If you’re headed to your favorite mountains for an adventure, you’ll likely need a way…
Working with the Ten Essentials
The Mountaineers of Seattle say you got to have them, The Colorado Mountain Club says you got to carry them, common sense says that you ought to have some emergency equipment, but what are the Ten Essentials and how do you go about using them? There are numerous articles, lists and anecdotes about the Ten Essentials, and everyone has their own idea of what constitutes an essential item. Many of these lists are unique and do not agree with others. So where do you go to come up with the “definitive” Ten Essentials?
Agreeing with the collected wisdom of the Mountaineers, their Ten Essentials are as basic and comprehensive as have been developed. A bit of elaboration is necessary to clarify and specify the options for these items.
The Mountaineer’s Ten Essentials are:
3. Sunscreen and sunglasses
4. Extra Food
5. Extra Clothing
7. First Aid Supplies
8. Fire Starter
There is almost nothing as discouraging as going into the wilderness and becoming lost. With the best of intentions and a superficial knowledge of the area, almost anyone can become disoriented and lost under some circumstances. Just a wrong turn or a sudden snow squall can put you into a completely unfamiliar world. The best map is the one with the most relevant information. Most of the time, that will be a USGS 7.5 minute series at 1/24,000 ft. In many situations, the trail you select may cover more than one map, or the trail may have been re-routed or closed. In those cases, more recent commercial trail maps may be more relevant. It is important to stay oriented to the map and not wait for the fateful cry, “We are lost.” Establishing a next point on the map and following the route to that point will keep you oriented. It is also important to look from the ground to the map and not try to visualize elements on the map to something that does not exist on the ground. Frequent reference to the map is important.
Some will eventually say that the compass has been super-ceded by the Global Positioning System (GPS). Until they make a GPS that does not take batteries and never falters, we ought to rely on a tried and true compass. But as important, we need to know how to use it. It makes no sense to have a map in true north and a compass in magnetic north if you don’t know how to apply deviation. A compass that has a magnifying lens and map scales is more helpful. Most people use the map much more than they do the compass. In many cases like a whiteout, a specific heading cannot be determined from the map, but frequently just an approximate heading can be useful. Coming off the mountain, is it the southwest ridge or the southeast ridge?
Sunscreen and sunglasses
This item should be renamed Sun Protection. It should include not only sunscreen and sunglasses, but head protection (a hat), lip balm with an SPF, and clothing that protects against the sun. Very few things are as debilitating as a good sunburn, and you don’t know you have it until it is too late. Traveling on snow or ice in sunny conditions is particularly dangerous. Protect yourself before it is too late. Make sure you have the appropriate level of sunscreen. To be fully protected, something in excess of SPF 20 is needed. It is also surprising how quickly that tube of sunscreen can be used up. Make sure there is enough for the trip you plan. A small extra tube in the first aid kit can be a reserve.
This is a tough item to plan for since most of us carry snacks or lunch on most of our outings. But this item does NOT refer to the food we plan to eat. It is an emergency ration that can sustain us through a cold night or an unplanned extra couple of miles. One thought is to place an extra energy bar in the first aid kit. Choose one that you don’t particularly like, and you won’t be tempted to turn it into a snack. This item needs to be changed periodically so that it doesn’t compress into an inedible brick.
Again, this is NOT something that you are planning to use during your outing. What satisfies this requirement in the summer may not be adequate during the winter. In some cases, a simple emergency reflective blanket will fill the need. In other circumstances, a complete down suit may be the best choice. Because a wicking layer and a protective layer are usually carried on most outings, the extra clothing can be an extra insulation layer. Although down is preferable in many cases, the emergency layer should probably be synthetic. It will keep you warm even if it gets soaked.
In most cases, it ought to be the headlamp as this leaves two hands free to cope with other problems. The batteries in these are something that also need to be changed periodically. New technology has made the LED headlamps much more battery efficient. And if lithium batteries are available in the size you need, these also extend the useful life of the light. To avoid stumbling back to camp in the dark, an extra mini-flashlight in the first aid kit is helpful.
First Aid Supplies
This is a very personal item that should to be tailored to your specific needs. If you have a weak knee, you need a knee support. If you have a specific medical condition that requires a special medicine, you need to carry it in your kit and make others aware of its location and use. If you respond better to one type of medicine than another, that medicine needs to be in your first aid kit. Beyond that, the basic collection of band-aids, triangular bandages, blister kits and antiseptic creams can make up the remainder of your kit. You might include sunscreen or insect repellant just to have a place for them, but make sure they won’t leak. A bottle of iodine tablets for water purification is also appropriate, but these too need to be changed out periodically if the seal has been broken.
In these days with the de-emphasis of fire craft, the fire ribbon or cubes or even a Vaseline-soaked cotton ball in an old film container will go a long way to getting a fire started in an emergency or a storm. One of the more effective tools is the magnesium slab that you cut ribbons off with your knife. Many of these come with a flint on the side of the slab that can be struck with the knife to cause a spark. In an emergency first aid situation, the old campfire is one of the most soothing things you can do for the victim. It is also a good attention getter (signaling device), but don’t set the forest on fire.
One might think that this and the previous item ought to be together, but that might cause spontaneous combustion. Yes, you need the matches to start a fire, but they need to be kept separate. In desperate situations it might be comforting to have strike anywhere, light in the wind, and waterproof matches. But the key to getting a light is to have dry matches and a good striker. A lighter can be an adequate substitute, but make sure the flint and fuel are up to the task.
Finally, someone admitted that the old Boy Scout implement could be useful. There are so many old Boy Scout and first aid ideas that have been repudiated. In this case though, technology has created a much more useful tool: the Multi-tool. Many manufacturers have these products on the market. Pick the most useful tools for your needs and consider the weight, too. Just make sure one of the tools is a knife. In some cases, the scissors are needed for cutting the triangular bandages. In others, the pliers are more helpful in creating field repairs.
Other Important Items
We’ve covered ten basic essentials, but there are a number of other items and ideas that could have been included. And, depending on your circumstances, these items may be more important than the ones already listed. How about:
We’ve already alluded to this by including iodine tablets in the first aid kit. Water is the most critical resource you can have. We can do without food for a number of days, but the longevity of a person without water is numbered in hours, not days. There are a number of ways you can accomplish this; the simplest is to carry more water than you plan to drink. That is not a good solution as water is one of the heaviest things in your pack. How about carrying a filter or using the iodine tablets in an emergency? If a water source is assured, that is a good option. If you are going out into the desert, caching may be the only other alternative to carrying it.
If events are coming down around your ears, there is nothing like being able to get out of the hostile environment. This doesn’t have to be anything as elaborate as a tent, although that is certainly an option. A good alternative is a bivy sack, a water-resistant pack, or a poncho. Although many bivy sacks are expensive, there are several that provide adequate protection without costing an arm or a leg. In some cases an emergency bag will do the trick at a cost of only a few dollars. It may only work once, but that may be enough to get you out of trouble. A poncho provides the added benefit of being an external covering but can be used as a temporary shelter.
The Colorado Mountain Club lists “Toilet Paper in a Waterproof Bag” among its ten essentials. In these days of greater use of the wilderness, we are quickly running out of room to do our basic bodily functions. Leave No Trace encourages us to use a cat hole, away from water and consider carrying out our toilet paper. If we do not quickly adopt this important ethic, we may be stepping in our own wastes. As a minimum, we ought to carry the trowel to dig the cat hole and bury the waste at least 8 inches below the surface. There are also requirements to carry out our human wastes in several national parks. The commercial community has come to our aid by making Human Waste Disposal Kits that provide double bags and dry chemicals to take care of our waste.
It is wonderful to have all these light, efficient tools at our finger tips, but what happens when they don’t work? In order to avoid placing yourself in the situation of having to make unpleasant decisions, it is worth your time to consider what can go wrong and what you might need to fix it. A good repair kit ought to consider tools, cord, patches, pins, tape, spare parts and spare batteries. If you carry a stove and/or a water filter, there are specific repair kits for them. If you plan on a long trip, these are a worthwhile investment. At the very least, a length of duct tape wrapped around a pencil, trekking pole or water bottle will help fix a number of problems, from ripped clothing to broken poles.
Again, we have alluded to this need in suggesting that a fire can act as a signaling device. But beyond the risk of fire, there are a number of good signaling devices including a mirror, whistle, bright colored ground cloth or emergency blanket, or even radios or emergency locator beacons. Some of these can serve dual purposes and might come in handy in other circumstances.
Enough of the what-ifs
It’s likely that everything is going to work out, the weather will cooperate, and we will have a great time in the wilderness. The added advantage of having all these things is that it shows that you understand the potential risks and that you will have the tools to deal with adverse situations. Therefore, there is every chance that if you have all this, you will never have to use it. If you have already had a bad experience and learned from it, you may already have examples of other things you may consider Essential. Add them to your list and tell your friends. It is easier to learn from other’s mistakes than to learn from your own. Go forth and enjoy.