Hi everyone, now that the weather is truly pleasant and everybody’s getting outside, I’m re-surfacing an older video a made a couple years ago on the topic of the “Ten Essentials”, that is the often-published minimum list of items you’re advised to take with you in the outdoors to ensure your preparedness and safety.

The “what do I take?” question is a very common one, particularly for the inexperienced.  But unfortunately it can’t be answered by listing off ten items – especially when different sources provide different lists!

My approach is a little different.  Instead of a list of equipment, it’s a categorized list of needs, of “systems” you should have with you on EVERY outdoor excursion, from dayhike to multi-week epic.  I can suggest examples in each one, but your own knowledge of the circumstances will drive specifics, creating a slight change in your list each time.

My homegrown mnemonic for remembering this:  FISH IN FERN

Each letter stands for a system or collection of equipment required to achieve a certain goal, rather than an item itself.  You’ll notice there are still ten of them – and they’re not in a priority order, they’re ALL essentials!  So, here we go!

F – Fire

Title2Tools to successfully build a fire should be part of your standard kit.  Whether this is for warmth, for cooking, for creating a smoking signal, fire is one of the most versatile and important tools we have at our disposal.  Depending on where you are and what you plan on doing, filling this requirement could just mean having an emergency fire-steel.  But if you’re not very good at using that technique, you shouldn’t rely on it.  Matches (waterproof), a lighter, fire-steel/ferro-rod, maybe even some tinder.  All of these fall into the “Fire” category.  Take what you need – again, the objective is not to “BRING MATCHES”, it’s the ability to start a fire when you need one.

I – Insulation


These next two work together.  “Insulation” refers to any set of equipment required to keep your core body temperature where it ought to be.  This includes proper clothing (layered, no cotton in the winter), and if you plan on being out overnight, it includes items in your sleep system necessary to keep you warm.  A sleeping bag, a quilt.  Importantly, a ground pad to insulate yourself from the heat-sucking properties of the earth.  Again, I can’t get specific enough to say “down hoodie” here – every situation is different.  Your planning should include thinking through the weather, your particular circumstances, and considering your specific insulation needs.  Speaking of weather…

S – Sun and Weather Protection

To some degree this is the other side of the coin from insulation, and is more about preventing exposure.  Too much sun will ruin your trip and your health just as surely as being cold.  So bring a hat, sunscreen, light loose-fitting clothing, sunglasses, etc. to keep the sun from ruining your day.  Also, think of liquid sunshine – raingear appropriate to your environment falls into this category.  Anything coming out of the sky at you ought to be planned for in this step.

H – Hydration

Hydration.jpgWater is, of course, an essential.  But “hydration” speaks to a larger family of considerations.  It may not be enough simply to have 2 liters per person.  How are you carrying it?  Where and how do you plan on re-filling?  Is that water safe to drink, and do you have the proper gear (filters, chemical treatments, sterilization) to MAKE it safe?  Is 2 liters enough?  Think it through.

I – Illumination

Moving on to our second word here – illumination refers to lighting.  You should have a light of some sort, even if you’re on a dayhike.  You never know when you’ll mis-estimate time and be racing daylight to complete your journey.  Or, more simply, have to peer up under that rock or log for whatever it is that you just dropped…  A light of some kind is a must.

N – Nutrition

dsc02498Like the hydration category, this speaks to more than just having snacks.  It also encompasses anything you need to cook and prepare food, as well as store it, and protect it from wildlife, for the duration of your trip.  Depending on what you’re doing, this can be as simple as having a couple emergency power bars, or can include coolers and dry boxes full of provisions loaded into a fleet of canoes.

F – First Aid

G0015903.JPGWe’re on  the home-stretch now.  Every outdoor adventure ought to include a first aid kit of some kind.  Again, the size and contents should be a reflection of what you’re doing, as well as how accessible you are.  (20 minutes from a road in your local state park is a lot different from the heart of a Wilderness Area 300 miles from the next person).  Regardless of location, you shouldn’t bother bringing anything you don’t know how to use – so TRAINING in First Aid is also a requirement here.  Everybody ought to know the basics.  For reference, my minimalist kit includes alcohol wipes, bandages, gauze, Ibuprofen, anti-diarrheal pills, a needle, and a knife – all but the knife packed in an Altoids tin.  I add to this as group size and remoteness increase.

E – Emergency

If you find yourself in a dire situation where you need help from outside your party, how will you reach out to get that help?  Again, depending on where you are, the first tool these days ought to be a mobile phone.  I don’t normally advocate walking down the trail while texting, but having a charged, powered-down phone in your pack could be a very handy tool when the stuff hits the fan.  A whistle also helps in popular areas, a satellite phone or beacon would be great in truly remote areas.

It’s not specifically called out anywhere else, but I would also include a consideration of basic safety equipment here – maybe an 11th “essential”.  Some would argue that this is required equipment for a given activity – you wouldn’t do any serious rock climbing without ropes and harness, flotation should be part of your water-sports kit.  But things like bear spray fit nicely here.  Basically, use “emergency” as an opportunity to think through all the potential “what ifs”.

R – Repair

Things break, and when they do, it can really ruin your day.  I’ve mentioned the utility of a knife several times – nutrition, first aid – but a good knife and multi-tool is a good first line of defense against general gear failings.  Beyond that, you might need a small sewing kit, extra batteries for crucial items, a patch kit for your inflatable boat or mountain bike tires.  Not all circumstances require the same items, but you ought to use this opportunity to think about what’s most LIKELY to break, and which of those failures is most critical to your progress, comfort, and safe return.  As the Boy Scouts say, “Be Prepared”!

N – Navigation

analog-watchFinally, you ought to have the means to know where you are, at all times, regardless.  Always have at least a basic map.  Have a compass and know how to use it.  A GPS unit is great, most of the time.  Certain locations are still going to be challenging even with all these items.  What you carry in your head – the knowledge of how to interpret all these items, is important too.  No gear is useful if you don’t know what to do with it.

That’s it!  Pretty simple really.  Everything you take, or don’t, ought to be driven by evaluation of these items as compared to your likely circumstances.  You’re going to make tradeoffs, for weight, for safety, for comfort (I’m a sucker for carrying heavier, but tastier, food options).  But that’s the point – plan, make conscious decisions, don’t just grab a bag of ten objects and launch.

If you take the time to consider:  Fire, Insulation, Sun/Weather, Hydration, Illumination, Nutrition, First Aid, Emergency, Repair, and Navigation on EVERY trip, then each trip you take will be better, and your confidence and preparedness will be improved.

Get Out There



2 thoughts on “FISH IN FERN. The Ten Essentials: A Systems Approach

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s