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What are the ten essentials?

What Are The Ten Essentials? The 10 Most Essential Gear Items

Every year, thousands of people get injured or lost while exploring the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Usually, search and rescue crews are able to save them. However, for a few dozen individuals, rescue comes too late. The Ten Essentials can make all the difference for you should the worst occur in the mountains. But first – what are the ten essentials? Can you list them all?

What Are The Ten Essentials?

The Ten Essentials was originally a list of ten specific pieces of gear, however over time they evolved to a list of 10 systems. Within each category, the specific gear can be customized for your activity and trip specifics for a better fit. When disaster strikes, the gear helps you do two things that make survival more likely:

  1. The ten essentials allow you to respond actively to the situation, instead of passively waiting for assistance.
  2. They allow you to survive an unplanned night outside if injured or lost. This is one of the biggest issues with survival in alpine or sub-alpine environments.
The List of the Ten Essentials:

1) Navigation Equipment & Gear (and the knowledge to use it!)

This includes topographical maps of the area, a compass and GPS units, all important for navigating in alpine and forested terrain. 

However you also need to know how to use them – take time to review how to navigate using a map and compass, and ensure you can read a topographical map easily. My recommendations include:

2) A Headlamp & Batteries

Any hike, even a day trip, can turn into an extended overnight if you get lost or injured. Always bring a headlamp and extra batteries. If something goes wrong, you’ll appreciate having your hands free to use. My recommendations include: 

3) Sun Protection 

The sun is extremely powerful above tree line. Bring sunglasses & sunscreen for any mountain trip, even in the spring and fall. You want a strong SPF rating, and UV resistant glasses. My recommendations include:

4) First Aid Kit

If you climb enough mountains, you’re inevitably going to get injured at one point or another. You should have everything you need for minor scrapes and falls, as well as the bare minimum to deal with a serious emergency. My recommendations include:

5) A Knife or Multi-tool

When things go well on a 14er, there’s little need for a knife. However if you end up lost, a pocket knife can help with all kinds of tasks, from building a fire and finding food to first aid. Here’s my recommendations.

  • At bare minimum a small pocket knife like this will work.
  • I recommend a larger, more versatile multi-tool like this leather-man.
  • Bigger knifes look cool, but are less useful compared to smaller knifes. You won’t need it for self-defense.

6) Fire-Starting Equipment

If you get stuck outdoors overnight, especially in the fall, winter or spring, temperatures fall dramatically. Building a fire is critical for survival and staying warm. You should always carry what you need to build a fire where good fuel may be scarce. My recommendations include:

  • Waterproof matches like these from UCO.
  • Try some Fire Putty or another easy-to-use fire-starting material
  • On overnights I always bring an old book, both for reading and for emergency paper if needed.

7) Emergency Shelter

The mountains are a cold, hostile place. If you get lost, shelter from the wind, rain, snow and cold can make all the difference. This doesn’t mean hauling around a tent on day hikes – but you should always have the means to provide shelter for yourself if things hit the fan. Here’s my recommendations.

  • For day trips I always bring a small emergency blanket like this.
  • With overnights, I keep this small emergency bivy with me.
  • For longer, more extreme trips, keeping a full bivy like this with you is a good idea.
  • If traveling in winter, consider bringing a shovel so you can build your own shelter.

8) Extra Food

Bring at least 2,000 extra calories (6-8 power bars) in case you need to spend an extended period outdoors. This is especially important as you burn more calories during an emergency situation. My recommendations for food options includes:

  • Cliff Bars and Kind Bars – they pack a lot of power in a small package.
  • Cheese, Beef Jerky, and Trail Mix – these dense protein-rich treats don’t take up much space.

9) Extra Water

The Ten Essentials Could Save Your LifeFor starters, you should pack at least 2 liters for your climbs. That’s two full nalgenes, or one nalgene and one hydration bladder. You should also have the means to get more water, using a stove, filtration tablets or a water filter. I recommend:

10) Extra Clothing 

The Ten Essentials Could Save Your LifeBring at least 1 extra layer beyond what you think is necessary. Temperature swings are wild, and if you get stuck outside overnight you will face 20-30 degree colder conditions than daytime. For insulation I recommend:

  • A good pair of long underwear goes a long way. I like this pair from Duofold.
  • A micro-puffy jacket like this from Amazon is easy to pack but provides warmth even when wet.
  • The raingear from Arc’teryx is the gold standard. It’s windproof, rainproof, and still lets you breathe. If you can’t afford the high price, try this Columbia alternative which is more affordable.

Using the Ten Essentials Could Save Your Life

It’s not enough to simply bring the ten essentials with you. You need to know how to use them when the time comes. The last thing you want to be doing when you’re injured at 13,000 feet is trying to skim your first aid instructions, or wondering what you should do. Here are some ways to get up to speed:

  • Take a wilderness first aid course.
  • Practice using your water filter and other gear.
  • Make sure you know how to start a fire without any paper.
  • Know how to use a map and compass to navigate.

If you ever find yourself lost in the Rockies, you’ll be happy to have these skills ready to go in your back pocket. Take the time to learn them now so you’re prepared if and when the time comes.

Tweak The List According to the Situation

This list is a starting point, designed to be customized for each specific trip you take. Consider factors like the time of year you’re going, the remoteness of your route, and the weather forecast a few days out. The more risk involved in your trip, the greater thought you should put into your plans, and the more gear you probably need. Your ten essentials should look very different if you are just going on a day hike, compared to a multi-day backpacking trip into the wilderness.

More Resources On The Ten Essentials

Looking for more information about the Ten Essentials? Read my blog about the ten essentials in winter, or my infographic. Here are a few more resources:

  • The Mountaineers has a great page on the ten essentials here.
  • The American Hiking Society also has a good Guide to the ten essentials here
  • As an Eagle Scout, I had to share this ten essentials article from Scouting Magazine as well.

Alex Derr, Founder of The Next Summit

Alex Derr is an Eagle Scout, climber, and environmental policy expert located in Denver, Colorado. He created The Next Summit to help others stay safe exploring the mountains and advocate to preserve the peaks for the future. Follow him on Linkedin or Twitter or click here to contact him.

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