Steve McClure on Backcountry Safety and Updating the 10 Essentials
Have you ever set out on a beautiful sunny day that turned into a wet misery halfway through? Did a snowstorm suddenly change course and dump right on your course? Maybe you missed a turn, and when backtracking, you got hopelessly lost? That’s where the Ten Essentials can become a vital part of your hiking plan, items that you’ve brought along with you to prepare you for the unexpected.
The Ten Essentials were created by The Mountaineers, an alpine club in Seattle, Washington. Founded in 1906, they’re a non-profit focusing on outdoor recreation, education, and conservation. The idea of the essentials was to create a kind of insurance policy by identifying the minimum amount of gear one might need to stay safe.
And why is this so important? As Steve McClure, a Mountaineers board member, told me, “If you talk to anybody that’s been out in the backcountry quite a bit, stuff happens, and eventually it’s going to happen to you or someone you’re with.”
Paradoxically, packing everything you might need to stay safe, dry, and comfortable can also lead to danger, chill, and misery. The challenge is to load your pack just right so you can move fast enough while still carrying the essential gear for success and survival. “It’s so easy to assemble a kit of the Ten Essentials that you can keep packed and ready to go for any of your trips. It really needs to become a habit for everybody,” McClure said.
Keeping it Simple
That being said, the specific items we should take change with each hike, and we can tailor them to the nature of the trail. There are really only two questions that the Ten Essentials seek to answer, and those answers provide a framework for what to pack:
- Can you prevent emergencies and respond positively should one occur?
- Can you safely spend a night (or more) outside?
McClure has strong opinions on this since he helped update the ninth edition of Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills, considered the “bible” for climbers and mountaineers of all levels. It was in the third edition of this book back in 1974 that the list was first compiled, and it was up to McClure to edit this section in a way that would make it more useful – and, maybe more importantly, memorable.
While McClure was editing the book, he did a pop quiz at a climbing committee meeting, and not one person could name all of the essentials – except one guy who named 12!
“With the evolution, I tried to do two things,” he told me. “One was to simplify the language. For example, instead of talking about ‘knife and repair kit,’ I just abbreviated that to ‘knife.’ Similarly, the word ‘fire’ now stands for a whole bunch of things.”
He also says he tried to put the essentials in an order that made some sense. “The first five basically answer the question: ‘can you prevent an emergency or respond effectively if one happens?’ And the second five make sure you can make it through an unplanned night in the outdoors. The first seven are quite small, and you can typically leave them packed in your pack.”
McClure even created a handy limerick to remember each essential.
To navigate, head for the sun
With first aid and knife on the run
Bring fire and shelter
Extra food is a helper
But water and clothes weigh a ton
So let’s break down each Essential.
A Common Sense Guide to the Ten Essentials
The Mountaineers recommend five different forms of navigation: paper maps, altimeter, compass, GPS device (with digital maps), Personal Locator Beacon or satellite communicator/satellite phone, and of course, extra batteries or battery pack.
McClure swears by the Garmin inReach Mini because “it allows for two-way communication, peace of mind for my family if they’re not with me, and peace of mind for me in case things go awry.” But he emphasizes that in the Mountaineers Ethic of Self Reliance, all of us who venture into the backcountry should understand the limits of communication tools and their usefulness – batteries deplete, electronics fail, cell phone service is limited, and no device can substitute for training, skill, and self-reliance.
That being said, at a minimum, all hikers should carry a map and compass – and know how to use them.
Being “benighted” can be one of the scariest moments on a hike, where we simply don’t have enough light to find our way. McClure suggests using a rechargeable battery and carrying spares. “When I’m going ultralight, Petzl makes something called the e+LITE emergency headlamp. When the days are long in the middle of the summer, it’s just enough.”
3. Sun Protection
Sun protection includes sunglasses, sun-protective clothes, and broad-spectrum sunscreen rated at least SPF 30. McClure recommends mineral-based sunscreens with titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. This is because the benzine in non-mineral sunscreens breaks down when they absorb UV light. “But I hate looking like I’m a clown and I’m about to go to the parade,” he says. “Just in the last year or so I’ve started using tinted mineral-based sunscreen that gives you a little bit of a tan.”
4. First Aid
McClure not only encourages carrying a first aid kit – that might include bandages, skin closures, gauze pads and dressings, roller bandage or wrap, tape, antiseptic, blister prevention and treatment supplies, nitrile gloves, tweezers, a needle, nonprescription painkillers and anti-inflammatory, antidiarrheal, and antihistamine tablets, a topical antibiotic, and any important personal prescriptions, including an EpiPen – but also knowing how to use it!
Just having a kit can give us a false sense of security, so it might be worth signing up for a wilderness first aid course. Most important in McClure’s kit includes Spenco Adhesive Knit and Leukotape for the most common injuries of all – cuts, abrasions, and blisters.
5. Knife (and Repair Kit)
Knives, especially multi-tools, can be used for first aid, repair, and food preparation. A repair kit can be small but include strong tape, cordage, safety pins as well as Aquaseal UV repair adhesive.
A fire may be the only way to stay warm in an emergency. A hiker can carry a small stove, lighter, or water-proof matches plus firestarters like chemical heat tabs or cotton balls smothered in petroleum jelly. McClure also suggests giving refillable lighters a try. They sell a little device that you screw onto an isobutene canister to refill refillable-lighters, because we all have canisters that are 10% full that we don’t want to throw away!”
While most backpackers will have a tent with them, an emergency shelter and a rain shell will protect you from rain and wind if you have to spend the night in the elements without a tent or if yours has been damaged. A shelter can be as simple as a jumbo plastic trash bag. “Single-use bivy sacks made of heat-reflective polyethylene by SOL are an excellent option at less than four ounces.”
8. Extra Food
McClure encourages carrying U.S. Army Meals Ready-to-Eat (MREs) or your less favorite flavors of energy bars and small packets of instant coffee. They work great as extra food since you will likely not be tempted to eat them unless in an emergency. “Your extra doesn’t have to be nutritious. And it might even be something that doesn’t taste all that good so that it stays in your pack there as extra food.”
9. Extra Water
Hikers should always carry a water container, though McClure is not especially keen on hydration bladders, which can be prone to leaking and freezing and are notoriously hard to keep clean. They also often lead hikers to carry more water than they need. The easiest – and lightest – way to purify water in the backcountry is with chlorine dioxide tablets that kill all manner of viruses, bacteria, and protozoa.
10. Extra Clothes
McClure suggests we ask ourselves this question, “What extra clothes are needed to survive the night in my emergency shelter in the worst conditions that could realistically be encountered on this trip?” He suggests always carrying a waterproof, breathable shell, then maybe add hat, socks, mittens, and insulation for the torso.
Depending on conditions, there are a couple of other items to consider adding, like microspikes and/or a lightweight ice axe, where only personal self-arrest is involved rather than roped mountaineering, McClure recommends the sub-six-ounce Tica Ice Tool. “It’s the axe you never mind bringing which is always better than the one sitting in your garage.”
In the end, the Ten Essentials are a kind of insurance. “Maybe you won’t use these items, but these are the absolute minimum to manage an emergency or having to stay out overnight.”
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