I learned about the 7 P’s in my youth from the colorful words of my father. “Proper prior planning prevents piss-poor performance”. A little crude, but accurate. I took that lesson to heart and it’s always in the back of my mind when I go about doing something. In the past, I used to have people make fun of me during our day hikes because I always carried a substantial pack filled with just about every piece of gear I think might be useful in case of an emergency. Admittedly, I probably overdid it most of the time, but I always erred on the side of caution. The sacrifice for that choice was struggling with a heavy pack when I should have been focused on the fun. After a while, I pared back the gear, but I always made sure I had the bare essentials on hand in case something did actually happen. Unfortunately, a gentleman in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania met with such a situation and died as a result. According to this news article, the 64 year old hiker died from hypothermia. Apparently, he got lost while on his hike and had to spend the night outdoors. Not being dressed appropriately, he fell victim to the near-freezing temperatures.
Certainly, this is a tragedy for his family, but there are a couple of lessons that can be learned that might help others in the future. Now that we are in Autumn, the nights are much colder even though we’re still seeing some warm days. With that in mind, it is very important to be prepared for emergencies even for the simplest of outings. A lot of us get comfortable with our neck of the woods and don’t worry too much about getting lost. However, getting lost isn’t the only thing that can create a life-threatning situation. An injury sustained on the trail can also result in unexpected overnight stays in the wilderness. Knowing your way around isn’t very much help if you can’t move.
There are a few things I believe people can do to make their hiking or backpacking expedition safer and more enjoyable. First, dressing appropriately for the weather is the first defense against inclement weather. This seems elementary, but it bears repeating. Dress in layers to regulate your body temperature more effectively and use materials that wick away water and still provide insulation when wet. If you do this, you can remove your outer garment during the day when it is warm, but it’s available for later in the evening when the temperatures start to drop. Always think in terms of worst case scenario and plan for it. Packing a jacket or extra fleece garment into a daypack is a very simple matter and you don’t have to give it a thought until it’s needed.
The second area of preparation is having basic emergency gear on hand to get you through such situations. I will tell you right now that you don’t have to go to the same extreme I did by packing everything you own, but there’s a happy medium in there somewhere. Just about the first thing on the agenda for such a situation is shelter. There are some very high quality products available on the market to use as emergency shelters, and a lot of them are very lightweight. Companies that make quality, lightweight emergency shelters include MSR and Integral Designs. We’ve done reviews on products from both companies, and they will more than likely do the trick. You might think a tent would be a better option, and it probably would be, however, most folks aren’t going to carry a tent on a dayhike. However, a lightweight tarp or bivy is a cinch to throw into a pack or bag.
Beyond an emergency shelter, a few other pieces of gear would be very handy to have in your pockets or your pack if the sky falls on you. Let me first say that the items I mention are not a complete list, but just suggestions as a starting point. If you do the research on the net, you’ll find all kinds of sites that list the “Top 10” or “Top 20” pieces of gear to help in an emergency situation. For the sake of this article, I’m going to keep the list relatively short. “Man’s ability to survive comes down to his ability to cut things and make fire.” I read that somewhere, and if you think about it, that’s just about it. A good, sturdy knife is essential. It will allow you to make a shelter and other items like snares, traps, etc. The snares and traps really won’t be relevant for an overnight, but the knife will probably be your best friend when you think about making tinder and kindling for an emergency fire.
From there, you need to have a way to start a fire, and it doesn’t hurt to have a couple of ways for redundancy’s sake. A Bic lighter is great, so is a fire steel and striker, or even a case of waterproof matches. No matter which you choose, make sure you practice with it so you are proficient enough to sustain yourself if you meet with an emergency on the trail. Besides having fire-starting tools, it’s probably also a good idea to have your own prepared tinder in your kit. In the case of rain or snow, finding dry tinder to take a spark is a challenge–especially if you are cold and/or suffering from hypothermia. Be prepared and keep it simple. I know folks that carry vaseline-soaked cotton balls, dryer lint coated with parafin, and there are the primitive minded outdoors people that use charcloths, jute, or fat wood. Again, it doesn’t really matter which you have, just so long as you know how to get a fire going with it.
So, you’ve got shelter, a knife, and a way to get a fire going…what else? Well, truth be told, you probably have enough there to get you through on a bare-bones basis, but a couple of other things would certainly be good to have to make things a little more bearable. Have a water container with you at all times so you can stay hydrated. It wouldn’t hurt if that container was something that could be used to boil water. That’s essential for purifying water and it’s a nice way to boost your morale by having a hot drink in the evening like tea or hot cocoa (if you remember to bring along a packet or two). Besides your morale, the hot drinks will also help keep you warm as well.
Aside from the items already mentioned, there’s just a couple of others that I think are absolutely essential. First, a compass should always be part of your kit. If you decide that going ahead and moving is your best option, then you need a compass to keep you on the right path. While it would certainly be great that you have some orienteering skills and are proficient with a map and compass, at the very least, it will keep you from going in circles. I would also recommend that if you are going to acquire a compass, get a quality one. Major companies like Suunto, Silva, and Brunton offer several great models that can be had for under $25.00. Personally, I would stay away from the smaller, button type compasses as your main compass. Spend the few extra dollars to get one that will be accurate and can be used in conjunction with a map.
So, what’s left? For me, signaling equipment is the last of the must-have gear. That can include aerial flares, signal mirrors, whistles, and various strobes or lights. The one downside of almost all signaling gear is that someone else has to be in the general area to pick up on your signal. If you’re using a whistle, well, someone has to hear it. If it’s a strobe or a flare, then someone has to see it. So, you’re not always going to be able to rely on these items as a means of rescue. Now, this is where I get back on my soapbox about an item I’ve mentioned several times in the past, and I’m going to mention it here again. Whether you’re lost or injured, there’s a piece of equipment on the market today that’s worth it’s weight in gold–especially if it ever saves your life. That’s a Personal Locator Beacon. Essentially, a PLB is an electronic device that works a lot like a GPS unit. In fact, most units are approximately the same size as personal GPS units. They work on a pretty simple concept. If you’re in trouble, you pull out the PLB, activate it, and then wait for your signal to be relayed to rescue personnel via the satellite system. This is the one signaling device that will work even if noone else is in your general area, because the signal is sent straight up to orbiting satellites. Once rescue personnel receive the signal, they are able to use the satellite information to pinpoint your location and get help on its way.
A PLB is not an item that you use if you’re just tired or need someone to bring you a sandwich. It’s only to be used in true emergency situations. If you want to get one of these items, make sure to do your research. There are several different types on the market, and some are better than others. One site you can visit to get more information about these devices is Doug Ritters “Equipped To Survive”. Doug serves on the board that sets the standards for these devices, and he has a lot of good information available about the various brands on the shelves. The last thing I’ll say is that this is probably the one piece of gear that I would absolutely have with me if going hiking or backpacking—especially if I’m going it alone.
That’s where I’m going to stop as far as equipment goes. Yes, I usually carry more, and as I mentioned, there’s several hundred lists out there that people consider to be “the best” as far as essential gear is concerned. You can do some more research and decide what’s best for you. What’s important is that you’ve given it thought and have developed a plan of attack that works for you. That’s when the most important tool of all comes into play–your brain. Think about where you’re going and what you’re doing, and cover the potential issues you could encounter. Once done, develop an approach that will help you deal with those eventualities the best you can. You’re not going to be able to conquer absolutely every problem possible in the great outdoors, but with proper thought and preparation, you’ll find that you can easily handle the largest percentage of situations quite easily. In fact, most situations that I read about where someone suffers a dire fate in the outdoors, they didn’t become a casualty because they weren’t prepared enough. Most of the time, they suffered the consequences because they weren’t prepared at all.