The 10 essentials: A revised list for emergency wilderness survival

Thursday, March 17, 2005


One thing that makes nature so compelling is its utter indifference to you and your well-being. A place that stuns you with its beauty one moment could kill you the next. Fair-weather hikers can get away without recognizing this for a while; some may even perceive in nature a certain benevolence. But sooner or later, if you spend time in the mountains, woods or wild shores of Washington, whether it is mountain biking, hiking, hunting, scrambling or climbing, the true nature of nature will be revealed.

You’d better be ready; people who aren’t sometimes don’t come back. And being ready means having the so-called “10 essentials.”

They may seem an almost outdated cliche, this list of survival gear developed, as legend goes, in the 1930s by the climbing committee of The Mountaineers, the Seattle organization dedicated to the preservation and enjoyment of wilderness.

Today the trend is toward the ultralight, toward epic day trips, fast hiking and trail running. Furthermore, with cell phones, satellite phones and global positioning system navigating units, who needs ’em?

Well, possibly the mountain biker who died last month of hypothermia after crashing in a state forest. Or the skier who got lost in the backcountry outside the Alpental ski area boundary last year and ended up losing his lower legs.

“That’s a classic example,” says Timmy Williams, vice president of Seattle Mountain Rescue, a group of backcountry volunteers who assist authorities in locating people lost or injured. “He went out for a day of skiing and wound up being lost for four days. If he had been prepared for an overnight experience, with extra clothes and food, the outcome could have been much different.”

Cell phones and GPS scare search-and-rescue people to some extent. They’re useful tools no doubt, and cell phones have saved lives. But too often people rely on them and not on more important survival equipment.

“A good number of our missions involve going after people who call in on their cell phones: ‘Oh, I’m up on Mount Si and it’s dark and I don’t have a flashlight and can’t see the trail,’ ” says Williams. “If they’d just had something like that, they’d be able to find their way down.”

Things happen in the outdoors. Weather changes fast, rivers rise, rocks slide. People slip and fall or get lost. Cell phones and GPS often do not work in the heavy forest and convoluted terrain of the Northwest. Fog and clouds can limit search-and-rescue efforts.

If you’re going into the backcountry, you need to be able to take care of yourself; the point of the 10 essentials is to allow you to safely respond to an emergency and safely spend a night or two outside.

They’re much debated and the list is not hard and fast. For example, sunscreen and sunglasses are more important on snow, which can cause blindness, than on a lowland hike in winter. A repair kit and tools are more important for snowshoers than day hikers on a maintained trail.

Furthermore, some say your brain should be No. 1 on the list.

“It is important to emphasize you not only need to carry these items, but also have the knowledge of how to use them,” says Steven Cox of Seattle, a Mountaineers board member and the editor of the seventh edition of “Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills,” an authoritative work on wilderness travel. “Training is critical.”

Nearly 50 experts worked on the seventh edition of the book, published in 2003, and in so doing decided to update the 10 essentials to a systems approach. The old list was somewhat nebulous anyway, with “sunglasses and sunscreen” considered one item.



To ensure you can deal with an emergency and spend an unforeseen night in the backcountry, experts from The Mountaineers advise you carry the following at all times while traveling in the wilderness:

[ ] NAVIGATION: This incorporates the first two items of the old list: map and compass. Both still are mandatory, along with the knowledge of how to use them, including accounting for declination, or the difference between true north and magnetic north. The compass points to the latter, but in Washington true north is 18 degrees to the west. The map should be topographical and carried in a waterproof container, such as a large zipper-lock plastic bag. Climbers, scramblers and other off-trail travelers often also carry an altimeter, a most functional route-finding tool in the mountains, and a GPS unit. Glacier travelers sometimes use wands to mark routes, and often bushwhackers use surveyor’s tape in dense woods. If you do, remove them on the way out.

[ ] SUN PROTECTION: This is critical in the mountains, especially on snow. Sunglasses should provide ultraviolet protection; dime-store cheapies may not be worth a plug nickel on snow. Sunscreen should be rated at least SPF 15.

[ ] INSULATION: This one used to be listed as extra clothing, but the new category includes inner and outer socks, boots, underwear, pants, etc. All told, your insulation should allow you to survive the worst conditions that can be realistically expected. In winter that means a blizzard and subfreezing temperatures. Your clothes should not be of cotton, which robs you of heat when wet and increases the risk of hypothermia. Instead, use synthetics such as polypropylene and nylon, or blends of the same with wool or silk. This category includes full rain gear – pants and jacket – and my advice is to not skimp on the quality of these, especially if you hike year-round. Curious fact: A hat provides more warmth for its weight than any piece of clothing.

[ ] ILLUMINATION: The category is the same, although more and more hikers these days are not using traditional flashlights with bulbs, but headlamps with light-emitting diodes. LEDs do not throw a beam as well as traditional flashlights, but they’re lighter and more efficient because they do not burn out batteries as rapidly. Three AAA alkalines seem to last forever. Carry extra ones to be safe, and if you use a flashlight, an extra bulb.

[ ] FIRST-AID SUPPLIES: Not all of us have taken a first-aid course, but it’s a great idea, especially mountaineering-oriented first aid. That way you’ll know how to properly use gauze pads, roller gauze, butterfly bandages, triangular bandages and medicines you should carry. Interesting note: Experts advise that many prepackaged first-aid kits are inadequate.

[ ] FIRE: This used to include matches in a waterproof container, and those are still good. But many climbers and hikers now carry at least two disposable lighters instead. This category includes fire starter, such as candles, chemical heat tabs, canned heat or resin-soaked, chipped-wood blocks.

[ ] REPAIR KIT AND TOOLS: This category replaces the simple knife, which still is essential, but perhaps in combination with a multitool, today available in reasonable weights. The small pair of pliers on many multitools can be unbelievably useful. Depending on what you’re doing in the wilderness, you may include safety pins, spare pack clips, cable ties, cordage and good-old duct tape. A quaint tradition of many hikers is to wrap a few feet of duct tape around their water bottles.

[ ] NUTRITION: Carry at least enough food for an extra day and night in the woods. It should require no cooking and store well: granola, jerky, nuts, candy, dried fruit.

[ ] HYDRATION: You can live days without food, but not long without water, and dehydration can sneak up on you. Always carry at least one water bottle per person, and it’s a good idea to pack iodine tablets to treat additional water, or carry a filter.

[ ] EMERGENCY SHELTER: If you’re carrying a tent, you’re covered. But on day trips you should at least pack a space blanket, in addition to your rain gear. Other options are plastic tube tents or an extra-large plastic trash bag.

Recommended Reading

“Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills,” edited by Steven M. Cox and Kris Fulsaas (Mountaineers, 575 pages, $26.95) is an authoritative book on backcountry safety.

Seattle Mountain Rescue’s Web site offers a good discussion of wilderness safety at