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Building a gear checklist for outdoor adventures

April 27, 2015

Just about every outdoor adventure requires gear, so here’s some advice on developing your gear checklist so you won’t head out unprepared. Start with the 10 essentials (actually we’ve got 11) to survive, and build your list out from there.

Obviously, some activities, such as kayaking, fly-fishing or scuba diving, require specific gear, so supplemental checklists for those activities will be discussed in other blog posts.

For now, these are the basics for survival, safety and comfort. Depending on your activity, these items can vary a bit, but most experienced adventurers acknowledge these important necessities:

Navigation: Unless you are completely familiar with an area, you will likely need some way to navigate.

Maps: Even the crudest maps can lay out the course for adventure. Of course, the more detailed the better. Through the use of contour lines, topographical maps provide tremendous amounts of information, such as elevation, ridges, peaks, valleys, rivers, creeks and more.

GPS units: As a dedicated unit or on a cellphone as an application, GPS devices have become commonplace in this day and age. They provide current location information, the ability to track your path and can be used to figure your pace to your destination.

Compass: Everyone gets turned around once in a while, and a compass can get you back on track. When used in conjunction with a map, a compass is an excellent tool for guiding the way. And a compass won’t fail you in heavy cover where you can’t get a satellite signal, and it doesn’t need batteries.

Sun protection: The sun can dehydrate you, blister your skin and sap your strength if you are not careful.

Sunglasses: Protect your eyes, especially on the water, where the sun’s rays come at you from all angles.

Sunscreen: In general, unprotected skin starts to turn red after about 20 minutes of exposure to the sun, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. A sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30, in theory, prevents that skin reddening by a factor of 30, or about 10 hours. Most sunscreens with an SPF of 15 or higher offer good protection against UVB rays. Read the labels on sunscreen products to determine when you might need to reapply.

Lip balm: Don’t forget, the sun takes its toll on your lips as well. Unprotected lips can blister and chap. Use a balm with at least an SPF of 15. Waxier balms adhere better.

Clothing/insulation: This is mainly about regulating your core temperature in accordance with the conditions and your activity level.

Clothes: For hotter climates, wear lightweight, moisture-wicking, quick-drying clothes in lighter colors. In colder climates, your layering system will include more insulating layers (thermals, jackets) on top of your base layer.

Hats and gloves: Wide-brimmed hats or hat with capes can help ward off the sun, and caps can help prevent loss of body heat through the head in cold conditions.

Footwear: Have the appropriate footwear for your activity, in the correct size. Nothing ruins an outing more quickly than being taken off your feet with pain from blisters and hotspots because of poor-fitting footwear. See our blog entry on choosing hiking boots for help in achieving a good fit.

Rain gear: A good shell against rain and damp conditions will prevent your other layers from becoming wet and drawing heat away from your body. Look for good water repellency in the materials, and cuffs and a hood that prevent water from getting underneath.

Sleeping bags: If your adventuring will involve sleeping in a tent, hammock, on the ground or even hanging on the face of a rock wall, you’ll want to preserve your body heat during the cooling hours of the night. Sleeping bags insulate your core, typically through the use of synthetic or down fill materials inside a water-resistant shell. Rectangular-shaped bags are roomier for those who might toss and turn a lot, while mummy-style bags provide a more snug fit.

Lighting: Illumination can come in many forms, such as a fire, flashlight, lantern or headlamp (hands-free!). Beyond serving you as a way to see in the dark, having light can lighten the mood on a dreary night. Make sure you have fresh batteries and consider carrying extras.

First-aid kits: Accidents happen in the outdoors. Be prepared to handle most emergencies with at least a basic first-aid kit.


The Red Cross outlines the contents for a kit for a family of four at Consider including a signal mirror and/or whistle in case you need to signal for help.

Fire-starters: A fire keeps you warm, cooks your meals, wards off critters and brightens the mood on a dreary night.


Matches: Keep your matches dry in a waterproof container or buy stormproof matches that will light in wet conditions.

Lighter: Lighters provide an instant flame, but remember they require fuel.

Flint-and-steel: These striker devices produce a shower of sparks to ignite your tinder bundle into flames.

Others: There are pastes and other combustible products on the market. Check with an outdoor retailer for these options.

Knife or multitool: A knife or multitool can perform many important functions, from cutting rope and filleting fish to repairing gear and building a shelter. Many people prefer folding knives because they are easy to carry, but others like the sturdiness of fixed-blade knives.

Food: Even if you’re just going on a day hike, have at least enough food for one day in case you get stranded. Eat energy foods that keep your metabolism burning steady instead of rising and crashing. For extended stays in the wilderness, plan out a healthy menu with plenty of protein-rich foods.

Water: Always bring a more-than-adequate amount of water on your trips. Carrying water has never been easier, as there are a variety of water bottles, hydration bladders and other containers on the market.


But also be prepared to filter grey water if you run out of clean water and need to resupply from a questionable source. This can be done by water purification tablets, a pump system or by boiling the water. An outdoor equipment retailer can show you the systems available to meet your needs.

Shelter: Again, this is about protection from the elements and maintaining your body’s core temperature.


Insulating blanket: An extremely lightweight option that wraps around to hold in your body’s heat.

Tarp: Tarps are incredibly versatile as shelters and can be set up in many configurations as protection against the elements.

Bivy: A bit larger than a blanket, a bivy is typically just large enough to protect you and your sleeping bag, with little to no room for gear.

Tent: A bigger and more enclosed shelter than a tarp, tents have more structure and design features to make your stays in the outdoors more comfortable. There are tents designed for the solo adventurer, all the way up to large groups under one roof.

Rope or cordage. These come in handy to rig shelters, make a split, hang food from wildlife, lash poles, make repairs, and dozens of other uses. Learn some basic knots at