This post is quite long, but the topic deserves more than a cursory discussion. We will also explore these items again in a future post covering the PSK or Personal Survival Kit.

In the late 70’s and early 80’s American Express had a popular commercial featuring Karl Malden of The Streets of San Francisco fame. “American Express….don’t leave home without it!” It was a very popular tagline and it was catchy that’s for sure. When it comes to wilderness or backcountry travel, my philosophy is pretty much the same. There are certain things you just should not venture into the woods without.

So with this in mind, there are certain things, regardless of the environment or location, one should always take and carry whenever and wherever venturing into the woods, regardless of how long you plan on being there. Yes, these 10 things should be brought on a “simple” day hike; because as we all know….things sometimes do not go as we plan….!

The 10 Things….not to leave home without…we will discuss are the MINIMUM you should carry with you. They can be expanded and contracted based upon the specific environmental and geographic situation you will be in, and the duration of your trip.  For example, will you be venturing out in the summer or winter, spring or fall? Mountains or flatlands? Forested or desert regions? These and many others are things to take into consideration when you are going to go out into the woods.

Just a quick note before we continue. I did not create nor develop the list we are about to discuss. They are from years of personal experience and are built upon the original “Ten Essentials” developed by the Mountaineers, an outdoor enthusiast group established in 1906 in Washington. Also, just because it say 10 things does not mean 10 actual items. As you will see, there are a few more “things” we will discuss. Think of the 10 Things as categories.

The 10 Things…not to leave home without are:

  1. Shelter
  2. Fire
  3. Water
  4. Food
  5. Navigation
  6. Illumination
  7. First Aid Kit
  8. Knife
  9. Cordage
  10. Repair kit/tools

The first four “things” aren’t really things, but rather they are the main “NEEDS” to be met when it comes to an unexpected wilderness survival situation. They are also based on the “Rule of 3s”. You can survive 3 minutes without air; 3 hours without shelter; 3 days without water; and 3 weeks without food.

SHELTER – I use a two-tiered approach when it comes to meeting the survival need of shelter. First, comes the clothing you are wearing when venturing out into the wild. Dressing for the weather and season is the first order of business. We won’t go into detail about the types of clothing, as that will be a topic for a later discussion. Suffice to say, what you are wearing into the wild forms the foundation of your “shelter”need. Layering and wicking are the cornerstone concepts to achieve this.  The goal in the first tier is to be able to “thermoregulate” your body. Second, is the ability to erect a man-made shelter should you find yourself in a situation that will force you to have an unexpected overnight adventure.  For this tier, you have several options from carrying a tent to a simple emergency space blanket.  For me, my basic shelter items that accompany me on any outing is a 5’x7′ silnylon tarp, and a Grabber space blanket. With these two items I can effect a man-made shelter just about anywhere.

day out 3

FIRE – Depending on the climate and environmental conditions you are in, the ability to create fire may be one of the most important survival needs you must meet or address in order to make it in a wilderness survival situation. Obviously, you can’t carry a ready made fire in your pack, so you need to have a few things as part of your kit in order to efficiently make a fire when needed.  So, a fire kit is a good thing to bring with you into the wild. A basic fire kit should contain the following items:

  • Matches – strike anywhere in a match safe
  • Lighter – a Bic, or other type of small butane lighter
  • Ferro Rod (Metal Match) – any size will do
  • Tinder – Man-made, natural

The above items will allow you to start a fire in just about any conditions as long as you know the proper way to construct a fire, which will be a topic for another discussion.

WATER – Arguably, water may be the most important survival need that must be addressed depending on the situation you find yourself in. The first step, is to make sure you carry enough water with you for one day. This means you should bring 1 to 3 quarts (liters) of water with you, or have the ability of obtaining that much water while out in the wild. The challenge is finding potable drinking water in the field. Unless you know where you can find an underground freshwater spring, this means you need to bring with you the capability of producing potable water. There are two main threats you are facing when it comes to obtaining water in the wild, giardia, cryptosporidia. There are a number of ways you can do this. The easiest method is to carry water treatment tablets. Other methods include carrying a water filter, which can filter water particulates to at least .2 microns, or a UV-C device.

FOOD – Certainly you can forage for wild edibles, hunt, or fish while out in the wild. However, for the average person venturing into to the wild, bringing food along with you is probably the best choice.  The main consideration regarding food is to bring X + 1 meal. So, if you are going out for a day hike (lunch & dinner), bring enough food for three meals. In a future post we will go into greater detail on “trail” food. It is also a good idea to bring along a few powdered drink mixes, boullion cubes, and coffee or tea.


NAVIGATION – In this, the age of sweeping technological advances, the GPS certainly ranks high among them. Just turn your GPS on and you can instantly determine your location, right!  Ok, so what happens when your batteries fail or you can’t connect to all the satellites you need to get an accurate reading. That never happens…right!  When it comes to wilderness travel, having a GPS is a good thing, but you also need to have a compass and map of your area for when the inevitable happens, your batteries die or you can’t get a satellite signal. Also, I highly recommend you let someone know where you are going and when you plan on getting back. Future posts will cover how to navigate in the woods. Being able to read a map and use a compass to assist in navigating in the wild are skills you MUST know and master. Having a map and compass as part of your kit when you leave home is a necessity not a nicety.

ILLUMINATION– Being able to see in the dark is pretty important. There are any number of options available to you in the form of lighting your way in the wilderness. We will get into greater detail on flashlights or lighting devices in a future post. For me, what works best is a headlight. This leaves my hands free to do tasks in the dark. I also carry a bee’s wax candle to give me a secondary fire source and heating element. Candle light also helps to bring a sense of warmth into your campsite.  One note about flashlights/headlights, make sure to bring a spare battery and bulb as part of your kit. FAK content

FIRST AID –  Depending on how long your trip into the wild will be and how far away emergency medical treatment is, will determine the size and components of a first aid kit (FAK) you should carry with you. For simple outings, an FAK with some bandaids, a few gauze pads, ibuprofen, anti-bacterial ointment, moleskin, and some burn ointment will suffice. For longer duration treks, a more robust FAK may be in order. In a future post we will discuss making a personal FAK and other wilderness medical considerations.

KNIFE – Of the 10 Things to take with you into the wild, having a good, dependable knife with you can make all the difference. In this post, we won’t go into detail about the type of knife you should take with you, or what is the best type of knife to bring along; we will cover all of that in a future post. Suffice to say, having a cutting tool with you gives you a lot of flexibility and can help you craft things in the wild. Folding or fixed blade, though some may argue this point, really doesn’t matter. Knowing how to use it does. Swiss Army Knives (SAK), a Mora knife, “bushcraft” knife, or survival knife, whatever is your preference, just make sure you have a knife with you. Oh, and make sure it is sharp before you venture out.

CORDAGE – With the right knowledge and skills you can certainly craft cordage from natural materials. This takes time and the knowledge of what to use for natural cordage. In an unexpected survival situation, you just may not have the time needed to craft the cordage you need to help you construct a shelter. The most commonly known type of cordage to bring with you into the wild is “paracord”. Paracord or parachute cord comes from the military and is used in the construction of parachutes. Military spec paracord is also called 550 cord, as it has a breaking load weight of 550 pounds, so it is very strong. I is constructed with 7 inner nylon-laid strands and an outer mantle of nylon. The inner strands can be used as thread, field expedient fishing line, and a host of other applications limited only by your own ingenuity. How much should you bring with you?  I have found that 50′ of paracord will get you through just about any situation and allows you the ability to “craft” many different things in the wild.

POSSIBLES KIT – What is a Possibles Kit you may ask? Simply put, it is a kit that allows you to deal with any unforeseen possibility and gives you the ability to repair or maintain your equipment while out in the field.  So what is in a possibles kit?  You have any number of “possible” items to select. For me, I bring as part of my Possibles Kit, the following items: small button compass; sharpening tools to maintain my knife and other tools if carried;  a field sewing kit containing: a sail needle, waxed-cotton thread, a button or two, pieces of thin webbing and nylon repair tape; brass wire and cable ties; 15′ of 1″ wide gorilla tape; and a  Leathermam Wave mulit-tool.  Over the years, I have found these items give me the ability to deal with any possible situation I may encounter on the trail or in the wild. 

Don’t let a simple outing on one of your local trails, or a brief foray into the wild turn into a bad situation because you were properly equipped and prepared. Be safe, and bring The Ten Things not to leave home without in your pack and enjoy the wild.