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Backpacking Checklist: 11 Essentials to Bring on Every Adventure

The only guaranteed way to prevent backcountry accidents is to never go outside. But, for nature lovers and avid outdoorsmen, that’s no way to live. The best solution is to pack the emergency gear that will help prepare you for nearly every potential situation. Thankfully, almost a century ago, The Mountaineers, a climbing and outdoor club, thought to make a checklist for just that reason. As its name implies, The 10 Essentials is a brief list of the types of gear that every adventurer should pack for the backcountry. No matter how far you’re trekking or how long you’re planning to be offline, this is the critical gear you need to survive.

The 11 Essentials: A Backpacking Checklist

The Mountaineers’ original checklist has been modified since it was first written in the 1930s. Here, we present our slightly remodified version with all the essentials a modern outdoorsmen needs in the backcountry:

  1. Navigation: Map and compass
  2. Sun protection: Sunglasses and sunscreen
  3. Illumination: Headlamp
  4. First-aid: Kit or supplies
  5. Fire: Waterproof matches or lighter
  6. Nutrition: Extra food
  7. Hydration: Extra water or filter
  8. Insulation: Extra clothing
  9. Tools: Multi-tool
  10. Emergency shelter: Blanket or lightweight bivvy
  11. Communication device: Cellphones or satellite phones

Spelled out in a brief list, these seem deceptively simple, even obvious. But, it’s easy to forget an item or two and, in an emergency, one of those unpacked items could prove to be the most crucial element to your survival. Here are our recommendations for all the essentials you’ll need for your next outdoor adventure.

Essential #1: Map and Compass

The most state-of-the-art GPS device or mobile navigation app is useless without electricity. Batteries die, electronics can get wet, or your gadgets could take an unexpected fall and stop working altogether. That’s why it’s critical to always pack an old-school map and compass. Need to brush up on your navigation skills? Start with learning how to use a compass and how to read a topographical map. Highly detailed topographical maps for the National Parks, BLM Land, and the like are readily available online.

Suunto M-3 D Leader Compass

Suunto M-3 D Leader Compass

In addition to its fantastic fitness watches, Suunto is also a world leader in compasses. Its M-3 D Leader Compass is a reliable, field-tested baseplate compass designed for even the most extreme adventures. A built-in magnifying lens and luminescent markings make it easy to read, day or night, in virtually any lighting or weather.

Essential #2: Sunglasses and Sunscreen

Sun protection is critical in the backcountry, even on overcast days or when you think you’re layered enough that sunburns aren’t a risk. Start with proper SPF-rated layering, but also be sure to pack sunglasses and sunscreen.

Spy Optic Dirty Mo Sunglasses

Spy Optic Dirty Mo Sunglasses

The best sunglasses offer both UVA and UVB protection and, if you’re spending any time near snow or water, polarized lenses are a good feature, too. Spy Optic’s Dirty Mo sunglasses offer all these features and more. With a sharp, midsized wrap design and a chiseled surface, they’re bold, lightweight, and versatile for just about any environment or adventure.

All Good Mineral Sunstick SPF30 Sunscreen

All Good Mineral Sunstick SPF30 Sunscreen

All Good’s line of organic products is great for skin and for the planet (it’s a certified B-Corporation). The brand’s Mineral Sunstick sunscreen delivers broad-spectrum sun protection without leaving your face greasy or chalky. It’s also reef-safe, water-resistant, and the 0.6-ounce stick packs down small for daypacks.

Essential #3: Headlamp

A good headlamp offers all the utility of a flashlight while keeping your hands free for tasks in the field. The best headlamps are lightweight, durable, rechargeable, and — most importantly — bright.

BioLite HeadLamp 750

BioLite HeadLamp 750

BioLite has long been a perennial favorite here at The Manual. The brand’s latest HeadLamp 750 offers everything we expect in a great headlamp. The lightweight design features a slim-fit construction and comfortable, moisture-wicking fabric. The 750-lumen output is among the brightest on the market — more than enough for everyday tasks and emergency situations in the backcountry. Multiple lenses, including red and white spot and flood modes, adapt to your needs and help maintain night vision.

Essential #4: First Aid Kit

Most ready-made first aid kits include essentials that work well for every type of adventure, weather, or survival situation. Start with a simple, pre-built kit and add on specific items you might need for your particular outing (think insect repellant, foot care, etc.).

VSSL Adventure-Ready First Aid Kit

VSSL Adventure-Ready First Aid Kit

As its name implies, VSSL’s Adventure-Ready First Aid Kit is durable enough for almost any adventure. Inside, you’ll find almost 50 first aid essentials, including a flashlight, precision compass, bandages, burn cream, pain relievers, tweezers, and more. It’s all packed into an ultra-compact, nine-inch tube made from waterproof, impact-resistant, military-grade aluminum.

Essential #5: Lighter

Heat and light from a fire can make a world of difference, which is why you should always have something to light a fire with. Waterproof matches and a bit of dryer lint for tinder are a great, inexpensive backup. But, your primary fire source should be a reliable lighter as a fire starter.

SOL Fire Lite Fuel-Free Lighter

SOL Fire Lite Fuel-Free Lighter

Sol’s Fire Light Fuel-Free Lighter uses electricity to create dual top-facing arcs that ignite anything flammable on contact. At just two ounces, it’s lightweight and weatherproof, making it ideal for backcountry pursuits. Plus, the built-in LED light and tinder paracord lanyard add two great bits of backup survival gear to your backpacking essentials kit.

Essential #6: Extra Food

Always pack more than you think you will eat. If your hike or kayak trek takes longer than expected, you’ll be happy to find those extra bars (or dehydrated meals) at the bottom of your pack. High-calorie, nutrient-dense food that lasts a long time will keep you going the longest. Nuts, energy bars, and jerky are ideal.

Kate’s Real Food 12-Bar Mixer

Kate’s Real Food 12-Bar Mixer

Kate’s Real Food bars deliver everything we expect in a high-quality energy bar. They’re well-balanced, nutrient-dense, and 100% organic to boot. Plus, they taste awesome without the weird artificial aftertaste found in lesser bars.

Essential #7: Hydration

Bad situations get much, much worse without water. Humans can only go so long without it. It’s obvious but bears repeating: Always pack more water than you think you’ll need. We love the convenience of a hydration bladder or hydration daypack, but you’ll want a portable water filter, too. In a survival situation, your water supply could run out quickly and you’ll need to be prepared to filter any water you find in the wild.

LifeStraw Personal Water Filter

LifeStraw Personal Water Filter

Unless you’re planning to trek far, far off-grid, you can likely leave the elaborate, multi-stage water purifier at home. LifeStraw’s Personal Water Filter is designed specifically for emergency purposes. It’s lightweight, affordable, compact, and filters up to 1,000 gallons of water without chemicals. It’s a great piece of emergency kit to keep in your backpack in the event of a survival situation.

Essential #8: Extra Clothing

Whether you’re hiking in the mountains, the desert, or the tundra, weather can change drastically without warning. It’s critical to have an extra layer or two, even if you’re sure you won’t need it. Pack a lightweight, water-resistant (or waterproof), preferably merino wool (never cotton) zip-up or pullover in the event of a sudden thundershower or blizzard. Because you just never know.

Smartwool Intraknit Merino 200 Crew

Smartwool Intraknit Merino 200 Crew

Smartwool’s Intraknit Merino 200 Crew Sweater is the perfect base or midlayer. Buy your usual size and use it as a base layer, or size up and layer it over a closer fitting t-shirt. The Merino wool is soft, lightweight, and dries quickly. Most importantly, it’s warm when you need it to be: The perfect extra clothing addition to your daypack to stay ahead of changing weather.

Swiftwick Pursuit Seven Merino Wool Socks

Swiftwick Pursuit Seven Merino Wool Socks

Packing an extra pair of merino wool socks is always a smart move. If the mercury suddenly drops or your feet take an unexpected splash in the river, you’ll want an extra pair on hand. Swiftwick’s Pursuit Seven Merino Wool Socks blend soft, itch-free Merino wool with nylon and spandex for maximum warmth, comfort, and moisture-wicking. Plus, a reinforced heel and toe add durability for intense off-trail adventures.

Essential #9: Multi-Tool

Every man should have a reliable multi-tool in his EDC kit. This is especially important in the backcountry when you never know when you might need to strike a fire, build a shelter, or fix your pants. The “best” multi-tool is almost as personal as the best Johnny Cash album or the best Bruce Lee movie. It depends on you and what sort of adventures you’re into. At the very least, a multi-tool should have a knife, pliers, scissors, and an awl. And a bottle opener — no self-respecting man should ever carry a multi-tool without a bottle opener.

Gerber Suspension-NXT Multi-Tool

Gerber Suspension-NXT Multi-Tool

Gerber’s Suspension-NXT Multi-Tool perfectly balances usability, versatility, size, and price. At just 6.4 ounces, the slim butterfly construction fits neatly into a front pocket. The spring-loaded design opens to reveal 15 essential lockable tools and, at less than $30, it’s practically free.

Essential #10: Emergency Blanket

On the spectrum of essentials you absolutely need for survival, shelter is near the top. Short of having an actual tent or a cave to hold up in if things go really wrong, you’re going to need a way to stay warm. An ultra-lightweight emergency blanket or bivvy is just the trick.

SOL Emergency Bivvy

SOL Emergency Bivvy

SOL’s Emergency Bivvy is purpose-built for those rare occasions when you find yourself unexpectedly overnighting in the wilderness. It’s shaped like a sleeping bag, but with the construction of a space blanket. It reflects 90% of your body heat, keeps out wind and water, and won’t tear like traditional mylar blankets. Plus, it packs down small into a sealed, waterproof bag, so it’s always ready to go.

Essential #11: Communication

We’re fortunate to live in a time of unprecedented accessibility. That means being able to call or text from almost anywhere on earth. Packing a two-way satellite messenger is a smart last-resort backup in the event that things really go sideways. Always plan and prepare as though you don’t have it in your pack, though, hoping you might be able to use it if and when you need it.

Garmin inReach Mini

Garmin inReach Mini

For compact, ultra-portable, emergency satellite messengers, Garmin’s inReach Mini is near-perfect. The palm-sized device tethers easily with a carabiner to the outside of your pack, and it’s so light you’ll probably forget it’s there. It provides basic two-way messaging functions, so you can keep your family and friends updated with your latest position. In an emergency, depressing the dedicated SOS button summons professional rescue services from almost anywhere on the planet.

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