Why Write About A Hiking Emergency/Survival Kit?
Ahhh…Finally some time to do some writing. I wanted to get a post up about emergency/survival kits for the typical day-hiker for a while now. I want this post to spur some thought and comments that could, perhaps, make sure that we all carry that stuff that hopefully never gets used but is invaluable if we ever get into one of “those” situations. This is not a listing of the “10 Essentials.” Just those items that are in my emergency/survival Kit.
First off, let me go into some of my credentials. I have been an instructor for the Colorado Mountain Club (CMC) Denver Group (http://www.hikingdenver.net/) for about 8 years teaching Wilderness Trekking School (WTS) (http://www.hikingdenver.net/schools/wts). Additionally, I am an assistant instructor for the Denver Group Wilderness Survival School (WSS) (http://www.hikingdenver.net/schools/wildernesssurvivalschool). I am also Wilderness First Aid certified and have several other related classes under my belt. I have made 56 summits of Colorado 14ers on 40 peaks and also climbed many 13ers, etc. This is not to say I am an expert in survival or emergency preparedness but that I do have a good deal of formal and practical training, learning, and experience in the discipline. However, I am posting this article in order to: 1) share my current knowledge, and 2) see what others have to say so that I may learn.
Enough intros, lets have a look at what I carry in my emergency/survival kit. Please keep in mind that this article does NOT cover in detail my 1st aid kit. That’s a whole separate post. Lets just say I carry an appropriately stocked 1st aid kit and it is but one component of emergency/survival preparedness.
One critical aspect of every tool in your emergency kit is that is MUST work First Time. Every Time. If a tool fails to light, deploy, burn, signal you may die. Maybe you will be lucky and just loose some toes to frostbite. Who knows? My point is that everything you carry you need to make sure you know how to use and that it will work in all conditions. Give fire starting or shelter setup a try in your back yard in the middle of Winter at night when it is 18 degrees with a 15 mph wind. Its good practice. I guarantee you will learn something. Know how to use your stuff BEFORE the emergency.
Always consider your type of hiking when constructing your emergency/survival kit. I carry a bivy because I typically hike above tree line where there is mostly rock and wind. There is no building a shelter there. I need to carry a shelter that is ready to go, fast. Consider your uses as you put your kit together. The emergency/survival kit, like the 1st aid kit, should be customized for you.
One last factor to consider is risk management/risk acceptance. You can decide to accept all the risk for a given hike and throw caution to the wind. For those of you who do this your risk management is to ignore the possibility of something unexpected happening and hope for the best. Perhaps you carry a small kit with a space blanket and a compass. A little risk management and a lot of risk acceptance. If you carry a mobile home you are micromanaging and accepting very little risk.
Determine how much risk you are willing to accept. Then, manage those risks by appointing your kit with those tools that minimize those risks that keep you up at night.
Special note: The information in this article is for general information only and is not intended as a complete or definitive listing or explanation for emergencies or survival. Mountain climbing is inherently dangerous and anyone should seek training before engaging in these activities. I am not paid by nor endorsing any specific products below. You should choose your gear based on your needs, budget, and specific uses.
Why Carry and Emergency/Survival Kit?
Why carry an emergency/survival kit in the first place? Well, for emergencies of course. But what might that be? Many people think that an emergency on the trail during a day hike is rare. And they are mostly correct. However emergencies do of course happen. Your reactions and preparedness to that emergent event determines if you will have a happy ending that makes a great story over beers later. Or a tragic outcome that you never get to tell anyone.
An emergent event can span such a wide range of stuff that it would be a waste (and impossible) to cover each one. And that is why your emergency/survival kit should have broad application to cover a broad set of scenarios. A high value proposition indeed. Something as common and seemingly benign as a sprained ankle could lead to a night out, at 14,000 feet, in high winds and dropping temps. Are you ready for something like that?
In general your kit should cover those things that keep humans alive including, fire, water, shelter. What no food? We humans can go a long time without food. Three weeks +. It sucks and is very uncomfortable but you won’t die. Not right away at least. Plus you probably have some food that you brought along for the hike anyway. Maybe bring some extra…just in case.
Lets have a look at the Rule of Threes. If you go beyond any of these “threes” you will most likely be dirt-napping.
- 3 minutes without air
- 3 hours without shelter (in bad weather)
- 3 days without water
- 3 weeks without food
Keep in mind that these are gross measures meant to be easily remembered and your mileage will vary. Air is typically not a survival mechanism in the mountains so I will ignore that one. That leaves shelter (and heat) and water. So, your kit should be sure to have those things that you need to put up a shelter and secure water, among other tools.
I carry most of my smaller survival stuff in a small nylon kit. The bigger stuff like shelter and 1st aid get their own kit.
My Survival Kit. Notice how it is Clearly Marked in Case Someone Else Needs to Dig it out of My Pack
This kit keeps all of my smaller survival components in the same place and well organized. As can be seen below, the kit has pockets and zippered compartments to keep all the items organized and safe.
My Kit Opened Up. It Is Compact and Well Organized
The picture below shows a detailed accounting of all the contents of the kit. There are several other survival items not pictured that I carry such as a bivy, 1st Aid, knife, ect.
The Survival Kit Components (Labeled)
Lets start with my shelter. Shelter is meant to get you out of the elements. Usually cold temps, precipitation, and wind. These things can kill you quickly…3 hours-ish (see above). A shelter keeps you from being exposed to these nasty environmentals that can cause hypothermia. A mild case of hypothermia will reduce your thinking, coordination, and ability to cope with other problems. A severe case will…you know…well, too long and again and you will be dirt-napping. A good shelter is small, light, easily deployed, and protects you from wind and precipitation and provides a bit of thermal insolation.
I have one of two types of shelters that I ALWAYS carry. The North Face Backpacker Bivy or the SOL Thermal Bivvy. See below:
The North Face Backpacker Bivy. It Weighs less than Two Pounds
Photo Courtesy of The North Face
The SOL Thermal Bivvy.
Photo Courtesy of Survive Outdoors Longer (SOL)
Which bivy (one “v” or two “v”s…I don’t know) I carry depends on forecasted conditions. If the weather where I will be hiking is forecast for anything but hot, I will carry the North Face. If I am willing to accept a bit more risk in milder conditions I will carry the SOL.
I have seen many shelters made from space blankets (real space blankets, not the Mylar type). However, for the type of hiking I do, shelter construction is not an option. I need a self contained ready made shelter for hiking at high altitudes above tree line. Anyone who has hiked for a season or two in the high country knows that the winds above tree line can reach horrific velocity. Just try to set up or build a shelter in a constant 25 – 35 miles per hour (or 55 mph). You will die before you get an acceptable shelter constructed and they will find your space blanket in Kansas. Below tree line a space blanket or similar, plus found material will most likely work if you know what you are doing. But not high up on a 14er. And that is why I carry a bivy. Open it up and climb in. Done.
The North Face Backpacker Bivy is less than two pounds and is absolutely wind and water proof. It can be set up nearly instantly by just throwing it down and climbing in. If I have time, I can set it up with the poles and have a cozy shelter. The SOL Bivvy, while not as bomb-proof, is acceptable in milder conditions and is lighter and smaller than the North Face. Pick one or the other.
Fire hot. Fire good. Fire can warm you up. It can dry wet clothing. It keeps all the boogey men away who lurk in the dark. It can serve as something to stare at. Try it…On a dark night a nice fire is as fun to stare at as a TV. As a note, where I hike there really is no reliable “stuff” to set on fire. Above tree line there is typically…uh…no trees or other fuel sources. Just rocks. So if I happen to be stuck high up on a peak there really will be no fire making options. That makes reliable shelter even more critical for me. However, if I am below tree line then I will have lots of forest material as fuel.
There are many ideas on what to carry for fire but you need two general categories of fire making. Fire starter and an accelerant. The starter will be something like matches, lighter, metal match or all of those. Accelerant is something you light on fire with the fire starter to get your larger fuel burning.
I swear by and carry REI type storm-proof matches (http://www.rei.com/product/617046/rei-stormproof-matches). These matches are like tiny flares. You can dump them in water and pull them back out and they will light. You can light them and dump them in water and they will relight. After you light them they will burn until they are consumed. You can get them in a dandy little container too! http://www.rei.com/product/820267/uco-stormproof-match-kit. I also carry lighters and regular matches. They are small and light so why not. Additionally, I carry a metal match. If everything else fails at least I have the metal match. Again, small and light. So I have lots of options to get fire started.
Second, for the accelerant I carry Trioxane. Ahhh yes Trioxane. This stuff will damn near light concrete on fire. Trioxane is a post-Vietnam era military meal heating tablet similar to Hexamine. It comes in various sizes but is usually packed in a military olive drab foil pack. Once the foil is opened the Trioxane tablet will deteriorate over the course of a few days/weeks. Trioxane will last forever if the pack is sealed. Most of my Trioxane was made in the 80s and all of it lights like crazy! This is my First Time, Every Time accelerant. They don’t make it any more but it can be found in surplus stores, Jax, and online.
To use Trioxane you simply open one end of the foil pack. You can break a piece of the tablet off or use the whole thing. If you use only part of the tablet you can reseal the foil and the remainder will last for a few weeks. Light the Trioxane with a match, lighter etc. and dump your fuel (kindling) on top. You are off the the races. It burns with a barely visible blue flame so don’t get burned.
This is the first choice for accelerants in my WTS and survival classes. There are other accelerants such as fire ribbon. But I don’t really want to carry a large heavy tube of flammable goo in my pack. But I hear it works well. Whatever you carry make sure you know how to use it in all sorts of conditions. First Time, Every Time!
Along with fire there are other self-explanatory comfort items to help keep you warm. I also carry a small space blanket. The one I carry, sold by SOL is not the noisy easily torn Mylar type. Its some sort of plastic. I would never depend solely on a space blanket, but again, its small and light and could be very useful to keep in body heat or reflect the heat of a fire. I also carry extra chemical toe warmers.
For water, all I can say is, carry some. You always do. A typical survival situation lasts at most a few days. Use the water you carried then you will have to find more water that needs to be purified. You can carry whatever you want to purify water. Pumps, chemicals, pens, whatever. I carry the chlorine tablets. They are safe, effective and very small and light. In dire circumstances you can drink untreated water you find in streams, lakes, or wherever. Most water born pathogens in Colorado like cryptosporidium or giardia take several days to weeks to activate in your body. Even if the water you drink has these pathogens you will hopefully be long rescued and at home when you get sick.
So what do you do after you have your shelter and fire built and your just sitting around waiting for rescue? How do you signal a rescuer? Two excellent tools are a whistle and signal mirror. There are MANY other signaling methods but these two should always be carried. Signal mirrors and whistles are reliable, effective, small, and light. Signal mirrors can send a bright flash of light miles and miles away to someone on the ground, the air, or wherever. This flash is unmistakable to rescuers. Or anyone really.
Whistles are great because they are very loud, carry a very long distance, and can be blown for hours. Try yelling and screaming for a few hours. See what that gets you. I recommend a whistle that can be used by hypothermic lips and easily grasped by hypothermic hands. See the Scotty below.
The Scotty Whistle.
Photo Courtesy of Scotty Firefighter
The Scotty is a really loud dual-tone whistle that is small but has good grips and a flange on the mouth piece so that it is easier to hold. I carry this whistle externally on my pack where I can get to it if I happen to be too injured to get into my pack. Keep it close, just in case.
Other Tools – Don’t take a Gun to a Knife Fight
I have a penchant for sharpened tools; Knives, multi tools, or Swiss Army Knives. I love them all and knives are invaluable in emergency (as well as everyday life) situations. For folding knives I really like Spiderco (http://www.spyderco.com/). Spiderco makes brilliant high quality knives and as an extra bonus they are located in Golden CO right off of Route 93. Check them out. Visit them at their outlet store. They are very helpful.
For a fixed blade knife I like SOG (http://sogknives.com/). They make a LOT of knives. some are crap. Others are very good. Their fixed blades are decent for the price. Another company who makes a fine albeit large fixed blade is KA-BAR (http://www.kabar.com/). The Becker Campanion is a bullet-proof fixed blade and its beautiful. Weighs a pound though. Check it out.
There are likely thousands of Swiss Army Knives. They are decent and I’m sure you will find one that works for you. I like the larger knives as they are more robust. I particularly like the Victorinox One-Hand Trekker. It’s a beefy (for Swiss Army Knives) useful knife that discards all the trendy useless crap and keeps a decent size knife, saw, can opener, etc.
Another rescue tool I will begin to carry as of next season is a PLB or Personal Locator Beacon. I’m not talking about SPOT. SPOTs are not particularly reliable. Remember, First Time. Every Time. And as the PLB is your very very last hope for emergency rescue you want something that is damn near guaranteed to work…like a PLB. A PLB works through the global SARSAT – COSPAS systems. These systems are maintained 24 X 7 X 365 by several countries and provide GLOBAL monitoring via satellite coverage for receiving emergency signals.
One PLB device that comes to mind is the ACR RESQLink Beacon, however there are other capable devices. RESQLink has a built-in GPS receiver and a radio transmitter broadcasting on the SARSAT – COSPAS frequencies. In an emergency, like a dire, “I’m going to die” emergency you activate the beacon. The RESQLink automatically picks up your GPS position and transmits your personal ID code and position to the The SARSAT – COSPAS systems. This results in a search and rescue to your position. Yay!
When your chips are really REALLY down, a PLB can provide that piece of mind that may just help keep you sane and panic at bay until help arrives. These devices are not toys. They carry a hefty fine and possible jail time for misuse. Because these devices use the global SARSAT – COSPAS systems it is nearly guaranteed to work and activate a rescue. This system is far, far more reliable than the SPOT system which uses an entirely different method of operation.
The ACR RESQLink, This Device is About the Size of a Cellphone, Photo Courtesy of ACR
Also consider carrying a cell phone. They don’t always work but they do work quite often. If you have one, carry it hiking but do not count on it.
The other stuff like the compass and headlamp are part of the ten essentials and should already be in your pack already. But you better know how to use them. A compass and map are worthless unless you know exactly how to use them. We teach all of these skills in WTS from fire starting to map and compass and much more.
Another very useful emergency item is 550 Paracord. This stuff is great. As the name implies, the cord has a 550 pound capacity. It consists of 7 inner strands and an outer sheath. Cordage in an emergency situation is invaluable. It can be used for anything from shelter construction, fishing line, to securing loads and a host of other uses. For its size and weight it can’t be beat. Carry at least 50 to 100 feet of the stuff. Its cheap too! That sounds like a lot. But it goes fast when you put it to use.
Finally, purchase and carry a Colorado Search and Rescue (COSAR) Card. http://www.colorado.gov/cs/Satellite/DOLA-Main/CBON/1251592090523
Some folks call this rescue insurance. It is not insurance but it will reimburse portions of the rescue and transportation cost if you need to call out the cavalry to save your backside in the backcountry. Just check out the web site above for details and buy a card. Its only 12 bucks for 5 years.
I did not coverer 1st aid kits in this posting. 1st aid is one of those things that compliments the emergency kit and stands alone. You can have a medical issue that is not an emergency and visa versa. The 1st aid kit is a post by itself. But I can say, as for the emergency kit, carry one and customize it specifically for your needs. But take one for sure and know what's in it. Make sure its contents are fresh and that you know how to use everything in it.
To reiterate this is not an exhaustive article on emergency and survival. It is meant to touch on the subject and give you my perspective on what I carry and why. It comes down to your risk acceptance and how much you are willing to carry. I believe that it sucks to carry all the stuff I do. But it would suck WAY WORSE to need something in an emergency and not have it.
Give the issue of emergency and survival some thought. Then plan your tools accordingly. You also may want to read the book, “Colorado 14er Disasters: Victims of the Game”, http://www.amazon.com/Colorado-14er-Disasters-Victims-Game/dp/1555664318/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1321546146&sr=8-1
This book is an excellent narrative on Colorado 14er accidents. Its well researched, well written, and an interesting, if short, read. Colorado 14er Disasters will give you some perspective on what can go wrong and how rescues are organized and executed.
I would love to get feedback on this post. I do not claim that what I carry is the “right” answer for everyone, or even me for that matter. My point is that I have given this issue some thought and put together a emergency/survival kit that I believe works well for my activities.
Get out there and hike, climb, have fun, and stay safe.