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Author: Frank Ross
In 1719, Daniel Defoe created Robinson Crusoe and popularized the notion that living alone on a deserted island was somehow an admirable ambition. More recently, the television reality series Survivor rekindled that adventurous spirit in many who imagine themselves carving a shelter out of a primitive wilderness setting with only a pocket knife, or better yet, making a knife from stone.
The real reality is that television isn’t reality - no matter how hard they try to make you think it’s so. Surviving a crisis outdoors isn’t glamorous or fun for that matter. If you were to ask anyone who has had to deal with it first hand, you’d find that they don’t want any part of a sequel. In a real survival situation, all you’re going to be thinking about is getting yourself back to safety, as fast as possible.
Surviving a real-life crisis depends largely upon your mental state, personal preparedness, physical injuries, and to a great extent the time of year. Breaking your leg in a fall while hiking or hunting in a remote region of the Rockies takes on a completely different tone when that accident happens in December.
My survival gear bag may be over the top, but I’ve built it based on a worst case scenario, because when you’re in deep, having carried a few more ounces of gear will a seem trivial consideration compared to not having what you need.
Hopefully, you will be filing a detailed plan for your trip with someone who will be home during your trip. At a bare minimum, this person should know where you are going and when you expect to return. A better plan would be to provide a detailed map, marked with intended routes, camping location or other pertinent data that would serve to assist searchers should the need arise.
Here are some things to consider when you start to put together your own survival kit.
Communication – How are you going to signal a searcher that may be close to finding you? A top-drawer item would be a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) that will send your exact location via satellite. If a PLB is beyond your budget, the basics would be a mirror to flash passing aircraft and a whistle to blow and attract the attention of ground searchers. You should have both.
Space blanket – Hypothermia is a killer. The severe temperatures of winter weather exacerbate any situation, especially when the sun goes down; however, even on a summer evening, temperatures at high elevations can get quite cool. One might reason that having a space blanket for warmth would only be a necessity during winter months, but shock can set in and send you over the edge, even on a summer day. Having a space blanket is just good sense for a number of reasons, not the least of which would be covering your body in a storm. Wet clothes dissipate body heat very rapidly.
Medical kit – Cabela’s carries several kits from the basics to one that is complete enough to treat everything from bee stings to life threatening trauma. The most valuable part of the comprehensive kit are the two books, "Comprehensive Guide to Wilderness & Travel Medicine,’’ and "Illustrated Guide to Life-Threatening Emergencies.’’ Don’t leave them home to save weight unless you’ve read them thoroughly and committed them to memory. When you go on a trip and use something from your medical kit, make sure you replace it as soon as you return. If you put it off until later, you’ll forget and those items won’t be there when you need them again.
Waterproof matches – A fire serves at least four purposes, and five if you have a coffee pot. First and foremost, a fire will provide warmth, but with the addition of some wet leaves you’ll have a great signal fire. With a fire you can cook food, melt snow for water or brew up a hot cup of tea or coffee. If your injuries involve an open wound and blood, the smell of fresh blood may attract predators. A fire will also serve to deter their approach. Another purpose that a fire serves is more mental than anything. A fire is an emotional comfort. Without matches, or with wet matches, all you’ll have is a nice pile of wood.
Knife – A knife is probably the most valuable possession you’ll ever carry. Without a knife you’re going to be severely handicapped in just about everything you’ll need to do from building a fire to cutting a splint or preparing something to eat. An even better option would be a multi-tool that has a wide array of tools in addition to a knife blade.
Folding shovel – Having a collapsible shovel might seem like excess, until you need to dig a snow cave for an emergency shelter. This is one of those items that you could live without, but any ex-military type will tell you that they make a passable skillet in a pinch. If you find yourself immobilized, and out of water, in low-lying areas with a high water table, it’s possible to dig a hole for water.
Hydration – Maintaining your body fluids is going to be critical, especially if you’re isolated for several days, which isn’t that unusual for people who become disabled in remote areas. Most people are smart enough to take enough water for their planned outing. It’s when their plan runs amok that you need to have a backup alternative like water purification tablets or a filter that will enable you to capitalize on local water sources.
X Marks the spot – Remember that the first sortie on your behalf will be from the air. Place a large X made of brightly colored fabric, clothing, rocks or dead limbs in an open area that can be easily spotted from the air.
Extra stuff – In the winter, it’s a good idea to put and extra pair of gloves, dry socks and some chemical heat packs in your daypack, just in case. Anything that’s wet carries a potential for disaster. Also, having a packet of dried fruit and jerky stashed away for an emergency is a great idea. Dried foods will keep for a long time. Just don’t eat them on the hike up the mountain.
The best part of having a survival kit is not having to use it; however, if you find yourself in a situation that requires rescue, if possible, position yourself near a meadow with a tree line. Trees will provide shelter from the elements, but during daylight hours you want to be visible from the air so stay in the open as much as possible.
The most important aspect of fire building in the winter, when trees are laden with snow, is to build them in the open. While having a fire near the windbreak of a nice big tree might seem ideal, there can be negative consequences. Heat from a fire will rise, melting the snow on the tree limbs, which will then fall on your fire and ruin a perfectly good evening.
This list can be refined and improved upon, as well as tailored to your specific region and season. There’s not need to carry extra gloves in July, but that’s common sense. Most of surviving is about common sense, and having the right tools and materials that will enable you to preserve life and limb until a rescue can be accomplished. With the right survival gear, a clear head and a little bit of luck you’ll make the evening news for all the right reasons.