Snowflakes filled the sky around Wayne Beckwith’s canoe. Amid uncontrollable shivers, he layered on the extra cotton socks he’d brought on the trip and tied his boots tightly. The unexpected blizzard came on suddenly; he had to react quickly to stay warm in the rapidly dropping temperatures in the raging waters of Wisconsin’s Flambeau River. Thirty minutes later, his river companion was rubbing his scarlet, frozen feet, which despite their eventual thaw have permanent numbness.
According to Karen Berger’s Hiking Light Handbook , wearing too many pairs of socks and tying boots too tightly will constricts one’s the blood flow, which expedites freezing in cold, wet conditions, . “Had I done my research,” says Beckwith, “I would have known to bring waterproof socks or looser boots.” The site also recommends gaiters, lower leg coverings designed to keep feet warm and dry in even the most extreme conditions.
Beckwith’s frozen feet, says University of Oregon Wilderness Survival Professor Michael Strong, “is a common example of novice adventurers doing the wrong thing with the right intentions.” Strong himself experienced a similar situation during a 5-day canoe trip in the Canadian Rockies. His ill preparation led to hypothermia. “In winter conditions, cotton kills,” he declares. “I can’t say it enough.”
Even in the 1930s, “The Mountaineers,” a Seattle organization of climbers, would have agreed with Strong that “cotton is rotten.” The group created a “10 Essentials” list, which still serves as the backpacker’s packing bible. The Mountaineers believe that no journeyer should leave home without navigation, hydration, nutrition, sun protection, insulation, warmth, illumination, first aid, shelter and a whistle.
Navigation in the backcountry is made possible via compasses and maps. In order to pass Strong’s class, students must demonstrate ability to decipher contour maps and participate in a compass outing. He says, “You can pack the map and compass, but what good does it do you if you don’t know how to use them?”
Reading contour maps will aid in finding rivers, streams and ponds for hydration, the second essential on The Mountaineers’ list. Access to water sources is equally as important as the water bottle you pack in your backpack. Prior research about the area you’re in will yield information about the content of the water sources, indicating whether or not you need to bring a water filter or purification tablets on your trip.
The inside of most REI backpacks lists the third essential, nutrition, with a note that says “Bring food… and extra food.” The Hiking Light Handbook suggests bringing 2.5 pounds of food per day for winter trips and 2 pounds of food per day for every other season.
Sunburns are common even on cloudy days, so spread on your sunscreen and SPF lip balm and sport those shades. Sunglasses can be especially helpful in protecting eyes from fishing lines while casting and branches while hiking.
Insulation, the fifth essential, is often mistaken for layering. Layering is simply piling on more garments, while insulation is the process of controlling body temperature. Strong advocates that backpackers should begin with a base layer, or an underwear system that will keep skin dry and also allow moisture to move to outer clothing. On top of the base layer, backpackers need several thin layers. The best types of material for these layers are wool, down and polyester. Add gloves, a hat, a warm rain jacket and you’re good to go.
When The Mountaineers’ list warmth as the next essential, they mean fire. Bring both a lighter and matches not one or the other. If you’re planning on cooking food, a stove and proper fuel need to be on your packing list too.
Fire can’t be your only source of light in the wild, and thus illumination is on the essentials list. A flashlight with batteries will allow you to navigate in the dark, but a lightweight headlamp is an even better option to free your hands.
First aid is the eighth essential. Your basic kit should be equipped with bandages, pain reliever and duct tape. Beckwith swears by duct tape. He says, “It saved my last hiking adventure. I put them on blisters and made it down the mountain, pain-free.”
If you’re on a backpacking trip, you’ve already thought to bring a tent and sleeping bag. The ninth essential, Shelter, is aimed at day-trippers who might get stuck. Be prepared by packing a space blanket or tarp in case of emergency.
The tenth essential is a whistle. Outlast your vocals by keeping one tied on a string around your neck.
When it comes to venturing the backcountry, Young believes “experience is the best teacher.” Here are some extra items that experienced backpackers have added to their packing lists beyond the ten essentials:
Needle and thread: You never know what might need mending along the way. Dental floss is a great substitute for thread; it’s more durable and it promotes good hygiene.
Bandana: Use it to block the sun and wind, to clean pots and pans and to stop gushing blood in case of an emergency.
Roll-up foam pads: Don’t bother with chairs in the wild; rocks work just as well and you don’t have to carry them around with you. Foam can protect you from cold and rough surfaces and even serve as a sleeping pad in warmer months.
Hand sanitizer: Bring a small bottle, especially if you’re cooking for others.
Flavored drink tablets, tea bags and Siracha sauce: “It’s the spices and seasonings that make life a little happier,” says Beckwith.
No matter what materials, including Siracha, you decide to bring on your trek, they can’t serve you unless you know how to use them. Young compares backpacking to having a really nice car; “Unless you learn how to drive it, you’re a hazard out there.” There is no driving test to take before heading into the backcountry, but you can do some test runs. Practice day hikes with your full backpack to find out if you’ve got the right weight. Break in your shoes before you leave to avoid blisters. Set up the new tent in your backyard. You might not be a pro, but if you follow the essentials list, you’ll be able to pack like one.
Berger, Karen. Hiking Light Handbook. Mountaineer’s Books, 2004.