with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Packing the 10 Essentials

Even in the wilds of Alaska, we travel with the 10 essentials for survival in the wilderness and our basic camera gear. 
Photo by Lorelle VanFossen.There are just some things you can’t live without while traveling. After much research, the Mountaineers came up with the best and most concise list of the bare essentials you need before you head out, whether into the wilderness or camping in your back yard. When taking your camera on the road, it’s easy to grab the camera, toss a map and some food into the car and just go. The road is generally a safe place, but things can happen and do. Make a plan for your personal safety like you make a plan for your trips. It starts by bringing the 10 essentials for survival PLUS the photographic essentials to get those wonderful photographs safely.

The 10 Essentials

These are the 10 essentials as suggested by the Seattle Mountaineers.

Film Canisters
Film canisters are great containers for your 10 essentials kit. A flashlight bulb wrapped in cotton stores wonderfully inside one. A few band aids and aspirin fit nicely. Matches, plastic shower caps, sun lotion – we use film canisters to carry all kinds of traveling goodies including our favorite spices for cooking.
  • Extra Clothing – Rain parka and pants, waterproof clothing, hats and socks. Clothes should be wool or one of the new synthetics (polypropylene, Capilene, etc.) to keep you warm and dry.
  • Extra Food – Besides lunch, bring extra food. Tuna, cheese, and nuts – bring food that is light to carry and high in protein and carbohydrates.
  • First Aid Kit – Designed to meet your needs, be it three Band-Aids or a splint kit. Photographers are subject to blisters, sunburn, and slivers more than other injuries.
  • Sunglasses – Sunglasses are often considered a nuisance for photographers, but essential for eye protection. Use a neck cord to keep from losing them as you work with the camera.
  • Pocketknife – Small screwdrivers in a Swiss army knife are great for emergencies camera repairs and for replacing batteries on some cameras.
  • Fire starter – For starting a fire in an emergency, paper, candle stubs or solid chemical fuel work well and are lightweight.
  • Matches – Carry matches in film canisters to keep them dry.
  • Flashlight – A small sturdy flashlight takes up little space and can save you in the dark. Bring extra batteries. A spare bulb wrapped in cotton fits nicely in a film canister.
  • Map – USGS and/or Green Trail maps help you know where you are and where you are going.
  • Compass – Good not only for orienting yourself, a compass can help you plan for sunrise and sunset.

Other items may include:

  • Full Water Bottle
  • Water Treatment
  • Toilet Paper (in ziplock bag)
  • Sun screen
  • Insect Repellant
  • Space Blanket
  • Emergency Shelter
  • A Whistle
  • Ziplock Bags
  • Wrist Watch
  • Thermometer

Photographic Essentials

When you are out in the wilderness photographing, there are some basic things we believe you should carry in addition to the 10 Essentials. They should reflect your individual needs as a photographer.

The Hold-It-All
Graphic of a backpack and sleeping roll.A photographer’s camera bag can hold a wide range of equipment from the camera and lenses to filters, film retrievers, and gray cards. Choose the bag that fits your needs and is rugged enough to last. For additional safety, remove name tags and evidence from your bag which identify it as expensive and invite theft.
Decide what you will photograph, and choose the camera and equipment appropriate for those subjects. If you spend time in the backwoods of Africa or Nepal, choose a camera that requires little or no maintenance and that will take lots of abuse. In the Arctic, a camera that works without batteries might be a good idea. Don’t forget to insure it.
Don't forget to bring plenty of film and batteries. You will probably use more than you think you need.Don’t forget film. Remember, film is sensitive to extreme heat, moisture and radiation. Bring more film than you think you will ever need. We usually plan for about 10 rolls per shooting day per person.
Batteries are the most forgotten item. Bring a lot of them for everything you have that requires them. Don’t forget small watch batteries buried inside of some cameras in addition to the AA or lithium. Always carry fresh spares. Batteries fade under extreme temperatures, especially cold. In freezing weather, keep them inside your coat or pockets until they’re needed.
Some hate tripods, some love them. For most, the odds of getting a great photograph improve when they use a good tripod. Style, weight and size are personal choices. Get a good, sturdy tripod, flexible enough to meet your specific needs.
Cable Release
A cable release is one of the most lost items (next to lens caps). Mark your cable release distinctly to find it along the trail if dropped. Use red or neon-colored tape to increase its visibility, or tie it to your tripod. Cable releases wear out frequently, so consider bringing an extra.
Plastic Bags
We keep a shower cap in our camera bags for covering the camera against water and dust when we aren't using it.No matter where you live, the weather can change quickly. Carry plastic bags to keep yourself and your equipment dry. They can also carry garbage and be a waterproof seat.
For quick camera repairs, blocking light, attaching filters to the lens, and a myriad of other uses, black electrician’s tape is a great tool.
Ground Insulation
A foam sleeping pad or a knee pad from a garden/hardware store is great for close-up work, for kneeling or resting, and for protecting your camera bag from the wet ground.

Many companies are now producing “The 10 Essentials” in small kits ready-made to insert into your knapsack or camera bag. Or you can make your own. Make a list of what you need to take with you and check it again before heading out. The thing you forget will always be the thing you need the most.



  • John
    Posted May 6, 2005 at 3:04 | Permalink

    I think there is item missing on the list. If you assume that emergencies are usually short term, water will usually become important much sooner than food. Carry extra water, and do so generously. Also, making the same assumptions about short term emergencies, high calory food is a good choice, so candy bars are good choices for emergency rations, especially in snowy situations (stuck in the Sierra waiting for a snow plough for instance).

  • Posted May 6, 2005 at 21:07 | Permalink

    Full water bottle is on the list. As for the rest, you’ll have to take it up with the Mountaineers. With more than 100 years experience with backcountry, mountain climbing, search and rescue, and related training, the first part is from their list.

    I deal with the critical stuff dealing with photography essentials.

    I agree with you, though. I always have some sort of food stuffs when going off into the backcountry.

    The 10 essentials list was created by the Mountaineers (and they sell kits and such, as do REI and other outdoor recreational organizations and stores) as to be the barest minimum you should have in your kit at all times, no matter what you are doing. Everything else is an add-on. It’s a good place to start and the rest should be common sense. We hope.

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