A topographic map for identifying landscape features on your hike remains required navigational gear. With a printed map, you don’t have to worry about battery life or electronics failing or getting dropped. Likewise, a compass is foolproof and simple; orienting a map using a compass should be one of the first skills any hiker or backpacker learns.
The accuracy, versatility, reliability and steadily shrinking size of GPS units have made them more ubiquitous, and many — like the Garmin Oregon 750t ($550) — have map programs. Screen readability and size remain limited, but in bad weather, poor visibility, and off-trail travel and climbing, GPS, an altimeter and a personal locator beacon are invaluable.
From slicing cheese to cutting kindling to building a fire, a knife is the most indispensable tool. The size and design of your knife — whether its blade is fixed or folding — should be determined by how you’ll use it. Multitool products like the 13-function Victorinox Swiss Army Hiker Pocket Knife ($27) and the 18-tool Leatherman Wave+ ($100) will carry you through almost any situation.
Any backcountry skill that has remained vital since the time of prehistoric humans requires no defense. The ability to create heat, cook food and melt snow for drinking water routinely saves lives. A standard lighter almost never fails — so bring two of them. Windproof and weatherproof matches like those in the UCO Survival Stormproof Match Kit ($3.50) are a smart backup. A stove, fuel and pot are virtually essential on a multiday trip.
This one’s a no-brainer. Always carry a bright, reliable headlamp that’s fully charged. They are handy when you want to keep your hands free for handling gear and setting up camp. Check out the rechargeable Petzl Actik Core ($70).
Water planning varies according to two major factors: how long you plan to be out there and the availability of natural water sources.
For day hiking, it’s easiest to simply carry as much water as you expect to need for the entire outing, along with a bit of a surplus.
For longer trips, know the distance between water sources along your route, and have a water-treatment method appropriate for the environment and your group size. For groups of four or fewer, water bottles with integrated filters are convenient, like the LifeStraw Go water bottle with two-stage filtration ($40). For any group — but especially larger ones — pump filters like the MSR HyperFlow Microfilter ($120) and gravity filters like the Katadyn Base Camp Pro 10L ($100) are more efficient.
Besides burning exposed skin, the sun can accelerate dehydration and exacerbate the symptoms of elevation sickness — and the sun grows more intense with increasing elevation. Wear full-coverage sunglasses that protect the eyes from UVA and UVB light; a broad-spectrum sunscreen (meaning it blocks UVA and UVB rays) with a rating of SPF 30 or higher; and a sun hat, ideally with a wide brim.
Oh, the many injuries that can occur in the backcountry — especially when you don’t bring a first-aid kit. Be prepared for blisters, falls, cuts and other wounds with a basic kit like the Adventure Medical Kits Ultralight / Watertight .7 Medical Kit ($29).
If you can afford only one rain jacket, you should buy a lightweight hooded jacket. These jackets, classified as “hard shells,” are necessary to shield you from heavy wind and wet weather, because a woven “soft shell” jacket won’t give you the needed protection. You want your rain jacket to be decently trim, yet roomy enough to allow for layering when it’s cold. In an emergency, a rain poncho can be used as a makeshift shelter.
Carry all the food you expect to eat, plus a surplus amount determined by a conservative calculation of how long your return to home might be delayed — hours or a day or more. On a day hike, that surplus might be extra bars. On a wilderness backpacking trip, it might be an extra day’s supply of food.
As with the two essentials above, decisions on clothing are dictated by circumstances. Ultra-runners, for instance, head into the mountains for hours with minimal clothing — but they’re relying largely on their stamina and experience to avoid serious injury. Many day hikers and backpackers must contemplate what they might need to survive an unplanned night out, given the environment and potential weather extremes.
That generally means a layering system that includes a waterproof-breathable shell, adequate insulating layers, and base layers that wick moisture and dry quickly, as well as a warm hat — and usually gloves.
Bonus: Duct Tape
Then there’s good ol’ duct tape (or a similarly durable tape) for repairing everything from a tent rip to delaminating boots. Tip: Keep duct tape with you at all times by wrapping some around a trekking pole shaft.