Afoot & Afield: Atlanta, Marcus Woolf, 10 Essentials, 10 hiking essentials

Determine Your Own 10 Essentials for Hiking

There are countless resources that guide hikers in packing properly for a trip, usually in the form of a “10 Essentials” list. And while these lists are incredibly useful, they don’t always account for specific needs that a hiker may have. In addition to packing the traditional essentials, hikers should take a moment to evaluate what supplies they should not leave home without.

Marcus Woolf, author of Afoot & Afield: Atlanta, shares a story of how he determined his own list of hiking essentials.

When you’re driving down a street called Hog Jowl Road, and the asphalt ends, you know you’ve reached the edge of civilization. Heading for Georgia’s Pigeon Mountain, I left the pavement, continued down a gravel path, and soon pulled into an empty trailhead parking lot.

While mapping trails for guidebooks, I often hike on weekdays, so it’s not unusual to find myself alone in a remote place. To be safe, a solo hiker should pack certain “essentials”—the stuff he or she absolutely needs to travel safely. In most outdoors magazines, you’ll find articles that list the “10 Essentials for Hiking.” While I was familiar with these lists, I had a bad habit of loading my pack at the last minute and not thinking too carefully about my supplies. Because I was heading up Pigeon Mountain on a warm spring day, I had packed light—as it turned out, too light.

Within a few hours I would learn that it’s not only important to carry the essentials, but it’s also crucial to tailor your list of essentials to suit your specific needs.

After a couple of hours of hiking in high humidity, I was about 4 miles into the backcountry and stopped to mop the sweat from my face. Suddenly, a bee as big as an airplane landed on my temple, and my reflexes took command. As my hand whipped up to swat the bee, my fingers hooked my eyeglasses and sent them sailing.

Instantly, the dense forest around me became a green blur, and I knew I was pretty screwed.

I can’t tell you the exact numbers for my uncorrected vision, but, in layman’s terms, it “sucks.” To make matters worse, I had no backup eyewear. Even if I somehow managed to backtrack to my car, I still couldn’t see well enough to drive.

Desperate to find my glasses, I dropped to my knees and crawled a few feet in each direction. Moving systematically, I scanned the blurry ground and gently raked the earth with my hands. I paused and peered more closely at the short green plants surrounding me. On each stem, I could just make out three waxy leaves, and each had notches along one edge.

“Crap, I’m in poison ivy!”

Leaping to my feet, I snatched my Nalgene bottle from my daypack and proceeded to wash my hands, forearms, and knees. When I was done, the bottle was empty, and I had no additional water.

As an orange glow crept over the forest, I knew I had to make quick decisions. With daylight fading, my situation would worsen if I didn’t exit the woods soon. In an attempt to find my glasses in the nearby woods, I walked to the edge of the trail, but knee-high brush covered the ground.

As a last resort, I turned on my cell phone and got a weak signal—just enough to call my parents, who lived two hours away. After I provided them directions to the trailhead, I used my GPS to navigate my way back to the trailhead, arriving after sunset. Soon, my folks pulled into the dark lot, and I rode back to my hometown with Mom, while my father drove my truck. Determined to never repeat my mistake, I visited the eye doctor two days later and ordered two pairs of glasses and contact lenses.

Ever since that incident, I’ve always used a list of essentials to pack for trips into the backcountry. And I never fail to carry backup eyewear. While eyeglasses and contacts aren’t typically included in the top-10 lists, I consider them crucial. The bottom line is that there’s no perfect list that suits every person. For me, vision is a primary concern, but another person might be allergic to bee stings and need an epinephrine pen. Some of my friends have significant knee problems, and their lists include knee braces or trekking poles.

Granted, several items are appropriate for anyone’s list, such as a knife, map, compass, first-aid kit, fire source, extra food and water, and a headlamp or flashlight. But every hiker should evaluate his or her vulnerabilities and add what’s needed.

As you compile your own list, don’t make my mistake. Because I had years of hiking experience—and because I got a little lazy—I failed to imagine a scenario where I would be half blind in the woods. I suggest that you try to imagine the worst and prep for it. Otherwise, you might find yourself on your phone, explaining to loved ones why they need to drive in the pitch black down something called Hog Jowl Road.

Tanya Twerdowsky

I am a Jersey girl living in Alabama who loves to run far and eat lots.

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