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The Ten Essentials

What do you need to carry with you into the wilderness? A good place to start, in fact, the only place to start is with the so-called Ten Essentials. But I’d recently heard that they had been altered, somehow, adapted to new needs. I’d heard horror stories from national park rangers about receiving cell phone calls from jeans-and-tee shirt-clad day trippers who were off in a Park somewhere, tired, without any gear or shelter, and wanting a helicopter ride back to safety

I was worried that the Ten Essentials had been…diluted…by new-fangled technology that undermined good old-fashioned wilderness skills, but in taking a look at the Ten Essentials that were, a generation ago, and the Ten Plus that are, now, I realize the additions that have not been that radical an evolution. Parts of the –Plus part of the Ten may have a place in the pantheon of Essentials. God, do I sound like a curmudgeon, or what?

Let’s go back to then. When I started hanging around in uncivil country with wild animals and such, the Ten Essentials were as follows:

  1. Extra clothing – more than needed in good weather
  2. Extra food – enough that something is left at the end of the trip
  3. Sunglasses – necessary for most alpine travel and indispensible on snow
  4. Knife – for first aid and emergency firebuilding (making kindling)
  5. Firestarter – a candle or chemical fuel for starting fire with wet fuel
  6. First aid kit
  7. Matches – in waterproof container
  8. Flashlight – with extra bulb and batteries
  9. Map – the right one for the trip, and in waterproof container
  10. Compass – along with knowledge of declination

You need all of those things, at a minimum, for a safe day trip. There are other things you will want if you plan on staying in the wild overnight, but we’ll get to those later.

I belonged, briefly, to the Seattle Mountaineers, and went on a bunch of day trips with them. There were rumors floating around within the club that certain trip leaders might order everyone in the day’s party to unpack and “show their Ten,” if you will. Those missing any of them would be left in the parking lot and not be allowed to hike. Never saw this done; didn’t want to test the system, either.

Since then, I’ve pretty much always carried all Ten. Pretty much.

Let’s take a look at the Ten.

Extra clothing and food – no one questions the good sense of those. Cotton is a liability in the Pacific Northwest; if it gets wet it loses any insulating properties, (and usually stays wet and starts to mildew). Understand that extra clothing includes a waterproof layer, at the very least a waterproof raincoat or poncho (a hefty-size garbage bag with three holes cut out of it will do, in a pinch, for a day trip or overnighter, but for anything more involved you’d better have an actual garment). Waterproof rain pants I consider an option, as long as your raincoat is long enough to keep your entire torso dry.

Sunglasses – if I had a taco for every pair of sunglasses and glacier glasses and wraparound shades I’ve bought and toted, none of which I ever wore before eventually breaking…I’d have a big-ass lunch waiting for me. But my eyes are now becoming a bit more light-sensitive; perhaps this year I’ll find them helpful.

Knife – you don’t need a big one that straps to your thigh like a bayonet. In fact, people thus armed are generally people you’ll want to avoid.

Firestarter – I don’t think anyone carries a candle anymore. It’s usually a tube of fire-gel or dry wood-chip-and-paraffin concoctions.

First aid kit – mine has devolved to consist merely of a bunch of Blister Block pads, a couple Band-Aids, and a tube of Neosporin – all in a baggie. But if you’re allergic to bee stings, you’d better have the appropriate antidote. If you’re prone to debilitating headaches, pack accordingly. Trimming your toenails assiduously before you leave will help you tremendously.

Matches – these are always a good insurance policy, over and above the Bic lighter (I carry two) you probably use.

Flashlight – you might consider a headlamp; it’ll leave your hands free. Extra batteries and bulb are always wise.

Map – yes, I still believe in maps.

Compass – yes, that, too. It always works. If the battery fails, we’re all in trouble. The declination thing refers to the variance between true north and magnetic north in the locality of your particular map; this is posted on good maps.

Okay, let’s look critically at a few of those:

Mightn’t firestarter and matches be combined into one, call it “Master of Fire?” You still need both items, but they’re really about one thing: to be able to produce a sustainable fire at any time, in any conditions.

Should we also combine map and compass: “Master of Navigation?” (since I seem to be on this Master – kick)

This might make room for some of the –Plus Essentials that are edging onto the list of the Ten:

  • Sunscreen
  • Water filter
  • Whistle
  • Food storage device

Sunscreen - Despite my great personal awareness of the long-term dangers of severe sunburn, I still consider sunscreen only a well-advised option. Not everyone needs it or wants it. And you could always put on more clothes.

Water filter – I’m aware of this one, too. I am a carrier of giardiasis, and probably will be for life. But you can carry a day’s worth of water from home. You can use Iodine tablets (like I did, when I contracted giardia…), or a vial of household bleach. Or, with a camp stove, you can clean water by boiling it.

Whistle – you hear horror stories of the poor soul with a broken back lying twenty feet below a well-traveled trail, throat too dry to call out to passersby within visual range for help. With that in mind, I will say that having a whistle for that purpose only works if you have it on a string around your neck or in your pocket. Having a whistle in your backpack might not do you a darned bit of good in such a case.

Food storage device – though not necessary for a day trip, in most places, for overnight trips such a function is well advised. In most areas of the Olympic National Park, for example, use of a hard-sided container is required, because of mooching-habituated raccoons and bears (you don’t have to run out and buy one; the Park will rent you one, currently for just $3 a trip). The term food storage device should also be understood, in most other wild places, to be defined as a rope and a heavy (not plastic) bag.

At the bottom of the Ten-Plus Essentials, the damned acronym ‘GPS’ keeps hanging out. Call me a Luddite, but although you may want to take your GPS, it should never be used to replace good “Master of Navigation” skills.

So, the Ten-Plus Essentials haven’t been insidiously infiltrated by technological devices, as I’d feared. The additions are largely logical and well thought out.

What Else Do You Need?

If you’re actually going to spend the night in the wild with a reasonable degree of safety and comfort, you’re going to need a few more things. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Tent – with rainfly (ground tarp advised)
  • Sleeping bag – with mattress or pad
  • Stove, fuel, extra fuel, pot (one will do), utensil (spoon?)
  • Means of purifying water (and storing it)
  • Pack cover
  • Toiletries

Tent: you should practice, before you go, putting the tent up in a hurry, in the dark, in a windstorm. Never know when that’ll come in handy. And don’t forget any part of said tent. Just try putting up that tent in the dark, in a windstorm, without poles or stakes. The ground tarp can simply be a piece of thin plastic cut to be just slightly smaller than the floor of your tent; if larger, it allows rain to flow in between the tarp and the floor of the tent – you don’t want this. The tarp also protects your tent floor from punctures.

Bag: down products are a liability when they get wet; the Pacific Northwest is not a particularly wise area for a down bag. And although the pad is technically a luxury, you’d be amazed at just how many sharp, pointy rocks there are in the universe, and at how they’ve managed to assemble just below your shoulder blades.

Stove: be certain of its use. I use a lot of those freeze-dried, cook-in-their-own-bag meals, so I don’t have to wash anything here, just rinse out my coffee cup with my cleanest fingers, and off I go.

Water purification: covered above

Pack cover: Ya know how every time you see Seattle in a movie, it’s raining? Well, that’s a lie. We get less total rainfall than Boston, than New York, than D.C. or Miami. But certain places in the Pacific Northwest are subject to substantially more (that’s why they call them “rainforests.”) So having a waterproof cover for your pack is advisable. I’ve used very large garbage bags on occasion, but they always end up getting snagged on and torn by brush and tree limbs, and last, at best, only a day or two.

Toiletries: I haven’t carried soap in years (yet I still catch rides…). A quick-dry washcloth, alcohol-based hand sanitizer, and a clear stream will work wonders, though.

Anything else you might take with you is a luxury, a convenience, a useless frill. I take a bunch of things like that. A pillow (my neck demands it); a couple books (those bus rides can be long, and sometimes you just get rained in – and used books are better, and never take library books, because you don’t want to take anything paper that you wouldn’t use to start a fire, or worse…); camera; bug spray (some might argue this a near-Essential; they might be right); camp shoes (sneakers could also double for road work); extra garbage bags (they weigh next to nothing); the list can go on.

But when you get back home, as you unpack, look at each thing and ask yourself: Did I need this thing? Could something else, lighter or smaller, have substituted for it? Might I have been in a serious world of hurt if push came to shove and I actually needed this thing?

And one other thing: never weigh your backpack. It can only make you feel worse.

Addendum: Your Editor's Ten Essentials:

The Ten Essentials:

  • Flask with booze. I can't believe this isn't on the other lists.
  • Harmonica
  • Penguin repellant in case they turn out to be attracted to harmonica music
  • Duct Tape. in case of penguin attack you can tie them up
  • Ball of twine (for building your own furniture)
  • Change of socks in case you have to put penguins in your other socks
  • Trashy novel because penguins like to be read to
  • Hairband for neatness
  • Titanium spork because a designer can't resist the fancy cutlery aisle at REI
  • Lighter to go with the harmonica concert


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