How to Make an Outdoors Emergency Survival Kit
Posted on October 17, 2019
Perhaps your concentration lapses for a second and now you have a broken ankle, a concussion, or maybe you're lost. It's not uncommon for any of these scenarios to occur, even for the most experienced of outdoor enthusiasts.
The common refrain that you'll hear is to bring the ten essentials, which is a solid starting point. But if you are really in trouble, you're going to need more. Your priority will be getting found and evacuated as soon as possible. You'll want a tool that sends a distress call to the authorities and makes your position clear to search and rescue. And then you'll want to stay safe while you wait for them to arrive.
That's why I recommend carrying a small emergency kit when you head into the backcountry. I use this kit in conjunction with the ten essentials. The kit includes items that you'll probably only need in an emergency and stays mostly untouched at the bottom of my pack. I do change out variable items such as food, water, clothes, etc. based on the adventure that I'm going on. But the emergency kit sits in a stuff sack in my pack, ready to deploy when I need to.
This kit is set up to be small, light, and compact. It works in the backcountry where cell phones don't. And the powered gear has a multi-year battery life, so an occasional check is all you need. The idea is that you have a reliable kit that's always there for you, with minimal hassle and cost. The kit works worldwide, so if you carry it in a small stuff-sack, it's easy enough to bring on drives or travel as well.
I use this kit for single-day adventures, but you can remove the shelter items if you're heading out for a more extended period since you'll likely have something like a tent and sleeping bag already packed.
Here's what I have in my emergency kit and how I use it.
ACR ResQLink View PLB – The first thing that you will want to do if you need help is let rescuers know that you need assistance, and a satellite personal locator beacon (PLB) is excellent for that. I keep an ACR PLB in this emergency kit because unlike satellite communicators, the battery lasts for years and it doesn't have any monthly subscription costs. If I get into trouble, the PLB signals rescuers using a worldwide satellite network, and then when the rescuers get close, it has a homing beacon and strobe light that help them pinpoint your position. There's a lot of powerful technology behind the rescue, and if you want to learn more, I recommend reading my review of the ACR ResQLink View here.
Fire Starting Equipment – There are a host of reasons why fire is essential, but if you're in a survival situation, signaling will be the most important. Fire is a great tool to get noticed: rescuers can see the flames (both visually and with thermal imaging), and they can smell and see the smoke. Fire also provides psychological comfort, especially when the conditions are cold or dark. Since fire starting material is so light and small, I carry some backups here. First, I'll pack two small disposable BIC lighters that you can buy in any gas station. Then I'll also take a strike igniter to make a spark if the lighters fail. To make things a little easier, I carry some fire-starting petroleum jelly cotton balls in a small bag, so I have a reliable tinder.
Whistle & Mirror – Even though my PLB has a strobe light, I still bring some backup for short-range detection, and again, it's small, inexpensive, lightweight, and useful. First, I have a loud signaling whistle that I can use when rescuers get close. Some backpack manufacturers also put a whistle on the chest strap so that you might have one already. Second, I have a small signaling mirror that I can use to flash at any search aircraft.
Backup Headlamp – I keep an ultralight, waterproof and very compact headlamp in my emergency kit as a backup. The battery lasts for ten years, I can use it to see at night, and it also has a strobe function that I can use to signal rescuers.
Lightweight Bivy Sack – Once you trigger the SOS on your PLB, you'll likely have to wait a while for the rescue. If the conditions are adverse, it might be a matter of days. So it's essential to protect yourself and get as comfortable as possible. This 4oz bivy sack is an emergency sleeping bag. You can slip into it and get comfy while you wait. If it's freezing out, you can stuff organic matter such as leaves or pine needles in there with you for extra warmth. As a bonus it's orange and metallic silver, so you can also use it for short-range signaling.
Lightweight Tarp or Shelter – This serves the same purpose as the bivy sack. If I have to wait and the conditions are poor, I want to make sure that I'm protected and comfortable. The last thing that you need is to add hypothermia onto your list of issues. And having a shelter, like a fire, provides a positive mental boost. Setup is simple with trekking poles or sticks.
So that's the kit. And again, when I go on a backpacking trip, I'll generally pull out the shelter and bivy sack to save weight since I'll have a tent and quilt with me. If you want to dig deeper on these items, I have a list of all the gear I use on my website.
If you do need to signal an emergency, here's what to do.
Ideally, find a spot where it is safe to wait for rescuers and has a clear view of the sky.
Activate your Personal Locator Beacon (PLB).
Set up any signaling or visual aids to help rescuers find you. Hang a bright-colored piece of clothing on a tree, start a small smoky fire, get your whistle and mirror ready, etc.
Stay put and listen for rescuers approaching.
Increase your signaling efforts when rescuers are near. For example, blow your whistle, scream, stoke the fire, etc.
Hopefully, you'll never have to use your emergency kit, but it's there if you need to. I practice overnighting with it a couple of times a year. I'll take my day pack out and spend the night in my bivy sack and a lightweight tarp. Having experience using the gear and feeling comfortable with it takes one more stressor off your plate at a time when you need to focus on getting rescued. At the very least, set up the gear in your backyard at least once.
And don't forget to let a loved one know where you're hiking and when you will be back. It doesn't have to be complicated; you can text them a link to the hiking guide that you're using. Tell them to contact the police if they haven't heard from you in 24 hours. That will dramatically increase your chances of a safe rescue.