backcountry emergencies

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


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. 

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 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. 

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? 

Lighten Your Load / Why I always carry duct tape

There are thousands of ways to use duct tape, aren't there? Plenty of those include using it in the wilderness. For example, if you get a tear in your clothing, duct tape it! If a small critter eats through your tent because you accidentally left food in there, duct tape it (and don't do that again)! If your buddy breaks an arm and you're improvising a split, duct tape it! If you need to bandage someone up, but don't have medical tape, duct tape it! You get my point. Duct tape it!

I used to carry just a tiny bit of duct tape around my sharpie pen, but after taking my Wilderness-EMT course, I feel way more aware of the dangers of getting injured while out in the backcountry. Having a sufficient amount of duct tape feels more pertinent now, in case of an emergency. Don't get me wrong, duct tape probably won't save anyone's life in it of itself, but if it's going to aid me in trying my best to help someone, I'll take it. (In fact, I'll share more about my evolving attitude toward first aid kids in a later post.)

With that said, I'm still interested in minimizing weight and packing efficiently. So here's a tiny tip on duct tape: Buy a small roll, take out the inside cardboard roll and squish it. It saves me 0.2oz, flattens down nicely, and it's a good supply.

I learned this trick from my friend Trenton, who taught my WEMT class some awesome gear-related tips. I'll share more as the days go, but for now here's Trenton-tip #1.


Do you carry duct tape? What have you used it for in the backcountry?