Studies have frequently shown that few outdoors people ever get more than a mile into the woods from their vehicle, particularly in the eastern U.S., and most don’t even go in half that far. So why would you need to pack an emergency kit when you’re only 15 to 30 minutes from your transportation?
The first reason is that you just might get lost and wind up a lot farther into the woods than you expect. It happened to a friend and me a few years back. We were both long-experienced woodsmen, but we were hunting an area of Florida’s Apalachicola National Forest where neither of us had been before. A little after daybreak on a misty, overcast day, we left the truck behind and slipped into the swamp in search of whitetails and wild hogs—we never intended to get more than a quarter mile into the woods, so we packed neither compass, GPS or emergency gear.
That particular part of the woods was cut up with endless oxbows and sloughs, and in order to keep from flooding our boots, we made a series of loops and zigzags, and with the lack of sunshine to help us stay oriented, we soon discovered we didn't know exactly where we were, or rather where the truck was. We kept going for hours, but no luck; soon we were backtracking over areas we had already visited—we stepped in our own footprints like greenhorns of the first order.
We split up, with the plan that whomever got out first would blow the horn to signal the other. I soon struck a creek with a good flow, and figured that if I followed it up-current, it would eventually come out of the swamp on high ground where there just might be people. And sure enough, in under an hour—just as day was starting to fade, I hit a road and soon another hunter came along, figured out where we had left our vehicle and gave me a ride back there.
It was almost dark, but I started blowing the horn of the truck, and about 30 minutes later, my buddy came dragging out of the woods, wet, muddy, tired and hungry, but at least neither he nor I had to spend the night out there with the snakes and gators.
The message was clear, though; from that day on, I never went in the woods again without a navigation device. Just a pin-on compass is enough to get you home in areas where roads are fairly abundant, but with the low price and light weight of hand-held GPS units these days, it makes better sense to tuck one of these in the pocket of your coat every time your boots leave the pavement. Knowing exactly where you are at all times gives you lots of confidence to penetrate deeper into the woods, and that’s often what it takes to find that trophy buck. (Of course, the batteries in your GPS can go dead, or it may just decide to go haywire, so always carry at least a basic compass as backup.)
In addition to the navigation gear, it also makes sense to carry a rudimentary survival pack anytime you go in the woods, particularly if you go alone. If you fall and break an ankle, getting back out may be a big problem, even if you know which way to go. With the survival pack, you’re prepared to spend a night or two in the woods, and that knowledge will keep you calm and confident.
What goes in a survival pack? The big issue is keeping it light while solving the basic needs for survival. Mine contains a space blanket which can function either as a blanket or a tent. I do not have, but would recommend for cooler climates, a survival sleeping bag, which is the same reflective plastic as a space blanket, but made into a sleeping bag shape so that you don’t have to try to keep it closed over your body. Plus, if you stuff this bag with dry leaves or pine straw, you’ll get some actual insulation out of it. Weight of these bags is about four ounces, cost under $10.
I also carry 50 feet of cord which can turn the blanket into a fly-tent, and a magnesium-rod fire starter. You strike a carbon steel striker on the magnesium and it puts out a shower of extremely hot sparks that will ignite dry pine needles, shredded birch bark, dried milkweed or cotton instantly. You’ve now got shelter and heat—you’re a long way down the road towards having a reasonably comfortable night in the woods. The magnesium starters are about $20—Solo Scientific makes a good one that’s very durable and compact, and it works when wet.
You’ll also want water purifying pills and a filtering bottle. These plastic bottles can suck in murky water and filter out the worst of the muck. You then add the germ-killing pills and you’ve got drinkable water—tastes awful, but you’ve got to have it. (Some carry extra water in their packs, but there’s little that adds weight faster—better to carry a full canteen on your belt and then plan on finding water in the environment if you run into an unplanned stay, unless you hunt dead dry country like the southwest.
A fishing line and hooks is a good addition if you’re in an area where it might be possible to catch some sort of fish for supper—and remember, in a survival situation, even a finger-sized creek chub is FOOD.
I rely on a razor-sharp 4-inch Gerber folding knife as my main woods knife, but if I expected to hunt regularly in areas where having to stay overnight is a good possibility, I’d up that to a full-tang survival knife that can be used as an axe to cut firewood or make ridge poles for a tent, as well as for the normal uses of a knife, skinning small or large game and fish.
I carry a signal mirror and whistle, and first-aid basics including gauze pads and tape, bandages, surgical needle and thread, and antibiotic cream, plus pain killer tablets—extra strength Excedrin works well for a variety of ailments. I also tote high-energy food bars, enough to give me 1000 calories a day for five days, and anti-diarrhea pills—if you’re forced to live on swamp water and grubs for a few days, you’re highly likely to get Montezuma’s revenge, and it will make you weak and dehydrated when you need to be just the opposite to get home, so don’t forget the Imodium. (Yep, a roll of toilet paper in a zipper-lock plastic bag can be a great comfort, too.)
Last but not least, if you’re over 40, you will want to carry a spare set of reading glasses in a crush-proof case. Without the glasses, you won’t be able to see clearly enough to perform some of your survival tasks, such as starting a fire with the magnesium striker or taking a stitch in a badly cut leg.
All of this stuff fits into a small corner of my backpack, tucked inside waterproof plastic bags of the sort river-runners use to keep their gear dry. I don’t eat the survival bars as snacks—I carry some extra granola bars for that use, and preserve the emergency food for an emergency. (The shelf-life on many of these survival foods is three to five years, so you don’t have to replace them often so long as the foil packs remain unbroken.)
Survival gear is the stuff you buy hoping you never need it, and in that way it’s exactly like an insurance policy. The gear is moderately priced and adds minimal weight to your pack, but you’d pay anything for it if you’re stuck out there for a few nights on your own.
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