We went on a hike a few weeks ago and were totally unprepared.
No, it wasn’t an overnight backpacking trip or a backcountry excursion; it was a short hike on an established trail a few miles from home.
It’s not like we’re oblivious. Dale has geeked-out on the topic of safety for decades now, and that includes outdoor preparedness. He has compiled essentials kits and drilled into me the benefits of wool versus cotton, the importance of layers, and why I should always carry a flashlight and a knife. He is constantly asking me before we head out on a hike, “Do you have your essentials?” And yet we left the house with no gear because we didn’t think we needed it.
Our destination was Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park. Exit is one of the most accessible glaciers in Alaska and just a few miles from home, and the hike, one that we’ve done many times, would be short and easy. It had been raining for days and days, but that Saturday offered clear skies, so we just wanted a little time outdoors before it began to rain again. Our plan was to start with the one-mile Glacier View Loop Trail, a paved path that takes us along Resurrection River. We would then head up the Glacier View Overlook Trail (1.2 miles round trip), which involves a mild elevation gain and offers terrific views of the glacier. We’d be done with the hike and back home in an hour or two.
Because of that, we treated our trip like a casual outing and not an excursion into the Alaskan outdoors. Dale wore cargo shorts, a light jacket, and minimalist walking shoes. I was slightly more prepared; I had on hiking pants, a long-sleeved wool shirt, and a jacket. We both carried bear spray, but neither of us had any gear or essentials.
After starting our hike, we quickly realized that we’d underdressed. The temperature was maybe 50 degrees, which we’re acclimated to, but the wind blowing off the river made the air much colder. It also became clear just how much rain we’d had. The river, which usually flows in slim braids that can be traversed in rubber boots, was running high and fast, fed by dozens of waterfalls that streamed down the mountainsides.
When we reached the Glacier Overlook Trail we found it impassable, overrun by a network of streams that made the area unrecognizable. We crossed several streams but came to one that was too wide. Neither of us was prepared for soaked feet; nor, as Dale also pointed out, were we prepared for anything else. What if it started to rain again? Or if we managed to cross but then got trapped on the other side by more flooding? We had no rain gear or spare clothes or water or food. The decision to turn back was an easy one.
Dale chided himself for breaking his own rule for day hikes, which is—have enough gear to spend the night outdoors. Even on a casual afternoon stroll, the elements can kill you. Weather conditions can change in a second, or you can fall and twist an ankle, or… a thousand other scenarios easily come to mind. Point is, we weren’t prepared, a pretty rare thing for us.
We often meet people on day hikes who have no gear and questionable clothing choices. This post is for those of you who may not have given much thought to what you should bring on an afternoon hike. It’s also for anyone who wants a list of items that might be considered essential when hitting the trail for the day.
The concept of an essentials list
In the 1930s, the Mountaineers, an outdoor recreation organization, developed the concept of the 10 Essentials with the intention that backcountry travelers could respond to emergencies and survive one or more nights stranded in the wilderness. Here’s what their list contained:
- Shade (hat, sunglasses and sunscreen)
- Extra clothing
- First-aid supplies
- Extra food
Many organizations have embraced the 10-essentials concept, and it has evolved over the years, moving away from a list of individual items to a group of broader categories, including:
- Sun protection
- Repair kit and tools
- First aid
Essentials checklists have been adapted to match many activities and environments, whether it’s long-distance backpacking, cross country skiing, or hiking for a single afternoon.
Some recommendations for a day hike
Navigation skills are useful for day hikers and critical for anyone who goes into the backcountry. This category includes a variety of tools:
- Global-positioning systems (GPS): Thanks to cell phones and car navigation systems, most of us have experience with GPS. Hand-held, dedicated GPS units also exist (such as these from Garmin). While convenient, GPS devices are far from foolproof in the outdoors for several reasons:
- they run on batteries, which could die;
- they may require satellite reception, which can be poor in some areas;
- and, like all electronic devices, they are subject to failure.
Hikers should also carry traditional navigation tools:
- Maps: Carry detailed maps of all of the areas you will be traversing. Topographic maps are especially useful because they give you a perspective of the features of the terrain. Keep maps in a plastic bag to protect them from moisture.
- Compass: Combined with a map, the compass is an invaluable navigation tool.
- Guidebook of the area if available.
Also, take a navigation course. Using a compass is more complicated than just answering the question, “Which way is north?” Hand-held GPS units are also complex, so if you spend a lot of time outdoors, consider taking map/compass and navigation courses. We took several from REI, and they were excellent.
- Hat with a wide brim or a cape
- Lip balm
- Pants and long-sleeved shirts. There are also entire lines of clothing designed for sun protection.
Key points when selecting clothing:
- Consider your environment: The fibers you choose to wear should match the needs of your destination. Take cotton, for example. In warm or dry places, cotton is ideal because it’s breathable and lightweight. In a rainy or snowy environment, however, cotton can kill. Wet cotton takes a long time to dry and will do nothing but suck the heat from your body, leading to hypothermia. Wool is a better choice in damp places like the Pacific Northwest and some parts of Alaska, because even if it gets wet, it will keep you warm. There are many synthetic materials to choose from as well, but wool gets bonus points because it’s also flame retardant, unlike synthetics.
- Prepare for abrupt changes in weather: The items you bring should prepare you for all potential weather conditions and take extremes into consideration.
- Bring extra clothing, especially an extra pair of socks.
- Layer, layer, layer: By dressing and packing in layers you reduce the chance of exposure to the elements. You can also shed layers as you warm up.
- Wear boots or shoes appropriate for the terrain.
Based on the above guidelines, the clothing you choose to bring might include:
- Insulating underwear (shirts and bottoms)
- Short and long-sleeved shirts
- Sun protection clothing (see above)
- Clothing that wicks moisture away from the skin
- Hiking pants
- Hat, cap, or balaclava—we lose a significant amount of body heat through the head
- Gloves or mittens
- Several pairs of socks
- Rain gear (jacket, pants, and/or skirt/kilt)
- Neckwear or neck gaiters: These tube-shaped pieces of cloth are are lightweight, packable, and versatile. They can be worn as a scarf snug around the throat or in a multitude of different ways around the head—as a headband, bandana, beanie, ear warmer, balaclava, or kerchief. They also offer protection from the cold and the sun. They are an indispensable part of our outdoor wardrobe. Our neckwear comes from Buff and Smart Wool, but a variety of companies sell similar products.
Even if you’re planning on being home before dark, prepare for the possibility of getting stranded or sidetracked by carrying one or more light sources:
- Spare batteries
You should always have a way to start a fire:
- Matches (should be waterproof or stored in a waterproof container)
- Firestarter and tinder
- Butane lighter
Repair kit and tools
You never know when you’re going to have to patch an air mattress or repair a broken hiking pole. Here are some useful, versatile tools that are always handy to have:
- Multi-purpose tool, such as one made by Leatherman or Victorinox (Swiss Army) that contain a variety of useful items, such as a knife, flathead screwdriver, can opener, and scissors
- Duct tape. Instead of bringing a whole roll, wrap some around a used gift card or your water bottle
- Utility cordage
- Ranger bands
- Tie wraps
- Safety pins
Always have extra food with you. Proper nutrition increases metabolism and helps you stay warm. It also provides comfort in a traumatic situation. Plus, it’s nice to reward yourself with a snack when you’ve reached the apex of your hike. Here are some simple choices:
- Peanut butter or other nut butter (plenty of packable options exist)
- Nut mixes
- Energy and nutrition bars
- Granola bars
- Granola or trail mix
- Dried fruit
- Chocolate bars
- Cheese sticks
Having access to and consuming plenty of water is critical on any hike. The body does not function well when dehydrated, and dehydration makes us more susceptible to life-threatening conditions such as hypo- and hyperthermia, heat stroke, and altitude sickness. Some key points:
- As a rule of thumb carry at least one water bottle per person as well as collapsible water storage containers.
- Consider carrying at least one non-insulated metal water bottle so that you can use it to boil water if needed.
- Never assume that the beautiful babbling brook you’ve just come across has potable water; unfortunately, most water sources, no matter how pristine they look, are susceptible to contaminants that can make us very sick. Have some means of making water potable, either through treatment (a filter, purifier, or chemical tablets) or boiling (i.e., with a portable camp stove).
- Also, sad to say, alcohol dehydrates and can lead to hypothermia, so it’s not the best drink of choice for your hike.
You should always have some means of emergency shelter should you get stranded. Options include:
- A tarp or bivy sack
- One or more emergency space blankets
Also consider bringing items you’ll need to construct your shelter, such as cordage and tie wraps.
You should have a means of signaling for help:
- Wear a whistle around your neck and save your voice. Some backpacks also include a whistle on the chest strap.
- A mirror can be used to get someone’s attention from far away. Many compasses come with built-in sighting mirrors that can be used for signaling in an emergency.
- A flashlight can also be used for signaling.
First aid is a complex topic and beyond the scope of this post, but you should carry first-aid supplies with you. Key elements of a basic first-aid kit include:
- Blister prevention
- Bandaids and bandages of various sizes
- Gauze pads
- Adhesive tape
- Pain medication
- Latex gloves
- Your personal medications
Elements of a more advanced kit might include splints, wound coverings and treatments, a trauma pack, and medications for emergency conditions such as heart attack, allergic reaction, dehydration, and hypoglycemia.
Other items that you may want to consider:
- Waterproof your gear: carry a rain cover or large trash bag to cover your backpack, or, as another alternative, pack all of your interior items in dry sacks and forgo the pack cover. The latter is our preferred technique because it doesn’t obstruct our ability to get into our backpacks when needed.
- Insect repellent or mosquito net
- Toilet paper and a trowel
- Bear spray
- Pack towel
- Trekking pole(s)
Our essentials kits
Here’s what we carry in our essentials kits:
- Compass with sighting mirror (along with individual maps of the trails we’ll be hiking)
- Flashlight (we also have flashlights on our person)
- Spare batteries for the flashlight
- Lighter, fire starter (fire steel and striker), Quicktabs, and waterproof matches
- Water purification tablets
- Emergency blanket
- Pack towel
We also carry food, clothing, and other necessary items and a separate first-aid kit in our backpacks.
Obviously the list above covers a wide array of gear, and you may not need everything discussed in this post. Here are some final, key points to consider:
- Use critical thinking when prepping for a hike. What you carry will vary based on weather, terrain, hiking distance, and other factors.
- Invest in a good backpack or day pack. It’s difficult to carry many essentials without a backpack.
- Consider packing items that serve more than one function. A flashlight, for example, is an essential light source but can also be used as a signaling device should you need one. Choosing multi-functional items can reduce pack weight.
- Your skill level will impact what you bring. If, for example, you’re Backcountry McGyver and capable of building a shelter out of nothing but tree branches and your wicked ingenuity, you may not need to pack a tarp or bivy.
- If you spend a lot of time outdoors you should consider taking outdoor safety courses on subjects such as wilderness first aid, winter safety, navigation, and so on. Many companies, including REI, the Mountaineers, and the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), offer an array of safety courses. We’ve taken numerous short courses from REI as well as wilderness first aid from NOLS.
- Keep in mind that, if you’re flying, you will need to check many of these items, and some, like fire starter and bear spray, aren’t allowed at all. Check your airline’s regulations to see which gear and essentials you’ll need to buy when you arrive at your destination.
- The act of being prepared doesn’t have to be complicated, and you don’t need to tote a 60-gallon backpack full of supplies just to go on a day hike. Remember: the goal is for you to be able to stay warm and healthy should something unfortunate happen. Your essentials kit could be as small as the Doug Ritter Pocket Survival Pak, below right, which fits in my hand:
It’s likely that Dale and I would’ve been fine if we had made it across all those streams and continued on to the Exit Glacier overlook, but we should never take safety for granted, especially in Alaska. Not only can the elements kill us, but the area is prone to natural events such as earthquakes and avalanches.
Regardless of where you live, whether it’s San Antonio, Seattle, or Seward, the rule is the same—always carry basic essentials when you go on a hike. Accidents, injuries and disasters can happen anywhere. There’s no excuse for being unprepared, even if it’s just for an afternoon. Give yourself a margin of safety; bring essential gear with you.
Sources and resources:
- Recreational Equipment Incorporated (REI) has an excellent website with articles on a variety of subjects, from day hikes to backcountry camping. They also offer live courses in their stores.
- The Mountaineers website contains many, many books on a variety of outdoor topics.
- Many national and state parks and other destinations have safety and gear recommendations on their websites. They provide tailor-made guides for the environment you’ll be exploring. Here, for example, are the hiking guidelines for two distinctly different parks:
- Here’s more info on Doug Ritter’s Survival Pak.