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10 Essentials for Hiking in the Southwest

10 Essentials for Hiking in the Southwest

Below are the 10 Essential items you will find in the “basic” list created by The Mountaineers in Seattle, Washington. Since being published in 1974, several groups have created their own versions.

From their website, these are two very good questions to ask yourself before you head out for your next hike.

The origin of the Ten Essentials dates back to our climbing courses in the 1930s, and the purpose has always been to answer two basic questions:

  1. Can you respond positively to an accident or emergency? 
  2. Can you safely spend a night (or more) outside? 

We are using the “base” of the 10 Essentials and expanded on this list because it doesn’t take into consideration the area that you may be hiking. A hiker hiking in the middle of the desert would prepare differently than someone trekking in the mountains of Oregon. Since we hike mostly in the Southwest area of the United States which has incredibly hot summers, very little to no shade, very few water sources, and cold nights, you will find additional recommendations that are stressed as must-haves as part of the 10 Essentials for hiking in the Southwest. (If you are hiking in other areas, the list is still relevant, you just may need to adjust it for where you are.)

I have always been told, and feel that it is true, that most incidents where a hiker is stranded without enough supplies are day hikers since most don’t pack for anything longer than a hike that lasts a few hours. Even though there is extra weight added to our packs, we take the essentials with us as “you never know” what will happen out there as Mother Nature doesn’t discriminate between experienced hikers and newbies.

RELATED ARTICLE >>> Hiking in the Heat – Tips to Stay Cool

Emergency Shelter

It is recommended that you carry some type of emergency shelter to protect you from the elements if you are stranded due to weather or injury. Below are the items that fall under the “emergency shelter” category for you to determine which fits your hiking area and needs.

Bivouac Sack aka Bivy Sack

You can get a decent bivy sack for $20 or less and many weigh less than a pound. Check out this one from Go Time Gear that weighs 4 ounces and has over 400 reviews that are 4 stars and above.

Insulated Sleeping Pad

Some people use an insulated sleeping pad not only for comfort but to help keep a layer between you and the cold ground. This item is more expensive than others but if you are a backpacking camper, you may have one in your camping arsenal already that you can take with you.

Jumbo Trash Bags

Simple and incredibly lightweight, a jumbo trash bag will help protect you from the rain in a pinch. Note: We will take small bags with us to use to gather trash that we find on the trails that others have unfortunately left behind.

Tube Tent

Tube tents are great protection from elements but most have paracord to help you set it up properly. If you are hiking in the desert, a tube tent may not work since there will not be too many options to tie the cord to. This one from Go Time Gear is rated well, fits 2 people, and weighs less than 9 ounces.

Space Blanket

Cheap and lightweight option to keep in your backpack. They are great to help retain body heat but do not do a good job of keeping out rain, snow, wind, etc. In my opinion, since they are so light, every hiker should have one in their backpack. Click here to view LOTS of space blanket options that fit your backpacking needs.

Tarp with Paracord

In my opinion, I would take a tube tent over a tarp since the use would almost be the same.


10 Essentials for the Hiking

While the Southwest has some amazing geological formations to enjoy, the downside of hiking in the desert is most areas have very little to no materials that can be used for a fire. Even so, it is always a good idea to carry these items “just in case” – they are incredibly lightweight and will be very much appreciated in case of need.

If you are going to areas where firewood may not be available, a small backpacking stove and other heat solutions are recommended.

In case of an emergency, you need to have reliable supplies with you for starting and maintaining a fire. For many people, this is a disposable butane lighter, but matches are also suitable so long as they are waterproof or stored in a waterproof container. Convenience-store matchbooks are often too flimsy and poorly constructed to be trusted for wilderness use.

Fires are great to keep you warm, read your trail map(s), signal for help, and source to cook food and hot drinks if you have the equipment.

Firestarter: A good firestarter will ignite immediately and sustain the flame for more than a few seconds. There are many options you can buy or make at home to carry with you. Ideas for firestarters are cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly, dryer lint, heat tabs, and small pieces of wood, or wood chips soaked in chemicals or wax. (And if you have Doritos in your backpack as a snack, you can always use those!)

Lighter: A lighter is easy to carry and almost always reliable. When we go backpacking and have overnight trips, I can be guilty of taking two… you know, in case one doesn’t work.

Matches: Grocery store and bar matches are not reliable, especially if they get wet. Waterproof matches and matches kept in a waterproof container are highly recommended. Personally, I prefer to take a lighter (or two) in my backpack.

Waterproof Container: Some hikers I know use Altoid tins to store their matches but it’s not 100% waterproof. Check here for “true” waterproof match containers.

First Aid

10 Essentials for the Hiking

First aid kits are a must item to take on your hike but if nobody knows what to do with the items inside, it could be useless. It is recommended that your hiking leader or a member of your hiking group takes a class on first aid, especially one designed for the outdoors, hiking, wilderness, etc. REI has specialty classes that are a small fee.

There are many great “starter” first aid kits that you can modify to fit your hiking needs. Since we encounter cacti, we keep multiple pairs of tweezers and duct tape to help with the removal.

RELATED ARTICLE >> How to Remove Cactus Spines

Your first aid kit should be kept up to date and waterproofed.

It is also recommended that you print off basic care directions to keep in the kit that way any person on the hike will be able to use the items when needed.

Basic First Aid Kit

A basic first aid kit for hikers should include antibiotic, anti-inflammatory, antidiarrheal, antihistamine tablets, antiseptic, bandages, blister prevention and care, gauze pads, gloves, insect sting care, needle, non-prescription pain killers, pen and paper, skin closures, tape, tweezers. As mentioned, we keep duct tape in our packs to use to repair shorts and for first aid. It doesn’t matter where you store it, just have some on hand. (Some hikers wrap it around the top of their hiking poles.)


Insect Repellent

You can get repellent wipes to keep in your backpack if you don’t want to carry a can to keep the bugs away.


Some hikers will add a whistle to their first aid kit, I prefer to keep my multi-tool and whistle on my backpack straps.

Specialty Items

If you are hiking with children or dogs, you will want to include items, especially for them, and the appropriate doses for their weight (keep a printed chart in your bag).


10 Essentials for the Hiking

My fellow hikers always joke before a hike to ask how many liters of water I am hauling for a short hike. (Okay, so MAYBE I “accidentally” packed 7 liters of water for a half-a-day hike.)

Most places we hike do not have a water source for us to filter our own water so we have to pack everything that we will need. Sometimes we will leave a “water cache” hidden in a shady spot for the way out of our hike. This is a great idea so we don’t have to haul additional weight but the downside is that if we need it, it could be too far away to access it.

RELATED ARTICLE >> Hydrating Foods

How much you need to drink depends on a number of factors, such as the activity you’re doing, intensity level, duration, weather, your age, your sweat rate, and your body type. A good general recommendation is about a half-liter of water per hour of moderate activity in moderate temperatures. You may need to increase how much you drink as the temperature and intensity of the activity rise. For example, strenuous hiking in high heat may require that you drink 1 liter of water or more per hour. As you gain experience, you’ll be able to fine-tune how much you drink.

From REI regarding hydration:

Based on the above, you need to calculate how much water you will need for your hike and then add a recommended extra 2 liters for an emergency.

If you will be hiking in an area that will have water sources, take your water filter or water purification items and refill your water supply when you can. It’s better to have too much water than not enough (even though the extra weight SUCKS!)

I keep packets of flavored electrolytes to flavor my filtered water and right now Liquid IV is my favorite.


10 Essentials for the Hiking

I keep a small flashlight hooked to my backpack strap but it is small and doesn’t illuminate a lot of light.

The only time I keep a headlamp with me is if we are doing an early morning hike or a hike where we may be out past when the sun goes down. This is one item I fail at keeping with me at all times.

Ideally, a headlamp should be the choice of a light source to keep on hand as they light up an area more than most smaller flashlights and they give you the ability to be able to use both hands if needed.

When looking for headlamps, consider buying one with LED bulbs, and always keep extra batteries in a baggie on hand. Note: I have had hikers recommend NOT using lithium batteries in headlamps as they will overheat and cause problems.


10 Essentials for the Hiking

Another 10 Essential items I fail to back because we hike in the heat a lot and don’t think about keeping warm if needed. The reality is the desert can be a scorcher during the day and very chilly at night.

Taking items that layer easily is ideal and when selecting these items, lean more towards wool or poly-blend items versus cotton materials.

Depending on where you are hiking and what the nighttime temperatures are, you may want to consider packing the following:

Gloves: Gloves help you retain your body heat and are a lightweight item that will not take up a lot of room in your pack. We normally keep gloves with us but they are used for scrambling up and over sharp rocks and don’t do too well for warmth but in a pinch… they will do!

Hat: In my extra clothing baggie, I keep a fuzzy beanie for hikes that start out cold and to use in case of an emergency.


Rain Shell: A rain poncho from a dollar store works well as they are very cheap, compact, and very lightweight.

Shemagh or Other Headwrap: My son loves keeping a shemagh with him to use for both the heat and cold. They cover a lot of 

Socks: An extra pair of socks may come in handy to use as gloves or to swap out if your boots and socks are wet and the temperature is starting to drop.

Thermal Underwear (or a good base layer)

Waterproof Clothing

Windproof Clothing


10 Essentials for the Hiking

REI has great outdoor classes covering how to use a GPS, map reading, compass, navigation, and more! If you are new to map and compass reading, it may be a good idea to take one of these to be able to use the tools you pack.

While using your smartphone is great for following maps, if your battery dies you may be stuck without a mapping system.

Go old school – suggested navigation items to keep on hand:



GPS Receiver

Mirror: I wasn’t sure where to put a mirror but a small mirror could come in handy if you are in an area you can use it to signal for help if needed. When shopping for a compass, check to see if yours includes a mirror.

Relief and/or Topographic Map

Waterproof container

Repair Kit and Tools

10 Essentials for the Hiking

This list may vary from hike to hike depending on the length of your trip, the gear you are taking, and the area you are hiking.

You should carry a basic “repair kit” and build on it based on the factors that may impact your needs.

A few of these items may be found in your first aid kits, such as tape and scissors. Wherever you store items to help with injuries and small repairs, the following is recommended:

Duct Tape: Probably the most common item found in every hiker’s backpack, duct tape is an all-purpose item and is great to help with blisters, taping up pants that have the butt ripped open, and many other issues that may arise on a hike.

Knife: A good knife is an all-around tool that can be used for first aid to cut gauze, gear repairs, food preparation, make kindling, and more. Some hiking friends keep their tethered to their backpacks so if they are dropped, they don’t go far. This is an item that each hiker in your party should carry in their backpack.

Multi-tool: I keep a small multi-tool attached to the front strap of my backpack. It is not large enough to cut wood but it does have tools that I will be able to use in case of an emergency. Multi-tools come in various price points and sizes and also vary on what tools are included within the tool. Click here to view a great assortment of multi-tools you can use for hiking.

Paracord Bracelet

Pliers: Not high on my list to keep in our packs as I feel that other tools will work in their place. Most multi-tools have pliers built in as one of the tools but if yours does not include pliers, you may want to keep a pair in your backpack. They can be useful to fix hiking poles, zippers, etc.

Scissors: Scissors may be part of your first aid kit, if not you may want to consider adding a small pair to use to cut moleskin, bandages, and more. Especially if you are keeping a knife handy, scissors may be needed.

Shovel or trowel: Small ones can be purchased to use to dig cat holes if you find yourself “in need.”

Sun Protection

10 Essentials for the Hiking

This is one area that my group excels at packing for since we are always hiking in areas with little to no shade during the day.

Below is a photo we took in August 2019 from our hike to Coyote Buttes North, home of The Wave, of our group with our sun umbrellas aka “sunbrellas.” When I first bought mine, fellow hikers joked around about it and now a lot of my fellow hikers own them. They are a great way to block the sun and it does make it a little cooler. Depending on the sun umbrella you purchase, you may be able to attach it to the strap of your backpack so you don’t have to hold it while hiking.

10 Essentials for the Hiking

Recommended sun protection items:

Clothing with built-in UV protection


Lip Balm with SPF

Shemagh or Other Headwrap





10 Essentials for the Hiking

Another thing I am guilty of overpacking is food. (Okay, so I have a fear of starving and not having enough water… but my overpacking has saved the day many times when a fellow hiker didn’t pack enough for themselves.)

Ideally, you want to pack dry food but dry food requires water and sometimes heat. If you are in a bind you may not want to give up that precious water to prepare your food, packing other food items should be considered.

Ideal foods are calorie-dense, lightweight, and easy to open.

My ideal foods are peanut M&MS as they are easy to eat, high in carbs, and have protein. Right, they are the perfect hiking snack?! 

We normally pack jerky, trail mixes, my favorite peanut M&Ms, and peanut butter crackers. My friends like to pack in their salty favorites of single-serve olives and pickles. Whatever your favorite is, take a few extra servings just in case you need them. Note: if you are hiking in areas that are really cold, consider how tough your jerky or protein bar will be to eat due to the cold.

If you happen to be carrying a hiking camp stove, then you may want to consider taking extra dried soups, tea, hot chocolate, etc. if you are in colder areas.

If you are hiking with kids or dogs, be sure to pack extra for them too.


10 Essentials for Hiking in the Southwest