having extra food if you are lost may be a big morale booster as well.


A map and compass is not only vital for finding your intended route, but also for finding alternate routes should you need to change your plans. A map will also help direct you to water sources or other helpful destinations like shelter. GPS units are great for helping to keep track of your position, especially with a topographic map installed. They should be used in addition to a map and compass though, not in place of. Electronics can run out of batteries and can be broken easily.

Arc Dome Wilderness
Starting a fire can enable you stay warm, cook, sanitize water, or signal for help

Having a 10 Essentials check list is also helpful, so that you don’t forget anything.  I’ve left stuff off the list before and have regretted it.  One time we were getting off the mountain much later than expected, and I realized I hadn’t packed a light.  I was nervous all the way back and had to keep the pace higher than I wanted.  The good thing is that the 10 essentials don’t take up a lot of room in your pack.  These items will give you peace of mind even if you don’t use them, and you’ll be glad you have them should you get lost or have to respond to an emergency situation.


2 thoughts on “The 10 Essentials

  1. Great post! The rule of threes is a big eye opener when first introduced, for kids especially. Most predict very different numbers. Thanks for the Netflix tip “Man, Woman, Wild”. It is annoying when the very basics are left out for the drama, but that is what makes them popular.

    1. I was just remembering something I read that is not included on this list, but may be the most important. Your brain! Even the best gear won’t help if you don’t know how to use it, or you can’t keep it together when things go bad. I think it’s important to read books and blogs about skills and tips. And then get out there and practice stuff in non-emergency situations.

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