10 Essentials for hiking — and for at least that many stories about hiking

by Martha Rust

First-aid Supplies
Extra Clothing
Sunscreen & Sunglasses
Headlamp or Flashlight
Extra Food & Water

The collection of objects listed above comprises the list the REI Co-op calls “The 10 Classic Essentials” for hiking. As the REI website explains, the list dates to the 1930s and was the brainchild of a Seattle area climbing and outdoor adventure club called The Mountaineers.[1] The club’s aim in developing the list was to increase the preparedness of outdoor enthusiasts for a range of “emergency situations” that could befall them in the course of enjoying nature.[2] REI advises readers to carry these ten items along with them whenever they head off into the wilderness, “even for a day-hike.” Anticipating the objection that the list may seem excessive for a few hours’ stroll in the woods, REI warns, “you’ll probably never fully appreciate the value of the Ten Essentials until you really need one of them.”[3]

In heeding REI’s advice and gathering our matches, our map and compass, our extra food and so on, we might find ourselves following a train of thought that would be the result of this list’s serving both as a doctrinal list (handed down through the authoritative genealogy of The Mountaineers and the REI) and as a list of objects. In their discussion of a certain list of objects and other clues that appears in an Agatha Christie novel, Sarah Link and Anne Rueggemeier argue that such a list challenges readers to place its items into “a logical sequence of events”–a story–thus to discern the details of a crime.[4] While a list of objects in a detective story prompts us to find the story of a crime, the Ten Essentials list may provoke us to invent possible “emergency situations” and to imagine logical sequences of events that would cause us to “really need” any one of the items it includes. In this way, as I dutifully pack extra food into the knapsack I’m taking on a two-mile hike on a sunny day, I could think, “Yes, we might need extra food because someone in the group might slip on a rock and sprain an ankle and we would get hungry because it would take a lot of time and effort to get her back to the trailhead.” This thought might lead me in the next moment to realize that in order to treat the sprained ankle we would need the first aid supplies, and in this way a second item on the list would have been threaded on to a story line that might eventually include several more.

My thought about the first aid supplies might also activate the function of the Ten Essentials list as a device that teaches by prompting self-evaluation. Once my story includes the first-aid supplies, I might ask myself, “What supplies are we talking about, and do I know how to use them?” Other items on the list might spark similar questions: “What if we got lost somehow, would a map and compass help me find my way?” and “Could I use the knife without subsequently needing those first-aid kit?” The objects on the Ten Essentials list would thus point beyond themselves to a list of essential skills that the truly prepared hiker ought also to possess. In this way the list is similar to another “essential” ten, the list of the Ten Commandments, which not only supplies directives about what a person should and should not do, but also implies a necessity for instruction on a range of matters pertinent to those directives: how to recognize a graven image, for instance, or how best to honor one’s father and mother.

Beyond its function as a packing list, a story-prompting list, a self-evaluation checklist–with its implied self-improvement check-list–the Ten Essentials list in its poster form raises a broader question about what is and what is not a list. If this poster had no captions and only presented pictures of the ten essentials, would it still be a list?

[1] “The Ten Essentials,” Recreational Equipment, Inc, 2018. https://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/ten-essentials.html

[2] Information on the history and mission of The Mountaineers is available at their website: https://www.mountaineers.org/about.

[3] “The Ten Essentials.”

[4] Sarah Link and Anne Rueggemeier, “ERC Starting Grant Project on Lists in Literature and Culture at the University of Freiburg,” Listology, 3 June 2018.

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