We are fortunate to have the occasion to spend time talking to the great folks at Kananaskis Mountain Rescue and Kananaskis Emergency Services. Any chat with them invariably turns to accidents they respond to, and we’re always curious about how incidents can be prevented or better managed. They have repeatedly told us that most emergency situations they have to deal with could be prevented (or at least, their impact substantially lessened) by three simple steps:
- Wearing correct footwear, especially in the summer;
- Dressing properly, in layers, and carrying extra clothing;
- Carrying an emergency kit that could see you at least tolerably through a night, or maybe two.
Yes, having an emergency kit prevents accidents. It can give you the option to spend a night out. If you’re lost, or just running late and don’t want to continue in the dark, you can comfortably make it to daylight. You also minimize the risks added by traveling in the dark, or moving when you’re tired or worried.
People think “emergency kit” and think big and bulky. The one we have put together weights about 500 grams, is very versatile, lives in our pack all through the year, is good for winter or summer, and was dirt cheap to assemble. It draws on experience teaching outdoor survival about 35 years ago at Outward Bound School in Ontario.
Here’s what’s in the kit pictured above:
A space blanket
This tiny thing, made of aluminized mylar, weighs nothing, and yet because it reflects about 97% of heat, is incredibly warm. Invented by NASA in 1964, it’s windproof and waterproof, and if you don’t want to wrap it around yourself, you can use it as an emergency rain or snow shelter. While the other items in your kit are necessary, this one is critical. Costs about $5 at MEC, Canadian Tire or Atmosphere.
A closed cell foam “sit upon”
When you sleep outdoors, most of your heat loss is into the ground. Not only is a sit-upon thing useful when plunking down to picnic, it’s waterproof, comfy and keeps your butt from freezing. Sit on this, wrap yourself in the Space Blanket, put on your hat and gloves, lean up against a tree and you’ll warmly survive a night. Cut one out of a ½” sleeping pad to fit the size of your daypack, and let it live there. Probably would cost $5.
A disposable, pocket sized plastic rain poncho
Windproof, waterproof, light. But in addition to acting as a back-up raincoat, it has a lot more uses. It’s big enough to act as a personal rain or snow shelter, or windbreak. You can use it to collect rainwater. It helps in first aid, wrapping cuts, abrasions or bigger wounds. Cut off strips, twist them up, and you have a quick rope. Hurt yourself in the winter? Cut out a big square, fill it with snow, and you have an instant icepack. Costs about $2 at a Dollar store.
A windproof butane lighter
Lasts forever, lights when wet. Easier to store than matches. Butane lighters don’t work well when cold, but 2 minutes inside your jacket under your armpit and its good to go all year round. Will burn much, much longer than a match, and with higher heat. Make sure it’s a windproof type (and they actually are almost windproof); a standard Bic lighter won’t stay lit when its windy. Costs $5 at a gas station.
An LED headlamp
LED lights use very, very little power. Three AAA batteries will keep a 7 bulb headlamp lit for 30 straight hours without going dim. More versatile than a flashlight, and really helps when you come across a cave you didn’t know was there. Even cheap ones are waterproof enough to handle a rainstorm. You can get a junky one at Winner’s or Canadian Tire for $8, but better quality ones are available and likely worth it. Keep one of the batteries in backwards so it doesn’t accidentally turn on in your pack, and change the batteries out at the start of the hiking season each year.
A compass and a GemTrek map
Never should you go into the woods without them. A basic Silva compass costs all of $15, and it literally lasts forever. Given that using a map and compass is a sadly disappearing skill in the age of GPS devices (who’s batteries fail, by the way), PRACTICE with it.
If you just flatly refuse to learn how to use a map and compass, or won’t carry them, replace these with a back-up power bank for your phone.
A roll of travel toilet paper
Leaves or moss don’t make the grade for most, plus, try finding them in the winter. More importantly, you can use toilet paper as gauze for a bad cut, and wrap it in a piece of plastic taken from the rain poncho as an emergency first aid kit extension. A roll of gauze would be better, but it makes for terrible toilet paper.
A water filter
There are those who believe that they can drink from most any lake or stream in K-Country with impunity. More power to them, we say. We personally don’t like intestinal parasites, so carry this little water filter straw that filters out giardia and other nasties. Weighs nothing, costs $13 at Atmosphere. Filters up to 70 litres, which is more than several days supply. Remember the “Survival Rule of 3“: you can only survive 3 days without water, and you need at least 4 litres per day per person sitting still.
While it would be great to carry a full-blown first aid kit, we’re not sure that’s necessary. Either you’ve got blisters, cuts and scrapes that you can use a bandaid or two on, or you can do the toilet paper/plastic wrap trick, or the Mountain Rescue folks better find you fast.
A day of calories
In the woods, just sitting still, you’ll need about 2,000 – 3,000 calories per day. But that “Survival Rule of 3” tells us you can survive 3 weeks without food. Your goal in carrying emergency food is NOT to eat well. It’s to give you energy, keep you lucid and thinking straight. It REALLY doesn’t matter what you carry. We carry 5 breakfast granola bars, and a handful of sesame snaps (on top of any food being carried for the day). They basically don’t go bad (stale, crumbly and beat up, but not bad). They each have a fair nutrition balance with carbs, protein and fat. They are each individually packaged. They weigh very little, and each one has 150-200 calories. A 2,000-calorie supply weighs ~300 grams and costs $6. Keep them in your pack all year, and throw them out and start with fresh every summer.
A Swiss Army Knife or multitool
Nothing like having a corkscrew in the woods. Or a toothpick. Or a Phillips head screwdriver. In truth, we hardly ever use ours, nor expect to in an emergency survival situation, other than using the tweezers to pull out splinters or use the scissors to cut up plastic strips. But they’re handy to help start a fire, or amuse yourself whittling while waiting for KES to come find you.
Any Fox-40 whistle will do; there are even Friends of Kananaskis whistles available, and they are all really stinking loud. If you’re lost in the woods and call out for help, your voice – which doesn’t travel all that well to begin with – will be gone in an hour. But you can blast away on the whistle (remember how to send an SOS in Morse code?) all day without even getting winded (though you will get deafened; Fox-40’s are 115 dB puppies). Somebody’s gonna hear that. $4.
Fleece gloves and a fleece hat
Amazingly warm, weigh nothing. In the winter, wear a hat and gloves, but still carry this lightweight beanie as extra warmth, and spare fleece Hot Paws gloves just in case your other gloves get wet. A warm hat and gloves makes any summer unexpected night out more pleasant. You can get both most anywhere for $5 each.
An extra, season appropriate, warm layer
In the winter, we carry – but don’t wear – a down jacket. We wear the right clothes for the day (NEVER shorts, but always zip offs), but carry the amazingly warm and lightweight down jacket as a back up, “just in case”. In the summer, it’s either the down jacket, or a combo of rain jacket and warm fleece pullover.
We don’t expect to or plan on wearing emergency clothes (except perhaps a rain jacket). If you need them during the day, you have not dressed properly. If you need them during the day, what will you wear to stay warm at night when it’s even colder?
Above is the whole kit, and, aside from the warm layers not shown in the picture, is the same kit winter and summer. Couple this kit with dressing properly in the first place, plus carrying your lunch and adequate water to start with, and that small kit will allow you to survive for quite a while in the woods. The cost is low, the space and weight it takes is negligible. There’s really no excuse for you to make up and carry a kit like this, too.
To see how an emergency kit should be augmnented for the winter, head here –>
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