10 Essentials to Take on Day Hikes

Warm day hikes can turn into frigid overnight ordeals when emergencies strike, so be prepared with this National Parks Service advice for staying safe on your next adventure.

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The 10 Essentials

Developed by the respected outdoor organization The Mountaineers in 1974 and recommended by the National Park Service, the 10 Essentials refers to 10 categories of items that everyone heading into the wilderness should have with them, even if just for a day hike. A quick hike can turn into a freezing night on the mountain if you get lost or hurt, and this list of supplies is the recommended bare minimum that hikers should take with them. The complete kit should weigh only a few pounds and fit inside a small day pack. These items don't have to be expensive, and if you're hiking more than a mile from your vehicle, can prove invaluable for you and others.

Compass, Map and GPS

In this age of cell phones and GPS, navigation is often considered a given by novice hikers. But what happens when batteries die, and has the time been taken to properly learn how to use these devices? Experienced hikers recommend having a topographical map and a compass, at least as a backup to electronics. They are straightforward to use and orient, and don’t depend on batteries. Hikers should frequently check where they are to create a "breadcrumb trail" of their route and know exactly where they are and how long it will take to get back to their vehicle. Cell phone apps such as Gaia turn your phone into a GPS unit even when offline, but make sure to download the maps before you lose coverage.

Sun Protection

Even in the dead of winter, SPF-rated sun protection is a necessity when outside. Sun reflecting off of snow can be intense and cause severe sunburns. On cloudy days, ultraviolet light still makes it through the cloud cover and can cause burns, and if you’re at a high altitude the effects are greatly magnified. UV400 sunglasses and a hat are obvious, but long pants and loose-fitting long-sleeved shirts are recommended in the summer to protect exposed skin. Wide-brimmed hats to protect the ears and neck coverings such as a bandana are recommended as well. The axiom "Slip! Slop! Slap!" made famous in Australia refers to slipping on a shirt, slopping on sunscreen and slapping on a hat, and has been credited with reducing the cases of melanoma worldwide.


Hot summer days can turn into frigid nights quickly after the sun sets or when a thunderstorm rolls in, especially in the mountains and desert. Having a packable insulated jacket can at the very least make your delay more pleasant, and at most keep hypothermia from setting in if you get stuck. Avoid cotton clothing as cotton absorbs and retains sweat and moisture, contributing to cooling (this goes for socks and underwear, too). Also, having a way to retain body heat is important in treating certain types of shock and other medical emergencies.


You don’t need light until you need it. And when you need it, you really need it. It may seem silly to take a flashlight on a summer day hike, but if for whatever reason you’re kept out after dark that light is invaluable. Even a small, lightweight light or headlamp thrown into your pack and forgotten about can be a life-saver if needed. It can be spotted by any search and rescue teams out looking for you. Make sure your batteries are good or that the light is charged before heading out, and it’s never a bad idea to have a small backup light. Don’t count on using your cell phone’s flashlight as it quickly drains the battery, and you'll need your phone for trying to contact help or using the GPS.

First Aid

Medical issues in the backcountry tend to be either little or huge. Scrapes and sprains are some of the most common issues encountered, as are cuts from improper knife use and burns from stoves and campfires. An injury can make the mile-long hike back to the car seem like a hundred. A small, lightweight kit of gauze patches, a roll of medical tape, a few Band-Aids, antibacterial ointment and an Ace bandage will take care of 90-percent of the problems encountered. Tweezers are helpful for splinters and removing debris from wounds. Lightweight splints such as a SAM splint are helpful with hurt wrists, but items such as a hiking pole can be used in a pinch. Study how to wrap an ankle properly with an Ace bandage or medical tape before heading out to maximize support so that the victim can hike out. Over-the-counter pain medications such as acetaminophen are good to have, and antihistamines such as Benadryl are useful in the event of allergic reactions, stings and rashes. Imodium pills are invaluable for treating sudden gastrointestinal issues that can ruin a trip and even lead to dehydration. Sugar packs can be useful for diabetics in an emergency. All of these items can be stored in a watertight sandwich bag or similar compact container. Make sure to have any specific medication needed by you or anyone in your party on hand, and be aware if anyone has any severe allergies, diabetes or other issues and what to do if they present. VSSL First Aid kits come in lightweight, waterproof, modular cylinders that carry everything you need for most minor mishaps.


Under duress it can be far more difficult than it would seem to start a campfire (Is there wood? Is it dry?). A small lightweight camp stove and fuel can create heat instantly, and can actually provide more usable heat than a campfire. Stoves can also provide fast emergency heat while a larger fire is made (we won’t worry about fire regulations in your area in an emergency). Lighters are preferable to waterproof matches, and clothes dryer lint and even Fritos make excellent fire tinder. Magnesium fire starters work well in all conditions; make sure you know how to use these inexpensive, lightweight devices before an emergency. Fires can make a good signal for search parties, just don’t let it get out of control, and make sure your fire is dead out before leaving the area. Know the symptoms of hypothermia for yourself and others and what to do if they present. The best way to stay warm is to keep moving, and having an insulated sleeping pad to sit on and high-energy food help you maintain your core temperature when resting.


A knife is the hiking go-to tool, but pliers are used far more for tasks such as repairing hike poles and removing hot cups from a stove. A small knife is useful to shave kindling for a fire; big knives look cool but often only add weight, and are a leading cause of injuries when hiking and camping (along with burns from stoves and fires). Most multi-tools contain both, and don’t need to be big. The Gerber Dime weighs 2 ounces and includes tweezers for removing splinters and cleaning wounds. Scissors for cutting medical and repair tape are handy. Repair tape is extremely useful, inexpensive and lightweight, and can be wrapped around a hiking pole until you need it. A couple of turns of good ol’ duct tape can be useful, too.


Don't hike hungry. Bonking -- when your body runs out of energy and begins to shut down during activity -- can be dangerous in the backcountry. There are many high-energy foods in small packages available on the market, such as Stinger energy bars and gels. Almonds and chocolate are quick snacks with high energy output, and even a few ounces could give you the energy boost to make those last few miles back to the car.


Until science figures out how to dehydrate water, you’ll have to carry it or find it. And water always weighs 2.2 pounds per liter (32 ounces). It will be the heaviest thing you’ll carry, and also the most important. No matter what the temperature, you’ll need to maintain appropriate water intake for strenuous activity. A general rule of thumb is to drink one liter of water per hour of strenuous hiking in heat. If you know there is water where you’ll be hiking, a lightweight water filter such as LifeStraw or the MSR TrailShot saves you from carrying water.


Day hikes don’t require a full tent, but a lightweight tarp or bivy sack can help you weather a rain shower with dropping temperatures or spend the night outdoors if necessary. Mylar sheets, often called "space blankets," fold from typically 4 feet by 7 feet down to the size of a wallet, weigh just a few ounces and cost less than $2. They are excellent for retaining body heat, creating a quick lean-to or tent, keeping a patient warm or even sitting on to prevent heat loss through the ground. They can also be used as emergency mirrors if necessary, and provide shade. Emergency bivy (short for "bivouac") sacks are essentially a space blanket in a sleeping bag form, cost less than $15 and weigh less than 4 ounces. These plus your insulated jacket can get you safely through a cold, unexpected night outside with very little weight and space penalty in your day pack. Reusable, lightweight, more rugged and larger tarps such as Big Agnes’ Onyx UL Tarp can quickly be put up to provide everything from weather protection to an overnight shelter.

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