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Let’s explore a minor, but realistic, emergency scenario.
You just topped out a long, semi-technical knife ridge on Utah’s Mount Superior. The last light of day is fading, just as you approach the summit. The climb took a lot longer than you expected, but that’s alright. You remembered your headlamp. You take it out of your bag and notice the power indicator shows it’s almost dead. Uh oh. Do you have everything you need to get yourself down in the dark, or in the worst-case scenario, wait out the night at 11,000 feet? The difference between living to tell the tale and riding it out in comfort might be simpler than you think.
The answer to this question was first codified in 1935 by The Mountaineers, an alpine club based in Seattle, WA, with the “Ten Essentials*.” Their list of the Ten Essentials expanded into ten systems for managing all the short-term problems of survival in the backcountry. Whether you’re setting out to tackle the Pacific Crest Trail or just going for a day hike in the hills, having the Ten Essentials covered ensures you’re equipped to handle a potential emergency, accident, or survival scenario. Let’s take a look at each of these systems.
The Ten Essentials were more widely popularized in Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills. This manual, published by The Mountaineers, is considered the seminal text on modern mountaineering.
Going back to our initial scenario, if you’re on top of a mountain in the dark, you need to get down. If the trail is unclear, you need to make sure you’re not above sheer cliffs or headed down the wrong drainage. Some tools you might choose to handle this are:
Map and compass
The old standby. These won’t run out of power, and they don’t rely on external technology like satellites. But this combination isn’t as effective in the dark, and you must know how to use them. Orienteering is one of the most worthwhile skills you can learn without formal training.
The widespread availability of GPS has made this a more viable option than it was even ten years ago. Readily available apps can often get the job done, but an actual GPS unit is more robust and reliable than a smartphone. Know how it works before you go. Knowing where you are on the map doesn’t ensure you’re going the right way. If you download BaseMaps, ensure you have access to all the areas you plan to explore before you go.
PLB (Personal Locator Beacon)
A great last resort in case of search-and-rescue-level emergencies, locator beacons allow you to send your current GPS coordinates to local government and private entities. This option doesn’t help you get out on your own power, but if you’re in serious trouble, it lets you reach out for help. Some models even allow the transmission of messages between units.
An altimeter is a more specialized tool for technical excursions that is always helpful. Together with a map and compass, an altimeter more accurately pins down where you are.
You don’t need to be a technical caver to know how vital lighting is. In our scenario, light is the primary obstacle to proceeding safely. Whether you choose a battery-powered model or something you can charge via USB, ensure you have backup power on hand. Consider carrying a secondary light source in addition to your primary headlamp.
3. Sun Protection
This system is primarily meant to prevent the long-term effects of sun exposure. Skin cancer and cataracts are no joke. But not using sunglasses or sunscreen can lead to snow blindness and extreme sunburn, which both have their own concerns and heighten the likelihood of other accidents. In our scenario, a sunburn could be distracting from more important matters and may prevent you from sleeping if you have to wait the night out on the mountain.
Sunglasses are a must at all times, but not all are appropriate for every outing. During snow travel, goggles or even glacier glasses might be necessary. The main distinction is the protection of the peripherals and blocking more UV light. Glacier glasses offer the best UV protection for prolonged snow or ice travel.
Depending on your skin, sunscreen is likely a must. The higher you venture, the less ozone you have to protect you, and sunburn can happen rapidly. SPF 30 is recommended. Make sure your brand protects against both harmful kinds of UV – UVA and UVB. And remember to get your ears!
Clothing for Sun Protection
Clothes can also be an effective solution to sun exposure. Long sleeves, wide-brimmed hats, and bandanas are great items to consider. But still use sunscreen on exposed skin.
4. First Aid
First aid is crucial. But how much to bring depends on the activity, duration, and group size. For a solo outing fishing on a river near your house, you might want to bring a kit sufficient to administer aid for minor injuries, foot care, analgesics, insect repellent, and any prescriptions you might need. For a multi-day group mountaineering trip, each member may want something similar to this. But one member (with the most training) should bring something more in-depth in the event of serious trauma. Understand your kit thoroughly. Should an accident happen, you must find what you need as quickly as possible. Educate yourself on how to administer first aid when necessary. In the above scenario, being injured on top of everything else could prevent you from getting off the mountain.
Your knife is the handiest multi-purpose tool in your inventory. For everything from repairing your gear, administering first aid, cooking, starting a fire, or making a temporary shelter in an emergency, your knife should always be on you. A survivalist going on a primitive skills trip would have a large, full-tang knife on their hip. But for most outings, a multitool with pliers, screwdriver, can opener, scissors, and a short blade is more useful. Usually lumped in with a knife is a gear repair kit, including a paracord, needle and thread, duct tape, safety pins, and zip ties. In our opening scenario, breaking a grommet on the ultralight tarp you’ve made a shelter from could leave you exposed to the elements.
If you’re stranded and facing the cold, the ability to start a fire can be the difference between life and death. You should be handy with your preferred method, be it a lighter, matches, a lens, or flint and steel. Understand the drawbacks of each. For example, lenses are dependent on sunlight, and lighters won’t work when wet. Also consider carrying some tinder, such as steel wool, lint, and candles. Stoves can often be more practical for producing warmth and boiling water and are always recommended for overnighters. In the case that you are forced to wait out a night near the summit of Mount Superior in dropping temperatures, you may have to start a fire. Remember: if the object is to survive, be sure not to burn the forest down.
Keep a shelter or something you can fashion a shelter from on your person. In our example scenario, if you’re unable to get off the mountain, your next option is to wait until morning. Doing this safely and comfortably depends on your shelter. In high-risk scenarios, a personal bivouac is ideal. But even in low-risk settings, an ultralight tarp, tent footprint, space blanket, or even a trash bag can be enough to make it through an emergency.
8. Extra Food
A good rule of thumb is to bring enough food with you to survive 24 hours longer than you plan on spending in the wilderness. Ready-to-eat items like summer sausage, jerky, dried nuts and fruit, energy bars, granola, and even candy are great for quick energy. If you plan to overnight, you probably want several extra meals, even coffee and tea. When you’re deprived of nutrients, your judgment can be impaired, which puts you in even bigger trouble.
9. Extra Water
Water is the most vital ingredient to sustaining human life. It goes without saying that you should always have some for now and plenty for later – in any scenario. If water will be readily available on your outing, it can be smart to bring a filter, purifier, tablets, or a stove along to carry less weight in water. The Institute of Medicine recommends at least 101 ounces per day for men and 74 ounces for women. Ensure you have enough, and then some.
10. Extra Clothes
Always have at least one spare layer in your pack. If not for you, then for someone else in your group who may need it. If you have to shelter in place at 11,000 feet until morning, your main objective is staying warm and dry. If you already have a shell to wear, pack extra layers for warmth. If it’s midsummer in the desert and lows are in the 70s, bring something waterproof. You never know when the weather could turn. A beanie, gloves, and warm socks can make all the difference when overnighting in the high alpine. Always be prepared for the worst conditions that could realistically happen given the time of year and setting of your activity.
Get in Gear
Not all these examples are necessary on every occasion. If you’re going day hiking on a well-trafficked trail in an area you know, you might not bring an altimeter, but you may still want a map and compass to orient yourself better. But always have some coverage for every system in the Ten Essentials. Circumstances can change quickly, and accidents are never off the table. The key is to tailor your kit for the length of your trip, the time of year, the expected weather, and your group size. Knowing what to bring and when is a skill that can take years of mistakes … or just a little foresight when packing.
Stocked with 10 categories of first-aid and emergency supplies that give you confidence for the unexpected.