The 10 Essentials for Safe Wilderness Exploration

Beautiful as it might be, nature is known for its unpredictability and danger. Flash floods can come out of nowhere and sweep you away. Blizzards can keep you trapped in one place for days. Holes and cliff edges can hide under the cover of darkness. The possibilities are endless, and the unprepared survivalist (or hiker, camper, climber, etc.) could find themselves in a painful, if not deadly, situation if they aren’t careful.

The point is, we want you to be safe. Even if you’re only planning on going for a day hike, or staying relatively close to civilization, it’s good to remember that anything can happen. And more than likely, it’ll happen when you least expect it. 

Below, we’ve laid out the classic 10 essentials list, developed in the 1930’s to help people prepare for emergency situations outdoors. We’ve also included some of our own thoughts and tips after backpacking all over the world.  

The 10 Essentials

1. Navigation

compass sitting upright against a wall

To start off this list of 10 essentials, we’re going to talk about something that most people might consider non-essential: navigation. In an age where you can see where you are at any time just by looking at your phone, who needs to know how to use things like maps and compasses? We live in a world of satellites and GPS navigation, right? 

We’ll talk about why this thinking can get you into a lot of trouble later. And frankly, if you’re here on a site centered around survivalism, chances are you won’t have access to any of the fancy navigation equipment you rely on daily anyway. So first we’re going to lay out some navigational skills for those of you entering the equation with nothing to your name. Then we’ll share some of the individual items that are necessary to make sure you know where you’re going, and potentially help others find you if needed. 

Navigating in the Daylight

If you’ve reached the place where you’re going to set up shelter, and haven’t thought about navigation at all, you’re already too late. That is to say, if you’re starting at Point A and need to travel west to get to Point B, you won’t know that you need to travel east to return to your starting point unless you knew you were going west in the first place. Be aware of the cardinal direction you’re heading when you first set out, and it’ll make navigation much easier.

On cloudless days where the sun is easily visible and you’re not under a tree canopy, check the position of your shadow to determine what direction you need to go. In the northern hemisphere, the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, which means your shadow will point in the opposite direction (when the sun is in the east, your shadow will point west). If it’s too cloudy to see your shadow, follow that old boy scout rule and check for moss. Since it likes to grow in shade, moss tends to grow on the north side of object when you’re above the equator, and on the south side when you’re below the equator.

Navigating at Night

While never ideal, knowing how to find your way at night is a necessary skill for everyone to have. It can be a bit more tricky, and requires some knowledge of astronomy, but is generally a foolproof method.

You’ve probably heard of the north star, Polaris. While it doesn’t indicate where north is perfectly, it’s close enough for you to get headed in the right direction. To find it, you’ll first have to locate the Big Dipper and pick out the two stars that make up the outer edge of its cup. Make an imaginary line connecting the floor of the cup to the rim, and continue it out into space until you find the north star. Polaris does make up part of the handle of the Little Dipper too, and is the brightest star in the constellation.

If you aren’t fortunate enough to have a night free of clouds, or can’t seem to find the north star, you’ll have to use the landmarks around you. Take some time to plan ahead and figure out if there are any rivers or trails you can use to reorient yourself if you get lost. For example, if you know there’s a river that flows from north to south nearby, all you have to do is find the river and you’ll have a good sense of what direction you need to take from there.


young child holding a map

Getting into tools you might want to bring, a good topographical map is great to have in your pocket. Since Google Maps doesn’t do the greatest job at showing elevation changes, you might find yourself entering some difficult terrain if your phone is the only map you’re looking at.


You probably have one on your phone already, but it doesn’t hurt to have a backup. They’re light and don’t require batteries or any other power source, so it’s a good tool to have as a Plan B. 

GPS Device

It’s hard to know which way to go if you don’t even know where you are. Again, your phone should be fine, but keep track of your battery life. If you don’t have one already, I would recommend getting a durable phone case as well.

Personal Locator Beacon

This handy little gadget will notify emergency response teams if you need help. Good to have for any circumstance, it’s especially useful for giving you peace of mind when you’re in the middle of nowhere. They still work even if you don’t have cell signal, so you don’t have to worry about going too deep into the wilderness. 


Useful if you have a topographical map, an altimeter will tell you what your elevation is so you can pinpoint your location on the map.

So now you’re probably wondering why you can’t just use your phone, since many of these items are on there anyway. And I’ll tell you that you can use your phone, just with a few minor adjustments. First, download a map of your location so you can look at it offline. Chances are you’ll be coming in and out of cell signal, or might be completely off the grid altogether. There are few feelings worse than trying to find out where you are but not being able to load a map.

Second, phones will run out of battery eventually, and nature is notorious for its lack of electrical outlets. Maps and compasses won’t ever die on you, so you won’t have to be worried when your battery drops to 1 percent. If you still don’t feel like going old school, bring a portable power bank as a backup, and keep your phone use to a minimum to conserve power.  

2. Headlamp

headlamp pointing toward the night sky

Ideally, you’ll have prepared well enough where you won’t be hiking or setting up camp in the dark. However, sometimes this isn’t always possible. Perhaps you have to get an early start before the sun rises, or it took you longer to get to your campsite than expected. Whatever the reason, you’ll be glad to have a headlamp. When I was in the Himalayas, we came into our campsite about two hours after the sun set. Not only did the light keep me from stumbling on loose rock, it also let me see what I was doing while pitching the tent. The hands-free design makes it a better option than a flashlight or lantern. 

3. Sun Protection

man with hat and sunglasses

I love the mountains. I’ve been to several of the major ranges all over the world. And one thing I can tell you from my experience is that it’s really easy to get burned! In fact, with every 1,000 meters of elevation gain (3,280 feet), the level of UV radiation increases by about 12 percent. Think you’re safe in the late fall or early spring? Think again. The sun is still powerful enough to make your skin peel, and that’s why sun protection is a crucial component to the 10 essentials.

Even if you don’t plan on going to a high elevation, don’t get complacent with skin care. Put sunscreen on, and wear sunglasses and clothing that protects against the sun.

4. First Aid

first aid kit

Blisters are a given if you plan on trekking any significant distance. Other scratches or cuts are bound to happen eventually too, especially if you brush past trees or slip on a rock. If you think you know what you’ll need on your journey, pack your own first aid kit so you can customize it to your needs. I always like to carry some extra alcohol wipes, lip balm, and insect repellent in my first aid kit, along with everything else that usually comes in one. If you’ve never done this before, or are unsure on what you should bring, it’s easy to find pre-packed first aid kits to bring with you.

5. Knife

knife sticking out of a tree

A knife will likely become the most versatile tool in your arsenal, which is why you should always carry one. Even if all you have is a single foldout blade, you can use it to make kindling, prepare food, do first aid, cut cord, or make a spark if you have a fire steel. It is arguably one of the more important tools a survivalist can carry.

If you’re a more inexperienced camper, consider getting a swiss army knife or other multitool. Having a screwdriver, scissor, and can opener attachment may come in handy depending on what your needs are. 

Beyond the standard blade, though, we also recommend bringing a couple other handyman items along the way. If you find yourself deep in the wilderness, you’ll especially want duct tape and cordage. If any of your gear rips or breaks, you’ll be able to manage a quick fix with these items. 

6. Fire

log in a fire pit burning

An essential addition for warmth and cooking, you’ll want to bring everything you need to start a fire when you head out. Disposable butane lighters are cheap and light, which makes them a popular choice for starting a fire. If you prefer matches, make sure they’re waterproof or in a waterproof container. Getting a store bought matchbox probably won’t cut it, considering how flimsy they are. 

It’s also worth it to prepare something to set on fire as well. Grab some leaves, pine needles, or kindling to start on fire, and pack them away in a dry space. Lint buildup from your dryer also makes for a great firestarter. If you’ve never built a fire before or could use a refresher, check out my guide that will walk you through everything you need to know to build the best campfire.

If you’re going out in winter or plan to camp above the treeline, your options for fuel are going to be limited to non-existent. Consider bringing a stove for a heat and water source if you think you’ll need it.

7. Emergency Shelter


Always have some sort of emergency shelter on you in case you get stranded or injured and need protection from the elements. You can use your tent as a shelter, but that’s only if you always have it with you. If you plan on leaving camp or don’t have a tent, bring a bivy sack or ultralight tarp to use if needed. 

A friend of mine once went out elk hunting in the Rocky Mountains during winter. As he was tracking an elk that he shot, a sudden blizzard came out of nowhere, trapping him where he was. Fortunately he had a tarp to set up to offer some shelter, but if he didn’t have one on him, frostbite might have been the least of his worries.

8. Extra Food

person holding a sandwich over the water

It’s good to have at least a day’s worth of food on you at all times, just in case you’re out longer than expected or there’s an injury. Items that don’t need to be heated and aren’t perishable, like trail mix and granola bars, are the best options to bring with you.

9. Extra Water

water bottle next to river

In addition to having extra food, the fact that this takes a spot in the 10 essentials should be a no brainer. Running out of water is dangerous, so keep a full bladder or some other container with you at all times. However, if you plan on being out for a long time, it’s not reasonable to carry all the water you’ll want for the entire journey. Have a filter or purification tablets that you can use to clean water you pick up from a nearby river or other water source. In moderate conditions, the average person should drink half a liter of water every hour, so I recommend using that as a guideline.

10. Extra Clothes

four men wearing hoodie sweatshirts

Weather can be fickle. You might see sun in the morning, but the afternoon could be a whole different story. That’s why it’s important to bring a few extra layers of clothes with you, so you can dress for whatever comes your way. If you want an in depth look at the art of layering, check out this guide before going on your trip.

Notable Mentions

That may be the end of the tradition 10 essentials list, but there are a couple other things we think you should consider. I’ve been caught in numerous rain showers while hiking and climbing, and I can tell you that having a small towel to wipe yourself off with is a luxury. If you’re trying to bring the least amount of gear with you, I totally understand if you want to cross this one off your list.

Having extra batteries, or a way to recharge your necessary electronics is a great thing to consider investing in. I always make sure I include a portable power bank in my checklist anytime I know I’ll be out for more than a couple of days. Again, if you’re trying to avoid all electronics, feel free to skip past this one as well.

The other item I would recommend keeping on you is a whistle. If you do get trapped somewhere, or are unable to move and need help, a shrill whistle might save your life.

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Picture of Jason Strohl

Jason Strohl

An introvert at heart, Jason has spent most of his life exploring the outdoors as a way to escape the rush of daily life. When it came time to go to college, he got his BS in Psychology because of his desire to help people in every aspect of life. Now he takes his expertise to The Daily Survivalist in order to teach even more people how to make it through the challenges we see, as well as the ones we don't.

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