Yvon Chouinard says it is better to leave the “ten essentials” at home because your best security is to move fast and be up and off the mountain before it ‘erupts’.

—Climbing Ice by Yvon Chouinard, page 153

Regarding what can be classified as emergency equipment, [the answer is] EVERYTHING. In an emergency, every single item on your person becomes emergency equipment, and every skill and bit of knowledge. The goal is to have the right combination of gear and knowledge to come out ahead—alive—in any situation. It is very dangerous to believe that your gear will save you, no matter what gear you have.

—Bors Vesterby, Signpost, August 1999

Central Issues Addressed in This Article

How should hiking “essentials” be defined? Should “essentials” be used in the narrow minimum survival sense or a broader sense? Are there questionable items on most “essentials” lists? (Knife? First aid kit? Extra food? Map and compass?) What are the overriding principles for being prepared to deal with wilderness emergencies beyond carrying the “essentials”?

Starting Assumptions

To begin answering the above questions, assume we are not highly trained and coached survivalists who can make do with almost nothing. Further assume we are not dealing with aboriginal tribes or “mountain men” who have learned to adopt and survive in the most inhospitable of places. In contrast, assume that most of us are modern day backcountry travelers who spend most of our time in the frontcountry surrounded by most of the comforts. Even though the original concept of the “Ten Essentials” apparently started with mountaineering organizations in the 1930s, assume we are not dealing with this topic as mountaineers and alpinists, but as hikers, off-trail scramblers, canyoneers, river runners, and so on. Finally, assume we are dealing with experienced backcountry travelers rather than inexperienced beginners. In this context, it is interesting to note that the original classic concept of the “Ten Essentials” started with classes for beginning climbers.

Failed Attempts to Define the “Essentials”

There is considerable debate and oftentimes confusion regarding the “essentials” for backcountry travels. Is it 10, 12, 14 or some other specific number of gear items? What is usually meant by “essentials” when a specific number is given? Should it be defined broadly to cover almost everything carried except luxury items (as some suggest) or defined narrowly to mean something like the minimum essentials to stay alive in times of emergency (i.e., life or death survival)? Most lists of essentials are vague and ambiguous on this point.

One way to clarify any concept is by listing synonymous terms and phrases (e.g., concise dictionary definitions). Following this suggestion, there is a long list of terms and phrases roughly synonymous with “essential”: necessity, indispensable, required, minimum, important, critical, imperative, mandatory, compulsory, nonnegotiable, must-haves, basic requirement, insurance item. While providing a starting point for clarification, a list of synonymous terms and phrases accomplishes little in the present context.

Adding qualifiers to indicate the strength of feeling behind a phrasing also does little to clarify (e.g., truly necessary, really important, absolutely essential, extremely critical, bare minimums, highest priority, cover the worst possible events, and so on).

Giving examples is another common and useful way to define a concept. For example, we could consult the lists provided by outdoor stores, hiking books or web sites to determine what the author, organization or company view as the “essentials”. Compiling these many lists into one long list would produce at least 25-30 different items. To add more value to this approach, we could conduct a popularity contest to see which items received the most votes. However, a popularity contest is of limited usefulness at best and totally inadequate at the worst. The following analysis will explain why this is the case.

Using a Contextual Model for Identifying the “Essentials”

The best way to attain the needed clarity for the concept of “essentials”, as related to backcountry travel, is to provide specific contexts in which the concept is often used or might be appropriate. In other words, provide a contextual or situational definition. Sometimes the context is clear, but often it is not. Often several meanings or contexts get combined. Here is a quote from one hiker who supports this position:

Essentials are different for each type of trip; situational. “Who you are, where you live and hike, and who you travel with, all influence what you should carry - there’s no one-size-fits-all formula.
—Rick Dreher

Following are nearly 30 different contexts each accompanied by examples of gear often seen as “essential” for that context.

—Essential for mere survival in colder temperatures; essential to prevent hypothermia (e.g., shelter, storm shell clothing, insulating clothing, calorie rich food, water)

—Essential for survival in winter conditions (e.g., layers of insulated clothing, insulating sleeping pad, vapor barrier liners, snow shovel, stove for melting water, calorie rich food, snowshoes or skis)

—Essential for starting a fire or lighting a stove in severe storm conditions (e.g., chemical accelerant, knife, tinder, storm proof matches, butane lighter, sparking tool) 

[Note: In the complete article, at least 25 additional "contexts" for determining essentials are suggested.]


The above paragraphs provide a preview of the complete article (approximately 18 pages) available as a free download.  Click on the following to download in either a Microsoft Word or PDF format.

Seeking Truth About The Ten Essentials – Word Format

Seeking Truth About The Ten Essentials – PDF Format

 The sub-topics listed below are developed in this complete article:

Starting Assumptions

Failed Attempts to Define the “Essentials”

Using a Contextual Model for Identifying the “Essentials”

Conclusions Based upon This Contextual Analysis

Overriding Principles in Preparing for Backcountry Emergencies

Reader Participation: Acknowledgement of Essential Principles

Ultralight Philosophies of Safety and Carrying the “Essentials”

Questionable Items Appearing on Most Essential Gear Lists

Reader Participation: Evaluating Questionable “Essentials”

Final Observations

Legal Disclaimer

Additional Issues for Reflection

  Seeking Truth About the Ten Essentials