Steering Wheels & Spare Tires: What You Really Should Have On the Trail

A quick dive into any hiking post on facebook or advice given will likely mention “The Ten Essentials.” These are ten items any hiker should have when doing any hike, no matter ease or distance. But do I really need to bring an emergency shelter with me for a three mile hike?!

I like to think of the gear in my daypack as steering wheels and spare tires. The steering wheels, you won’t get far without. These are the things I will absolutely need and use every time. The spare tires are the things that you rarely use, but will be cursing the gods if you don’t have them when you need them. No one ever *plans* on getting lost or hurt when on a dayhike, but these things do happen, and the ‘spare tires’ can be a lifesaver. These are adapted from the standard “New Ten Essentials,” with a few of my own additions thrown in that I find to be very useful on the trail. Who knows, you might even get some ideas for Christmas gifts for the hiker on your list!



This should be a no-brainer. Bring more water than you think you need. It’s recommended in high summer heat to consume 7-10 ounces every 10-20 minutes of strenuous hiking. My hydration bladder holds 3 liters! If you plan on enjoying a beer or other adult beverage at the top, or are walking with Fido, make sure to bring extra water–alcohol dehydrates you, and you don’t want your dog picking up giardia from a creek. I like to keep an extra bottle of water (maybe one I kept in the freezer overnight) to drink as soon as I return to the car just in case. I’ve been on hikes with a companion who did not drink enough water, and I’ve been on hikes where water had to be rationed so we didn’t run out, and neither situation was ideal. I’ll say it again–bring more than you think you need!

Sun Protection

I’ll admit to not being perfect on this one–if it’s raining, I save that space in my pack for extra layers. But sun protection is needed on even winter bluebird days. Sun protection usually is sunglasses (I have polarized prescription sunglasses I bring on every hike–better views and more protection!) and sunscreen (and not the coconut scented kind, or you’ll be a mosquitoes best friend) but I also bring a super-lightweight mesh hat to shield my face even more.

I love these little salmon bites!

This one also should be a no-brainer. You’re burning heavy calories when hiking, and it’s a great way to enjoy the view at the midpoint of a hike. Don’t just count on stopping at a great little place you know in a town on the way back (but do that too), and don’t rely on mooching off of your friends. If you and your hiking buddies each bring a healthy amount of snacks, in a worst-case scenario that food could keep you going for awhile. Some of my favorite trail snacks are salmon jerkey, the nut butter-filled Clif bars, and dried mango. Something salty, like trail mix can help too.




The inside of my first-aid kit.
First Aid

I am lucky enough to have won a full kit at work in a raffle (yay!) but before this, I had just a giant ziplock bag with a few first aid items. Easy ones to always have are bandaids, alcohol wipes, a foil blanket, and hand sanitizer (again, not scented). Some people also bring an extra ziplock baggie to hold used alcohol wipes. My current kit has the addition of  tick removal tweezers (also good for splinters) and electrolyte chews in case of dehydration.


A poncho and space blanket count for extra layers, first aid, and emergency shelter supplies!
Extra Layers

This might be something that if it’s 90* out you might scoff at. But I still consider it to be a steering wheel–you never know when a sudden rainshower can come, and if you do stay out later than expected, a jacket can go a long way when temperatures plummet at night. I keep a rain poncho in my pack as well as a jacket.


For most people, this is a map and a compass. Do NOT rely on your phone’s signal to be able to look up where you are at! I always take screenshots on my phone of the WTA trip info, including when it talks about route information. Sometimes multiple hikes start on the same trails, and knowing where to turn at which fork is vital.

Lip Balm

Male or female, you’re likely going to be getting dry lips when hiking, whether it be a sunny day, a windy day, or a dry, cold day. A good (non-drying) lip balm is going to save you from painful chapping. Stock up on your favorite and toss one in your pack. Knowing the pain of sunburnt lips, I like one with SPF, but remember to check for expiration.


Now, many of these situations where you need a ‘spare tire’ are emergencies. If you get uneasy thinking at all about these situations, look into an outdoor survival course. Again, no one expects these situations to arise on easy dayhikes, but it happens every year. These spare tires are much better put to use by someone in the know of what to do in these emergencies.

Emergency Shelter

This one is probably the least-packed ten essential, and I get it. “I’ve done this hike a dozen times, I’ll be fine.” “It’s only three miles, I won’t need it.” “It’s a popular trail, someone will find me.” However, if you end up in a serious incident–broken ankle, getting lost, or seeking shelter from an unexpected storm–you’ll be so glad you brought a shelter. “Well if I break my ankle, a helicopter will come to rescue me.” Not so fast! In one case last summer, two Navy Corpsmen were helicoptered down to an injured hiker, but limitations prevented helicoptering the injured hiker to rescue–so all three had to hunker down for the night! Now ‘shelter’ doesn’t mean you have to bring a tent on every hike (phew!). Remember above when I said I have foil blankets and ponchos with me? Those can be used to provide shelter. Garbage bags are great too.


A multi-tool like this can provide sparks to start a fire, cut twine, fix loose screws–and open bottles.
Fire Equipment

If someone gets hurt, you’ll need a fire to keep the injured person warm to prevent shock. If you have to stay overnight, a fire might be needed for warmth or signaling your location. In these emergencies, are you really confident you can rub sticks together to make a spark and build a fire? The easiest, cheapest way to do this is keep waterproof matches in a waterproof container (an old Nuun container, an Altoid tin, etc–double protection if inside a plastic bag!) or have a lighter on you. However, in windy conditions, these things can become a Herculean effort to light. I have a Fire-biner multi-tool with a spark wheel which can make fire in all weather. Having something to assist, like a candle or solid chemical fuel can help the fire stay alive and grow when in wet conditions.

Headlamps can be battery powered, like this one, or chargeable.

I vastly prefer a headlamp over a flashlight–Hands-free! Even in non-emergency situations, you might be making it down to your car later than expected, and in dark conditions, ankles get twisted and falls occur. My headlamp also has a red light that can be put on a flashing mode for use as an emergency beacon. Be sure to check batteries or charge every time before leaving, and bring spares if unsure!


Repair Stuff

I am blessed to have never needed to repair any equipment, especially on the trail, but on the Washington Hikers Facebook group, I have heard more than one person tell the tale of boots needing to be duct-taped on the trail due to falling apart. Besides duct tape, some other useful things for repairing include a screwdriver and scissors or a knife for cutting. My Fire-biner has a flathead screwdriver and a safety cutting blade for such moments, other multi-tools can offer this as well.

Bathroom Stuff

When nature calls in nature… you can tough it out or go with the flow. Some people are fine peeing and pooping outdoors, to others, it is something to be avoided at ALL COSTS. However, bathroom emergencies can come up at any time, and you should be just as prepared for those as an injury.  What essential bathroom items are differs for everyone, but handy standbys are toilet paper (some ladies prefer to use a handkerchief after wiping when they pee, a bit more environmentally friendly) and a small ziplock bag to put the used toilet paper in. I’ve never had to use one, but to many, a little trowel is great for digging cat holes to be used when going #2. Some advise that rocky soil can be difficult to dig into, so don’t wait until the last second to start digging!

A device that finally lets women know what the big deal about peeing in the snow is!

My last bathroom spare tire is quickly becoming a steering wheel–my P-Style. Yes, here is where the post gets TMI. I am not a squatter. I’d risk bursting my bladder open before I’d ever try to squat on the trail! I am blessed with an ability to go hours without peeing, so I never thought I’d need to pee when on the trail, but figured I’d buy a stand-up-to-pee device just for emergencies. If you’re hydrating enough, you should be needing to pee at one point. Especially if it’s cold and you aren’t sweating, you need to be hydrating and that water has gotta go somewhere. I did some research and went with the P-Style. It’s like a funnel that lets you pee standing up–and you can even keep your pants on! I also shelled out for a nice velcro case for it, but some just use ziplock bags (I feel like with all the mentions of ziplock bags, they should become an honorary essential!). Everyone’s preferences are different, but I’m happy with my purchase. Just remember to practice in the shower *before* using on the trail.


While it is my hope that none of you readers ever need to use most of these spare tires, I still think you should be keeping them in your pack just in case. Have you ever forgotten one of the ten–or my twelve–essentials on the trail and regretted it?

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