Hiking checklist: 11 essentials for hikers anywhere in the world
From road trippers to adventure travelers, everyone who heads out on a hike needs to pack along emergency gear to keep them safe if things go wrong. The 11 essentials for hikers are items that are easy to carry and pack, and might just save a life – yours.
As a traveler, staying safe on a hike of any length isn’t so much a game of survival as it is an exercise in preparation. That simple truth applies anywhere in the world you are hiking. To be prepared, you must understand your limits, understand your environment, and pack along the gear needed from the list below.
As a former search-and-rescue volunteer and professional guide, I can assure you that most outdoor emergencies only last at most a few hours. With basic gear and an understanding of how to use the gear, the majority of emergency situations will end happily. Thankfully leaving you with marvelous tales to spin that gain color with each rendition.
Prepared adventure travelers always carry the 11 essentials for hikers with them on any hike or nature walk, no matter how short. The exact items you might select for your hike will depend entirely on the length of the hike, how far you may be from help, how difficult the hike might be, and what the weather is likely to be. Be aware, of course, that weather can change dramatically, especially in mountainous areas. Also, keep in mind that these “11” essentials refer to categories of items, not the specific number of items you might need to pack. For example, “navigation,” as one of the 11 categories, includes packing at least a map and compass – two items. That becomes three items if you add a GPS.
Also realize that knowledge and equipment must go hand-in-hand. It is useless to build an arsenal of gear and gadgets if you don’t know how to use them.
The hiking checklist: 11 essentials for hikers
Navigation tools: Do not go on any hike without packing along a map and compass. Be sure your compass is a mirrored one – also known as a sighting compass. With practice, you can use the mirror as a signaling device in an emergency too.
It goes without saying that no matter how experienced a hiker you are, having a good topographical map, that covers the entire area where you are hiking, is useful. If you need a primer on how to read a topographic map and use a compass, refer to the “Staying Found Simply” chapter in my book Camping for Dummies.
What about a GPS? They are amazingly convenient and useful, but no good if they break, the batteries die, or the signal becomes weak or disrupted. They are also illegal to carry in a number of countries so be very sure you’re not going to get into trouble with the local authorities if you pack a GPS along. These days, I will admit to using several GPS and mapping apps on my phone – a useful tool but nothing to rely on solely in an emergency. My favorites are AllTrails (excellent user-curated hiking guides around the world), Avenza (downloadable maps that can be use offline), and Outdooractive (the pro version is especially good in Europe).
Sun protection: Protect your eyes and protect your skin. Sunburn can be debilitating and lead to long-term health issues. Always wear sunscreen, and pack along a small tube to reapply as needed during the day. Sunglasses too protect the eyes from damage..
Additionally, especially in hot and sunny climates, it is very helpful if your clothing offers an adequate level of sun protection, as well.
Illumination: I have been on countless “short hikes” that ended up being longer adventures because of a missed trail intersection, a time miscalculation, or spending longer along the way because of the fun. And a good number of those hikes found me reaching into my pack to whip out my headlamp because it was getting dark. It’s not impossible, albeit certainly far more challenging and potentially dangerous, to try to find one’s way in the dark without a light. Always, always pack along a headlamp or flashlight, no matter how short your planned hike is. I prefer rechargeable versions like those offered by BioLite, LoBeams, or Coast Portland.
First-aid: Be ready to treat basic bumps, cuts and blisters. It is entirely up to you to determine what size first-aid kit you want to tote along – in part determined by your level of first aid knowledge and ability to deal with medical emergencies. Though I typically package my own travel first aid kit these days, I do love the ultralight, prepackaged and organized kits from Adventure Medical Kits. If I do use a prepackage kit, I will always augment them with a few personal needs as well, such as personal medications, insect repellent, etc.
Fire: You will want to be able to start a fire if you need warmth and heat (though this is NOT the time to start anything that will turn into a forest fire – yes, this has happened). I will sometimes pack along a fire-starting stick (essentially a flint stick that you can generate a stream of sparks from). Some multitools include a flint stick for double duty. A lighter or matches may also work, but they can get wet and become useless.
Water: Always pack along at least one bottle of water on any hike. Preferred would be a compact bottle that you can refill along the way as needed from water sources – stream, lakes, ponds – especially if it is one with an integrated water filter. That will ensure you are able to purify water as needed too. I rely on a Grayl or the Katadyn BeFree. If you don’t have an integrated filter in your water bottle, you will want to pack along a water filter too, or a means to treat the water to ensure you don’t make a bad problem worse by drinking contaminated water – I know, one more thing! I have used LifeStraw and it is a very good compact choice, and you can drink directly out of a stream or puddle with it if needed too. Other bottles to consider are soft flasks, such as those from Hydrapak or Vapur, that will collapse and take less space as they are emptied.
Food: Always pack along emergency food. For me that includes things like beef or turkey jerky, hard candies, trail mix, a couple of food bars (like the RXBar), some dried fruit, sports energy gels like GU or HoneyStinger, and maybe a few Emergen-C drink packs. While water is your most important survival issue in an emergency, staving off the pangs of hunger is not only comforting, it will help you to think more clearly too.
Wind & rain protection: A rain jacket and rain pants provide more than just rain protection. This outer layer also offers wind protection to keep you warmer and, when combined with an insulation layer, below, will help to ensure you don’t get hypothermic if the weather conditions get cool and wet.
Insulation: I always pack along a lightweight fleece jacket or pullover or a merino wool sweater when I know conditions could change and temperatures get chilly – even if the day is starting out hot. Tucking a merino wool hat and a lightweight pair of gloves into your packs is never a bad idea either.
Multitool: A good knife comes in very handy. But so do pliers, a saw, and other tools. Which is why I carry a multitool on my belt or in my pack on hikes. Leatherman, SOG and Gerber are brands I have and continue to use.
Emergency shelter: An emergency mylar thermal blanket is lightweight, compact, windproof, waterproof and helps a body to retain up to 90 percent of its heat in an emergency situation.
Communication device and power bank: Depending on where you are hiking, you may have a cell signal, which is grand, as long as you have sufficient battery life left on your mobile phone. Using your mobile phone for navigation (as a GPS or also as a map) will quickly deplete its battery, so a compact power bank is a good idea, too – Anker and myCharge are both brands we have used extensively. Depending on how far away you may find yourself from emergency help, you may also want to pack along a personal locator beacon (PLB) or satellite messenger. Garmin (inReach Mini GPS Satellite Communicator) and the Spot Gen4 are two I am familiar with.
Something else Therese always does: If you are driving and parking your car at a trailhead, consider leaving a note in it with the date and time you are leaving and when you expect to be back, along with emergency contact info — don’t place this info on the dashboard of course. Leave it discretely in a cup holder or someplace it will be found by authorities. Police will begin to wonder at some point about a car left in a now-vacant lot. And, if you are traveling and just heading out on foot, tuck your emergency contact info, name and hotel name in a pocket so if something horrible happens, the authorities know who you are.
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