Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Grab and Go

On ocean passages, sailors prepare a "ditch kit" that they can grab on the way out the hatch if they have to abandon ship. The ditch kit contains basic ocean survival equipment that will help keep them alive while floating in a life raft awaiting rescue.

The same concept should apply to us, even if we're not crossing an ocean. For us, the kit is called a Grab 'n Go Kit — also known as a 72-hour Kit. The purpose is to give you what you need to live on for the first 72 hours of a disaster if you are caught away from home or have to evacuate, with the assumption that local, state or federal relief organizations will be on-site rendering aid after that time period.

For ultimate versatility, organize your Grab 'n Go kit in a "backpack" style piece of luggage that has substantial wheels, an extendable handle, and shoulder straps. Just because you're in survival mode is no reason to live like a heathen. To make life easier when you're on the run or are living in a refugee camp, here are basic recommendations for items to be included in your kit:

  • A couple changes of underwear and socks
  • Long -sleeved shirt
  • T shirt
  • Pants
  • Windbreaker
  • Rain poncho or rain suit
  • Billed cap
  • Sunglasses
  • Spare eyeglasses (if you need them)
  • Contact lens solution (if you need it)
  • Bandana or large handkerchief
  • Work gloves
  • Power bars
  • Trail mix
  • 3 or more MREs or Mountain House meals
  • Folding military-type can opener
  • Salt and pepper
  • Paper plates
  • Backpack stove, fuel, and lightweight pot (JetBoil Personal Cooking System is excellent for this)
  • 2 liters of water
  • Backpack water filter
  • 1 roll of toilet paper
  • 1 heavy-duty trash bag
  • Disposable towelettes
  • Toothbrush, toothpaste, floss
  • Bar of soap
  • Liquid camp soap
  • Shampoo, conditioner
  • Small towel, washcloth
  • Hair brush
  • First aid kit
  • Insect repellent
  • Sun screen
  • Lightweight tent or tarp
  • Sleeping bag or blanket
  • Sleeping pad
  • Emergency-type blanket
  • Flashlight (hand crank type, or take spare batteries)
  • Fire starter and tinder
  • Knife
  • Pepper spray
  • Signal mirror, whistle
  • Lightweight rope
  • Trowel for digging a latrine
  • Emergency radio (hand crank type like Grundig FR200, or take spare batteries)
  • Deck of cards to alleviate boredom while in a refugee situation
  • Roll of quarters (for showers)
  • Small cache of spending money (keep this hidden)
  • Photo ID
  • Pencil and notepad
  • Prescription medications (rotate to keep these fresh)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Deadly Waves

Deep in the ocean, the earth's crust shifts ever so slightly, and thousands of miles away the warning is issued about the potential for a deadly tsunami. It happened again just today.

After the 2004 tsunami that had its epicenter near Sumatra, Indonesia then spread out and killed more than 230,000 people in a dozen countries that rim the Indian Ocean, nobody takes an under-sea earthquake for granted anymore. And with good reason. Today's 8.0 quake that snapped the ocean floor about 125 miles from Samoa almost instantly claimed more than 150 lives, and the counting hasn't stopped yet. The energy wave from a tsunami can travel through deep water at an incredible speed of more than 600 miles per hour, so the Samoa tsunami struck the islands in a matter of minutes. No time for a warning.

But a tsunami can cross an entire ocean in a matter of hours, so this is never just a local event. In Los Angeles, more than 4,000 miles away, alarm bells went off and the entire west coast went under alert, from California to Washington State.

And what are you supposed to do when a tsunami threatens?

  • Listen to the radio and watch TV for news broadcasts of warnings. 
  • Evacuate immediately upon receiving notice of an impending tsunami. 
  • Do not go to the beach to watch the waves come ashore. That's a death wish. 
  • Immediately gather your loved ones and head for high ground. 
  • Follow designated tsunami evacuation routes, if they are established in your area, or simply head inland and uphill as quickly as possible. 
  • Be prepared to purify drinking water in the aftermath of a tsunami, because the normal water sources will be fouled. 
  • Avoid debris in the water. In fact, avoid water altogether, as it might be seriously polluted. 
  • Stay away from flood damaged areas until authorities say it is safe to return.  


It's all over the headlines these days — H1N1 virus, also known as swine flu. Nobody really knows how this disease is going to play out, and predictions are all over the charts. What we do know is that there are some pretty simple procedures we can follow to minimize our exposure. Don't be put off by the simplicity of these recommendations. Just because they're basic doesn't mean they don't work. If you have children, teach them these things, because school is a very active place for passing disease around.

  • This disease is spread via coughs, sneezes and direct physical contact with things that are carrying the virus. If you cough or sneeze, cover your face with a handkerchief, not with your bare hand.
  • If you are in a room with other people who are coughing and sneezing, consider leaving.
  • Without becoming a compulsive makeover of Howard Hughes, wash your hands often. Wash with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. After contact with other people, and before you have a chance to wash your hands, keep your hands away from your face. 
  • When soap and water are not available, us an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. It's the alcohol that kills the germs. Not all "germicidal" products contain alcohol, so they won't actually kill viruses. 
  • Use antibiotic wipes to swab public items such as grocery cart handles before you touch them.  
  • If you feel sick, stay home. Do everybody a favor by not sharing whatever ails you. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the symptoms of the H1N1 virus include fever, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills, fatigue, diarrhea and vomiting. The only place you should go is to see the doctor. The recommendation is that you stay home and isolate yourself from other people for at least 24 hours after your fever has broken. 
  • Speaking of medical care, unless you are sick, stay away from doctors offices, hospitals, clinics and anyplace where sick people congregate. Seems like the best place to get sick is at a hospital.
  • Wearing face masks may not do any good, as it is believed they become ineffective as soon as they become moist from your breath. 
The best thing you can do when disease is running rampant is to avoid sick people, use the best sanitation practices possible, and maintain a highly nutritious lifestyle. Eat lots of fruits and vegetables, and take supplements proven to provide high levels of antioxidant to promote a strong immune system.

Monday, September 28, 2009

When The lights Go Out

The lights flicker, then blink off and the room goes dark. The TV and radio don’t work, so you can’t find out what’s going on. If you don’t have a backup electrical power system to run your home appliances, you’re out of luck. The furnace fan doesn’t work; neither does the air conditioner. The house starts to get cold, or hot, depending on season. The refrigerator goes to sleep, and food inside begins to warm up and will eventually spoil. The microwave won’t work, and unless you have natural gas to your dwelling, the conventional stove and oven are dead too. Life is suddenly very inconvenient. But power outages can be much more than inconvenient. They can be downright life-threatening, as emergencies arise for people who have critical need of electrical power to operate medical equipment. Folks die when the power fails.

If you happen to be at work in a big city, life can get really tough in a hurry. Consider what happened in southeastern Canada and northeastern U.S. during the famous blackout of 2003. An estimated fifty-million people were suddenly thrust back into the stone age, as far as electrical power was concerned

Electrical utilities can fail at anytime, caused by events that are totally out of your control. It might be a traffic accident that topples a power pole, or someone cutting a buried line while digging.  Birds or animals messing around on power lines can cause a failure, and of course ice storms and lightning strikes do their share of damage. But it might be something as simple as a computer failure somewhere in the power grid. You never know when the lights are going to blink off, so it's good to be prepared.

The first thing to do when the power fails is to check your fuse box or breaker panel. If everything looks okay there, check with a neighbor to see if it's just your house or a wider area that is affected. Then call your local electric utility. They might not even be aware that there's a problem until someone calls to report it. However, during a power outage, your cell phone probably won't work. Cordless phones are equally disabled, because the control unit must have power to be able to activate the handsets. Regular corded telephones might still provide communication.

It's especially important to have an independent power supply if you or someone you know is medically dependent on electricity being available. A portable generator might be able to do the job, depending on your power demands. If you use a motorized wheelchair or scooter, keep a backup battery available. And it's a good idea to maintain a week's supply of necessary medications, to see you through the crisis. Also important for medically challenged individuals is to have a plan for relocation to a more suitable place — especially if the power goes down in the dead of winter or during a heat wave. If the furnace or air conditioning system fails, those who are elderly, very young, or frail for any reason are at increased risk.

As important as a gas-powered generator can be in an emergency, it can also pose a risk. Exhaust fumes contain carbon monoxide that is invisible and odorless, but deadly nonetheless. Operate the generator outside where there is adequate ventilation, and aim the exhaust away from your dwelling.

Another safety issue with power generators is to NOT hook the unit up to your home electrical panel unless you use the special equipment required to do this. If you simply wire the generator into the panel to supply the house with power, some poor lineman working on restoring power to your neighborhood might get knocked off the power pole by the electrical feedback coming from your generator. The best bet, if you want to hardwire your generator to the house is to have the electrical utility help you with it.

Automatic garage door openers won't work without electricity. Make sure your door is equipped with a manual override, and practice using it so you'll be able to find it in the dark.

When the power goes out, your refrigerator and freezer will still keep things cold for a while if you don't open the door. A chest freezer is best, because the cold air is trapped in the box, whereas a front-opening freezer will allow the cold air to "fall out" when the door is opened. Keep the doors closed until you absolutely must get something out, and then plan to take out every item you need all at once so you're not getting in and out repeatedly.

The safest thing to do after dark is crawl into bed and go to sleep. Candles and oil lamps are great, except they do pose a fire hazard. So it's best to just cash it in for the night and hibernate. When you must have light, use a flashlight or battery-powered lantern. Keep spare batteries available. An alternative is a hand-crank flashlight or lantern that requires you to turn a crank handle to generate electricity to illuminate the bulb. Speaking of bulbs, LEDs are way more efficient than incandescent bulbs, so the batteries will last longer. They're nearly indestructible, too. Keep flashlights near the beds, so they're handy if someone needs to get up in the night.

If you normally cook with electricity (that is no longer operating), use some kind of camp stove, barbecue or hibachi as an alternative. It doesn't matter if the stove is large or small, don't bring it in the house to cook with or to provide warmth in a room. Carbon monoxide poisoning is a real danger when using any form of open combustion indoors.

Dutch oven cooking takes a little longer, but you can cook just about anything with that technique, using surprisingly few charcoal briquettes.

During a power failure, it's a good idea to switch off electrical appliances, computers and such, to help prevent damage when the power is suddenly restored. Early on after power restoration, there might be surges and spikes in the electricity that can damage sensitive electrical components.

If you are outside and see a downed power line, stay at least 100 feet away and call 9-1-1 to report it. If the power line falls across your vehicle, do not get out of the car and try to escape. Sit tight and wait for help. Otherwise, the instant your feet hit the ground, you'll be injured or killed. If you witness a power line that is in contact with another person, call for help. There is nothing you can safely do, except to summon assistance from the professionals who have the proper equipment to handle the situation.

Easy To Get Lost

A close friend of mine recently spent an unplanned overnight high on a mountain with his son. Unplanned anything in the wilderness is the fast track to a survival incident. But his story is compelling by the ease of how it all happened.

My buddy and his son were part of a large group of Scouts trekking the high country of western Washington. The group intended to stay over the weekend, but scheduling conflicts prompted my friend to separate from the rest one day early and return home. That was the plan. That didn't happen.

It was Saturday afternoon when my friend and his son parted company with the rest of the group, and headed back down the trail the way they had come. Somewhere a few miles away, at the bottom of the canyon, their vehicle waited for them in the parking lot. They expected that it would take just a couple of hours to hike down, climb in the car, and they'd be home by supper time. That didn't happen either.

What did happen was that, on the way down the trail, they met a fork in the path. They hadn't seen that on the way up, because their attention was on the trail ahead, and this other trail sneaking through the forest and merging at an angle was never noticed. But coming back down off the mountain, my friend was suddenly confronted with the split in the trail and, as the guardian of the chalice in the Indiana Jones movie The last Crusade said, "he chose poorly."

Without a clear knowledge of which was the correct path to take, it was a flip of the coin. They had a 50% chance of getting it right. That might sound pretty good, but imagine playing Russian Roulette with half the cylinders loaded. Not good odds when life is on the line.

Had these guys followed one simple rule during the hike up, they would have been able to avoid the misery that came next. The rule is to study your backtrail often. Just look over your shoulder at the scene that you will face when returning on the trail. This is critically important, because the scene looking back is totally different than the scene looking forward. A perfect example is the sneaky trail, unseen looking one direction, totally obvious looking the other.

But, of course, they didn't do that. So they took off on the wrong trail and followed that for several hours until it became painfully obvious that they were not going the right direction. Fortunately, they bumped into some other hikers, asked directions, and were told how to get to the parking lot.

Unfortunately (isn't it crazy how an unfortunately can follow a fortunately in a story?) those other hikers were full of beans. So my buddy and his son hiked for several more hours until, at 2 o'clock in the morning they collapsed in exhaustion and spent the rest of the night sitting in the blackness of a deep forest night, shivering in the chilly wind, feeling the desperation known to those who are lost.

My buddy's feet were a wreck. He had hiked them to blisters. Without food or water, both he and his son were exhausted. The conditions conspired to lead them from discouragement to near panic. As a father, I understand clearly how panic can ensue when you think you've led your child into harm's way. The panic is sometimes worse than the cold or the hunger or thirst. Panic makes you do irrational things like get up and go running down the trail as if your hair was on fire.

Long story short, early the next morning, our intrepid hikers encountered another bunch of folks on the trail, asked directions and, this time, got it right. Walking on tender feet, my friend was able to lead his son to safety.

Behind the scenes, rescue efforts were underway. When the guys didn't show up on schedule, a family member drove to the parking lot and found the vehicle still there. But it was already black night, and so the real search and rescue effort was set to get underway at first light the next morning. As soon as they guys got to a spot where there was cell phone coverage, they called home and let everyone know they were okay. The SAR was called off, and everybody lived happily ever after.

Doesn't always work out so cleanly. It is amazing how easy it is to get lost. It's happened to me, and I wrote the book about how to keep from getting lost. Well, at least I wrote a chapter in the book specifically about that topic.

Speaking of the book, I had always intended to give my friend a copy of my book. And now I was kicking myself for not doing it earlier, because if he had read it he might have been spared this miserable episode. So while he was forced to stay down and let his damaged feet recover, I took him an autographed copy and pointed out some specific places to read.

In hindsight, some things were done right and some weren't. Not to be critical — because most folks don't know what to do and what not to do — but besides studying the backtrail, there's also the consideration of when to stop moving, sit down and figure things out.

Being lost, by definition, means you don't know where you are. And if you don't know where you are, you don't know where you're going. So stop moving.

Stop early, establish some kind of camp before it gets dark, so you can rest and get your wits back in the game. If you don't have a tent, improvise a shelter so you're not sitting out in the wet and the wind. Build a safe fire so you can stay warm and dry, and have the psychological companionship of the flames. The fire might also attract the attention of people who are searching for you. Since you don't know where you're going, stay there, get some signaling efforts going (smoke by day, flames by night). Set yourself up in the most visible position possible, so a search by air can spot you. Help the search by using colorful items of clothing or equipment laid out in the open. Make noise. Use a signal mirror. Do everything you can to attract attention to yourself.

But for heaven sake, don't keep hiking until, in the blinding darkness, you fall off the mountain or stumble and injure yourself, or until your feet are bloody and blistered, you're weak and exhausted, and you're so discouraged you're on the verge of panic.

My friend and his son didn't stop early. They kept going until they dropped, and then they sat there in the dark, wounded and letting their emotions feed off the gloom.

But they did some things right. Most important was that they let people back home know where they were going and when they intended to return home. That way, when they didn't show up on schedule, a search could be started.

It's easy to get lost. Never think it can't happen to you.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Colony

The televised urban survival "reality" series called The Colony was very entertaining, but the reality part was mostly lost in the entertainment part, so I hope viewers weren't sucked into the story too deeply to realize that this was to reality what Hollywood is to real life.

According to the narrative at the beginning of each episode, the concept was that Los Angeles had been wiped out by a viral disaster, but the scene looked more like the aftermath of a nuclear strike. Maybe that's being too picky, because I realize that the producers were trying to depict the city in a derelict condition and if the populace simply died as a result of disease and all the buildings were left standing, there wouldn't be anything dramatic to display as the show opened. But right away, concessions to drama were being made, and that should tell you something about what would follow.

And what followed was a collection of personalities such as you might find in any normal neighborhood (not!). A doctor, an ER nurse, a black-belt martial artist, a do-everything mechanic, an aerospace engineer, a genius scientist capable of scavenging rubble and creating an operational solar electric utility company, and cooking charcoal to capture wood gas to fuel a truck for a couple hundred mile dash to safety … you get the picture. Not reality. Not in my neighborhood, anyway.

But it was fun to watch. The projects the team came up with were fascinating — making an ozone water purification system, building a radio out of scrap, cobbling together an automatic solar tracking system, rebuilding a truck engine on the kitchen table. Just the type of things we're all capable of — right?

It was kind of a cross between old episodes of Watch Mr. Wizard and a soap opera in which personalities clashed over issues of social conscious vs. Colony security. Everyone in The Colony knew they were on camera. This was their 15 minutes of fame, and that no doubt stirred the pot when it came to conflicts among cast members. Some of the characters obviously over acted, while others were remarkably calm. But they all knew the cameras were rolling and that there were rules to the game.

I suppose that's what causes me the greatest concern. Were this a real urban survival situation with hostile outsiders beating on the shelter walls and screaming threats, the rules of engagement would be very different than what this television program showed. For the sake of the viewing audience, there was a lot of compassionate discussion about such things as "should we let the monster into our compound and share our rapidly dwindling supply of food and water?"

The value of this, I suppose, is that it showed a range of emotions that survivors must deal with. There is a natural desire to help save other people, but there is also an overwhelming desire to survive yourself. At some point, those two desires might not be compatible. That's when you must make tough decisions that will seem, to people who have never faced such a situation, to be heartless. Among the Colonists there were ubercompassionate personalities who would (and did) give away nearly their last drop of water to passing vagrants who came begging. In contrast, there were ubersecurity guys who bristled every time someone showed up asking for help. You just know that this combination of personalities is going to result in conflict within the group. Remarkably, they handled most situations democratically by voting. They weren't all happy with the outcome of the vote every time, but at least they arrived at a practical consensus.

In an apparent loss of focus, toward the end of their stay in the compound, the Colonists started playing games. I'm sure this was urged by the producers to enhance the story, but it was nothing short of foolish abandonment of shelter security, and it resulted in some injuries to equipment and people. While the group clustered in the courtyard for their amusement, renegades were breaking into the compound and stealing food and other survival gear. It was as if the team had lost its mind.

And that brings me to the end of today's comments. Survival is a mind game. If your mind isn't in the game, you're going to lose. At least 90% of survival is psychological and emotional and the stuff between your ears. Get that part right, and you'll have a better than even chance of making it out alive. Figure out ahead of time what you're willing to do to keep yourself and your loved ones alive and well. Get it straight in your brain and in your heart, because you might someday face situations that aren't going to give you the time to take a vote about how you're going to react. Never lose your focus.

Life is not a Hollywood production, and no "reality" show can do justice to what really happens when chaos replaces normalcy. Don't get sucked into thinking you're going to be able to fix everything with a combination of hair spray, bubble gum and bailing wire. You're not McGyver, and neither am I. Yes, by all means learn to improvise, to be inventive, to use your hands and your intellect — but don't fool yourself into thinking you can tinker you way to survival. Get prepared. Have the things you need on hand. Have a plan that is based on honest to goodness survival knowledge and experience. Have contingency plans about surviving in place or evacuating. Maintain situational awareness at all times.

We'll get deeper into all of this as we go along. For today, I just wanted to open the windows a little bit and let some fresh air in to clear away the stuff that Hollywood has to offer. No doubt about it — it was fun to watch. But it wasn't real.

Friday, September 25, 2009

And so it Begins

I begin this blog with some reservation. By nature, I'm a private person who believes that a certain amount of anonymity is important to survival in perilous times. And these are definitely perilous times, when the world has lost its moral compass and integrity is almost impossible to find among those who lead nations. But it is exactly for those reasons that I decided to open this forum.

Please be aware that this is not a lunatic fringe forum. If you're one of those types, look elsewhere. The subject of personal survival is far too important to be swallowed up by doomsday mentality. The very word "survival" invokes a spirit of life, not death and destruction. So this will be a site for discussion about how to live, how to rise above turmoil, how to retain our morality, how to reach out and help each other through whatever chaos may envelope us.

Don't for a minute interpret the previous statement to imply that I'm a limp-wristed wimp with my head in the sand about the destructive elements that sometimes sweep into our lives. I was trained as a Special Forces soldier during the VietNam era. I've worked for a police deparment, in jail, surrounded by people who have done extremely bad things. I carry a firearm for personal protection and will not hesitate to use it if the situation rises to an appropriate level. I've trained in martial arts for the same purpose. I absolutely acknowledge the destruction … but I don't buy into the doom and gloom part. Doom and gloom are anathema to survival mentality. And because survival is at least 90% mental, we all need to keep our brains together, or we're not going to get out alive.

The goal of this forum is to spread valid information, not rumors or poorly thought out opinions. The intent is to share true life experiences of folks who have survived challenging wilderness or urban situations. So, if you've had a personal survival episode in life, whether it is wilderness or urban in nature, please feel free to share it here. I understand the tendency to embelish a story, but do us all a favor and tell your story without blowing things out of proportion.

And let's make this a place where we can get questions answered. Feel free to ask whatever you want, and we'll do our best to get you the correct information.