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The Ten Essential Systems: Wilderness Survival Gear to Bring on Every Adventure

by Karen Ung

The Ten Essential Systems are critical pieces of wilderness survival gear that every outdoor enthusiast should carry on every trip. They’re basically everything you need to deal with a minor emergency, or survive in the wilderness for at least one night. When would such a need arise? When you get lost or injured, or are detoured/delayed due to inclement weather (snowstorm, thick fog) or a natural disaster (mud slide, avalanche, flash flood, wildfire). Here are the essentials that live in our packs and give us peace of mind.

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Always pack The Ten Essentials… just in case!

The Ten Essential Systems

Formerly known as the ten essentials, there are now ten essential systems to cover your basic needs. While I’ve tried to stay true to the original systems, please note that I have combined Insulation and Sun Protection in order to include signalling devices. You have a much better chance of being rescued if you can let others know where you are! I’ve also added bear spray to the list since bears are in all the mountain parks. For more details on the original Ten Essential Systems developed by The Mountaineers, a Seattle-based organization founded in 1906, please see Mountaineering, The Freedom of the Hills.

1. Navigation

For navigating, a topographic map & GPS/compass (plus extra batteries for the GPS) are essential, but only useful if you know how to use them. Practice frequently in familiar territory. Copies of route descriptions from guidebooks (photocopied and placed in a Ziploc bag) are good to have also.

2. Hydration

Water is critical for survival, so be sure to carry a water bottle/hydration pack filled with at least 2 L of water, as well as a water filter, purifier, or water purification tablets/drops to treat more water on the go.

3. First Aid, Medications, & Insect Repellent

Keep all first aid supplies in a waterproof bag with any medications you use (inhaler, epipen). I recommend adding the following items to your first aid kit if not included: Benadryl, Advil/Tylenol, pointy tweezers, Polysporin ointment or Polysporin To Go Spray (contains topical anesthetic to dull the pain; great for kids!).

  • Recommended first aid kits: We have Adventure Medical Kits in various sizes. 0.5 is good for day trips; get the 0.7 or 0.9 for family multi-day trips. All items are packed in high quality zipper sealed bags and the ultralight silnylon bag is waterproof and durable thanks to ripstop fabric.
  • Recommended insect repellentsCare Plus contains 20% picaridin which repels mosquitoes and ticks, and does not dissolve synthetic clothes like DEET. Ben’s is a concentrated 30% DEET formula which also protects against ticks and comes in a small pump bottle which is just the right size to keep in the top of your pack.
  • Recommended post: Which Tick Repellents to Use and How to Use Them.

4. Insulation & Sun Protection

Helly Hansen Verglas 3L Shell

Mountain adventures call for one insulated layer and one waterproof, breathable layer, insulated gloves, a hat, and mesh headnet to protect against biting insects. A toque (beanie) that covers your ears is great for cold weather or breezy summits, and in winter, I strongly recommend mittens and hand warmer and foot warmer packets. For sun protection, wear long, lightweight, breathable layers (pants, not shorts), a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen.

5. Emergency Shelter

Siltarp Gear Shed

Our #1 emergency shelter is made from a Siltarp (lightweight silicone impregnated tarp), paracord, and trekking poles, but other options include a convertible tarp poncho, bivy sack, space blanket, plastic tarp, and orange garbage bag (orange for visibility). While we’ve never had to camp under the tarp, it has come in handy as a sun/rain shelter and gear shed at camp!

6. Signalling Devices

A whistle, mirror, and headlamp are the basic signalling devices that everyone should carry. You can signal SOS (Save Our Souls) with 3 blasts on your whistle. To signal distress with your mirror/headlamp, make 3 short flashes, 3 long flashes, then 3 short flashes. Use your mirror during the day and headlamp at night. You can purchase a signaling mirror, or use the sighting mirror on your compass (my preference so I don’t have to carry multiple items).

If you can afford it, a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) such as the Garmin inReach is an excellent tool that allows you to send messages with your location to check in with family or request assistance. Other options are cell phones and satellite phones but cell phones are not of much use once you’re out of range.

7. Fire Making Kit

I strongly recommend carrying more than one fire ignitor and some fire starters in a watertight container so you can get a fire going in case of emergency (best practice is one on you and at least one in your pack). After our canoe capsized, we lost our stove, but still had our fire making kit, so we could warm up and dry off. A fire not only keeps you warm and provides a sense of well-being, it can also be used to signal for help (3 fires in a triangle is a universal distress signal)!

8. Illumination

An LED headlamp and spare batteries should be in your pack at all times. Check the batteries frequently and replace as needed. For backcountry camping, a lantern is nice to have in the tent.

9. Nutrition

Thrive Provisions Wagyu Beef Bars are delicious and packed with 13 grams of protein!

Always bring several extra nonperishable snacks in case you are delayed. While it’s possible to survive for weeks without food, it’s hard to stay positive when you’re hangry. Calorie dense foods like protein/energy bars, chocolate bars, and beef jerky keep well and provide a lot of energy for their size. *Pack enough calories for at least 1 day.*

10. Repair Kit & Tools

Always carry a knife, several metres of paracord (for rigging a shelter, making a gurney, tourniquet etc), duct tape, and zip ties. A multi-tool or Swiss army knife is handy, and an ice axe is a must for glacier/snow travel.

  • Tip: Make paracord into a paracord bracelet or tie it onto your knife handle for easy transport.

Bonus: Bear Spray

Bear spray in holster & large grizzly prints

Throughout most of Alberta, bear spray is a must, but there are many precautions you can take that will minimize the chance of ever needing to use the spray. For more information, please read 10 Bear Safety Tips for Hikers and Backpackers.

Storing Your Gear

I have a system for the systems with food in one stuff sack, extra clothes in a waterproof stuff sack, and survival gear in a large Ziploc bag for visibility. My camera gear goes in a waterproof backpack-shaped packing cube. Compartmentalizing makes it easy to transfer items if you frequently change packs (I use a 60L for family adventures and a 33-40L pack for kid-free trips) and ensures nothing important gets left behind.

  • Recommended stuff sacks: Outdoor Research Ultralight Stuff Sacks
  • Recommended stacking “cubes”: Hillsound PackStack™ and PackStack™ PRO packing “cubes” are half-moon shaped so they fit in your 40-60L backpack perfectly. Choose from Tall (17 cm high) or Short (10 cm high). The PRO version is waterproof, so I use it to hold photography gear.

After each trip, be sure to replenish consumables (extra food, bandaids, etc) as needed and check/recharge the batteries on headlamps, water purifiers, GPS, personal locator beacons, etc., so everything is in working order when you need it.


Think of The Ten Essential Systems as insurance. You will hopefully never have to use all of them, but if you do, you’ll be glad you packed them!

Have you ever had to make an unplanned bivouac? What do you wish you knew then that you know now?

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Mr. Townley October 28, 2016 - 3:44 AM

Hello, I will continue reading your recommendations, but your advice about the Deet bug spray dissolving hiking clothing is a big surprise to me. I will begin looking for the alternative you recommended.
I am of the opinion that while even a little extra weight can make a long hike difficult the benefits of having the necessities outweighs the downside; particularly during one hike where I received a country hornet sting (nothing like those wimpy city ones…unfortunately) and a woman collapsed of dehydration. I had extra items to assist the fallen hiker until medical assistance arrived. Now I am hypervigilant about being prepared. What I say to hiking friends that you may never use your medical kit or extra fluid etc., but perhaps someone else will need it. I think it is a positive perspective to take as it is in line with the code of hiking/ers.



Playoutsidegal October 28, 2016 - 4:22 PM

Hi Scott, Thanks for reading! I totally agree the extra items are worth carrying. I'm fortunate to have never been in a survival situation, but have been delayed due to weather or others' minor emergencies.

Re the bug spray, DEET is very effective but can actually dissolve synthetic fabrics. My friend's bug spray (containing 30% Deet) leaked in his pack and made a hole in it! My hubby has a Chem degree and explained it to me… basically oils dissolve oils. We still use Deet when bugs are really bad, but take care not to spray it on our favorite clothes. The picaridin spray worked well for us this year but it wasn't a very bad mosquito year. I'll use it the next time we're somewhere bug infested and let everyone know. 🙂

Happy trails!

Playoutsidegal October 12, 2016 - 4:30 AM

Thanks Nicky! It's a balancing act, isn't it? You want to make sure you have all the essentials but not be overloaded, especially when carrying gear for more than yourself. I find clothing to take up the most space up here, but we can't go with too little as it's so cold at night (even in summer)!

Nicky Omohundro October 12, 2016 - 2:36 AM

These are all great gear essentials. We are working on lightening our load as we transition from car camping to backpacking with the kids

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