Roger J. Wendell
Defending 3.8 Billion Years of Organic EvolutionSM


Ten Essentials Logo From the Sierra Club's Rocky Mountain
Chapter Peak & Prairie publication

Volume XXIII, Number 2, April/May 1998, page 23

The Ten Essentials
(and Then Some)
by Roger J. Wendell,
Rocky Mountain Chapter Outings Chair



Yellow Arrow Pointing Right Click Here for my Backcountry Survival page...
Yellow Arrow Pointing Right Click Here for my page on Lightning Safety...
Yellow Arrow Pointing Right Click Here for my Bear Safety page...


Back in the late 1990's and early 2000's I was a webmaster (with Charlie Oriez and others) for the Sierra Club's Rocky Mountain Chapter in Colorado. At that time I created a number of their webpages, related to the outdoors, in addition to writing a few articles for their state publication and group newsletters. Below is much of what I wrote, back then, about the Ten Essentials. However, times (and technology) changes so I want to caution you that there is a lot more to this subject that you need to know to be safe in the backcountry! So, enjoy what I've posted here (and wrote back then) but please study the latest materials (from other sources) for not only your own safety, but also to help keep animals and the natural environment as undisturbed as possible.


As the Chapter's new outings Chair, I encourage, almost insist, that we spend more time with nature. I hope to devote future articles to destinations, low impact techniques, and the interesting experiences to be found outdoors. First, we need to look at some basic safety items that should be included in every daypack. Each member of any outing should always carry at least these basic items in case of an emergency. (Remember, reading a short essay like this is not sufficient preparation for an outdoor experience.)

  1. Map - Topographic "quad" (US Geological Survey, 7.5 minute Quadrangles are inexpensive and available everywhere).
  2. Compass with straight edge - GPS units can be useful but are not reliable [ed note: As recently as August 2011 there was still serious concern that solar flares would disrupte the world's GPS devices...].*
  3. Matches and Fire Starter - A good supply of matches (protected against moisture) and at least two butane lighters.  "Fire Starter" is any type of material that can be used to ensure that the fire stays lit and grows, even during wet conditions (i.e., candles or chemical and wax preparations available at outdoor and surplus stores).
  4. Headlamp or Flashlight with extra bulb and batteries - Headlamps are preferred because they free your hands for other tasks.
  5. Extra water and food - Always carry plenty of water, along with a purification device and/or chemicals.
  6. Extra Clothing however, no cotton! - Cotton retains moisture and loses its ability to insulate - a very dangerous combination in the high country.  Wool, polyester, and synthetics are vastly superior.  An extra pair of heavy weight socks are also a "must."
  7. First Aid Supplies - First Aid training is strongly recommended.
  8. Pocket Knife - I like the ones full of gadgets that have at least one solid, traditional blade.
  9. Bivy Gear - "Space" blanket, large lawn bags, 50 feet of cord, and the thermal pad.  The space blanket can be used as a temporary shelter or signaling device.  Large garbage bags can be used to reinforce your shelter, as additional raingear, makeshift sleeping bags, etc.
  10. Sun Protection - Sunglasses and suncsreen.
  11. Signaling Devices - Whistle (carries farther than shouting) and mirror.
Optional items I like to carry include:

Each individual, regardless of the group's size, must carry at least the Ten Essentials.  This applies even to "inseparable" couples who share tents and sleeping bags - there's a chance you might get separated and spend some time alone.  The Ten Essentials won't guarantee your survival, but they will put you way ahead of those lost hikers we read about in the papers each year.

©Copyright 1998 Roger J. Wendell


* My thoughts about the use of a GPS are evolving...

In his book, The Ultimate Hiker's Gear Guide (Tools & Techniques to Hit the Trail) Second Edition (pp. 132-133)
Andrew Skurka had this to say about GPS Units (and I'm in general agreement):
Andrew Skurka "Many people seem surprised that I can expertly navigate through the wilderness without relying on a GPS (which stands for 'global positioning system') unit. These devices can:
  • Show my exact location, to an accuracy of a few feet;
  • Calculate the distance and direction to key landmarks, like my car, a hot fishing hole, or a trail junction;
  • Determine how far, how fast, and in which direction I've hiked; and
  • Record a track on my route that I can share or use when I get home."
  • But these functions do not make a GPS a killer app. I can do exactly the same thing with a topo graphic map, altimeter watch, magnetic compass, and pen. Furthermore, a GPS cannot replace map reading skills, especially for off-trail navigation. A GPS can tell me the straight-line distance and direction to a landmark, but it cannot tell me the line of least resistance to get there. That straight line might take me through the thickest brush, into a deep canyon, or across the river at its deepest point."

    My stance on GPS units has evolved since I wrote the first edition of this guide. I now consider it an ace in my sleeve for when my standard tools reach their limits. First, on a GPS I can store maps and imagery of the areas surrounding my intended route, for which I don't have paper maps. Second, a GPS offers unrivaled speed and certainty."




Larry DeSaules leading us along the Mesa Trail in Boulder, Colorado - 01-01-2010 A note on backcountry safety
from my friend Larry DeSaules - April 4, 2010
Pretty darn good job, Rog.

My $.02:

I think individuals need to know and understand that whether you're on a CMC trip, or a trip guided by an AMGA mtn guide, out alone, or with friends out cragging, backcountry skiing, accidents are bound to happen.

The final decision as to your own personal safety resides with you the individual. Peer pressure to get to the top, keep going when a storm approaches, etc plays a huge part in mtn safety. The individual has to trust his gut once in a while and say 'this doesn't feel right.'

I mentioned the AMGA guide above, because last year a guide had a group out on a couloir snowfield all roped together, and he failed to drive in any snow pickets. Up, up, up they all went until ... He fell, dragging his group hundreds of feet down the mountain. There were injuries.

One or two incidents showing poor leadership decisions can certainly give the club, mountaineering, organizations a black eye, when in fact, 99% of the trips are safe and sound.

Great job keeping safety up on your site.





Whistle Whistle Protocol
as recommended by the Colorado Mountain Club

A whistle is one of the Ten Essentials CMC recommends its members and guests carry at all times while hiking, backpacking, skiing, snow shoeing, climbing. A whistle is a tool used to communicate to others in situations where human shouts cannot be heard. Although three blasts on a whistle are recognized as HELP, there is no standardized response to let the initiator know he/she has been heard and response is on the way. The Denver Safety & Leadership Committee (DS&L) has developed a Whistle Protocol designed to be simple and effective for our leaders and members to initiate and respond in specific situations where the human voice may not be heard.

This matrix can be cut out and taped onto a water bottle with transparent packing tape which will somewhat protect the paper from moisture. In order to communicate in an emergency the whistle is to be worn on the outside of a backpack or day pack.

Recommended Whistle Protocol





  1. 12ers
  2. 13ers
  3. 14ers
  4. AIARE - The American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education
  5. Alpine Resuce Team - Evergreen, Colorado
  6. American Avalanche Association
  7. Backcountry Skiing
  8. Bear Safety
  9. Camping
  10. Climbing
  11. Colorado Avalanche Information Center
  12. CMC Colorado Mountain Club
  13. CORSAR - Colorado Outdoor Recreation Search and Rescue Card
  1. Gear - Stuff for the Backcountry...
  2. Hiking
  3. Knots (animated by Grog)
  4. Leave No Trace - Center for Outdoor Ethics
  5. Lightning Safety
  6. Sierra Club
  7. Skiing in the backcountry!
  8. Snow Caves
  9. Snow Day
  10. Survival in the backcountry
  11. Travel
  12. Walking Softly in the backcountry
  13. Waypoints


Warning! Climbing, mountaineering, and backcountry skiing are dangerous and can seriously injure or kill you. By further exploring this web site you acknowledge that the information presented here may be out of date or incorrect, and you agree not to hold the author responsible for any damages, injuries, or death arising from any use of this resource. Please thoroughly investigate any mountain before attempting to climb it, and do not substitute this web site for experience, training, and recognizing your limitations!




Back Back to Roger J. Wendell's Home Page...

Web Counter Logo


Abbey | About | Blog | Contacting Me | Copyright | Disclaimer | Donate | Guest Book | Home | Links | Site Index | Solutions | Terms, Conditions and Fair Use | What's Changed or New?
Copyright © 1955 -