Sunday, December 27, 2009

Wilderness Survival – Ten Must Haves in the Outdoors

Dear Friends, if you are a regular visitor to my blog then it is safe to presume that you do have some amount of interest in venturing into the outdoors and wilderness; cerebrally perhaps if not always physically. You might also be venturing into the real outdoors where survival might often be a direct outcome of your own actions and the gear that you carry with you. Far from civilization or any mortal help it is wise to be prepared for the unknown, for that uncertain factor that even the best laid plans cannot rule out.

I always have a ready backpack in my home along with a ready survival pouch. I just replenish the contents as and when they get consumed or else expire due to shelf life. But never would you find even a single content missing from my packs, even when I am at home. Well, I am an extreme outdoor person and I always expect and am ready for a disaster. Like I often say that with me around, you are safe from any kind of disaster including nuclear fallout. I do exaggerate about the ‘nuclear’ bit, but who knows! I am yet to be in a nuclear fallout zone. While we plan a lot on our food, clothing, and other gear we often oversee the survival stuff. So here’s my general guide to ten ‘must have’ things without which you must never go into the wilderness. Having said that, I must confess that there are hundreds of instances when people survived impossible odds (self included) in the outdoors without anything besides their own wits and common sense. The things I have recommended for the list are readily available anywhere. Though there are many other specialized items that can be carried though not readily available (certainly not in India and similar countries).

1. Source of fire: A match box (weather proof/water proof/ storm proof is best), lighter, magnifying glass (can be used to burn dry leaves or papers under bright sun), flint stone, few extra strips of matchbox strike edge, etc. Almost anything can be used for burning, but starting a fire is the most important step. I normally carry few really good match boxes with long wax-coated matchsticks (wrapped in double plastic) and a storm proof lighter. My compass has magnifying glass as well. If you have seen ‘Man Vs Wild’ in Discovery then you might have seen Bear Grylls (I knew his father well) lighting fires by rubbing dry woods etc. While this is very much possible, it is a really difficult and time consuming process. Far easier is to have a real source of fire. Now it is another matter altogether is how to build a rapid and sustainable fire when your source of fire and the combustibles are limited. You cannot keep wasting your precious matchsticks or candle wax or kerosene etc with failed attempts at building a fire. Though I generally teach this as a part of my practical ‘wilderness survival’ workshop over a period of five days, it is suffice to assert for the sake of this post is that, you must start a fire small. First thing to light up should be something small and manageable that will catch fire easily, e.g. dry grass, twigs, leaves, used toilet paper, small pieces of woods. As these catch fire, slowly feed other bigger pieces. You can gently blow into the fire from a side, keeping the direction of your blow parallel to the ground so that the breeze reaches the bottom of the fire, feeding it further.

2. Source of light: Though source of fire is also a source of light, the source of light must be sustainable over a long duration hence objects like; headlamp, torch, etc is a must. Along with it you must carry enough number of batteries (Duracell is best, though they don’t pay me any endorsement royalty). If you will be exposed to severe cold or wet climate or both then keep one set of battery change per 72 hrs of your outing. A watertight carrier for your source of light is a must and also a shockproof protection. Always carry spare bulbs and fuse as well. During normal use configure your lamps (in case of multiple LEDs often you can select different configurations) for optimum usage so as to conserve battery power. Ideal combination of halogen and LED or between hallo and beam options can make your batteries last much longer. If you can, then do carry a back up, like a smaller torch or headlamp, e.g. Petzl Tikka.

3. A multi-purpose knife: Nothing can still beat a Victorinox Swiss Knife. I have nearly a dozen multi-purpose knives yet I use my basic 12 function Swiss knife the most. Among other things it has a tiny screw driver, tweezers, scissors, bottle opener, pen and a pin. Just buy it, even if you are not going into the outdoors. Please don’t fall for the Swiss Knife that comes with torchlight; it is simply a marketing gimmick. It doesn’t help in real outdoors.

4. Length of rope: No, this is not for hanging yourself if you have the inclination. A rope is really a lifeline when you need one. If you are not into mountain climbing or dangerous treks then simply go for a regular 6 – 8 mm rope that we use for webbings or as runners. About 5 meters long should suffice in most cases. A rope has so many applications that your own mind and imagination is the limit, so no point in listing them out here. If you wish to learn more then do enroll for my wilderness survival workshop.

5. Prismatic Compass: Unless you are a master of astral navigation by the sun in day or stars by night then you would do very well by having a compass at your disposal in the outdoors. There are many kinds of compasses in the market. A prismatic compass with embedded spirit level for determining true horizontal is recommended. Most normal trekkers or outdoor enthusiasts are not expected (in India certainly) to carry fairly accurate and well-surveyed contour maps or to have the knowledge to read it in conjunction with a compass either hence what is important for you to know is the general direction to things like the nearest highway or road, village, river, hill ridges, etc that can serve as a landmark and lead you back to a familiar place from there. Despite being a master of astral navigation I always carry a compass to cater for cloudy skies. There are of course numerous means of using nature and natural phenomenon to orient yourself and find the general direction but they come after years of experience or from a practical workshop. If some well-informed individual tells you that you need to apply variation and deviation correction to your magnetic compass bearing in order to use it effectively then please don’t get worried. For ordinary usage like yours, V and D can be safely discarded. It will perhaps be of utmost importance if you are in the vicinity of our earth’s magnetic poles. But if you are already there then I don’t think you need this post anyways. Your idea here should be the ability to get back to a recognizable landmark from where eyeball navigation will lead you to safety. So while entering the outdoors and wilderness, mark the landmarks that you encounter, make a note, sketch etc along with the direction in which you are heading. Therefore to return you need to return the same way (in the opposite bearing to the one you are following while going away).

6. Source of Food: While this may sound obvious it is surprising that even veteran wilderness experts sometime don’t include some vital food in their survival pack. I am presuming that even if you have lost everything else, you still have the survival and emergency pack on your person. For the same reason you cannot include food items like your staple diet or fancy biscuits in this. Here you can only include food items that are: edible, tasty perhaps, offers high mass to calorie ratio, easy to carry, needs no cooking or preparation at all, enough to sustain you for 48 hrs (anything more than this you should start eating what the outdoors offer, aka Bear Grylls). Suggested items here, which I often carry: mars bar (20 gm bars), glucose cubes, 250 gm of sattu, etc. Please remember that these are not to be consumed otherwise and if nothing happens then they should return home along with you.

7. Polythene Packet: Go for a clean, sturdy and large (you should be able to pack in your upper or lower half into it with room to move) polythene packet of 5 ltrs by volume and 50 microns by thickness at least. Anything higher would only be better. If this is confusing, simply do the following; fill up the packet with 5 kg (by weight) of water, tie it up securely from the neck and let it fall from a height of 10 ft. If it doesn’t burst then it is good. Carry two or three such packets. Again this has multiple usage like collecting and storing water, catching moisture or melting snow, used for greenhouse effect, rain shelter, staying afloat in water, etc.

8. Whistle: Even if you are a pro like the mass murderer nicknamed ‘Whistler’ please keep a whistle with you. A sturdy plastic whistle is better than a metallic one. The ones used by birdwatchers to call out to birds are also good. Ideally, as I always do, your Swiss-knife and the whistle should be tied in one string which is always around your neck or waist. Go for a high pitched whistle and all the members in the team should ideally carry the same sounding whistles and if not then do get acquainted with the different sounds. If there is a likelihood of the members getting separated or if one has to scout forward to determine what lies ahead, etc then you can work out a sound signaling system to communicate. I follow a very simple system: 1 whistle: are you ok or I am ok, 2 whistle: go forward or I am going forward, 3 whistle: come back or I am coming back, 4 or more whistle by anyone means an emergency (so everything else is to be left and the team must regroup immediately to locate the member in distress),

9. Toilet Paper Roll: I actually discourage use of toilet paper for its designed role in the wilderness as far as possible. Using water, however freezing it might be, in the regular Indian fashion is the best when answering nature’s call. Even soft snow is a good substitute. Well, this is not a post on ‘outdoor ablutions’ so let’s stay focused here. Keep a small role of TP in your emergency survival pack for real emergencies.

10. Small Medical Pouch: Carry just the basics like Bandaids, chlorine or iodine tablets, tablets for stomach infections, headache and body-ache, clean cotton balls, small plaster roll, etc. This is over and above the medical items that you will carry as a part of normal group gear.

I am presuming that you will be wearing a watch so I have not included it in the above list and as well as a small notebook. There are many more things that one can add to the above list, but let’s be purists here. Given a choice your emergency survival pack can be as voluminous as your regular backpack but then survival means real emergency situations where you will be using lot of improvisation, adaptation and your god gifted ‘common sense’ where each item will be used in multiple roles to extract maximum benefit from the same object. This is called maximizing of minimum resources. If you put your head down then I am sure you would be able to come up with many more uses of the items that I have mentioned above. Hopefully you will be able to survive the first 48 hrs using these and your head. If no rescue reaches you at the end of this period and you can’t find yourself out of danger then my friend it is time you attended my workshop. Though said in a lighter vein, what I mean is that there is no better teacher than ‘experience’. You will become a real survivor only if you get into these situations… though I would hope not. So it is best to get into simulated emergencies where everything is real except that there is a latent thread of safety somewhere that would not let you die or get damaged dangerously.

So next time when you head off into the outdoors do carry the above and you will not regret the extra bit of weight on your back. One final word of caution; survival and emergency pack is for each individual in the team so everyone must have one for herself and under no condition is it to be handed over to another.

Carrying survival pack is not going to help you survive without application so when you get into an emergency, for heaven’s sake do not panic. Do not start crying or regretting of what you have landed into. Emergencies are one in a million incidents, be thankful that you have fallen into one and enjoy the experience keeping your wits with you. You will come out of it; I promise. Happy surviving!


  1. we need some excitement...
    thats u....
    what a wonderful blog...
    mona & the girls

  2. Been a regular reader and an admirer.

    This is a very useful list.

    Also wishing you a great year ahead and one with many more tales to tell!


  3. I appreciate your suggestion to bring a polythene packet. Is there any specific type/brand you would recommend?


  4. Interesting list, specially the polythene packet. Though d best solution for me is just to go with you! :-)