September is National Preparedness Month in the United States. Being prepared is something nobody going into the outdoors can afford to neglect. Parents, especially, have a responsibility to ensure that no matter what happens, their kids will survive.
I take this responsibility seriously. I've been accused on numerous occasions of being over-prepared. I'm the one that carries so many bars and snacks that when one of my partners runs out and bonks they can be sure I'll have something to get them going again. I'm the one that has extra water when everyone else is running dry. And I'm the one that is slower on the climb because I've got all the gear needed to survive the night.
Ready.gov is focused on disasters in the community, but their framework is perfect for the outdoors, too.
There are three big steps to being prepared no matter what comes your way.
- Be Informed. Learn what protective measures to take before, during, and after an emergency.
- Make a plan. Prepare, plan, and stay informed for emergencies.
- Build a kit. Build a kit for disasters to be prepared.
Here's what I've done to be prepared in the outdoors. Every trip demands something a little different and there is no one-size-fits-all, but by understanding you can be prepared.
Consider all the things that could go wrong when adventuring. This isn't intended to dissuade you from going outside, but to start figuring out what you can do if any of these scenarios actually happen.
For example, you get back to your car after a winter snowshoe and find you left the lights on. The engine turns over twice, but then it just clicks. Nobody else is at the trailhead. Now what?
Before the trip you should have put enough food, water, and clothing in your car so you could spend the night. It might seem silly to show up at a trailhead with a sleeping bag in the back when you only intend to go for a short snowshoe, but that sleeping bag will allow you stay warm throughout the night.
During the time you're stranded at the trailhead your first priority should be to stay calm. Whether you're fully prepared or are missing some of the necessities, you'll think clearer and make better decisions if you remain calm.
You could consider making a fire to keep warm and signal anyone that might be looking for you. A fire is also a great psychological boost, especially for kids. You should weigh the pros and cons of staying with the car. Unless there's some compelling reason to leave, I favor staying with my vehicle where I can at least have some sort of shelter in case the wind starts blowing or it starts snowing. (Or as is often the case in the Pacific Northwest, it starts raining.)
After you're back home review your gear to see what worked and what didn't. Refill any emergency supplies you might have used and figure out if you need to augment your in-car kit.
Another important part of being informed is being trained for the type of trip you're taking. Before I set out to climb Mt. Rainier I spent a lot of time learning and practicing proper glacier travel and rescue. I've also taken avalanche safety classes and even trained each of the kids on what to do if something should happen to me while we're out adventuring.
Make a plan
Before you leave on any trip, you should tell someone where you are going and when you plan to be back. One way is to simply write it down. A better way is to use a service like Bugle or iNeverSolo.com.
With these services you can enter the details of where you're going and when you expect to be back. If you don't check in by that time, the service will send a message to the people you've specified so they can take action. Bugle works on iPhones, but doesn't require you stay on the network to send alerts. iNeverSolo uses a web browser to register your plans and check in. Both Bugle and iNeverSolo are free to use, but require creating an account.
Build a Kit
For a gear junkie like me, this is my favorite part. Over the years I've built a really solid kit, but there's always room for improvement. My kit fluctuates with the risk of the trip. A short walk up the local trail has just the base kit while a multi-day trip in the wilderness is significantly more complex.
NOTE: Purchasing through the affiliate links below will help support moosefish.com. Sea To Summit, Injinji, LifeStraw, and Adventure Medical Kits provided gear for review and use. All opinions are mine and I really do use this gear to keep me and my family safe.
- My iPhone in a LifeProof case. Yes, I'm a nerd and an Apple fanboy, but my iPhone has so many uses I never leave home without it. Obviously, it's a phone, but also a GPS, a flashlight, a reference guide for first aid, and a ton of components I could use in a real life-or-death situation. (Think using the battery to start a fire.) The LifeProof case has proven itself again and again keeping my phone safe from water, drops, snow, and mud. Sometimes I think I ought to put myself in one. (Yes, you can go with an Android phone if you must.)
- A LifeStraw. Even if I'm not carrying a water bottle I've got my LifeStraw. It's a super-portable water filter with an amazing mission behind it. You need one of these.
Day hike kit
- The Base kit described above.
- A SOL Scout survival kit. It's got everything you need to survive an unexpected night outside. The kit is lightweight (5.4 oz) and comes in a waterproof pouch. With the contents you can make a fire, signal rescuers, make a shelter, and repair your gear. You won't be comfy for the night, but you will have a pretty good chance to make it through. (All the Adventure Medical Kits can be refilled through the company's web site.)
Everything below fits in a four liter Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil Dry Sack.
- A Swiss Army knife with basic blades.
- A Sea to Summit head net.
- A small headlamp and extra batteries.
- Toilet paper and hand sanitizer.
- 50' of paracord. Sometimes you just need rope.
- Duct tape wrapped around my trekking poles.
- Map, compass, and the knowledge to use it.
- An energy bar. (Usually this is the flavor I like least out of a variety pack. It's not really what I want to eat, but it'll be the best bar I ever tasted if I need it.)
- A SOL Emergency Bivvy. I've had this for years and could probably take it out of the kit since the Scout kit has a blanket, but it's only 3.8 oz and about the size of my fist so it stays.
- Sunscreen and bug repellant.
- Bandages and painkillers.
Multi-day trip kit
- The Base kit and the Day hike kit.
- A PowerRocks Magicstick to recharge my iPhone. I can get two full charges and it's super lightweight. (Just remember to bring the right cable for charging.)
- A SOL Hybrid 3 Survival, First-aid, and Gear repair kit. Like the Scout kit, the Hybrid 3 has what you need to survive, but also an pretty extensive first aid kit and gear repair kit. It also expands on the survival kit with items like cable ties, cordage, and a small headlamp. When I am carrying the Hybrid 3, one of my kids carries the Scout kit just in case we get separated.
Winter requires more gear given the cold temperatures. This is all in addition to whatever I'm using on a particular trip.
Of course, my kit is always evolving. On big area where I can improve my kit is communication. When I go out of range of the cellular network I have no way to send or receive messages. The ability to send a message saying we were fine, but would be a couple hours later would have saved my poor wife some serious heartburn when the girls and I ran past our return time in Olympic National Park. There are two products in this space that I'm eager to add to my kit.
- The goTenna allows you to use your iPhone (or other smartphones, I guess) to talk to another smartphone using a goTenna. They're sold in pairs and range depends on the terrain. A goTenna would be perfect for trips in the backcountry when I'm meeting up with others that started late or are coming from a different location. In the future, my kids might have the freedom to wander a bit more while I tend to camp.
- The DeLorme inReach SE is a two-way satellite communicator that allows you to issue an SOS distress call as well as send and receive text messages anywhere in the world. There are cheaper devices (and services) that can send location, SOS, and messages, but nothing can receive them. Had I been using an inReach SE on the High Divide trip my wife could have asked where we were and I could have told her. End of story.
- A GoalZero Nomad 7 Solar Panel. As I look to the future the number of devices we carry on trips is only going to increase. Today it's just my iPhone and camera, but tomorrow (hopefully), it'll be an inReach SE, too. The kids will be getting devices, too, and most of these devices don't have removable batteries.
Beyond having the plan and the training and the gear, the most important thing you can do is practice. Reading a book or writing it down is great, but unless you practice you won't be able to remember what to do or how to do it when it counts. Practice makes perfect, but you don't need perfect in an emergency. You just need good enough to make it through the night and get home.