The Twelve Outdoor Essentials

[NOTE: this post has a sequel]

Where should I begin developing my outdoor kit?  What do I need to bring on every trip outdoors?

Perhaps you’re just getting started and need to know what to bring for your first substantial day-hike in a state forest.  Maybe it’s been a long time since you hiked and you’re just getting back into it, and you want to be sure to be prepared and not forget anything as you dig through all your old gear.  And maybe you’re a parent of a new boy or girl scout and you want to make sure they’re ready for the outdoors.

As usual, there’s no reason to reinvent the wheel here.  The scouts and outdoor organizations have often made lists of “outdoor essentials,” usually of 10 key items that you shouldn’t leave home without.  Unfortunately, these lists don’t exactly match up.

scout outdoor essentials

Boy Scouts (also here)

Mountaineers (the original list)

REI (includes a cheesy video)

What I’ve found is that the newer “system” based lists are helpful, as opposed to the older “item” based ones, but they tend to miss two key “systems.”

So here is the Jon Trails 12 Essentials, including the following 12 systems, very clearly inspired by the above sources but including the missing two.

  1. Knife, Tools & Repair Kit
  2. Navigation
  3. Fire & Ignition
  4. Illumination
  5. First Aid
  6. Signaling
  7. Sun Protection
  8. Insect Protection
  9. Insulation
  10. Shelter
  11. Nutrition
  12. Hydration

I have added Signaling and Insect Protection, for obvious reasons, I think.

I find it easy to memorize the list in pairs, as listed: knife and compass, fire and flashlight, sun and insect protection, etc.  This can help if you’re throwing together a pack for a trip.  I keep my daypack in the trunk of my car at all times with these items, plus other non-essentials like binoculars and a notepad.  Water bottles are kept full.  The idea is to have a kind of “go bag” so that I’m always ready to hike around if the opportunity presents itself.  The only difficulty I’ve found is with food — you don’t want to leave food in a hot trunk.  I must admit, though, that I’ve been caught more than once wishing I had some trail mix back there!

my pack

I keep really essential items in the top zipper so that if I don’t need to carry the whole pack or I can quickly grab what I need (knife, compass, whistle, lighter, small flashlight).

There are also these helpful lists from REI:

Day Hiking List

Backpacking List

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7 thoughts on “The Twelve Outdoor Essentials

  1. Especially if you’re carrying shelter like a tent or bivy sack and a sleeping bag (in case of an unplanned night out), the paradox is that the more safety gear you bring, the more likely you are to need it. The added weight slows you down, which could lead to getting benighted on the trail, and if you aren’t used to it, a heavy pack can pull you off balance, especially at times when it’s already difficult or marginal, like crossing a swift creek on a smooth log.

    My opinion is that the specifics of the hike should play a role in what you bring. I leave my sunblock at home with confidence in the Seattle winters, we’ll go months at a time without seeing the light of day. But because our region gets such awful weather, and because this can change so quickly in the mountains, I’m unlikely to leave without rain and wind gear, unless it’s a short, easy trail I already know, in midsummer with a good forecast.

    • Forrest:
      So point taken on the “trip determines the gear” point. When I go out in my local woods I rarely bring the whole pack, unless I want to train with something back there. I usually remove unnecessary items and leave them in the trunk. Maybe I should post something on the principles I use in determining what to bring and when.

      That said, the purpose of the list, truth be told, was to give to parents of new scouts in the scout troop I work with. This kit can be put together for really cheap, just collecting stuff around the house plus a few key items. We emphasize carrying the essentials on every trip in the scouts. I find that if put together in the right way this kit weighs very little…I think it’s better for a 13 year old boy scout to carry an emergency space blanket than a 1 lb knife and a 2 lb first aid kit from the store, which is what they usually pick up. In making this list I tried to emphasize that point — make a custom first aid kit, carry a very small and lightweight knife, and add a 0.2 oz ballless whistle (something not in the official “scout essentials).

      Thanks for the note!

      • I’d love to see a post about how you decide what goes in the pack. Not just whether to cover all systems (and you’re right, probably in several different ways … it’s a lot better to teach the next generation about preparedness, right?) but also, when does the space blanket come, and when do you take a full sleeping bag instead?

        Also I’m curious about what sorts of shelter, I’m assuming the blanket is for warmth, and that you set up a tarp, or use items nature has discarded like the branches you find in the woods?

      • I’m working on a more substantive reply to these concerns, because they are very important questions and I need to clarify what I said here.

        To answer real quick — I think the “systems based” lists are much better because they force you to have a navigation system even if you don’t bring anything — you can go without a map and compass if you can navigate just with your head. Similarly in your case, you don’t need sun protection because the clouds and the trees do that for you. The climate and environment becomes part of your “kit.” Systems based lists emphasize this — everyone needs sun protection, navigation, etc., but not everyone needs sunglasses, spf 50 sunblock, map and compass.

        As for shelter, the ONLY time I carry the space blanket is when I am going on a day hike. The detailed list I posted here is specific to day hikes. It’s really if I get caught out there unplanned. For overnight trips I bring a backpacking tent if I am car camping or have a buddy, a tarp system if I’m sleeping alone. We need to invest in a nice, roomy family car camping tent, though!

  2. Pingback: Your Kit (Follow Up) | Treadin' Trodden Trails

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