Archive for Monday, May 14, 2007

Survival kit of the fittest

Emergency bottle useful, but why not make your own?

May 14, 2007

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Leave it to marketing to take the perfect out of a perfectly good idea.

Still, if you don't know better, the $19.95 Lifeline Ultimate Survivor in a Bottle looks like a deliciously sensible investment in wilderness safety.

Peer through the sides of the blue plastic bottle, and you can plainly see the survival items tucked inside, safe from rain or a dunking.

¢ Matches. Good.

¢ A small candle. Excellent.

¢ A combination compass, whistle and signal mirror. Useful.

¢ An emergency blanket. A fine potential shelter.

¢ A small first aid kit. Probably unnecessary, but who can't use a Band-Aid now and then.

¢ A compact multi-tool. Better than nothing, though a good, lightweight knife would be more useful for slicing fire shavings, or cutting and shaping limbs for shelter poles, splints, snowshoes or who knows what.

¢ A couple of handwarmer packets. Handy for getting cold fingers working again.

¢ An aluminum flashlight with two AA batteries? A lot of weight to carry to perform a task many compact LED lights accomplish at a fraction of the size and weight.

¢ A carabiner. Nothing but show.

¢ A rain poncho. Who needs it?

Most of these things are useful in a survival situation, but something important is missing.

What do you most need to survive the backcountry in addition to heat and shelter?

Food? Good guess, but wrong. Even the skinny among us can go for days and days without food.

There's something else humans need much more.

Go without it for a day, and you'll start to suffer headaches, fatigue, dizziness and cramping. Go without it for days, and fainting spells, even seizures, are likely to follow. Go more than a week, and death is likely.

That thing you need?

Water.

There are numerous ways to get it. You can use an emergency blanket to catch it when it falls from sky as rain. You can scoop it out of a creek with a bottle and drink it - if you are not worried about giardia. Or you can make it by melting snow, or at least you could if you had something in which to melt snow.

Right there is where the Ultimate Survivor in a Bottle abandoned function in favor of form and ceased to be perfect.

A plastic bottle through which can be advertised the contents of the Ultimate Survivor obviously won out over an opaque aluminum bottle, which could be used to melt snow or heat water to kill giardia or even just warm up water for drinking.

Hot fluids will help in the battle against hypothermia in a cold-weather survival situation.

Unfortunately, a plastic bottle really won't help you heat water or melt snow for water. All the plastic bottle is good for is keeping the things inside dry and, in really dire circumstances, fueling a fire. Plastic bottles will burn hot. They are probably better as fire fuel than water producers.

I once had occasion to try stuffing one with snow to be melted by body heat. I can testify that body heat will produce about a teaspoon of water per hour from a water bottle packed with snow - not an efficient process.

A better idea might be to pack the bottle with snow, pile some black rocks onto a snow field and stuff the water bottle among them to take advantage of the rocks as heat collectors and the snowfield as a heat reflector.

Melting snow for water this way isn't a perfect way to gain fluids, but it has to work better than body heat. Better than either would be to put a container of snow into or next to the fire to melt. If the Ultimate Survivor had stuffed survival gear into a wide-mouth aluminum bottle that could be used this way, it would have produced a winner.

As it is, it's not a bad piece of gear. Not as bad as say one of those $9.95 "survival knives." If someone wants to spend $20 for something to throw in a pack just-in-case something goes wrong on a summer hike, they could do worse. Just think about adding some water purification tablets to the contents so that if you do find a stream or pond from which to dip, you can treat the water.

You could also assemble your own survival kit in a bottle. Performance Bike (www.performancebike.com) sells a nice, widemouth aluminum water bottle for $9.99.

You could stuff Performance's bottle with your own collection of survival gear: matches, fire starters, a candle, a knife, a butane lighter, a compass, a whistle, a signal mirror, an emergency blanket, a tiny LED, some Band-Aids, maybe even a laser signaling device, or a small canister of smoke.

The Alaska-designed Greatland Rescue Laser is an excellent night signaling device, and smoke - whether from a canister or a big fire - is one of the most obvious of daytime signals.

For $20, you ought to be able make your own survival bottle more functional than the Ultimate Survivor.

Then again, if you just want something to carry on a day hike, why mess with a big, heavy bottle?

A waterproof neck pouch with a small knife, matches, fire starters, a butane lighter, a small compass (if you don't wear a watch with one built in), and a signal mirror will perform all the functions of the Ultimate Survivor, weigh less, and be more likely to be with you in a real emergency situation.

Take it from me, who once set a backpack down on a ridge line, wandered away to take photographs, and never found the pack. At times like that, it's really good to have some minimal survival gear hanging around your neck.

You could get washed out of a packraft and lose all your other gear, or see your mountain bike with extra food and clothing disappear over a cliff into terrain that can't be climbed.

It's only sensible to carry a few key survival items.

A warm fire, in particular, can make a cold night a lot more comfortable if something goes wrong, while producing smoke to summon future rescuers if something has gone really wrong.

And a 1-ounce, long-burning LED light certainly beats being down on hands and knees beneath a heavy load of game meat some night lighting matches to try to determine whether you are in fact on the Kenai Peninsula horse trail that you hoped to have found while stumbling around in the dark.

But that's another story.

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