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Make sure you take the 10 essentials with you on any hike

Hiking safety: The 10 essentials you need on every trip

Staying safe on the trails

Photo: David Lee/Flickr

Before you hit any trail, no matter how easy, how short, or how close to home, make sure your backpack is loaded with the 10 essentials. When in the backcountry you are responsible for your own safety, and any one of these 10 essential items may help to save your life. Carry each one and know how to use them.

In addition to these items, know your limits and be sure you leave an itinerary with friends or relatives.

  1. Map. Always carry a detailed map of the area that you are hiking in. The 15′ Green Trails maps are great if you’re staying on a trail. If you’re planning on leaving the trail it’s best to have 7.5′ USGS maps. Both kinds are available at most sporting goods stores. Keep your maps in a plastic bag to protect them from the rain and know how to use them. Nowadays you can also download maps digitally, but it’s best to have a paper map too, in case you lose signal.

  2. Compass. A map is no good without a compass and a compass is no good if you don’t know how to use it. It doesn’t matter how fancy your compass is, but if it doesn’t have a compensation setting for true North, make sure you know how to convert magnetic to true North. In Western Washington, magnetic North is 20-22° east of true North. GPS units are great, but they are not substitutes for knowing how to use a map and compass. They’re delicate devices and can break, get waterlogged, or seize up in cold weather. The GPS can point you in the right direction, but it’s the map that tells you if you can go that way.

  3. Water and a way to purify it. It is essential to drink a lot of water while hiking. Without water, your body doesn’t perform as well and you could grow more susceptible to heat stroke, hypothermia, and altitude sickness. It used to be that you could just dip your bottle into a stream and drink the water. Not today. All water sources can harbor tiny organisms that would make your life unpleasant later. You should purify all water with a water filter or purifier, chemical tablets, or boiling before drinking.

  4. Extra food. Always bring extra food as a part of your 10 essentials when hiking in case an unexpected situation delays your return – be it a detour, injury or sickness, difficult terrain, weather, etc. Bring at least one extra day’s worth. It should be something that stores for a long time, requires no preparation, and is high in energy. Many people choose things they really dislike so they won’t be tempted to break into their emergency rations unless they really need them. If you have children with you on the trail, bring extra snacks and water for them too. If possible have each of them carry a pack with clothes, food, and water.

  5. Rain gear and extra clothing. Weather can change quickly in the mountains or lowlands. A sunny, warm day can turn into a cold downpour in a very short period of time. Always tuck rain gear into your backpack and bring along layers of clothes. And avoid cotton clothing in favor of wool or poly blends that wick moisture away from your skin.

  6. Firestarter and matches – Always bring along waterproof matches in a water-tight container and have a dry or waterproof striker. You might also bring a cigarette lighter as a backup. And in the Northwest, you can expect to have to deal with wet kindling. A candle, solid chemical fuels, or balls of compressed wood chips work well.

  7. First aid kit – Don’t just have a first aid kit, have a useful first aid kit. If your kit just has a few bandaids and some aspirin, you won’t be able to do much. Make sure you have the supplies to deal with major injuries, and make sure you have the knowledge. You can purchase hiker first aid kits at outdoor stores or put together your own. Take a first aid course from the Red Cross or the Mountaineers.

  8. Knife or multi-purpose tool – Knives are indispensable in the backcountry. They can help you prepare food, cut Moleskin or bandages, repair gear, and more.

  9. Flashlight and extra batteries – It’s dark out there! A light source is vital if you get caught in the woods after dark. Also, carry spare batteries and an extra bulb, and make sure you test your light before each trip. Batteries have a limited shelf-life, and contacts can become corroded blocking the flow of current.

  10. Sunscreen and sunglasses – Your eyes need protection, especially if you are on snow or above treeline. Sunglasses are a must. And those rays are strong and damaging; sunscreen is important for people of all skin types.

And a few other items you should consider: insect repellent, whistle, watch, emergency blanket, mirror (for signaling), duct tape (great for repairing anything), gloves, extra socks, and an orange vest (during hunting season).

Now that you know what the 10 essentials to carry are have fun out there and stay safe on the trails.

Originally published in 2013 and updated in 2023

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About the Author

Washington Trails Association