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.
Disclosure: This post contains Amazon Affiliate links through which I may earn a commission at no extra cost to you. Thank you for supporting our web hosting fees!
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.
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.
- Recommended topo maps: Gem Trek waterproof maps. If your map isn’t waterproof, keep it in a Ziploc bag.
- Recommended compass: Suunto A-10 or Suunto MCB NH Compass. Call me an old school geographer, but I prefer a compass to a GPS as it doesn’t rely on batteries (and is a lot smaller and lighter!). The sighting mirror on the Suunto MCB NH can be used for signalling too!
- Recommended hiking books: Kananaskis Country Trail Guide, Take a Hike With Your Children, Scrambles in the Canadian Rockies, Wilderness Navigation: Finding Your Way Using Map, Compass, Altimeter and GPS, Rich Johnson’s Guide to Wilderness Survival
- Recommended blog post: How to Avoid Getting Lost
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.
- Recommended water filters/purifiers: Katadyn Hiker Microfilter, Potable Aqua PURE Hydrolytic Water Purifier (makes chlorine out of water and salt), Steripen UV Water Purifier, LifeStraw Personal Water Filter (for emergency use – light enough to put one in each of your kids’ packs). To learn more about the Potable Aqua PURE device and how it compares to filtration and UV purification, please see our Potable Aqua PURE Electrolytic Water Purifier Review.
- Recommended water bottles: Camelbak hydration pack, HydroFlask Trail water bottle (lighter than the original bottles), Nalgene.
- Special Note Re Cold Weather: When it’s around/below freezing, I bring a hot drink in a Hydroflask Coffee Bottle or pack my ultralight backpacking stove, so we can melt snow for hot drinks. Don’t forget a pot, cups, and cocoa!
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 outer silnylon bag is waterproof, made of ripstop fabric, and ultralight.
- Recommended insect repellents: Care 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
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.
- Recommended insulating layers: MEC Aura Hoodie (100g synthetic fill), Helly Hansen Lifaloft Hooded Insulator Jacket (80 g synthetic fill), The North Face Thermoball Eco Jacket (hoodless, 120 g synthetic fill) or Patagonia Down Sweater (Hoody or Hoodless available). Down is warmer and more compressible than synthetic fill, but synthetic fill is more affordable.
- Recommended outer layers: Helly Hansen Verglas 3L Shell Jacket, Outdoor Research Carbide Jacket – basically, you should get something durable, waterproof (20,000 mm), and breathable with a fitted hood and pit zips for ventilation.
- Recommended sunscreen: Thinkbaby SPF 50+ Sunscreen has a pleasant (very light citrus, hardly noticeable) scent compared to other natural sunscreens we have tried AND it doesn’t leave as thick a white film as other zinc based formulas (it will still leave a whiteish cast to your skin though).
- For more information, please see Keeping Warm in Spring/Fall, Keeping Kids Warm in Winter, and Stay warm and dry on the trails with Helly Hansen.
5. Emergency Shelter
Our #1 emergency shelter is made from a Siltarp (lightweight silicone impregnated tarp), paracord, and hiking 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).
- Recommended whistles: A high quality, pealess marine whistle like the Storm All Weather Safety Whistle, Ultimate Survival Technologies Jetscream Whistle, or Fox 40 Classic Whistle.
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)!
- Recommended fire ignitors: UCO Stormproof Matches, butane lighter
- Recommended fire starters: ZIP Firestarters (they burn up to 15 minutes and even get wet wood burning!)
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.
- Recommended headlamp: Fenix HM65R-T Trail Running Headlamp
- Packable solar-powered lantern: The MPOWERD Luci Lux: Solar Inflatable Lantern comes on every backcountry camping trip with us. It is inflatable so it’s super compact when deflated, and doesn’t need batteries because it’s solar powered!
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.*
- Recommended non-perishable snacks: Thrive Provisions Waygu Beef Bars (Tasty, keto-friendly, gluten-free bars made with Alberta beef. Get 25% off at Thrive Provisions with our exclusive coupon code: playoutsidegalVIP), Rx Bars (nuts, egg whites, cocoa, and sea salt), Lara Bars (date and nut bars), Cliff Bars, trail mix, beef jerky (Longview Jerky Shop has the best IMO), dried fruit, and chocolate.
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
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?