Friday, February 25, 2011

Magnetic Compass Conundrum

You might have read (or heard) something about the Earth's magnetic pole shifting at an increasing rate, which causes compasses to point in the wrong direction.

Technically true. Like "climate change" this is something that has always happened and always will happen in the future. The Earth's magnetic pole is directly related to the movement of the magnetic field, which in turn is related to movement on Earth's liquid iron core. The core continually transfers heat, thereby creating a naturally occurring electrical conductor that creates the magnetic field. So just to be clear about this — what's happening has nothing to do with the end of the Mayan calendar on December 21 next year, or anything else so dramatic. This is nothing new, but the folks who write the news have to have something to talk about and this sounds pretty big, so they write about it.

For the record, the shift in magnetic pole position amounts to about 1 degree every 10 years. So if you're out hiking for the next 30 years, you'll see a 3-degree shift on your compass. Whoopee!

The reason I say Whoopee is because nobody, regardless of how good you are with a compass in hand, is steady enough to be flawless when using a magnetic compass for navigation. At best, you'll be a few degrees off anyway as you navigate your way through brush and trees and around lakes  and detour around canyons. This isn't brain surgery. You use a compass to maintain a general heading toward a desired point. Then you shoot another bearing and head off in that direction. You take compass readings on visible landmarks, walk to that landmark, then shoot another bearing to the next one. Over and over again, you repeat the process to enable you to hike in the general direction toward your destination, continually making adjustments as you sidetrack around obstacles. So maintaining a precise bearing to the very degree is not only unnecessary, it's also impossible.

If you're out on the ocean, the boat will bob and weave with very motion of the water and wind, not to mention the effect of current. The fastest way to go blind and nuts at the same time is to stare at the compass and keep your hand on the helm, trying to steer a perfect course. Celestial navigation was invented to keep mariners from going blind and nuts. With celestial navigation, a sailor takes a sighting on the sun or moon or stars once per day (or night), makes calculations based on published tables for precise times each day. Then adjustments are made to the heading to correct the course. Same goes for use of a GPS — it's only a method of taking a "fix" on your location so you can compare that reading with the map to see where you are relative to where you want to go.

And my point is? My point is that regardless of what you hear or read or see on the news about how you're going to get lost because the magnetic pole is racing toward Siberia, don't worry. You won't get any more lost than you ever would before.

That said, I think everyone who ventures into the outdoors should carry a detailed topographic map of the area and a quality compass. More important than that is to know how to use those tools. If all you ever rely on is GPS, the day will come when that system will fail you (probably because of dead batteries), and then you really will be lost.

Carry a map and compass. Know how to use them.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


The sign read: DANGER! If you cross this boundary, you may lose your life and your ski pass will be revoked.

Might sound kind of funny, when you think about it, but the message is clear — it's not safe to go beyond the boundaries, and if you choose to do so there will be penalties to pay if someone has to come rescue you.

This past weekend, snowboarders in at least two states tested the boundary and lost. Well, they lost their ski passes, but thanks to search and rescue teams, they didn't lose their lives. In both instances, the snowboarders became disoriented — in one case because of fog and in the other because of heavy snowfall that obscured their vision.

I can sympathize. I was skiing one day when the snowfall became so heavy that I couldn't see 20 feet ahead. Fearing that I might nail a tree, I decided to stop for a few minutes and wait until conditions improved before continuing down the slope. I threw on the brakes and skidded to what I thought was a complete stop, and just stood there relaxed. That's when a tree slowly glided past and I realized that I was not stopped after all. In the whiteout conditions, it was virtually impossible for me to have a perfect point of reference with my surrounding. When the tree went past, an interesting thing happened to me — I almost threw up. Something about the difference between what my brain thought was reality, and what was really reality upset the inner ear and my senses went nuts.

I confess all this only to illustrate how easy it is to get lost in the backcountry. Been there; done that. Don't want to do it again.

In both of the snowboard cases, the individuals were able to call for help by using their cell phones. WARNING! That doesn't always work. Much of the backcountry doesn't have cell coverage, so if you get lost there, you're going to stay lost unless you carry some other devices to let people know they need to come and get you. The SPOT Satellite Messenger ( or a Personal Locator Beacon ( are reliable "call for help" devices, but they won't work if you don't have them with you and know how to use them.

My advice is:
  • Respect the boundaries, because if you go out and get yourself lost, other lives are going to be put at risk trying to save yours.
  • Know your limits and have as much fun as you possibly can within them.
  • Carry survival gear so you can stay alive for a few days while working out the solution to your problems.
  • Carry equipment that will help get you rescued when you get so far in over your head that you're not going to be able to get out by yourself. 

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Survival Story

Surviving 5 days in the desert without water can be difficult for anybody, but when you're 84 years old and so crippled up that you can't walk, surviving that long is almost a miracle.

But that's what happened to Henry Morello, who was rescued this past Saturday near Arizona's Bloody Basin Road and Phoenix Interstate 17. Morello had mistakenly taken a wrong turn and drove into the barren desert. I don't know the details, but after his rescue he reported that his car battery died, as did his cell phone battery.

"I can't walk, so I had to stay there," he said. "I tried to walk away, but I fell down and had to crawl back."

Using his cane, he struggled to get back inside his car. When the temperature fell into the 30s at night, Morello used the car's floor mats to cover himself. Those long, cold nights were the worst, he said, because he got scared that nobody would ever find him. He had no water to drink, but he did have some leftover pasta in the car, but choose not to eat it because it made him more thirsty.

On day 5, he heard a knock on the window and was found by some hikers who, as luck would have it, were passing by. That began his rescue process and a 3-day stay in the hospital.

This is a story that could have had a much more tragic ending, so we're happy for Mr. Morello's family. But it's better to not rely on luck bringing wandering rescuers accidentally to our aid, so there are things for us to learn from this incident.
  • Early rescue is better than late rescue, so be sure to carry devices that will allow you to call for help when you need it. Morello had a cell phone, but the dead battery made it useless. Have the ability to charge your cell phone from the vehicle's cigarette lighter socket. Then don't kill the vehicle battery by running the lights or continually trying to start a reluctant engine to the point that the battery dies. If you're within range of cell service, that little device can save your life, so make sure it works. 
  • To signal your position and alert people who can initiate a rescue, have the ability to start a fire. Feed green foliage or oily rags or rubber into the fire during the day to create massive amounts of smoke. Keep the fire burning brightly at night to show your position. 
  • Carry a signal mirror and whistle in your vehicle and put them in your pocket if you leave the vehicle, so you are equipped to signal for help both audibly and visually. The flash of light from a mirror will carry for miles. When the sun goes down or you're in dense forest, use the whistle when you think someone might be near enough to hear it. 
  • Carry in your vehicle enough drinking water to last you a few days. The easy way to do this is to buy a case or two of bottled water or a few 1-gallon jugs at the grocery store and leave them in the trunk. It's not always possible to find or "make" enough water to keep you alive, so the best thing is to carry it with you. Figure on 1 gallon per day per person. 
  • Morello was right to avoid eating when he didn't have water to drink. Eating increases thirst, but worse yet it increases the body's need for water to carry out the digestion process. 
  • Morello was also right to stay with the vehicle. If you're lost and someone is looking for you, they'll spot a vehicle more easily than they will spot an individual hiking through brush or trees. In the physical condition of Mr. Morello, it would be unwise to attempt to hike out of the desert, although someone in better condition might be successful hiking out for help. In that case, the best option is to follow the trail back in the direction from which you came, rather than attempting to take shortcuts cross-country. 
  • He did the right thing by improvising the floor mats into some covering to help retain his body warmth at night. Better yet would be to carry an emergency blanket in the vehicle and even a sleeping bag, if you have the room for it. 

Monday, February 14, 2011

Cooking Under Pressure

I have to admit that the title of today's post has a double meaning. When something happens that causes the lights to go out over a long-term period (could be an earthquake, hurricane, ice storm, etc.), the pressure is on to continue life as close to normal as possible. And that's when cooking under pressure becomes especially important.

Using a pressure cooker to prepare meals does two good things:
  • Uses less fuel to accomplish the cooking
  • Produces more nutritious meals than cooking the same food by other means
If there's a power outage, one alternative for cooking is the use of a propane stove. When that happens, you'll have to be very careful about conserving the fuel, because you won't know how long the emergency is going to last. This brings to mind sailors who cruise the world, off the grid (so they are essentially living under the same conditions as you would during a massive power outage) using a limited supply of propane for everything from space heating to running the refrigerator to cooking. They typically use small pressure cookers to make everything from bread to stew. And the reason they use a pressure cooker rather than a normal pot is because the cooking times are so much shorter, and that translates into fuel savings.

A couple days ago, we prepared a 4-pound lamb roast smothered with baby carrots, onions and quartered new potatoes in our small pressure cooker. What would have taken more than an hour to prepare in the oven was done to tender perfection in half that time. The meat was so tender and the vegetables so tasty that it made me wonder why everyone doesn't cook this way.

The second positive about pressure cookers is that they retain the moisture and nutrients that are lost when cooking for more prolonged times in pots and pans that are not pressurized. Not only that but the food just plain tastes better. All the flavors stay with the food, and it's nothing short of amazing how much better the same recipe tastes when cooked under pressure.

There is no question that a pressure cooker offers a lot of advantage for day-to-day use when cooking major meals (I don't use one for my morning bowl of oatmeal), but in a crisis situation the fact that it cooks faster and uses less fuel is a huge advantage. They aren't expensive, and they are safe to use if you follow the simple instructions that come with the unit. The old stories of "exploding pressure cookers" are not reality with today's equipment. Become familiar with the operation of this fantastic piece of equipment, experiment with recipes, enjoy better tasting meals, and along the way you'll be learning a better way to cook under emergency conditions.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Secure Your Property

Steve Albrecht worked for the San Diego Police Department from 1984 to 1999, and wrote several police books, including Contact and Cover with a friend of mine named John Morrison. I recently received some information written by Mr. Albrecht about what he would do if he were a crook. This is based on his experience as a cop, knowing what to look for and what most people simply ignore. Here's a tidbit about bad guys breaking and entering your home, either to assault you or to burglarize your house.

Tools of Convenience
The best way to gain access to a house would be to use whatever tools the homeowner left me for my residential burglaries. The average yard has all kind of useful stuff laying around, including axes, shovels, hoes, hammers, ladders, and nicely-stacked lawn furniture. With the a ladder or even a lawn chair I could get on to the roof and through the usually unlocked second-story window. Heck I could do it in broad daylight. All I would have to do is wearing a white painter's hat and clothes and driving a work van that would help me blend.

If you want to protect your home, take Albrecht's advice and secure your property. Don't leave convenient tools around the yard that can be used to gain entry to your home, garage or other buildings. Keep your neighborhood safe by being aware of who the strangers are that are roaming around, even if they appear to be workers in vans and trucks. Call the police if you suspect that something is amiss. They won't mind coming to check things out. 

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Emergency Prep

Before we moved into the cave to begin our year-long wilderness living experience in southern Utah, we spent time getting ready and learning what we needed to know. But after we had been on the ground for six months in that desert, we hardly gave it a moment's thought day-to-day. We just lived. We transitioned from being in "prep mode" to being in "life mode."

Being in "life mode" insofar as emergency response goes, is the safest way. You just naturally do the right things to be able to handle problems when they arise.

For example, consider for a minute that an earthquake is going to slam your region in the middle of the night while you're asleep. Under those conditions, is it better to have a flashlight in the dresser drawer at the far side of the room or within easy reach of where you sleep? Is it safer to have your shoes organized in the closet or right beside your bed? Is it safer to have some gloves tucked away out in the garage or there in the bedroom?

If the earth shook and things fell off shelves, windows shattered from twisted frames, mirrors exploded sending shards of glass across the floor, you wouldn't want to have to walk barefoot to find your shoes. You wouldn't want to have to dig through rubble bare handed. You wouldn't want to fumble around in the dark hoping to remember where the flashlight was. Under those conditions, you would want to be in "life mode" rather than in "prep mode."

If a disaster hits during the day while you're out and about, there are so many variables about where you might be and what you might have access to that the only thing I can recommend is to always be aware of what is around you and how you might use it to provide the necessities to keep you alive.

But from the standpoint of being at home and having a disaster hit while you're asleep (which will really catch you off-guard), there are some things you should always have near your bed so you can have immediate access to them. You don't want to have to go hunting for these things in the dark when your world is coming unglued at the seams. You just live prepared all the time. 

Ideally, you should be able to reach these items without having to leave the bed to grab them.
  • First, sturdy shoes. If you have any reason to believe there is broken glass or any other type of debris on the floor, do not put your feet down until they are inside sturdy shoes that can protect against nail penetration, etc. Injured feet will not only invite infection, but will also disable you from being able to carry on with survival tasks. 
  • Heavy leather gloves. If you need to claw your way out of a collapsed structure, or move broken and splintered wood to clear your way to the exit, these will protect your hands. 
  • Safety glasses or goggles. If you're blinded by dust or flying debris getting in your eyes, you won't be able to save yourself or anyone else. A lightweight pair of swim goggles will work, and they don't take up much space. 
  • A flashlight. You want to be able to reach and grab a flashlight (loaded with fully-charged batteries) without having to get out of bed to find it. If it is a "headlamp" type, so much the better, because that leaves your hands free to do whatever is necessary to get yourself and your family to safety. An LED light draws much less power than a light with incandescent bulbs, so the batteries last longer. 
  • A fire extinguisher. What if you awaken to discover that your house is in flames and the only extinguisher is in the kitchen, and you can't get to it? You're toast — literally! Keep an extinguisher within reach so you can fight your way out of a burning room if necessary. 
  • A cell phone (fully charged). You might awaken to noises in your house that don't belong there. Home invasion by burglars (or worse) might involve the cutting of your residential telephone lines, leaving you unable to call 9-1-1 for help. Even if it's not a home invasion, but just your run of the mill disaster that has torn everything up and left you injured, your landline might be dead and you might be able to use the cell phone to summon assistance. 
  • Protective outdoor clothing. If you must evacuate your dwelling into a cold, rainy, windy night, you will appreciate being able to quickly grab a coat and long pants. 

Thursday, February 3, 2011

A Safe Room

When we lived in Wisconsin for 4 years, we learned the meaning of cold. Our final winter there, the bulb temperature fell to -40ºF and the wind drove the windchill down to -100ºF. That was the winter two people died in our small town. Not that people dying was an unusual event, but the way these two died was. One elderly man died on his porch after he fumbled his house keys and couldn't get the door open. The other died in his car as he struggled but failed to get it to start.

That was the year we put our Safe Room into practice. A Safe Room is a place where you can retreat and stay warm when it's just not possible to keep the whole house warm. That would happen during a power outage when the furnace or other main house heating system no longer operates.

For us, the safe room was upstairs, because heat rises. It was a small interior room with only a single windows and no doors directly leading outside. To help insulate the window, we hung old wool army blankets as drapes. That was where we planned to wait out the cold, bundled in sleeping bags, protected as best we could against the deadly winter wind and frigid temperatures.

A better solution would be to retreat to a room with a fireplace that will operate without outside power, but not everyone has that option. A safe alternate heat source is to use small electric heaters that are powered by a generator. There are small, efficient generators that will run for several hours (outside only!) and produce enough energy to run a small heater in the Safe Room at the end of an extension cord led inside the house.

Open combustion sources of heat are not to be used inside an enclosed space that has limited ventilation, because of the risk of oxygen starvation or carbon monoxide poisoning. If you're careful, it's generally safe enough to use a camp stove to heat food and water for hot drinks, but not for general space heating. Shut off the stove as soon as the cooking is done. Use the hot meals and drinks as a way to keep your body's core temperature up, and hunker down in the sleeping bags to retain your body warmth.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

A Post Script

Yesterday, I wrote about being prepared to evacuate. I used the current crisis in Egypt as an example of a situation in which thousands of people are wanting to evacuate all at the same time, but there aren't enough airplanes to do the job and the streets are clogged with rioters. My point was that those folks could have gotten out of that area before it broke down into total chaos, perhaps trapping them there with no way out.

That post prompted a reader's comment, and that comment leads me to write this little post script.

Hello! I wasn't talking about Egypt. When I mention what's happening in Haiti, I'm not talking about Haiti.  I use those situations only as living examples of what happens in a crisis. And those events can take place anywhere — even right where you live. You don't have to go anyplace to be vulnerable.

Earthquakes can happen anyplace. Outbreaks of disease can happen anyplace. Drought, famine, pestilence, war, chaos in the streets, economic failure, the breakdown of transportation and communication services, utility outages leaving you without water or electricity — all of these things exist without regard to borders or social status.

Sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking that we Americans, living here in America, are untouchable. That is a mistaken notion that can lull you into a false sense of security and the faulty belief that, "as long as I stay home I'll be safe."

So when I post information about an event that is happening somewhere else in the world, please don't misunderstand and think that if you just stay home you won't ever be exposed to those types of problems. Maybe you won't, but maybe you will. Life in America is not getting more secure. We've experienced riots and looting, just not on a national scale … yet. But there's a tipping point beyond which an outbreak cannot be turned back. We see that in Tunisia and Egypt.

Parts of America have experienced devastating earthquake, severe drought, lethal winter storms that trap millions of people, massive power outages, raging wildfires the leave millions homeless and on the run, even tsunamis that crushed coastal regions. So let's not get smug and think that those things happen only someplace else, and if we just stay home we'll be safe.

You'll be safe only if you're prepared and knowledgeable and lucky. Those are the three legs of the stool. And I'll add one more — you'll be safe only if you employ those other three and take action at the appropriate time. The point of my post yesterday "Get Out Now!" was this — Don't wait for someone to tell you it's time to evacuate. Get prepared. Engage your own situational awareness and use your best judgement.