Once, while hiking through the stunning New Zealand mountains, I met a man dragging two packs – a massive 85L one on his back and another smaller 40-50L – on his chest. When I met him again later that evening in a backcountry hut, I couldn’t not ask him about his burden – “what are you carrying there? Isn’t it difficult to hike like this?” He said he “used all the things in his pack” and listed a long list of items, such as 7 cotton t-shirts (one for each day, as they get wet and dirty), soaps, shampoos, dish cloth, several kilos of fresh vegetables and fruit.
That got me into thinking that hiking gear should be not about the items you WILL be using, but rather, what items you cannot survive without. Of course, everyone can decide, how much they want to sacrifice for certain comforts, but being able to distinguish the necessary from accessory is very important. Some items can be more versatile or serve several functions; you just need to learn to identify these.
Here is the list of items I believe are absolutely essential in the outdoors.
- Weather-resistant layer
In the outdoors, especially mountains, the most important safety net is the outer protection layer against all the elements, such as hiking pants. Even if the weather is fine, when you are heading out for the hike, remember that it might change or you might get delayed to come back to safety for some reason (injury, getting off-track, moving slower than expected). If this happens, you want to be able to stay warm and be protected from any rain and wind. The most universal jacket for that is a hard-shell – a thin lightweight water- and rain-proof jacket. These only weigh a few hundred grams, but have the capacity to save your life. If you are hiking in colder weathers, consider combining that with a warmer insulating layer like fleece/down or wool.
- Insulating layers
It gets really cold in the mountains, especially at night, especially if you get caught in a bad weather. Regardless of the duration of the trip, you need to make sure you have a way to stay warm. If you’re out on a short day trip, a season-appropriate wool, fleece or down jacket will work. For multi-day hikers, include your sleeping bag into your insulating layer list. As long as you are warm enough with your sleeping bag at night, you do not have to take much more clothing. However, if you want more comfort and an additional layer of insulation – a down jacket or a thick fleece jacket does miracles.
If there is any snow travel or hiking at higher elevations involved in your hiking trip, you should definitely take a pair of sunglasses with you. Snow-blindness is a very real thing that can damage your eyes and jeopardise your trip’s safety.
- Enough water carrying capacity
You should take enough water vessels to be able to ensure constant supply of water. The number of bottles/camel bags you will need to take with you will depend on the water availability on the trail and your daily water requirements. Research the route and check, where you will be able to fill up your water bottle(-s) and if it safe to drink. If the water is generally unsafe to drink, consider carrying water purification tablets or treat your water in the evenings by boiling it (at least 2-3 minutes). I always have at least 2-3 litres of water a day. The exact water requirements are subject to your personal needs, physical activity levels and air temperatures, humidity. I try to have at least a litre of water with me at any point of the hike.
- Neck warmer (or a variation)
Big portion of your body heat gets released through your head and neck, so in order to stay warm you should always have a hat, balaclava, scarf or a neck warmer (or a combination of these items). Neck warmers are very versatile, as they can serve either as a scarf, hat or a balaclava. Merino wool neck warmers are very durable, warm and still provide you insulation, when wet.
- First Aid kit and emergency gear
Do not underestimate the outdoor hazards and do not think that accidents are not likely to ever happen to you. Always carry at least a basic emergency and first aid-kit to have a way out of nasty surprises. You do not need an extensive kit, just tools to keep you going. Emergency “space” blanket or a bivy are almost essential additions to any gear kit.
Unfortunately people do not have the capacity to see in the dark. Even more unfortunately the same people sometimes get trapped in the dark and require light to get to safety. When hiking, it is sometimes difficult to assess how long it will take to do a section of a route, so always ensure that you will have a way to get to safety, if you get behind your schedule. Take your torch with you even on short days (trips) – as you never know, what emergency you will have to deal with. Torches are also an excellent way to signal for help.
- Waterproof sacks and backpack liners
This does not apply to desert hikers, but if you are likely to encounter rain or deep river crossings, it is very advisable to have something to keep your gear dry. You want to always keep at least one layer of clothes and/or sleeping bag dry, to be able to get warm in the end of the day/in case of emergency.
- GPS/map/compass/route brochure
Always have a way to know, where you are. Follow natural features as you proceed and always note to yourself, where on the route/map you are. It is also very useful to keep track of time and your mileage to know, how fast you are moving for better route planning and goal setting.
- Extra sugar
Always have enough of food on your hike! Insufficient calories will make you weak, scared and often unable to carry on. Always take a surplus of food, in case your route takes longer than expected or you get stuck somewhere. Calorie-dense, high sugar snacks are very effective in quickly putting you back on feet.
These are just some of the gear kit items, each mountain hiker should have. Of course, the exact list will depend to large extent on the duration of the trip, terrain, season, your experience level, etc. The general principle every hiker should have in mind is to always plan for the worst. Always have a plan B. Some extra gear will not weigh you down that much, but might save your life, if it comes to that.
Be conscious and stay safe!