Wilderness Safety and the TRUTH About Wilderness Survival: The “10 essentials”… time for an update!

It’s been nearly 100 years since the 10 essentials were first written down. Today, most people have heard about it, there are even a number of YouTube videos on the topic. Unfortunately, it seems human nature to simply pay lip-service to a subject and/or merely regurgitate what has already been said/written many times before, and sadly, REI is no exception.

Simply stated, it is inaccurate and irresponsible to suggest a short list of items is all you need to be safe (particularly when suggested to day hikers!) Being safe in ANY wilderness area, frontcountry or backcountry, is no fluke, it is an intended and calculated result which begins with a fundamental change in attitude: In the wilderness, YOU are your biggest problem. Either way, it starts LONG before you get to the trailhead.

This topic is a good starting point for day hikers since they get into trouble more than anyone else. Far and away, fatigue or lack of physical condition are cited most in about 30% of SAR missions. About another 22% cite error in judgment or insufficient information as the reason for the rescue. Think about that a moment, if day hikers were to get in shape and actually plan their outing, before they went, more than HALF of all SAR missions wouldn’t be necessary. This points to the biggest problem with most day hikers, they are JUST - NOT - READY!

More important than a handful of things, is dependable instruction on how to BECOME ready. That’s where The Five Essential Steps comes in (more on this in a separate post). I’m not going to waste keystrokes by repeating the “trite 10”, the following is my UPDATED 10 essentials, more-or-less in order of importance.

MY 10 essentials:

1- Survival kit (Carry on your belt, NEVER in a pack)

2- Smartphone (in a waterproof-shockproof case & spare battery or battery bank)

3- Water for the day/duration (may include water filter/treatment)

4- Appropriate clothing (base and outer layers PLUS a thermal layer and a rain shell)

5- Sleeping pad with a good R-rating (head-to-hip mandatory, head-to-heel optional)

6- Area topographic map (printed on waterproof paper)

7- Personal Locator Beacon (feat. ACR RescueMe, Garmin inReach Mini)

8- Food for the day/duration

9- Necessary prescriptions (i.e. glasses, medications, etc.)

10- The Five Essential Steps

1- SURVIVAL KIT

A good survival kit is a good idea ANY time you go on an outing! However, it MUST be big enough to make a difference AND assembled with a three-day ordeal in mind (those sardine/mini and paracord/bracelet kits are C**P, spend your time and money on assembling a GOOD kit!!!) A good survival kit already has most of your "essentials" including: A folding knife, Mylar bivy, head net, some first-aid items, UCO Titan Storm-Proof Matches, lighter, compass, reflector, whistle, Micro-Maglite with 3 AAA batteries, water treatment pills, bullion cubes, survival sunglasses, needle and thread, and MUCH more (my survival kit also has an ACR RescueMe PLB 1 attached to it). More on this in another post.

2- SMARTPHONE

Victims have used Personal Locator Beacons in about 2% of SAR missions, satellite phones about 4%, but cellphones have been used to call for help about 37% of the time! I have even read a story of survivors, unable to call for help in the Alps, managed to call friends in the U.S., who then contacted SAR in their friends’ Alps location. And every year, coverage reaches farther into the backcountry. That's why I strongly advise people to take one along, in a shockproof-waterproof case with a spare battery (or battery bank). As an added measure, I would suggest keeping it tethered to a belt loop.

3- WATER

You would THINK this is a "no brainer", but it is amazing how many people have to be rescued because they ran out of water, or had NO water! This includes for their kids and pets!! How much depends on where you're going, what you're doing, the temperature, etc. A filter, or other water treatment, is optional (it's a good idea to avoid giardia and crypto', but they are the least of your worries!)

4- CLOTHING LAYERS

Dress appropriately, of course, but I recommend long sleeves and long pants always, and never cotton. Your underwear should be comfortable and nonbinding, then a base layer that wicks sweat and dries fast. Your outerwear, or mid-layer, is what everyone normally sees, it should be comfortable, functional, and appropriate for the conditions. On top of that, in your pack, you should have a thermal layer, including beanie and gloves (fleece, and/or down, depending on how cold you expect it to be), and a rain layer/shell including a rain hat and rain mittens (which can also improve your thermal layer and protect you from the wind). Your clothes ARE your shelter in an emergency, so don't skimp when shopping for these items! Don’t expect to be comfortable during survival (without a tent and sleeping bag/quilt), from a survival perspective, being miserable means being alive!

5- SLEEPING PAD

Once the sun goes down, don’t expect rescue until after sunrise! SAR missions are not typically launched at night or in low visibility conditions. The only exceptions are if it is a life-or-death situation and/or they know precisely where the victim/s are. If worse comes to worst, and you have to spend an unplanned night in the wilderness, your clothing layers will protect you from most wind, cold and even rain, but you may want/need to sleep, in which case you'll need additional protection from the ground to avoid hypothermia (and be more comfortable). On this point, sleep is FAR more important than food. Short or full length, it's up to you, but the pad should have the highest R-rating you can afford.

6- TOPO MAP 

It goes without saying that if you are going to a wilderness area you should have a topographic map of that area, AND you should be able to read it (moreover, you should be able to use it with a compass). It doesn't take long to learn, or learn how to use it with a compass. I suggest downloading Backcountry Navigator to your smartphone, then download your area topo to the app. Then, buy a paper topo, but make sure it’s on waterproof paper (most are). Alternatively, you can download an area topo then have it printed on waterproof paper, but it has to be printed with a laser printer. Finally, before you go on your outing, commit as much information on your route to memory as possible including intersecting trails, possible water sources, outstanding land features, etc. Just remember, a topo map can tell you about the terrain, but it can’t tell you the CONDITION of that terrain; there may be substantial treefall, landslide, overgrowth, etc.

7- PERSONAL LOCATOR BEACON

As I mentioned, I keep an ACR RescueMe emergency beacon attached to my survival kit (and my survival kit on my belt), but I ALSO keep a Garmin inReach Mini attached to my pack. This may seem redundant, but they serve very different purposes. The RescueMe does only one thing, but does it well, it sends an emergency SOS signal. The inReach Mini can also send an SOS signal, but I use it more for communications purposes (i.e. area weather reports, sending/receiving texts/emails/messages, share tracking points, etc.) One word of warning, the Earthmate map S-S-S-U-U-U-KS! You’ll be far happier with Backcountry Navigator! Fortunately, you can Bluetooth-pair with your smartphone.

But here’s the considerable difference between the RescueMe and the InReach; once you buy the RescueMe, and register it, you’re done! Just keep it with you, the battery lasts about 6 years, and there are no additional costs. With the InReach, before you go out, you have to remember to activate it, pay for a monthly/yearly/seasonal subscription and keep it charged while you’re out.

8- FOOD

If you intend the day hike to last the entire day, chances are you are already planning to bring food. However, you should still bring a few emergency rations to keep your energy up, just in case. There are a few brands on the market, but I prefer May Day. To reiterate, sleep is more important than food.

9- NECESSARY PRESCRIPTIONS

Again, you would think this is a no-brainer, but too many people assume they will only be out a few hours, then find themselves without their heart medication for days, or are essentially blind without their glasses, then lose them after they get lose their bearing. If you have ANY special concerns, pack for the possible BEFORE it's an issue!

10- THE FIVE ESSENTIAL STEPS

Yes, number 10 is not a "thing" to be packed, but it weighs nothing, costs nothing, and unlike the other "essentials", this is more likely to keep you safe and out of trouble in the first place. This particular topic deserves a post of its own, so for now, The Five Essential Steps are: 1- Planning, 2- Preparing, 3- Proficiency, Backups, and 5- Basic Survival

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