When the Ten Essentials Are No Longer Essential

Do not be surprised that the return of the light lifts your spirits. Do not be surprised that warmth on your back calms you and makes you glad. Feel your spirits lift as the sun rises higher in the sky: this is part of you, this snaky gladness, part of who you have been for a million years. Find the warm places; do not expect them to come to you. When you find them, stay there and be still. Be still and watchful.

Kathleen Dean Moore in Wild Comfort

A recent article in Backpacker magazine resulted in a torrent of scathing messages left on social media sites and threats to cancel subscriptions. Whenever dogma of any kind is challenged, the results are the same. We shake our fists and shout,”But we’ve always done it this way!”

The subject in question is the cherished Ten Essentials, a concept hikers have held sacred since the seventies. I first heard about them in a college class I took on mountaineering, where the text was the hikers’ Bible, the Mountaineers’ Freedom of the Hills. Several years later I joined the organization and went on a few group hikes, where leaders always inspected our gear to assure that every item on the list was in our pack. That was just one of the reasons that my membership in the organization was brief. I did not like the Gestapo mentality and the scathing critiques of hiker mishaps that were always reviewed in the monthly newsletter. I had learned my camping skills from my family as a child. I carried what I needed to stay safe on the trail, and I reasoned that good sense would save the day.

Here is a list of those items we cannot be without in case you have forgotten: a method of making fire, first aid supplies, water, a flashlight or headlamp, extra warm clothing, a map and compass, food, shelter, sun protection, and a knife or multitool. The list has been modified over the years, but the principles remain the same: Stay warm, hydrated, and well fed on the trail, and it does not hurt to have a means of treating wounds and injuries.

Any first year graduate student in social sciences will easily find the flaws in the study, and the author, Dr. Nicholas Daniel, readily admits that his method of self-reporting may have skewed the results. The hikers he interviewed carried an average of five of the Ten Essentials, and though seventy-six per cent admitted experiencing adverse events at some point, this did not seem to significantly influence their enjoyment of the hike, and eighty-nine per cent reported that they felt adequately prepared for the risks they encountered along the trail.

As you might predict, this old hiker has a few words to write on the subject of hiker preparedness, and I must first admit that for most of my hiking life I did not carry a shelter on day hikes. That was the only one of the Sacred Ten that I did without, reasoning that with warm clothing and rain gear I could endure a night on the trail if necessary. The development of ultra-lite equipment has made it easier, and I now carry an emergency bivouac sack called SOL (Survive Outdoors Longer).

With over sixty years of hiking behind me, I have endured every one of the “adverse events” that are described in the Backpacker article and that the Ten Essentials are supposed to help us to manage safely. Many of these experiences are covered in other posts.

The one that I think about today as I look outside at the snow occurred many years ago while hiking in the Pasayten Wilderness in Washington’s North Cascades. I had sought out an isolated trail on the southern side of Sand Ridge, the kind of trail I go to repeatedly, no longer maintained by the Forest Service, rarely used by other hikers. It had started to rain by mid-afternoon, and I had a few hours before I would make it to my planned campsite. It was not long before the rain turned into a downpour and then into hail, and I began to look for other places to camp, but I was on a steep slope that paralleled the summit of the ridge and found nothing suitable until I reached a flat meadow later in the evening. The heavy rain had continued unabated, alternating with torrents of hail. As every backpacker knows, setting up one’s tent in a downpour is never a good idea, as it is difficult to keep the interior of the tent dry under such circumstances. I have at times waited for the rain to stop before doing so, but the rain showed no sign of letting up, and by this time I was starting to shiver.

Hastily I laid my tent out on the ground, no shelter from trees at this elevation. I had a very small one person tent that was not very effective at keeping me dry, but at least it went up quickly. Once the tent was standing I saw exactly what I expected: water on the floor and dripping from the ceiling. I used an extra pair of socks to wipe down the interior, then placed my sleeping pad on the floor, followed by my down sleeping bag. Elevated on the sleeping pad in this manner, I had some insulation from the wet floor as long as I did not roll off the pad, and in that tiny tent there was not much room for movement. I crawled into the comfort of down. That is when the shivering took over, strange and uncontrollable, as if I had to let go of any pretense of staying warm and just give in to the cold. Though my subjective experience by that time was of warmth, the shivering continued for well into the night until I drifted off to sleep.

In the morning I awakened to a few low clouds. As the sun rose above the ridge top, those clouds lifted, and the sun made its presence felt. I laid my wet gear out on rocks, and in only about an hour it was completely dry.

I have often thought of that experience when discussions of hiking essentials come up, for as hikers pursue the goal of being leaner and faster, the cost is often doing without things we once thought were necessary, even on an overnight trip. I ask myself what would have happened if I did not have the safety of a tent, however small, however damp it may have been when I crawled inside. Would I have succumbed to hypothermia? The most likely scenario is that I would have returned to the trailhead as quickly as possible and retreated to the dry interior of my vehicle, cold but not defeated. But maybe not.

That is the danger in complacency. By definition emergencies occur infrequently, and like insurance, the Ten Essentials represent something we hope we will never need.

Perhaps another danger is that we will forget that we are in the wilderness, a wild place where every step we take represents adventure, and adventure always entails risk. Unless your favorite hiking destination is a state park with paved trails and crowds nearby, some possibility of “adverse events” is inevitable and without at least some of those Ten Essentials the odds of a harmful outcome are simply much greater.

The author points out that another danger is that by carrying the Sacred Ten we develop a false sense of complacency, the feeling that we are invulnerable because we are protected from the dangers that lurk in the shadows of wild places.

As a solo hiker I have had to ask myself this one important question, “What is the worst thing that could happen out here?” And the answer to that question, regardless of how well prepared I might be, is always the same: I could die. If I were not willing to accept that risk, I would sit at home and admire the view from my living room window. Many would argue that the risk is part of the thrill.

I have never wanted to tiptoe through life, and especially as I age, this imperative becomes more important to me. At the same time, I am exquisitely conscious of my fragile mortality every time I feel the twinge of pain from my arthritic fingers. Aching hands will not kill me. Carelessness might. I have a lot of hiking left to do.

Published by Colleen Drake

Colleen Drake (AKA Teacup) has over sixty years of hiking exerience (yes, I'm really old) and has seen some pretty big changes over those many years. Join her on the Solitude Trail & share some of these adventures while exploring with her the value of solitude in the wilderness.

One thought on “When the Ten Essentials Are No Longer Essential

  1. Hi. I often needed an essential for someone else I was hiking with. The ace bandage is the thing I have carried that is critical but often left behind by others. Jan Sent from my iPhone

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