Ten Essential Skills

Gear without skills is dead weight. In 2010, The Mountaineers revised the Ten Essentials for a list of items to a list of functional systems. What skills are needed to actually use these essentials?

The New Ten Essentials—A Systems Approach was published in Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, 8th Edition. The list was first formulated in the 1930’s as a tool to increase safety for climbers on Mount Rainier.

Why carry the essentials? According to The Mountaineers:

The point of the Ten Essentials list has always been to help answer two basic questions: First, can you respond positively to an accident or emergency? Second, can you safely spend a night—or more—out?

So let’s walk through the ten essential systems with that in mind. When things go wrong, are you ready with both gear and skills?

Navigation: You need to be able to use the navigation gear you choose, whether it is map & compass, GPS, or both. Last March, I took a fine three-mile “scenic route” in the rain because I misread my GPS. Do you know where you are? Do you know where you are going? Can you use maps, GPS, and landmarks? What does the trail junction look like as you leave it (always look back)? Where is the next water source? Where are potential good spots for lunch or camping? Here is an exercise: lay out a (paper) topo map and throw a dart (or toss a pebble), then find the route from that spot to a campsite or to a road (for an emergency evac). Extra points for safe helicopter landing zones.

Sun Protection (sunglasses & sunscreen): This is basic risk management for sun exposure. I’ve seen people with sunburn blisters on the top of their ears, which is one reason I wear a broad-brim hat instead of a ball cap. I’ve also had a sunburn on the back of my neck, not fun. Are you ready for high-altitude sun? Do you remember to reapply sunscreen mid-day?

Insulation (extra clothing): I carry extra, but how much extra? Did you check the weather forecast before going out? I check several different forecasters, and see if they agree. If they don’t agree, plan for a wider range of conditions. If the forecasts keep changing, plan for a wider range. When the forecasts don’t converge, there is extra uncertainty. Plan for it.

Illumination (headlamp/flashlight): Always check your lighting before you leave civilization. With LED headlamps and flashlights, batteries last a long time, but still check. Know the limits of your lighting. Try night hiking with your headlamp. Even better, try it in fog or snow. Are you ready to walk out an injured crew member at night, in bad weather?

First-Aid Supplies: This and navigation are the deepest skills. You can get better over years and years. For anyone 14 or older, I strongly recommend taking a Wilderness First Aid course. For first aid, if I had to choose between skills and gear, I’d choose skills every time. If you don’t know how to use something in your first aid kit, leave it at home. Know the skills of everyone in your crew, because in an emergency, you all need to work as a team.

Fire (waterproof matches/lighter/candle): Fire-starting takes practice. Do it again and again in dry weather, then move on to wet weather. When you really need a fire, it won’t be in nice weather. Hint: your toilet paper is probably dry, and Chapstick is 44% petroleum jelly.

Repair Kit and Tools: This isn’t just duct tape. Can you sew? If not, learn. I don’t carry duct tape, I carry medical tape (3M Micropore), Tenacious Tape, and a few feet of Leukotape P on long trips, for blisters. I’ve seen a lot of people carrying huge, heavy multi-tools, but I’ve never seen a Phillips head screw in the backcountry. Bring appropriate, lightweight tools.

Nutrition (extra food): What is your worst case estimate for extra time in the back country? If a crew member is injured, you send for help, then wait for rescuers, how long is that? Or how long does a slow self-evac take? I throw in three extra bars, figuring I’ll be hungry by the end of the second day, but still thinking straight. Also, extra tea and fuel, gotta have the caffeine.

Hydration (extra water): It is surprisingly hard to get information on how much water you should carry. The only reference willing to commit is The Backpacker’s Field Manual. That is not an exciting read, but it is clear and comprehensive on nearly every subject. Short version: six to seven liters per person per day for most treks—more in the desert or snow, or with heavy exertion (climbing and so on). Navigation skills come into play here, knowing your next reliable water source and the expected time to that source, plus a safety factor.

Emergency shelter (tent/plastic tube tent/garbage bag): Where are you hiking and what is the forecast? If you are above timberline, a saw won’t help. Trash bags are light and useful in most situations. Have you built a shelter with a trash bag? Can you stay warm insulated with dry leaves? Maybe you should try that.

By now, you may have gathered that we are talking about risk management. Know the specific risks of each outing and plan for them. This is not throwing stuff in “just in case”. More gear does not make a trek safer, it just makes your pack heavier. As you get more information about the risks for your trek, you can tune the gear and the skills to make it safer.


1 thought on “Ten Essential Skills

  1. This is the best version of a 10 Essentials list I’ve seen. Your focus on skills rather than just listing gear is absolutely right. I’ll use your list with my scouts from now on!


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