The Two Essentials

This weekend I’m headed out on the biggest trip of the summer, a seven day traverse through the eastern and southern sections of Yellowstone National Park. Conditions look good; highs in the low 70s, lows in the high 30s, and the one problem ford down to an acceptable level (i.e. my shorter and lighter companions won’t float away).  Margins of error grow shorter the longer a trip is, and thus I’ve been going through all my usual stuff this week, doing repairs and making sure everything is stocked and in good shape.

One of the items I examined is my emergency/first aid/repair kit, a.k.a. the ditty bag or possibles pouch.  Everyone has one; a place to keep those essential items which are always needed but rarely used, be it on day hikes or overnights.  Putting them in a little bag makes moving the so-called Ten Essentials from one pack to another simple and largely foolproof.

Unsurprisingly, I’m not a huge fan of the traditional formulation of the ten essentials.  Widely credited as beginning with The Mountaineers, what no doubt started as a helpful maxim has passed through cliche into mindless pastiche.  REI makes a lot of money selling the items on the original list.  What is lost in the noise today, including in The Mountaineers revised “systems” iteration, is skill.

I prefer to think of any outdoor endeavor as requiring two essentials: the knowledge to know what you won’t know once out there, and the gear to deal with those variables.  You can’t even begin to talk about the later without a detailed examination of the former.

The numerous variables which shape the former are so variegated as to make discussion largely pointless.  What I would emphasize, and what The Mountaineers need to (get back to?) emphasize, is the progression of learning through which your gear will evolve.  Unfortunately, it is easier for REI to sell pre-made first aid kits than enrollment in a 5 day WFR class.

That said, pictured below is what I take most of the time.  Emulate at your own peril.


It is important to first note that this kit hardly ever changes.  I’ll add or subtract my packraft repair kit for packraft trips.  For longer trips I’ll add a bit more first aid stuff.  In really crap weather I might beef up the fire starters.  The advantage of consistency here is that I always know what is in the bag, and that there is very little chance I’ll forget to add something back after I take it out for that one trip.

First, the ditty bag.  It’s red, silnylon, and made by me.  Red is easy to find in my pack or on the ground.  The size is shallow and wide, which makes everything easy to find.

Fire starting stuff I take seriously.  Out of all emergency gear it is the stuff I’ve used most often in the last half-decade.  I carry two esbit cubes (taped together, the packaging is fragile), a small lighter, a firesteel, and a small nalgene stuffed with lint and denatured alcohol.  Enough redundancy, but not too much.

First aid is minimal.  My training has taught me that most wilderness first aid issues either could have been avoided by good prep, or require nothing more than stabilization and a run for evac.  You can fill pounds with hypotheticals here.  I bring tape, gauze pads, tweezers, and chamois cream.  Butt chafing is the one issues I need to treat on a fairly consistent basis, a result of my slight bowleggedness I suppose.  Given that it’s been hot and sunny, I’ll probably bring another tube for the Yellowstone trip.

My favorite light this year has been a Fenix E11 with a homemade head strap.  It provides more power than any other light its size, and is durable and waterproof.  The shape also packs better than traditional headlamps, and is almost as easy to use.

I’ve taken to bringing a fixed blade almost all the time, my Buck Skinner.  In summer this is mainly because its nice to not bother cleaning fish guts and cheese out of the depths of a folder.  In winter it is handy for wood prep.  Only disadvantage is the size, which is slightly uneasy to pocket.

Repair stuff is minimal, as it is far better to rely on proper prep and maintenance.  I bring a bit of floss for thread, a heavy needle, and for packraft repairs a container wrapped in duct tape with UV-cure aquaseal and about 6 feet of Patch-n-go.  My Swistec tool has a small set of pliers, a flathead driver, and a phillips bits I ground down to be a posidrive for ski bindings.

I almost always have a compass along, even if I don’t have a map.  In our thicker low elevation forests, it’s quite possible to have a good macro idea of where you need to go, and be unable to see enough terrain to discern direction.  This is especially true on foggy winter days.  The Suunto MCA is durable, and has a sighting mirror for those rare occasions when I use it.  The thick yellow bungy provides a stretchy neck cord for use, and helps it stand out if dropped.

I can’t remember the last time I wanted more.


12 responses to “The Two Essentials”

  1. I am glad that it’s looking like I won’t float away. I need to work on my packing list….

    1. My 14 pounds of food is packed.

      1. I got my food down to 9 pounds. Hopefully I won’t starve and eat my hiking mates.

  2. How well does that Seat Saver work for you? I still haven’t figured out the butt chaffing issue. (Well, beyond considering laser removal…)

    1. It works as well as anything. They had free samples at the Butte 100 a few years ago and I filled my pockets. Bodyglide is fine as well.

  3. Hey Dave wanted to ask if you have ever tried cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly as a fire starter? I was gonna put some of those in a
    waterproof match holder, the orange type with a screw on top.

    Thanks Todd

    1. They work fine. A bit bulky for the benefit they give, and not as infallible in wet weather as esbit.

  4. I’m thinking you’re headed on the same general path my companions and I wanted to traverse–but the Yellowstone River was too big to cross on Thorofare. We ended up on the Bechler River trail. Have fun!

  5. Where are you planning on being? I did a trip in the Teton Wilderness and had to end it early (long story). I MIGHT be back up in a few days to finish if I can fit it in the schedule and have the energy. If I head back up there I’ll keep an eye out for you.

    1. In at Lamar, out at Heart Lake TH. We’re taking a detour up to Hoodoo Basin, then through Pelican Valley, the Thorofare, Trail Creek, and Heart Lake.

  6. Well have fun, if I’m able to make it back up into the high country for one last trip I’ll be going into the southern end of the Teton Wilderness again. I won’t have time to make it up into the park. Had a pretty epic trip there earlier but had to cut it short due to some family obligations. What I got was pretty awesome, if I can summon the energy for one more round it would be cool.

  7. This is great info. I too have my “essentials” bag in a bright blue, lightweight drybag. It goes in the pack every time whether for a day or more. I may have a few more items but I’ve slimmed it down over the years. I’ve had great usage from the simple, cheap drybags at Walmart (under $10 for 3). Never an issue in 3+ years!

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