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The Modern 10 Essentials for Wilderness Trips


By Michelle Brazier

Having spent more time indoors than usual recently, it’s understandable that many nature-lovers and wilderness enthusiasts have been running for the hills. If the mountains are calling and you must go, how prepared are you for your trip?

Photo by Paul Zizka.

We look to nature for peace and fulfillment, and the mountains are a wonderful place to be… until they’re not. As you take your first steps from the trailhead into the wilderness, the stress on your shoulders is replaced by a backpack whose contents can help determine your comfort and safety during your trip. Whether you’re planning a half-day hike, a multi-day backpacking trip or anything in between, it’s important to pack the essentials just in case things go sideways.

The following is a contemporary list of ten must-bring items, which derives from the original “Ten Essentials,” first debuted in 1974 in the third edition of Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills. In some instances, technology has positively revolutionized how we interact with the mountains; in other cases, the original “old school” method prevails. While some minimalists and proponents of the “fast & light” method might disagree, it’s worth asking yourself whether you’d rather bring it and not use it or not bring it and really wish you had.



1/ Navigation

In 2020, it’s indisputable that we rely heavily on technology, and modern tools have absolutely revolutionized how we navigate in the mountains. Some popular gadgets include hand-held GPS devices like the Garmin E-Trex series and user-friendly smartphone apps like All Trails and Gaia GPS. But what happens if the battery dies or it gets wet or breaks? Knowing the limitations of your equipment is just as essential as the essentials themselves.

Topographical maps offer a vast amount of invaluable information about the natural landscape of a region, and in some cases, they even have written segments about ecology and human history. Get waterproof maps or carry them in resealable plastic bags. A compass doesn’t weigh much and it doesn’t require battery power, so the map and compass duo becomes an indispensable wilderness tool when your gadgets malfunction. Ideally, you want a compass with a baseplate, adjustable declination, and a sighting mirror that can be used as an emergency signal and also to check if you have a bit of lunch stuck in your teeth. Learn how to use a compass and how to read a topographical map, and seek out opportunities to practise these skills.

2/ Water and Food

Personal hydration levels vary, but we all need water. A one-litre vessel for a day hike is a general rule-of-thumb, but depending on heat, levels of exertion, or whether the trail you plan to hike has a water source, it’s not a bad idea to bring more water than you think you’ll need.  If your trail does pass a creek or a lake, it’s wise to have a method to treat water, which can include chemical treatments, a filter, or boiling water.  Hiking tends to burn a lot of calories, so choose healthy and nourishing food that will energize and sustain you during your adventure. You should also have extra food in case of an emergency; such items that don’t require cooking and that have a long shelf-life (energy bars, dried fruit, and nuts).

3/ Lighting

Spending time in the mountains can be illuminating in more ways than one, but it’s important to be able to shed some light on things – literally. Most hikers plan to return during daylight, but in less-ideal circumstances, you might be forced to navigate in the dark. A headlamp is the popular wilderness choice as it allows you to keep your hands free, which is nice for cooking or using poles. Always carry spare batteries for your headlamp as the flashlight function on your smartphone is not a viable substitution. Another option is a compressible lantern, which can be used in a hut or hung within your tent. Some even have a solar panel for multiple recharges and a USB port, but remember to consider weight and the limitations of gadgets when packing for an adventure.

4/ Sun Protection

Never underestimate the power of the sun. Always bring with you sunscreen, sunglasses, and items of clothing like a hat and a long-sleeve shirt. Even on overcast days, it’s still possible to get sunburnt. Choose a sunscreen with SPF 30 or greater with active ingredients zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. Keep in mind that the sun reflects off water and snow, so apply sunscreen liberally to all exposed skin and remember to re-apply often.  This goes for your lips too!

Clothing can be an effective way to block your skin from harmful UV rays. Many lightweight, technical pieces come with a UPF rating and the shade provided from a cap or full brim hat can go a long way. Good quality sunglasses are invaluable in the outdoors as they help protect your eyes from potential radiation damage. If you have room in your pack, you might consider carrying a backup pair just in case yours break or you lose them.

5/ (Extra) Clothes

Conditions can change quickly in the mountains, often turning abruptly from sun to rain to snow. Bringing the right clothes can truly make or break your trip. Good items to have in addition to a rain jacket are rain pants and a rain cover for your pack. Staying dry and warm is the key to happiness and layering is your friend. It’s important to bring an assortment of clothing to help regulate your personal temperature.  Starting with a moisture-wicking base layer, insulating pieces like a fleece and a down or synthetic puffy with a hood are also essential. A toque or a headband help to keep your head and ears warm, and a pair of gloves means you can use your hands comfortably when bad weather comes in.  It might be hard to think about the necessity for warm clothes while you’re sweating in the sun on an approach, but if the clouds come in and the temperature drops or you’re forced to stay somewhere longer than expected or even overnight, you’ll be glad you brought the extra layers.

Download these Ten Essentials for free and post them on your fridge, in your gear closet or wherever you’ll be reminded of the important items to bring along!

6/ Multi-Tool and Repair Kit

A simple pocket knife can be useful, but the bells and whistles of a multi-tool like scissors, a screwdriver, or pliers can help with minor repairs, administering first aid, or other random and unanticipated scenarios. What to include in a repair kit can vary depending on the trip, but generally, duct tape, zip ties, and cordage can be nice to have in a pinch and they don’t take up much space or weigh a lot.

7/ First Aid Kit

Not only is it vital to bring a first aid kit, but it’s imperative that you know how to use what’s in it. Most pre-packaged first aid kits provide the basics, but it’s worth personalizing yours to suit things like individual needs, the length of the trip, and the number in your party. Some items that can enhance your kit include: blister treatment, pain relief, bug spray, anti-diarrheal tablets, and a SAM splint. Know the contents of your kit, make sure nothing is expired, and take a first aid course.

8/ Shelter

You can’t rely on natural features or man-made structures in the wilderness. A survival shelter can help protect you from the elements while having dinner at camp or in case of emergency. The tent on your backpacking trip is only good as an emergency shelter insofar as you have it with you at all times. A Canadian Tire tarpaulin does the job, but what you save in your wallet, you pay for in weight and bulk. Better options include an ultra light siltarp or bivy sack. You want something that can be put up quickly in case you become stranded or someone gets injured. Choose your system and practise setting it up.

9/ Fire Starter

For wilderness purposes, a butane lighter and waterproof matches work better than flimsy corner store matchbooks. Believe it or not, lighting a couple of Cheetos works well, but you have to make sure you don’t accidentally eat them. For more conventional fire starters, you could purchase a commercially prepared product from your favourite outdoor gear shop or DIY with homemade solutions like cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly or dryer lint stuffed into egg cartons. You want something that will ignite quickly and maintain heat despite wet or alpine conditions.

10/ Communication Devices

As mentioned earlier, technology has revolutionized how we interact with nature – not just how we navigate and communicate in the wilderness, but also how we call for help. In addition to a fully charged cell phone, it’s prudent to keep your phone on airplane mode to conserve battery life while still using it to take pictures and navigate. For multi-day trips, consider bringing an additional power source. Remember that in many cases, you will not have cell service in the mountains.

A Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) like the SPOT Gen3 allows you to pre-program messages that can let your loved ones at home know you’re OK or you’re running late, and the SOS button can be pressed to signal an emergency. Using government or commercial satellites, emergency services can find you based on your GPS location, but you cannot communicate with resources directly from a PLB. A two-way communication device like a cell phone, programmable radio, satellite phone or messenger like the Garmin InReach is ideal for messaging home to get weather updates and to communicate in detail with rescue resources in an emergency. Any of these tools can be a good backup if you are unable to self-rescue and need help in an emergency. It would, however, be careless to presume that these devices guarantee help. The smart and prepared hiker is self-reliant and self-sufficient.


There are some intangible items that didn’t make the list, but they are just as essential: knowledge, skills, and good judgment. If you pack it, know how to use it, and research your trip in advance. Look into organized outdoor groups in your area; seek out an experienced mentor or get some friends together and hire a professional guide.

These ten essentials form the foundation of any adventure into the wilderness and can be used to develop your own system of how to be safe and prepared in the mountains.


Copeland, Kathy and Craig Copeland. Don’t Waste Your Time in the Canadian Rockies., inc., 2011.

Gadd, Ben. Handbook of the Canadian Rockies. Corax Press, 1995.

The Freedom of the Hills. 8th ed. The Mountaineers Books, 2010.

Michelle Brazier is an ACMG Hiking Guide and RYT-200 Yoga Teacher. She lives in Banff. | @rockieshikingandyoga on Instagram and Facebook

The views and opinions expressed in the articles on are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the editor, the editorial team or the publishers.

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