Thursday, May 3, 2012

What Are The Survival Essentials?

Next week, I'll be talking to a group of Boy Scouts who are working on their Wilderness Survival merit badge.

The invitation to talk with these boys came from the father of one of the young men who lives down the street from me. The troop is preparing for an upcoming campout they call "Out Without." The boys will be carrying minimal equipment, and expected to make do with that, no matter what kind of weather they face. So the topic of discussion will be about what constitutes minimal equipment — the stuff that is essential to keeping yourself alive and well in the wilderness.

That's a tricky question. If you're in outer space, a space suit or pressurized capsule is minimal equipment. If you're scuba diving, an air supply is minimal equipment. If you're falling out of the sky, a parachute is minimal equipment. Get the picture? Defining minimal equipment depends entirely upon the environment and situation.

Since these boys won't be going to outer space, or scuba diving, or jumping out of planes, we'll talk about essential survival equipment for staying alive in an earthbound wilderness setting.

But even that can be tricky. Right here on the surface of planet Earth you can face environments as diverse as arctic, desert, jungle, prairie, swamp, sea shore, high and low elevations. And every variety of environment has its own set of demands when it comes to what you need for survival.

It's not only about the environment, though — it's also about the season. I have different survival kits for different times of year. Cold weather imposes different demands than hot weather. Monsoon season requires different equipment than the dry season.

The trick is to know what the basics are for every possible situation, and make sure you're covered there. Then you can expand to meet the special needs of the moment.

For example, shelter is always needed. Doesn't matter whether it's hot or cold, sunny or rainy — shelter is an absolute necessity to protect against whatever the elements are doing. You just figure out how to adjust  your shelter to help maintain your core body temperature in the ideal range. Sometimes, that will mean you're sheltering from the wind, rain or snow, but other times the shelter will be used to protect against over exposure to the sun. Some form of shelter is always needed.

Same goes for water — you can't live long without it, so it is an absolute essential to survival in every possible condition. Even in the dead of an arctic winter, you still need to drink water to stave off dehydration and subsequent hypothermia. And because you must ingest water, it's best if you can ensure its purity so you don't get sick and end up dehydrating even faster due to diarrhea and vomiting.

Food is a necessity. If you don't eat sufficient calories to offset what is burned by the increased activity of a survival lifestyle, eventually you run out of energy and can't perform the tasks necessary to stay alive.

Fire is a high priority for survival. Use it to purify water, prepare food, dry your clothing, warm your body, signal for rescue, or to illuminate your camp. If you can't get a fire going, and maintain it, life is going to be tough. So, having reliable fire-starting equipment and skills is essential.

Basic first aid equipment and knowledge come in real handy in a wilderness setting. Bumps, scrapes, burns, and a variety of unintended holes in your skin are common around camp. It's true, you can just tough it out and let a lot of that stuff heal on its own. But sometimes it's necessary to take urgent steps to mitigate an injury. And having the ability to prevent and fight infection can literally be a life saver, especially in tropical environments where an infection can run rampant and take you down in a hurry.

All that stuff is good to have along, and I'll be telling the boys to prepare a basic survival kit for themselves so they can meet those needs.

And then I'm going to tell them that a creative mind and basic woodsman skills are probably the most valuable things to have in a survival situation. Learn everything you can. Spend time thinking of ways to improvise with whatever you have and what nature provides. Then go out and practice your skills every chance you get.

Good advice for all of us, because someday it might be us who are "out without."


  1. Thanks for the good advice. I was just out in that garage getting my dirt bike ready for the summer riding season and this reminds me that I need to get a survival kit together that I can fit in my camel back. I have a decent survival kit in a fanny pack that I wear when I go for short hikes. I may have to pillage that for my "dirt bike survival kit".
    What items do you suggest I include as essential for mountain riding? Keeping in mind that every item I put in will displace water in the camel back.

  2. I recommend you carry the best "space" blanket you can find. I like the one made by Adventure Medical Kits. They also make a bivvy version of the emergency blanket. Both are compact, lightweight and effective. Take clothing appropriate for spending the night in the woods. Take two methods of starting a fire, along with some WetFire tinder, made by Ultimate Survival Inc. Get a Frontier Filter Straw — it's good for up to 20 gallons and will screen out girardia. That way, when your Camelback runs dry, you can suck clean water from any source you can find. Take some high-calorie trail food, in case you end up spending a few unanticipated days and nights in the mountains. And carry a means of signaling, to help searchers find you. A whistle and mirror are the minimum. A SPOT or PLB are the ultimate. File a "flight plan" with friends, and stick to it.

  3. I wasn't a scout for very long but if I was training them I would stress the importance of having a gun with them.

  4. Well I wont' comment on the above entry but let me just say, "great blog Rich!" Thanks for the insight and reminders!!

  5. Great blog Rich! Thanks for the insight and reminders. Always good to have both as well as the right gear!

  6. Henry firearms just happens to make a scout .22 rifle. Yup.