The 10 Essentials of Outdoor Travel


Whether you’re hiking, climbing, paddling, skiing, or camping, there are just some pieces of outdoor gear that you should never leave home without: the 10 essentials.

What exactly are the 10 essentials, you might ask?

The 10 essentials of hiking, camping, and outdoor travel are designed to ensure that you always have the bare minimum equipment on hand, just in case you need to handle an unexpected emergency in the backcountry. 

While the precise items that you choose to take into the outdoors will depend greatly on the type of trip you’re doing, where you’re going, and the size of your group, these 10 items are considered a baseline standard for gear during any outdoor activity.

Here’s what you need to know about the 10 outdoor essentials before your next trip.

1. Navigation Tools

Unless your trip involves staying close to the road on very well maintained and marked trails, navigation tools are a must for any outdoor adventure.

At a minimum, people heading outside should come equipped with a map of the area and a compass. While smartphones often come with GPS functionality and electronic compasses, these can and do fail in the mountains. Therefore, there’s really no replacing a paper map and an actual compass while traveling in the backcountry.

In addition to a map and a compass, a handheld GPS device is more or less a must-have in remote environments. Since these, too, can fail, it’s best not to rely on them as your sole means of navigation. But, they can be really useful if you’re in heavily forested or otherwise nebulous terrain.

Just remember: Maps, compasses, and GPS devices are only helpful if you know how to use them. So, take the time to learn how to navigate with these tools so you can be prepared for any eventuality.

2. Illumination

I’ve been benighted in the outdoors more times than I’d like to admit, as even the most straightforward of hikes can turn into an epic when conditions change unexpectedly.

Thankfully, during each of those adventures, I had a headlamp and spare batteries on hand to help me find my way. Even if you’re only planning to be out for a few hours, you never know when you’ll get stuck outside for longer than you might think.

In these situations, a headlamp is essential as the light on your phone just won’t cut it. I’ve seen too many people try to rely on the tiny flashlight on their smartphone to descend a trail in the dark. Trust me, it’s not fun to watch, and it certainly can’t be any more fun to experience.

3. First aid

Although we hope to never have to use them, first aid kits are indispensable tools on any outdoor adventure. When you’re far from help, having the supplies necessary to deal with a medical emergency in the backcountry can literally be the difference between life and death.

Of course, the specifics of your first aid kit will depend on the type of trip you’re going on and the number of people in your group (check out our suggestions for building your own first aid kit for some top tips). 

Just be sure that you’re familiar with the contents of your first aid kit before you go outside, and that you have the right skills to deal with a medical emergency, should one arise.

4. Shelter

Anyone heading outside should have some sort of emergency shelter kit with them at all times. Backpackers and anyone that’s already planning to spend the night outside can check this one off the list as a tent certainly counts as a shelter.

For day hikers, an emergency blanket (a.k.a. space blanket) or a bivy sack is a solid choice. These shelters are small and lightweight, but they can keep you warm if you get stuck outside in cold, wet conditions.

5. Knife

A knife is an essential piece of gear for any outdoor trip because it can be used to make kindling, prep food, or even repair broken gear.

While you don’t necessarily need a large fixed blade, at a minimum, everyone in your group should have a folding pocket knife. I won’t get into the debate over what type of knife is best for outdoor use here as, in reality, any knife is better than none at all during an emergency.

6. Fire Starter

The ability to start a fire is an essential survival skill, but few people have the skills to do so without lighters and matches. Even if you know that you can get a fire going with a bow drill in no time flat, having fire starting equipment on hand can save you a whole lot of time and effort.

Anyone heading outside should have, at a minimum, a lighter and some firestarter. If you’re traveling somewhere that’s not likely to have firewood, such as the alpine, a small stove and fuel are a great back-up option for keeping you warm.

7. Food

While we humans can live without food for quite a while, it’s certainly not a pleasant experience. At a minimum, being hungry while outside leads people to make poor decisions, which can make a situation go from bad to worse very quickly.

When packing for your trip, bring more food than you need. If you ever need to dig into your emergency stockpile, you’ll be happy that you carried that extra weight.

8. Water

Water is essential for human life, so it should come as no surprise that it makes our list of must-have items for outdoor adventure. That being said, while you don’t necessarily need to carry oodles of water on the trail, having the ability to carry and treat water in the backcountry is critical.

For trips where you know that you’ll cross by a number of reliable water sources, you can often get away with just 1-2 liters of water carrying capacity. Alternatively, when traveling in dry areas, like the desert, it’s imperative that you have 3-5 liters of water carrying capacity (at a minimum) so you don’t run out in the middle of the day.

9. Sun protection

This is perhaps the most commonly overlooked of the 10 essentials, but it’s by no means unimportant. I’ve seen way too many people get horribly sunburnt in the mountains (myself included) just because they forgot to wear a hat, sunglasses, and some sunscreen.

Although a sunburn might not seem bad, the link between frequent sunburns and skin cancer is pretty clear. Plus, sunburns can be really painful, especially when carrying a backpack. They can also dehydrate you, which is certainly something that you don’t want while outdoors.

Also, keep in mind that hiking, climbing, or camping at high elevations and in snowy locales increases your risk of snow blindness. In these situations, sunglasses and a hat are non-negotiables.

10. Spare clothes

Finally, even if you start your hike on a super sunny bluebird morning, never underestimate how quickly the weather can change. A cloud-free morning can quickly deteriorate into a full-fledged storm with little warning and getting stuck outside without warm clothes is not a fun situation to be in.

As you decide what to pack on your next trip, first consider what the conditions are normally like in your destination. Then, pack at least 1-2 extra warm layers, plus a rain jacket, just in case. Even in the summer months, it’s worth bringing a thin set of liner gloves and a warm hat as it can get pretty chilly if you have to unexpectedly spend a night outdoors.