Trail Talk: The Ten Essentials for Hiking

Trail Talk: The Ten Essentials of Hiking

by Russ Winkler

This Saturday, June 2, is National Trails Day: and next Saturday, June 9, is National Get Outdoors Day: . In honor of, and hopefully in preparation for, these days of outdoor activity I am offering a series of information pieces about what you need to hike safely, what else you need to hike comfortably, and trail ethics and etiquette.

People in my community often approach me for advice on where to go hiking. My first question always is whether they have a hiking map, which inevitably they don’t. Rule #1 is that you don’t hit the trail without a trail map, period.

So what else do you need to hit the trail? Enter the ten essentials. Originally compiled by mountaineers, and adopted by Boys Scouts of America, this is the short list of what you should be bringing whenever you exchange civilization for the wilderness, be it for an hour or a month.

10 Essentials

  1. Navigation: topographical trail map and compass. Most of you are probably familiar with a compass but not the topo map, as most of us call it. This is a map that indicates the topography of the area through the use of a combination of contour lines and differing shades of color. They can be purchased at your local camping store or ordered online. (But you will need to learn how to read them from somebody who knows how.)
  2. First Aid Kit: You can purchase a ready-made kit at your local camping store or you can consult a hiking/backpacking handbook for what items it should include and buy the items separately (and cheaply). One thing not to overlook is Moleskin, a unique type of bandage for blister care.
  3. Sun Protection: sunscreen, wide-brimmed hat or ball cap, and sunglasses. This is a must even if it is not sunny when you head out for the day.
  4. Rain Gear: waterproof, preferably breathable, rain jacket and rain pants. You never know when rain may strike. To keep yourself dry, and thereby warm, always carry a lightweight full body poncho or separate rain jacket and rain pants. If you are going to become a regular hiker you are going to want to invest in waterproof, breathable rain gear because it keeps the rain out but at the same time allows sweat to escape so you don’t get clammy, and therefore cold (besides uncomfortable) trapped in your own moisture.
  5. Extra Layer: This means being prepared for temperatures somewhat above or below those in the weather forecast. If its hot, carry a long sleeves T-shirt and lightweight long pants; if its moderate, wear a short-sleeve layer below your shirt and carry a sweatshirt, preferably synthetic fleece; if its cool, wear multiple layers such as wool, synthetics, a fleece outer shell, and base layers and strip layers or add layers as needed. Unless it is very cold a parka is usually overkill and you should stick with layers that can be carried in your pack. (I am intentionally avoiding recommendations for extreme temperatures. Unless you are an expert outdoorsman I do not recommend hiking in very cold or very hot temperatures.)
  6. Extra Water: This means being prepared to stay hydrated for a period of time longer than planned. For a typical day hike, I recommend at least 2 liters of water for moderate weather and at least 3 liters of water for hotter days as your base amounts and 1 extra liter in case you must remain in the woods overnight. [For multi-day trips (or day hikes in arid environments) you will need to bring water purification tablets or a lightweight filter for this contingency.]
  7. Extra Food: Again, this means being prepared to stay energized for a period of time longer than planned. I typically recommend carrying at least the equivalent of one extra meal’s worth of food. This does not mean you need to bring along your favorite TV dinner. Instead carry extra energy bars, trail mix, and/or dried fruit containing approximately 500-800 calories.
  8. Light Source: flashlight or headlamp (and spare batteries). No I’m not kidding, you never know when you may find yourself still on the trail (or worse, lost off the trail) after the sun goes down. Having a flashlight, or better yet a headlamp- a hands-free device, will then come in very handy, will help you remain calm, and, if you are (hopefully) on trail it will even help you get back home!
  9. Fire Starters: matches and/or lighter. Fire has many survival and psychological benefits if you find yourself marooned in the wild. It provides warmth if the temperature drops, is psychologically encouraging, and may even ward off unfriendly wildlife. Keep your matches in a watertight canister or better yet buy the waterproof variety- and keep those in a watertight canister! Add a lighter to your survival kit. This way if the matches get wet you always have your lighter; if your lighter fluid runs out you always have your matches. Additionally, a single tea lamp candle, Vaseline-moistened cotton balls, or a clump of clothes dryer lint can be a life saver in getting a fire going when dry fire wood is unavailable.
  10. Pocket Knife: Whether you opt for a fancy multi-tool or a simple, single-blade Swiss army knife your pocket knife will provide a myriad of survival uses from skinning an apple to skinning a cannibal! Cutting rope, whittling fire wood, cutting cloth for a makeshift bandage, cutting a snagged article of clothing, the list goes on and on…

To learn more about the ten essentials:

Future topics:

– Russ’s ‘Other’ Ten Essentials

– Other Gear Ideas for a More Enjoyable Hike

Russ Winkler is a NYS DEC licensed hiking guide. He has been hiking since 1997 and leading and co-leading day hikes and multi-day backpacking treks for Boy Scout troops and other community organizations since 2007. He is currently pursuing his Masters in Public Administration with a concentration in Nonprofit Management at the School of Public Affairs at Baruch College. He can be contacted at regarding guided hikes and all things hiking.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: