Nature's Call 10 essentials backpacking guide

A Backpacking Beginners’ Guide to the 10 Essentials

You’ve finally been bitten by the bug.

Maybe you were listening to Nature’s Call or watching a slick documentary like Valley Uprising and now you’re ready to hit the trail.

Before you get out to some bag some peaks, you need to make sure you’ve got “The Ten Essentials.” These are the pieces of gear, or systems of gear, that will keep you alive when you’re stuck in the rain for three days or an unexpected snow squall gets you.

This article breaks down the “10 Essentials” by system, explains why they’re necessary, and recommend the gear I use on my trips.

The Gear for Knowing Where the Heck You Are

compass ten essentials navigation

You need to know where you’re going. This can be a printed map from the Forest Service (you can get ‘em all for free online!) or a Nat Geo Trails Illustrated map of the area. You’ll want to carry a compass to identify your direction, in the dark or when thick cloud cover masks the sun.

Local retailers like REI frequently offer classes where you can learn to use a compass in person. Depending on where you’re going, it may be worth your while to take one of those.

REI’s blog has an expert write-up on basic orienteering that you can review.

Quick Reminders for Navigating the Backcountry:

  • The Sun rises in the East and sets in the West. In the morning, if the sun is to your right, you’re heading North.
  • If you get lost at night, it’s best to set up camp where you are. You can end up further off-trail by wandering without getting your bearings.
  • Don’t rely on moss growth to identify north. There are a lot of variables that contribute to moss/lichen growth (wind, sun, etc.)

For your first few trips, look for reviews on All Trails or Hiking Project and pay close attention to whether people report the trail being well-blazed. The better the blazes (painted marks on trees or rocks), the easier to navigate the trail. I use Hiking Project every time I get out on the trail.

DON’T BLINDLY FOLLOW BLAZES. Like Simon and I found in the Eagle Rock Loop episode, you can’t always trust a blaze or a series of blazes. You want to consult your map every 15-30 minutes to make sure you’re still where you want to be.

Maps in the 21st Century

Paper maps and compasses (compassi?) are helpful and a definite backup when digital tools fail.

On most of my trips, I use Hiking Project on my phone to track my location. Your phone can still get a GPS reading, even when you don’t have service. Hiking project can download the trail maps for your area (or where you’re heading), so that you can always see where you are and the surrounding trails.

How to Keep Your Future Bright

Wear shades and sunscreen as necessary.

You want to have sunglasses and sunscreen (or appropriate clothing) as the weather dictates.

indiana jones sun protection ten essentials

Rain all week? Probably don’t need sunglasses.

Highs in the upper 90s and no clouds? ALL the sunscreen. Sunglasses on.

The best hats for hiking are NOT baseball caps. Baseball caps shield your face and increase visibility in sunny conditions.

Here’s the thing: they don’t protect your neck or ears at all. Get a floppy hat. You’ll look like Indiana Jones AND get some additional sun protection to your neck and leaves your ears basking in the sweet, sweet shade.

There are outdoor-specific sunglasses. I don’t think they’re necessary. I prefer the classic style of Wayfarers.

Protect your eyes, protect your skin. Carry more sunscreen than you think you need.

Staying Warm: How to Layer for Maximum Coziness

Staying warm while fall or winter camping is a delicate art.

Rule #1: Multiple thin layers are warmer than one thick layer.

You’re trying to create tiny pockets of air between layers. That helps cut the wind and retains heat.

Rule #2: Don’t use too many layers.

If you go overboard with layers, you run the risk of making them too tight, which can cut off blood flow. That’s a bad thing. Circulating blood is what maintains your body temperature inside all of your layers. When you cut that off, you’re paving the way for frostbite.

Depending on the temperature (and whether your cold or hot-natured), you’ll want the following:

  • Base-layer (top and bottom)
  • Quarter-zip Fleece
  • Vented Shirt
  • Insulated (or not) Pants
  • Shell (like a down/synthetic jacket).

When you’re moving during the day and the sunlight is baking through your layers, you can remove stuff to dial yourself into maximum comfort.

How to Sleep Warm Through The Dark, Cold Night

This is the hardest part. In the dark of night, miles into the backcountry, how can you sleep your warmest when the weather is at its most bitterly cold?

Get your layers on. It’s a myth that sleeping naked will keep you warmer. I don’t know why such a counterintuitive myth caught on, but DON’T SLEEP NAKED. It’s not warmer. Layers and the tiny pockets of air they help form retain heat.

  • Sleep in a couple of layers (base and at least one more).
  • Do jumping jacks or sprint in place before crawling into your bag.
  • Put heated water in a bottle and tuck the bottle in the footbox of your bag.

Where you pitch your tent can be a huge part of how warmly you sleep.

Bare ground will sap your body heat. In the dead of winter, set up on snow (if available). In the fall, set up on duff (pine needles and leaves, etc.) or grass. Anything between you and packed earth will provide a bit of insulation. You should also use an insulated sleeping pad if the temp will be below 50*.

Look for a place that will shelter you from the wind. An open field is probably not a great option. A small break in an otherwise treed area is ideal. You want enough space to pitch your tent, but things to break the wind all around. If you’re in a 4-season (read: winter-ready) tent, you have to worry less about wind chill.

Check out my Ultimate Winter Camping Hack.

Illumination: See in the Dark, like a bat or an elf

head lamp illumination ten essentialsPack a headlamp or a flashlight.

Then throw the flashlight away and pack a headlamp.

Flashlights are for grandmas and telling scary stories around a firepit in the suburbs.

Headlamps are actually useful.

You got off work a little late (damn chatty co-workers!) but you’ve finally made it out for the weekend.

It’s Friday night and you’re grabbing a car-camping spot for the night. You’ll get your backcountry permit in the morning.

You hold your flashlight in your mouth to free up both hands. Drool runs freely down your chin while you set up your tent.

You drop the flashlight once or twice, now you have nasty campground dirt in your teeth. That grit’s gonna be there all weekend. Crunch. Crunch.


You get to the dark campsite and YOU STRAP THE LIGHT OF THE SUN to your forehead. You set up your tent in bright, phosphorescent glow of the gods. You don’t drop the headlamp because it’s attached to you. It looks at what you look at.

It’s better, guys. It just is. Buy a nice headlamp once and never look back at that drawer full of crappy flashlights.

First-Aid Supplies: Buy ‘em, hope to never use ‘em

Buy a generic first aid kit for hiking. Make sure you’ve got a couple of band-aids, a splint, antiseptic, and a snake bite kit (depending on the environment/season).

Pro tip: Know how to use the stuff in your first-aid kit.

If you don’t know how to use that suture set, guess how helpful it’s gonna be when you need it?

Firecraft: Make Smokey the Bear Proud

camp fire craft ten essentials

Carry what you need to start a fire.

If you’re fire-challenged like me, that means some dryer lint in a Ziploc bag and a lighter or matches. Dryer lint is my personal favorite fire-starter. It’s never failed me.

My dad likes to use an egg-crate to cover his balls of dryer lint in vaseline. This keeps them intact in your pack and makes them extra flammable.

Expecting rain? Carry storm-proof matches.

Want a real firecraft challenge? Carry flint and steel (have a lighter as a backup, just in case).

I alternate between carrying a super light BIC lighter from a gas station and my fancy Zippo.

Be Smart, Play it Safe, Preserve Wild Spaces

Take great care when building a fire in the backcountry:

  1. Confirm that you’re allowed to have a wood-burning fire. Many National/State Parks prohibit fires in the backcountry.
  2. Build an effective fire ring or (preferably) use an existing one.
  3. Spread the ash, confirm there are no coals, and wet the ash when you’re leaving.

Fix it in the Field: Must-Have Repair Supplies

When gear breaks in the field, it can be a trip-ruining moment.

When vital gear breaks, it can be life-threatening.

We all know that there’s one thing that can fix anything:

gear repair duck tape

Duct tape is a life-saver. It can patch a tear in a tent or jacket. It can reseal a cracked bottle or bowl. You can combine it with a stick to splint a broken tent pole or trekking pole.

Don’t throw the roll in your pack!

Save weight and space by looping your own roll onto your trekking pole(s). Put as much or as little as you want to carry around the shaft of your trekking pole. It sticks to itself and you can peel off a length, just like if it was still on the roll.

Other Gear Repair Options:

Most of your gear that can be patched came with a patch kit. Carry the swatches of fabric and a tube of super glue in your first aid kit (or a little used pocket of your backpack.)

You can grab a tent pole splint if you’re using a tent with poles.

Feed Yourself, then Feed Yourself Again

Carry more food than you need. Like 3000-4000 calories a day, more if it’s below freezing.

On a standard day of hiking, you’ll be physically active for at least 8 hours. You need a lot of fuel for that amount of effort.

I carry Mountain House meals, sometimes I get some Backpacker’s Pantry if they catch my eye at the store.

As I’ve mentioned in what seems like every episode of the podcast. I LOVE the Mountain House Beef Stroganoff. It is life-giving. It is manna from heaven.

You need to carry whatever is necessary to prepare your food. Sometimes in the interest of being ultralight, a hiker will choose to go a no-cook route and just carry things that can be eaten cold/room temperature. This is definitely an option. Try to mix in some dried fruit and make sure to drink plenty of water so you avoid constipation.

A normal kitchen set for preparing dehydrated meals includes:

  • Stove and fuel
  • Pot to boil water
  • Eating Utensil (probably a spork)
  • Bear Bag/Canister or hanging bag to keep your food in (depends on where you’re hiking)

I regularly carry:

Carry a little extra food (snacks like jerky or trail mix) to cut the monotony of dehydrated stuff.

WORD OF CAUTION: Don’t go overboard carrying snacks and extra food. You won’t eat it. You will, however, hate that you’ve got the extra weight and because you’re an awesome observer of Leave No Trace principles, you’re gonna pack out all that extra food.

How to Stay Hydrated in the Backcountry

The best way to stay hydrated in the backcountry is going to depend on where you’re going so research the area before you go.

When I went to Big Bend with Steven and Patrick, we knew that there would be no water that we could filter. We needed to carry all the water we needed for the trip in our backpacks.

We bought huge MSR Dromedary packs to carry 10L of water each.

In a place like Arkansas, where I have regular access to streams or rivers, I carry a filter to refill my water supplies.

water ten essentials campingHow Much Should I Drink?

This depends on the weather (hotter weather will mean more water) and the activity level (strenuous hiking means more water).

In general, you should have about a quart of water for every hour of activity. Drink in frequent, short sips. Chugging water isn’t as effective as slow, steady consumption.

Drinking at regular intervals is made way easier by using a hydration bladder (like a CamelBak) because you can sip from the hose. When you stay hydrated correctly, you can hike longer, faster, and further than you can when you chug water at irregular intervals or, worse, become dehydrated.

In the event that you’re dehydrated, cool off in the shade, rest, and, most importantly, get some water in your system.

If you’re:

  • Stumbling
  • Mumbling
  • Fumbling

You need to stop and re-hydrate. Those are not good signs. Make sure to keep an eye on your hiking companions because dehydration, especially of the dangerous variety, can also cause disorientation and they may not realize they’re in trouble.

Where Do I Sleep? How to Choose a Shelter.

You need a shelter and something you can get over yourself in a hurry (in a sudden downpour or snowstorm). They’re not necessarily the same, but if you play your cards right, they can be.

I carry the Sierra Designs Lightning 2 FL. It has an integrated rain fly so you pitch it all at once, in less than two minutes and you’ve got shelter.

When I tarp camp, I make sure to have a poncho that I could wear while I set up camp to protect myself from any sudden rain I might encounter before I’ve got shelter.

The Classic Tent

best shelter ten essentials

Tents are your run-of-the-mill backpacker shelter. They typically have a floor, body, and rainfly.

One thing you generally want to avoid in a tent is a single-wall construction. An adult human breathes out a liter of moisture every night. In a single-wall design, that moisture has nowhere to go, it collects and condenses on the roof of your tent and then drips down on you.

Single-wall designs are either:

  • Cheaply and poorly designed, for playing in the backyard.
  • Four-Season (winter) tents, designed to stand-up to snow.

If you’re not winter camping in the snow, don’t buy a single-wall, four-season tent.

The Tarp: Weight Reduction and Condensation-Killer

My tarp set up in Arkansas

Camping with a tarp shields you from the rain. Everything else (bugs, snakes, etc.) still has decently easy access to you.

You can outfit your tarp with a bug-net to add a little more protection and suffer the few extra ounces.

I use my trekking poles to hold my tarp up and stake them out with paracord.

This is the optimal option for ultralight backpacking on a budget.

What are You Waiting For? Get Offline.

Hit the trail. You have all the knowledge to acquire your gear. Go buy it and find a trail near you.

Like the overused adage goes, “Knowledge is power.” You’ve got the confidence that comes from knowing what you’re getting yourself into. Plan a short trip. You can do an overnight, hike-in and hike-out, trip this weekend.

I promise your first trip will not only be a crazy confidence booster it will also make you hungry for more.

Get outside. Let me know how your trip goes or ask any questions you’ve got about the ten essentials on Facebook or Twitter.