How Not to Die in the Wild: A Podcast on The Mountaineers Ten Essentials

Alison Young, aka Blissful Hiker, recently interviewed Mountaineers Super Volunteer Steve McClure for her podcast Walking Distance. Read a partial transcript of their conversation to hone your own Ten Essentials and learn a handy Limerick to remember them all.
Steve McClure Steve McClure
Freedom 9 Contributing Author
February 22, 2022

Podcaster Alison Young is a self-described female, middle-aged, titanium-reinforced solo hiker. Under her trail name “Blissful Hiker,” Alison hosts a podcast called Walking Distance, “a show for hikers, trekkers, trampers, and wanderers” with the premise that any place worth seeing can be reached by walking. On October 12, 2021, she released an episode titled How Not to Die in the Wild in which she spoke with Super Volunteer Steve McClure to discuss how he helped modernize and simplify The Ten Essentials for our ninth edition of Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills.

You can listen to the full interview with Steve online (starting at 19:54, after a great interview with Rebecca Olson of King County Search & Rescue), or find the show on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and other podcast platforms. Read our favorite highlights from their conversation below.

How Not To Die In the Wild, a podcast

Blissful

The Ten Essentials were created by The Mountaineers…a nonprofit that focuses on outdoor recreation, education, and conservation. Steve McClure is an active member, serves on their Board of Directors, and he helped update the 9th edition of Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, the bible for climbers and mountaineers of all levels. It was in the third edition of this book, back in 1974, that the Ten Essentials list was first compiled, and it represents a kind of insurance policy and the minimum amount of gear one needs to be safe heading into the backcountry, even on a day hike.

There are two questions that the Ten Essentials seeks to answer and that provide the framework for packing the gear. Number 1, “Can you prevent emergencies and respond positively should one occur?” and number 2, “Can you safely spend a night or more outside?”

McCLURE

If you talk to anybody that's been out quite a bit, stuff happens, and eventually it's going to happen to you or someone you're with. It's so easy to assemble a kit of the Ten Essentials that you can keep packed and ready to go for any of your trips. It really needs to become a habit for everybody.

BLISSFUL

Yeah, now you refer to the Ten Essentials as the “sacred scrolls of The Mountaineers” and I find it interesting that you did a pop quiz at a climbing committee meeting, and no one could name all of the Ten Essentials. I mean the word essential is in the name.

McCLURE

I was recruited to rewrite the camping gear and clothing sections [which include The Ten Essentials], and so I went to my editor [John Ohlson] and said, “Can I change these?” He literally he literally took a step back and gave me this scowl, and said, what do you want to do, “make it 11?”

I said, “no,” there are just some things that have always bothered me about it. And if you look at the 8th and 7th editions of Freedom it got very, very wordy, and difficult to remember. And so, [at our Climbing Committee meeting] I did a pop quiz to see if anybody could name all ten. Nobody in the room could, except for one guy, and he got 12!

With the evolution, I tried to do two things. One was to simplify the language. For example, instead of talking about, "knife and repair kit,” I just abbreviated that to “knife.” Similarly, the word “fire,” now stands for a whole bunch of things.

I also tried to put them in an order that made some sense. The first thing I decided was if I put the three “extras” at the end, that'll be easier to remember. So, we now have “extra food, extra water, extra clothes.” So that was an easy change.

And then I got to thinking about it and I put them in an order so the first five basically answer the question: “can you prevent an emergency or respond effectively if one happens?” And the second five make sure you can make it through an unplanned night in the outdoors. The first seven are quite small and you can typically leave them packed in your pack: navigation, except for the maps of where you're going, headlamp, sun protection, first aid, knife, fire, and shelter. You can leave those packed all the time. You add extra food, extra water, extra clothes, and you're, at least from a Ten Essentials standpoint, you're ready to go.

BLISSFUL

OK, so Steve, we've been talking about the Ten Essentials, how important they are, how you've organized them so people remember, but what do you take in your pack?

McCLURE

Well, of course, it varies by the trip, but I have found some things that I often recommend.

For navigation, as one of the five essential navigation tools, I've really fallen in love with the Garmin inReach Mini. It’s tiny. It allows for two-way communication, peace of mind for my family if they're not with me, to know where I am and that I'm OK, and peace of mind for me in case things go awry. I use Gaia GPS for the GPS app on my phone, and for making my own maps, which is the new way to do it. Gaia has a good facility for that, but also there's an online mapping tool called CalTopo. You can make very sophisticated maps and they have an app out which is getting really, really good and will be giving Gaia a run for their money.

For headlamp I've had this dilemma ever since I was a kid and always fond of flashlights that you go out on a hike, and you use it for a couple of hours and then for the next hike you can't remember the status of your batteries. Petzl has this line of headlamps with what they call their CORE rechargeable battery that I recharge at the end of every trip. I then carry three AAA regular batteries as backup in case I’m out for a long time.

When I'm going ultralight, Petzl also makes something called the e+LITE emergency headlamp. When the days are long in the middle of the summer, it's just enough.

BLISSFUL

You know it's funny. I hiked the entire PCT, and I never once turned on my headlamp. So you know it's just there for an emergency basis.

McCLURE

It often is, especially in the summertime.

For sun protection it's best to use the mineral-based sunscreens if you're going to be out for a long time. The non-mineral sunscreens are consumed by the UV light. They contain little benzine rings that get broken when they absorb the UV energy. So, the only practical answer is to use the mineral-based with titanium dioxide or zinc oxide.

But I hate looking like I'm a clown and I'm about to go to the parade. Just in the last year or so I've started using tinted mineral-based sunscreen that gives you a little bit of a tan. The brand I'm using is called Australian Gold Botanical Sunscreen Tinted, SPF 50.

First aid typically consists of taping people’s heels for blisters, or it could be lots of other things, cuts and so on. The two things that I like are called Spenco Adhesive Knit, and more recently I've started to carry the Leukotape that physical therapists use a lot. They both stick on really, really well.

BLISSFUL

Do you add anything to your first aid? In case of like a bee sting, I mean like a Sudafed or something.

McCLURE

Yeah, a friend of mine is an MD and he went through my first aid kit one time and recommended adding antihistamine tablets which could be chewed up and swallowed if someone had a reaction to a bee sting.

For knife, which stands for knife and repair kit, I carry something for repairing Therm-a-Rest mattresses that GearAid puts out which is called Aquaseal UV repair adhesive. So, in the field you can do a permanent repair. You might put tape over it to protect it from getting scraped off, but that's all you're good to go.

For fire, which stands for the stuff you might need to make a fire. Or, if you're above timberline, that's kind of silly since there's no wood so it means a small stove so that you can heat water if you get into a cold situation. I carry a trail design stove that burns these little cubes called Esbit. A lot of the thru-hikers are carrying this now. Weight for weight, it's significantly lighter than alcohol if you're counting grams. You can also buy refillable lighters. I know everybody takes BICs and I usually have a few BICs in my pack, but they're kind of hard to tell how full they are, and it's like the batteries. You hate to throw it away and so, what you can do, is get refillable lighters. They sell a little device that you screw onto an isobutane canister because we all have canisters that are 10% full.

BLISSFUL

Right can't use them at all really.

McCLURE

We don't want to take it because it's too heavy, but we don't want to throw it away. So, what you can do is screw this little adapter on and you can fill up your lighter.

So, what else? Let's see.

BLISSFUL

The bivy sack for shelter.

McCLURE

The bivy sack: SOL has a 3 1/2 ounce “Emergency Bivvy” [that I carry if I don’t have a tent or a normal waterproof-breathable bivy.]

Extra food doesn't have to be nutritious, and it might even be something that doesn't taste all that good so that it stays in your pack there as extra food.

For extra water, I'm always touting the idea of chlorine dioxide which should not be confused with chlorine. There are two little bottles and you put drops of each together and wait five minutes until it turns kind of a pee yellow and add it to your water. It's not only super-lightweight, but when you're drinking water in the backcountry, you've got three types of parasites to worry about: viruses, bacteria, and protozoa, each progressively much larger than the previous. Iodine and chlorine kill the small and medium parasites, the viruses and bacteria, but do poorly against protozoa, typically meaning Giardia and Cryptosporidium. Filters do well at capturing bacteria and protozoa, but most models let viruses slip through. Chlorine dioxide kills them all.

Extra clothes. Make sure you always have a waterproof, breathable shell. And then I typically throw in my puffy coat and my puffy pants from a little company called GooseFeet Gear.

BLISSFUL

It just sounds too cozy.

McCLURE

And then I'll throw in a couple last things that are outside of the Ten Essentials. Having the proper footwear can prevent more accidents than just about anything else. I have a pair of MICROspikes and bring them. For a little more adventuresome trips, get an aluminum pair of crampons and learn how to use them. And more adventuresome than that, get a lightweight ice axe and learn how to do [self-belay] and self-arrest. For scrambling, I carry the ridiculously light 5 oz Tica Ice Tool from a little company called Suluk 46.

BLISSFUL

Steve McClure, thanks so much for sharing with us today. I really appreciate it.

McCLURE

Alison, it’s been my pleasure. I look forward to talking to you again.

The Ten Essentials Limerick

Here’s Steve’s Ten Essentials Limerick to help you remember the list:

To navigate, head for the sun
With first aid and knife on the run
Bring fire and shelter
Extra food is a helper
But water and clothes weigh a ton

Learn More

Related Podcast: CDT Prep: Maps ‘n Food. Listen to this June 17, 2021 edition of the Blissful Hiker podcast as host Alison Young takes The Mountaineers class GPS Navigation: Using CalTopo and Gaia GPS to prepare for a through-hike of the 3028-mile CDT, the Continental Divide Trail.

What are your favorite Essentials?

Please list the favorites from your Ten Essentials kit in the comments section, and we may assemble them into a future blog.

Main photo: Steve hiking in Mount Rainier National Park. Photo by Colleen McClure.


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