Going on a hike, especially a long one away from urban areas, is a great way to get away from people and all the worries of everyday life. You also get to wander around in nature, taking in all of the glory and magic that occurs all the time, but we so rarely notice.

But remember, when getting away from it all, it's not that hard to have trouble getting back. Whether spending days hiking across the Pacific Crest Trail far away from civilization, or just on a day hike in a nearby national park, forest preserve, or recreation area, it's deceptively easy to get lost, let time get away from you, or find yourself or a friend with an injury preventing them from hiking out as easily as you'd like.

Surviving these events for a short time isn't a problem - as long as you're prepared. Sure, you may think to yourself, I'm just going to walk around for a couple hours, plenty of people around, what can happen? Well, that's the great thing about having the ten essentials of hiking - it can't hurt you to have them with you, and they'll be there for that freak accident, that sudden storm coming out of nowhere, or many other things that can happen by suprise.

This list of ten items is not just the recommendation of someone pretending they know what's best. This comes from The Mountaineers, a hiking group in the Pacific Northwest, which has developed this list from years of hiking experience from its' members, often learned the hard way, something you don't want to do.

  • A map
    For any hiking through wilderness areas, you'll want a map to know what's around. Not just your typical road atlas, though - knowing where I-90 is in relation to you won't help you navigate back over the ridge to the trailhead or find an emergency route. The USGS offers maps which can help with identifying landmarks and showing the topography. It is especially highly recommended that you understand how to use the maps well. Don't forget to store your maps inside sealed waterproof containers, such as ziploc bags, for when your pack falls into a river or the rain comes pouring down.

  • a compass
    Though you may think you have a great sense of direction, it is too easy to have it fail when you're trying to get back to the trail during a rainstorm or at night. It is also quite necessary to using your map effectively. Make certain that either your compass or multiple people in your group know how to compensate for the difference between true north and magnetic north - at more northern latitudes, this can be significant. For example, in western Washington, true north can be as far as 20 degrees off from magnetic north. Such a difference can really affect proper navigation.

  • Water and a means to purify it
    Water is very important for life, and you'll perish way too rapidly without it. Try to bring in more than enough water - a 20 oz. sport bottle for a 4 hour hike is not enough. If you're hiking in a place where there exists any possibility of being lost, try to make sure you have enough to last a full day and night. The large capacity bladders in many hyrdration pack backpacks will often suffice. You can also draw water from natural sources such as rivers and lakes - but only if you have a means to purify the water, as otherwise you can end up seriously sick. A pot to boil it in, or some of the purification tablets available can help make it likely you can use available water.

  • a flashlight or headlamp
    Lose track of time during a late in the day hike, or find yourself lost for a couple hours, and you could suddenly have the need to hike in the dark. Even a full moon won't provide light in heavily forested area, and clouds could make even wide open trails impossible to see in. A light will allow you to hike in the dark if you need, and to be able to see your map and compass. Don't forget to check the lamp before every hike, and be certain to have extra bulbs - they're quite small, so you can keep a few without losing pack space.

  • food
    Hunger can sap energy rather quickly, and few things can make one as cranky. For a hike of more than an hour or so, having some food is already a good idea. Try and keep at least a day's worth of food tucked away, making certain you bring along something that requires no preparation, is non-perishable, and is high in energy. It also helps if whatever you pack for this situation is not very pleasant taste-wise, as that really helps discourage casual snacking.

  • extra clothing
    It doesn't matter if the weather is 20 degrees or 80 degrees, have extra clothing. First, you'll want some rain-gear. Even a small roll-up poncho can be sufficient, and can fit in a small pocket. Second, clothes for a sudden overnight stay are good to have, especially if they're good for a change in weather - shorts and a sleeveless top can be great for a warm day, but offer little after the sudden cold front drops temperatures by 20 to 30 degrees (not unheard of). Flexible clothing is especially good, such as pants that can zip off into shorts, or removable jacket liners. They're also good in non-emergency situations, as temperatures drop 3-5 degrees for every 1000 feet of elevation. Oh, and jeans are always a no-no, as they hold onto water longer than just about any other item of clothing, which is the last thing you want. And isogolem recommends some polar fleece for your warm back-up clothing.

  • fire starting supplies
    Sure, you may have clothes to help keep you warm, but they can be torn, soaked with water, or lost. They also don't help with cooking food, and they don't do well for starting a signal fire. So bring fire-making materials with you. Many places have no-campfire policies, but when it comes to hypothermia or violating the policy, nobody's going to tell you to freeze. Fire making materials means more than just a lighter or matches - you need kindling to get a real fire going, and you may find that materials at hand are soggy and not working. A decent-sized candle, chemical fuel, or compressed wood-chips work really well, and can be what you need to get a good fire going even in soggy weather.

  • a first aid kit
    First-aid kits just for hikers are available at many outdoors and sporting goods stores, so you don't even need to take the time to assemble one yourself. If you do create one yourself, include more than bandages and aspirin, such as items in the list on the linked node - and pay special attention to any items you may want specific to your hike, such as anti-venom for snakes. And if you're really wanting to be careful, take a basic first aid course. Not only does the Red Cross offer some, but some hiking organizations offer ones customized for the outdoors.

  • a multi-purpose knife
    Plenty of people like to feel special by carrying around such a knife on their keychain, happy when they can use it to clip off a stray thread or cut out a coupon. When hiking, the variety of tools can be suprisingly useful, whether for getting out a splinter, or cutting a block of cheese to enjoy with that bottle of wine you brought to the top of the mountain. Just remember to skip those ones with USB memory in them for your time in the great outdoors.

  • sunglasses and sunscreen
    What, are we preparing for laying out in the sun to get a nice tan? No. Being prepared to deal with the sun is quite necessary. Sunglasses help to deal with the reflected sunlight off of snow - snowblindness is real, and is quite serious. You can't get to safety if you're having trouble seeing. And as anyone who has had a bad sunburn can attest, it can be serious and painful. Don't forget that sunlight reflecting off of snow is just as able to burn as sun from the sky, and that you can even get burnt on a cloudy day. You never know how long you'll have to walk in the sun, so prevent sun damage first and you'll be better off.
These items won't prepare you for all possible events while hiking - that just isn't possible. But the more situations you're prepared for, the lesser the chance that a small problem could turn into a big disaster. So listen to what years of experience have taught people. Make sure your pack contains the ten essentials. You are bringing a pack on your hike, right?

GORP Hiking Skills - The Ten Essentials, http://gorp.away.com/gorp/activity/hiking/skills/teness.htm
Washington Trails Association, http://wta.org/~wta/cgi-bin/wtaweb.pl?3+nb+0
The Mountaineers - Essential Hiking Gear, http://www.mountaineerhikes.org/hikers/gear.html

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