“Everybody understood one thing in the mountains—that he must keep his life by his own courage and valor, or at the least by his own prudence.”—Joe Meek, Rocky Mountain Trapper, 1829
The lure of remote country is strong. As hunters, we long to explore off the beaten path, in search of a wilderness experience and animals that haven’t been pressured by others. But with every additional mile we put on our boots from the nearest road, we should never forget that our self-responsibility must increase as well. By thinking through the basics that need to be covered in the event of a backcountry emergency, it’s possible to be prepared with a kit that weighs little but will pay for itself many times over in the event it’s ever needed. In this article, we’ll look at what these basic factors are, and how to be prepared for their possibility.
When you are in an emergency situation in the backcountry that requires a fire for warmth, don’t kid yourself—you need a fire right now. It’s great to know how to start a fire with a primitive striker and flint or a bow drill, but when you are already cold and wet with deteriorating manual dexterity and on the downward spiral toward hypothermia, this is no time to mess around with methods that take any more time than necessary.
I like having options when it comes to fire-starting gear, in case one doesn’t work. Inexpensive lighters can be useful, but keep in mind that lighters can fail, especially when wet. I keep mine in a small plastic bag so I know it will be dry when I need it. “Storm matches,” which are made to burn hotter and longer than regular kitchen matches, are another good option, although they must be kept dry as well. A ferrocerium rod, or “fire steel,” will create a shower of white-hot sparks even when wet, but it’s important that you practice with it before you truly need it. Some even carry a road flare in their backcountry emergency kit. This is also an excellent option that will get a fire going in just about any conditions.
I like to carry several tinder options with me, rather than assuming I’ll find dry tinder in a time of need. Cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly light easily and will burn for several minutes. There are also commercial tinders such as “Wet Fire” that come in sealed packets and work great in wet weather. Jute twine soaked in candle wax also burns well. Pull the fibers apart, fluff it up into a “nest” and apply flame.
“Shelter” in an emergency situation means anything that will protect you from the elements. Depending on the situation, shelter in its most basic form could simply mean putting on the extra clothing you have with you and finding a place to tuck out of the wind, rain, or snow. Consider extra layers and rain gear as the basic cornerstone of your emergency shelter system, regardless of what other shelter solutions you may carry.
A small nylon tarp (5’x7’ is about the smallest useful size) is another consideration. Modern silnylon is a better choice than coated nylon for this application. The former is much lighter in weight and more packable, and a “solosize” silnylon tarp will take up little room in a daypack.
I carry a SOL Emergency Bivy as part of my kit. It packs up to about the size of a lemon, is waterproof, and provides much more effective coverage and heat retention than a space blanket. The SOL bivy’s bright orange color can also aid others searching for you.
Let’s assume for the purposes of this article, that the definition of “backcountry” includes a lack of cell phone reception. There are other high-tech solutions available—a satellite phone, for example, or a “SPOT” device, which sends updates about your location to a pre-determined text or e-mail address. Neither of these options is a bad idea if you are in truly remote country, but wise woodsmen never put all their faith in a single solution, especially one dependent on batteries and other technology.
Low-tech signaling options fall into two categories—auditory and visual. An excellent choice for an inexpensive and lightweight auditory signal is a loud plastic whistle. Its sound can carry a good distance and is far more effective than mere yelling. A good option is the Fox 40 whistle, which doesn’t have a pea inside that can freeze and render a whistle useless in cold temperatures.
Examples of visual signals include a signal mirror, flashlight, headlamp, flares, smoke from a fire, and glow sticks. Even brightly colored fabric should be considered a “signaling” device, and a blaze orange hunting vest or bright flagging tape, which are often carried when hunting anyway, can help someone locate you. I have particularly come to like the military-grade glow sticks available at most surplus stores. They are inexpensive, lightweight, don’t require batteries, still function when wet, and can be seen for a long distance at night. I keep a couple of them stashed in my pack on all backcountry trips.
In an extended emergency situation, water becomes critical. If you have exhausted whatever water supply you were carrying, you will need to find a water source. Try not to wait until you have no water left to start looking for more, if at all possible. Consider having a way to treat backcountry water. Boiling, filtration, and chemical treatment are all options.
Boiling obviously requires a fire or stove of some sort. But what sometimes gets overlooked is that you will also need something to boil water in, and for that you’re going to need an uncoated metal container. While a fire can be time-intensive, if you are in an emergency situation it’s probably not a bad idea to get a fire going anyway.
Water filters have come a long way from the bulky items they used to be. There are some very small and lightweight filters available now, with the Sawyer “Mini” and the “Lifestraw” being good emergency options that are easy to carry along. Both weigh a scant few ounces, are only a few inches long, and can be found for about $20. I own the Sawyer, and it works surprisingly well for such an inexpensive option. Chemical treatment is another effective, lightweight alternative. Iodine or chlorine dioxide are two popular options for water treatment. I personally like the Aquamira (chlorine dioxide) tablets that come in sealed packets. They weigh almost nothing, and do not have the aftertaste of iodine.
Another option is the SteriPen (or several other similar products), which sterilizes by sending UV light through a bottle of water. While they work quite well and don’t leave an aftertaste, they require a battery and weigh more than a packet of treatment tablets or the Sawyer Mini.
Dr. Don Thomas will cover this subject in more detail in a Backcountry column later this year.
I never go into the backcountry without food in my pack. In addition to what I normally plan to eat for the day’s hunt, I bring a little reserve food just in case I’m out longer than planned. While water is much more important than food in emergency situations (the body starts to shut down from dehydration long before starvation), it’s not a bad idea to have an extra energy bar or two stashed in your pack. I also keep a couple of tea bags and a “Cup O Soup” packet in my emergency kit, and sometimes a dehydrated meal as well, just in case.
First Aid Kit. In addition to my Emergency Kit, I always carry a first aid kit on my backcountry hunts. This is a broad enough topic for a separate article of it own, (and there will be one in this column within the year). Suffice to say this is another essential piece of emergency gear that you shouldn’t be without. Even more importantly, get the training to know how to use what’s in it. Knife. A stout, fixed blade knife is always on my belt in the backcountry. In addition to being essential for breaking down an animal, it is a versatile tool that can split wood, help construct shelter if necessary, and serve a number of other survival tasks.
Your personal emergency kit for the backcountry should never simply be replicated from someone else’s list. Only you can determine what your anticipated circumstances may require, and this article is only meant to provide food for thought. Just as you practice regularly with your bow, don’t simply run out and purchase emergency items, drop them in your pack, and assume you’re “good to go” if something happens. If you choose to carry an emergency blanket for example, wait for a cold rainy day and go spend several hours outside wrapped up in it, and then determine if it serves your needs. If you carry a firemaking implement, build fires with it in cold, wet conditions beforehand. It’s not just important to have gear for emergencies. It’s also essential to know that what you carry is truly going to work, based on firsthand, prior experience. Lastly, don’t forget the single most important piece of emergency gear—that grey matter between your ears. It can serve you well in avoiding many backcountry emergencies in the first place.
Top Photo: The author’s emergency kit includes a bivy sack, several options to make fire and treat water, quick-energy food, options for signaling help, as well as cordage and duct tape. It all fits in the compact titanium container on the left, which can also be used to boil water. Total kit weight: 1.5 lbs.