Photo by Jeff Pang
Preparing for an outdoor emergency is mostly about training with an experienced outdoorsman and bringing along the right gear. If you don’t have a friend who can provide dependable advice before your trip, do some research and find a local outdoor training group who can provide the service. A practice trip with an experienced leader is a pre-requisite for any significant outdoor adventure.
The essential gear you need for outdoor living divides into the basic categories of fire, water, food, shelter, clothing and tools. With basic gear and a few simple skills an outdoorsman rarely encounters a survival situation that can’t be handled. The most serious problem faced is disorientation and panic — if you’re lost, stop where you are. Make camp, get comfortable, make yourself visible, and wait.
Matches, a lighter or a permanent spark-generating match start traditional campfires quickly but all require basic fire-making skills. That means if you haven’t ever built a campfire you need to practice until it’s easy. Traditional firemaking with a bow drill or firestick often requires expert instruction, and about a week of effort before you finally make it work.
Carrying dry tinder, the material the match lights, guarantees you’ll at least have the potential of fire even when the fuel around you is damp. In an emergency you can raid the first aid kit for cotton balls or alcohol pads for an easy start.
White gas or kerosene campstoves heat one pot at a time but work well enough for individuals or small groups. Debris stoves consist of a metal pot stand that doubles as a container for the fire. Gather your own fuel and you won’t need to worry about refilling gas tanks or using up fuel canisters.
Unless a trip takes them into waterless country, hikers carry enough drinking water for the day and purify water found along the trail. Because most groundwater today is polluted, both filtering and sanitizing is necessary before found water is safe to drink. Small pump filters fit in a corner of the pack and process hundreds of gallons of water before needing a new cartridge. Filtering clear water extends the filter lifetime, but filtering muddy water might clog the filter after only a few uses.
Filters don’t sterilize water but do remove particles and some chemical pollutants. Viruses and other small pathogens go right through many types of water filters. Iodine drops, bromine tablets, or chorine dioxide tablets — the old standards of water purification methods — need more than an hour to work and don’t kill all microorganisms. Combined with filtration, any of these chemical treatments greatly improves water quality. To be sure you’re not ingesting a future illness, boil treated water for one to three minutes before drinking.
In winter, clean snow becomes clean water if you have a way to thaw it, but you’ll find melting snow in your mouth inefficient and even dangerous. If you’re walking, you’ll dehydrate faster than the snow melts, and if you’re not moving you’ll increase your risks of hypothermia. If you’re working hard enough to keep warm, a ziplock bag or canteen filled with snow and stuffed inside your jacket uses extra body heat for thawing your drink. Roughly ten percent water by volume, snow might be your only water source in wintertime.
Perishables like fruit and vegetables take up lots of space, so carry multi-vitamins instead. Freeze-dried foods make campfire meals simple but add to the cost of the trip. Economical dried fruits, dried meat and fish, and dehydrated instant meals like dried potatoes, quick rice, or pasta provide the basics of calories, fat and protein. Snack addicts could carry nuts and chocolate for long lasting energy. Include a waterproof nylon stash bag so you can hang your food outside the tent at night, out of reach of marauding scavengers like chipmunks and bears.
For the lightest load, carry a tarp and ground cloth instead of a tent; but if you want protection from mosquitos and other troublesome insects as well as from the weather, a tent’s the better answer. The best backpacking tents weigh only slightly more than a tarp and rigging, and offer much more in terms of comfort and privacy.
Household items you’ll need include a compact mess kit with a pot for cooking and serving and a knife/fork/spoon combination for eating. Personal items like toothbrush and comb make a trip more pleasant but to cut weight don’t take more toothpaste or soap than you’ll actually use. A packet of hand wipes makes cleanup possible even if you’re short of water, and don’t forget a roll of toilet paper sealed in a ziplock bag.
The type of sleeping gear you need depends on the time of year. A sleeping bag warm enough for camping in zero-degree temperatures is too hot for summer camping. Adding a fleece liner to a lighter summer bag helps weather the occasional cold snap, and sleeping in your clothes adds another warm layer. It’s much easier to make summer gear warmer than to make a winter sleeping bag cooler. In either season much of the cold you feel comes from the ground, so a foam sleeping pad contributes warmth as well as a marginal bit of cushioning.
Don’t go overboard on extra clothing if you’re going out for only a few days. One change of clothes should be enough, along with rain gear and outerwear appropriate for the season. In cold weather you’ll need a set of clothes to wear and a set to dry out. In summer, fresh underwear and clean socks are much more important than fresh outer clothing. In really hot weather going “commando” is the best way to prevent heat rash and other musty problems.
Most outdoorsmen consider the knife the fundamental tool and every experienced outdoorsman probably has a unique idea about what sort of knife is best. If you intend to do anything more than open food packets or whittle tinder you’ll need something stout. A fixed blade Bowie knife like the Puma Stag Bowie chops as well as cuts and fits most situations better than a pocket knife or machete. If you’re setting up a long-term hunting camp you’ll need a camp axe or tomahawk and a camp shovel.
Navigation tools should always include map and compass just in case the batteries go dead on the GPS or you find yourself in a bad reception area.
Cordage solves so many problems that a hundred feet of paracord is always worth the weight.
With all that gear, patience is the only thing that might run short. Outdoorsmen can also find themselves caught in disasters, and in minutes a flood or a fire or an accident could set you against the wilderness barehanded, with no supplies. The Worst Case Scenario could happen anywhere.
PLB’s and Signaling Devices
As shocking as it is to many people accustomed to dependable cell phone coverage, many wilderness areas don’t include cell towers. The cell phone is a great emergency backup when you’re in range, but if you’re not, it’s dead weight. Your service provider offers maps of covered areas in fine detail, so with a little research online you can find out if the cell phone will actually work where you’re going.
Personal Location Beacons offer more range but fewer features. By pushing a button you activate an emergency distress call and transmit your exact location to rescue services, through a satellite network that isn’t dependent on transmission towers. If you push the button just for fun or by accident, you could run up a bill in the thousands of dollars for no reason. In many places, rescue now includes a hefty price tag, especially if you got into trouble through your own carelessness and not an act of God. Only the best satellite-based PLB’s provide a reliable service and they don’t come cheap.
An older but still sensible method of attracting rescue depends on simpler devices like whistles, mirrors, lights and signal fires. Personal strobes produce a powerful flashing light for many hours and don’t create echoes that misdirect search teams. Save any battery-powered signal system for times when you’re certain other people are in the area.