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Ten Essentials

Ten essential items that every hiker should carry.

Before you hit any trail, make sure your backpack is loaded with the ten essentials. When hiking you are responsible for your own safety, and any one of these ten items may help to save your life. Carry each one and know how to use them.

In addition to these items, know your limits and be sure you leave an itinerary with friends or relatives.



Always carry a detailed map of the area that you are hiking in and a compass.

The 15'' Green Trails maps are great if you're staying on trail. If you're planning on leaving the trail it's best to have 7.5' USGS maps. Both kinds are available at most outdoor recreation stores. Keep your maps in a plastic bag to protect them from the rain and know how to use them.

GPS units are great, but they are not substitutes for knowing how to use a map and compass. The GPS can point you in the right direction, but it's the map that tells you if you can go that way. It doesn't matter how fancy your compass is, but if it doesn't have a compensation setting for true North, make sure you know how to convert magnetic to true North. In Western Washington magnetic North is 20-22° east of true North.


It is essential to drink a lot of water while hiking. Without water, your body doesn't perform as well and you could grow more susceptible to heat stroke, hypothermia and altitude sickness. Any water source can harbor tiny organisms that would make your life unpleasant later, so purify all water with a water filter or purifier, chemical tablets or boiling before drinking.


Always bring extra food when hiking in case an unexpected situation delays your return. Carry at least one extra day's worth. It should be something that stores for a long time, requires no preparation and is high in energy. Many people choose things they really dislike so they won't be tempted to break into their emergency rations unless they really need them. 

If you're hiking with kids, you'll likely need more snacks than usual for the hike, so be sure to plan, and have emergency food in addition. 

Rain Gear and Insulation

Packing layers will help you face any weather the trail throws at you. Photo by Kim Sipple.

Weather can change quickly in the mountains. A sunny, warm day can turn into a cold downpour in a very short period of time. Always tuck rain gear into your backpack and bring along layers of clothes. Avoid cotton clothing in favor of wool or poly blends that wick moisture away from your skin. Bargain stores or secondhand shops are great places to get these layers inexpensively. 


Always bring along waterproof matches in a water-tight container and have a dry or waterproof striker. You might also bring a lighter. And in the Northwest you can expect to have to deal with wet kindling. A candle, solid chemical fuels or balls of compressed wood chips work well.

First Aid Kit

First Aid Kit. Photo by Erika Haugen-Goodman.jpg
Make sure to replenish your first aid kit regularly during hiking season. Photo by Erika Haugen-Goodman.

Don't just have a first aid kit, have a useful first aid kit. Make sure you have the supplies to deal with major injuries, and make sure you have the knowledge. You can purchase hiker first aid kits at outdoor stores or put together your own. Consider taking a first aid course from the Red Cross or the Mountaineers.

For hikes with kids, a booboo can be a tough obstacle to overcome, but fun bandages help. You'll also want to be sure and carry any medication in children's dosages. 


Knives or a multitool is indispensable in the backcountry. They can help you prepare food, cut Moleskin (for blister treatment) or bandages, repair gear, and more. Duct tape can fix everything from tent poles to a leaky mattress to ripped boots and packs.


It's dark out there!  A light source is vital if you get caught in the woods after dark. Carry spare batteries and an extra bulb and make sure you test your light before each trip.

Sun Protection

Sunglasses are a great addition to your pack. Photo by Hope Black.

Your eyes need protection, especially if you are on snow or above treeline. Sunglasses are a must.  And those rays are strong and damaging; sunscreen is important for people of all skin types. Reapply frequently, and be sure kids (if you're traveling with them) do the same.


An emergency tarp or space blanket can help protect you through a sudden storm or shelter you through an unexpected night outdoors.

A few other items to consider:

Insect repellent, whistle, watch, mirror (for signaling), gloves, extra socks, and an orange vest (during hunting season).