Take a Hike – Arnight Loop

By Tom Pfaendler

Pop a cork and pour champagne on this issue of The Desert Trumpet to welcome “Boot Tracks”, a monthly look at trails in and around Red Rock Canyon. This month’s subject, The Arnight Loop Trail is really comprised of the Arnight Trail, the Knoll Trail and the North Oak Creek Canyon Trail.

Finding the trail head is easy; just drive about twelve miles around the loop, then take that last bumpy dirt road on the right marked Oak Creek Canyon, and follow it to the parking area. The Arnight trail head is to the north and is well marked. The sign gives this route a difficulty rating of “moderate”, although it’s really somewhat easier than that. It reminds me of the Children’s Discovery Trail, only longer.

The Arnight Trail is built for two, plenty wide with a natural tread that’s not too rocky. There are some nice sandy washes and the grade is an easy 7% so you’ll hardly break a sweat over its 1.6-mile length.

The second and longest leg is the Knoll Trail, which is probably more deserving of the “moderate” rating. The path narrows and is rockier with some grades to 15%. I would still recommend it even to beginning hikers because the trail winds through some heavy vegetation and deeper washes to top out around 300 feet above the parking area. The panoramic view from the top of the rock staircase is really nice and makes a good photo spot. Total length of The Knoll Trail is marked as 1.9 miles.

The last leg of this loop is the North Oak Creek Canyon Trail. If you feel like taking a little side trip, turn right (west) and hike into Oak Creek Canyon; it’s stunningly beautiful. Otherwise turn left for a quick one-mile descent down the old rocky jeep trail back to the parking lot.

The Arnight Loop Trail is one of those wonderful garden areas at Red Rock. At every turn there are new and more beautiful groupings of rocks and cacti. A plethora of Mojave Desert plants are represented along this path. Be sure to allow enough time to enjoy the walk and take in the quiet beauty. Since there isn’t much shelter on this trail, I recommend that you go early in the day, wear a hat, take your camera and of course lots of water. I like the Arnight Loop Trail. While it doesn’t have the jaw dropping beauty of Ice Box Canyon or the sporty fun of the Calico Tank, it does provide a fairly easy and very interesting morning stroll through the desert.

I would give it a rating of five boots (out of ten).

Disclaimer Of Liability:

With respect to images, data, and narrative posted at this website, Friends of Red Rock Canyon makes no warranty, express or implied, including the warranties of merchantability and fitness for a particular purpose, or assumes any legal liability or responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of any information, apparatus, product, or process disclosed, or represents that its use would not infringe privately owned rights. Friends of Red Rock Canyon shall not be liable in any way for loss or damage, of any kind, to you, or any other person, for any inaccuracy, error, omission, or delay in any information posted or otherwise transmitted over this website.

While the website tries to accurately describe places and routes, conditions change over time and sometimes mistakes are made. If something posted on this site seems wrong, assume it is wrong and tell us that it needs to be fixed. Wildlands are inherently dangerous — always rely on your own good judgment. You are responsible for your own safety.

Hiking is Easier and Safer Now with BLM’s Georeference Maps

Heading out for a remote adventure?  No cell coverage?  No problem. The BLM has developed georeferenced maps compatible with any georeferenced map mobile application.

Click on these Georeference Maps of Red Rock Canyon

How to Use the Maps

These PDF maps are designed for use on your GPS-enabled mobile device and can be displayed on any PDF reader. When viewed in an installed mobile map application, each map is designed so that your location can be displayed on screen in real time.

Georeferenced map applications allow you to navigate using your mobile device’s GPS even without cellular reception. There are a variety of georeferenced PDF apps available for Apple and Android devices. Consult the mobile apps instructions for complete information on how to use. The BLM has currently uploaded several georeferenced maps to the AVENZA application store.

These maps can also be printed or viewed without using a mobile application.


  • Download the map onto your device prior to being in an area that may not have data coverage. (Message and data rates may apply.)
  • Ensure Location Services is enabled for the mobile map application being used on your mobile device.


  • In areas with no cellular reception, phone battery life significantly decreases. Utilizing airplane mode or putting your device in airplane mode will greatly improve battery life and will not interfere with GPS tracking.
  • Like all GPS technology, the accuracy of your device will be compromised by cloudy weather and close proximity to tall cliff walls and slot canyons.
  • File sizes for maps obtained from the AVENZA app store are typically much larger than the PDFs listed below. AVENZA recommends users connect to a WiFi network when downloading.

Photo: BLM

Boot Tracks

By Tom Pfaendler

When I started writing “Boots”, I developed a scoring system of zero to ten boots. Every trail that I’ve hiked has been held up against this system to determine the correct number of boots. (And you thought I was just winging it). I’ve been asked on occasion why I’ve scored something the way I did, and that usually results in a detailed explanation involving sunspots and the rotation of the earth. It never really occurred to me to actually publish the scoring system. So that being said, here is the official Boot Tracks “yardstick”, and the truth behind the question “why aren’t there ever any 10’s?”

Boots Trail Scoring System
0 Not reviewed
1 Should have slept in today. You would rather go to the dentist. Give it the boot.
2 Boring, dull, noisy, polluted, trashed. You’ll need a REAL good reason to be out here.
3 Flawed trail but has some redeeming characteristics. Can hike here if desperate.
4 Interesting trail with some annoying problems. Not a bad trek.
5 Good basic trail. You like it and it deserves the “C”. You will probably hike this again.
6 A really good hike that’s more challenging and beautiful than average.
7 You love this one. You want to bring all of your friends and share it with them.
8 Simply awesome trail. You would travel far to do this one and it is a very memorable experience.
9 World-class, nearly perfect experience. This trail will turn you into a poet. You’ll tell everyone you meet about this.
10 Possible life-changing experience. This will make you sit in quiet contemplation and thank Mother Earth for giving you this moment in time. You won’t tell anyone about this place, it’s too personal.

BLM Trail Maps

Click here to view new BLM trail maps.

Take a Hike – Potato Knoll

By Norm Kresge

Potato Knoll is a hike of about 4.5 miles round trip. It’s not a standard out-and-back hike but one that goes to the base of the Potato Knoll, loops around the knoll, and then returns on the same trail to the parking area.

There are a couple of ways to do this hike. The best way is to park along SR 159 at the first dirt parking area past the exit from the Scenic Drive (about ¼ mile past the exit). The trail heads toward the knoll — the Potato Knoll that is sometimes called Wilson’s Pimple.

The first part of the hike is on an old road. About ¾ of a mile out as you head toward Oak Creek, the trail forks to the left. Follow this fork as you hike across the fl at part of this area and then down some steps that bring you to Oak Creek.

There may be water depending on the time of year. After crossing the creek, the trail continues until you come to a large juniper tree where the trail meets another one. Follow the trail to the right and it will bring you around to an area where you’ll have some elevation gain and some rocky going.

Along this part, you’ll pass the remnants of a wooden sled that was used to haul sandstone out of the area when there was a quarrying operation here.  A little later, you’ll pass some petrified wood off the trail on your right side at the crest of this uphill section. For the next part of the hike, you’ll be going along the base of the knoll and the terrain is flat.

When you get to the far side of the knoll, you head to the right as you meet the Oak Creek Trail that comes in from the highway. Keep right and you have a short rise to hike up. In this area, you can see the remnants of a concrete entryway for Rhea’s Quarry operation.  If you’re interested, you can read more about this quarrying in Seekers, Saints & Scoundrels: The
Colorful Characters of Red Rock Canyon.

When you reach the high point on this side of the knoll, you’re at a place that’s good to take a break and have a snack.

In front of you is a view of Oak Creek Canyon and the area has a lot of juniper and some pine. Continuing on the trail, you’ll see it fork to the right. Take that right turn and follow it and you’ll join a trail that comes from Oak Creek. Stay to your right and keep going around the knoll.

You will cross Oak Creek two or three times. This part of the creek is more likely to have water in the spring. After another mile or so, you come back to that juniper tree you saw when you came to the trail junctions. Turn left here and this will bring you back to the old road where you make a right and head back to your car.

This is a cooler weather hike with some shade at the snack area. Remember to take enough water.

Hiking boots are best for this trail although I’ve seen people hike it in sneakers.

One of the bonuses of this hike is you don’t have to drive the Scenic Drive after you’re done to get back to Las Vegas. It’s also a less used trail and you’re not as likely to see many other people.

Happy Hiking!

Disclaimer Of Liability:

With respect to images, data, and narrative posted at this website, Friends of Red Rock Canyon makes no warranty, express or implied, including the warranties of merchantability and fitness for a particular purpose, or assumes any legal liability or responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of any information, apparatus, product, or process disclosed, or represents that its use would not infringe privately owned rights. Friends of Red Rock Canyon shall not be liable in any way for loss or damage, of any kind, to you, or any other person, for any inaccuracy, error, omission, or delay in any information posted or otherwise transmitted over this website.

While the website tries to accurately describe places and routes, conditions change over time and sometimes mistakes are made. If something posted on this site seems wrong, assume it is wrong and tell us that it needs to be fixed. Wildlands are inherently dangerous — always rely on your own good judgment. You are responsible for your own safety.

Walking on Water – From Cape Cod to Fossil Ridge

The marsh spreads miles from Cape Cod Bay revealing an ever-changing world from my back yard’s giant bay window. Twice every day by nature’s definition the tide ebbs and flows. During full moon, the water’s edge creeps closer – more so when the northeast wind reaches double-digit authority.

From winter’s icy waves to summer’s high, undulating grasses, the marsh reveals a rhythm that is at once predictable and mysterious, its angles ever changed by the competition between sun and clouds, by the moon’s cycles, by shifting breezes.

From the front of my home, I watch the same eternal tide command Boat Meadow beach. White caps may capture a moored sailboat’s bow, carrying it feet into the air. Five hours later, the sandy flats now stretch a quarter mile to the horizon, imposing a transient serenity and inviting me to walk toward the edge of the world.

Six months ago, I departed the bay and marsh and moved to Las Vegas. Friends and family wondered aloud how I could abandon the sea; the early morning beach walks sharing soft sand with piping plovers and terns, spying the spray of right whales in the distance and feeling the curious stare of grey seals bobbing in the surf.

Leaving the ocean for the Strip?

The Red Rocks, I explained.

There’s mystery and adventure there – a majesty as humbling as the sea. Like the marsh, their angles are commanded by the same sun and moon, by the hour of the day, by the direction of the wind.

Stand on Fossil Ridge and stare toward a different horizon. At times, you can imagine the topography as waves – especially as clouds form at the edge of a ridge, casting shadows that bob and weave.

Suddenly, there is a lone wild burro in the distance creating the same excitement that a dolphin can as it rises from the bay.

But, it’s the fossils themselves that connect the two seemingly disparate worlds, that impose on both brain and heart the knowledge of your own mortality and the immutability of nature.

How can it be that descendants of scallops and sea sponges I discover along a lonely Cape Cod beach are encased and memorialized among the stepping stones of my quiet quest climbing these mighty rocks?

How can this peak’s path be guided by remnants of the ocean’s floor, each fossil part of archaeological tapestry that mocks the transience of our daily headlines?

Your imagination can’t quite scale the 300 million years when these fossils were alive at the bottom of another ocean filled with a glittering array of fish – even giant squid. You kneel to touch the scallop’s contours. It instantly conjures the recent memory of a just-opened scallop’s shell that washed onto what Thoreau dubbed The Great Beach, discovered just before hungry gulls would arrive for dinner.


At this moment, I am walking on water, this ocean basin 2,800 miles from Cape Cod and hundreds of millions of years from its Paleozoic origins – before the deposit of limey sediments, before the earth’s crust started to rise from tectonic shifts, before marine shale and sandstone were deposited, before swamps became petrified, before shifting sand dunes lithified, cemented with calcium and iron.

At the tip of Cape Cod, at one of its thinnest points, there’s a trail that begins amid a beach forest, then loops toward the ocean at Race Point. Along the way, you pass dunes reaching 100 feet or more toward the sky. You can hear crashing waves in the distance. Yet, standing beside the mountains of sand, you imagine yourself lost in a desert, your view of the world eclipsed in every direction by the hot sand reflecting a noon sun.

What will become of these dunes? They likely will be swallowed by the rising ocean – too soon.

Atop Fossil Ridge, I think about how only months ago my moments were circumscribed by waters shimmering green and blue. Now, the moments bow to resplendent Calico cliffs – each world equal in its uniqueness, each inviting another day’s discovery, a new journey at nature’s command.




A Quick Guide the Hiking Trails Along the Scenic Loop

The following is a brief list from the Bureau of Land Management of the more popular hikes in the area of the Scenic Loop. It is best to carry a map of the area.  Maps of the Red Rock Canyon  are available for sale at the bookstore in the visitor center.  

You also now can access Georeferenced PDF maps. Download them in advance, because most of the trails may not have Internet access.  Click here for instructions.

To reserve space for guided hikes by our partner, Southern Nevada Conservancy, click here.


  1. MOENKOPI LOOP: Triassic fossils and various desert flora can be seen on this open country trail which starts at the visitor center just west of the weather monitoring station and traverses a prominent limestone ridge. In addition to panoramic views of the Wilson Cliffs, there are connecting trails to the Calico Hills area (2 mileloop, easy).  Click here.

Click here for Georeferenced Trail Map. 


  1. CALICO HILLS: This trail runs along the base of the Calico Rocks from Calico Basin to Sandstone Quarry. Distance is variable since the trail can be accessed at either end or from either of the two Calico parking areas. A side trail runs from the fee booth parking lot and connects with this trail (distance variable, easy to moderate).  Click here.

Click here for Georeferenced Trail Map. 


  1. CALICO TANKS: From Sandstone Quarry the trail heads north from its junction with the Turtlehead Peak Trail to just past the Agave roasting pit site. Just beyond this site, the trail veers up a side canyon to the right where it follows ascending rock terraces to a large natural water tank (tinaja). Water may be present in the tanks after seasonal rains. (2.5 miles round trip, moderately strenuous, rock scrambling and route finding skills recommended).   Click here

Click here for Georeferenced Trail Map.  


  1. TURTLEHEAD PEAK: From Sandstone Quarry the trail heads north over a narrow rise, in and out of a wash, then continues for a short distance along the northwest side of Turtlehead Peak. Scramble up a ravine to the saddle and follow the steep ridge to the top. The trail is intermittent and composed of loose rock. (5 miles round trip, very strenuous). Click here.

Click here for Georeferenced Trail Map. 


  1. KEYSTONE THRUST: From upper White Rock Springs parking lot take the trail north across the wash, and up the hill. The Keystone Thrust trail ” T’s” off the La Madre Springs loop to the right approximately 1/4 mile from the parking lot. Take the right fork up the stairs to where it then joins an old jeep road, continuing uphill to the left. The trail traverses a low ridge, heads down into a small canyon, onto the Keystone Thrust Fault where the gray limestone meets the red and tan sandstone. (2.2 miles round trip, moderate hike).             Click here.

Click here for Georeferenced Trail Map.  


  1. WHITE ROCK TO WILLOW SPRINGS: From the upper parking lot at White Rock Springs, take the trail on the west side to where it splits. The trail to the right descends to a guzzler (man madewater hole). The trail to the left heads downhill and through a wash, then climbs over a ridge and drops you into the Lost Creek area (2 miles). From there it is only a short distance to Willow Springs. Starting from Willow Springs, just reverse the previous instructions. (4.4 miles round trip, easy to moderate hike).  Click here

Click here for Georeferenced Trail Map. 


  1. WHITE ROCK/LA MADRE SPRINGS LOOP: This trail can be started at White Rock Springs or Willow Springs, and can be done in either direction. By starting at Willow Springs, hikers can deal with the steep climb to White Rock near the beginning of the hike, rather than at the end. When you come to a fork with a sign reading “White Rock Springs 2.2 miles”, take the uphill trail to the left. Follow it to White Rock upper parking lot, continuing east from the lot. When the trail forks, go left and follow the trail until it intersects an old dirt road. Follow that road downhill to where it forks to the left, returning you to Willow Springs, or right to La Madre Spring. (6 miles round trip, moderate).  Click here

Click here for Georeferenced Trail Map. 


  1. LOST CREEK CHILDREN’S DISCOVERY TRAIL: From the Lost Creek parking area, take the trail to the right. The Willow Springs Loop intersects this trail and shares it until it splits off at Site #3. Continue on this loop until just beyond Site #4, where another path heads uphill to a seasonal waterfall. Return by the same route. This popular trail may be crowded at times as it is used by many school groups. (.7 mileround trip, easy).  Click here

Click here for Georeferenced Trail Map.


  1. WILLOW SPRINGS LOOP: From the parking lot, follow the trail by the pit toilets south. This takes you past a pictograph site and Agave roasting pits, to the Lost Creek Parking lot. There the trail heads to the right to where the two trails fork, at Site #3. Bear to the right and continue to the Willow Springs Parking lot. Part of this trail is paved and is readily accessible from the parking lot. (1. 5 miles round trip, easy). Click here.

Click here for Georeferenced Trail Map.


  1. LA MADRE SPRINGS: From the Willow Springs Parking lot, walk the dirt road west up the canyon, cross a wash and go to the right when the road splits. Continue uphill to the dam, then follow the foot trail to the springs. Return to Willow Springs the same way. (3 miles round trip, moderate). Click here.

Click here for Georeferenced Trail Map.


  1. SMYC TRAIL: This trail can be accessed from either Lost Creek or Ice Box Trail. It follows the terrain at the base of the escarpment and connects the two trails mentioned above. (2. 2 miles round trip, moderate).  Click here.

Click here for Georeferenced Trail Map 


  1. 12. ICE BOX CANYON: From the parking lot, the trail heads down across the wash and up the other side toward the canyon. The trail is well defined as it leads you up the side of the canyon for approximately 1/4 of a mile. It then drops into the bottom of the canyon. From this point the trail becomes a route over or around boulders as it continues upstream. The official trail ends at the large ponderosa pine tree in the bottom of the canyon (2. 5 miles round trip). To reach the upper pool filled by a seasonal waterfall, be prepared for some tricky wall scrambling, and a 3-mile round trip. Return to the parking lot the same way. (moderately strenuous).  Click here.

Click here for Georeferenced Trail Map. 


  1. DALE’S TRAIL: This trail can be accessed from either Ice Box Trail or Pine Creek Trail. It follows the terrain at the base of the escarpment and connects the two above mentioned trails. (4.4 mileround trip, moderate).  Click here

Click here for Georeferenced Trail Map.  


  1. PINE CREEK CANYON: Take the trail downhill from the parking lot, following it toward the canyon. The trail is intersected twice by the Fire Ecology Trail and by Dale’s Trail, then forks near the old Wilson homestead foundation. This part of the trail is a loop and is easier to follow to the left where it goes downhill, across a stream, then uphill to the intersection of theArnight Trail. Continue up the canyon crossing the wash, and eventually return to the main trail on the opposite side of the homestead. Follow it back to the parking lot. (2. 9 mile round trip, moderate).  Click here

Click here for Georeferenced Trail Map.


  1.  FIRE ECOLOGY TRAIL: This double-loop trail, accessed via the Pine Creek Trail, exits and enters the Pine Creek Trail from the south. Take the trail to the left heading toward the escarpment, across a bridge and over a rise to enter the second loop. Return across the same bridge and follow the trail back to the Pine Creek Trail. (.75 miles round trip, easy).            Click here.

Click here for Georeferenced Trail Map. 


  1. OAK CREEK CANYON TRAIL: Take the Oak Creek turnoff from the scenic loop drive to a small parking lot. The trail heads across the open desert to the mouth of Oak Creek Canyon. (2 miles round trip, easy).  Click here.

Click here for Georeferenced Trail Map.


  1. ARNIGHT TRAIL: The Arnight Trail connects the Oak Creek parking lot with the end loop on Pine Creek Trail. Starting at the parking lot, across from the Oak Creek Trail head, it heads toward the escarpment gaining elevation until it joins the Pine Creek Trail just above the loop junction. Approximately 1/2 mile before the trail connects with Pine Creek, another trail called the Knoll Trail intersects it on the left. (2. 4 miles round trip, moderate).  Click here

Click here for Georeferenced Trail Map.


  1. KNOLL TRAIL: This trail links the upper sections of theArnight Trail and the Oak Creek Trail, following the base of the escarpment and will eventually connect with First Creek Trail. (1.9 mile one-way, easy to moderate). You can combine this trail with the Oak Creek and Arnight Trails for a 3. 5 mile round trip, moderate hike.  Click here

Click here for Georeferenced Trail Map.


  1. FIRST CREEK CANYON TRAIL: Take Charleston Blvd. (State Route 159), south of the scenic loop terminus, for 2.6 miles to the First Creek Trailhead. The trail leads to the mouth of the canyon, following the left side of the wash for a distance; some rock scrambling is required thereafter. Seasonal waterfalls can be found in the canyon. (2 .5 miles round trip, moderately strenuous). Click here.

Click here for Georeferenced Trail Map.


  1. GRAND CIRCLE ADVENTURE: This trail starts at the fee booth parking area, heads toward the Calico Hills Trail and onto Sandstone Quarry, then continues on to the White Rock Springs upper parking lot. From there, it heads down the hill toward Willow Springs, but veers to the left at a junction on top of the ridge. It then crosses the scenic loop drive and continues downhill to the visitor center. (11 miles round trip, strenuous).  Click here.

Click here for Georeferenced Trail Map. 


  1. ESCARPMENT BASE TRAIL: A combination of the SMYC, Dale’s andArnight trails, this is a good one-way hike or a more adventurous round-trip. The one-way version requires parking a vehicle in Lost Creek and car pooling down to the Oak Creek parking area. (5. 2 miles one way; moderate). The round trip version can be done from either end. (10. 4 miles round trip, strenuous).  


  1. OVERLOOK TRAIL: This paved path leads to the top of a small hill behind the helicopter pad, and is easily accessible from the parking lot, providing a marvelous view of Red Rock Canyon and the escarpment. (.25 mileround trip, easy to moderate, wheelchair accessible). 


  1. BRIDGE MOUNTAIN TRAIL: This difficult trail is accessed from the summit of Rocky Gap Road.  4X4 vehicle is required.  Click here.

Click here for Georeferenced Trail Map

REI’s Back Pack Check List

REI, a major sponsor of Friends of Red Rock Canyon, provides this handy check list for campers, hikers and climbers who enjoy the Red Rocks

Friends thank REI for all their support.

REI’s check list is your tried-and-true guide to packing smart. The list is intentionally comprehensive so don’t forget anything important.

To locate a nearby REI, click here.



  • Map (with protective cover)
  • Compass
  • GPS (optional)
  • Altimeter (optional

Sun Protection

  • Sunscreen
  • Lip Balm
  • Sunglasses


  • Jacket
  • Vest
  • Pants
  • Gloves
  • Hat (see clothing)


  • Headlamp or flashlight
  • Extra batteries

First-Aid Supplies

  • First-aid Kit


  • Matches or lighter
  • Waterproof container
  • Fire starter (for emergency survival fire)



Repair Kit and Tools

  • Knife or multi-tool
  • Repair kits for stove, mattress
  • Duct tape strips


  • Extra day’s supply of food


  • Water bottles or hydration reservoirs
  • Water filter or other treatment system

Emergency Shelter

  • Tent
  • Tarp
  • Bivy
  • Reflective blanket


Beyond the 10 ESSENTIALS

  • Backpack
  • Daypack or summit pack
  • Pack cover
  • Tent, tarp or bivy sack with stakes and guylines
  • Tent-pol repair sleeve
  • Footprint
  • Sleeping bag
  • Stuff sack or compression sack
  • Sleeping pad
  • Pillow or stuffable pillow case
  • Whistle
  • Multifunctional watch with altimeter
  • Ice axe
  • Meals
  • Energy food (bars, gels, chews, trail mix)
  • Energy beverages or drink mixes
  • Stove
  • Fuel
  • Cook set with pot grabber
  • Dishes or bowls
  • Utensils
  • Cups
  • Bear canister
  • Nylon cord (50 feet)
  • Backup water treatment
  • Collapsible sink or container
  • Packable lantern


Clothing for Warm Weather

  • Wicking T-shirt
  • Wicking underwear
  • Quick-drying pants or short
  • Long-sleeve shirt
  • Sun-shielding hat
  • Bandana or Buff


Clothing for Cold Weather

  • Wicking long-sleeve T-shirt
  • Wicking long underwear
  • Hat, cap, skullcap, balaclava or headband
  • Rainwear
  • Fleece jacket or vest, and pants


Footwear and Personal Items

  • Hiking boots or hiking shoes suited to terrain
  • Socks
  • Gaiters
  • Sandals for fording and in camp
  • Camera or helmet cam
  • Extra memory cards
  • Binoculars
  • Permits
  • Route description or guidebook
  • Field guide; star identifier
  • Outdoor journal and pen or pencil
  • Credit card
  • Small amount of cash
  • Earplugs
  • Eye Shade
  • Toilet paper
  • Sanitation trowel
  • Hand sensitizer
  • Insect repellant
  • Bear Spray
  • Biodegradable soap and shower bag
  • Quick-dry towel
  • Cell phone/satellite communicator/2-way radio
  • Personal locator beacon
  • Post-hike snacks, water, towel, clothing change
  • Trip itinerary left with friend and under car seat

The Ten Essentials

Compliments of REI

Packing the “Ten Essentials” whenever you step into the backcountry, even on day hikes, is a good habit. True, on a routine trip you may use only a few of them or none at all. It’s when something goes awry that you’ll truly appreciate the value of carrying these items that could be essential to your survival.

The original Ten Essentials list was assembled in the 1930s by The Mountaineers, a Seattle-based organization for climbers and outdoor adventurers, to help people be prepared for emergency situations in the outdoors. Back then, the list included a map, compass, sunglasses and sunscreen, extra clothing, headlamp/flashlight, first-aid supplies, fire starter, matches, knife and extra food.

Over the years, the list has evolved to a “systems” approach rather than including individual items.

Here’s what it looks like today, compliments of REI, a Friends’ partner:


Updated Ten Essential Systems

  1. Navigation: map, compass, altimeter, GPS device, personal locator beacon (PLB) or satellite messenger
  2. Headlamp: plus extra batteries
  3. Sun protection: sunglasses, sun-protective clothes and sunscreen
  4. First aid: including foot care and insect repellent (as needed)
  5. Knife: plus a gear repair kit
  6. Fire: matches, lighter, tinder and/or stove
  7. Shelter: carried at all times (can be a light emergency bivy)
  8. Extra food: Beyond the minimum expectation
  9. Extra water: Beyond the minimum expectation
  10. Extra clothes: Beyond the minimum expectation

The exact items from each system that you take can be tailored to the trip you’re taking. For example, on a short day hike that’s easy to navigate you might choose to take a map, compass and PLB, but leave your GPS and altimeter behind. On a longer, more complex outing, you might decide you want all those tools to help you find your way. When deciding what to bring, consider factors like weather, difficulty, duration, and distance from help.

Continue reading below for more information about each of the Ten Essential systems. And for help figuring out what else to bring with you, check out our hiking checklists.

1. Navigation

A compass sits on a topographic map

Contemporary navigation tools include five essentials for traveling in the backcountry: a map, compass, altimeter watch, GPS device and personal locator beacon (PLB). Here’s more detail:

  • Map: A topographic map should accompany you on any trip that involves anything more than a short, impossible-to-miss footpath or frequently visited nature trail. Learn how to read a topo map.
  • Compass: A compass, combined with map-reading knowledge, is a vital tool if you become disoriented in the backcountry. Many smartphones, GPS devices and watches include electronic compasses, but it’s wise to also carry a standard baseplate compass because it weighs next to nothing and does not rely on batteries, making it an indispensable backup. Learn how to use a compass.

Note: A compass equipped with a sighting mirror can also be used to flash sunlight to a helicopter or rescuer during an emergency.

Shop compasses

  • GPS device: A GPS device allows you to accurately find your location on a digital map. Those designed specifically for outdoor travel are often built rugged and weatherproof. Another popular option is to use a smartphone with a GPS app, but consider that most phones are more fragile so you’ll likely need to protect it with a case. Whichever you choose, keep in mind that these gadgets run on batteries, so you’ll need to monitor your battery power and possibly carry extra batteries. Learn more about choosing and using a GPS.

Shop GPS devices

  • Altimeter watch: This is a worthwhile navigational extra to consider bringing along. It uses a barometric sensor to measure air pressure and/or GPS data to provide a close estimate of your elevation. This info helps you track your progress and determine your location on a map.

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  • Personal locator beacon (PLB) or satellite messenger: These gadgets can be used to alert emergency personnel if you need help in the backcountry. When activated in an emergency, they will determine your position using GPS and send a message via government or commercial satellites. A PLB or satellite messenger can be a nice backup to have in case something goes awry, and they will work in remote locations where a cell phone cannot be counted on to have a signal. Learn more about PLBs and satellite messengers.

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2. Headlamp

Two headlamps sitting on top of a backpacking pack

Being able to find your way through the wilderness at night is essential, so you always need to have a light source with you. A headlamp is the preferred choice of most backcountry travelers because it keeps your hands free for all types of tasks, whether that’s cooking dinner or holding trekking poles. Always carry extra batteries. Learn more about headlamps.

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3. Sun Protection

A backpacker wearing a sun hat, sunglasses, and sun-protection clothing

Always pack with you and wear sunglasses, sun-protection clothing and sunscreen. Not doing so can result in sunburn and/or snow blindness in the short term and potentially premature skin aging, skin cancer and cataracts in the long term.

  • Sunglasses: Quality sunglasses are indispensable in the outdoors to protect your eyes from potentially damaging radiation. If you’re planning prolonged travel on snow or ice, you’ll need extra-dark glacier glasses. All sunglasses sold at REI block 100 percent of ultraviolet light (UVA and UVB)—a key function of quality lenses. UVB rays, the rays that can burn your skin, have been linked to the development of cataracts. Groups should carry at least one pair of spare sunglasses in case someone loses theirs or forgets to bring them. Learn more about sunglasses.

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  • Sunscreen: Spending long hours outdoors can expose you to ultraviolet rays, the cause of sunburn, premature skin aging and skin cancer. Wearing sunscreen is recommended to help limit your exposure to UV. When selecting a sunscreen, health experts advise choosing:
    • A formula that offers a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15, though SPF 30 is recommended for extended outdoor activity.
    • A formula that blocks both UVA and UVB rays.

Apply the sunscreen generously and thoroughly to all exposed skin. UV rays can reflect off of snow and water so don’t forget to get spots like the underside of your chin and nose. Depending on many factors (time of day, sweat and more), you should reapply as often as every two hours. And don’t overlook SPF-rated lip balm. Learn more about buying and applying sunscreen.

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  • Sun-protection clothing: Clothing can be an effective way of blocking UV rays from reaching your skin without having to slather on sunscreen (you’ll still need sunscreen for any exposed skin, like your face, neck and hands). Many lightweight, synthetic pieces of clothing come with an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) rating to indicate how effective the pieces are against UVA and UVB light. A hat, preferably one with a full brim, is a key accessory for sun protection. Learn more about sun-protection clothing.

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4. First Aid

A first-aid kit lies open on top of a backpacking pack

It’s vital to carry and know how to use the items in a first-aid kit. Pre-assembled first-aid kits take the guesswork out of building your own, though many people personalize these kits to suit individual needs. Any kit should include treatments for blisters, adhesive bandages of various sizes, several gauze pads, adhesive tape, disinfecting ointment, over-the-counter pain medication, pen and paper. Nitrile gloves should also be included.

The length of your trip and the number of people involved will impact the contents of your kit. It’s also a good idea to carry some sort of compact guide to dealing with medical emergencies. Learn more about first-aid kits.

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5. Knife

An array of pocket and camping knives sit on a wooden surface

Knives are handy for gear repair, food preparation, first aid, making kindling or other emergency needs, making them an essential for every outing. Every adult in your group should carry a knife.

A basic knife may have only a single foldout blade; more elaborate knives and multitools include things like one or two flathead screwdrivers, a can opener and/or a pair of foldout scissors. The more complex your needs (if, for example, you are leading an inexperienced group), the more options you may want in your knife or tool. Get help choosing a knife.

In addition to a knife, a small gear repair kit can get you out of a bind in the backcountry (and the more remote you are, the more important your kit becomes). Common items include duct tape, cordage, fabric repair tape, zip ties, safety pins and repair parts for a water filter, tent poles, stove, sleeping pad, crampons, snowshoes and skis. Check out our Backpacking Repair Kit Checklist for more ideas.

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6. Fire

A detail shot of a campfire

In case of an emergency, you need to have reliable supplies with you for starting and maintaining a fire. For many people, this is a disposable butane lighter, but matches are also suitable so long as they are waterproof or stored in a waterproof container. Convenience-store matchbooks are often too flimsy and poorly constructed to be trusted for wilderness use.

Firestarter, as the name implies, is an element that helps you jump-start a fire and is indispensable in wet conditions. The ideal firestarter ignites quickly and sustains heat for more than a few seconds. Options include dry tinder tucked away in a plastic bag, candles, priming paste, heat “nuggets” (chipped-wood clusters soaked in resin) and even lint trappings from a household clothes dryer.

For outings where firewood is not available, such as trips above tree line and/or on snow, a stove is recommended as an emergency heat and water source.

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7. Emergency Shelter

A woman pulls an emergency blanket out of her daypack

Always carry some type of emergency shelter to protect you from wind and rain in case you get stranded or injured on the trail. Options include an ultralight tarp, a bivy sack, an emergency space blanket (which packs small and weighs just ounces) or even a large plastic trash bag. It’s important to understand that your tent is only your emergency shelter if you have it with you at all times (a tent left behind at your camp is not sufficient).

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8. Extra Food

A bowl of granola and an assortment of dried fruits

Always pack at least an extra day’s worth of food in case something causes your trip to go long (such as an injury or bad weather). It’s a good idea to pack items that don’t require cooking and that have a long shelf life. Things like extra energy bars, nuts, dried fruits or jerky are good.

If you’re going on a long multiday trek or a winter adventure, consider bringing along more than a one-day supply.

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9. Extra Water

A water filter sits on a rock

It’s crucial to carry enough water for your outing and have some method of treating water while you’re out there, whether that’s with a filter/purifier, chemical treatment or a stove for melting snow. When determining how much water to carry exactly, consider that most people need about a half liter per hour during moderate activity in moderate temperatures. You may need to carry more than that depending on factors like the outside temperature, altitude, level of exertion or an emergency.

As a starting point, always carry at least one water bottle or a collapsible water reservoir. When beginning a hike, fill up your bottle or reservoir from a potable water source. Learn more about hydration.

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10. Extra Clothes

A backpacker pulling extra clothes out of her pack

Conditions can abruptly turn wet, windy or chilly in the backcountry or an injury can result in an unplanned night out, so it’s necessary to carry extra clothes beyond those required for your trip.

When deciding what to bring, think about what you would need to survive a long, inactive period out in the elements. Common options include a layer of underwear (tops and bottoms), an insulating hat or balaclava, extra socks, extra gloves and a synthetic jacket or vest. For winter outings, bring insulation for your upper body and legs. For help getting started, see our articles, What to Wear Hiking and Layering Basics.

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