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To Pack or Not to Pack? What constitutes an 'essential' item in a lightweight hiker's overnight pack?

Essentials commentary from BackpackingLight reader, Mark Henley.

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by Mark Henley | 2008-07-15 00:02:00-06

Essentials Henley - 1

As I sat, wearing torn sackcloth and wailing in grief, mourning the demise of my poor old Eureka 5+ pound tent, this question posed by Backpacking Light rang through my mind. I was cleaning out my gear closet, partly in anticipation for a week-long trip to Glacier National Park in July, and partly because I just couldn't remember which box my extra poncho tarp was stored in.

An interesting question to be sure; many would tell you that whatever piece of gear you would happen to pull out of their pack is "essential" to their trip and that they've spent hours poring over spreadsheets and reading reviews in order to find the perfect balance between weight, form, fit, and function for the particular widget in question.

Others would quote to you the philosophy of the "Ten Essentials" and speak volumes concerning the added safety that they experience because they carry a spare lighter instead of extra matches.

At the moment that I was looking for the poncho tarp, I would have found a plethora of words to describe exactly why the very trip was hanging in the balance, dependent upon me finding that poncho tarp.

I'm guilty, as so many others are, of spending hour after hour obsessing over which stove setup made the most sense for three-season hiking. Reading article after article, arguing and questioning in the forums, talking to old hiking buddies about why they chose their setup. Why do we do it?

Why do we pore over maps trying to decide the best route that will give us the most exciting experience for our time, reading trip reports, nosing through the forums?

Simple; Talking about gear is fun. Planning your trip is fun. We WANT these things to be essential to our trip.

So what is really "essential?" What is it that we can not live without?

Does it really matter if you have a synthetic or a down bag? Isn't this really an issue of comfort?

Does it really matter if you log an extra five miles on Tuesday and get to see that one more alpine lake? Isn't this really a matter of pride?

Does it really matter if you have the latest whiz bang, five-ounces-less-than-last-year's pack with the extra strap here and the buckle there? Isn't that really a matter of preference?

According to Merriam Webster's online dictionary, essential (link to the dictionary entry?) implies belonging to the very nature of a thing and therefore being incapable of removal without destroying the thing itself or its character.

From that perspective, there are really only three essentials:

1.) The place. If the place does not exist, then backpacking does not exist. Take time to pick up that soda can that someone disrespectfully tossed out by the side of the trail. One can is an eyesore, but the five more that get tossed down beside the first one bespeak a problem.

2.) Your health. If you can't walk the trail, how can you enjoy the trip? Take care of yourself.

3.) Your mind. The best equipped hiker with the most expensive gear, the best planning, and the most knowledge is just as likely not to return from a trip as a first-time hiker if they leave out one critical step: they stop thinking.

So, what is the only true essential that you carry with you?

Your head.

Slow down for a moment. Stop and think before you act.

Everything else is optional.

You can read more essentials commentary from Backpacking Light Publisher, Ryan Jordan, and from readers Jim Bailey and Allison Miller.


"To Pack or Not to Pack? What constitutes an 'essential' item in a lightweight hiker's overnight pack?," by Mark Henley. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2008-07-15 00:02:00-06.


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To Pack or Not to Pack? What constitutes an 'essential' item in a lightweight hiker's overnight pack?
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Addie Bedford
(addiebedford) - MLife

Locale: Montana
To Pack or Not to Pack? What constitutes an 'essential' item in a lightweight hiker's overnight pack? on 07/15/2008 18:40:14 MDT Print View

Companion forum thread to:

To Pack or Not to Pack? What constitutes an 'essential' item in a lightweight hiker's overnight pack?

Bob Bankhead
(wandering_bob) - MLife

Locale: Oregon, USA
To Pack or Not to Pack on 07/15/2008 22:43:38 MDT Print View

Both of the following are totally weightless and essential to a good experience

1) knowledge

2) common sense

Carol Crooker
(cmcrooker) - MLife

Locale: Desert Southwest, USA
Your head on 07/16/2008 08:12:50 MDT Print View

So true, Mark!
Your head - don't leave home without it!

Dale Wambaugh
(dwambaugh) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Essentials for overnight or day hikes on 07/16/2008 08:44:53 MDT Print View

Most of the hiking mishaps I have read about involve breaking two rules: not having the basic essentials and not telling anyone where you are going.

You need the basic essentials any time you leave the pavement. I carry many of them ON the pavement and in my vehicles as disaster support too:

1. Map
2. Compass
3. Flashlight / Headlamp
4. Extra Food
5. Extra Clothes
6. Sunglasses
7. First-Aid Kit
8. Pocket Knife
9. Waterproof Matches
10. Firestarter
11. Water / Filter / Bottles
12. Whistle
13. Insect Repellents or Clothing
14. Sunburn Preventative

I have a much more extensive survival kit that I carry that has many small items that can help me spend a few unexpected nights out. A great deal of my hiking is solo and I prepare for getting lost, an injury that might curb my mobility, or the loss of my pack or shelter. A little duct tape, some extra line, a spare water container and treatment tabs, redundant fire starting materials, a spare compass, etc, can help you MacGuyver your way out of a tight spot.

I carry extra clothing, food, a poncho shelter and a space blanket bivy on day hikes, even in the best of weather. Stuff happens, and those few extra ounces can make the difference between just an uncomfortable night out and one that is life-threatening. It may help me render aid to someone else too.

I've had quite a bit of first aid training and I've cast a wary eye at some of the lists people put together for SUL kits, cutting their first aid items down to a couple bandaids and some duct tape. You don't need a suitcase full of stuff, but a small first aid kit doesn't weigh a lot and can make your trip safer and more comfortable.

The reports of people leaving things like sleeping bags behind is just plain ignorance and poor judgment. People do stupid things all the time, so there's no reason to leave backwoods travel out of the picture.

IMHO, it's sad a commentary on how we live and how we raise our kids. I remember when I was taking a physical geology class and many of the students were having a difficult time grasping the concepts of stream and river morphology and I can to realize that they simply hadn't spent any time wandering stream banks or watching a stream change over time-- things I had done since I could walk.

I was a Boy Scout too. With that and my family camping trips, I gained skills like fire-making, basic knots, navigation, signaling, and first aid. This stuff isn't rocket science and the information is easily found.

David Olsen

Locale: Steptoe Butte
Re: To Pack or Not to Pack? What constitutes an 'essential' item in a lightweight hiker's overnight pack? on 07/16/2008 18:47:30 MDT Print View

I also think an essential is something that enables me to
finish the hike and get at least some minimal enjoyment from

Once got an eye infection from a combination of soft contact
lenses and lots of horse poo dust on the trail. Kind of like
snow blindness, I had to have help hiking out. A tiny tube
of mercuric oxide or neosporine would have made all the
difference. Could have been a potentially maiming situation.

Another trip I caught a staff infection - barber's itch-
from a cowpond where I went swimming. It spread everywhere
the pack contacted my body. Not to the point of being
life threatening, but I got no enjoyment from the trip for
the next 6 days. If I hadn't been responsible for a dozen 10 year
old boys I would have left the field the first day. Reminded me of chickenpox when I was a kid.
Again, a tube of antibiotic cream would have helped a whole

Edited by oware on 07/16/2008 18:48:17 MDT.

Craig W.
(xnomanx) - F - M
Re: Re: To Pack or Not to Pack? What constitutes an 'essential' item in a lightweight hiker's overnight pack? on 07/18/2008 22:40:00 MDT Print View

Beautiful! Well written Mark, I'm with you.

jason quick

Locale: A tent in my backyard - Melbourne
perspective renewed on 07/19/2008 17:49:59 MDT Print View

A timely piece of writing.

Your ideas serve as a nice reminder, which can also be applied to the forums and attitudes that are drawn to our conversations. Too often, forum threads and opinions become overwhelmingly personal, and quite nasty.

Like you said, it is all about fun. Let's keep it that way, and enjoy.

Thanks Mark.

Perry Hock
(hphock) - MLife

Locale: Midwest
Re: Essentials for overnight or day hikes on 06/02/2011 08:28:21 MDT Print View

I really like your list! A few things to I do to personally modify it (and why):

1. Map (if available)
2. Compass
X 3. Flashlight / Headlamp
4. Extra Food (granola bars and vitamins)
5. Extra Clothes (depending on where I am trekking)
X 6. Sunglasses
7. First-Aid Kit
8. Pocket Knife
X 9. Waterproof Matches
10. Fire starter
X 11. Water / Filter / Bottles
12. Whistle
X 13. Insect Repellents or Clothing
X 14. Sunburn Preventative

+ 2, big ziploc bags
+ water purification tablets
+ Magnesium fire starter
+ signal mirror
+ Emergency Blanket
+ Approx 50 feet of dental floss/twine (to hang the food), it’s strong enough to hang 3 granola bars, vitamins, and a ziploc bag!

Sunglasses, Insect Repellents, and Suntan lotion are 'nice to have', but you can survive without them. I admit I carry them but they are not 'essential' to wilderness survival. I carry a headlamp, but not as an 'essential'. Items I carry incase I need to be found are a whistle, signal mirror, and the magnesium (I can spark it at a steady pace to create a strobe light effect). Magnesium fire starter works in any condition, matches can be temperamental.

I know ultralight and SUL people frown upon extra clothes, but if you get wet, you need to be able to put on dry clothes. Otherwise, all you have to stave off hypothermia is a space blanket and hopefully warm fire.

I, too, find it funny that people keep reducing and dwindling items out of their first aid kit. Before we know it, its just a needle, few matches, knife, and fishing line (ya, its meant to sound like something Rambo would carry). If you have your sleeping bag, then you can forgo the extra clothes as long as your bag is in a dry sack. This way you can remove your clothes, use your bag to stay warm, and use the emergency blanket as a tarp to keep the bag dry (assuming it’s a down bag).

Use a ziploc bag as a makeshift water bottle - much lighter, no need to build a fire to purify water. Plus, if one plans on using fire to purify, what is going to hold the water?

Mud makes a great sunburn prevention (ugly, yes, but works). I find the funkier I get, the less the insects bother me.

This is how I pack my Items:

Ziploc bag 1:
1. Map (if available)
2. Compass
3. First-Aid Kit
4. Pocket Knife (actually a small, sorta heavy, Gerber multi-tool)
5. Magnesium
6. Fire starter
7. Whistle
8. Signal mirror
9. Emergency Blanket
10. Approx 50 feet of floss

Ziploc Bag 2:
1. Extra Food (granola bars and vitamins)
2. Extra Clothes (depending on where I am trekking)
3. Water purification tablets

And yes:
3. Insect Repellent
4. Sunburn Preventative

Notice all the ‘Consumables’ (except for the first aid kit, and we hope that isn’t used) are in a separate bag for easy access and to hang if having to overnight.

I know it’s redundant - but don't divide up the essentials between 2 or more people. Too often I see people divide up, or share, some of the things listed above. I REALLY frown at that since the whole idea is these items are what is necessary if you get separated from your partner/group. For that reason, my son carries the all the same items in his pack. Also, for my peace of mind, he MUST wear an additional whistle around his neck at all times (he’s 10). That way, worst case he goes to ‘use the facility’ and gets turned around, he can whistle easily. I'll be just out of sight, but definately within range of the whistle.

Edited by hphock on 06/02/2011 08:52:35 MDT.