Preparation for Wilderness Survival

There is obviously a lot of interest in this subject, given the number of sites (more then 3,000) that can be found by a simple search of the Internet. There are numerous possible events where a person could suddenly be caught in a life and death situation when survival may depend upon prior planning and acquired knowledge. Here are a few examples:

Each of these incidents will have particular requirements that will vary from the others. The specific skills needed, as well as equipment, will be unique for each emergency event due to differences in location (mountain, desert, snow, water) and season. It is important to prepare for emergency situations by having appropriate supplies and information stored in a safe place in the home, automobile, boat and aircraft. There is a significant difference, however, between planning for a disaster in populated areas compared with wilderness survival. In the wilderness we are responsible for our own survival. "The government" will not be able to save us from our own failure to prepare.

One characteristic any of these situations will have in common is that attitude or mindset during the emergency is undoubtedly the most important factor that determines whether or not the victims will make it. For purposes of this page we will define "wilderness survival" as preparation to meet the most urgent needs of an unintended event that are likely to be encountered in an environment in which there are no ordinary means of transportation, communication, or healthcare available. It is not camping, because the needs are urgent and unintended. It is not a home emergency because the usual forms of transportation, communications and healthcare are not available. It basically means you are stuck, away from the likelihood of immediate help arriving, and you must perform in extraordinary ways in order to return home safely.

This section of material is included with the aviation page because flying is more likely then any other activity to take a person away from the comforts of home into a wilderness environment, within a very short time. Also, the Alaska Supplement lists specific items that are required to be included on board aircraft. The Supplement includes certain additional items in the winter. However, it's important to realize that in Alaska a downed plane can place you in a winter environment any time of the year.

Obviously, one of the fundamental kinds of knowledge needed will be to have completed a first aid and CPR course. This means the skills are not only learned, but they are practiced by periodic retraining. Likewise, other skills must be learned, and practiced in order to be prepared. There are many opportunities to practice survival skills when on a hiking or camping trip, engaged in scouting activities, fishing, hunting and participating in other outdoor activities. Use opportunities as practice sessions, before you encounter a real emergency. Although the skills needed are not great, trying to make a fire the first time by reading a book on how to use steel and flint can be disappointing in a real emergency. Lack of confidence in knowing what to do can lead to panic, a major factor in unnecessary wilderness deaths.

There are commercially prepared "survival kits" which can be useful. Many people assemble their own. It is not necessary to make it an expensive project. The commercial kits will cost between $50.00 and several thousand dollars, depending on complexity. An example of the limitations of any commercial "kit" is described in a book titled "Sudden Death". In the book it describes an aviation accident where the pilot was fully equipped with survival gear and clothing, but a sudden downdraft caused the plane to break apart on impact on top of a snow covered mountain pass. This pilot liked to fly barefoot because he felt it gave him a better "feel" of the controls. All of the survival gear went down the mountainside, including his boots. He was stranded on top a snow covered mountain, without survival gear or boots, and night was quickly approaching. This kind of incident has led to a poplular saying in Alaska that if it is in your vest it is survival gear, and if it is in the back of the plane it is camping gear. A minimal survival pack, then, will be one that can be kept close to you at all times.

There are seven general areas of need that must be addressed in the contents of your survival kit. These are listed in order of application:

  1. Signalling and light
    • *3 aerial flares in sealed, metal containers, smoke signal, whistle, firefly lantern, signal mirror, candle
  2. Medical and First Aid
    • *first aid kit,(first aid cream, butterflies, bandaids, wound compressors, tweezers, chapstick, antihistamine, anti-diarrheal tablets, moleskin)
  3. Food and Water
    • quart of water, *food for each person for two weeks (high energy bars, soup packs/boullion, etc.), water purification tablets, water filter, snare wire
  4. Emergency Devices
    • *knife (good quality), *axe or hatchet, *pistol or rifle with ammunition, *small gill net and hooks/flies/sinkers/line, 25' rope, 5' wire, topo maps, survival manual, leatherman tool, toilet paper, safety pins, Class B EPIRB
  5. Shelter and Protection
    • orange 2 person tent, 2 space blankets, sunglasses, sunscreen, insect repellent, *head net for each person, *sleeping bag
  6. Fire and Cooking
    • *Water proof matches (2 boxes), metal match, magnifying glass, cookpot
  7. Transportation
    • *snow shoes, boots, spare socks, *blanket

Items marked with an * are required in order to fly within the state of Alaska in accordance with the Alaska Supplement. There are some differences in the requirements for summer versus winter flying. If you are flying up from the lower 48 to Alaska be sure to check Canadian requirements as well. Canada requires additional items, and has restrictions on guns.

Notes on differences between Alaska and lower 48 survival equipment. The signalling mirror is generally one of the most effective devices for signalling. In Alaska, several months of little sunlight, many overcast days when there is sunlight, and the low sun angle all make this less useful then in any other state. It is small, and may be useful, but do not depend on it as your only source for signalling. The compass is listed as an important component of most survival packs. In Alaska there is a variation of 16 to 30 degrees before accounting for other errors. There are also large irregular deposits of magnetite which can cause significant additional errors with the compass. The worst I've seen on an aeronautical chart was 170 degrees in the Gasteneau Channel near Juneau. This kind of error is not consistent, and introduces a strong possiblity of making serious errors in navigation. The errors are serious enough to cause many to consider a compass virtually unusable in parts of Alaska. A flashlight is another "must have" component of survival packs in other states. During the summer months in Alaska the flashlight is essentially excess weight due to very long hours of daylight. A magnifying glass can usually be very helpful as a fire starting device. In Alaska, it is useful for magnifying vision, but much of the year there is not enough sunlight to get sufficient heat to start a fire with it. A snake bite kit is unnecessary and useless in Alaska. Cyalume light sticks perform poorly in cold weather, and they have an expiration date that should be watched closely. All medications, foods, batteries, and emergency flares have expiration dates so that from time to time these should be replaced and the "old" materials put to use in ordinary household applications.

Finally, there is the issue of a gun. Generally, guns are prohibited from being carried in aircraft. In Alaska, a gun is listed as a required item of survival gear and the assumption often made is that it is essential for protection against wildlife such as grizzly bears. In winter, bears are not likely to be a problem. They are hibernating. In summer, a bear is rarely a problem and unless the gun is a very large size it will only make matters worse to use it against a bear. The gun is for acquiring food, such as rabbits, squirrels, or birds. A .22 caliber weapon is sufficient. Also, smaller weapons allow for more ammunition without exceeding weight limits.

Some items such as a head net are specifically required in the Alaska Supplement. Snare wire is very useful with the abundant amount of smaller wildlife in Alaska wilderness areas. The EPIRB is a very expensive item, but may be borrowed from the Air Force if you are a member of an auxiliary unit such as the Civil Air Patrol. It emits an emergency signal for about 48 hours on the two emergency frequencies, 121.5 MHz civilian, and 243.0 MHz military. Snow shoes are specifically mentioned in the Alaska Supplement for winter travel. The orange tube tent allows it to serve a second purpose as a high visibility perspicuity panel. An essential item to have with you is topographic maps of the areas you will travel.

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© September 1999 - Clyde E. Pearce