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Hiking Essentials: How to prep and what to carry.

While no one should be scared of setting out for a good little hike (or great big hike!), if you venture outdoors enough times, eventually an unexpected challenge will befall you. You’ll venture off-trail to have a look at a neat-o view and get turned around, or an insane thunderstorm will blow in and chill you to the bones, or someone in your party will sprain an ankle.

Here’s the good news, though: if you follow the steps and carry the essentials listed below, your chances are approximately one million times higher that it’ll all turn out okay in the end.

Before you go: Basic prepwork.

  • Tell someone where you’re going and approximately what time you’ll be back. This is incredibly easy to do, and it covers your butt if you get stuck somewhere without reception to call for help. You’ll have peace of mind that, when you miss your expected return time, someone will come looking for you.
  • Check the weather. It goes without saying, but don’t forget to check the weather forecast for the exact area you’re going to. A good weather site like NOAA.gov lets you pinpoint your forecast for the exact position on a map where you’ll be hiking–it’s far more precise than Googling weather in the nearest town, which could be at a totally different elevation.
  • Read all the beta you can if you’re heading somewhere new. Not only do you want to consult a good topographic map, but check local guidebooks, blogs, and hiking websites like Outdoor Project, Mountain Project, and AllTrails for actual trip reports, photos, and beta. That way, you’ll come into it with much more accurate expectations and route-finding.

Wahoo, it’s time to go: Pack the ten essentials. 

  • Maps—both paper and digital. Pack a paper map, because phones and GPS devices have batteries that could die. Then, in addition to the trusty analog map, have fun getting to know the cool hiking trail apps out there. There are some exceptional ones that really make navigation easy—such as AllTrails, Gaia, and others.
  • Compass (which you’ve learned how to use). Along with your reliable paper map, you’ll want a compass that you’ve actually learned how to use. Nerd alert: this is actually super fun. Watch a few instructional YouTube videos on orienteering, take a brief intro course, or practice skill-building in familiar places. This will help you actually navigate if you do need to use your paper map.
  • Sunglasses and sunscreen. Seared corneas are always a bad idea. Pack your shades, which are easy to forget if you’re starting in the early morning when they’re not necessary yet. Bring sunscreen too so you don’t scald your poor skin.
  • Extra layers tailored for the expected (and unexpected). This is huge: pack the layers you think you’ll need—perhaps just a light fleece or long-sleeved shirt. But then, also have an emergency rain jacket and, if appropriate, a puffy jacket that packs down small.
  • Headlamp or flashlight (with good batteries). Bring a small headlamp or flashlight in case you need to do any walking or navigating in the dark. It also makes you infinitely easier for Search & Rescue to find if you’re stuck somewhere with an injury.
  • First aid kit. This should include insect repellant, blister care, basic bandages, disinfecting ointment, pain meds like Tylenol or Ibuprofen, tape, and gauze pads. Bonus points if you carry burlier supplies, like splints and blood-clotting sponges. Even if someone in your party doesn’t need this stuff, there’s always a chance of coming up on someone else in need.
  • Fire starter with matches—waterproof ones. Obviously, matches are needed to start a fire, but if you don’t have any firestarter, it can be hard to actually get a fire going. (which you can buy as “nuggets,” highly flammable tinder shavings, or another DIY option). A fire can be a godsend if you’re stuck out overnight, trying to signal for help, or needing to warm up after a surprise storm or injury.
  • Knife (bonus points for a multi-tool). A basic knife is super handy for gear repair, food prep, and first aid. But you can do even better with a more elaborate “multi-tool” that includes a knife plus all sorts of helpful extras that can save you if you need to repair gear on the go.
  • Shelter, such as a bivvy or emergency blanket. If you’re undergoing a longer journey, you may want to pack an ultralight single-person bivy tent. And even if you’re not expecting at all to be out overnight, it’s smart to have a foil emergency blanket in your pack. It folds down to a teensy size, so it won’t get in your way. But you’ll sure be grateful if you get stuck out in the cold, or if you come upon an injured person who’s going into shock.
  • Extra food and water. The extra food can be as simple as packing a few high-calorie energy bars in your bag. But you’ll need something because trekking on an empty stomach feels miserable and can make you frantic. Carry much more water than you think you’ll need, too. Worst case, you built a little extra muscle carrying that weight. But you’ll be incredibly grateful to have it if you’re thirsty. Don’t forget to pack water purification tablets or a water filter, too. You can survive much longer without food than water–dehydration will take you down quick.

The list above covers all the classic advice we all got in our summer camp days—but today, another piece of life-saving gear is available on the market: the personal locator beacon. It works when your cell phone doesn’t, thanks to GPS technology. If the crap hits the fan and you need rescue quick, you can get help with the press of a button. Your exact location will be transmitted to the authorities, who will send a team. (Obviously this is for true emergencies only, but it’s incredibly great to have as an option if someone breaks their leg in a slot canyon.)

Beth Lopez is a seasoned writer and creative director who loves to tell tales of adventure and discovery—and finds writing a powerful way to give a voice to people, causes, and places. Beth runs amok in the Wasatch mountains when untethered from her computer. She believes there’s no such thing as a bad ski day and considers animals her favorite people. Don’t tell her mother about her Instagram mountaineering photos.