Anytime you take yourself into the wilderness, you are entering some level of a survival situation.
There are many emergencies or contingencies in the backcountry that do not have a medical requirement. For these instances, you need survival equipment. Some of this survival equipment are things you use routinely throughout your time in the backcountry, and some are specific to an emergency.
The emergency use items should be in a “survival kit.” Backcountry enthusiasts must understand the survival or life support aspects of all their equipment, ensuring they are proficient at using the equipment when most needed.
When going into the backcountry, planning for survival is not that different than typical planning requirements. All your safety and survival needs fall into one or more of the following categories:
- First aid
- Food and water
These six requirements remain consistent; however, the importance of each changes with geographic location and the duration of your planned trip. If you are doing a multi-day winter hike over the Presidential range in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, shelter takes priority over water. Water would take precedence in an overland desert crossing.
A Survival Scenario
Your survival kit is for emergencies — unexpected occurrences where, for some reason, you find yourself overwhelmed and are facing a direr situation than planned.
Here’s an example. You decide to climb a local mountain with a friend. The nine-mile trail is relatively easy, you have both done it before, it is a warm late winter/early spring day, and the weather forecast remains good. About halfway through the hike, your friend sprains an ankle, and walking is too painful.
You planned well — you know your exact location and have the number for the ranger station, but your cell phone is disabled because it fell in the stream when you were refilling your water bottle. You ask your friend to use his cell phone and he says he left it in the car because he did not think there would be service, plus “you had yours.”
At this point, you assess the situation. It is getting dark, there are not many hikers on the trail, and staying put until daylight is likely your best option. It is not a good idea to leave your friend alone — if you go for help, you could become injured or lost.
You are near the top of the mountain in a lightly wooded area next to a stream. Your biggest problem when you think about survival priorities is you cannot communicate for help with your cell phone. You did let someone know where you were going and when you planned to return – and most importantly, what to do and who to contact if you did not check back in with them by a specific time.
Your friend wrapped his ankle with the ace wrap in his first aid kit and took a few aspirins. It is going to be a long, chilly night. Your mind begins to rush. You'll need to stay warm, you did not plan to spend the night — how are you going to survive?
Now you are thinking about shelter. You do not have sleeping bags, you do not have a tent, but clothing falls into the shelter category. You both are wearing fleece tops, rain jackets and wool hats.
You consider building a fire for warmth, knowing that someone may see the fire and send help (fire falling into the communications category). Then you realize there are bouillon cubes in your survival kit and know fire also falls into food and water because now you can boil up a nice cup of soup in an aluminum tin cup.
With darkness approaching, your friend lying down with his leg elevated on a log. You put on your headlamp (with fresh batteries), which is always in your backpack. You head into the woods to collect some firewood. Small, dead branches (no thicker than a pencil) cut with the saw on your Swiss Army knife from standing dead trees make good kindling, and the larger branches make good fuel to sustain the fire.
When you return, your friend is shivering. The cold ground is drawing the heat from his body quickly.
The saw on the Swiss army knife now falls into the shelter category as well as the fire category. You use the saw to cut several pine boughs from the bottom of pine trees. When these pine boughs are placed between the ground and your friend, they will provide some insulation so all his heat will not be lost into the cold ground.
The space blanket from your friend’s survival kit wrapped around him will hold in body heat. You do not have a space blanket in your survival kit, but you have a warm down insulating jacket.
You start the fire using some of the small fire starters in your survival kit and some bark you peeled of a birch tree. Unfortunately, the butane lighter you brought was out of fuel. It had been in your pack so long it cracked, and the fuel was gone.
You attempted to use the fancy survival magnesium striker in the survival kit, but could not figure out. But the waterproof matches in the small waterproof container worked really well. You are patient, letting the fire get hot and waiting for kindling to fully ignite and burn before adding the bigger, longer burning pieces of firewood. Successful fire starting in the wilderness requires planning and patience.
A few hours have passed. You made additional trips for wood and the fire is warm. You and your friend had the warm broth for dinner. You refilled your water bottles at the stream using your small water purifier and you both are hydrated. Your down jacket is on and, even though it is a clear night, you added the rain jacket over the down jacket to hold in heat.
Before calling it a night, you boil one last cup of water, pour the boiling water into a Nalgene bottle, and put that bottle between your down jacket and fleece. You are now toasty warm and doze off safely, thinking of everything that went well, everything that could have gone better, and how you will be better prepared on your next trip.
You are awakened just before sunrise by the sound of voices over two-way radios; the rangers have found you. It was a combination of people seeing a fire where there usually wouldn’t be one and the person back home with your plan calling the ranger station and telling them you had not checked in with them after your hike.
As you can see from the example, a survival situation in the backcountry requires more than just a survival kit. Effective planning, common sense and experience contribute to a successful and safe wilderness adventure. It is not usually a single major mistake or event causing these life-threatening situations; it is typically a series of smaller misjudgments, mistakes or mishaps that, when combined, culminate in a catastrophe.
Here are some ideas to consider when building a survival kit.
Don’t Overdo It
If you need to take so much survival gear it overwhelms your pack, choose another activity; you are not going to enjoy yourself. More likely, you are not realistic about the risks and your capabilities. If you are not an experienced trapper, don’t plan on trapping and animal for food. (Do you even know how to skin and prepare a squirrel or chipmunk?) The same with fishing line hooks and lures. You are better off bringing bouillon cubes and energy bars in a survival kit.
If you have a sleeping bag, bivy bag, ground pad and tent, you don’t need a large tarp for survival. A space blanket will be sufficient. The larger, more durable, waterproof space blankets reflective on one side and bright on the other (signaling) are ideal for survival consideration in colder temps.
Protect Your Equipment
All electronics, phones, GPS and satellite messaging devices should be protected from the elements and potential impact. Waterproof containers or cases should be considered. Just because a manufacturer says an item is guaranteed to be waterproof does not mean it necessarily is — a guarantee means nothing out in the wilderness. Quality zip lock bags are practical waterproofing, especially if they are doubled up and you are not in a maritime environment. For a maritime environment, use dry bags or hard waterproof cases.
Understand that much of your equipment, depending on the environment, is life support equipment. This includes water bottles, an aluminum cup for boiling water, a sleeping bag and ground pad, and clothing items such as hats, mittens and even sunglasses.
Water bottles should be in a secured backpack pouch, not placed where it can fall out with you not knowing. Water purifying pumps are prone to breakage if they are not well protected. Chemical options, such as chlorine tablets, should be in the survival kit for this reason.
Know Your Gear
Be familiar with all your equipment and practice using it before leaving for the backcountry. If you have a spring-loaded ferro rod fire starter in your survival kit, make sure you know how it works and you have practiced with it at home. If you have iodine or chlorine tablets for purifying water in your survival kit, learn how to use them. If you plan on boiling water to purify it, you must have something to boil the water in. There are aluminum cups with collapsible handles that a Nalgene bottle fits into.
Electronics Will Fail
Have a back-up plan for anything electronic related. Even if you are navigating on your phone or GPS, you must also have — and know how to use — a map and compass. Phones lose service, GPSs lose connections in thick forests and steep terrain, batteries die and machines break.
Have extra batteries or charging capability for all electronic devices. A communications plan needs to include non-electronic back-up, such as leaving a trip plan with a responsible person. You should also bring non-electronic emergency signaling devices such as a whistle, strobe light, signal mirror or other ground-to-air signals, such as a bright colored space blanket, parka or sleeping bag.
Understand how to use your mobile or satellite phone. Make you have a written copy of all important numbers, laminate these numbers, and put them in your rainproof notebook. It’s handy to have a small notebook to write down instructions from a rescue service or write down critical information, such as your geographic coordinates, before making an emergency call. Bring a few pencils, not pens because pens break and ink freezes.
Pack Items With Purpose
Why would you ever carry a knife with a single blade when you can bring a knife with multiple blades and multiple uses? Swiss Army Knives or multi-tools, for example, are a much better option. These multi-feature knives have knife blades for cutting cord to make a shelter, a saw to cut kindling wood, can openers, tweezers and scissors (which help with first aid), screwdrivers and pliers (to repair or maintain equipment).
The uses for zip ties, paracord and duct tape are endless. With these items, you can fix nearly anything long enough to get out of the field safely. Wrap 20 feet of duct tape around a Nalgene bottle, dog-ear the end tape so you can peel it off without removing your gloves. It is even better if the tape is bright orange — you now have a water bottle that is part water bottle, part signaling device, repair kit and first-aid kit.
Be Prepared for the Night
Always carry a quality headlamp and extra batteries. Headlamps are critical because they leave your hands free to cut kindling wood, conduct first aid and boil water in the dark.
There are numerous small stoves, either liquid fuel or gas canister, you should always carry while in the backcountry. However, these stoves are useless if you don’t have a metal or aluminum cup.
Always have the ability to make fire. This includes a windproof lighter in your pocket, a mechanical fire starting device in your pack, and waterproof matches in a waterproof container in your survival kit. Small tea candles are a good idea; they can provide light and they will save many matches.
Something warm to eat or drink is essential in colder environments; having a stove, fuel and small pot to boil water in is critical. A warm meal or drink can make a cold night seem a lot shorter.
Where Do I Carry My Survival Kit?
It is important to understand that much of your gear can be considered “survival gear” once in an emergency situation.
Do not split up survival gear. You may find yourself alone. Everyone should have their own first aid kit and critical survival gear. Everyone should have a portable stove, fuel and pot in colder environments for the same reason.
There are survival items you will use throughout your time in the backcountry, like your water bottle and clothing.
Other items take on more of a life support role, depending on the weather or environment. Contingency items can be safely tucked away, ready for use when necessary. Here’s a few survival kit items that can be packed away in a small pelican case for contingency use:
- Waterproof matches
- A small compass
- A small sewing kit
- 50 feet of paracord
- 20 feet of duct tape
- Extra batteries for everything
- Water purification tablets
- Small candles
- Space blanket
- Signal mirror, whistle or emergency flares
- Bouillon cubes or energy bars
- Some cash
Items specific to survival can be stored in a small waterproof container.
Learn and Practice Survival Skills
While effective learning takes place after making mistakes in the backcountry, it is not a good idea to head into the backcountry with just your survival gear with the intent of learning to use it. Practice survival skills in a safe and supervised environment and be thoroughly comfortable using them before your trip.
Ideas From the Experts
Everyone has different experiences with survival. Ask people familiar with backcountry expeditions their thoughts and ideas for survival kit necessities and you’ll get various suggestions.
Jeff Weinstein, medical operations supervisor at Global Rescue, recommends additional items depending on kit size, means of travel, trip location, wants and needs. He might bring super glue, hooks and fishing line, tea light candles, and one meal of freeze-dried food.
“I add half a dozen zip ties, a small roll of duct tape, and a couple of lighters as well as a magnesium fire starter. I always carry a headlamp with me as well,” said Pat Pendergast, director of international travel at The Fly Shop, a leading fly fishing outfitter, travel agent and retail store.
Ian Taylor of Ian Taylor Trekking has run quality treks, climbs and expeditions around the world “Your down jacket may be one of the most important purchases you will make. Having the right warm, insulating layer can make or break your enjoyment level on a trekking or climbing trip around the world,” he said. “Remember there is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to gear. You will need different layers and down jackets, depending on the month you decide to travel and the adventure you have chosen.”
No matter where she travels, Amy Ray, president of The Sisterhood of the Outdoors, a company dedicated to creating opportunities for women to hunt, fish and learn to shoot, always carries a rescue blanket, a whistle, duct tape, a lighter and cotton balls.
“I’m in the habit of carrying these items every day,” she said.
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