The “Ten Essentials’—the ten items that every hiker should carry—is a good basic emergency kit that has stood the test of time. But that doesn’t mean it has to weigh you down on the trail. Karen Berger, author of Hiking Light Handbook, provides the following tips to minimize the load you carry.
Hydration (extra water, and a way to purify water)
Weight water containers and carriers, especially larger ones, before you buy. Use a soda bottle container rather than a heavy-duty backpacker’s bottle for carrying your extra water. (Duct tape can hold it together if it cracks. For purifying water, iodine tablets are the lightest option.
Nutrition (extra food)
For extra food choose high-caloric items such as nuts and cheeses. Soup mixes and electrolyte replacement drinks can help replace lost electrolytes. High-calorie energy bars also make good emergency foods.
Insulation (extra clothing)
It’s a good idea to take one more layer than you think you’ll routinely need. It doesn’t have to be a full-fledged storm outfit—it can be as light as a three-ounce wind shirt. In colder climates, take along an extra polypro wicking layer, or a lightweight microfleece vest. Long distance hikers can make their town clothes do double duty for trail emergencies.
Navigation (map and compass)
Choose a lightweight plastic compass. A miniature-sized one is adequate on well-marked trails. Cut unneeded sections and margins off maps (but preserve areas showing side trails and roads in case of emergency; if you use GPS, you’ll need the grid information). Photocopy relevant pages instead of carrying a whole guidebook. Long-distance hikers can put maps and guidebooks for the next section of trail in their resupply boxes.
Fire (firestarter and matches/lighter)
A several-ounce tube of fire ribbon is overkill. Firestarter can be something you already carry, such as cotton swabs (dip them in Vaseline) or old guidebook pages. Birthday candles are also excellent: drip the wax onto some dry tinder and ignite. You don’t have to carry all your firestarter all the time. If bad weather is threatening, pick up bits and pieces of dry tinder as you hike. Look for dry needles and bark (especially pine needles and birch bark, if available.
Illumination (headlamp or flashlight)
Sleek lightweight flashlights are all the rage these days. But most exciting for lightweight hikers has been the development of tiny LED lights, which last for thousands of hours, are small enough to clip onto a key ring, provide enough light to read by, and weigh less than an ounce. Small headlamps with several LED bulbs are now available at tremendous weight and size savings.
Repair kit and tools (including knife)
You don’t need to carry a heavy repair kit. Among the popular multipurpose knives, several brands have come out with miniature versions that pack multiple tools and blades into tiny packages. Duct tape is now available in small amounts so you don’t have to take more than you think you’ll need. Or you can simply wrap some around a pen or hiking poles.
First, know what you’re doing. First-aid training is more important than first-aid equipment—and it weighs nothing. Second, minimize the contents of store-bought first-aid kits. This is something you’ll need to rethink with each trip you take, depending on wilderness conditions and group size. Evaluate what you frequently use. Minimize amounts of everything you take, either by buying tiny sample-sized portions, or by repackaging small portions into tiny containers.
Sun protection (sunglasses and sunscreen)
Within the realm of reasonable budgets, you can’t do much to minimize the weight of sunglasses. For sunscreen, choose waterproof versions that won’t sweat of wash off easily. In buggy conditions, you can double-dip and save weight by purchasing sunscreen with bug repellent. Don’t forget that clothing is also an effective sun (and bug) block.
An emergency space blanket or tube-tent weighs only a few ounces. A large, heavy-duty garbage bag can be used as emergency protection against rain and wind.
Adapted from Hiking Light Handbook by Karen Berger (The Mountaineers Books, $16.95 paperback).