I’ve always been a hiker, but recently I I started to learn how to actually backpack properly. Part of my learning was inspired by a friend who got lost on her hike and ended up having to be rescued the next day by emergency helicopter. Wanting to learn the basics of backpacking survival, I got involved with a group that participates and trains people in proper backpacking, mountaineering, rock climbing, etc. They taught me how to backpack correctly, so I would be able to survive if lost on a wilderness trail. If you can get into a group like that, you’ll learn a ton from people with years, sometimes decades, of experience! I learned, and am still learning, a lot about how to pack lightly, how to prepare for trails, and make smart gear choices.

What was emphasized all through my class, however, were the elements you absolutely need to survive if you’re ever caught out in the wilderness and have to spend the night, unplanned. There were 13 key essentials that we always had to carry on our hikes. Although you may not spend the night comfortably, you will survive. I am well aware that there are more than 13 items on this list. It’s more like 13 essential areas that you need to be equipped with. CYA, people! With that in mind, here are:

13 Key Essentials You Absolutely Need as a Beginning Backpacker


topographic map

Get a map of the terrain in the location where you’ll be backpacking and know how to read it! You need to understand topographical structures, like cliffs, or how steep the terrain will be where you’re hiking, the best direction to go for help, etc. You can get topography maps at Caltopo or USGS. Print out your map and store in a sealing gallon bag to make it more waterproof.


backpacking compass

A decent compass that doesn’t revolve when you do. You want one where the compass housing is turnable. If the whole housing unit turns when you do, it’s no good. Once you have your compass, you can check out this illustrated guide on how to properly set and use it, or check out this link from REI. They’ll show you via video how to use it, and they link to ones that you can buy that are specifically for backpackers.

Headlamp or Flashlight


I love my LED Headlamp Flashlight with Red Led Light that I got from Amazon. It has the bright white light, but it also has a setting for red light. Red light is great for nighttime, when you just need to step outside to us the “facilities” or want to look for something, but don’t want to blind yourself or reset your night vision with bright white light.

Emergency Shelter

emergency shelter

You probably won’t have a full tent if you’re just out for your day hike, but you should at least carry a tarp with you. Try to get one that will pack small, but will be large enough to cover you up or to make a make-shift shelter if you need it. Hiker in Estonia has a great video to give you an idea of how to make a shelter from a tarp in a pinch.

First Aid Kit

first aid kit

You always need certain things in your first aid kit when you’re hiking. I recommend bandages for cuts, scrapes, or blisters that form on your feet from your boots. Some kind of ointment (like Neosporin) and alcohol pads to clean and cover these injuries will help prevent infection. Pain killers are always a good idea, and any medications you absolutely have to have, such as an inhaler. I even took my chemo meds with me (it was an oral drug at the time 😊). Ace bandages are great in case you trip or fall and sprang your ankle, but you have to know how to use them. You can make a split out of bandannas and branches if you have those materials on you.

simple home-made first aid kit

If you don’t need the more extensive kit, you can create something simple that’s also lightweight and perfectly suited to a day hike. I made this kit myself, and it fits nicely inside one of my old pill bottles. I have everything I need to take care of minor injuries without the weight of a full first aid kit.

Pocket Knife

pocket knife

I’ve seen those Swiss Army Knives that contain the bottle opener, corkscrew, small scissors, etc. To me, those are a waste of time. I carry a full utility multi-tool in addition to my pocket knife, which isn’t really pocket sized. The blade itself is the length of my palm. I wanted something that I could use to fillet a fish if I needed to, and those little knives just won’t do the trick. Or you could go full Crocodile Dundee – it’s up to you.



Fire Starter

fire starter

This is my favorite type of fire starter. It’s lightweight, it’s super cheap, and it works really well. I used this on my three-day backpacking trip. A couple of these cotton balls soaked in Vaseline lit up quickly and burned for a minute or two, just enough to get my twigs burning so that I could add larger pieces of wood to my fire.

Matches or Lighter


Once you have your fire starter, you need a way to actually LITE it on fire. I used water proof matches I bought at the store, but you can also make them yourself (video here). You can also use a flint stone and your pocket knife, or one of those Zippo Lighters.

Extra Food & Water

extra food and water

Extra food, such as dried fruit, granola, Cliff Bars, etc. come in handy when you need the extra calories for hiking in general. It REALLY comes in handy when you’re stuck out over night and you’re starving, but it’s not as essential as extra WATER. You can either carry this on you, or you can make sure you always have a water filtration system on you so that you can get extra water when you need it.

Extra Clothing

extra clothing

I like to pack long underwear (both bottom and top) as well as a wind-proof, water-proof jacket. I pack a beanie and extra gloves. Yes, I can remove layers when I get overheated, but I can also layer all these on if I’m ever stuck outdoors.

Signaling Device

signaling device

Get yourself a pea-less whistle so you can signal for help. PEA-LESS, because if something happens and that pea in the whistle gets stuck, guess what? You’ve got no way to signal! A pea-less whistle is just as loud and will always be reliable. Also pack a small, compact mirror. If you’re ever lost on the trail, you can use the mirror to signal a passing helicopter or small tour plane. You can also use the mirror as a fire starter by reflecting the sun, but don’t count on that as your main fire lighter.

Toilet Paper & Trowel

toilet paper and a trowel

We all go, it’s no big secret. But a roll of toilet paper is an extra comfort when you’re in the outdoors. A trowel is just to make sure things don’t get extra messy, and let’s face it – you don’t want to see anyone else’s business just as much as they don’t want to see yours. It’s part of good hiking etiquette.

Sun Protection

sun protection

Sunscreen, a hat/ball cap, and some sunglasses have saved my rear more than once. A sunburn can really make you miserable, no matter what your situation. I also like to have at least a couple different bandannas on me, too. One for soaking in cold river water and wrapping around my neck, and the other just in case I have to fashion a splint. Plus, the bandanna keeps the sun off the back of my neck.


That’s it for now! Anything else you can think of to add to this list?

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13 Key Essentials you absolutely need as a beginning backpacker

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