Clarissa Wei is an LA-based writer spending six weeks in Nicaragua, working as a volcano tour guide.
Whenever I look back on my Gobi Desert excursion, the first thing that comes to mind is not the fun I had or the memories I made.
Rather, I’m more fixated on what I was wearing – an over-stuffed knock-off Kipling backpack with broken zippers, tight jeans, and mortifyingly cheap sneakers.
How in the world did I manage?
The backpack kept on slipping off while I rode – rather epically – on my camel, and those shoes were horrible for hiking up pure sand.
Since then, I’ve gone on many more excursions and learned a thing or two about the art of preparation. Here are ten essentials you should never go without.
I used to think pocketknife owners were obnoxiously pretentious and was convinced they had a better chance of being stabbed by their own blade than finding practical uses for it.
I was so wrong.
As a volcano trekking guide in Nicaragua, there’s not a day that doesn’t go by where I don’t use my Swiss Army pocketknife.
I use it to prepare our meals on hikes, to sharpen sticks for marshmallow roasting, and I’ll use the scissors to cut my nails.
It also allows me to bring fruits like kiwis or mangos on a hike. I can skin these fruits with my knife, and they make for a fresher snack alternative than expensive dried fruit. You can also use the knife to spread cream cheese on your bagels or smooth out the rough edges on walking sticks.
2. A Full-To-The-Brim Reusable Water Bottle
On a moderate one to two-hour hike, I recommend a minimum of two liters of water. On two-day backpacking trips, at least eight liters is essential, and that includes the water you’ll use for cooking.
Of course, adjust accordingly depending on conditions.
I always carry a reusable Nalgene bottle — even when I’m walking around a city. Dehydration is an easy way to ruin a trip, and when you’re outdoors and constantly moving, you will always need water.
3. Really Good Walking Shoes
I was extremely hesitant to fork over $200+ dollars to REI for proper backpacking shoes. I’m not one to splurge on shoes, and these weren’t even cute.
It was so worth it, though.
Shoes with proper support make all the difference when you are outdoors. Trust me, I hike volcanoes daily. Even if you’re just traveling between cities, shoes are crucial. Invest in a good pair; it will make all the difference. Look for a comfortable pair with good traction and a soft sole.
4. A Sensible Backpack That Puts Weight On The Waist
That knock-off Kipling backpack I brought with me to the Gobi was a bad choice. First, it was tiny and could barely hold anything. Second, it broke within days. And third, it didn’t have waist straps.
Waist straps aren’t sexy — but they mean the difference between a moderately sore body and a sore body with a side of throbbing shoulder pains.
All my backpacks have waist straps now. I currently sport a 45+ 10 liter Deuter pack for backpacking trips. The waist strap is thick and sturdy and as a cool bonus — Deuter women’s backpacks come with an attachable flower!
5. Food And Snacks
Snacks are crucial for any outdoor excursion because unless you’re trekking or sailing through a farm — you won’t really have access to food.
When possible, I prefer fresh vegetables or fruit. Subjectively, dehydrated grub grosses me out, and preservatives, I reason, are the last thing the body needs during a strenuous outdoor excursion.
A boiled egg or granola bar is great for energy, but my favorite is when I can get my hands on a Banh mi sandwich or a baguette. I’ll wrap it in aluminum foil and ask for the vegetables on the side.
6. Sun Protection
There are three key points to this essential picks: sunglasses, sunscreen, and a hat. I never leave home without all three of these items, and concerning the sunglasses and hat, I always make sure their my cheap pairs. Sunglasses invariably get scratched and crushed in the outdoors and hats will get dirty. These items are important, but the quality isn’t that big of a deal.
7. Medical Kit
When wandering around in the wilderness for extended periods of time, it’s wise to carry around a basic medical kit of alcohol wipes, various bandages, a plastic syringe and rehydration salts (or electrolytes).
The plastic syringe is used to pump water forcefully into open wounds (to remove debris without contaminating the cut), alcohol wipes are for disinfecting, and bandages — well — that’s pretty straightforward.
Rehydration salts are extremely useful especially if you’re planning on going for long distances in the heat. Here in perpetually humid Nicaragua, we lose a lot of sodium through sweat while hiking. The salt mitigates that damage and restores the body to a healthy equilibrium. Just add water.
8. Headlamp Or Source Of Light
Always make sure you have a reliable source of light — even if you’re not planning on staying out past dark. There have been plenty of hikes where I assumed we’d get home before the sun set but was thwarted by unfortunate circumstances. Don’t make this complicated or expensive: a standard iPhone light works just fine.
9. Toilet Paper
Toilet paper is useful even if you’re a man and have never even considered dropping and doing a No. 2 in the great outdoors. I mostly use it on backpacking trips to wipe off my dishes at night. This saves water and ensures my breakfast won’t have a lingering pasta smell.
10. Comfortable Sturdy Clothes With Layers
I swear my nylon pants from REI are magical. The other month as I was descending from Volcano Momotombo, my legs decided they no longer wanted to walk. (In their defense, the slope was extremely steep and my knees simply were not strong enough after four hours of intense hiking to gracefully bring me down.)
And so I slid down.
I slide down on my butt over sharp volcanic rocks. And while I wasn’t the only one that faced this awkward fate — I was the only one whose pants didn’t rip.
My point: Proper clothes are so important. I recommend light nylon pants for hiking, long socks for long walks and appropriate layers.
Even though it’s always hot here, I also keep a light rain jacket just in case it starts raining – and it often does. It has a brilliant zipper on the armpit section to allow air circulation. I know this all sounds terribly tacky, but once you start wearing proper outdoor clothing and experience first-hand the awesomeness of armpit zippers and rip-proof pants, you can never go back.
These are essential items.
Wait, Didn’t I Forget "Cellphone"
One may argue that a phone is crucial, but if you’re in the great outdoors, chances are you won’t get a signal anyways. Make sure you leave a note with a family member or friend informing them of your itinerary. That way, if you get lost, someone will eventually look for you.
Take it from a girl who, just last week, got briefly lost in a Nicaraguan jungle.