That’s the list as I learned it, at any rate, though there’ve been many tweaks and tucks over the years. Mostly, this has meant lumping—or splitting—categories. For example, in the current official version (christened “The Ten Essential Systems”), map and compass are lumped together with GPS receivers under “Navigation.” And the all-purpose poncho (aka the wearable tarp) has now been split out from “Extra Clothing” and subsumed in a new category headed “Emergency Shelter.” I’ve no arguments against these changes, of course. In fact, as this article will make clear, I’ve made a few tweaks and tucks myself. But the original list still figures prominently in my planning, not to mention my getaway pack. The Essentials are easily stowed and easily carried. They’ll fit below decks in the tiniest kayak, and in the smallest cubby in a SOT. They also add very little to your burden when you portage your pack canoe over a height of land.
The bottom line? These Essentials won’t be left behind on any trip. And that’s important. You don’t even need a rucksack to carry them. A deck bag will do the trick, as will many waist packs.
Now let’s take a closer look at each Essential in turn, though in the interest of clarity and economy I’ll do a little lumping of my own…
Map and Compass Coastal paddlers will want to make this “Chart and Compass,” though quads have a place in their gear, too. That said, you need both map (or chart) and compass. Neither is worth much without the other. And you need one more thing—something you can’t put in your pack. Know-how. There’s an art to navigating without batteries, and you won’t learn it in your living room. So take your map and compass outside and start practicing. And what about GPS? Is it useful? Yes. Very. But is it an Essential? No—though paddlers traveling the big rivers that flow through the featureless bogs of the Hudson Bay Lowlands might disagree. Not everyone can use a sextant, after all, and the sun doesn’t always cooperate. Boaters in fog-prone waters might place their GPS among the Essentials, too. But no paddler, anywhere, should leave her map and compass at home. Ever.
First-Aid Kit The human frame is both surprisingly robust and alarmingly fragile. On days when Nemesis pays you a call, you’ll be glad you have what you need to patch yourself up. The most common problems are little things: the blister on your palm from paddling, the ankle you twisted on the portage trail, the fishhook that caught the angler. All these are minor problems, to be sure, but each one is perfectly capable of spoiling your day—or your trip. So bring a well-stocked first-aid kit with you. Always. Be sure you learn how to use it, too. Like navigation, first aid is an art that has to be acquired. A good book can help, but there’s no substitute for practice under expert supervision. Get it before you need it. And if you take any regular maintenance medications, bring more than you need, whether your trip is short or long. This, too, is an Essential.
Knife The most important tool, a knife can save your life if you get tangled in a line. Keep one handy anytime you’re on (or around) the water. And since a dull knife is worse than useless, keep the blade sharp—then sheathe it safely. (You don’t want to have to dig into your first-aid kit, do you?)
Extra Food and Water Jerome K. Jerome got it exactly right in Three Men in a Boat, when he recommended packing “enough to eat…and a little more than enough to drink; for thirst is a dangerous thing.” Of course, Jerome probably had something other than water in mind when he wrote this, but no matter. Thirst is a dangerous thing, and you can’t count on being able to drink the water that floats your boat. (Saltwater paddlers won’t need reminding on this point, obviously, but it’s equally true for inland boaters.) So bring enough water on every trip. Add a way to disinfect water, too. And while you’re at it, go the author of Three Men in a Boat one better. Bring a little more than enough to eat. Paddlers, like soldiers, travel on their stomachs, and you can’t get very far on empty. Trips don’t always go according to plan or end exactly on schedule. Be sure you have enough food for more meals than you think you’ll be eating, just in case.
Matches and Firestarter While campfires are now rare treats—and there are many good reasons for this—there’s no denying that the ability to light a fire when you need one can spell the difference between discomfort and disaster. And while a butane lighter makes the whole process simpler, matches remain the paddler’s ace in the hole. Get the strike-anywhere kind if you can find them. Some outfitters stock pricey “windproof and waterproof” lifeboat matches, and these too will fit the bill. (A warning: Test all waterproof matches at home. Some that I’ve tried have proven to be nearly fireproof, as well.) Whether your matches are advertised as “waterproof” or not, however, carry them in a matchsafe that you know to be really waterproof. I stow one matchsafe in a shirt or pants pocket, tethering it with a short lanyard. Another goes in a freezer bag with other sundries in my getaway pack, and a third resides in my kitchen kit. Your firestarter can be a tube of flammable goo from an outfitter’s shelf, a couple of candle stubs, or just a wad of birch bark (picked up from the ground, not peeled from a living tree). That butane lighter I mentioned earlier is a great help, too. It’s just not a substitute for matches.
Flashlight Or a headlamp, if you prefer. I do. If you’re still toting a conventional flashlight with a tiny incandescent bulb, it’s time to retire it. Technology has come up trumps here, and LEDs rule. They’re bright, they’re efficient—battery life is now measured in hours, rather than minutes—and they last just about forever. The extra bulb is a thing of the past. Still, it’s a good idea to pack spare batteries. Lithium cells have the longest shelf-life. That’s important in an Essential. And they don’t come up short in cold weather, either.
Sunglasses As Essential on the water as they are in the mountains, sunglasses are a must-have accessory on the beach, as well. Carry a spare pair of prescription eyeglasses, too, if you need them to see where you’re going (or to read a map). Farwell, who’s rather protective of his one remaining good eye, takes no less than three pairs, even on short trips, and one of the three is, quite literally, bulletproof. Contact-lens wearers should also have a backup pair of eyeglasses, for those times when their contacts have to come out.
Sunscreen “In the long run,” the economist John Maynard Keynes once famously observed, “we are all dead.” True enough. But that doesn’t mean we ought to hurry things up, does it? The ultraviolet light in the sun’s rays is not a paddler’s best friend. Long pants, long sleeves, and a brimmed hat are probably your best defense, but sunscreen helps protect the bits that can’t be kept under cover: hands and noses, for instance. Test your choice at home before relying on it. Farwell once spent two weeks on a river with a thin-skinned redhead who didn’t discover he was allergic to his sunscreen till Day 3 of the trip, when there was no going back. Needless to say, Red did not have a good time.
Extra Clothing I have a confession to make. I left something out of the Jerome K. Jerome quote earlier. Here it is in full: pack “enough to eat and enough to wear, and a little more than enough to drink; for thirst is a dangerous thing.” Jerome was clearly a man ahead of his time (he wrote this in 1889). And Three Men in a Boat is still worth reading. The key phrase here is, of course, “enough to wear.” And just how much is enough? That depends—on the season, the water, and the wearer. But one thing is certain: sooner or later you’ll need more that you started out with on your back. A poncho is always a good choice in camp or on the trail, but you won’t want to wear it in your boat. Try swimming in a poncho, if you have any doubts. (But make sure a friend is standing by to rescue you.) Or paddle into the teeth of a Force 5 breeze while wearing one. I don’t think you’ll want to repeat either experiment. A waterproof anorak or paddling jacket makes much more sense in a canoe or kayak. A fleece or wool sweater is often mighty welcome, too, and not just in the shoulder seasons of spring and fall. Plus, you’ll need warm wear for your vulnerable extremities: hands, feet, and head. Cold is also a dangerous thing, even in summer.
That’s it for my original Essentials. But you’ll probably add a few of your own. I know I have. I call them my…
And here they are. There are only nine, but you’ll find that I snuck in a couple of references to some of them already.
- Water disinfectant
- Shelter (space blanket, poncho, or light tarp)
- Rope and cord
- Bum wad (aka “toilet paper”)
- Whistle and mirror (and maybe flares, too)
- Boat repair kit
- Sewing kit
- Insect repellent
- And last, though certainly not least, the intangibles that I call the OTHER Ten Essentials
If this seems like an over-long list, check out the picture above. It has all the Essentials in it, and a few more things, besides. Click on the photo to see the key; the “almost essentials” are italicized. Is this too much to carry, even on an afternoon paddle? I don’t think so.
Everyone likes a good list, and paddlers are no exception. You won’t find a better one than the Ten Essentials, either. It’s as valid today as it was when The Mountaineers first put it together back in the 1930s—and notwithstanding the list’s alpine origins, it’s equally useful to canoeists and kayakers. So the next time you head off in your boat, whether you’re just puttering around Golden Pond or venturing out across the wine-dark sea, make sure you Take Ten. Don’t leave home without ’em.
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