How Essential Are the ’10 Essentials’ for Thru-Hiking the Appalachian Trail?

Hikers everywhere are continually encouraged by popular outdoor publications and societies for wilderness enthusiasts to always bring the 10 ten essentials for every hike. The question is, are they really essential for the Appalachian Trail?

If you’re going hiking in a remote area that few people pass through, then by all means bring the 10 essentials. However, they may not all be necessary for the Appalachian Trail.

1. Appropriate footwear

Having a solid pair of boots or shoes will greatly improve your hike. The use of the word “appropriate”, however, is up for debate. I had a friend who thru-hiked in Bedrock sandals. Most sources urge getting a sturdy pair of backpacking boots, but plenty of hikers prefer light-weight trail runners. Basically, it’s important to have footwear that appropriately meets your needs.

Verdict: Essential

 2. Map and Compass and/or GPS

The Appalachian Trail is clearly marked for the entire way. The only time it gets confusing is in national and state parks that have a trail system, in which case, it’s important to follow the white blazes and read the posted signs. You will not have much use for a GPS unless you have a habit of sleep walking for miles through the woods (and I guess you would have to keep your GPS in your pocket while you sleep).

Having a data book is useful for determining the location of campsites, shelters, water sources, and road crossings. However, you really won’t need a map and compass unless you like to frequently hike off trail and know how to orienteer your way back.

Verdict: Non-Essential

 3. Extra water and a way to purify it

It is definitely essential to have enough water to make it to the next water source. Occasionally, the water sources will be dry or be downstream from a pasture of cows, in which case it’s nice to have extra water. You will be drinking two to four liters of water a day depending on the temperature and how far you hike, so chances are you will be filling up from water sources multiple times a day. It might be nice to have an extra liter of water, but you really don’t need an extra days’ worth of water.

As far as having a way to purify your water, I hiked the entire trail without treating my water. I didn’t want to spend the money on a filter or Steripen, and I figured that the bacteria in the water probably weren’t any more harmful than the chemicals I would be drinking if I treated my water. Treating your water is a personal preference, but I definitely wouldn’t call it essential.  (Editor’s note: This is only the opinion of this author.  Although some prefer not to treat their water, in our opinion, it is not worth the risk.  We recommend that you treat all water found in the backcountry.)

Verdict: Non-Essential

 4. Extra food

Hikers on the Appalachian Trail generally resupply in towns every two to five days. You need enough food to make it to the next resupply. I normally liked to do my resupply so I had a little bit of extra food in case I got held up on something cool while hiking. On the other hand, there were plenty of hikers who bought just enough food to make it to the next resupply so they were forced to get their miles in.

The Appalachian Trail normally crosses over multiple roads a day. The chances of you starving to death are extremely slim. If you’re new to hiking, then you should bring extra food. Once you know what your capabilities are, you should just resupply how you see fit.

Verdict: Non-essential

 5. Rain gear and extra clothing

It rains a lot in the Appalachian Mountains. It is advisable to bring a pack cover and a few water-proof stuff sacks to keep your gear dry. While hiking in the rain, it’s also important to have dry clothes to change into for when you get to camp. There’s no quicker way to get hypothermia than by having a wet sleeping bag and no dry clothes to wear. Also note that “extra clothes” does not mean an entire wardrobe. You only need two or three changes of clothes.

Verdict: Essential

 6. Safety items: fire, light, and a whistle

Since the 10 essentials list includes fire, I’m going to go ahead and assume they actually mean a lighter. Having a lighter enables you to build a fire which is usually just to cook on or to gather friends around, but you can also dry out wet clothes and stay warm if you get hypothermia. As far as signaling for help, I probably won’t start a forest fire just so someone will come find me, but I might make an attempt at using smoke signals.

As far as a light goes (or more likely, a headlamp), this is a pretty legit necessity. It will help you out if you end up hiking later than you meant to or even if you simply need to pee in the middle of the night and need to navigate around the campsite.

As we learned from Rose in Titanic, a whistle can save your life if your voice is too weak to shout. It’s extremely unlikely that you will need a whistle for anything on the Appalachian Trail, but lots of packs have one built into the snap on the chest strap (shout out to Osprey).

Verdict: (Mostly) Essential

7. First aid kit

You don’t actually need an everything-under-the-sun first aid kit, but it’s good to have a few basic items. Bring a few Benadryls, in case you have an allergic reaction to something; a handful of over-the-counter pain killers, for sore muscles and feet; Bandaids and ointment, to treat minor cuts and scrapes; hand sanitizer and soap (I like Dr. Bronners) to clean your hands and cuts; duct tape, for pretty much everything else; and whatever other things you think you need. Just don’t go overboard and bring a five pound first aid kit.

Verdict: Essential

8. Knife or multi-purpose tool

During my hike, I pretty much only used my pocket knife to cut bricks of cheese. Actually, my knife folded on my finger once while I was on the trail, and I had to hike eight miles to civilization and get the cut glued shut at the doctor’s office. So having a knife was more trouble than it was worth for me.

I suppose a knife would be useful if I got lost for days in the forest and needed to kill a small animal to eat or if I needed to cut my arm off like Aaron Ralston had to after getting stuck under a boulder in Canyonlands.

Verdict: Non-Essential

9. Sunscreen and sunglasses

The majority of the Appalachian Trail is shaded by trees. I did get sunburnt during my first week in Georgia before the leaves had grown in for spring. After that, however, the sun wasn’t much of an issue. You’re pretty much walking through the forest the majority of the time, and you will be sweating too much for sunglasses to stay on your face.

Verdict: Non-Essential

10. Daypack/ backpack

I can’t argue with this suggestion. If you’re doing anything longer than a day hike on the Appalachian Trail, a backpack is absolutely essential.

Verdict: Essential 

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Comments 6

  • Mike Gartman : May 7th

    Haha, the most essential item, water purification, is the one thing she says is non-essential…to each their own, I guess.

  • Eric J. Peck : Jul 29th

    PLEASE READ- IMPORTANT: Absolutely NO FLAME or fire on the AT other than that produced by a properly used propane stove. There are serious consequences for not following this widely known and extremely important rule. SAME RULE APPLIES to all other federal and most all state parks and trails unless clearly stated otherwise and/or direct permission has been granted from governing authorities. Great job on the page otherwise, but come on, you can’t miss something like that!

  • doc holiday : Feb 23rd

    Anyone who hikes Anywhere should have a compass and know how to use it. I have read of many people,especially women, who step off the trail to potty and then can’t find their way back to the trail—all they would have had to do was to look at their compass BEFORE leaving the trail and then they would know which way to Return to said trail.

  • Brian Stanton : Jun 17th

    The average male has 72 pounds of muscle. The average female has 46 pounds of muscle. Forget politics…this is science. Women should hike with a nice small pistol on their ankle. You can get to it in a hurry if some bastard jumps you from behind. Unless he has a knife, then you will be hiking in the next world by yourself. Never hike alone. It is hard for one guy to control two people. p.s. It is not illegal in most states to hike with a rifle over your shoulder. This has a chilling effect on assholes who want to follow close behind you. (BMS/USC Retired)

  • NunyahGirl : Oct 27th

    I think this writer is very u intelligent and then I found out it’s a woman. SMH


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