Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Thoughts on Emergency Kits and Cordage

Lightweight backpacking requires individuals to think out-of-the-box and break from traditions likely taught for generations. For example, many "traditional" backpackers often carry emergency kits which may consist of an emergency tube tent or emergency blanket in addition to other items. I too would love to have an emergency shelter or blanket if put in a survival situation with no other gear. But these items are more for people who are in an emergency situation without gear, not for those carrying a pack full of stuff already. In my opinion, quite a bit of what traditional backpackers carry with them are very redundant and arguably unnecessary. Part of going "lightweight" requires the exercise of common sense, which sadly, is a fad that went out of our landscape long ago. It means giving up redundant gear, not because it couldn't help in a bad situation, but because it is often terribly unnecessary even in an emergency.

For me, there are many backpacking items I often think about quite deeply. I think moving towards a mini Swiss Army Classic knife likely was the something that required the most angst, and quite honestly, I'd still love to have a more robust knife with me because there is a side of me always thinking I'll be pressed into a serious survival or emergency situation despite the fact that my current gear would likely serve me just fine. Before going lightweight, I had carried a beautiful SOG knife which I still love despite the fact that it sits in my knife box along with several others which have become obsolete over the years. Oddly enough, I rarely use the mini knife I do carry and actually use the toothpick and scissor function more than the knife part.

My change to a lightweight knife was one of many choices I needed to make which I thought was a practical move. Yet, some lightweight backpackers take a far more hardline than I do, quite literally bringing only the big three with them (shelter, sleep system, pack) and often that's it with few exceptions (cooking systems are a pot over an open fire, rain gear is often unnecessary in the summer, a healthy yell can replace a whistle, skilled folks can start a fire without matches, etc.). But this style doesn't sit well with my sensibilities and I think it is important for each lightweight backpacker to make decisions based on their own skills, gear, and relevant to the environments they will encounter.
For example, one of the things I carry that I rarely see on any lightweight backpackers gear list is a very small mirror. Over the years, I have found it invaluable. It's great to look at for ticks on my backside, it's great to help pick a gnat out of my eye, it helps identify the seriousness of any wounds to my face (bee stings, fallen branches, etc.), and probably of greatest importance to me, it works as a signal mirror which is tremendously tough to duplicate in the backcountry. As a solo backpacker, I often can't rely on someone else to help with many of the functions that this mirror handles.

My personal thought about going "lightweight" is that it does NOT involve dumping every potentially useful item from your pack. Instead, it focuses on finding lighter and smaller solutions which are more reasonable and accomplish the same goal while otherwise cutting out redundant gear. So for me, the mirror remains in my pack, albeit small and light, but it remains.

One item that I've thought a lot about recently was cordage because it can offer so many dymanic uses. The only cordage I carry is that which I use for my bear bag. It is 50' of URSA Aircord Pro dyneema which can hold up to an absurd 1,400 pounds! It's light and strong...and completely overkill. I purchased it when I didn't want to bring along the heavier 550 paracord and probably should switch it out for something even more practical (and light).

My problem with the 550 paracord is the weight and the fact that it is susceptible to water retention (the dyneema cord is coated with urethane). Yet oddly enough, I think it is more useful overall. Being able to cut it open and have access to several strands of thinner cord is invaluable in a legitimate survival situation for snares, lashing, fishing line, bow, guylines, medical brace, and numerous other things which is one of the reasons I really want to carry it...yet I just can't make the mental leap to put it in my pack. Sure you could make cordage out of of braided saplings, vines, reeds, and all kinds of things nature provides...but the time and energy it would take to make something like that and the likelihood for it to be immediately functional isn't something I'll willing to roll the dice on when faced with a real survival situation.

Well, a handful of survival merchandisers have taken an old idea and made it mainstream. They have fashioned 550 paracord into belts and bracelets which can be unraveled as needed in a pinch. Bracelets offer around 24' of cord and belts around 125'. In fact, many manufacturers will actually give you a new one for free if you ever need it in an emergency, a marketing ploy that would require you to tell them your story so they could entice other potential buyers which your periling ordeal. Having this as a dual-use item, especially one not actually carried "in" the pack, may be a solution for a lightweight backpacker especially if it replaces a piece of gear you're going to be carrying anyway without any appreciable downside.

My point is that if you're someone like me who refuses to carry something like 550 paracord in your pack because of one reason or another....but you still want to figure out a way to have the flexibility it offers, perhaps you could use something like a 550 paracord belt or bracelet as a dual use item to justify it. That's not to say I'll be on the cutting edge of paracord fashion in the wilderness this season, but I am putting it in the "maybe" pile.

If you'd like to take a look, go to http://www.survivalstraps.com/ or take a look at much less expensive options on eBay. Course, this might be an item worth making yourself (http://www.wonderhowto.com/how-to-make-bracelet-with-550-paracord-362761/. You can purchase 1000' of cord for around $35 if you really look for it and the buckles are less than $1 each. While you're at it, make me one too...


Anonymous said...


I think the Backpacking Light Aircore Pro line is actually Samson Zing-it. The cheapest place I've found it is Redden Marine. http://www.reddenmarine.com/marine-supplies.cfm/multipurpose-rope-accessories/samson-rope-811017101850/zing-it-1-75mm-x-180-ft.html
It also comes in gray.

This place has cheap bracelets w/ excellent shipping prices:

Jolly Green Giant said...

Excellent thought about the Zing-it, I hadn't seen that before. I think my only concern with that is the diameter is so thin that it would cut into the trees which is also something I'd like to avoid. Good thought though.

I think if I ultimatley go with a 550 item, it will be a belt. I don't usually wear bracelets or watches and think it might hook on something.

Anonymous said...

The Backpacking Light Aircore Pro is rated at 650 pounds, not 1,400. It looks like Samson Ropes Zing-It with a big markup in price. Backpacking Light also sells several other types of line which don't appear to be made by Samson.

The Samson Ropes Zing-It and Lash-It are urethane-coated.

If you don't want to cut into trees, I would guess that uncoated Dyneema or Spectra line is best. They are very slippery. Redden Marine has the best prices I've found on Samson Ropes "Amsteel Blue". You can get it in up to 8" diameter, rated to 6 million pounds. :-) Note: These ropes are so slippery that many conventional knots don't hold in them. Same thing for tensioners.

As for a knife, I would carry a Frost Mora Clipper at a minimum. It's only about 3 ounces.

OceanMountainSky said...

I thought about the bracelet, but didn't want to pay for something I could make. In the end, I never got the cord or the time. Oh well. It really does seem like a good idea for people who already use a belt or wear a bracelet.

Jolly Green Giant said...

I'm not sure where you saw the specs of the cord, but the BPL website lists it at 1,400 and it doesn't look like the Zing-It product, although Zing-It does look like a nice option:


But you're right, even the 550 cord is slippery.

I have a couple of Mora's that I carry in the winter when using a wood stove as it helps cut up fuel into smaller pieces that will fit into the can.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I was looking at one of Backpacking Lites other bear hanging kits:


Anyway, the point is that equivalent lines can be acquired from much cheaper sources, either boating or arborist supply stores. You can get 3 times the length of line for the same money.

Jolly Green Giant said...

That's good advice. BPL is usually pretty expensive and rarely has stuff in stock anyway, so often I avoid them one way or another even though I support the company as a whole. Good thoughts.

Clio said...

"Part of going 'lightweight' requires the exercise of common sense." Yeah its true! I totally agree with you because you you have to bring what you ought to bring. The needs and not the wants. Buying small stuffs that will be useful on camp. And buying quality products will be useful.

Anonymous said...

After seeing these so much recently they have kind of grown on me, and after reading your post I have found myself wanting one. (Thanks :)) However, I will probably try to make one of my own rather than buying one, at least to start out with...

Anonymous said...

Spotted a link to here from Hikinginfinland blog and I really have to drop a comment...

First, I think it doesn't matter where you carry your stuff be it in your pack, around your waist or inside your shoe, you still carry it with you. Going light is about rethinking what is necessary and rethinking ones comfort level. Even adjusting it... So a bracelet around the arm or punch of cord in the bag doesn't make any difference (except causes me an irritated skin in the arm). The stuff is still there and you carry it and I'd hardly call a cord bracelet multifunction item except if you would carry a bracelet anyway...

You might have heard about survivalist hobbyist who stack huge amounts of foor in their basements, collect guns to defend their homes and so on because there might be a TEOTWAWKI coming right behind the corner... And it often leaves me wondering what that might be and how the food stock and guns would help them.

It is the same with the 550 cord. I carried few meters of it with me but then I realised that I have several meters of cord in my shelter system. If I really need some cord, I can use that. And how likely is the need to use the small inner strings of the 550 cord? To set up traps and do fishing with pieces of cord (likely without a proper hook)? Wouldn't a spectra line from my shelter do the same thing? And if not, could I manage without?

I don't carry the paracord with me anymore.

Jolly Green Giant said...

I think you make several valid points, especially the part about not bringing what is not needed which is a matter of subjective determination and experience.

Because you already carry 550 cord in some manner, you already have a means to it. Personally, 550 is just too heavy for other applications which is why I don't bring it despite the fact that it offers many, many uses which other cordage usually can't duplicate (whether because of weight, diameter, color, etc.). For example, trying to shove spectra through a fishing hook eye just wouldn't fit (and yes, I always bring a fishing hook as the weight is so infinitely small that it doesn't register on most scales...same with 10' of fishing line which I also bring). But I too wouldn't wear it as a bracelet because it is impractical to me. I would however, consider it as a belt especially if I already need a belt as why not bring the one with the most function if there is no other appreciable difference?

Desert Dog said...

I've been toying with the same concept. I'm not willing to pay someone for the bracelet or belt but like having 550 available. I've always carried a whistle, photon light, and fire starter around my neck so I'd have them even if I lost my pack. It struck me that I could replace the lanyard with a "braided" length of 550. Don't remember what the hitch is called, but the braid comes undone by pulling one end. I'll do a post on my site one of these days. Anyway, that gives me 15-20' of 550 where ever I go. As an added bonus, I replaced my fire starter with a Light My Fire version that has a whistle built into the handle, so my overall weight penalty is pretty negligible. Just a thought.

Jolly Green Giant said...

@ Desert Dog - The 550 cord may be a bit much for a necklace, but there may be other thinner diameter options which may work. I'll be doing a post in the near future about the new Light My Fire flint sparker. Good to see they improved the design a bit.