Survival Essentials for Safe Adventures
Reading Time: 10 minutes
By Dr Stephenie Slahor It’s on your calendar — THAT hike. And whether it’s a short one, a full-day, or a multi-day trek afield, you want it to be safe and enjoyable. Giving 10 “essentials” for survival and emergencies is Royce Jones, Wilderness Patroller I of the Mount San Jacinto State Park and Wilderness which is located on the mountain that overlooks Palm Springs, California. Jones’ wilderness training and his over 800 miles of backpacking have resulted in immeasurable miles of hiking experience. Going on his ninth year as a Wilderness Patroller, Jones makes the following recommendations about how to plan the essentials you need in your survival kit for fire-starting, illumination, navigation, hydration, insulation, sun protection, repairs, nutrition, first aid, and emergency shelter.
Jones emphasizes that even the simplest, easiest, and shortest trips afield can quickly turn into a major challenge — even a life-threatening one — because of changes in weather, injury, being lost, or Mother Nature’s whims. “Not being prepared can be a disaster,” he says, and you cannot
rely on just “luck” or the thought that it’s “only” a short day afield.
Instead, think about where you will be going. What could you need for ANY predicament in that location? He gives the example of a warm-weather desert climate in which you might not need the heavy clothing necessary to
survive a 30-degree Fahrenheit or colder night. But even being in, say, 50-degree F weather might pose a danger if you’re clad only in shorts and a t-shirt and then find yourself having to survive the drop in temperature
that comes with nightfall — and you are stuck because of injury, being lost or stranded, or a sudden bout of hotter or colder temperatures, rain, snow, wind, or other quick weather changes.
“Can you spend a minimum of 24 hours in the location where you got hurt before the search and rescue team comes to find you?” Jones asks. The answer to that will provide you with the planning you need for your essentials for the trip afield. Check what the weather will be in the location where you’ll be afield and plan accordingly.
He adds, “Let someone know where you’ll be and how long you’ll be out.” That way, the person can alert rescuers of your plans and where you are likely to be. And don’t forget to notify your contact when you do return so that you are not reported as missing.
Now, those survival essentials.
Yes, there are many areas where fires are prohibited due to local warnings of high fire danger. But, in an emergency survival situation, a fire may be your only recourse for staying warm, having light, and signaling your location, so is considered one of the essentials. This is when safety measures to preserve life supersede fire regulations. That fire or its smoke may be the only way rescuers will spot you. So clear away the debris around the area where you will build the fire and keep the fire going.
Building a fire can be tricky, though, so having cotton balls along or cotton lint from the clothes dryer (not polyester or nylon which just melt in the heat and does not ignite). The cotton balls or lint are lightweight and can ignite fairly quickly. Then add tinder, twigs, kindling, and larger pieces of wood as the fire grows.
Matches can get damp, and they sometimes fail to ignite. And sometimes, the wind even gets in the act to blow out the match before it can do its work. Whether book matches or wooden matches, the problem can be the same. Keeping matches in a match safe/waterproof container is wise, but you need to put some cotton inside that container so that the matches do not rub against one another and self-ignite. That cotton also adds to your fire-starting material. Be sure the striker on your matchbook or container works. A lighter can lose its fuel, rendering it useless. Better are flint and steel. They will throw a spark onto fire-starting material, but Jones advises keeping the flint low and away from the steel/ knife and close to the tinder. Don’t throw sparks from a distance from the tinder. Stay close to it to be successful in igniting the tinder.
Illumination and Signaling
A flashlight or headlamp can be convenient — as long as the batteries last. Jones prefers a headlamp because it allows the hands to be free and it always points where the head turns. But either — flashlight or headlamp — needs batteries, so carry extras.
A signal mirror serves as a surface-to-air flash to any rescue aircraft that might be in the area searching for you. Flicker the mirror back and forth so it is noticeable. Signaling can also be done with the voice, but voices usually don’t carry far in the wilderness. Instead, have along a plastic whistle — the noisier, the better. Blasting the whistle in groups of three blasts is using the universal signal of “3s” to alert to an emergency. Jones chooses plastic for the whistle because a metal whistle used in very cold weather can freeze and stick to warm lips.
Also have along some flagging tape. (Flagging tape is lightweight, non-adhesive and is often used for survey and boundary marking.) Choose bright, fluorescent orange — a color not in nature, but highly visible to rescuers. Hang the tape from tree branches or string it across the ground and in open areas. Stamp or dig letters on the ground or arrange rocks or wood pieces in an open area to spell out “SOS” or “HELP” in huge letters.
A map of the area where you are hiking and a compass are other survival essentials, but you have to know how to use them! Check with park preserves, outdoor organizations, community groups, and even sports stores for compass and map courses to teach how to use them. The hour or two you’ll spend in the course might save your life.
UTM — Universal Transverse Mercator coordinate system reader — is another tracking method that assigns coordinates to the earth. The reader locator is used with your map and is accurate within about 50 feet of where you actually are. Again, take a course in the use of a UTM.
There are GPS devices and smartphones with maps but be sure to have extra batteries or recharging capability. Some locations are so remote that a GPS might not function with great accuracy because it cannot reach the satellite that ordinarily provides data. Know your GPS, study its manual or website, or take a course in GPS use adventures so that you know the features, how best to use it, and its limitations.
Garmin, Garmin Geo Spot, and DeLorme make devices that link to satellites and cover most of the earth. The satellite coverage allows you to message your name and location, but Jones reminds you to stay where you are, if possible. If you must move on, be sure to cancel the SOS, or then signal your new relocation area. Satellite services have a monthly fee. Also, many devices can be programmed to signal someone who can “watch” your trek and receive a signal every few minutes, or even allow you to send text messages — features worth any extra expense.
For even the shortest of ventures afield, carry at least one liter of water per person. But how much water might you really need? That depends on your fitness, where you are, the weather, the amount of exertion, anxiety levels, and other factors. If you are thirsty, you are already dehydrating. It will take at least one liter of water to normalize yourself. Even a two- or three-hour hike in mild weather will be dehydrating because of perspiration and exertion. Base your need for water on the type of outing and where you plan to be.
A water bladder/backpack holds about three liters. Natural water sources may go dry or be unsafe, so obtain a good water filter, one that flushes and clears water and that doesn’t need batteries. LifeStraw, Katadyn, MSR, and Sawyer are among the water filters and purifiers. UV (ultraviolet) water filters will kill bacteria, viruses, protozoa, and other harmful organisms in some water. Water purification tablets are effective, but they take at least a half-hour to do their work. It’s better to use a filter and it tastes better, too.
Hyponatremia (too much water and not enough sodium levels in the blood) and hypernatremia (too much sodium and not enough water) can happen, so electrolytes may be needed. While Gatorade, Powerade, and similar beverages are often toted on a hike, Jones prefers coconut water because it has less sugar and a good balance of sodium and potassium. Food bars such as Shot Bloks or Power Bar Electrolytes can be of benefit for electrolyte boosts, too, but follow the manufacturer’s directions about use to allow your body to assimilate the nutrition.
The most vital portion of your first aid supplies is whatever medications you must have daily, plus some extras in case you are stranded for days or you lose one. Band-aids, tape, scissors, tweezers, moleskin, antiseptic wipes, gauze pads, gauze wrap, protective gloves, tape, and “new” skin wound sealant are all excellent for your kit. Build a kit and container for what you need, and what you might need for hiking out, covering a wound, protecting hot spots on your feet, and being as safe as possible in a medical emergency.
If you fall or become lost, it might take search and rescue teams a long time to find you, especially if you are alone. So, Jones recommends hiking in a group of no fewer than four people. One stays with the victim and two go for help. Why two? They’ll help each other avoid being lost, too. Being prepared for a medical emergency in your given area is high on the survival essentials list.
Know what weather is predicted for the area and carry an extra set of weather-appropriate clothing. A vest (NOT cotton), a fleece jacket, layers such as long johns (NOT cotton), a mask for your ears, mouth, and neck, and a hat or beanie can mean surviving cold or wet weather. Fold these tightly or place inside plastic bags and crush out the air. Jones does not recommend cotton fabric for clothing because once wet, it stays wet and won’t wick away body moisture or insulate the body. Wool is the best fabric to retain warmth even when wet, so choosing wool fabric for your trekking clothes is a wise choice.
Because a lot of your body heat is lost via your head, a hat or beanie helps keep your head and body warmer. When the body goes below its preferred temperature, the heart can react by cutting off blood circulation to the fingers and toes and, instead, sending more blood to the torso to preserve the body’s organs. Protect your feet with good socks and your hands with mittens so that the fingers help each other stay warm. Some mittens are colored orange (which increases your visibility), and some have removable covers so your fingers can be free to do any work that needs their dexterity. If you soak your regular clothes, you can change into your outerwear. GORE-TEX is a favored fabric for outdoor wear, keeping the body warm and dry while letting perspiration wick off.
Sunglasses are not just for the bright sunlight of an open desert or beach and shore. They are essential in most other settings such as when snow covers the ground. Too much sunlight reflecting off the ground into the eyes makes the eyes feel sandy. Sunscreen, long pants, and long sleeves provide additional sun protection.
A hat with a brim protects the wearer’s head and gives shade.
Repair tools are another of the “survival essentials.” In case you need to repair your equipment or clothing, carry a multipurpose tool or a pocketknife, pliers, Swiss army knife, can opener, duct tape, and 50 feet of cordage. Jones recommends placing your knife on a lanyard tethered to you, so it won’t be lost.
You might plan food or snacks to take along, but Jones advises having extras, “just in case.” Those extras might be trail mix, jerky, peanut butter with bread or crackers, fruit, dates, and other power-boosting food. Ready-made chicken and tuna lunches in foil packets are a lightweight and tasty choice. Take foods that are easy to carry, open, and eat. Keep yourself at a good nutrition level, even on a short hike. Your body needs protein, carbohydrates, and foods that will give it the energy to cope with easy — or difficult — conditions.
A day afield may turn into a much longer time. You may need an emergency shelter to cope with a change in weather, the need for a warm and dry environment, and safety. Tarps are too loose in the wind and won’t insulate from poor weather, and they are not usually in bright colors or silver that can be seen by a rescue team. Jones advises a bivy sack, lightweight and breathable, yet giving weather protection and comfort. Such sacks are small enough to tote easily. Add a lightweight reflective blanket, too.
You can stow all these things in a day pack that can also accommodate your extra water needs.
Those are Jones’ “survival essentials” for nearly any adventure, but he provides a few extra tips here.
- To be seen and rescued, don’t wear brown, black, or camouflage clothing that blends into the background. Instead, wear bright clothing, such as fluorescent orange.
- For weather that’s cold or likely to be snowy or icy, bring along crampons and snow gaiters for your feet and legs to avoid snow and moisture from seeping into your boots and socks. Desert gaiters keep small rocks and sand out of your shoes.
- Hiking sticks or firearms can attract lightning during an electrical storm so, if there’s electricity in the air or your hair and skin tingle, seek shelter immediately. Jones prefers hiking sticks that are made of composites, not just aluminum, and that snap and clip together rather than twist. That’s because, over time, the ones that twist might not stick well and may give out just when you need to lean on them to steady yourself. With either kind, keep them snug and tight wherever they connect or telescope.
For a look at more of Jones’ survival essentials, log on to www.youtube.com/watch?v=QZLPj09fsnk
DR. STEPHENIE SLAHOR’S farm and ranch background includes cattle, horses, mules, donkeys, dogs, cats, sheep, goats, rabbits, birds, chickens, geese, turkeys, and tortoises — but not necessarily all at the same time! She would be one of the first to agree that, indeed, “Variety is the spice of life!” Her degrees are a Ph.D. and a J.D., which, she says, “cost a fortune in time and money, but well worth it!”
Originally published in the September/October 2022 issue of Countryside and Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.