That time you were missing one of the Ten Essentials

We all know the importance of carrying the Ten Essentials. Read a personal account of what happens when you forget one of the Essentials. Share your own story in the comments!
John Ohlson John Ohlson
June 10, 2014
That time you were missing one of the Ten Essentials
Photo from Seattle Backpacker Magazine

The need for the Ten Essentials is not apparent until something goes wrong. Maybe you're surprised by darkness, weather, or a slow partner, or an injury slows or prevents travel. Whatever happens, the lack of an Essential can result in death. 

You can never know what might occur, so I always start up the trail with my ten essentials, no matter how innocuous the terrain. This attitude is a result of several incidents which happened to me personally over the years (I am a slow learner):


During a short hike on a sunny Labor Day of Mt. Lassen in California, an intense blizzard descended on us when we had minimal extra clothing. We became extremely cold and survived largely because we found a one person privy high on the mountain in which the two of us stood while the storm passed.

Illumination, Navigation, and Insulation

A quick "tourist hike" up a hill near Mt. St. Helens for a better view of Spirit Lake put us on a spectacular ridge. The clouds descended rapidly and immersed us in dense fog. We became disoriented, not knowing which way was back to our car. Because this was a heavily used area by tourists, "trails" ran in every direction. Further, darkness was approaching (we had no light), and it was getting cold (no extra clothing).  If we had had just a compass, exit would have been easy - we knew the lake was to the west and the road to the east. Desperate and rapid exploration in each direction eventually resulted in finding the way down, arriving at our car well after dark.


A "quick" rock climb that took longer than anticipated resulted in two of us depending on a tiny keychain squeezable light to climb down in the dark back to the car. Two hours of squeezing this tiny light resulted in painful handcramps. 

ILLUMINATION (again - do you see a theme here?)

A frozen waterfall ice climb in the Canadian rockies in mid-winter took longer than anticipated. While we had adequate clothing, we had left our headlamps in our packs at the base of the climb ("we won't need those, we'll be back down in a couple of hours"). We rappelled off the climb after completion but the final rappel was in total darkness, just feeling our way down the last 200 vertical feet.

Carry the 10 Essentials

After these experiences, one becomes a believer in the ten essentials. You can vary the amount of each item depending on the season and weather, but there is a minimum you must have of each. My favorites are a headlamp and compass. These have served me well in many adventures which did not repeat the problems I just described.

I don't care about attribution, but it is appropriate to give my credentials for credibility. The climbers in the trips above have climbed in Alaska, Canada, Wyoming, Idaho, California, Hawaii, Washington and the Himalayas, in all types of rock, snow, glacier and ice conditions. I am on the Board of Directors of The Mountaineers and have been active on the Safety Committee and wrote the Safety Chapter in the most recent edition of our bestseller climbing textbook Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills. These accidents can happen anywhere at any time - so be safe.

Please share your stories in the comments below.

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Katherine Hollis
Katherine Hollis says:
Jun 03, 2014 02:14 PM

#9 Hydration
At the base of a 7-pitch climb in the Adirondacks in July (=hot and humid).

Me to climbing partner: You've got the water, right? What climbing partner heard/interpreted: You've got water for yourself, right?

Climbing partner's answer: Yes.

The shared 60oz dromedary did not make it out of the car. My climbing partner only had 12oz of water on them.

We sat at the top of that climb and sucked every drop of juice out of the one apple we had with us.

Chris Williams
Chris Williams says:
Jun 04, 2014 08:30 PM

Water. Always water. 2-day backpack on the coast of Australia with 2 liters of water for two people. The "store" that had been halfway through the hike was closed for the season unlike the time I'd done the hike 10 years earlier. Made for an extremely rough second day. There are other very similar stories like this one (in less exotic places).

First Aid: The trail into Havasupai Falls in Arizona will create massive blisters. Why be stupid and leave moleskin behind? Because you are a young and careless young man, that's why. You're feet are still angry at you by the way.