The Ten Essentials – A New Approach

Watershed Trail

Watershed Trail

Here are ten essential things you should know before you venture into the woods.

  1. You plan for a day hike but always prepare for an unexpected night in the woods.
  2. They won’t look for you if they don’t know you are missing.
  3. A first aid kit is useless if you don’t know first aid.
  4. A survival cell phone isn’t used as a gps or to play music or to tweet about the birds you see on the trail.
  5. In a survival situation food is not for satisfying hunger.
  6. In a survival situation water is not for satisfying thirst.
  7. In a survival situation fire is not for lighting the dark of night.’
  8. Dry clothing is not “extra” clothing, it is essential clothing
  9. If you can’t carry what you need to survive in the woods then you should probably not be in the woods.
  10. A shopping list is not a survival equipment list.

Not what you expecting?  O.K. – here is what you thought it was going to be:

  1. Map
  2. Compass
  3. Sunglasses and sunscreen
  4. Extra clothing
  5. Headlamp/flashlight
  6. First-aid supplies
  7. Fire starter
  8. Matches
  9. Knife
  10. Extra food.

Now forget about it.  Oh, you will need a list.  But not that one.  At this point it is nothing more than a shopping list.  First you need a survival list.  So let’s get started on it.

Survival in an unexpected situation is a matter of being able to defeat the things that will kill you.  In that regard, the “rule of 3’s” is a good starting point:

  1. You can survive 3 hours exposed to the elements.
  2. You can survive 3 days without water.
  3. You can survive 3 weeks without food.
  4. You can’t survive 3 minutes without hope.

Sure, you get the exposure, water and food components.  But hope?  What’s hope got to do with it?

Everything.  A universal truth you should know by now is that if you think you can’t, then you are probably right.  No team has ever won the big comeback thinking that they could not win.  Just like on the field of dreams, if you think you can’t survive, then you are probably right.  Or put another way, if you think you are going to die then you probably will.

The first item on our essentials list is something that gives you hope of being rescued but doesn’t go to the woods with you.  It is the information about your plans that you leave at home with a trusted relative or friend who will call the proper authorities if you don’t make contact by the expected time.  I said the “first item” but it is more important than that.  It is designated the “Zero Essential” to be certain it always appears at the top of your list of essentials.  Don’t leave home with it.  When you are lost, cold, wet, injured, or sick it will give you hope that a search and rescue team will soon be on its way to find you.

Now all you have to do is survive until they get there, and being prepared to do so gives further hope and confidence that you will live through the ordeal.  So let’s move on to the rest of the 3’s. (BTW – wandering around the woods trying to self-rescue just makes it harder for the search and recovery team to find your body.)

After hopelessness, exposure to the elements is your next biggest enemy.  Fighting exposure includes not only heat and cold, but also sun and rain, injury and illness, dehydration and fatigue.  In essence, being prepared to overcome all those elements subsumes even the water and food components of the Rule of 3’s.

In this broad category the most pressing need is likely to be related to first aid.  You’ll need to stop bleeding, deal with a debilitating illness, stabilize a broken bone, treat heat stroke or frostbite, treat a burn and prevent infection.

So item 2 on the essentials list is an appropriate first aid kit.  Yes, I know you could improvise many of the things that are in an appropriate first aid kit, but this is an article about being prepared for purposes of keeping the need to improvise to a minimum.  If you have dreams of playing Bear Grylls then stop reading now.  Just remember that even he always uses the Zero Essential.  If you’d rather not be in a fair fight with death, then prepare a first aid kit that will address the needs listed above and will give you an unfair advantage in the struggle for survival.

When it comes to basic first aid, a triangular bandage is the universal tool.  It can be used as a compress, a sling, a tourniquet (the last way to stop bleeding), and a wrap for a splint.  If you insist on purchasing a pre-packaged first aid kit then reject all that do not have a triangular bandage.

Next is duct tape.  Red Green could survive an earthquake, tornado, hurricane, blizzard, and flood all in one day with his extensive knowledge and supply of duct tape.  You only need a few yards of it for first aide and other survival uses.

Add a half dozen adhesive bandages, two sterile pads, some antibiotic cream, burn lotion, anti-diarrhea medicine, and pain killer.  Safety pins, tweezers a knife, or even better a muti-tool, should also be in every first aid kit to work with bandages and splints.

Hemostatic (stop bleeding pads) are sold in most outdoor stores and are a worthy addition to an outdoor first aid kit.  Last, but not least, is the SAM splint – a lightweight waterproof moldable splint.  Good for everything from sprained ankles, twisted knees, and broken bones. A pack of mole skin should also be included, although it is more of a comfort item than a survival item.

Up to this point you know that someone is coming to find you and that you aren’t going to bleed to death in the meantime.  Now all you have to do is prevent Mother Nature from killing you before you are rescued.  Her weapons of choice are hypothermia and heat stroke.  You defend against them by staying warm, dry, hydrated, and energized in cool or cold weather, and staying cool, dry, hydrated, and energized in warm weather.

First you need dry clothing.  Your survival clothing is for one thing – survival.  It is not an extra set.  It is to be used if and only if you need it for survival.  No matter how gamey you smell, if your only other clothing is your survival clothing then learn to put up with the stench.

Next, you need shelter or a means of making shelter.  A “space blanket” or a more elaborate survival bivvy can be used for warming in a shelter.  Learn how to make a survival shelter from boughs and branches.  Learn how to make a snow cave and carry two candles so that you can survive a blizzard.  Fire making equipment – matches, lighter, flint and steel, wax plugs, and fire paste will help you start and maintain a fire for signaling, drying clothing and, to a lesser extent, keeping warm.  In most cases you’ll be warmer in a shelter than you would be next to a fire.

Water or a means of obtaining drinkable water is an essential to stay hydrated.  Your body can survive at least 3 days without water, but dehydration increases the risk of hypothermia, heat stroke, illness and injury.  Your body can survive at least 3 weeks without food, but lack of energy inhibits your ability to engage your survival equipment to its fullest extent.  So you don’t need food and water for hunger and thirst, but you need them for survival.

A head lamp or flash light is needed for a signaling device and to prevent injury if you have to attend to survival matters in the dark.

Sun screen and sun glasses are sometimes thrown into an essentials list, but they are like a map and compass – you use them to avoid having to employ your survival equipment. They really aren’t survival equipment in the first instance.  Sun glasses are most important in winter when you need to prevent photokeratitis (snow blindness) caused by the reflection of the sun’s rays off the snow (which can also occur on water.)  Sunscreen doesn’t help much after your skin is damaged.  You want to use it to prevent sunburn.  A map and compass are used to prevent you from becoming lost.  If you can tell where you are from a map and compass then you are not lost.  You may be off course, but you are not lost.

Now you are ready to go to the store to get what you need to provide for your needs should the need arise while you are out hiking or backpacking.  When making a shopping list for your essentials stop to think about each item – how would you employ it to meet the survival needs of hope and protection from the elements?  If you can’t answer that question then either you need to do more research or that particular item just isn’t needed for survival.  There is a big difference between a man with a hammer and a carpenter.