Essential Gear for Self-Sufficient Hikers

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Written for the members of the New York City Hiking and Nature Meetup.

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Being a self-sufficient hikers means being able to evaluate what gear you will need on a trip and what gear you and your group should have to provide an adequate margin of safety.

There are day hiking gear lists all over the internet - ours is here - and they can prepare hikers pretty well for a basic hike. But they can't replace judgment and experience when it comes to advanced hikes. Water, for example, is on every list, but some challenging hikes call for carrying two gallons of water (as I did on one 22 mile hike in Utah) while two liters and chemical treatment is more appropriate for others. Likewise, someone going for a short hike in Harriman State Park would need only a trail map and compass for navigation, but someone climbing a trail-less peak in the Adirondacks would probably want a map, compass, written route description, and GPS.

A gear list that includes everything you might need on any hike would be hundreds of items long and would tell you nothing about what you needed for any particular hike. Ultimately every hiker needs to use their own judgment about what to bring.

People who spend a lot of time thinking about these kinds of things have divided just about everything a hiker could need into a handful of key groups (or "systems") to help organize the gear selection process. These groups are often called "The Ten Essentials" and there are several versions of them, many with more than ten groups. Here's my list with eleven groups:

Andre's Eleven Essential Groups of Gear:

Run through the list and consider:
- What items from each group are definitely required for this hike?
- What additional items should be on hand to handle common adverse conditions such as rain, snow, or returning in the dark?
- What emergency gear is approximate given the inherent dangers of the route and the personal risk tolerances of the group?
  1. Navigation - Topographic map, compass, guide book, GPS w/extra batteries
  2. Communication - Whistle, cell phone, GPS beacon, radio, someone who knows your plan and what to do if you don't check in
  3. Clothing - Basic clothing plus rain gear, extra layers, extra socks, gloves, hat
  4. Nutrition - Meals, snacks, plus extra food
  5. Hydration - Water, extra water, water treatment chemicals, filter, method to melt snow, salt tablets
  6. Illumination - Always have a head lamp w/ extra batteries
  7. Sun Protection - Sunscreen, sun glasses, ski goggles, sun proof clothing, hat (I mentally group bug spray here too)
  8. Medical and Sanitary - Toilet paper, hand sanitizer, personal medications, first-aid kit
  9. Fire - Lighter, water proof matches, fire starter, stove and fuel
  10. Equipment and Tools - Hiking poles, repair kits, knife, duct tape, rope, etc
  11. Emergency Shelter - Space blanket, tarp, insulated pad, ultra-light shelter, etc

Two other versions:
Ten Essential "Systems" from REI
Ten Essential Groups from the Texas Sierra Club

Also see:
Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills has an excellent section covering their ten essentials, plus chapters on basic wilderness skills, rock climbing, mountaineering, and many skills.

The Complete Walker IV is aimed solely at hikers and backpackers, with extensive discussions of what gear they use, why they use it, and how to select the right gear for any trip.

Planning for Emergencies:

It is always worth learning from the mistakes of others, so check out, a compilation of search and rescue reports from around the world.
Here are some of my recent favorites:
You know its a bad night when you're trying to start a fire by burning your map