Ten Times Two, Plus One: Essential(s) Reading

How much gear is too much? How little is enough? When deciding what to take and what to leave behind, many paddlers find themselves mired in indecision. Luckily, help is at hand in the form of a celebrated list: the Ten Essentials. But unlike other celebrated decalogues, this list has evolved over the years. Moreover, each of us has her own ideas about what is really essential. Tamia is no exception. She has two lists, in fact — her Top Ten and her Second Eleven. And today she’s counting them down.

Ten Times Two, Plus One: Essential(s) Reading

by Tamia Nelson | November 7, 2017
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Back in 1974, a mountaineering textbook stuck the label “Ten Essentials” on a short list of vital items of gear. That description was apt. The Essentials were light enough not to burden anyone who needed to climb high and fast, but if you had them in your pack, you knew you had everything you needed to survive a short, unplanned bivouac. To borrow a testimonial from a 19th‑century manual of seamanship, the Ten Essentials contained nothing that was superfluous and all things that were useful. The idea wasn’t new, of course. Similar lists had been kicking about since the 1930s. But the “Ten Essentials” tag had legs. The list was soon embraced by all manner of backcountry travelers, including canoeists and kayakers, and it survives to this day. Its latest incarnation has been rechristened the “Ten Essential Systems,” however, and to distinguish the old from the new, the original list has also been rebranded. It is now the Classic Ten Essentials.

Call me old‑fashioned, if you will, but I was perfectly happy with the original list, though I’ve modified it from time to time to suit my own perceived needs. I’ve even gone so far as to add eleven additional items. But first, here’s my take on the Top Ten:

1. Topographic Map(s).  Or charts. Or both. Each one should be protected by a transparent, waterproof envelope.

2. Compass.  The magnetic compass has guided travelers to their destinations for at least a thousand years. And if our descendants ever need help negotiating the stifling, trackless tropical forests of the Neojurassic World that we’re lovingly crafting for them, the same north‑seeking needle will still show them the way. Meanwhile, back in the year 2017, any paddler who has a quad and a compass has all he (or she) needs to stay found, though there are times and places when it wouldn’t hurt to have a pocket sextant, as well. (NB: A sextant is not one of the Ten Essentials, but the mountaineers who drew up the original list probably hadn’t done much climbing in the James Bay Lowlands. I wonder why?)

3. Medical Kit.  The original Essentials called for “first‑aid supplies,” but I prefer this more inclusive tag. If your kit is assembled in consultation with a wilderness EMT or backcountry‑savvy doc, it can be a lifesaver. With a little luck, it won’t be called on to deal with anything more serious than a thorn in your side or an attack of traveler’s trots, but it’s good to know it’s there. Make sure it includes a few days’ supply of any maintenance meds you need, too.

4. Knife.  Unless you’re heading off to Afghanistan, leave the Fairbairn–Sykes and Ka‑Bar in the display case at home. On paddling trips, all you need is something with a short, sharp, corrosion‑resistant blade. (A word to the wise: Many utility knives, including folders with locking blades, are now classed as illegal weapons in some jurisdictions, and the penalty for getting nabbed “in possession” of a proscribed knife can be high. Know before you go.)

5. Extra Food (and Water).  I’ve added the water. It wasn’t one of the original Essentials, probably because no climber in his right mind would start an ascent without a filled canteen. And you may be wondering why you’ll need to bring water on a canoeing or kayaking trip. The answer? Because someone is probably using the water under your keel as a sewer, that’s why. (“Water? I never touch the stuff. Fish piss in it.” W. C. Fields said that. Supposedly. Except that he didn’t say “piss.” But notwithstanding Fields’ reservations, fish aren’t the problem. We are, along with our dogs, our factory farms, and our coal mines.) The bottom line? You’ll have to disinfect any feral water before drinking it, and then you’ll need something to hold the treated water. So don’t leave home without a canteen or water bottle. As Jerome K. Jerome reminded readers of Three Men in a Boat, thirst is a dangerous thing. Of course, paddlers who venture onto salt water must carry all the water they’ll need between rewatering stops. And whether or not the water that floats your boat tastes of the sea, bring a steel cup. You can boil water in it. If it’s big enough, you can even use it as a mini‑washbasin.

Food? That’s less important than water. Most of us could live for weeks on what we carry around on our bellies and backsides. Still, missing meals isn’t fun, and it doesn’t do much for your morale, so keep a couple of day’s worth of no‑cook food in your pack at all times. It doesn’t have to be fancy. Dense and durable bread, cheese, nuts, hard sausage, jerky, chocolate, dried fruit… Explorers have crossed continents on similar fare, and a lot of people today live on a less varied menu for years at a time. You can manage for a couple of days. Trust me.

6. Matches.  Strike‑anywhere kitchen matches are best, if you can find them. (Test every new batch. Some of my recent purchases have been nearly impossible to ignite.) Store them in a container you know to be waterproof. I carry three proven matchsafes, along with a ferrocerium fire‑stick. Flint and steel? Sure. They’re a time‑tested alternative to matches — but only if you’ve already mastered the art of striking fire.

7. Firestarter.  Matches alone can’t be relied on to coax a fire from damp wood. You’ll need something that delivers a hotter, more sustained flame. A candle stub works well, as do hexamine fuel tablets (e.g., Esbit). In extremis, you can harvest a twist of birch bark from a dead, downed tree, or gouge splinters from the stumps of felled pines (“fatwood”). But it’s better to be prepared.

8. Flashlight or Headlamp.  I prefer a headlamp. Be sure to bring spare batteries, too. And if your light isn’t an LED, don’t forget a spare bulb.

9. Sunglasses and Sunscreen.  And spare eyeglasses, as well, for those of us who, like Farwell, can’t see the forest for the trees without them. Reading glasses are also essential, if you need them to make sense of a map. I do. Sunscreen? It’s always a good idea on days when you’ll be spending hours exposed to Sol’s rays, and if you’ll be making open‑water crossings or stopping to bag a peak or two, it’s doubly important. I get along just fine with a small tube of Labiosan for lips, ears and nose, plus a broad‑brimmed hat and a long‑sleeved shirt, but if you like to paddle wearing little more than a thong and a smile, you’ll empty a good‑sized bottle of costly goop every few days.

10. Extra clothing.  You’ll want a light wind‑ and waterproof jacket, a sweater, and a watch cap or balaclava in your pack, along with spare socks and wool gloves. And though a poncho is a perishing nuisance on a breezy day — and a potentially lethal encumbrance in a capsize — it’s a mighty versatile garment ashore. It can double as a shelter half, too. Add a poncho liner, and you’re guaranteed a bed for the night. (I also pack a head net and light leather gloves whenever the biting flies are out in force, as they are during most of the paddling season.)

Tamia's Ten Essentials - (c) Tamia Nelson/Verloren Hoop Productions

That’s it. The Ten “Classic” Essentials. But if you think something’s missing, you’re right. The original list was drawn up for climbers, after all, and climbers don’t need painters, float bags, bailers, and extra paddles. They can also get along just fine without PFDs. But we can’t. The upshot? All those other things belong on our list of essentials, even if they’re not on the climbers’ list.

Are we finished now? Not really. While my Top Ten and your paddling gear will see you through most day trips and many weekends, your ability to weather a hard chance will be much improved if your pack also contains …

My Second Eleven

Happily, these items needn’t add much weight — no more than a few pounds, at most.

11. Filter or SteriPEN.  Chlorine dioxide tabs or boiling will kill most bugs, but if you need to treat water in a hurry, it helps to have a SteriPEN or filter. A compact Sawyer filter now comes with me on all my trips. The SteriPEN (Farwell calls it the “lightsaber”) is equally handy, but it’s a bit on the fragile side, and it needs batteries to function. This is not a good thing.

12. Shelter.  If, like me, you have a poncho and poncho liner, you’re covered. If not, add a bivvy sack or space blanket.

13. Cordage.  In addition to my boat’s painters, I always carry a 25‑ or 50‑foot coil of &frac14‑inch Goldline or 8 mm polypro, along with several hanks of mil‑spec paracord.

14. Bug Dope.  For years, a head net and gloves were my first line of defense against biting flies, but since ticks also find the New Model Climate most congenial, and since their bites can transmit deadly viruses in minutes, I now smear myself with icaridin (US: picaridin). That said, repellents are at best an imperfect solution to the problem posed by tick‑borne disease. They’re the sole remedy on offer in the States, however. Do you wonder why? So do I. Effective vaccines against the strains of tick‑borne encephalitis prevailing in Europe and Asia have long been available, but you can’t get anything comparable here, and I know of no company working on a vaccine for Powassan virus. Make of this what you will.

15. Sound and Light Signals.  These are a legal requirement for boaters in coastal waters, and they’re a good idea everywhere else. You could just put your lips together and blow, but a whistle makes more noise with less effort. A strobe also travels in my paddling pack.

16. Repair Kit.  Let experience be your guide. A sea kayaker will have different needs than a hillwalker. I get by with duct tape, malleable wire, and a multitool, along with a few spare clevis pins and other fasteners.

17. Sewing Kit.  Everybody needs one. Missing buttons are sure to be missed sooner or later, and a stitch in time saves nine. I have a genuine, original Chouinard Expedition Sewing Kit, but a new, improved version is now on the market. And you can always make your own.

18. Bumwad.  When you gotta go, you gotta go. It’s what comes next that poses a problem. You can make do with wads of leaves, but someday you’ll grab a handful of poison ivy by mistake, and ticks like leaf litter, too. They’re also keen to get to know you better. (Helpful hint: If you’ve been camping in tick country — as I’ve already mentioned, much of Canoe Country is now tick country — and if you subsequently discover a new and oddly painless external hemorrhoid, ask a close friend to take a closer look. You may have picked up a hitchhiker.)

19. The Other Ten Essentials.  Er… Better make that 19(a) and 19(b), I suppose, since this item is really two: two columns by Farwell, originally published under the collective title “The Other Ten Essentials.” You’ll find them here and here, but if you’re pressed for time, I’ll give you the executive summary: Farwell’s Essentials aren’t items from your pack. They’re intangibles, things like curiosity, courage, skill, strength, confidence, patience, resilience, humility, balance, and joy. You won’t find any of these on an outfitter’s shelves, but no paddler, sailor, or hillwalker should leave home without them.

20. The Knowledge.  That’s what London cabbies call the 320 standard routes whose details they must commit to memory before obtaining a license. Our Knowledge is much easier to acquire, but it’s no less vital, and in truth, it’s the most essential Essential. It comprises all the skills needed to use the essential gear in your pack. If you have the Knowledge and none of the Essentials, you’re still in with a chance. But if you haven’t mastered the Knowledge, your Essentials are just so much dead weight.

Tandem Canoe Icon - (c) and TM Tamia Nelson/Verloren Hoop Productions

I’ll bet that gear lists are the most‑thumbed pages in paddling and camping tomes. (They’re probably the only pages that many people bother to read.) Still, all lists are not created equal, and the Ten Essentials is a perennial chart‑topper. But if 10 is good, isn’t 20 (plus one) even better? Which is why I doubled the stakes in writing this column. That being said, what you carry in your pack and pockets isn’t the most important thing. When things go wrong, it’s what you have in your head that counts most. The good news? It won’t add an ounce to your pack.


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Verloren Hoop Colophon - (c) and TM Tamia Nelson/Verloren Hoop Productions