18th Feb2012

Survive Out of Your Day Pack

by A.J.

So I was recently talking to a good friend of mine about doing some geocaching and hiking in the Rocky Mountains and we got onMilitary Fitness Pack the subject of how to survive when your day trip turns into a survival situation because of conditions outside of your control (or maybe you just suck at planning). So I asked him for a short list I can use to get ready for the trip and being the ridiculous over achiever he is he sent me this, and I thought it was pretty awesome so I wanted to share it with you guys. For some background I did not write this but the guy who did (we will call him “Matty”) is a former  Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer AST (they fly around in helicopters that look like orange painted Airwolfs and fix people’s bad decisions) who is now a Green Beret who runs an exclusive hiking business and is an all-arounds great guy. So whether you are training for the army or just headed out to enjoy the outdoors I think this is a worthwhile read.


A simple system to determine what critical gear to take on the short wilderness adventure.


As people who love the outdoors, we cherish our right to grab a small pack on short notice and head out into one of our favorite wilderness area.  The great thing about the “day-trip” is that, ideally, it can be light on planning and gear, letting you maximize your time out of the house.  Anyone who ventures out, though, must be aware that the great outdoors can quickly become deadly for the unprepared.


Every year hundreds of people who set out on easy day-hikes, trail-runs, or boat trips find themselves unexpectedly in life-or-death Tactical Athletesituations due to common circumstances—such as weather events, injury, or a wrong turn on the trail.  Over the course of dozens of missions as a Coast Guard Helicopter Rescue Swimmer, I saw that most catastrophes start as simple outings gone wrong–usually because people failed to plan for the unexpected or neglected to bring the right supplies with them.  Search-and-Rescue organizations around the world, both land and sea, will attest to the same thing.


This leaves us with the question, how do we adequately prepare our pack for a short adventure without sacrificing spontaneity and time effectiveness.  Below, I’ve outlined a simple system which you can use to decide what to take in case you find yourself needing to survive out of your day-pack.


Most wilderness survival programs use a simple list that the student can use to prioritize their actions in an emergency situation.  You can use a similar list to make sure you don’t miss any do-or-die items when you are stuffing your pack for a quick hike, or your camelback for a trail run.

As an avid outdoorsman and a rescue professional, I have had many experiences drive home the importance of preparedness.  When I sat down to analyze my own decision making process, I realized that I address certain categories to make sure I have all bases covered.  In a pinch, you can use the acronym WWFF.  Think of the old pro wrestling days and then throw another F on the end.  In order, the priorities in WWFF are—


  • WARM
  • FOOD


The order of this list is no mistake, so make sure you priorities these considerations from top to bottom when you are deciding what to bring.


1 – WARM


The Threat:  Exposure resulting in hypothermia.


The Solution:  Have the ability to keep yourself Dry, Insulated, and ultimately Warm under whatever circumstances you may encounter during your outing.


Military Fitness In the ColdConsiderations:  Long before dehydration or hunger have the chance to kill you hypothermia can do you in.  That is why WARM is the first item on our packing list.  We all know the cold is a threat for winter hikers, but hypothermia regularly becomes an unexpected killer on summer days and in semi-tropical environments.  All it takes is the introduction of an injury, an unexpected delay or stranding, or a prolonged period in contact with moisture to induce life threatening hypothermia.

When operating in a temperate to cold environment, being able to protect yourself from exposure to the elements becomes all the more critical.  You must consider not only the level of protection from clothing you may need within your planned outing, but also what you will need to maintain body heat if you become lost, stranded, injured, or delayed past your return time.  When you put this system to practice, decide what temperature you want to be able to survive in a worst case scenario.  Find out what the temperature low is likely to be in the coming evening, even if you plan on being back before dark.


When deciding what to throw into your day-pack to satisfy the WARM requirement keep this low temp in mind, then ask yourself how will I:

1. Stay DRY


 3. Obtain SHELTER if stranded

 4.  RE-WARM myself if I fail 1 through 3


The How:  Keep in mind you are preparing for worst-case weather events, becoming lost, or an overnight stranding.

–First, throw an appropriately sized garbage bag in your pack so that all of your       carefully chosen items will stay DRY if there is precipitation, or if you fall in a creek.  —–Next, choose your clothing.  To make it easy break it down into:



                                                                                                -Head, Hands, and Feet.


Try to avoid relying on an all-in-one answer, like a single coat that includes insulation layer and waterproofing in one.  If you go with multiple layers, you will have more versatility over a range of temperatures.  A good Shell for hiking can be lightweight and easy to pack, like a Gortex or similar type of ski jacket.  The shell needs to be able to keep you and your insulation layers dry, and can also trap in heat and cut wind regardless of season.  It should have a hood, and you may also chose a pants shell if the environment calls for it.  You may also want to carry a backup shell, such as a compact disposable rain poncho.  These or other ultra thin shells can fit in a camelback for trail-runs.


For your insulation layer, the first consideration is material.  Always remember “Cotton Kills.”  Cotton looses most of its warming properties when it becomes even the slightest bit moist.  Instead, choose synthetic materials such as “fleece”, nylon, polyester, polypropylene, etc., or wool.  These materials absorb less water, retain their insulating properties better when wet, and dry fast.  Natural down can be very warm, but will also lose its ability to insulate when wet.  I usually chose a thin base layer like a water wicking pullover, an efficient layer like a synthetic fleece, and some kind of a lofty layer like a synthetic fill puffy jacket or an additional bulky fleece.  These need to fit under your shell alone or combined.  Follow the same guide lines for pant layers if the climate calls for it.


Next, think about Head, Hands, and Feet.  If you’re not wearing a hat or gloves have them in your pack inside a waterproof bag.  If you are wearing a hat and gloves, have back-ups in your pack, as well as an extra pair of warm socks.  Consider the type of materials they are made of as mentioned above.  Now you are able to stay Dry and Insulated through your clothing.


Next, consider emergency Shelter in the event you are stranded or lost.  There are shelters you can carry like tents, sleeping bags, and tarps—and shelters you can fashion from the environment.  Most people don’t want to carry a tent or sleeping bag on a day trip, but consider a compact tarp, or survival blanket.  In many environments, primitive shelters that can allow you to survive even the coldest night can be made with ease using only forest litter and requiring no tools (these skills will be covered in later installments).  In alpine environments like the US Rockies, sufficient forest litter may be hard to find.  In this case, I will carry a small very light hand saw which can be used to make an insulated pine bow shelter.  Some people even chose to carry a small shovel for snow cave construction.  Having the skills to make such Shelters will reduce the amount of gear you need to carry and greatly increase your survivablity.


Finally, think how you can Re-warm yourself, in addition to your clothing and shelter. Simply, have waterproof matches or a lighter, and other fire making materials in your pack, and know how to use them.  The reason I put fire so far down the list is because in heavy wind or precipitation fire is not a substitute for good shelter.  Other Re-warm options include hand-warmers, emergency blankets, or extra clothes.


2 – Water

MSR FilterThe next priority on our list is staying hydrated.  Although a human can survive for up to 3 days without water, this time will decrease greatly when exertion, difficult weather, or an injury are introduced.  When operating in the outdoors, severe mental and physical impairment can result from just a few hours without water.


-The Threat:  Insufficient water resulting in dehydration, heat injuries, impairment, or death.  Environmental water which is unfit to drink due to biological contaminants or pollution.


-The Solution:  Know how much water to carry.  Know how to obtain drinkable water from the environment.  To sum it up, have the ability to:


1. Carry water.

2. Create drinkable water.


-Considerations:  Dehydration and heat-injuries are all season killers that take the lives of many people in the outdoors every year.  I often marvel at how little water I see people carrying on the trail.  If you only carry enough water for your planned route and time, you are tempting fate.  In hot climates carry at least one liter or quart of water per hour.  This may be scaled back if it is colder, but I never carry less then one liter or quart per two hours.  If you have extra water left when you are done, you are doing it right.


Clearly, this can present a problem during longer hikes or on trail-runs when we don’t want to be bogged down with so much weight.  An easy solution is to choose a route where moving surface water is available–but remember, even the clearest mountain stream likely contains biological contaminants (such as giardia) which can impair or kill.  These can be easily removed with a purification system such as a backpacking filter or UV light.  These devices can provide a steady supply of purified water, but never rely exclusively on any mechanical devise.


Emergency water


Commercial water purifiers are also great when lost or during a stranding, but you are going to want a few other tricks up your sleeve.  A container of iodine tablets is small and light, and an easy way to purify water.  Unpurified water can also be boiled, so fire making devices and know-how again become a crucial tool.  When all else fails, one should be familiar with a range of skills to procure water from the environment including seep holes, catches, solar stills, and water producing plants.



3 – Found


-The Threat:  You become lost, injured, or stranded on an outing and are unprepared to either find your way out or call for help.


-The Solution:  Have the tools and ability to determine your location, and navigate to safety.  Use high or low-tech means to call or signal for help.


-Considerations:  The outdoors is a big place, and trails aren’t always as easy to follow as we would like.  A short lapse of attention can find even an experienced outdoors man or woman lost.  Add unexpected weather or and injury and now you have a stranding.


GPS Survival GearNavigation:  Carry a map and compass and know how to use them.  Some people like to use GPS devices, and this is fine, just remember batteries die and technology fails.  Direction finding and navigation without a compass are important skill sets which will be taught in later posts.


Signaling:  Know the capabilities and short comings of your cell phone.  Sometimes your phone is all you will need to call for help, but in the outdoors you can never count on reception or battery life.  One thing you can always do with your phone is send a text to someone you trust telling them where you are going before you take you are out of range.  There are also effective electronic signaling devices such as ELTs and EPIRBs that are available at outdoors stores.  These devices send a signal through a network of satellites that can launch a rescue mission and help pinpoint your location.


There are also simple low-tech ways to help you get Found.  Glow sticks, head lamps, and flash lights are all small and easy to carry, and will help searchers find you.  Again, fire becomes an indispensable tool.  Remember, the rule of threes.  One fire looks like someone camping.  Two fires is just a coincidence.  Three fires next to each other is a hard to ignore signal.  Almost anything you are carrying potentially can be used for emergency signaling.  A space blanket carried for warmth can also make a highly visible signal, and the silver reflective side creates a strong radar return when at sea.  When it comes to getting Found you are only limited by your imagination, but carry the right tools and you can avoid a worst-case-scenario to begin with.


4 – Food

-The Threat:  Impairment or death due to lack of nutrients during a survival situation.


-The Solution:  Carry efficient trail food.  Be able to procure food from your environment.


-Considerations:  The reason Food is at the bottom of this list is because it can take weeks for a human to expire without eating.  Still, under the conditions you are likely to face if lost or delayed in the outdoors, you can face life threatening consequences in a much shorter period of time.  Aside from the impairment and weakness that can come from a lack of essential proteins, carbohydrates, and sugar, a deficiency in electrolytes can become quickly fatal.  If you are in a situation where you must constantly hydrate—such as a high exertion hike on a hot day—electrolyte levels can plummet quickly.  Without a replacement of sodium, potassium, and other electrolyte rich compounds you can quickly loose mental and physical faculties.


At a bare minimum carry some sort of electrolyte packet to add to your water.  You may also substitute or add Granola bars, sports bars, trail mix, or several other food options in your pack.  Beyond the nutrients you carry, know what wild food sources are available in the area you will be, and know what skills and tools you might need to obtain them.


The amount of detail we can go into on each of these subjects is boundless, and much of it will be dealt with in future posts.  For now, just apply the WWFF framework, think about the environment you will be operating in, and ask yourself “will I be able to keep myself WARM and dry, provide myself WATER, get myself FOUND if lost, and obtain FOOD when needed.  Satisfy these questions and you will already be far ahead of the curve.           

3 Responses to “Survive Out of Your Day Pack”

  • James O'Neill

    Consider carrying a small med kit. Never leave home without one on my day pack, which also says in my vehicle. Has enough to treat most minor cuts and such plus some items to treat more serious issues(punctures, serious bleeding). Has come one handy from a child who took a bad scrape hiking to vehicle accident victim.

    • That is a great point. As a medic I sometimes take for granted the usefulness of a small IFAK. Thanks for the comment.

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