Table of Contents
Make Your Own Winter Survival Kit
I turned to Chris, an instructor for the Defensive Training Group, to help educate us and make gear recommendations for all of us who love to explore the trails. Chris gained his experience working for the chief instructor of DTG, a former USAF combat arms instructor with expert level survival experience, and both are much better qualified than I to help us with survival gear options and techniques that will help keep us safe this winter.
Over to you Chris…
6 Types of Survival Gear Every Snowmobiler Should Have . . .
You’re probably ready to hit the trail on that sled of yours. I know I am. Winter is finally here and it’s time to go out and have some fun. I’m ready to jump on a remote trail, see elusive wildlife and ride that powdered snow. But what happens if I become stranded out there? I could be faced with extreme temps, lack of shelter and an extended wait for help. While breakdowns, injuries and other types of emergencies happen, you don’t have to go into the winter wild unprepared. We’re going to look at six types of survival gear that every snowmobiler should have. In the event that you are stranded, you’ll be able to keep yourself safe until help arrives.
You need a survival kit, “just in case” right? Where do you start though? Should you buy a survival kit, or should you make your own? The problem with buying pre-made survival kits is that they don’t always have everything you need for austere environments. Homemade kits sometimes tend to include everything but the kitchen sink, are heavy and end up getting left behind in the truck. The goal here is to help you put together a survival kit for snowmobiling in wild places, that’s cost effective, is space efficient and well planned so that you don’t carry things you won’t need.
I spent quite a few years working as an instructor for a company that trained individuals in survival and evasion. One of the most useful tools I was given when learning survival was an old contingency planning acronym that helped one prioritize and narrow down what gear is needed in an emergency. The benefit in using a great contingency planning tool is that you don’t have to sit and wonder if you’ve left anything out, but you don’t end up carrying everything you don’t need. When you’re on a snowmobile, prioritizing survival gear is crucial. Space tends to be at a premium on a sled, unless you have a pull behind. The contingency planning acronym I want to share with you is “SMOLES”. It originates from old school military special operations troops, and stands for: Self-Defense, Medical, Observation, Land Navigation, Extreme Weather, and Survival Tools.
With those six types of survival gear in mind, you can plan ahead for just about any emergency, especially cold winter survival. Almost every item I’m going to suggest is easy to find online with plenty of cost effective options. I’m a big fan of folks building their own survival kit and I’ll tell you why: No one knows what you’re going to need out on the frozen trail, in YOUR area, like you do. There are plenty of gear suggestions listed in this article, but the acronym used is meant to keep suggested items fluid and open to change based on your winter sport needs. The good news is, if you use an effective planning acronym like SMOLES, you won’t have to wonder if you have planned well enough to cover the bases, and you won’t necessarily have to carry an 85 pound pack.
The First Line of Defense
You may not be thinking about “self-defense” as you jump on your Yamaha, but if you think about it, building a survival kit is a self-defensive measure against an emergency situation. The first line of defense in any potential survival situation is having the tools you need, when you need them, which is why it’s so important to have a survival kit that you’ll actually carry with you and not leave behind.
Carrying the Survival Kit
Quality bags, packs or containers that facilitate your survival kit being on your person at all times during your adventure are paramount to handling bad situations. I personally like smaller profile packs like the Kelty Redwing series. I find they have a good balance between affordability and durability. Similar quality backpacks can be found online for under $150.00. How big should the pack be? I’ve found that 35 liter capacity should be more than enough room for your general purpose survival essentials plus room for your outdoor activity items.
The color, size and fit are really dependent on the individual. What is important is that your pack is quality enough that it won’t break after many uses, and that it’s not so expensive, you can’t afford other quality survival items.
The Second Line of Defense – “Shoot, Move, Communicate”
Do you remember how I said the acronym SMOLES came from military operators? When doing contingency planning, military operators have to plan to stay alive in enemy territory. One way they plan to stay alive is to have gear that allows them to “Shoot, Move and Communicate”. If you’ve heard this term before, I’m sure it renders “tactical” thoughts. And I don’t know about you, but I’m not trying to be “tactical” on a snowmobile or cross country skis. However, I am going to show you how the Shoot, Move, Communicate part of “Self-Defense” is still applicable for anyone planning a survival kit. Let me explain . . .
“Shoot” – A compact, legally carried firearm is a good thing to have in very remote areas. When I head out to the great north frontier, I’m often in the area of potentially dangerous animals. While negative interactions with wildlife are rare for the outdoor enthusiast, the possibility still exists. I’m happy to say, I’ve spent plenty of time in the area of wolves, bear, moose, elk and cougars and never had a negative interaction. I don’t tempt fate though, by going into the wild unarmed. It’s something you might consider for your survival load-out.
“Move” – If and when your sled breaks down, you might have to walk a few miles or at least far enough until someone comes by to pick you up. Do your snowmobile boots facilitate you walking for a long distance? The best way to know for sure is to take them out for a long walk in cold weather around home. Do your boots create blisters or “hot spots”? I’ve found a great deal of success with Vermont Darn Tough brand socks. They can be had for under $25 a pair on Amazon. They’re a little pricey, but they really cut down on blisters and are ridiculously durable. A few sets of “moleskin” bandages are not a bad idea either. “Moleskins” have saved my feet a few times and they’re cheap insurance available on most well-known retail sites.
An extra wool pair of socks takes up little room, but can make that long walk a bit easier on the old feet. As far as boots go, I’ve had good luck with Danner boots with Wiggy’s brand Lamilite Insulated over-boot for when I’m in a static position. With combined use, I’ve been comfortable in temps well below zero. Taking care of my feet is high priority in hot or cold weather and should be for you too.
“Communicate” – I’m used to staying in contact with my family, friends and work on a constant basis via the smart phone. We live in a society that has become used to constant communication, and while I go into the outdoors to “get away from it all”; I do have a need for emergency communications. Here’s how I handle that: I bring my cell phone, knowing full well I may not have full service. Sometimes I can get a call out, sometimes I can only get a text out, and sometimes I’ve got nothing. But I test my phone occasionally find the limits of my service.
I also have Midland FRS/GMRS radios to keep contact if I’m within a couple miles of friends. We stay on the same channel; use the same radios and use an inexpensive ear piece to hear a call request. Most FRS/GMRS radios come with a vibrate call alert, which helps to find out someone is trying to get ahold of you when your engine is screaming along. It’s worth noting that it’s very rare for these types of radios to work beyond a couple miles. Because FRS/GMRS radios work on something called “line of sight”, their range is limited to 15 to 20 miles of open terrain or less if there are obstacles. Thick trees, hills and ridge lines will degrade or cut out transmission of radio signal though. So you can expect 1 to 2 miles of range, maybe less in very thick trees. For folks that are into HAM radio, there are several handsets that are inexpensive (under $50) and allow you to use an extendable coiled antenna to extend the range. All of these items can be found on Ebay and Amazon.
*The use of HAM radio bands require inexpensive licensing, except in cases of justifiable emergency.
For emergency signaling, I like to have a signal mirror which is about the size of a credit card. In addition, I have an inexpensive laser pointer and a few road flares. The space they take up in a pack is well worth their existence. These items usually run under $20.00 on auction sites.
- Batteries in Cold Weather: Very cold weather effects the operation of battery powered items to varying degrees. To keep items like radios and lights at full working capacity, I store them inside my jacket when not in use. Radios, cell phones and lights are usually compact enough to fit underneath a jacket in a shirt or inner coat pocket anyway.
I recommend everyone take a wilderness level first aid course. The farther we stray from professional emergency care, the more prepared we should be. Part of this preparation is going out and getting training. Two day wilderness first-aid courses can be had at companies like REI for under $250.00. The knowledge gleaned from a wilderness first aid course will follow you the rest of your life and is a worthy investment.
Some of the most common medical emergencies in the wild are heart attack, hypothermia, cuts and breaks. Most folks don’t carry an AED due to cost and space, but CPR is worth knowing and covered in both regular Red Cross first aid classes and wilderness first aid classes.
I pack the following items for hypothermia aid: Hand/Body warmers, thermal blanket, and instant fire building materials. Actually I buy hand and body warmers by the case. When I’m in the field, I hand them out to students, friends and family like candy on Halloween. Thermal blankets take up very little space, but will help retain heat for a cold weather victim. “Wet Fire” and other instant fire building materials can be had for under $10 and become priceless in a situation where you need a roaring fire NOW. Ask me how I know . . .
For handling massive hemorrhage and cuts, I pack: Several tourniquets, compressed gauze, compression bandages, surgical tape, ABD pads, and a vented occlusive dressing. Hemostatic agents (bleed stop chemical powders and gauze) such as Quikclot and Celox definitely aid in controlling blood loss. But it’s important to understand the proper use and risks of each product. I have used hemostatic agents to control bleeding, they do work, but they are not an automatic save the day product. Hemostatic gauzes and powders can range in price, but mostly run under $50 per pack. The first line of defense against any cut or massive hemorrhage is direct and indirect pressure.
While airway obstructions are not a common cause of medical emergency in wilderness first aid, these types of complications are sometimes problems that arise due to the victim going into shock. Along with CPR training for handling airway obstruction, having a nasopharyngeal airway (NPA) and the correct training of use can aid in keeping a shock victim’s airway clear of excess mucus.
If I haven’t made myself completely clear, first aid training is the requisite tool that makes any of the listed aid bag components useful. Without proper training, a “good Samaritan” can worsen the victim’s condition and hasten death.
Each of the first aid items listed range between $2 and $15 each.
One of the things we’re taught in wilderness first aid is to immobilize a bad sprain or break, or splint the injury in such a way that the individual can make their way to safety if help is not coming. A “SAM splint” works wonders for immobilizing a broken ankle. A good old fashioned triangular bandage is great for keeping a dislocated shoulder or broken collar bone in a fixed position. Neither item takes up a lot of space.
*The forgotten first-aid tool: A good set of EMT shears is worth their weight in gold. You can certainly cut away clothing in a medical emergency with a knife, but the risk of further injuring the casualty or yourself is great. Consider the rush of adrenaline in a first-aid situation and the need to remove an outer piece of clothing or an entanglement. Shaking hands and an unprotected razor knife edge is not a good thing. EMT shears have protected ends to keep from further injuring anyone. For under $10, it’s a worthy piece of kit for your first aid bag.
There are tons of minor first aid kits for sale on the web. They’re great for minor cuts, upset tummies and headaches. But in a survival kit, we need to be prepared for the medical emergencies that actually threaten life. While this is not a complete list of first aid components, it should be a good start.
The ability to observe or be observed in a survival situation goes hand in hand with communication. When I listed items in the communication section, flares, signal mirror and laser were all mentioned. So that covers one’s ability to be observed. But what about items that help your ability to observe your surroundings?
I like to have a good head lamp that helps keep my hands free in low light. Think about a first aid situation in the dark that requires you to use both of your hands to work on a victim. Petzel makes several durable model headlamps that I stake my life on. Again, with battery operated items, keeping them inside your vest or jacket might be a good idea when faced with sub-freezing temps.
Next I like to pack a 10×25 monocular. They range in price from $20 to $150. At any rate, having a compact monocular can help you identify a hazard up the trail, or look for lost party members across large obstacles. I like to tie a lanyard around mine in case I need to hang it from my neck to keep it close by.
One of the best technologies to come out of the late 20th century is the handheld GPS receiver. They were once very expensive but now a weather resistant Garmin can be had for well under $150.00. It’s worth mentioning that a GPS does require the user to “play with it”, becoming familiar with the features. It’s not the time to start learning how to use that new GPS when one is lost and temps are dropping.
Along with a small GPS, I pack an aerial map marked with a grid system. The good thing about a modern GPS is that most will give you a read out for your location in the grid system of your choice. I bring along a compass, map protractor, pencil and water resistant paper. Most decent compasses like Cammenga, Brunton, and Suunto can be had from $40 – $100 depending on the features you require. There are too many brands of map protractors on the internet to list them all, but you can find what you need for under $20. For record keeping, “Rite In The Rain” makes an affordable little notepad. If you choose compact items, you can fit them in a medium to compact zip-lock bag.
Having a GPS is nice, but electronics do fail. When the electronics do fail, it’s nice to have the old fashioned tools and compass close by. Land navigation is more than just reading a screen or an arrow on a GPS, but if you have the right navigation tools and the correct knowledge, you’re never really lost at all.
5. Extreme Weather
Most experienced snowmobilers know how to dress for the occasion, and they know to dress in layers. But where layers really come in handy is when you’re stranded and having to walk a long way. It can be below zero, but when you’re “hoofing it” somewhere; it seems in no time you’re sweating up a storm if you have too many layers on.
So what I like to do whether snowmobiling, hunting or winter camping is start with a good moisture wicking base layer. Cabela’s, REI and Wal-Mart all have their own moisture wicking “long-johns”. Whether one spends $150 on a set or $25, the important thing is that they’re made of a synthetic material that pulls moisture away from the user’s skin.
Next, I wear regular clothing fit for the sport I’m engaging in. I try, if at all possible, to wear pants and shirt that dry quickly. It seems that Blue-Jeans take forever to dry, so I avoid wearing them. While the trick is, not to get wet, when you’re surrounded by 3 feet of powdered frozen moisture for miles in any direction, it makes sense to wear items that dry fast. Anything can happen.
For outer garments, I like them to be insulated and have both wind and rain blocking properties. I’ve had luck with wearing a softshell jacket and pants, with the addition of a light shell Gortex parka and pants over those. The vast majority of folks have specialized clothing made just for the sled sport we love though, so your mileage may vary.
If there’s space in the pack, I will put extra socks and another set of silk weight “long-johns” in there. If there’s not enough room for extra socks, I will make extra room. In a survival situation, the physical benefit of a dry base layer, not to mention the morale boost you get from becoming dry again, well . . . it can go a long way.
A polypropylene neck gaiter is invaluable as well. I wear one and pack an extra. They only take up the size of a small handkerchief, it’s a no brainer. I like to have an extra fleece cap and an extra set of wool gloves. Wool gloves, poly neck gaiters and extra wool socks can be had on major retail sites for under $10.00.
Depending on how your survival kit is planned out, extra extreme weather gear may take up the most volume. That’s okay as long as it doesn’t interfere with the other important gear needed for the trip.
6. Survival Tools
There are more survival gadgets on the market today than ever before. Some are really great ideas and others, like fishing lures, are designed to catch fishermen. So let’s cover the survival tool bases in a way that allows us to have the gadgets we want, but make sure the bases we NEED are covered first.
The Rule of 3’s
Most folks have heard of the survival rule of 3’s. You can live without air for 3 minutes. You can live without shelter for 3 hours (in bad weather). You can live for 3 days without water. You can live for 3 weeks without food. Those “rules” are approximations that are very dependent on the situation. But, they do give one a great idea of what is the next biggest need in a survival situation. Rest assured, one day without water will have an effect of epic proportions on a person’s ability to think, perform and their overall will to survive.
Without a doubt proper shelter in extreme temperatures is the key to survival. Heat from a fire and protection from wind, snow and rain are considered adequate shelter in austere environments. A Ferro rod and scraper, torch type butane lighter and some form of tinder all work really good for getting a fire going right away. For $20 and under you can supply yourself with both a Ferro rod, scraper combo and torch (windproof) butane lighter. I use both “wet-fire” tinder and my own combination of cotton balls and petroleum jelly. Both work well, but most folks already have cotton balls and petroleum jelly at home. Slather the cotton ball with Vaseline, put a bunch of them in a snack size zip lock bag, and you’ve got yourself a great fire primer.
I like compact shelters like the Snugpak Stasha. The Stasha folds into the palm of your hand. One can easily construct a lean-to and build a fire in front of the open side to create warmth and shield themselves from the wind and snow. For under $50 you can’t go wrong with similar types of shelter. An 8’x5’ tarp will work, but they tend to take up quite a bit more space.
Cordage can be used for more than just shelter building, but it sure makes building a lean-to much easier. I try to carry at least 50 feet of parachute cord. It’s affordable, has many uses and can be had for under $50 for 1000 yards.
*A tip for finding dry firewood: Having good tinder to start your survival fire isn’t enough, and it won’t ignite green wood or wood that was wet right before it froze for the season. I was taught a long time ago to find standing dead saplings. Not only do the trunks of the saplings burn very well (1-3” diameter), but the twigs from the dead sapling make excellent kindling.
Once you decide to stay put in a winter survival situation, a fire must be constructed as soon as possible. Next comes at the very least a hasty shelter. But while you’re constructing a shelter, it’s not a bad idea to start melting snow on the fire that was just built. To do this efficiently, I use a US Military canteen cup and lid. The lid is important because it really shortens the length of time it takes to melt the snow over the fire, (and it keeps the ashes out).
While the chances of picking up a virus or bacteria from untouched snow that gets melted for drinking water, I would still have a Sawyer mini water filter. For under $30 and the size not much bigger than a roll of quarters, you won’t be disappointed.
As a general rule a person can survive for up to three weeks without food, but it is decidedly not the case in extreme cold weather. The body needs a good flow of calories to keep its internal furnace going. One space smart way to carry emergency food is to pack 100 gram protein bars by brands like Met-Rx. While they aren’t gourmet meals in a wrapper, they can and do work well for keeping energy levels up as well as body temperature.
Other Survival and Bush-Craft Tools
A decent sized knife is probably one of the most general purpose and important survival items a person can have. I like the CRKT M21 knife for under $60. However, Cold-Steel makes an inexpensive and completely durable knife called the “pocket bushman” for under $35. There are too many durable, decently priced knives to list them all.
A survival saw is next on the list of bush-craft tools. An 8-10” compact saw takes up very little room in the pack. There are smaller survival saws out there, so you’ll have to tailor what you need to what you have to carry it in. I will say this, sawing poles for a shelter and small logs for a fire are sometimes easier than chopping with a hatchet or tomahawk.
Some folks do prefer having a hatchet or tomahawk in their survival pack. I understand why. Most of them have a hammer function on the opposite end of the chopping edge. The deciding factor for most people on whether to include it in your kit is based on weight and space. If you’re planning to do winter camping and using a snowmobile to get there, I’d say bring it along.
There are plenty of other bush-craft tools to consider putting in your kit. The important thing to remember, at least for snowmobiling is that space is limited. If I can cover all six bases of the SMOLES acronym with my survival gear fitting on my body or in a 35 liter pack or smaller, and the weight isn’t an issue, then I’ll take it. Otherwise I may have to reconsider the item.
Parting Words . . .
Undoubtedly you will find items that fit into one of these six categories of survival gear that I didn’t mention and you find absolutely necessary for your trip. That’s great. And I can bet there are items not in your kit that are absolutely “must have” in mine. The most important thing is that you use some sort of planning tool to make sure the important items are considered over the not as important items.
I not only use the SMOLES planning tool to make sure my kit has what I need, but it also reminds me of areas of regular survival training that I need to brush up on as well.
In the end, you are the survival expert on the trail. If something bad happens, you very well may be the deciding factor for your party members making it back to safety. Hopefully you’ve found this survival planning tool to be helpful and thought provoking. Stay safe, and I’ll see you out on the trail.