Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Lightweight Survival Kits

To a lightweight backpacker who counts every ounce, one of the first things to get cut are items from what many consider to be part of a “survival kit”. This means the 10 pound Rambo-replica knife, the 4 gallon water jug, the 60” plasma, the inflatable raft, the solar still, and the pre-cooked rump roast must all be left behind.

Lightweight backpackers realize that most survival kits contain “extras” and most survival books list dozens of unnecessary supplies which are inherently redundant. These things are essentially made for someone genuinely lost without any other appreciable supples. For example, do you really need an emergency poncho when you likely already carry rain gear, a tarp, a ground cloth, and possibly even other clothing which could pull you through a brief rain? Do you really need an emergency blanket when you are already carrying several layers of clothing and a sleeping bag/quilt? Do you really need 50 feet of extra rope as if you needed to hang something which the guy lines from your tent or bear bag rope wouldn’t already cover? Do you really need a trash bag when you already have a ground cloth, sleeping pad, shelter, pack liner, and rain gear? Do you really need a giant knife, a flare gun, a personal locator beacon, satellite phone, or even a gun? When I honestly take a look at these things, I simply can’t justify carrying any of them and some simply don't work well enough to carry anyway. Sure they’d be good to have if I didn’t mind carrying the weight, but so would a lawn chair, a stocked refrigerator, and a Swedish masseuse. I guess if I’m planning on carrying all these extras, I’m going to hire a Sherpa or camel to carry them instead.
The reality is, marketing gimmicks have caused many of us to believe that we need to fear the outdoors and prepare ourselves for what is essentially a doomsday scenario. Marketers have us fearful of bear attacks, yet most people have never even seen one in the wild. Marketers have us fearful that our equipment must stand up to a fall off a cliff or in the middle of a hurricane. I figure if I'm in either of those two situations that the durability of my equipment will likely be the last thought in my head as I'll be too busy trying to figure out how to genuinely survive and get out. My grandfather would likely get a kick out of outdoor product marketing nowadays as he would reflect on his backpacking experiences which only required a bedroll, some matches, a canteen, and some food. Well folks, the same wilderness he experienced is available to all of us in one degree or another and our level of safety is far more achievable with less gear than product manufacturers would lead us to believe.

The theory behind a lightweight backpacker’s survival equipment is acknowledgement of the reality that you’re already “out there”…so 99.9% the gear you carry should be the gear you’ll need to use on a daily basis regardless of the situation. But alas, some “extras” are necessary for a responsible hiker and your decision to carry them should be based on common sense, safety, and experience. It is worth mentioning that you SHOULD carry different things for different environments as what I carry on the east coast of the US may be different than what I'd carry on the west, or elsewhere in the world for that matter. Most hikers do not intentionally put themselves in a “survival” situation as most hike on established trails often a few hundred feet (or at most a few miles) from a road or public structure. In fact, there are very few parts in the U.S. where you can be more than 10 miles from some form of civilization even if our most distant wildernesses. This fact alone should mitigate much of the concern. However, those with known medical problems, those who bushwhack, and those who intentionally push deep into the wilderness or in dangerous conditions should take more safety precautions.

It’s tough to nail down exactly what is, and what isn’t, “survival gear”. For me, everything is pretty much just “gear” because many items have multiple applications. For example, I carry a Swiss Army Knife Classic ( which provides scissors, a tooth pick, nail file, tweezers, and a knife. I carry a Mora knife ( any time I know I’ll need to make a fire multiple times as I’ll need it to cut wood, especially if I need small and dry stuff to put inside my Bushbuddy Ultra Stove ( I also carry a signal mirror which is right next to my half-sized tooth brush as I think it is important to take a good look at my over voluptuous face every now and then to make sure my head is still attached. It is also good for daily tick checks. Essentially, lots of gear has more than one purpose and can also be considered survival gear.

Obviously skimping on things like first aid and survival stuff depends a lot on your experience and other gear you carry. For me, the stuff in my survival kit is fairly minimal. My kit isn’t minimal because I strive to be obsessively lightweight as truthfully I could leave many things at home. Truth be told, I just can’t reasonably justify carrying more than I already do. I carry dry tinder, an ACR whistle, a button compass, a signal mirror, some needles, safety pins, thread, and buttons, waterproof matches, an LED light, a mini lighter, a mini Classic Swiss Army knife, some waterproof paper with a mini waterproof pen, a bit of duct tape - and that’s about it. I store all of this inside a waterproof bag or I fashion items I need to a necklace for easier access. A bandana can also be considered a survival item and I intentionally have one that is orange in the event I ever need to use it to try to signal for help. On the bandana I wrote various phrases in large print which can be folded to show only one phase at a time. The phrases include: “TO TRAIL”, “TO TOWN”, “NEED PHONE”, “MEDICAL HELP”. For those of you who ever needed to leave the trail unexpectedly, these simple phrases used when attempting to gain the attention of passing motorists is the difference between getting a ride and help…or walking. Obviously a bandana doubles as a towel, pot holder, trainer, tent/tarp condensation dryer, sweat band, sun blocker, etc. too.

Even with what I’ve already mentioned, there is a lot of crossover gear for me. My medical kit includes a few things I’d need in a genuine survival situation. My stove kit includes some things too. I intentionally choose my gear for utility and if it doesn’t have more than one use, I actually consider leaving it at home in many cases. For example, I use a 1 gallon SilNylon 1 gallon water bag by Anti Gravity Designs ( which is the sack I use to carry my extra clothing. To me, this is actually a luxury as I don’t really need the sack and I could always find something that’s lighter. This is light enough for me, however, and affords me the luxury of moving around 1 gallon of water very easily which is great when cooking, bathing, or doing laundry. Again, I wouldn’t call it “survival”, just useful.

As with most things, experience and environment should be your guide.


Jason Klass said...

Great post! I just added your blog to mine. Keep up the good work!

hassam said...

nice post keep it up...