The Ten Essentials – what’s needed if things go south

Recently, a friend of mine sent me this link to an article from Scouting Magazine regarding the Ten Essentials. Way back in 1974, the third edition of Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills was published. It is believed that this marked the first time the so-called Ten Essentials list appeared in print. Numerous organizations, Scout groups, and instructors have tweaked this list of outdoor gear over the years.

Several years ago, survival instructor Dave Canterbury from The Pathfinder School codified his version of the Ten Essentials, calling it the 10 Cs.

Cutting tool: a sturdy knife.
Combustion device: a fire kit, with a fire starter and tinder.
Cover: your shelter items, from clothing to a Mylar blanket.
Container: what you’ll be using to carry water.
Cordage: Dave recommends Tarred Mariners #36 line.
Cotton bandanna: at least three feet square, so it can be used as a sling.
Cargo tape: good quality duct tape is essential.
Compass: useful for finding your way back home.
Cloth sail needle: for repairing your gear.
Candling device: such as a flashlight or headlamp.

What it boils down to is answering a basic question – what will you need in order to survive an unexpected night or two outdoors? It is important to understand that with most of these lists, they’re talking about categories of gear, not individual items, in most cases.

The article from Scouting Magazine is an effort to modernize Ten Essentials, at least for scout groups. Their list consists of:

• Navigation
• Knife
• Fire
• Headlamp
• Water storage
• Sun protection
• First aid kit
• Rain gear
• Trail food
• Extra clothes
• Bonus item – duct tape

My friend sent me the article as he wanted my take on it. While I might quibble with some of their specific product recommendations in the various categories, I think it is a fairly solid list. I think the only really glaring omission is to have something more for shelter beyond extra clothes and rain gear.

I wrote an article about the Ten Essentials some time back for Backwoods Survival Guide magazine. Here was the list from that piece.

• Shelter
• Fire starter
• Lighting
• Knife
• Cordage
• Water
• Navigation
• First aid
• Repair gear
• Bandanna

As you can see, it doesn’t differ a whole lot from any other Ten Essentials list. There are a couple of things, though, that I’d like to dive into just a bit further.

Shelter: This is a broad category and encompasses everything that will protect you from the elements. It starts with wearing the proper clothing and outerwear for the conditions you expect to encounter. From there, an emergency blanket would be considered the bare minimum for an additional shelter item. Depending on conditions, tossing a rain poncho or even a compressible parka into your backpack might be advisable. Hypothermia is a dangerous condition and can happen even in relatively mild conditions, so it is best to be prepared. At the other end of the spectrum, one could lump sun protection, such as sunscreen and a hat, into this category.

Fire starter: Having the ability to make fire could mean the difference between waking up in the morning and not waking up at all. In addition to keeping us warm, fire boils water to make it safe to drink and cooks our food. It also gives us a psychological edge, as it gives us a sense of control over the situation. We might not be able to find our way home right at that moment, but we can least make fire and tend to it. In this category falls both fire starters, such as disposable lighters and ferrocerium rods, and ready-to-light tinder, like dryer lint or store-bought products.

Lighting: If we’re out after dark, it is safer all around if we have some way to illuminate our way. This lessens the chances of us getting hurt by walking into a branch or stumbling over a tree root. There are three basic approaches to consider. Flashlights are usually the brightest option and have the ability to cycle through different levels of illumination. A headlamp can be useful as it keeps your hands free while you’re working or walking. A chemlight, such as the Cyalume Snaplight, uses no electricity, so you don’t need to worry about batteries. But, once it is activated, that’s it, you can’t turn it off or reuse it. Any of the choices can be used to signal for help, too.

Navigation: A good map and compass can mean you don’t have to spend the night in the woods unless it is by choice. Of course, the tools aren’t of much value if you don’t know how to use them properly. A compass without a map can tell you direction, but unless you know which direction you want to go, that’s just a piece of fun trivia. On the other hand, a map is merely an interesting piece of artwork until you know which direction you’re facing. With the compass, find a good one that has a mirror, which can be used to examine cuts or bug bites you might not be able to bend enough to see yourself. One of the best books on the market for learning how to navigate better is Essential Wilderness Navigation by Craig Caudill and Tracy Trimble.

Repair gear: You won’t have access to a workshop when you’re in the field, but that doesn’t mean you should lack the ability to handle simple fixes. Duct tape is incredibly useful, of course. It can patch holes, attach items to your pack, and even serve as tinder, should the need arise. Spring for the name brand tape, too, as it is far stickier than the cheaper counterparts. A needle and thread might prove handy, too, for repairing tears in clothing. Pro tip: the ripSPOOL from Exotac combines all of that into one very handy package. Depending on how light you want to pack, a good quality multi-tool might be a wide addition to the load out. Not only will it give you a backup blade, but the various tools contained can be used to repair a wide range of gear.

Bandanna: This one of the most useful items you could have with you, as well as the lightest and easiest to carry. A shemagh, which is an oversized bandanna (roughly 42 inches square), gives you even more options than the standard pocket handkerchief. Either one can be used to filter sediment and debris from water, as a sweat mop, or a scarf in cold weather, among many other things.

The Ten Essentials is just a quick list of equipment you should have with you any time you hit the trail. What you choose in each of those categories is up to you.

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