This page is all about how to survive when you get caught out unprepared in the wilderness.
- 1 Introduction
- 2 Stacking the Odds in Your Favour
- 3 Shelter
- 4 Fire
- 5 Water
- 6 First Aid
- 7 Signaling
- 8 Food
- 9 Other Useful Stuff
- 10 "The Ten Essentials"
- 11 Good References
How important is it to be prepared to spend the night out on a day trip, and how much emergency gear should you bring to deal with the unexpected? Traveling light is a lot more fun than being weighed down with a heavy pack, and a heavy load only increases the chances of being stuck out. So what is the right balance between being prepared and packing light enough to move fast and have fun? Instead of packing lots of extra emergency gear, think about how what you bring anyway can be used in an emergency to perform another task. Likewise, when choosing gear to buy or bring, choose items that have multiple uses, and that can be used unconventionally.
When planning for wilderness survival situations you have to think realistically about why you might spend an unplanned night out. This page deals with short-term survival rather than primitive living (long-term). "Survival" herein includes avoidance and improvisation to get through an unplanned night out, perhaps stemming from a simple day trip. Specifically scenarios might include:
(1) being forced to remain stationary due to extreme weather, darkness, or broken equipment;
(2) getting lost; or
(3) sustaining injury, causing you to move slower than planned, or worse, render you immobile.
If you have to “survive” an unplanned night out, something has gone terribly wrong. Whatever that “something” is, it is going to make the task of surviving a lot more difficult than any practice situation or camping trip. The above three scenarios are possible complications the outdoor adventurer risks. They put your life at risk and are extremely stressful causing panic, which can quickly lead to shock. Once in shock, you lose all ability to think and act rationally, you lose coordination and dexterity, and your core temperature drops. If you do not have a survival strategy and have not practiced survival skills in advance, even simple tasks will be overwhelming. You cannot think rationally or strategize in an emergency; your mind will shut down from shock. Having proper equipment is worthless if you are unable to use it while either injured, under serious stress or shock, in complete darkness, or extreme weather. This is something to think about when choosing gear and practicing with it. A likely and realistic event to put you in a life and death survival situation is an injury, particularly in winter, where even a non life threatening injury, like a broken limb, can quickly lead to death by exposure.
Stacking the Odds in Your Favour
Before thinking about how to deal with surviving a night out, think about how to avoid it. First of all, and this cannot be overstated, before you leave on your trip tell someone reliable your plans. Knowing there are people out looking for you really helps reduce stress and panic and improve morale. If no one knows you are missing, or where to look for you, you're stuffed. There is no draw back to telling someone your plans, and the consequences of not doing so can be catastrophic.
Plan accordingly before any backcountry trip and decide what emergency gear is appropriate. Consider what survival situations you are most likely to encounter, and devise a rough plan for dealing with them before they occur. Once you find yourself in a life and death situation it is diffucult to make even simple descions. Some things to think about in advance:
- How likely am I to be found if I fall and seriously hurt myself?
- Can I lie there till morning when someone will come along the trail, or am I way out in the middle of nowhere where I will be forced to struggle back, or signal for help?
- Am I in a group with others who can help me?
- What are the chances I get separated from my pack, and how much gear besides map, compass and headlamp should I keep in my pockets?
Getting lost is less of an issue these days since trails are highly groomed and easy to follow. If skiing or hiking or whatever off-trail your navigation skills should be good enough to at least reduce the likelihood of getting lost. Know how to use a map and compass and carry them in your pockets, not in your pack. Should you become separated from your pack, you will still be able to get back. Otherwise, you are stranded trying to survive – a situation easily avoided. The same precaution applies for any other navigational gear like GPS units or altimeters. There are many reasons you might become separated from your pack. On steep terrain where you might have to take it off and pass it up or down to your partner it could be dropped. You might have to abandon your pack to save yourself in an avalanche, crossing a river, or breaking through ice on a frozen lake.
If you use a GPS, reduce the chance of being stranded by regularly plotting your position on a map. With a bit of practice it will only a take few seconds and you will be glad you did should the GPS fail, or lose signal. If you always know where you are on the map, finding your way with a compass is straightforward. If you depend entirely on the GPS and it fails, trying to place your current location on the map will be difficult.
Another way to avoid a night out is to always, regardless of the length of the trip, carry a flashlight. With LED headlamps being so small and light, there is no excuse not to have one. It will make the difference between spending an unpleasant night out and getting back to your car if caught after dark. Carry it in your pocket not to be separated from it and to keep the batteries warm. Carry spare batteries just in case.
Different activities, climate, and group size will dictate what gear is appropriate. Chose gear that has multiple uses, and that can be used both during your trip as well as in an emergency. Keep anything that will prevent you from being stranded in your pockets. Regulate core temperature with adequate clothing and proper hydration.
Learn to navigate!
See section above about keeping track of your current location on a map even if using a GPS.
Clothing is your first line of defense against the elements, and proper clothing increases your chances of survival more than any other piece of equipment. Exposure is the number one cause of death in the outdoors. Do not skimp on clothes. Always carry full rain gear, and a little more insulation than you think you need. In the West Coast’s damp climate, be cautious about relying on down filled clothing, since down loses all it's insulating value if it gets wet. In winter, make sure you carry a jacket/parka with a hood. If it is cold enough for a puffy jacket, it is cold enough for a puffy hood. Half your body heat is lost through the head and you will be especially glad to have the hood should you lose your hat. For it's weight and bulk, a hat provides more warmth than any other piece of clothing. Chemical toe warmers and dry socks make a huge difference for minimal additional weight and bulk.
If it is winter, or you are suffering from shock or trauma you will need some sort of shelter beyond clothing. The less energy that goes into shelter building the better. Small (to retain warmth) and simple shelters are best.
Space blankets are the simplest cheapest, lightest and most compact option. There are two types of space blankets: the traditional Mylar ones, which are silver on both sides, and the Heatsheet emergency blankets by Adventure Medical Kits, which are constructed of a “special low-density polyethylene.”
Heatsheets (available at MEC) are vastly superior to Mylar blankets for the following reasons:
they are more durable,
have an orange side (good for visibility if you want to be rescued)
have survival instructions printed on it and are
less noisy (less crinkly)
Heatsheets are a better shelter choice than garbage bags or painters drop cloths because they provide a variety of uses rather than just one. They are also more compact, lighter, and more durable for their weight. The reflective side can be used for signaling and melting snow. Lay it with the reflective side facing up, and pile snow on it. It can also be used in hot weather to deflect the sun’s rays.
The same company makes emergency Heatsheet bivvy bags out of the same material, but they are slightly heavier and bulkier.
Simple Tarp Shelter
An “A” frame roof is vastly superior to anything else. The quickest and easiest way to do this is to tie a string between two trees (1.5 m off the ground) drape the space blanket over it, and secure the bottoms. This technique is illustrated in the US Army Survival Manual linked at the bottom of this section. Unfortunately this method takes a lot of fussing around and practice to get this to work. The string will sag in the middle, especially as it becomes wet and stretches, and the space blanket will slide down to the centre leaving you expose at either end. A much stronger alternative is to use an arch pole lashed between two trees instead of the cord.
Obviously cord should be carried as part of your survival gear. My preference for shelter building and other miscellaneous tasks is 10 m (30') of 2 mm accessory cord. It packs up tiny, weights next to nothing, is easy enough to tie and untie and strong enough.
Details on shelter types and their construction are covered in chapter 5 of the US Army Survival Manual: http://rk19-bielefeld-mitte.de/survival/FM/05.htm
Easy Day Pack Modification: Staying off the cold wet ground
The following is an inexpensive and simple modification I urge anyone who skis or winter climbs to consider. I have a top loading 40-liter pack with a plastic frame sheet that fits in a sleeve. The frame sheet has an aluminum stay and a couple of plastic rods in it and weighs 200 g. I pulled it out and replaced it with a 5 mm thick foam sleeping pad folded over three times (now 15 mm thick and 50 g) which fits it in the sleeve. This replacement is not only lighter, but actually makes the pack more comfortable for skiing and climbing because it hugs the back and moves with the body better. Main advantage: it pulls out and unfolds into a 50 cm x 65 cm (20” x 25”) rectangle for sitting or lying on the ground. It is long enough to go from my hips to my shoulders. Other items from the inside the pack can be used for a pillow and the empty pack can go under my legs, or I can put my feet inside it for extra warmth. The foam serves other purposes as well. It makes for superb waterproof tinder. Thin slices a couple inches long burn for a few minutes. The foam can be used to splint fractures, or at least pad under a stiffer splint. Surely there are other uses as well. It is a clever idea that saves weight, adds comfort, and provides padding and insulation for an unexpected night out in the snow. I picked it up somewhere a while back from some climbing book, or climbing magazine, and I highly suggest it to anyone who has a removable frame sheet in their day pack. This is an excellent example of using gear you carry anyway unconventionally in a emergency, rather than carrying something separate that can only be used in a emergency.
If there's a foot or more of snow of the ground, snow shelters become a viable option. A well executed snow shelter is stronger, warmer and more wind proof than a 4 season mountaineering tent (provided the temperature stays below 0C). There are several different kinds of snow shelters. Snow caves are easiest to dig if there is a deep snowpack on a gentle slope. If there is not enough snow to dig a snow cave, make a pile of snow and dig out the inside (this is called a quinzhee). Igloos are more difficult to build, but much more comfortable than either snow caves or quinzhees.
Snow construction can be combined with other types of shelters. For example, combine snow walls with a tarp roof.
Tinder is the smallest stuff that catches immediately with a flame.
Cottons balls saturated with Vaseline (waterproof, catches with a spark, each burn 2-3 minutes).
Ranger bands (1 cm wide cuts bike inner tube; waterproof, burn 2-3 minutes each).
Waxed paper (supermarket stuff: waterproof, folds up flat to carry, should be crumpled loosely into a ball for tinder).
Coghlans emergency tinder (sort of like the cotton balls above, but not as messy; http://www.coghlans.com/images/productBig/392.jpg).
Coghlans fire sticks (basically wax and saw dust; http://www.coghlans.com/images/productBig/164.jpg).
Strips of foam sleeping mat or padding in pack shoulder straps or back panel.
Insect repellant saturated bits of cotton.
Suggestions for packing Vaseline saturated cotton balls:
Stuff a whole bunch into a film canister.
Cut a section of drinking-straw a couple inches long. McDonald’s straws are good because they are wide. Using a q-tip or toothpick, push the Vaseline cotton ball into the straw, and then carefully melt the ends shut. When it is time to light, cut off a tip, pull out a bit of the cotton and it will light with spark and burn for a few minutes.
Kindling is the smaller wood (toothpick to broomstick thickness) that catches from the tinder. This stuff generally has to be dry, which is hard to find, especially in winter or wet weather. Splitting larger wood is the best option. If splitting is not possible, shaving away wet outer surfaces to access the drier parts is the next best option. Smallest kindling should be dry shavings of wood, followed by progressively larger pieces.
Standing dead wood is the best option for dry wood, but hard to find, and will still need to be split for kindling. Dead and down wood is often wet on the outside, but is sometimes dry on the inside and a good option if the snow is not too deep to find it. Living trees provide the most easily accessible wood. Only the outer ring (sapwood) is alive and contains sap and moisture while the inside of the tree (heartwood) is dead and generally dry. Moisture content varies with species. Harder dryer trees like ash (not found out west), maple and birch are best. Soft sappy trees like pine, fir, spruce and cedar are much harder to catch fire. Once the fire is going, these tree types burn just fine.
Cutting larger diameter wood into manageable logs is best done with a saw. With patience, a small saw such as the one on a Swiss Army Knife will get through 4 inch trees/logs. When the diameter of the wood being cut exceeds the length of the saw blade, you have to saw around on each side of the wood to work your way through it. Larger saws are obviously faster and easier to use. A good fixed blade knife suitable for splitting (described below) can be used to chop. Chopping in general is more dangerous than sawing, and harder to do when physically or mentally compromised. With practice and good technique, a 6 in blade knife will chop faster than a Swiss Army Knife or Leatherman can saw.
The safest way to split logs is with a fixed blade knife. The blade needs to be about an inch longer than the diameter of the wood being split. For most purposes a 5-6 inch blade is long enough. The blade is pounded into the log with a baton (some other heavy enough branch) to split it. This is the best way to get small sticks. http://img205.imageshack.us/img205/5306/p5231666mw2.jpg (knife in pic has a 9 in blade)
Knives and Tools
The knife blade should be at least 3/16 inch thick (5 mm) with a flat spine. Avoid hollow handled knives and blades with a saw back, like Rambo’s knife. These are novelty items that limited the strength and use of the knife. Good knives have a full tang (look it up if you don’t know this is). Avoid knives with guards that extend on the top of the knife. They interfere with ‘batoning’. A guard that prevents fingers from slipping onto the blade are good idea however. Blade steel needs to be good quality. Stainless steel is generally low quality if it is affordable. Examples of good stainless steels are 440C, VG10, S30V, AUS8(A), 154CM . If the type of stainless steel is not specified, it is junk. High carbon non-stainless steel is generally better quality for the price, but needs to be kept lightly oiled to prevent rust. (Even stainless steel will rust in time if not cared for). Carbon steel is also easier to sharpen which is a bonus. Good quality steels stay sharp longer, are much stronger, and the edge will not chip. Look for flat or saber ground knives. More expensive convex grinds are the best. Avoid hollow grinds. There and many good knives out there, but unfortunately many more crappy ones (which are commonly just as expensive) making knife shopping tricky. Ontario, KaBar, Cold Steel and Camillus (inclulding Becker) are some of the more affordable brands that make good knives. (UPDATE: Camillus [who owned and manufactured Becker knives as well] are now defunct.) The Cold Steel SRK is my favourite. It is the lightest knife of its size I have found with good balance for chopping as well fine work; it has a very strong point for digging and prying, a secure sheath, and can be had for $60 with careful shopping. (UPDATE: Cold Steel still make the SRK, but since the bankrupcy of Camillus [who supplied high carbon steel to Cold Steel] they use AUS8A stainless steel instead. Expect to pay a minimum of ~$100 to get a decent knife in or to Canada.
Opinions on tools vary. The idea is to have the lightest weight combination that will cover the basic tasks of “getting” and splitting wood. Some people prefer a large knife 8” – 10” blade (like the 9” one in the pic above) that will chop well and split. Mine weighs 24 oz with its sheath. I suggest two smaller tools instead. My 6” SRK and 7” pruning saw (Sandvik Laplander sold at MEC) have a combined weight of 18 oz. Not only is this lighter, but it is safer and easier to use than the one big knife. Chopping is not only dangerous, but it requires good technique to be efficient. Sawing is much easier when injured, which is an important consideration. Using the saw to “get” the wood will keep the knife sharper longer, and reduces the likelihood of breaking it. Two tools give more versatility, and the ability to leave one behind, or to carry them between two people. Also, should one tool break, you still have another to work with. If only one can be carried, the knife is more useful than the saw. The 6” knife, or Swiss Army Knife/Leatherman saw can still “get” the wood, it is just much more work and slower.
Axes and hatchets are too specialized and heavy to carry hikes or ski trips. They also require good technique to be safe and efficient. Very long thin blades like machetes are for use on light greener vegetation and are not appropriate in these forests.
Disposable lighters are more reliable than matches, and will light many more fires than matches of the same weight and bulk. Birthday cake candles are useful for reaching into the fire to light tinder.
A good introductory reference to firecraft is chapter 7 of the US Army Survival Manual: http://rk19-bielefeld-mitte.de/survival/FM/07.htm
Water is second to clothing in a survival situation, and the importance of hydration cannot be over emphasized. Even slight dehydration reduces all motor skills and impairs the mind. Dehydration thickens the blood, which reduces circulation, expediting death by exposure. Camelbak’s slogan “hydrate or die” sums it up. Stack the odds in your favour and stay well hydrated. Once you start feeling thirsty, it is too late; the body’s ability to absorb water slows down with increasing dehydration.
Carrying a spare water container is a good idea especially in terrain where you regularly have to take off your pack and risk losing it. Platypus makes little collapsible bladders that fold up small enough to go unnoticed in your pocket until you need it. Look for one with a zip opening in the bottom to make it easier to fill. Should your hydration system spring a leak (happens frequently) and you catch it before it drains completely, you have a container to put the water you saved in. Here is a tip: the hose from your hydration system can the cut or pulled off and used a straw to drink out of cracks in rocks, or from anywhere you cannot reach.
In emergency situations, do not hesitate to drink untreated water if necesary. The possibility of catching a disease is relatively low. Also, for common water borne disease in British Columbia, it takes several weeks for any symptoms to show up.
The lightest, simplest and most reliable option for treating water is chlorine tablets, like the Katadyn MP1 tablets. They have a longer shelf life than iodine and are individually packed so you can carry only as many as you want. Unlike with iodine tablets, when you open an MP1 tablet, you are not exposing the rest to air. They leave minimal taste in water, and kill all water borne pathogens given enough time. Do not be put off by the instructions on chlorine tablets that say to wait 4 hours before drinking. Read the instructions closely: http://img231.imageshack.us/img231/397/micropurwaittimesre2.jpg. The EPA makes them put that there because it takes up to 4 hours to kill cryptosporidia in cold dirty water. Chlorine tablets kill everything else in 15 minutes. Iodine will not kill cryptosporidia. Fortunately cryptosporidia is not a serious threat in North America.
Worse case scenarios are injuries that either slow you down, or worse, render you immobile. The goal with first aid is to patch yourself up well enough to move, or at least to stay alive until help arrives (12-24 hours hopefully IF YOU BOTHERED TELLING SOMEONE YOUR PLANS). On longer trips, you want to have enough first aid equipment so that minor injuries can be treated without forcing you to end your trip early, but on shorter trips, this is not an issue. Luxuries like antibiotic ointment, alcohol pads, specialized bandages, irrigations syringe, excessive quantities of dressings etc. just add weight and bulk. Save these items for longer trips. Scrutinize each item in your kit and bring only things that will either keep you alive, or make returning to the car faster and easier. Regular strip Band-Aids, gauze and tape will take care of most soft tissue injuries. Ibuprofen and Imodium are worth bringing on all trips, as is moleskin. Pencil and paper (waterproof e.g. Rite in the Rain paper) are mandatory. Depending on the nature of the trip and likelihood of sprains or fractures (skiing or biking for example) an elastic bandage and lightweight splint (Sam Splint) are a good idea to bring. They are easy to use and make a huge difference in comfort and the ability to continue moving. In the case of a foot or ankle injury, do not remove your boot as the swelling will make it impossible to put it back on.
Whistles are many times more audible than voice. Also, imagine a serious injury, particularly one the chest or face. Yelling may not be an option, but blowing a whistle takes minimal energy. Carry a couple. A good place for a whistle is on the shoulder strap of your pack where it is immediately accessible in any situation, even without using your hands. A second smaller one can go in a pocket survival kit. Look for pea-less whistles that work when wet. Some of the loudest and best whistles for their size are the Fox 40 (Regular, Mini, and Howler) and the Acme Tornado.
Mirrors are common signaling devices but only work in some conditions (sunny) and some locations (open areas), and take a fair bit of practice to be able to aim. It is probably not worth carrying one when space and weight are a factor. Carry a compass with a mirror instead. It can be used for signaling, treating facial injuries, or even shaving. Also chose one with a magnifying glass on the base plate for reading maps, fire starting (good luck!), or removing splinters. This is an example of one piece of gear that can provide multiple functions thus eliminating the need to carry extra crap. The reflective side of space blankets can be used to attract attention. Real signaling mirrors have a hole in the middle and instructions on the back. Aiming reflections with mirrors takes a lot of practice.
For a single night out, food gathering is not of major concern. You will be too busy with fire and shelter, even if not injured. Carry extra food if you want, and can tolerate the weight, but do not plan on hunting, fishing, or gathering unless you are out there for several days. Hunting and snaring are advanced skills. Finding insects and little things around is easier, but how many of us are that desperate in the first night. That said if you are somewhere where fishing is a possibility, carrying several little fish hooks, swivels and split-shot sinkers is a good idea. Fishing takes no real skill or effort. Small hooks are best; they will catch both big and little fish. Leaches are easy to catch and make for excellent bait. Any colourful or shiny piece of gear can be used as a lure (piece of space blanket, colourful piece of foamy or cloth etc.)
Edible wild berries very abundant in SW BC from June through September. There are wild varieties of blueberries, raspberries, strawberries and currants that look almost exactly like their farmed relatives. Also look for thimble berries, huckleberries and salmon berries which are not normally cultivated.
Other Useful Stuff
I prefer a Leatherman multi tool to any Swiss Army Knife. I have a Leatherman Charge Ti, and it the lightest weight possible for the given set of tools and features. There are many things I use the pliers for, cutting wire, bending/fixing bindings and climbing gear, loosen frozen locks on ‘biners, pot grabber, reaching a match or lit stick or candle into the fire, grabbing leaches (fishing bait), generally grabbing things I can't grip well enough with my fingers to pull.... I also use the file for sharpening tools, sharpening or making other things, fixing a finger nail... But the main things I really like about the Charge Ti are the higher quality blade and the fact that I can open everything one handed easily and more safely than I can with a Swiss Army Knife. The newer Leatherman’s have easy one hand opening blades, but even the other tools on it can be opened one handed because they don’t have the strong back spring like the Swiss Army Knives trying to shut them on your fingers. Some Swiss Army Knives have one hand opening main blade, but the other tools are trickier to open one handed. One hand opening is so convenient that after trying it, you will never go back. You are often holding whatever you want to cut or use your tool for in one hand, leaving you with only your other hand to grab and open your tool. If you injure a hand, wrist or arm, being able to open your tool on-handed will be more than just a convenience. When really cold or injured fine motor skills we all take for granted will not be there and our finger will not function the way we want them to. The Leatherman Charge models use superior steel (154 CM) in their main blade. It takes a sharper edge and holds it significantly longer (at least three times) than the blades on their other tools, or on Swiss Army Knives. Locking blades on many Leatherman tools is a major safety plus as well.
Duct tape can be used to reinforce space blankets before punching holes in them for tie down for example. It can the a simple way to help secure parts of shelter, secure a splint, covers blisters or hot spots, repair clothing or other gear etc. Not all Duct tape is equal. The military’s 100 MPH tape (aka Gun Tape), Gorilla tape, and 3M duct tape (most widely available) are the best out there. Since it is easy to carry, carry lots. Wrap it around water bottles, ski/trekking poles, lighters, biker frame and pencils so it is always handy.
Carry 50 lbs test SpiderWire (fishing line), which is much stronger than regular fishing line and can be used as thread, string for lashings, or catching fish as described above in the Food section. Carry this in addition to the accessory cord described in the shelter section.
A two inch long needle with big threading hole takes up no space and can be used to removing splinters as well as mending gear with the SpiderWire.
Safety pins are useful for repairs, holding slings together for arm injuries and a varity of other things.
A bandana can be used as an arm sling, to secure splints, to keep sun, rain or bugs off your neck and/or head, to filter sand and debris out of water, flagging, absorbant bandange or whatever else you can think of.
Wire is traditionally carried for making snares, but serves many more likely repair uses. It can also be used to splint fingers, or to secure a larger splint. If you are going to carry wire, carry stainless steel wire, not the often recommended copper wire. Copper wire is softer and easier to cut with a knife, but if you have even the smallest pliers with wire cutters on your Swiss Army Knife or Leatherman, you can easy cut stainless steel wire. Stainless steel wire is stronger and can be bent many more times in the same place before it breaks.
"The Ten Essentials"
I have modified the traditional list to 11 essentials that should be brought on every trip, including simple day trips.
- water (+ treatment tablets, spare container if using hydration system)
- extra clothes (insulation + rain gear)
- navigation (map + compass, even if using GPS)
- fire starting kit (matches, lighter, candle + tinder)
- knife/multi tool (+ other repair tools as needed)
- flashlight/headlamp + spare batteries/bulb
- signaling (whistle)
- first aid kit
- sun protection (glasses + sun block)
- shelter (HeatSheet space blanket + cord)
98.6 Degrees: The art of keeping Your Ass Alive! by Cody Lundin is an excellent, easy to read and thorough book, geared towards the outdoor enthusiast. It covers survival psychology, physiology and emotions as well as basic gear and skills.
The SAS Survival Handbook by John Wiseman covers primitive skills, but is aimed at military and is somewhat dated.