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? 

Safety / Ticks are gross. Period

Ugh, I can't stand ticks! They're disgusting. But dealing with them is often part of the package of being out in the wilderness, especially during the spring when they the conditions are just right and they're ready to feast. This season, be prepared to avoid ticks.

But first, a rant:

  • I can't stand the way they are so damn ugly. 
  • I really dislike how you can only kill them by completely obliterating them. (Squeezing them doesn't work. Last time, I literally smashed one apart between two rocks so it would die.)
  • I really really dislike how they transmit diseases (especially life-altering Lyme Disease).
  • Last one: I hate how you can't feel them crawling on you! Ahhhh!


Ways to avoid ticks

  • Stay on the trail
    Since ticks are hanging out on leaves, grass, branches ready to hitch a ride feasting on you, try to stay in the middle of the trail away from brush. 
  • Use repellent
    Spray 30% (or higher) DEET on your clothes to repel ticks from even wanting to climb onto you. You can try natural lemon eucalyptus oils or sprays too or go treat your clothes and gear with permethrin. (Here's a great step-by-step on how to apply permethrin to your clothes.)
  • Go tick hunting
    This means that you check yourself thoroughly ALL OVER your body. Ask someone to help check your backside and areas that you might have a hard time seeing. Because you usually can't tell if a tick is crawling on you, it's a good idea to check yourself each night and when you wake up if you're in a tick-infested area. (Don't forget to check your neck, scalp, and private areas too!) 
  • Wear light clothing
    The dark-colored ticks are easier to spot if your pants/tops/socks are lighter colored. Plus it's cooler when you hike.
  • Remove ticks immediately
    If you see one on you, don't freak out (but I always do). With tweezers, grab the tick as close to your skin and pull gently and steadily. Don't twist it off, just pull it slowly and directly out. You don't want to aggravate the tick. Once it's out, clean the bite as you would an infection (soap and water) and monitor yourself. 
  • Have a dog? Be EXTRA THOROUGH
    If you're hiking with your dog, you know that s/he's bouncing all around off trail. It's very possible that it's carrying ticks. Check your dog not just for it's sake, but for yours too.

Did you know that author Amy Tan has Lyme Disease transmitted by a tick bite? Her story on Humanthologyis quite compelling.

Beware of ticks! Check yo'self!

How To Filter Water / Why You Need to Filter Water

Don't be deceived by how crystal clear this water looks. It was refreshing to dunk my feet in this during a 22-mile hike, but there's bird poop, dead bugs, and who knows what else. (And, no I didn't make that happy face, I found it perfectly sitting there, looking back at me. The eyes are dead bugs, by the way.) 


I was once about to embark on a solo backpacking trip in the Bob Marshall Wilderness - affectionately known as "The Bob" by locals - when I came across two older gentlemen moseying around their horse camp at the Benchmark trailhead. The older guy's name was, ironically, Bob. We got to talking and he introduced me to his horses, showed me how to pack for a horse pack trip, and asked me about my decision to venture out solo. You have to imagine this old classic Montanan rancher interacting with random Korean-American girl wandering by herself into a wilderness unfamiliar to most people outside of Montana. It's not where the visitors go; it's where the locals go. I like to believe my presence probably baffled him. Regardless, Bob was incredibly embracing, kind, and supportive.


The next morning, I was packing up camp and Bob came by to check in. He looked at my water bladder and asked me why I was carrying so much water. (It was probably 2.5L.) I explained why and he proceeded to tell me how he just gets a cup and puts it right up to a spring and drinks straight from it. He's been doing that for over 20 years and he's never had a problem. I was tempted to leave my water bladder, take a cup instead, and chug water straight from a spring too! Who wouldn't want to believe a kind old man? I almost did, until I remembered...

"Oh right, that one time I got GIARDIA and ended up in urgent care hooked up to morphine! And that other time I spent three weeks recovering from an insane case of SALMONELLA and ended up in the E.R. Oh, and that month I spent in southeast Asia with the runs because of G.I. issues."

Yeah, really. I hope that thought scares you a little because water-borne diseases are no joke. I'm the queen of G.I. issues, so please hear me when I say it's horrible. When you're not sure if water is potable (safe to drink), you should always treat it. The absolute best way is to boil it for at least three minutes. But boiling water can be cumbersome and not always feasible. Below are the most common water-borne diseases and ways to treat it. 




  1. Boiling water
    • This is the most reliable way of eliminating all potential diseases. 
    • Bring water to a rolling boil for at least a 3 minutes to make questionable water, potable. Boiling for 10 minutes will sterilize the water; this is unnecessary for drinking.
    • This is a cumbersome method. I don't know anyone who does this on a regular basis in the backcountry. But it is your safest bet!
  2. Filtration + Disinfection
    • This is the second best option to eliminate water-born diseases.
    • First use a filter to pass the water through a first round of purification. Then use a disinfection method for a second treatment measure.
    • I should probably start doing this since I'm known for contracting serious G.I. issues. 
  3. Filtration only
    • This can be a good option for purifying water, but depending on the device, it may or may not filter all viruses. In North America, it's unlikely that you need to filter out viruses, but nothing's ever for certain.
    • If I had to choose only one or the other as the safer bet, I would choose filtration only over disinfection only because filtering water will catch Crypto.
    • It's pretty fast, but it's heavier and bulkier than a disinfection method.
  4. Disinfection only
    • Iodine, Chlorine, or Chlorine Dioxide
    • Does a good job of killing bacteria, viruses, and (most of the time) giardia. But it's not proven to treat Crypto, which is more likely than viruses in the water.
    • It takes longer than filtration, but it's smaller and lighter.
    • Does most of the job, and tends to be fairly reliable.
    • Katadyn and Potable Aqua make lightweight tablets that treats for Crypto. The only major downfall is that it takes 4 hours to treat water versus the faster 30 minutes. (Listed below)

You can find more info from the CDC here & here.

Examples of filtration systems

Examples of disinfection treatment systems

Solo Backpacking: What info to share

If you plan on going on a solo backpacking trip, I would highly recommend giving any and all relevant information to your "team" of supporters -- these are the people who will be looking out for you from home. 

I try to share everything I think will be important in case of an emergency situation. Below is an example email of the information I provided during a solo trip to Montana (when I was living in California).

Where I'll be: Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana
Trailhead start/end: Benchmark

GENERAL ITINERARY (subject to some change)
Wed, July 24: arrive at Benchmark after 6pm MST, camp at trailhead
Thurs, July 25: trail 202 to trail 203 (towards Chinese wall)
Fri, July 26 - Mon, July 29: trail 203 (continue to Chinese wall, then I'm not sure what I'll do yet. Either do a loop back to Benchmark going west then southeast or east then southwest or do an out and back. I'm going to decide after I talk to a ranger.)
*Note: I am aiming to be out of the wilderness and back to my car by 5pm MST on Mon, July 29th. 

POINT PEOPLE (in case I don't check in by 5pm MST on 7/29)
1) Samuel Mandell
Relationship: Fiance

If I don't check in via phone/text, you might begin to worry a bit. 
If I don't check in by 7pm, on 7/29, please call ranger station (see contact info below)

2) Sheri Jarvis
Relationship: Friend in Montana

I'm planning on meeting Sheri at her friend's home in Potomac, Montana on Mon, July 29th. 

RANGER STATION (that manages the area I'll be in)
Rocky Mountain Ranger District
1102 Main Ave NW
Choteau, MT 59422
Phone: (406)-466-5341

(See attached pic)
Car I'm driving: Honda Civic hybrid, light green blue (See attached pic)
License: XXXXXX
Belongs to: Name, Phone #, Relationship to me

(See attached pic)
Hair: brown
Eyes: brown
Weight: 136
Height: 5'3"
Allergies: Cipro


Below are the pictures I attached to this email in case they needed to send it to anyone in case of emergency.