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Safety / How to make a simple wilderness survival kit

Less than six months ago, I used to think, "Eh, I don't really care about emergency preparedness. Survival kits add extra weight and takes up space. Plus, what's the likelihood something will happen to me?" Did I mention I also had no idea how to apply the contents of a survival kit to any kind of situation?

I love it when proclamations like that come back to bite me in my butt (they often do, don't they?), because I'm now a believer in emergency preparedness in the backcountry.

What changed my perspective was taking a Wilderness EMT course with Aerie Backcountry Medicine. I learned a great deal about how to respond to medical emergencies in the backcountry and what I would need to stay alive and get rescued in an wilderness emergency situation. One particular topic we covered was a survival course taught by Trenton Harper. My survival kit below was inspired by his. Trenton's a local paramedic, instructor, and (this one's a fun one) Naked & Afraid survivor


BASIC FRAMEWORK

DEFINITION
Survival Situation: a situation where you have to save yourself or someone else through your own efforts; live long enough to get yourself out of a dire predicament or live long enough for help to arrive. 

ORDER OF PRIORITIES
If you find yourself in a survival situation, consider this order of priority for addressing your short-term and long-term needs:

  1. Shelter
  2. Fire
  3. Water
  4. Food
  5. Signal

WHEN IT'S MOST IMPORTANT
When you think you won't need it. Often people are need of Search & Rescue help because they're unprepared. It starts at, "Oh, it's just a quick run or it's only a day hike." Then a questionable choice here and there and all of a sudden, they're lost or soaked, on the verge of hypothermia. Suddenly, they realize they have no food, no means to call for help, no warmth, and no shelter from the wind and rain. It's not like anyone decides to jump off a boulder to sustain injuries after a 50' fall and have to spend a night in the wilderness. My point is that when we're unprepared, we're most at risk.

Below are images and descriptions of what I carry in a simple survival kit so I can sustain my life or someone else's in an emergency situation. I hope I don't have to use it...but if I ever do, it's in the bottom of my pack y'all. 

Size: ~5.5"x4.25"
Weight: 6.9oz

[A] 2-person Survival Blanket
PURPOSE: Use to wrap around yourself or build a shelter that reflects heat. When thinking about a shelter, you want to think about how you can stay best protected from the elements and stay warm (or cool). 

[A1] Hairtie with Duct Tape Flag
PURPOSE: In case I need to hold something together or think of a creative way to use rocks to tie my survival blanket into a shelter.

Fire is important to the shelter, water, and signal aspects of survival. It'll keep you warm or make your shelter more effective, it's the best way to treat water to kill any water-borne diseases, and you can use it to burn stuff to make a signal.

[B] Two Types of Matches
PURPOSE: Easy fire source. I carry strike on box and stormproof matches inside this little case I hacked. The reason I have two kinds of matches is just in case one fails.

[C] Mini Bic Lighter
PURPOSE: It's always good to have an alternative for making fire.

[D] Cotton Soaked in Vaseline
PURPOSE: This extremely efficient fire starter will catch on fire immediately and will burn for about 30 seconds to a minute. I carry three cotton balls in this small repurposed container that used to hold shea butter.

You need water to survive. Full stop. You can go maybe 24 hours without water, but you'll start feeling the effects of dehydration. Water is essential to your survival. You want to make sure you have a way of getting some and treating it. 

[E] Resealable Bag for Water
PURPOSE: In case you need to transport or collect water, this size bag will hold about a liter. 

[F] MSR Aquatabs
PURPOSE: 10 Fast acting (30 minute) water treatment tablets. It's 1-liter/tablet. It's good enough and treats for giardia, but not necessarily for cryptosporidium. 

[G] Potable Aquatabs
PURPOSE: Water treatment tablets that take 4-hours to treat water because it kills all offenders like giardia, cryptosporidium, etc.

>> Read more about treating water

Once you figure out your shelter, fire and water situations, you'll need to figure out how to signal to rescuers where you are. 

[H] Mini Glow Stick with String
PURPOSE: The string allows you to spin the glow stick to create a large signal in case a helicopter is overhead looking for you. Also a way to signal a landing area or mark your campsite for rescuers.

[I] 10 Feet of Flagging
PURPOSE: Use this reflective flagging to mark your shelter site and/or your path so that Search & Rescue can find you or you can find your way back. You can also use it to mark a huge X as a helicopter landing zone.

[J] Mini flashlight
PURPOSE: In case your headlamp goes out, you need a light source, or you need to signal your location, it's great to have an alternative option. The tiny flashlights with the blinking option is optimal. I added the rubber band so I could hang it somewhere or put it around my wrist. 

[K] Duct Tape
PURPOSE: Has a bajillion uses. To name a few: repairs, first aid, fire source, etc.

[L] Floss
PURPOSE: To sew. I keep unscented floss in my survival kit to avoid any scents. 

[M] Write-on-Rain Paper (4 sheets)
PURPOSE: To write notes on waterproof paper. E.g. If you're caring for someone unconscious, but you leave them to call for help, you can write a note just in case they wake up; or if you leave your shelter to call for help, leave a note at your shelter in case Search & Rescue arrive and you're not there but you want them to know you're alive!

[N] Pencil
PURPOSE: To write on your write-on-rain paper and it works in a variety of temperatures, unlike an ink-based writing utensil. I use a golf pencil since it's small and not too uncomfortable to use. (Imagine if your fingers are frozen and you're trying to grip something too thin or too tiny. Renders that thing useless, no?)

[O] Safety Pins
PURPOSE: It's like duct tape, there are so many ways to use safety pins. To name a few: improvised fishing hook, first aid, sewing, aiding with shelter building, makeshift compass, repairs, etc. 

[P] LOKSAK Bag
PURPOSE: To hold all of the contents together in a compact, airtight, waterproof manner. 

*Note: I do not have a compass and whistle in my survival kit because mine are attached to my backpack. I also carry a pocket knife in my pant pocket all the time, so opted out of including a knife in my kit for now. These three items are important to have on you, I just didn't want to be too redundant with gear. 

I never thought to carry dedicated emergency food because I always took a little extra anyway. Well, now I carry "911 food" in a different ziploc bag in case anything goes awry and I need extra calories. It includes three small bars, two nut butters and two packets of caffeine.

  • You can survive ~3 weeks without food, but it sure helps to have some if you're super low on energy. If feeds our brains and bodies, two things we need for our survival. 
  • Simplify by not mixing scented food items with unscented survival gear. This way, I can keep my survival kit with me at all times without having to animal-proof it in the evenings.
  • Bring a little caffeine. I learned from my Aerie instructors to bring some caffeine in my emergency food supply in case someone is addicted to caffeine. Having a caffeine option will help with any withdrawal symptoms that may arise. 

When I'm in the wilderness, these kits (plus my first aid kit) are with me and I use them willingly. When something does get used, I make sure to resupply it right when I get home so it's ready to go for the next outing. 

Do you carry a survival kit? If not, what keeps you from doing so? 

Itineraries / Indian Peaks Wilderness in Colorado - Day 3

DAY 3: LOWER CASCADE FALLS TO MONARCH LAKE TRAILHEAD

It was another 4.5 miles back to the trailhead where we took those first steps. The hike out was easy with its gradual downhill. It was especially easy to do with our lighter packs and full spirits, at least that's how I felt. I am always nourished by the wilderness...all the unspoken sacred moments: the moonlight sparkling in the creek, the moments of aw and silence, the mesmerizing moments staring at unique dance of flames. 

We had another oatmeal and coffee breakfast, packed up and headed back to the cars. As we got closer to the trailhead, we saw more and more day hikers sprinkled on the trail. It reminded me how special it was that we got to steep ourselves in the wilderness for three days, like we had become a cup of wilderness tea.

All fed, packed and cleaned up. I believe our goal as backpackers is to leave the wilderness in better condition than how we found it.

All fed, packed and cleaned up. I believe our goal as backpackers is to leave the wilderness in better condition than how we found it.

Nancy. Aww... sweet girl. 

Nancy. Aww... sweet girl. 

There is something so beautiful about a group of women backpacking together. It's one of my favorite sites in the wilderness.

There is something so beautiful about a group of women backpacking together. It's one of my favorite sites in the wilderness.

Thank you Indian Peaks Wilderness. You've left quite the impression. 

Thank you Indian Peaks Wilderness. You've left quite the impression. 

If you missed Day 2 photos, they're waiting for you here. Enjoy!

xo

Itineraries / Indian Peaks Wilderness in Colorado - Day 2

DAY 2: LOWER CASCADE FALLS TO CRATER LAKE BACK TO LOWER CASCADE FALLS

I woke up early and spent the first hour or so soaking in the quiet holy presence of a morning in the wilderness. There is nothing quite like that kind of peace and solitude. It was frigid, so I wrapped myself in my sleeping bag and sat for a while sipping a cup of hot coffee. Simple things. 

Eventually, everyone started hatching from their tents and we nourished ourselves with homemade oatmeal and coffee.

Sun finally cresting over into our campsite. 

Sun finally cresting over into our campsite. 

Everyone still sleeping...

Everyone still sleeping...

Coffee with milk + sugar and homemade oatmeal

Coffee with milk + sugar and homemade oatmeal

We decided to stay at our campsite for another night instead of migrating at Crater Lake, so we left what we could and started our day hike at 11am (*gulp*). A bit late of a start, but things just take longer with more people, naturally. The hike was breathtaking and I said the word "gorgeous" a bajillion times. I meant it every time! 

A gorgeous  pee-rag sighting  in the wild! (Disclosure: I gave each of the ladies a pee-rag to try on this trip. They loved it!)

A gorgeous pee-rag sighting in the wild! (Disclosure: I gave each of the ladies a pee-rag to try on this trip. They loved it!)

There was so much to stop and look at. The views were spectacular! 

There was so much to stop and look at. The views were spectacular! 

So refreshing and rejuvenating!

So refreshing and rejuvenating!

Silliness ensues. 

Silliness ensues. 

Hike hike hike.

Hike hike hike.

Small bridge crossing en route to Mirror Lake. 

Small bridge crossing en route to Mirror Lake. 

WOW. Gorgeous.

WOW. Gorgeous.

We finally arrived at Crater Lake and hopped on this rock to enjoy some time before heading back to camp.

We finally arrived at Crater Lake and hopped on this rock to enjoy some time before heading back to camp.

Hiking back to camp.

Hiking back to camp.

Yes. These are the moments. 

Yes. These are the moments. 

Itineraries / Indian Peaks Wilderness in Colorado - Day 1

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I had a very fortunate opportunity to spend three days in the Indian Peaks Wilderness in Colorado. It was brilliant, gorgeous, and invigorating. The best parts? Getting to introduce the basics of backpacking to ladies completely new to it, and learning about their motivations and barriers to entry.

For many, their backpacking curiosity is piqued because they already love hiking and camping. Backpacking is the natural combination of those two activities. Yet the barrier to entry can still feel quite high. Most people tell me they don't know where to go and what gear to take. I also don't think most people realize how much planning goes into it. Planning definitely gets easier as you have more experience (like most things in life), but it's certainly a lot of work to get started. 

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Here's our itinerary for our three day trip. I highly recommend this backpacking trip. It gets the YESYESYES! stamp of approval.

TRIP SPECS

Wilderness: Indian Peaks Wilderness
Trail: Cascade Trail #1
Trailhead: Monarch Lake
Mileage: 14.8 miles
Start Elevation: 8,345'
End Elevation: 10,328'
Total Elevation Gain: 2,507' (1,938' gain one way)
Detailed Trail Description: From ProTrails
Trail Map & GPS Coordinates: From ProTrails
Ranger Station: Sulphur Ranger District, 970-887-4100
Permits? YES, Reserve a campsite at Crater Lake as early as possible. It's $5 and they also provide a parking pass
Nearest Town: Granby, Colorado
Downloadable Topo Map Here

ITINERARY

Day 1: Monarch Lake Trailhead to Lower Cascade Falls / 4.4 miles
Day 2: Day Hike to Crater Lake / 6 miles 
Day 3: Lower Cascade Falls to Monarch Lake Trailhead / 4.4 miles

DIRECTIONS

Check out the map here, from Dino Lots to the Monarch Lake Trailhead

  • From the Dinosaur Lots, take 70W
  • Veer (R) to the 40W
  • Turn (R) to 34E
  • Turn (R) to Hwy 6 (not super well marked, keep your eyes open)
  • Take Hwy 6 all the way to the trailhead

THE CONCERN FACTOR for June 26-28, 2015

  • Snow: We were expecting snow for the last two miles up to Crater Lake and thought we were going to have to posthole our way. Fortunately, the snow had mostly melted off and it was only muddy for the last mile or so.
  • Bears: Didn't see any; word of black bear(s) at Monarch Lake a week prior
  • Mosquitos: Definitely around and biting, especially bad on the hike from Crater Lake to Lower Cascade Falls
  • Ticks: Didn't see or get any
  • Water: Plenty of engorged creeks, waterfalls, and eventually lakes
  • Creepy men: Didn't see any; this trail is heavily used so there are plenty of people you'll come across
  • Lots of people: Surprised by how many people backpack to Crater Lake and day hike to the Lower Falls. If you're looking for solitude, this may not be the best spot for you
  • Elevation gain/loss: The ascent up to Crater Lake was difficult at times

GEAR

I ended up taking all of my usuals + extra water treatment, bear hang gear and tarp since we were a larger group, a robust first aid kit including a SAM splint, and extra pair of socks (in case my feet got wet from snow). Oh, and I took my big ole zoom lens. It definitely adds a few pounds, but it was great to be able to get shots I wouldn't have been able to otherwise.

I took a few more things than I would on a solo trip since we were a group of seven. Some new things I've added to my overall pack weight include: more robust first aid kit, survival kit, and 911 food. My pack was heavier than normal, but overall it was still quite manageable.

I took a few more things than I would on a solo trip since we were a group of seven. Some new things I've added to my overall pack weight include: more robust first aid kit, survival kit, and 911 food. My pack was heavier than normal, but overall it was still quite manageable.

day one: Monarch Lake Trailhead to Lower cascade falls

We had two cars with ladies from various parts of Denver, so we touched base at the Dino Lots (just outside of Denver) and then caravaned to Granby for a short restroom stop. We drove to the Monarch Lake trailhead, got our belongings together and started the walk. And by "we," I mean this lovely bunch of ladies. 

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We hiked about 4.5 miles to the Lower Cascade Falls and set up shop near the top of the falls. It was perfect. Close to a water source, pre-made fire pits and white noise lulling us to sleep after everyone's first trek carrying all that gear on their backs. 

Hike hike hike. 

Laura (L) and Rachael (R)

Laura (L) and Rachael (R)

Amy's pack gave her a pretty hard time, but she was still a trooper. (She said she was going to return the damn thing after the trip!) That's the benefit of renting gear...you get to try it out and see what you like and don't like about a backpack without the commitment. 

Amy's pack gave her a pretty hard time, but she was still a trooper. (She said she was going to return the damn thing after the trip!) That's the benefit of renting gear...you get to try it out and see what you like and don't like about a backpack without the commitment. 

Our campsite was next to the Lower Cascade Falls. What a breath of fresh air - literally! And, we got to fall asleep to the sound of this roaring waterfall. It was glorious! 

Our campsite was next to the Lower Cascade Falls. What a breath of fresh air - literally! And, we got to fall asleep to the sound of this roaring waterfall. It was glorious! 

Airing out my socks using little nubs on the tree. 

Airing out my socks using little nubs on the tree. 

Everyone collected wood and I taught them how to make a proper fire. Rachael (the one in that cute beanie) did an awesome job of stoking the fire and keeping it ablaze. We sat here to have dinner and relax after day one.

Everyone collected wood and I taught them how to make a proper fire. Rachael (the one in that cute beanie) did an awesome job of stoking the fire and keeping it ablaze. We sat here to have dinner and relax after day one.

OH, FYI...This event was brought together in collaboration with Niki Koubourlis, Founder of Bold Betties Outfitters. Consider renting your gear with her if you're interested in trying out backpacking. She has a nice selection to try. (Yes, this is an affiliate plug! If you rent gear from Bold Betties through my link, I earn a tiny bit of commission. Yay for passive income!)  :-) 

See more photos from DAY 2 & DAY 3

Firsts / Lisa's first backpacking trip as an adult!

I got a chance to reconnect with an old colleague during my last visit to the Bay Area. Meet Lisa. She is the Partnerships and Communications Assistant at HopeLab (my last workplace), she has two teenage kids, and holds a curiosity and vitality about life I find irresistible!

Lisa was buzzing with energy while telling me about her upcoming backpacking trip with her friend Liz (not me, another Liz). This would be her first one since she was just a young lass. Lisa showed me the new hiking shoes she was considering (in her favorite color, purple, of course) and gear she was borrowing, and we gabbed on and on about what she was hoping for during this trip.

Well she went on her first backpacking trip recently and told me all about it! I laughed out loud, squealed, and related to her stories and pictures. I hope her story inspires you to go on your first backpacking trip. (P.S. Look at how adorable she is in her dress + hiking shoes!)

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Snowqueen & Scout: Tell us briefly about your background in backpacking.
Lisa: The last time I backpacked was about 28 years ago when I was 20! My very first trip was with the community center when I was in 3rd grade and I went a few times with my family while growing up too. 

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For this most recent trip, where did you go, how many days were you gone, how many miles did you hike, and what did you see? 
We went to Emigrant Wilderness, north of Yosemite. We arrived late Thursday night and threw up the tent in a random spot near a fire road. We started hiking on Friday and finished around 6pm on Sunday. In three days, we hiked roughly 24 miles total (including the "Oh Shit" four-mile detour which I'll talk about later). 

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You mentioned your hiking partner Liz when we chatted in a previous conversation. Tell us about how she was a partner to you both pre-trip and during your trip. 
After a group conversation about the movie “Wild,” Liz totally made our trip happen. I often say something sounds like a great idea, but don’t follow through with it. This would have absolutely been one of those things without Liz’s enthusiastic planning and follow up. She got input from one of our colleagues on the best places to go backpacking, researched it, got a map, determined our route, and called the ranger station to learn about permits and restrictions. The week of the trip she called the ranger station and made arrangements for our free permit to be left at a pick up spot since we would arrive after they closed.

During our planning phase she would check in with me and let me know what she was doing in terms of training and getting equipment together. That really motivated me to keep up and keep my own prep going!

During the trip she was a great partner because we kept a similar pace, had similar endurance and were on the same page about when to call it a day. We really had to work together to pick up the trail at certain points and to negotiate some of the stream crossings. She also had a lot of great ideas about food, equipment & hygiene that she shared. Liz created what I called the “Bidet Bottle.” I will totally try it on my next trip. It's a water bottle with a squirt top for cleansing yourself during bathroom stops. I thought it was brilliant!

Did you have any "OH SHIT" moments? What happened? 
We were fortunate that we didn’t have many of these at all. There are two that stand out. The first OH SHIT moment was after we left camp the first night. We missed the trailhead to Gem Lake and continued on a trail going to Wood Lake. Liz and I didn’t realized we were not on the right trail until we came to a river crossing and could not figure out where to go from there.

Up until then, there had been small stream crossings, but this was much bigger. We definitely did not want to cross it without knowing where to go on the other side. We didn't want to risk having to cross back if we couldn't pick up the trail, so we decided to backtrack. We finally ended up back at a familiar stream crossing. It was challenging for Liz to cross the first time so she wasn’t thrilled to go back across. But once we crossed the stream, we very quickly saw the trail marker we had missed. Not sure exactly how far that detour was, but it potentially added up to four miles to our total!

The second OH SHIT moment was when I stumbled and fell forward onto my knees. That wasn’t so bad, but the weight of my pack pushed me forward and I had to land on my right hand. I felt really powerless to stop the momentum and that was pretty scary. I was super lucky that I really didn’t scrape my knees or tear my pants. I came out of that fall with only a light scrape on my hand. 

What are two highlights and two lowlights you'd share with your closest friend? 
Highlights: I loved skinny dipping for the first time! I loved being naked outside in general!
Lowlights: My lady parts did not smell good by day two and I need to learn to dig a deeper hole for shitting in the woods. Also although Liz is not my closest friend, it was still fun talking about all of these things on our trip!

First breakfast on the trail. This picture doesn't do any justice.

First breakfast on the trail. This picture doesn't do any justice.

What would do differently next time? 
I would like to plan more time to stop and appreciate beautiful places and I would stop more frequently for small meal breaks. I would maybe play in the water more! And I definitely need to come up with a better hygiene plan as well. 

Was there anything you took that you'd definitely not take again? And conversely, is there anything you didn't take that you wish you had? 
I got such great advice on what to bring from Snowqueen & Scout and from a colleague who is crazy about backpacking so I don’t feel like I had anything that I didn’t need. The things I didn’t use are things that I think I couldn’t avoid bringing anyway (i.e. gloves, stuff to start a fire, a compass, most of my first aid stuff). I also brought sunglasses, two bobby pins and ear plugs I didn't use, but I would probably bring those again next time. I did have a small drinking cup that I left behind because it seemed unnecessary, but I'll take it next time. And did I already mention that I really want to try Liz’s idea of rinsing with water at potty breaks next time?! 

Describe those last steps out to the trailhead on Sunday night. What were you feeling? 
The last few miles Liz and I were both feeling sad that it was coming to an end. But by the time we were close to the trailhead, I started feeling better about the trip ending! When I saw the car, I knew there would be clean clothes and shower wipes available, and we would be on our way to a fast food meal! I was pretty excited about those things. 

But as we drove away from the trailhead, I felt a little sad again to be leaving the amazing quiet, peace and beauty. We drove with our windows down because we were already missing all the mountain fresh air. And although it was great to have no cell service on the trail, it was nice to be able to check in with our significant others after we finished.

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Would you go backpacking again? If so, what about it draws you back? If not, why not? 
I will absolutely go again! I loved the beauty and serenity. I loved experiencing all kinds of conditions and environments and I loved pushing myself when I was tired or hot. I loved getting to a new beautiful location or seeing some new spectacular sight or view. I loved the simplicity of not really cooking or washing dishes, not having to choose what to wear each day, not having to wear makeup or worrying about my hair. I loved the freedom of not having too many choices and decisions to make, not being tied to my phone, and being totally self-sufficient.

We were just in our bodies, feeling them work and really only had to worry about basic needs – food, water and finding somewhere to sleep. It was exquisitely awesome!

In what ways are you a different Lisa now, than the Lisa before you went on your first backpacking trip?
I’m different in that I love backpacking and can’t wait to go again! I would even go on a short trip by myself. I NEVER thought I would have any interest in that. I had never been backpacking without a man in the group. Being single after a 22 year marriage, it feels good to have the confidence that I don’t “need a man” to do things with me, particularly something like go out into the wilderness. In the past when we'd car camp, I was always afraid of animals like mountain lions and bears. I liked knowing my husband would be there to help or protect me.

It turns out that I’m totally ok on my own! I wasn’t afraid and I didn’t spend any time worrying about it. There wasn’t anything we couldn’t handle on our own. Feeling confident, self-sufficient and empowered is a great thing.

Anything else you'd like to share? 
Thank you, Liz, for all the great info and inspiration on your blog and in person!


Aww, you're so welcome Lisa! Thanks for sharing your story with all the ladies out there who are new to backpacking. I so appreciate your candor and reflections and I can't wait to hear more stories of future backpacking trips! #GoLisaGo