Trail Savvy: The 10 Trail-Riding Essentials

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Pair these tools with common sense for a great ride.

Back in the early 1930s, a group of mountaineers in the Pacific Northwest created the 10 Essentials; a list of items intended to help you respond positively in an accident or emergency and help you safely spend an unplanned night outside.

Over time, the 10 Essentials has evolved from a list of individual pieces to a list of practical systems. You probably won’t need every item on every ride, but these essential items can be lifesavers in an emergency. Most forward-thinking trail riders already take along a few things in case of emergency. This checklist will help you remember what to bring. Here are the Trail Rider’s 10 Essentials.

Trail Savvy The 10 Trail-Riding Essentials
A traditional map and compass might seem basic in an age of technology, but they can be the only reliable means of navigation when you’re outside service areas for other means of finding your way.

1. Navigation
Can every member of your party find where they are and a way to get back to the trailhead? Modern trail riders have a variety of navigation tools available to help them “stay found.” A prepared rider carries, and knows how to use, at least these three essential tools while on the trail: map, compass, and GPS device. A map and compass can help you identify where you are; how far you have to go; and help find campsites, water, and an emergency exit route in case of an accident. While GPS units are handy, always carry a map and compass as a backup.

2. Illumination
Headlamps are the flashlight of choice for riders because they free your hands for all sorts of tasks, from untacking a horse to starting a fire. For those occasional longer-than-planned rides, the light will help you to see your map and where you’re heading. Modern, efficient, and bright LED bulbs have virtually replaced incandescent bulbs from the 1900s. An LED bulb will last seemingly forever but batteries don’t, so carry spares.

3. First-Aid Supplies
Never forget your first-aid kit, and increase your its effectiveness with the knowledge of how to use it by taking a first-aid class or a wilderness first-aid class. On the trail and in the mountains, trained response may be hours or even days away.

Pre-assembled first-aid kits take the guesswork out of building your own, though most people personalize their kits to suit individual needs. Any kit should include treatments for blisters, adhesive bandages of various sizes, gauze pads, adhesive tape, disinfecting ointment, and over-the-counter pain medication. For a longer ride or backcountry pack trip, talk to your physician about appropriate prescription medications. Carrying a first-aid kit, and knowing how to use it, can help make a bad situation a lot less bad!

4. Repair Kit
Knives or multi-purpose tools are so useful in first -aid, food preparation, and repairs. Plan to carry at least one. From repairing broken tack on the trail to making bandages and removing splinters (or just to get to the bottom of the peanut butter jar) having a way to repair equipment on the trail will help keep a ride on track.

Other necessary repair kit items include duct tape and baler twine. These all-purpose fix-it items have saved many trail rides! Think about the length and nature of each ride when deciding what to add to your repair kit. Other tools such as pliers and useful repair items including needle and thread, cable ties, cordage, and replacement parts for equipment such as a water filter, have a place in every rider’s gear list.

A means of communication can help you get out of a bind. A satellite communicator can allow you to reach out for help to save your life.

5. Means of Communication
Historically, horsemen have needed to be self-reliant, and you should still have that mindset today. But when an emergency unfolds despite preparation and training, most people welcome help. A reliable means of communications can get that help to you!

Satellite communicators and personal locator beacons determine your position using GPS and send messages via satellites. These tools have saved many lives, and every trail rider should strongly consider carrying one. Satellite communicators are reliable in remote areas; regular phones, which rely on your proximity to cell towers, are not. Unless you’re positive you’ll have a dependable connection, assume that your phone won’t function.

6. Fire Starter
Can you reliably start and maintain a fire? Its heat and light can make a world of difference on a cold night. For many people, a disposable butane lighter works fine; matches are also suitable so long as they’re stored in a waterproof container. More experienced outdoorsmen use fire strikers that create intense showers of sparks to easily start a fire in the worst of conditions. You can also make your own homemade fire starters: candles; balls of dryer lint mixed with paraffin; egg-carton cups filled with mixtures of wood shavings, wax, and lint; etc.

7. Emergency Shelter
If you’re really in a bind, you might have to wait for a rescue. Anything that can keep you warm and dry will be appreciated in such a situation. Tarps, emergency blankets, or even large garbage bags can provide a way to protect yourself, or others, from the elements in an emergency situation. Emergency space blankets are cheap, lightweight, and compact tools that can help if you get stranded or injured on the trail.

Note: A shelter is only useful if you have it with you at all times. Left behind at your trailer or camp, it’s not going to help you.

8. Insulation
Are you prepared in case the weather changes? We’ve all been caught in an unscheduled rain shower. It’s not pleasant. Conditions can abruptly turn wet, windy, or cold on the trail, or an injury can result in an unplanned night out. Hypothermia can be a serious concern even in the summer if you’re stuck out overnight. Carry at least a spare rain coat.

Pro tip: An extra hat will provide more warmth for its weight than any other piece of clothing.

9. Hydration
We humans are 60% water, and we’re constantly losing it! Without enough water, your body’s muscles and organs won’t function as intended. Always carry at least one water bottle or hydration bladder. Wide-mouth containers are easier to refill. Always start a ride with a full container, and have the skills and tools required to obtain and purify additional water by filtering, using purification chemicals, or boiling if necessary.

10. Nutrition
I’m always glad to find an extra snack in the bottom of my saddle bags. Extra food helps keep up your energy and morale. Carry extra, high-calorie, nutrient-dense food that lasts a long time, requires no cooking, and is easily digestible. Combinations of jerky, nuts, candy, and granola work well. If you’re a dedicated coffee drinker, a few packets of instant will provide a caffeine fix and help you keep a clear head.

Use Common Sense
Having the right gear is one thing, knowing how and when to use it is quite another. Often, it’s not your equipment that saves you. It’s your experience, know-how, and good judgment. Inexperience or a lack of good judgment gets you into trouble. Take the time and effort to develop a better understanding and greater knowledge of the outdoors. Go beyond just horsemanship skills, —it’ll make for much better trail riding and horse camping trips.

As always for more information on trail riding, horse camping, and the world’s largest database of horse trails, visit

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