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Lessons Learned
I Never Want To Be This Cold Again


The body of this article was written by the survivor, Stuart Ball, including his own analysis of what he did right and what he might have done better. It has been only lightly edited.† Doug Ritter's analysis follows.

"I never want to be this cold again."† I said that out loud more than once, lying on the ground in the middle of the night.† As I type this, three weeks later, some of my fingertips are still partially numb. They are recovering, but slowly.

In mid-March of 2015 I took a vacation day to go snowshoeing in Colorado, where I live. The trail I wanted to hike was closed. So, I drove to Boulder to run errands, ate lunch and texted my wife that I was going to Buchanan Pass. On the way there I changed my mind and went to Brainard Lake instead, where I knew for sure I would find snowshoe and cross-country ski trails.

I set a GPS waypoint where I parked the car, as I always do when I hike a new location. I planned a short hike, maybe an hour or two. However, I got disoriented on the trail and then decided to follow the GPS back to the car.

Navigating back to the GPS waypoint led me about 2 miles in the wrong direction.†I was hiking north of the parking lot, but I didnít notice that the GPS direction arrow was taking me northeast, away from the car.† I soon found myself in difficult terrain with 18 or so inches of snow on the ground.† While it occurred to me that the trip back was longer than I had hiked from the parking lot, I foolishly followed the GPS heading anyway.

Nightfall

By the time I realized that I was in trouble, it was only about an hour before dark.† I tried to call 911, but couldn't get through.† I then tried sending a text to my wife, but it didnít transmit.†

With night quickly approaching, I had a decision to make. The terrain I had covered was all snow and trees, but no dry places. Where I† was now had a number of trees with bare ground under them.† There were a lot of elk droppings, so I assumed some elk had spent a recent night under the trees, melting the snow.

If I hiked back the way I came, there was no way I could get back to the car before dark.† If I stayed, I had a reasonably dry spot, but only about an hour to prepare to spend the night.† I decided to stay.

I collected wood for a fire, made a fire backstop with rocks and cut pine branches to put on the ground as insulation.† I started a fire, ate a Clif bar and sat down to wait.† My cell phone battery was low so I turned it off, thinking I should save it for the next day.

Stuart's Fire
I had collected various sizes of wood to make the fire, but the larger pieces were wetter than I thought and too damp to burn.† I started the fire several times, got a good kindling fire going, but then I couldn't sustain it to make a real campfire.

By the time I realized I couldn't make this work for the entire night, I was out of tinder to start the fire and I thought it was too dark to safely gather for more wood.† I had a reflective Mylar blanket, which I wrapped around my legs. My gloves were wet, so I tucked my hands inside my sleeves to keep them warmer. Not really warm as it turned out, but just a little less cold.

I started making plans for the next day.† I was confident that my wife would have called 911 by that time, but I had no idea where they would be looking for me. When I arrived at Brainard Lake I didnít have a cell signal, so I couldn't tell her about my change of plans. I knew that if they found my car, they would know where to look, but I didnít know when they would find my car.† I also knew that I was well away from the hiking trails and I didn't know how long it would take them to search that far out.

I worried about my wife; I at least knew I was alive.† Since I couldn't get a text or voice call out, she had no idea if I was alive or dead, if I had made it to the area I planned to hike, or if Iíd driven off the side of the mountain on the way there.† But, there wasnít anything I could do about it.

Self-Rescue?

Some years ago I was an avid SCUBA diver and one of the certifications I got was "Rescue."† Something I recalled from that course was that sometimes you have to rescue yourself Ė there isn't anybody else.† It seemed germane because I didn't know if or when any help was coming.† I started thinking about how I could rescue myself óĖ I needed a plan.

It seemed to me that I had three ways to self-rescue.† First was to follow my tracks back, assuming the wind didn't cover them during the night.

My second alternative was based on the fact that the GPS was wrong, but consistently wrong and by now I had finally figured that out. So, I could follow the GPS heading backward until it said I was 1.84 miles southwest of where the GPS thought the car was. I figured that would put me close to the point where I left the trail.

If the GPS died, my third alternative was to do the same thing using a compass. I wouldn'ít have the distance information, but I'd have the direction.

A Moonlight Hike

The last part of the terrain I had covered, and the first part Iíd have to cover the next morning, was relatively smooth and easy.† In the middle of the night the moon, although not full, was fairly bright. I was cold and couldn't start a fire and it occurred to me that I could try the easier terrain by a combination of moonlight and my headlamp.† I knew the sun would come up about 7:00 AM. I started out about 6:30 and, as I expected, by the time I got to the more difficult terrain, the sun was providing enough light for me to see where I was going.

I turned on my phone when I started to hike back and about 8:00 it sent the stored text message to my wife.† Around 10:00 I crossed another set of snowshoe tracks.† I wasn't sure which was mine, so I picked one and followed it.† It turned out to be the wrong one, but just about the time I recognized that and before I turned back to take the other tracks I heard the rescuers looking for me.† Instead of backtracking to my original trail, I stayed where I was and started blowing my whistle to get their attention. It was about 10:30 when they found me.† We made it back to the parking lot about 1:00 PM.

There were Sheriff's employees and paramedics waiting at the trailhead.† The Sheriffís department folks had to file a report. I related my tale and told them that I made three bonehead mistakes.

Bonehead Mistakes

My first mistake was hiking a new area in the afternoon.† If I got lost in the afternoon, there was no time to recover and that is exactly what happened.

My Second mistake was getting off the trail in an unfamiliar area. Instead of trying to take a direct route to the car, I should have simply backtracked on the trail and found my way back.

My third mistake was continuing to follow the GPS when it took me into difficult terrain.† I should have backtracked right away.† One of the rescuers commented that she was impressed with some of the terrain I covered. I told my wife later that I had absolutely no intention of covering any terrain that would impress those people.

Daniel Boone?

The newspaper article the next day based on the Sheriff's press release made me sound like Daniel Boone or something. it said I got disoriented on the trail, found a dry place to spend the night, constructed a shelter and built a fire.† Calling some pine branches on the ground and a Mylar blanket a "shelter" is a bit of a stretch.

The rescue teams were great. In addition to the Sheriffs, volunteers from Rocky Mountain Rescue Group, Front Range Rescue Dogs and Indian Peaks Fire Protection District all came out to look for me. Those men and women were the best part of the entire experience.† Well, other than when I finally got home on Thursday afternoon.

Survivor's Analysis

About a week after this, I spoke to one of the rescuers to review the decisions I had made.† I knew what I did to get myself lost, I wanted to review the decisions I made while I was lost to see which ones were good and which ones were bad.† We talked for quite a while.

The rescuer said they do rescues about 50 times a year in the Rocky Mountains.† Not all of these situations turn out as well as mine. Putting that discussion together with what I learned from actually being there left me with some suggestions to pass on that might be helpful should you ever find yourself in a similar situation.

Supplies

I was prepared for this, but not as well as I should have been.† I normally wear a waistpack with some survival components in it when I hike.† But, it could have been better.

I did do some things right.† I always carry water in an un-insulated half liter stainless steel water bottle. Being steel, I can melt snow or boil water if needed.† I was able to melt some snow, although without an adequate fire, it wasn't enough.

I carried a Firesteel (ferrocerium rod) and tinder.† I had lint pieces and plain waxed paper, both of which worked well.† After I used all my tinder, I gathered dry grass and pine needles from around the tree where I spent the night. †I would say my inability to keep the fire going all night was the most difficult part of this. Even a small fire would have made it much less uncomfortable. (see Doug's Analysis)

Since this experience, I did some experimenting with fire starting and I added a small can of Sterno to my pack.† It doesn't weigh much, but you can smear it on wood to get a fire started.† Coghlan's Fire Paste would probably work as well, although I haven't tried it. I'm also carrying more waxed paper and some wax-dipped jute twine.

I also added a pair of leggings that bicyclers wear when they start out on cold mornings. They are like leg warmers, except they go all the way up over your thighs.† I don't like to wear insulated pants when hiking because I get too hot.† But, the leggings provide an extra layer of insulation if you have to spend the night outdoors and they don't take much space in your pack.† Plus, you don't have to get undressed in the cold to put them on.

I'm adding a Mylar "sleeping bag."† I found that the Mylar blanket did not really keep me warm; it only kept me less cold than I would have been without it.† A sleeping bag (bivy sack) would have been better.

After this incident, I looked up my overnight location using Google.† I was about half a mile from a highway and I believe an elk trail I saw leading in that direction was actually a summer hiking trail.† However, I had no idea how close I was at the time.† I bought a map of that area that includes a number of the places I hike and put it in my pack.

I like the Fire Steel rods because they are waterproof, but some things are just harder to light that way. A match would have let me light a dollar bill, for example.† In my case, once I was out of tinder, there wasn't much I could do in the dark.† A few matches, or even a small flare, would be useful in a similar situation.

I put all the fire-making supplies into a zippered bag, so it's all in one place.† I did the same with the whistle, signal mirror and compass; they are all together in one bag.† If you follow this example, I suggest you make the bags some color other than black, or sew something very visible or reflective on them.† I have a black knife that I lost briefly on the dark ground that night. I had to hunt for it after I set it down.† I don't like backpacks, but I have switched to a larger waistpack with Molle attachments; the fire-making supplies are in a Molle bag attached to the pack.† I also carry a smaller firestarter kit in my pocket when I hike. As noted above, since this incident I expanded it with matches and more tinder.

I put all the clothing items (extra gloves, socks, wool hat and those bicycling leggings) into a single stuff sack attached to my pack so they are all together and easy to find.

I am adding more batteries to my pack. My GPS and camera both use AA batteries and I carry a spare set for each.† Between them I have four sets of batteries.† I had a headlamp and a small flashlight, but I added a submersible flashlight that also uses AA batteries.† This gives me additional flexibility.† In a survival situation I don't care if the camera works, but I do want to be able to put the camera or flashlight batteries in the GPS.

I got dehydrated on this little adventure.† I added a few packets of electrolyte mix to my pack. They weigh almost nothing, but mixed with water they will put back some of what you lose in that kind of situation.† Of course, you need water to make this useful.

I added some Hexamine solid fuel tablets. With these I can still melt snow or boil water even if I can't make a fire. †If you do this, be aware that they stink; you want to store them in a tightly closed container.† You could also use military-style fuel gel (Diethylene Glycol) in tear-open packets.† In a pinch, that can of Sterno could also be used.† I also constructed a simple folding stove to make the fuel (whatever kind it is) easier to use.

I suggest that you test or practice with whatever you use to start a fire or filter water or make a shelter.† Don't just buy a package of wax-and-cotton tinder at the sporting goods store and throw it into your pack.† Use one to start a small fire in the backyard to be sure you know how well it will work.

The Mental Element

There was a point where it occurred to me that I could die.† But, I decided that, while it was going to get really cold, I could survive this.† There wasn't any emotion to it like is often portrayed in the movies, at least not any that I was aware of.† No anger, no resolve to beat the elements. I just decided I was going home the next day. I remember at midnight thinking "I've made it this far, I can make it until morning." †††Determination may not be all-important, but it is important.

During the night, after I made my three-pronged plan for getting back, I wiggled my toes every so often to make sure I hadn't lost feeling in them.† I even made it a point not to look at my watch too often so I wouldn't get frustrated with the slow passage of time. When I saw how bright the moon was, I altered my plan to start back before daylight.

I turned my cell phone off overnight.† I admit that it was tempting to leave it on in case a signal somehow got through.† Shutting it off did come with a sense of finality ó I was really cutting myself off until morning. Still, I decided that the likelihood of needing what little battery charge I had was greater than the minimal chance that I'd suddenly get reception where I was.

If this ever happens to you, expect to be tired.† My brief account of the event probably makes it sound like I double-timed the hike back on Thursday morning and did a few laps around the parking lot before driving to the gym for a workout.† In reality, I was exhausted from lack of sleep and the hike back was slow going.† At one point I thought I might pass out and realized I was dehydrated. I drank a few handfuls of snow, melting it in my mouth, and that helped a lot.

Prepare to be alone.† I'm an introvert, so being alone doesn't bother me.† I'll go hiking with my wife or a friend, but going by myself is also fine.† I don't need people with me to enjoy the experience.† But, sitting under that tree I remember realizing just how alone I was; no communication, no way back to civilization (at least until morning), nobody to help.† I can see how that could turn into loneliness or even despair for some people.† If you know that such a situation comes with that sense of aloneness, perhaps you can mentally prepare for it.

When I realized I was in a bad situation, I wasn't sure what to do and I had no idea how to get back. It simply did not occur to me until later that evening, after I had eaten a little and had my tiny fire going, that I could follow my own trail back.† That might seem like an obvious solution to you.† But, that's my point.† When I realized I was lost, the obvious didn't look so obvious at first.† If you get lost, ordered thinking and good judgment may not be natural.

When I realized I didn't know what to do, I started thinking of what I could do.† I could try to make it back (even though it hadn't yet occurred to me how) or I could prepare to stay.† The point being that, unless you are being chased by something or trying to stop massive bleeding, you can usually take a little time to assess your situation and think of a plan.† But, you might have to be deliberate about it.

Stay Put or Not?

When I spoke to the rescuer after this incident, he told me that they tell people to stay put because when they wander because they tend to get more lost.† I said that my complete lack of a sense of direction is an advantage in a situation like that; I won't just wander, I'll have a compass or GPS heading to follow.† I don't assume I "just know" what direction to go because I don't trust my own sense of direction.

In my case the rescuer did say that my decision to hike back was probably a good one.† I had set a GPS waypoint where I spent the night and when he looked it up online he said they would have looked there eventually, but it would have been a while.

I'm sure the stay-put advice is right most of the time.† But, if you have a well-thought-out plan or something to follow (snowshoe trail, in my case) and reason to think you won't be found soon, you might have to break the rules.† In my case, this was the reverse of the concern I earlier had for my wife Ė this time, I was the one without all the information.† I assumed there was a search, but I had no idea if anyone was looking in the right place.† So I made the best decision I could with the information I had.

I won't presume to tell you to casually ignore the advice of the rescue experts who do 50 rescues a year. But, nearly every rule has exceptions.

My advice is that, if you decide to break that rule, only do so because you have a reasonable plan, not because you are acting out of fear or panic.† Have a direction to go, not just a panic-driven desire to keep moving. (see Doug's Analysis)

What I Might Have Done Differently

I have considered what I might have done differently. †I should have collected a lot more wood.† Then, I could have sorted through the pile to find some larger pieces that were dry enough to burn. Once I had a larger fire going, I could dry out some of the other pieces.† Alternately, with enough wood I could have kept a kindling-sized fire going most of the night.† Either would be better than what I had.

I've heard that you should collect twice as much wood as you think you'll need for the night.† Thatís probably good advice in most situations, but when the ground is all deep snow and you are at 10,000 feet altitude, I'd say collect a lot more than that because you don't always know what will burn.† I was careful to collect wood that seemed dry. I broke off dead branches and collected dead saplings. The kindling I collected burned great, but the bigger pieces were damper than I thought.

I should also have cut down some small pine trees before it got dark to build a better shelter.† I was counting on the fire, but I should have had a plan B.† I had a wire saw and a knife in my pack; I just didnít think I'd need an enclosed shelter.† With a few pine trees I could have put together an A-frame shelter or lean-to, or just piled them up as a blanket.† Of course, collecting wood and cutting down trees both take time and I only had about an hour.† If I had to do it over I would probably collect the extra wood first and work on cutting trees if there was enough daylight left.

I should have texted my wife about my change of plans.† I didn't have a cell signal at the parking lot, but there were places in the area where I did.† If I had tried to send a message, it would have transmitted some time Wednesday afternoon.

Conventional wisdom:† Sometimes the easy answers just donít work out.

More than one person has told me to carry a signal mirror. There was a helicopter looking for me and I saw it once.† I tried to signal it, but the helicopter was visible for maybe three seconds and the sun was behind me.† Maybe if I'd been on top of a rocky crag with no trees and a clear line of sight to the helicopter, and the sun right in front of me, but that wasn't the situation.

One piece of advice the rescuer gave me was that when I walked back, I should have wrapped the Mylar blanket around my shoulders. It might have reflected enough light for the helicopter to see it at some point.

Thatís advice Iíll remember.† Given the density of the trees, it wasn't likely, but it doesn't require any extra effort to do it.† On the other hand, it might not have mattered; I heard the helicopter twice, but I only saw it once. Which meant they were only in a place to see me once. (see Doug's Analysis)

I have a friend who always carries a magnifying glass as a firestarter.† But, they only work if it's daytime and not cloudy.† I told him he'd be better off to carry a firesteel and some tinder, or a waterproof tube of matches.† Same weight, much more flexible. Having experimented with both of these option, I would consider a magnifying glass or polished soft drink can to be the absolute last resort.

Forget the pictures in the ad of the person who looks comfortable in the snow with just a reflective Mylar blanket. As I said, my experience was that these don't keep you warm, they just keep you less cold.† I still plan to carry a Mylar blanket, as well as a sleeping bag made out of the same stuff.† But, if you just carry the blankets, carry two.† That way you have one for your upper body and one for your legs.

Or, one to line a shelter with and one to wrap up with.† Iím also going to carry a heavier tarp lined with a reflective coating on one side.† Just provides a little more flexibility if Iím again in an unexpected situation.† I did find that the cold made the blanket somewhat brittle; by morning it was in three pieces. Yes, I did collect all the pieces and pack them back out. (see Doug's Analysis)

What about that wayward GPS?† It is a Garmin Etrex H, which is no longer made.† The GPS did the same thing to me once before, although I wasn't using it to navigate in that case.† I think what happens is that the unit says "ready to navigate," but it really isn't. †I'm guessing this Garmin model has a firmware bug such that it thinks it knows where it is but hasnít yet fully resolved one of the position values.

I wrote to Garmin to see if this is a known problem with a possible firmware update, but I never received a reply.†

Ultimately, the best solution with any GPS is checking the fix before starting out.† In the future, I'll get a fix where the car is parked, then walk a short distance and tell the unit to navigate back to the car.† If the distance and direction are wildly off, I'll reset the fix. I might also get a unit that has the capability to use maps of the area I'll be hiking. But, even the latest GPS could have a firmware bug, so even with a new unit I still would probably check the fix on the car before I got very far from it. (see Doug's Analysis)

Final Conclusions

I don't use this one experience to claim that I'm any kind of a survival expert. I'm an expert at getting lost ó and surviving it once. I made changes to my survival pack for hiking in Colorado. In a different climate, I might carry more water.† I still plan to pack light; I donít intend to carry a 40-pound pack for a two-hour hike.

Are there situations that you canít realistically prepare for? Sure. And, they make stories that are much more exciting than mine. But, most of those 50 annual rescues aren't people who were mauled by a mountain lion or swept away in an avalanche.† Most are people like me, who get lost in varying degrees of adverse conditions. You can't prepare for everything, but you can prepare your mind, skills and equipment for the things that are more likely.

The one funny thing about this entire incident?† When I ate lunch in Boulder that Wednesday, I ate at an Asian place.† The fortune in the fortune cookie said "This is a good time to experience the outdoors."

Seriously!† I so wish I had saved that piece of paper.

Analysis by Douglas Ritter:

Stuart's survival experience wasn't of the sort that makes for a best-selling book, but as he notes, it is common and all too often deadly, even for the lack of movie-worthy drama.† As with many such misadventures, it was the result of a chain of "mistakes" and that chain could have been broken at any juncture.

Nobody sets out to "misplace" themselves, but when they do, what they did prior to that occurring is what often determines the ultimate outcome. Stuart's own analysis shows both good and bad planning ahead of time and in the end it worked out okay because of the good planning and despite the errors he made.

It's nice to receive a write-up from a survivor where he analyses his own mistakes and explains what he has done as a result to ensure it won't happen again or he'll be better prepared the next time.†

As he notes, a lot of drama could have been avoided if he'd made sure to let his wife know of the change in plans. However, Stuart's analysis misses a critical prior effort that could easily have saved everyone a lot of trouble, even if he'd notified her of the change in plans -- carrying a PLB (Personal Locator Beacon) or SEND (Survival Emergency Notification Device - e.g. SPOT or inReach).† At a modest cost of $150 - $250, which can be amortized over the extended life of the device, he could have notified authorities and/or his wife of his situation with a location and been rescued in short order with minimal resources expended and without putting a large group of rescuers at risk.† These devices truly do take the search out of Search and Rescue.

Many people rely on their cell phone as a means of communication in the backcountry, but as Stuart found out, it's not something you want to bet your life on. Stuart correctly understood the advantages that text has over voice when there are minimal or no bars available. Text requires far less bandwidth and the phone automatically keeps trying to send that text until it manages to get it out. It also means that it is running your battery down, so turning off his phone when it was clear it wasn't getting a message out and he wasn't going anywhere, was a sound strategy.

Having noted that, altitude can often be a key element for successful communication when cell connections are marginal, or even appear non-existent. Sometimes even a minor change in location or increased elevation can mean the difference between no communication and success.† We have tested cell phones in circumstances where a 50 foot change, simply hiking to the top of a hill, has made the difference in areas where we never expected to have any bars.

If you do finally find a spot where the phone does send the text out, it's usually a good strategy to stay in that spot so that further communication is possible.† But, again, a cell phone should not be relied upon for rescue, that what a PLB or SEND is for.

The issue of self-rescue is always controversial. When it works, everyone is happy, but too often it doesn't. The generally accepted rule is that once you realize you are lost or need rescue, you should stay put. The only exception is when there's no chance anyone will notice you are missing, so any search is unlikely. Carrying a PLB or SEND solves the problem and self-rescue doesn't even raise its ugly head.

Stuart knew that his wife would report him missing, so he knew someone would be looking for him. His concern that they wouldn't be looking in the right location was valid, but wasn't by itself reason to self-rescue. He believed he had figured out a safe plan to self-rescue, and it turned out okay in the end, BUT you should always be skeptical of your analytical abilities when you are tired and hungry and stressed out.

Stuart noted that, "I heard the helicopter twice, but I only saw it once. Which meant they were only in a place to see me once."† However, that's not necessarily correct. There are many instances where someone on the ground may not readily see an aircraft, but someone in the air can see them, or a reflection from a mirror or bright colored clothing or tarp. This is why it is recommended that when using a signal mirror you should signal the horizon or through any overhead cover that allows even a diminished view of the sky, even if you cannot see an aircraft.

His ability to figure out what happened was at least partly predicated on the fact that the GPS had failed in a similar manner previously. Had that been me, I think I would have either traced down the issue after the first failure and either found a fix or replaced the GPS.† His solution going forward to make sure it works before heading too far way is sound, but Iíd personally consider simply getting a new, and better, GPS. And, given how inexpensive and compact the technology has become, a mapping GPS is a no-brainer.† I still prefer to also carry a paper map, but that's a back-up I can't recall having to actually rely upon for some years now.

Stuart's inability to make a fire that would remain burning for an extended period contributed to his stress and has perceived need to self-rescue. His determination to carry more firestarting materials is a step in the right direction, but he missed a few additions that will even more significantly tip the odds in his favor.† My own recommendation, once if always follow, is to carry three means of starting a fire; a one-hand operable ferrocerium style firestarter, waterproof and wind-resistant matches and a lighter.

A lighter is always the easiest means to get a fire started, and while not 100% reliable, which is why you never rely on it as your sole means of firestarting, even a simple Mini-BIC will work almost every time, even at higher altitudes (get a brand-name, like BIC, not cheap copies). ††We have seen them work satisfactorily at altitudes of 12,000 ft. Just be sure to adjust the flame as high as possible and warm it up inside your clothing first if it's really cold out (armpit or crotch work best, but often just sticking in a pants or shirt pocket is enough). The childproofing device can generally be removed with pliers ahead of time, making them easier to operate.† These are so light and cheap, it's easy to carry two for added back-up.

Stuart has added matches, which is good, but I will add that I consider the Stormproof Matches from REI or UCO to be far and away to best option in this category. UCO offers them in both large and small small waterproof containers.† It is worth noting that these are safety matches and while the match may be waterproof, the striker strip is not, so be sure to pack them inside a waterproof container or wrap with plastic wrap. Recognizing this critical flaw, both also include a separate striker strip inside the container in case the one on the outside does get soaked.†

When queried, Stuart noted that he carried a Gerber pocketknife (2.5-inch blade) that he used to cut the pine branches and a full-tang "no-name" fixed blade knife with a 3-inch blade.† His folding knife was partially serrated and, as such, served him as in improvised saw.†

A knife is critical; a really efficient wood saw isn't far behind in my opinion.† The "wire saw" he carried is marginally effective for cutting modestly sized trees or logs or limbs from larger trees, but not nearly as efficient or easy to use as a good bladed saw in most instances, and useless for cutting smaller limbs, which you need to be able to do if you aren't carrying a large knife that makes an effective chopper or hatchet/axe of some sort. †

I prefer my knives to have plain edges and carry a dedicated saw blade in a multi-tool that is far more effective and efficient than serrations or a "rope saw." A compact saw on a Swiss Army Knife or multi-tool is invaluable in a survival situation (my favorites saws are on Swiss Army Knives and Leatherman Tools), but there are also a number of other option for small, compact saws.

I was pleased to hear Stuart carried both a compact folder and a full-tang fixed blade. I would suggest a somewhat larger fixed blade, four inches or more is big enough to make it much more useful. While my folder has a blade of 3 or 3.4 inches, my fixed blade is 4.5 inches. That's large enough to be better for batoning, which can be really effective at getting to dry or drier wood for firemaking.

Stuart stopped gathering wood as it grew dark, but then set out before sunrise in the dark to self-rescue. So, he had a headlamp and that clearly provided enough light to move around safely in the immediate area. I would suggest that properly equipped with a light, as he was, gathering more wood, as he suggests after reflecting upon the event, would have been a really good idea.

He notes that he heard the recommendation to gather twice as much wood as you expect to need. I was taught, and my experience has shown it a sound strategy, to gather three times the wood you think you need. In any case, he recognized that more wood is almost always better.†

He gathered as much wood as he could, but the larger prieces were too wet. The saw and knife discussed above, by cutting up larger prices and batoning through them, can assist in getting to dry wood that often is inside the damp outside of larger pieces.

As Stuart discovered, Mylar emergency blankets have serious deficiencies, the most serious one being that even the smallest puncture results in the blanket tearing and becoming pretty much non-functional.† The same will happen with the Mylar sleeping bag.† If you need to go ultra-light, I recommend the polyethylene Adventure Medical Kits Survive Outdoors Longer Survival Blanket or Emergency Bivvy. These hold up to much more abuse than Mylar.† If you have space for additional volume and weight, their other shelter products provide even more robustness and utility. (Disclaimer: AMK produces the Doug Ritter designed Personal Survival Paksô and I receive a royalty from them).†

Another secret to these shelter items is that unless there is some air space trapped between them and you, they are mostly useful as a vapor and wind barrier. Anything you can add to provide insulation between the film/fabic and you will make them far more effective.

Stuart's efforts to settle on a single size battery for all his equipment is a good strategy, but I would suggest when possible to invest in lithium batteries (primary, not rechargeable) since compared to alkaline batteries they provide both far longer shelf life and working life in most devices, and are lighter to boot. Having said that, I don't worry so much about all my devices using the same size batteries because they weigh so little and I always carry spares. Iíd rather focus on the best device for the size and weight I want, rather than what battery it uses. But, either strategy works. The key is insuring you have extra batteries.

If you or someone you know has experienced a survival situation, please see how you can share it to benefit others.


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