Take a Hike: The 10 Essential Systems

Rachel in the North Cascades

It was the end of March and I was with a group that was planning on a summit attempt of Mt. St. Helens. Being that it was the end of March, there was a good amount of snow on the ground in the Washington area. While I was wearing clothes suitable for cold weather conditions, I definitely was not prepared for rain and snow during the actual climb. Because the forecast had not called for rain and snow, I had opted for a down coat, which by the midway point of this climb, was completely soaked. The extra clothes I had brought with me in my pack had not been placed in a dry sack like they should have (eye roll at myself), so they were wet as well. Near the summit, we experienced white out conditions and ultimately made the decision to turn back. While this was kind of a bummer, it was actually a blessing in disguise because I was shivering cold, and would have likely been a frozen popsicle at the summit (to put it lightly). To this day, my significant other still gives me a hard time about how ill prepared I was for that climb and I don’t blame him one bit.

With that being said, my mistake will hopefully be a good lesson for all to always be prepared, regardless of what you think the conditions will be like. One way to ensure you are prepared is to always pack the universal 10 Essential Systems. The 10 Essentials list was first developed in the 1930’s by The Mountaineers, a Seattle-based organization for climbers and outdoor adventurers. Over the course of time, the individual item list has evolved to include a list of functional systems. While you may only find yourself utilizing a few of the items on the list during a routine trip, you just never can be certain of how crucial any one of those items will become during an emergency situation. So plan on carrying each item and know how to use them, because they could end up saving your life.

The Ten Essential Systemstake-a-hike

1. Navigation

Always carry a detailed map (topographic is possible) of the area that you are hiking in and a compass (even if use a GPS or smartphone for a compass). GPS units are also handy, however, they are not substitutes for knowing how to use a map and compass. Compasses are also extremely beneficial because of how lightweight they are and because they do not rely on batteries.

2. Hydration

Always carry one extra water bottle or collapsible water sack. You should also carry some means for treating water, whether it is a filter/purifier or chemical treatment. With that being said, it is important to consult your map and try to identify possible water sources prior to your hike or trip.

3. Nutrition

For a shorter trip, packing an extra one day supply of food should be sufficient. A longer trip, however, will call for more. Extra food can be as simple as jerky, nuts, candy, granola, and dried fruit. If a stove is carried, freeze-dried meals, cocoa,  or tea can be added. Extra food should be items that can be easily digestible, and store well for long periods of time.

4. Insulation

Winter hikes can be beautiful too!

First and foremost, you should wear and pack items that are considered part of ‘the basic climbing outfit.’ These include inner and outer socks, boots, underwear, pants, shirt, sweater or fleece jacket, hat, mittens or gloves, and rain gear. “Extra clothing” refers to any additional layers needed to survive unplanned elements or conditions. Some key advice would be to avoid cotton clothing and opt for wool or poly blends that wick moisture away from your skin.

5. Illumination

Even if you don’t plan on hiking in the dark, it is still wise to carry a headlamp, a flashlight, or some other means of producing light JUST IN CASE. In addition to a light source, having spare batteries and bulbs is also highly recommended.

6. First Aid Supplies

At a minimum, a first aid kid should include treatments for blisters, adhesive bandages of various sizes, several gauze pads, adhesive tape, disinfecting ointment, over-the-counter pain medication, latex gloves, pen and paper. Many stores do offer up pre-assembled first aid kits, which can eliminate some of the guesswork. Another thing to remember is, anytime you use any of the items in a first aid kid, you will want to make sure to replace those items right away.

7. Fire

When going out into the back country, you will also want to make sure you carry the means to start and sustain a fire. If opting for matches, the waterproof kind are highly recommended. If not waterproof, you will want to make sure to store your matches in a waterproof container. Mechanic lighters are also handy, but matches should still be brought as a back up. A fire starter is also a good option as it ignites quickly and sustains heat for more than a few seconds. Some optimal choices include dry tinder tucked away in a plastic bag, candles, priming paste, heat “nuggets” (chipped-wood clusters soaked in resin), or even lint trappings from a household clothes dryer.

8. Sun Protection

Sun protection consists of sunglasses, sunscreen, and sun protection clothing. When choosing a sunscreen, opt for one that offers a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15, though SPF 30 is recommended for extended outdoor activity and 2) one that blocks both UVA and UVB rays. Depending on the weather conditions or the activity, it is often a good idea to reapply sunscreen as often as every 2 hours. Sun protection clothing you should look for are lightweight pieces that come with an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF). Your activity, amount of perspiration, and the temperature will determine if you need pants, shorts, long sleeves, or short sleeves.

9. Repair Kit & Tools

Knives and multi-tools are probably the most useful tool you can have as they are handy for gear repair, food preparation, first aid, making kindling or other emergency needs. Other tools such as pliers, screwdriver, awl, scissors (can be part of a pocket knife, multitool, or carried separately) are also recommended. Miscellaneous repair items can also include shoelaces, safety pins, needle and thread, wire, duct tape, nylon fabric repair tape, cable ties, plastic buckles, cordage, webbing, and parts for equipment such as tent, stove, crampons, snowshoes, and skis.

10. Emergency Shelter

If you’re planning an overnight trip, the group will likely be carrying a tent. If not though, travelers should carry some sort of extra shelter that will protect from rain and wind. Some options include an ultralight tarp, a bivy sack, an emergency space blanket, or even a large plastic trash bag.

While it may seem like overkill to bring so many items with you, I think it goes without saying that it’s better to play it safe rather than be sorry. I have heard far too many stories about folks getting lost or stranded, even while just out on a day hike. I think some other great tips for anyone heading outdoors is to plan ahead in terms of monitoring the weather forecast, scouting out the trailhead, planning what route you will take, and letting at least two people know where you will be headed.

Devil’s Dome Loop

Some other great resources that provide details about the 10 Essentials and other recommended outdoor items come from REI and The American Hiking Society.

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