Why I don’t carry the Ten Essentials on day hikes

I don’t carry the Ten Essentials with me on day hikes. I worry that having the right gear is over-emphasized, when your brain is the most important tool to bring with you on the trail. People want the comfort blanket of a list of gear – “if I carry these ten things, I’ll survive.” Yes, being prepared is important. I always carry a pack with survival gear…but my list is different than the Mountaineers’ systems. There is essential gear, but the requirements vary depending on the location, the weather (and forecast), and time of year. And two other resources – knowledge and other people – are probably even more important than gear.

Knowledge Trumps Gear

Knowledge helps give you confidence in a situation where panicking can be deadly. Attitude is a critical aspect of survival. Knowledge gives you the ability to improvise and make rational, not desperate, decisions. There are many types of useful knowledge for any excursion.

Possible pitfalls

  • Read a description of the trail, or talk to someone who’s hiked it before, so you know whether there are a lot of confusing intersections or whether the terrain is rough.
  • Read trail reports to anticipate dangerous conditions.
  • Check the weather forecast.
  • Look at the route on a map to see what’s in the area and get its basic orientation (the trail runs north-south).
  • Know whether there will be water available along the way.

How to Avoid getting into an emergency situation

The best case is to avoid getting into an emergency situation by making smart decisions, or avoid escalating what should be a minor issue into a major danger by making poor decisions.

In college, I was backpacking with a girl who’d previously injured her knee, and she re-injured it the second day of the trip. She could still walk, but couldn’t carry anything. Some in the group advocated continuing on the very long 3-day route we had planned to reach the rendezvous with our ride. Fortunately, we had a map and were able to find a much shorter trail to our pickup that would take only one day of hiking. Although the group couldn’t experience the original planned adventure, taking an injured person further into the wilderness could have been a dangerous decision if her knee had gotten worse and she lost the ability to hike. Safety precedes adventure.

Listen to your instincts; that pause when you think, ‘maybe this isn’t the greatest idea,’ is usually right. I have made poor decisions, done all the things you’re not supposed to do, and gotten lucky. But I know I was an idiot and just got lucky that no one got hurt. Now I know that I can be the one to insist, yes, this is a bad idea. Don’t be afraid to be the ‘party pooper’. You can be the one to say, guys, this isn’t safe or smart. Having fun doesn’t mean you have to be cavalier. Emergency situations in the outdoors often result from a series of small mistakes and poor decisions.

How to respond to an emergency situation

Learn how other people have survived emergencies so you can learn from their mistakes and successes. If I get lost, I know to stay put and wait for someone to find me.

Skills that will allow you to survive an emergency situation

Everyone should continually be improving their outdoor skills. There is always something new to learn, and there is no substitute for practice. You just have to put in the time. Think it’s not fun? Surviving is fun. Do it.

How to use your survival gear

It’s not enough to have the gear – the compass, the flint and steel; you need to know how to use it. Read the directions at home. Practice using it. Learn what works for you.


Know thyself, the ancient Greeks exhorted, and it’s true for hiking too.

  • Learn your triggers and comfort zones; it’s good to push some boundaries, but others exist for a reason. You know your own abilities better than the people you’re with do. I love scrambling across scree, but snow fields are a definite trigger for discomfort. But I know that I’m more cautious than many.
  • Identify the weak points in your decision making; mine is that I’m willing to take much greater risks to take the perfect photograph. I also can be afraid of challenging group consensus.
  • If you can, learn how you respond to adversity. My tendency in scary situations is to make light, which doesn’t go over well with some people. I also go into mothering mode if someone’s not 100 percent.

Recommended Survival Skills

Specifically, I think all hikers should learn these survival skills:

  • Fire-starting (Practice. Learn where to find dry materials in a wet forest, the biggest challenge in the Pacific Northwest.)
  • Navigation (Take a basic navigation class. Hike with other people who know navigation so you can practice without getting lost. Practice matching geographic features to topographic maps. Learn how to navigate by features and choose routes by orienteering. If you have a GPS-unit, learn how to use it by geocaching.)
  • Basic first aid (Take a first aid class. Graduate to Wilderness First Aid. If you’re going to be traveling extensively in the wild, you could even get certified as a Wilderness First Responder.)

The Buddy System Works

Unpredictable accidents happen, even to knowledgeable and prepared hikers. I can’t decide whether gear is more important, or a partner. Beyond my own skills and knowledge, backup may be my most valuable resource. A hiking partner can perform a rescue or provide first aid, go for help, share survival work like firewood gathering, offer different skills and opinions, or even just provide emotional support.

I have hiked alone, and probably will in the future, but I know that it’s a risk. Having a partner gives you a buffer in your ability to survive. Hiking at Granite Mountain recently, my partner and I saw a man carrying his injured girlfriend to the trailhead, her foot well-bandaged. I don’t know what happened to them, but if she had gotten hurt without him there, she wouldn’t have been able to get back to the trailhead. In an injury situation, having another person with you to provide aid is invaluable. Otherwise you might need to wait for Search and Rescue for medical care and/or evacuation. As we were finishing the same hike two hours after we passed the injured woman, we saw Search and Rescue start up the trail – perhaps related to the same incident, and someone was waiting those two hours plus for help.

What skills do you consider essential?

How important is a hiking buddy? Do you hike alone?

Part two: what I consider my dayhike essentials.

About Tracy Durnell

Seattle-area graphic designer and SFF writer inspired by the Pacific Northwest, crafting a sustainable and intentional life.

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