A little prep goes a long way. Even good drivers wear seat belts because we can’t predict when things won’t go to plan. It’s the same when heading outdoors. Leaving a brief route plan and having a small bag with some basic equipment will make the difference between discomfort and danger should something unexpected occur.
Most search callouts are to find families, recreational walkers or outdoors oriented people who often “only intended to be away from the car for around half an hour”. What they mostly have in common is that they were unprepared for the consequences of being delayed. It’s not difficult to pack the essentials to safety net a bad situation. This suggested emergency kit can form the basis of a home emergency preparedness kit, but is also small enough to transfer between backpack, car, kayak and hydration pack. Combine it with a route plan, a topo map and some appropriate food and you have the basics to deal with the unexpected.
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Remember, it may not be you that gets into difficulty, but being prepared could save the lives of anyone you find in a bad way even on the trails around town. Please, leave a route plan and carry the basics whenever you head outdoors.
1/ Check weather forecast and time of sunset
2/ If you’re going to an unfamiliar area or if there is any chance of being delayed until dusk, study a topographical map in advance and identify useful “handrail” features like roads, rivers and hydro lines. If possible, create an imaginary box using these and be aware of how they relate to compass points.
3/ Make a route plan with estimated return time. Let someone know where you’re going and what time you should have checked in with them on your return. Leave a copy on the dash of your car. Even if you are delayed and don’t have cell coverage, you will know that you can hunker down while rescuers are sent directly to you in a timely fashion.
4/ Do not leave home without everyone carrying a whistle, attached where it can easily be accessed without searching through pockets or backpacks. Clipped to a pack strap is ideal. Also, even for daylight activities, have at least one flashlight or headlamp per person, as well as spare batteries. Even a sprained ankle on a woodchip trail in town can delay you long enough that darkness can fall, and a whistle will summon help far more effectively and with less effort than shouting. Paramedics are not meant to travel more than a few metres from the road, and search and rescue evacuations can take many hours.
5/ Carry basic equipment to mitigate the discomfort of a long wait in cold and darkness. In priority, with adjustments based on weather, time of year and the nature of the activity, requirements are whistle and flashlight/headlamp (always essential), 1st Aid, shelter (survival blankets or a poncho plus survival blanket or lightweight tarp, cord), warmth (dry clothes, firestarting equipment, heat packs, metal cup or water bottle to heat water), water (what you carry plus a Lifestraw or similar water filter) and food.
6/ Carry a compass and map and learn the basics of how to use them. Even if you’re using a GPS, the small screen is of limited use to plan your next move. Using the coordinates to place you on the map and then navigating by compass is far more useful. Electronic maps, even on dedicated wilderness GPS units cannot keep up with changes to roads as a result of logging, and cellphone GPS is notorious for giving the confidence to get people into trouble, then mis-directing searchers when a rescue is required. GPS software on cellphones eat battery life rapidly, so noting coordinates and nearby features once, then switching off unnecessary apps can preserve battery life and allow you to continue giving valuable feedback to searchers if they have contact with you.
7/ If you get into difficulty, call for help early and do not risk expanding the search area by continuing to move. Hunker down and use available light to make emergency shelters, collect firewood and start a fire. If you can, safely find an open area or a location close to a significant terrain feature. Searchers will use coordinated whistle blasts then stop and listen for a few seconds as soon as they believe they are near to the area in which you are. Having a whistle to respond allows different teams to radio the bearing at which they hear your response to the search managers who can then triangulate your position. Again, CARRY A WHISTLE!
8/ Marking your route with flagging or blazes on trees and marks on the trail can help you re-trace and can help searchers find you.
9/ Don’t panic. If you have taken the steps above, you should be able to improve your situation while you await help. Fire is a huge help for heat, signalling your location, light, morale and keeping wildlife away. Make sure that your fire is containable and will not set fire to roots or vegetation under the ground. Wherever possible, build your fire close to a water source that will both provide you with hydration and help to safely extinguish the fire. It’s good to have a practice campfire now and again, using only the regular contents of your pack and the resources you find around you.
Recommended emergency pack contents in addition to your regular clothing, food, water etc. Carry all of this in a sealed drybag and check the contents before every hike-
1st Aid kit (include any medication you may need) Make sure it includes 1st Aid gloves, saline wash, plenty of gauze sponges and fabric first aid tape. If anyone in your party has an epi-pen, make sure it is accessible, everyone knows where it is and how to use it.
Flashlight/Headlamp plus spare batteries. I carry 2 spare lights. I’ve had lights fail, and darkness is debilitating.
Survival blankets, or survival blanket plus poncho (One to make a shelter, one to wrap around you)
Cord and duct tape (To shelter build, repair damaged waterproofs, splint injuries, etc.)
Metal cup- Steel, enamel or titanium (Can be used to heat water or as a pot to make hot drinks/food)
Firestarting equipment- I carry an old fashioned, military style solid fuel folding stove. The fuel blocks can be used to start a fire. I also have a knife, matches, sparkie, and extra tinder. Learn where to find good wood and how to use it to strengthen, not smother your fire.
Lifestraw or similar water filter- They are cheap, light, compact and ideal to save you from having to carry an extra supply of water. Use with your metal cup to scoop water when you find it and save the water in your pack for when you need it.
Heat packs- Can be applied to the core or to hands and feet. Ideal to restore circulation before trying to firestart or shelter build.
Food- I carry oatmeal sachets, a ziploc tub of powdered hot chocolate (sometimes pre-mixed with marshmallows), several granola bars (NOT the low calorie type) and a pack of rehydration tablets, ideal to prevent or relieve cramp. If I’m going to an area with less access to water, I will add some bottles of water. This is an emergency supply pack, in addition to the regular food I would carry for the planned activity.
Spare clothing- I carry a full set of baselayer, socks, gloves, a toque and a windshell layer. This is in addition to the regular clothing I’ll wear and carry. I wear as little as I can when I’m moving, so I don’t overheat and perspire excessively, then I pull my warm, dry clothes on when I stop. Your pack should be big enough to allow for removal of your waterproofs and midlayer. I want a whole set of dry clothes next to my skin if something happens to stop me. If I’m wet through rain, perspiration or falling into water I would lose heat 25 times faster than if I’m in dry clothes.
Spare compass- Ideally declination adjusted (there is approximately an 18 degree difference between grid and magnetic north in this part of the world. A mistake in calculating this declination will lead to being nearly 40 degrees off course. That’s a whole kilometre out for every 10km you travel)
Spare batteries- For GPS, headlamps, etc.
I have now covered route planning and communication, navigation, 1st Aid, heat, shelter, signalling, water and food. By using these tools appropriately I will hopefully prevent, and at worst mitigate, an unexpected and unwanted night in the woods.