Medicine for the Outdoors
Medicine for the Outdoors

Dr. Paul Auerbach is the world's leading outdoor health expert. His blog offers tips on outdoor safety and advice on how to handle wilderness emergencies.

See all posts »

Surviving A Wilderness Emergency 4

This is the twelfth post based upon educational sessions and syllabus material presented at the Wilderness Medical Society Annual Meeting & 25th Anniversary held in Snowmass, Colorado from July 25-30. It’s based upon an excellent presentation given by Peter Kummerfeldt, who is President and Chief Instructor for OutdoorSafe, Inc. of Colorado Springs, Colorado. In his presentation, Peter wisely made the point that the information provided was designed for educational use only and would not be a substitute for specific training or experience. When going into the outdoors it is the reader's responsibility to have the proper knowledge, experience and equipment to travel safely.


Everyone should carry a personal survival kit when he or she is in the field. The contents of the kit may be adjusted according to the time of year, expected weather, area through which you are traveling, and personal needs. Pack the kit in a belt pouch, fanny pack or daypack and carry it with you no matter how short a trip that is planned. If you become lost, the survival kit you left back at camp or in your car cannot help you.

When assembling the kit, plan for a worst-case scenario. Every survival kit should include the following:

1. waterproof, windproof shelter material (2 or 3 large orange, industrial strength garbage bags)
2. REI matches in a watertight container
3. a second method (e.g., metal match) for starting a fire (metal match)
4. one or two match cases or filled with Vaseline-soaked cotton balls
5. a good glass signal mirror
6. a whistle

Many other useful pieces of equipment can be added to the kit depending on your particular needs. These could include a knife, spare compass, water purification (disinfection) tablets, flashlight, candle, parachute cord, metal cup, and first aid supplies. In addition to the equipment you carry for emergency purposes only, the kit should also include extra clothing to keep you warm and dry. One or more one-quart water containers must be included. Baked, rather than extruded, carbohydrate food bars work well for emergency food. Avoid meat products, because protein requires a lot of water to digest. Ensure that an identity card or tag is included in your equipment. If you are unconscious, rescuers can still determine who you are and contact your family for further information relative to any
health issues.

One of the most important pieces of survival equipment to include in your kit is a photograph of a “loved one.” The desire to be reunited with that person(s) is a very powerful motivator in a survival situation. Take a first aid class and learn specifically which items you should have in your first aid kit. At a minimum, include adhesive bandage strips, aspirin (or similar pain killer), lip balm, sunscreen, prescription medications, and spare eyeglasses.

Be prepared. You may never need your survival or first aid kit, but if you do, having it with you and knowing how to use the equipment increases your confidence and could save your life.


In most situations, protection from the rain, snow, wind and low temperatures will be your most immediate need. While fire will be very beneficial, it may not be necessary if you are wearing sufficient clothing and can construct an effective shelter. Your first shelter will be a combination of the clothes you are wearing and the waterproof, windproof material you take out of your survival kit to wrap up in or crawl underneath.

People often wait until the very last minute to begin building an emergency shelter. The need for an emergency shelter in which to spend the night or sit out a storm may only become apparent as the sun is about to set or the storm about to break. Furthermore, by the time a shelter is needed the survivor is often already dehydrated, hypothermic, and possible injured.

Being able to construct a text-book survival shelter depends upon the physical ability of the survivor, amount of time available, natural resources on hand, and availability of cutting tools (saws, axes and knives).

Survivors must carry the materials, such as tarps or heavy duty plastic bags, that they need to quickly protect themselves. DO not count on thin, plastic “space blankets” to provide you the protection you need. They are difficult to open, may require two hands to hold them around you, are sometimes too small for an average adult, very noisy (making it difficult to hear approaching aircraft or searchers), and easily torn when slightly damaged. Immediate action shelters such as these will may only keep you warm and dry while you evaluate your situation and plan your next step.

Huddling under the protective lower limbs of a large tree may be a good place to wait out a sudden rain shower or snowstorm. Look for a sheltered location with plenty of natural materials to build a more permanent shelter. Stay away from areas where rock fall, snow slides or flash floods may happen. Situate your shelter out of low places where cold air gathers. Look for a level spot that is large enough for you to lie down in comfortably.

A lean-to made from a tarp or from tree limbs and boughs is simple to construct and when used with a fire in front, makes a snug shelter. Hanging an aluminized “space blanket,” silver side down, on the inside of the roof of the lean-to will reflect radiant heat from the fire down onto you. Never sleep directly on the ground. Instead, build up a thick layer of boughs, leaves, pine needles or other duff to sleep on and insulate you from the cold ground. Lacking a sleeping bag, fill the interior of the shelter with other dry vegetation and crawl into it, pulling some of the vegetation around you.

Under colder conditions, where more protection is needed, a debris hut should be built. Using tree limbs and branches, build a framework that is just larger than you, then cover the structure with a thick layer of boughs, leaves or other vegetation. Fill the interior of the shelter with similar vegetation and crawl in. Seal the door after you enter and pull the “vegetation sleeping bag” around you.

Under snowy, winter conditions a snow trench provides good protection. Using a shovel, a snowshoe, a ski tip, or if all else fails, your boots, dig a trench in the snow slightly longer and wider than you. Build roof supports using skis or ski poles, snowshoes, branches or boughs, then cover the roof supports with snow. Line the inside of the shelter with vegetation and seal the door with a mat of boughs or a snow block.

When extremely cold conditions are experienced, a thermal shelter is appropriate. Scrape the snow away from the ground and build a framework over the exposed area. Cover the framework with a tarp or similar material. Then cover the entire structure with a layer of boughs or other branches. Next, pile on a minimum of ten inches of snow. Crawl inside and seal the door behind you with a plug of snow or a woven mat of branches. The heat released by the ground combined with the heat given off by the human body, and possibly a candle, will raise the internal temperature of the shelter, regardless of the outside air temperature.

To be continued...

Tags: , , , , ,
  • 1
Was this article helpful? Yes No

About the Author

Dr. Paul S. Auerbach is the world’s leading authority on wilderness medicine.