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9 Hiking Essentials to Never Hike Without

by , August 25, 2017

Hiking light isn’t an excuse to head out on the trail unprepared. Whether you’re going out for a day or for the weekend, you should always travel with ten hiking essentials. I like to think of these as categories instead of individual items. Here’s my never-leave-home-without-it list.

Shelter

A 10″x10″ tarp provides all the versatility I need to get creative at the campsite. This is a partially free-standing pitch using a tree, trekking poles, and a handful of stakes.

Stoked on this 10”x10” by Bear Paw Wilderness Designs. Seriously. A-frame. Asymmetrical. Body bag. You name it. I’ve been studying my origami here, but with 23 tie-out points, you can really get creative with this tarp; just don’t forget your stakes.

A size comparison between a 1 liter Nalgene, a 10″x10″ tarp, and a 1.5 liter Nalgene.

Check out the SOL Emergency Bivvy if you don’t want to splurge on a lightweight tarp. It’s not by any means a luxurious option, but it’ll get you through the night.

This asymmetrical pitch in a Bear Paw Wilderness Designs 10″x10″ provides plenty of space for one man and gear and room to spare.

Water

I like Nalgene products. I picked up a couple of 1.5 liter bottles recently and have really been enjoying them. I also really like Sawyer’s 64oz flexible bottles. I typically take one for extra storage at camp even if I’m not using it as a primary.

48oz Nalgene and a 64oz Sawyer flex bottle.

I also always have at least three ways to treat water: Boiling, a Sawyer Mini, and iodine. I’m feeling iodine as of late. It’s lightweight, simple, and the taste doesn’t bother me that much. Add some high content vitamin C drink mixes if you need to neutralize the taste.

Food

Food is great for morale (and your metabolism). I try to eat a big meal before I head outside so I don’t have to carry so much, but it’s still a good idea to take some extra calories in the event of an emergency. I like to make my own trail mix: peanuts, almonds, and cashews; dried pineapple, raisins, and cranberries; beef jerky, and M&Ms. A half quart of that gets me anywhere.

Fire

Fire bending in the PNW is mostly about coming over prepared.

I’ve spent a lot of time getting humbled by bad weather and wet wood. One of the things I’ve learned is that it’s better to come prepared. I make my own fire starters, and I always carry redundancies. A small citronella candle, a lighter, matches, fire starters, and a ferro rod is a baseline for me, but nothing replaces practice and knowledge here.

The Pelican 1020 set up as a fire kit: 2 lighters, magnesium block, ferro rod, citronella candle, homemade fire starter, WetFire, and a brass capsule with matches and striking strips. I also tape a phosphorus strip to the top of the case as a backup.

Headlamp

Short and sweet. Take a headlamp. A missed turn on the return trip to the car will have you trying to reorient yourself at dusk. A headlamp evens that playing field a little. As a matter of fact, you should keep one in your first aid kit in the event you need to treat someone after dark.


“I also always have at least three ways to treat water: Boiling, a Sawyer Mini, and iodine.”


First Aid

In my experience, first aid is mostly tape and knowledge—and risk mitigation. Gauze is good too. I built my Wilderness First Responder kit to address basic needs and common challenges I’ll face while backpacking. If you’re going to carry first aid supplies, make sure you get the training to apply them.

Cordage

If you’ve ever read Jonny Wiseman’s SAS Survival Handbook you know that cordage is the answer. Essentially if you have enough cordage, you can make anything. I mainly use mine to guy out my tarp and mark trails as needed. I like high-visibility orange, if you were curious. Don’t forget a heavier gauge piece for your bear hang.

Cordage is usually the answer to all your campsite woes. The SAS Survival Handbook basically taught me that with enough cordage, I can significantly improve my situation.

Knife

My primary uses for my knife are wood processing and food prep. That said, there are endless uses for a camp knife. My mainstay has for a long time been an ESEE 5, and I’ve recently picked up a Lion Steel M4 in M390, which are both great knives. A few I aspire to own some day are a Wander Tactical Smilodon, a Turley pattern M14, and an Andrew Jordan Raven or Commander. I could go on. Carry a knife and make sure it’s a good one.

Killing some time with my Lion Steel M4 making feather sticks for the evening’s fire.


“Essentially if you have enough cordage, you can make anything.”


Z Lite

If you scroll through the reviews I’ve done in the past, you’ll see a Z Lite strapped to my pack. I really never go out without it.

Honestly, just buy a Z Lite. I’ve taken mine everywhere, and for good reason. I’ve used a Z Lite for:

Sleeping: R-Value of 2.6, and surprisingly tolerable to lay on. It’s also a must as a sleeping system foundation for winter camping thanks to the waterproof nature of closed cell foam.

Sitting: I fold my short length pad in half and it gives me a nice cushy area for me to #trailmixandchill.

Thunder Position: It’s waterproof, so when a storm rolls in I use it as my thunder buddy. Sit on one side and bring the other side up your back and over your head.

Mat: Yoga mat, changing mat, gear mat, climbing rope mat: whatever you need to keep off the ground and vaguely organized, the Z Lite is there for you. Bonus, when I’m rigging top rope anchors, I use the yellow side as a marker for rope throws.

Improvised awning: When me and my hiking buddy are getting camera gear and other water-sensitive equipment, we have a tradition of holding a Z Lite above each other as protection from the elements.

Z Lite working overtime as a waterproof cover for my pack while we figure out where to set up the tent.

Fan: That fire isn’t going to stoke itself, you know. I use the Z Lite as a fan to boost struggling fires.

Washboard: I did laundry twice on my last trip and used a Z Lite as a washboard to get some of the funk out of my shirts and underwear. I smelled bad at that point, so I won’t swear by this yet, but it didn’t not work.

Medical: Closed cell foam is great for immobilizing splints and makeshift flip flops when you forget your camp shoes.

I challenge you to find me a more useful piece of gear that is as valuable ($35) and will last as long—mine’s going on four years strong.


While I often trail run without a shelter and a knife, I try and go with a partner, and I never leave without telling someone where I’m going and when I’ll return. Still, it’s good practice to carry these things when you’re heading out into a wilderness area, so I take them whenever I can. Let us know what your never-leave-home-without-it items are, and thanks for keeping the conservation going. Tread lightly!

  • https://www.instagram.com/waxheadjed/ Jed

    Good list. Should some kind of Navigation kit be added onto this? Depending on your environment getting lost can be just as dangerous as getting cold or hungry.

    • Andrew Sporrer

      Good call, Jed. A topo map of the area you’re exploring and a compass are part of the ten essentials and should always go with you. I was going for a more product oriented round up here and mindlessly excluded the nav. Funny, too, because not only are maps critical for orienteering, but they’re also my favorite thing to read on the trail at the end of the day.

      Thanks for pointing that out– while you’re here, do you mind sharing what your must-have piece of gear is?

      • https://www.instagram.com/waxheadjed/ Jed

        The list above is great, had to think what else I’d add; the other obvious benefit of both the shelters you’ve named is their colouring means they’ll work as a signalling device if you’re in trouble. That said, I usually carry a whistle for the same role, can be very useful for keeping the group together in bad weather.

  • Graham Heyes

    Nice list but there’s one thing missing from the article. It starts with a picture of two hands, the left holding a root wrapped in a cloth and the right holding what looks like a shotgun cartridge filled with something white. It may be obvious to some but I have no idea what they are and what that picture has to do with the rest of the article

  • http://doggonecreative.com/ Matt Sullivan

    Great list. I like the tarp as tent concept. I used to carry a plastic tube tent but it didn’t breathe so I cut it into a tarp and added some grommets. Love the versatility. Speakinking of versatility, every since I started backpacking in Boy Scouts I’ve always carried 2 cotton bandanas. Like the tarp, these are useful for many things: sun protection, first aid wrap, dish towel, hand & face towel (before you wash the dishes), dog collar, hat, scarf, and picnic ‘table’ in a pinch. Saves your shirts from serving these purposes and they’re easier to clean.

  • rw299

    Cell pads are too bulky for me, and I would recommend checking out the Inertia X Frame. They’re adequately comfortable and incredibly small/light. I also got a tarp tent from a guy in Indonesia that makes them in his garage for the equivalent of $15 (https://woodstockgear.wordpress.com/).

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