NEED TO HAVE, WANT TO HAVE: THE ESSENTIALS AND YOUR ESSENTIALS
Words and Photos from Rebecca Sperry
It’s no secret that I love hiking and spending time outdoors. Since 2015, this love has grown exponentially, but in contrast, the gear I carry in my pack has shrunk (in a good way). I went from hitting the trails carrying the most generic first aid kit my local outfitter had to offer (which included such items as ice packs, a needle and thread, and every type of over-the-counter medication you can think of) to a custom-made kit that weighs grams instead of over a pound. My idea of essential has been redefined, and I no longer see the need for things that I once thought were of absolute necessity. But that transition happened over years, not months.
In the winter of 2016/2017, I started on my journey away from carrying more than necessary. It was my first experience hiking in winter, and like many women, I entered the local outfitter with the same mentality that I would enter a store looking for a handbag; bigger is better. I always wanted to be prepared for the “what-ifs” of life, and that attitude transferred over to my search for the perfect winter backpack. I ended up leaving the store with a very large Osprey pack (the actual liters landed somewhere around 48) and started thinking of different things to put into it. I had a lot of room to fill and gave zero thought to the fact that the more I put into that pack, the heavier it would get. Weight wasn’t on my radar yet as I stuffed god only knows what into that red monstrosity before taking it on its maiden voyage up a local mountain.
That first hike gave me only a taste of what was to come. I realized that I needed more gear in order to fill my pack (because if there is empty space, it must be filled, right?). On my next hike, the 4000’er Mount Jackson in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, I hefted that pack onto my shoulders, ready to make the short, steep ascent to the summit. I had hiked Jackson before in the past, so I knew that despite it being less than three and a half miles long, the route climbs relentlessly uphill.
The final pitch before the summit is a large slab of rock that requires using your upper body to do the climb. The winds whipped the cords on my pack around me as I hauled myself and too many pounds of gear up that mountain. It was at that moment that I realized more isn’t always better, and my backpacking philosophy took a drastic shift. I ended up returning that pack and getting a smaller one (though still much heavier than the one I use now).
If carrying less gear makes my hikes more enjoyable, then it is worth the payoff to have fewer creature comforts with me. The mountains don’t care if you smell like flowers, whether or not your hair is properly brushed and braided, or if your socks are dirty and have been worn more than one day in a row. What I define as necessary, though, is not what someone else may consider an essential piece of gear (it is absolutely necessary that I have an inflatable air mattress).
Each opportunity to hit the trails offers me another chance to test out my setup and make adjustments. The more time I spend in nature, the better I get at defining my own version of essential (and the better my mental health is, as well).
While my essentials may differ from someone else on trail, there are a handful of items that every hiker should carry, and those items are (in my opinion) non-negotiables. The Ten Essentials is a list of items that are toted by probably every outdoor agency as the bare minimum of what should be in a backpack. I agree that all of these items serve their own purpose and absolutely should be in your possession before you hit the trails, but it isn’t enough to carry them; you should know how to use them in an emergency.
More specifically, it’s really important that if you don’t know how to read a map and/or use a compass, you learn (and then continue to practice these skills, so you don’t lose them). If you’re unable to use a compass, then it’s pretty pointless to carry one. Having the latest GPS device is wonderful, but if you don’t know how to use it, then it’s unnecessary weight. There’s really no excuse for not carrying a physical map for your hikes (they weigh almost nothing), but if you’re not sure how to read the contour lines or what trail you’re on, they will do you little good.
All of the other items included on the list of the Ten Essentials are probably things you already know how to use or things you carry anyways (extra food, water, and clothing). Of course, seasonality and the length of your hike dictate how much of each of these items you keep in your pack. But there has yet to be a hike I’ve gone on where I didn’t bring food and water (even if it was only half a mile long). You just never know what could happen, and as someone with an underlying medical condition that requires eating frequently, the added weight is worth it for me.
What we each consider to be essential is as fluid as the streams we rock hop over. Those rocks, though, represent the items that we absolutely need to have in our packs to keep us warm, dry, and safe on the trails. I encourage everyone to assess their kits on a regular basis. Check to make sure your gear isn’t defective, that batteries work, and that you have enough of everything you may need. Knowing that you’re prepared for an emergency will only make your time out in the wilderness that much less stressful and an overall more enjoyable experience.
Rebecca Sperry is an avid hiker who spends the majority of her free time either hiking in New England or writing. In 2020, she was diagnosed with Breast Cancer and continued to hike throughout an entire year of aggressive treatment. She is a strong proponent of the importance of staying active, especially as a way to alleviate some of the side effects of cancer treatment. You can follow her journey on Instagram @sockedinhikes, or her website: rebeccasperry.com