The lowly garbage bag
While it is always nice to have a tent, poncho, tarp and other gear, never look down on the lowly garbage bag. A heavy duty garbage bag can do much to create a working shelter.
In this case I used one heavy duty bag, and because this was just for a photo shoot I did not open the bag up. If I had, the area would have been twice as large. In this example you can see how the bag would give enough coverage to protect your head if you were hunkered down, and it would provide a wind stop as well. It would also act as a heat reflector if it was far enough from your fire to keep from melting.
This small example shelter started from 24 inches of paracord and a single 3mil heavy duty construction garbage bag.
The paracord was pulled apart to give seven strands of thread about two feet long plus the "shoelace" at 18 inches.
Next a small pebble was used to make the "button". A rounded pebble from a stream works best, but any small stone will do. Even an acorn will work. The threads from the paracord had a one-way slip knot put in to form a loop that would tighten but not easily loosen. The loop was slipped over the button and tightened. The end result was a two foot length of thread tied firmly to each corner. Because the plastic was not punctured, there was very little chance of ripping out the button.
This knot is an adjustable grip hitch. Its claim to fame is that it can be tightened or loosened by gripping the neck and sliding it up or down the line. Pulling on the line will not cause the knot to loosen or tighten, which is a good thing.
The goal is to have a knot that will slip forward and snug tight and then stay tight. A slip knot will slip forward but will not stay snug. The adjustable grip hitch is designed to slip when the neck is moved but to stay put when the standing end is pulled.
There is a problem when using thin nylon line which is that knots which should not slip will slip because of the lack of friction. This includes the adjustable grip knot. Fortunately there is an easy fix which is to add an extra wrap inside the loop.
Once the lines were attached to the corners, the bag was pulled out to form a shelter. This shelter was about 3.5 by 3.5 feet in size. This was enough to keep my head and gear dry.
Besides using a garbage bag to create a simple roof, you can use it as a rain poncho by putting arm and head holes at the seams. It can also be stuffed with dry leaves and other things to make a quick mattress to keep you up off the ground, or you use it to create a pillow.
For about 50 cents, this versatile survival item can be added to your ready bag.
Fire is a very important survival skill to hone. Please see the article on fire for a more thorough discussion on creating, starting and maintaining a fire. It is divided into three sections, the first of which covers fire in general. The second section discusses creating your first flame, and the third part goes into how to turn that first flame into a full fire.
You should have at least three different methods for making fire, and a backup for your primary method. For example, have a fire steel and striker, lighter, hand bow fire set, and matches as your primary methods, with a second lighter as backup.
You should have at least three types of tinder. You can buy tinder or you can use something as simple as cotton balls. My kit contains cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly. The cotton catches a spark easily, while the jelly provides fuel for a much longer burn time.
Summary of items for shelter
- Emergency/Space blanket
- 2 or more heavy duty garbage bags
- Fire starting gear
- Poncho liner
- wool socks
- rugged shoes
- long john/thermal pants
- long sleeve shirt
- short sleeve shirt
- (comfortable bra for hiking)
- long john/thermal top
- knit cap
- long brimmed hat
- sleeping system or sleeping bag
- dehydrated house - just add water for full size home!
They say you can go three days without water but you'll be darn uncomfortable and barely functional at the end. You need water to function. You need water to perform work. You need water to flush poisons from your system. You need water to keep your brain working. Water is also used for cleaning, disinfecting and sterilizing.
You should start with carrying at least a liter of water with you. This is your "ready" water. Grab and go. The container should be reusable and sturdy. You don't want to have your container fail when you go to refill it.
Water pouches are great for emergency water, but they do nothing as a water container. If you use water pouches as your ready supply, make sure you add some sort of container for resupply purposes.
While a canteen is a great container for carrying water, I would augment my ready bag with a hydration bladder. A hydration bladder is a water bag with a fill cap at the top and a tube leading from the bottom. The bladder is held in a carrier which can go inside your bag or mount to the outside of it. Some hydration systems even have storage space in the carrier so it can act as a small backpack.
The advantage of the hydration bladder is that most will hold two to three liters of water which you can drink on the move. They are easy to refill and easy to carry.
The disadvantage of hydration bladders is that they are flexible, and some of the cheaper bladders have been known to "pop" when somebody falls or steps on them. In my 15 years of using hydration bladders I've never had a bladder pop.
With the standard recommendation being one liter of water per day per person, your 72 hour bag should have three liters of water in it. This is just shy of eight pounds and even this might not be enough. Remember, though, that those eight pounds will be depleted quickly. Too much water is always a self-correcting problem, as Robert Heinlein pointed out.
Hiking in the wind or heat -- or just hiking -- increases your required water consumption. This means that you are going to have to resupply your water at some point. When you resupply you will need to make sure that your water is safe to drink.
A good example of classic short-cut thinking, is considering water that comes out of a pipe as "safe to drink". Go into any town in Mexico and you are likely going to be told, "Don't drink the water." Why? Because the water coming from the taps is not as clean as what an American citizen is used to.
Resupply therefore comes down to two choices: collect contaminated water and then decontaminate it, or decontaminate your water as you collect it.
A filter is one of the best ways to go. A good pump-style filter is my preference because it allows me to take water from a contaminated or unknown source and put only clean, potable water into my containers. This means that I don't have to teach my family, "Sometimes it is safe to drink from a container and sometimes not." At the same time it makes it easier to have a supply at camp that is clean and ready to use for such simple things as washing the dishes or brushing your teeth
A personal filter straw is light, cheap, and gives you the ability to get drinking water when you need it. The problem is that it doesn't work for hydration packs. Once you transfer your contaminated water to your container, you have to treat that container as contaminated. This means you'll have to use your filter straw for all water you drink from that container. All in all, a filter straw is good choice but not a best choice.
To decontaminate water in a container you need to "purify" it. Purification is done by adding chemicals to the water or by boiling it. If you use a purification chemical, the chemical will decontaminate not only the water but also the inside of the container. This is why the instructions always call for getting some of the water with chemicals onto the screws of the cap and onto the cap itself. This is so the inside and outside of the container become purified as well as the water.
One drawback to chemical decontamination methods is the amount of time it takes to purify water. In general it takes 30 minutes from the time you start the process until the water is safe to drink. In addition you have to carry chemicals, some of which have a limited shelf life and an even shorter life once the bottle holding the chemicals is opened. Also, the amount of water that can be decontaminated is strictly limited to your supply of chemicals.
Water purification chemicals normally come in small bottles. The military issue version is intended to go in a small pouch on the side of a canteen holder. Most bottles hold enough to treat about 25 liters of water whereas most filters will treat hundreds of liters of water.
One method that works well is using pure bleach. Simply add five drops of pure household bleach to a liter of water. A gallon of household bleach will purify hundreds of gallons of water. Make sure you filter your water with something to take out particulates and also make sure you use a bleach that does not contain perfumes, dyes or other additives. See: Washington State Department of Health, Purifying Water During an Emergency.
MSR MIOX is a system that I've used. It creates a chlorine solution that can be used to purify water the same way a tablet does. It leaves a slight chlorine taste which most city dwellers are familiar with. It is small and light, and easy to use once you've read the instructions a few times. Practice.
On the plus side the MSR MIOX is light weight and small. On the downside it requires batteries and you are supposed to use test strips. My policy was to use too much and wait the full 30 minutes. This never failed to show clean water with test strips. I also found the device with dead batteries after it had been in storage for five years which was NOT something I was expecting. If you decide to go with the MSR MIOX make sure you have a backup set of batteries.
There is also a UV water purifier that can be used, that is said to create safe drinking water in as little as one minute. I have not tried it but it is a consideration. They claim it will purify 1000s of gallons of clear water. The product appears to be dependent upon electricity or batteries, and reviews, while good, mention that the UV light must be replaced each year at a cost of $70.00.
Most references actually state that the best way to purify water is to boil it. Bringing your water to a rolling boil for one minute will purify the water. Then you wait for the water to cool and you can drink.
The down side of boiling water is that you have to collect water, stop, create a heat source, bring your water to a boil, and transfer the boiled water to a clean, uncontaminated container. Then you must wait for it to cool before you can finally drink it. And then you are still not ready to go because you still have to break camp (put out your heat source). In a bad situation, having a fire might not be a good thing.
Have at least one liter of water in ready state. Have at least one container that can be easily refilled, preferably two. Have a method of purifying or filtering water. Pump-style first, straw style last, and chemical means in the middle. Have a container that you can boil water in.
Try and have two different methods of purifying your water. While I prefer my pump filter, our small bags also have water purification tablets.
We have two different types of food that we deal with. The first, and likely the only one of importance, is what you can carry with you. The second is what you can grow, gather or kill. As with the section on water, this process is called "resupply".
For your ready bag you need a minimum of 3000 calories. This can be met with two (2) MREs ( Meal, Ready to Eat) or an emergency ration plus a bit of extra. MREs are a bit heavier than other foods you can carry but they are truly ready to eat.
In almost all cases you should have one MRE in your bag. The 1500 calories that comes in an MRE is broken down into an entrée, a side dish, a dessert, and a flavored drink. In addition, it will contain a cracker with something you can spread on it (peanut butter for example.)
While some people swear at MREs, others swear by them. I happen to believe in them. Most taste okay. Some taste good and some taste bad but they are all edible. Most have lots and lots of chemicals and preservatives added to them but that is part of what gives them a 10+ year shelf life. The MRE has another major plus over other types of food for your ready bag: they can be heated without a fire. Each MRE comes with a heater that only takes a small amount of water to activate. The possibility of a hot meal during an emergency can go a long way to keeping your hope up.
Oh, MREs also come with a package of helpful things like salt, pepper, Tabasco, matches, wet wipe, spoon, tissue paper. All those little things that make for a happy soldier.
In addition to your MRE, add a ration bar. These are designed to give you three days of food at around 800 calories per day. You'll be hungry but it is better than nothing by a long stretch. These are small and light weight. See: Datrex Emergency Food Rations Bars
Add some comfort food as well. M&M peanut candy, trail mix or granola bars are all good additions. These comfort foods should also fall into the "everyday use" category. Expect to resupply as they are used.
In a ready bag you really don't need any more food than what you can carry, but if you are willing to, you should add some gear to catch fish, snare/trap wild animals, or gear to hunt them in some other way. If you do decide to kill an animal, you damn well better be prepared to eat whatever you take, and waste nothing of that animal.
Remember that most Americans are overweight and out of shape. This means that many of us watch what we eat. We pick foods that are low fat or low sugar or what ever it might be. We watch our diets.
In a survival situation you are going to need that FAT. You are going to need more calories than you ever expected. Don't worry about getting fat; worry about getting too skinny as you work harder than you have ever worked before.
Last, please note that you can go a long time without food: three weeks or so. Food is just not a priority in a 72 hour bag. You could have no food and still make it 72 hours. You would just be very unhappy and hungry. Hungry people make stupid mistakes, so don't let yourself get that hungry, but don't stress either.
A couple of years ago I watched a show about a group of modern day people trying to establish an 1800s style homestead. They had three different groups. One group was "wealthy" so they arrived as a Man and Wife with three children to a pre-built home with gear.
The second group had a mostly-finished home which they had to finish building, and the third group had to build their home from the ground up.
What was of most interest to me was one of the men who started out in fairly good condition physically. As the show progressed, he thinned down and got stronger. However, his wife was worried about his weight loss and he became concerned as well. They called in a doctor because of his aches, pains, and weight loss.
The doctor reported the reason he looked that way is because it was likely the first time in his life that he wasn't actually overweight!
Because you can go three or so weeks without food, food is not as important as air, shelter and water. You are going to want food just to keep you from making stupid mistakes because you are hungry. You are not really going to need hunting or fishing equipment if you have your prepared foods with you.
You should have 72 hours of easy-to-use food. Dehydrated foods are acceptable (if you are not worried about water) as well as ready-to-use food such as MREs, ration bars, Peanut M&M's, granola bars, dehydrated fruits, and trail mix.
Most of what we have discussed is the gear you should have in your ready bag. By following the Rule of Threes we prioritize what we put in our bag and make sure we don't miss anything important. One weakness of the Rule of Threes is that it doesn't tell you what to take with you, just how to prioritize your choices.
There are horror stories of the early- to mid-1900s of people starving while having access to hundreds of cans of food. Why? They had no way of opening the cans. They were missing a simple tool, a can opener.
One of the reasons the military went with the Mylar pouches of the MRE is because they need no tools to open and prepare. Every pouch can be opened by hand. You can heat them by just pouring water into the heater pouch. You can squeeze the food out directly into your mouth or use the included long handled spoon to eat your meal.
The MRE removed the need for tools to open or eat your meal. It truly READY to eat.
If you find yourself with access to canned food but without a can opener, there are ways to get around those pesky seals. For one very good (and quick) tutorial, check out How to open a can without a can opener. Don't forget that a good sized rock can stand in for a section of concrete.
One of the most important tasks you will run into is cutting things. This can be as simple as cutting a piece of cordage or as complex as cutting a roof rafter. A knife is a requirement for any ready bag and should go above and beyond your EDC (Every Day Carry).
As nice as a knife is for small jobs, larger tasks need different tools. Add a saw of some sort to your gear. It could be a four inch saw in your folding knife or a collapsing camp saw. For some it can be a bow saw blade, knowing they will make a bow saw if needed.
While it is possible to get along with just a knife and saw, being able to split wood or chop down a small tree can make things even better. Consider adding a hand ax or hatchet to your bag.
Holding and pulling
One of the best tools to add to your gear is a multi-tool. While it might not seem like much, a pair of pliers does so much for you. It can be used for everything from being able to pull that line just a little tighter to being able to straighten a bent piece of wire/metal, or for bending metal.
My EDC includes a leatherman and a cheapo key ring thing I found. My bag holds another and I wish I could justify tossing a Gerber or SOG Multi-tool in the bag as well.
Put a multi-tool in your EDC and add a second to your ready bag.
Cordage! More cordage! I recommend paracord for so many different reasons. A 15 foot length of paracord gives you seven 15-foot lengths of nylon thread plus another 15 foot length of shoelace-like outer sheath. You can leave it as is for tying your lean-to together. It can be strung between two uprights to drape a tarp or poncho over.
We make it a habit to carry paracord with us. This can be in a bracelet, the wrappings on a walking stick, the decorations on the outside of the bag, or just a hunk sitting inside the ready bag. Have some cordage with you.
Warning!!! Science, math, physics ahead.
Paracord has a static load rating of at least 550 pounds. That means you can hang 550 pounds from a single piece of cord and it will not break. If you were to take that same 550# load and just drop it a foot and try to catch it with the paracord, the cord will snap. This is the difference between static and dynamic loads.
To better understand a static load you need to have a little physics and math background. We work with two different things in determining load, mass and acceleration. To make this easier on me we are going to convert weight to mass in SI (metric) units. Paracord has a static load capability of 250Kg at 9.8m/s^2 or 2450N. You can think of N (newton) as weight.
Now consider an object falling 0.25m or about ten inches. It starts with a velocity of 0. At the end of its 0.25m fall it is traveling at 2.2m/s. If this load were to come to an abrupt stop, like at the end of a chain, the amount of time it takes to stop would be very short. For the sake of argument let's set that time to 0.1 seconds (This is not unreasonable given that it took only 0.22 seconds to get up to 2.2m/s).
Our acceleration for this is 22m/s^2. Gravity is still pulling down at 9.8m/s^2. Thus our total acceleration would be 31.8m/s^2. This is three times what our static load was! This gives our 250Kg static load the ability to support only 77Kg worth of load.
77Kg is 170 pounds, nowhere near the 550 pounds of our static load. And this is from only a ten inch drop. This small exercise shows dynamic loads are much higher than static loads.
Paracord and other ropes (and even chains) help reduce the effect of dynamic load by increasing the amount of time it takes to actually decelerate. In other words, they stretch. Chains don't stretch but they sort of untangle and untwist as a load is placed on them.
This means that you should NOT expect paracord to function as a safety line for a human.
In addition to cordage, add some wire ties. They are light-weight, fast, and easy to use. They come in all sorts of different sizes and can be used for many different attachment methods. As well, two (or more) can be attached together to form a slightly longer tie. Consider using them to hold branches together as you construct a shelter.
You can use your knife to build a nicely pointed stick, and you can use that stick to poke holes in the ground and then scoop out the loosened dirt with your hands. You can even spend some time to make a hollow in the end of a stick to use as a trowel. But wouldn't it just be easier to have a shovel or trowel with you?
The entrenching tool or E-Tool is light-weight and folds up into a small package. When you unfold it, you can create a short handled shovel about the right size for digging when on your knees, or you can leave it partially folded to create a hoe type tool. Sometimes you will switch back and forth depending on your needs and the ground you are digging into.
If you don't want to go for an e-tool, consider a folding camp trowel. Many campers use them to dig small pits for disposal of human waste.
Sometimes you don't want to be found and sometimes you do. Having a Signaling device can get you the attention you need. A combination whistle, Signaling mirror, and compass can be found in many places.
I come from the point of view of not being found. Of not being noticed. As such my gear has a signal whistle and a Signaling mirror but not much more than those two items for Signaling purposes.
A good whistle can be heard hundreds of yards away. On a cold winter day, sound will travel even farther. If you are hurt and need to attract somebody's attention, a whistle is a good tool to have.
A Signaling mirror is used to reflect the sun. Pilots have reported seeing signal flashes from as far away as 15 miles. If you have line of sight with somebody and you have sunlight a Signaling mirror can attract attention from miles away.
At night any light source will attract attention. A campfire will attract some attention but a blinking red or yellow beacon will attract attention even more attention. The flashlights my daughter picked out for her mother have multiple modes: Light, glow, light and glow and flashingglow.
There are many other methods for Signaling. Some are designed so that they are only visible from the air, some are only visible from the ground. Some are for clandestine signals. If there is enough interest I'll write an article on Signaling.
In the book "The House of Dies Drear" the author talks about a Signaling device from the days of the underground railroad. She explains that the conductors would place a piece that looked like 1/4 of a cross, A right angle, to tell the run-a-ways which way to go.
This was a secret method of Signaling because unless you knew the "code" you wouldn't understand the direction it was telling you to go. If you happened to find one it was intended that it look like a part of something that would only be meaningful when all the parts were collected.
Have a lighter, some matches (your MRE has a book of matches in it), fire steel or other methods of starting a fire.
Most people navigate via road signs and land marks. In a serious situation you might not be able to depend on them. Get maps, both road maps and topographical maps. Trust your maps before you trust the road signs. Before the emergency hits, learn how to use the road and topographical maps. Practice!
Your GPS might or might not work. Having one with you is not a bad thing but don't depend on it.
Add a compass and learn how to use it. A compass will work in almost all situations. Your compass in addition to a topographical map can get you from point A to point B but only if you know how to use it.
The one thing I fail to carry with me is a light. For many years I carried a mini-maglight. Unfortunately it had a habit of turning itself on my pocket and would be dead when I really needed it.
Since my EDC is designed to be in my pockets I never was real big on holster for my flashlight. Add to this the fact my cell phone has a flash light option and my everyday need for a light source went way down. That is until I needed to actually do something at night.
You should have at least three light sources. A headlamp is very useful when you need both hands free to work. A hand light is also a useful tool. The mini-maglight has a mode where the top lens section unscrews and then the unit sits in that top as a base creating an electric candle.
A candle will often times be enough but it is much harder to keep going in bad weather and very difficult to light if you don't have working matches or lighter. In the same way an oil lamp will also meet the needs of light. For serious overkill consider a Coleman Gas or multi-fuel lantern
One thing to think about in terms of light sources. Batteries die rather quickly when you depend on them. They don't store as well as other energy sources. A duel fuel camp lantern will give you much more light, burn longer and the fuel will not go bad. It might not be the right answer for your ready bag but don't rule it out for you vehicle gear
This is just a list of some tools you should consider for your ready bag.
- Good quality multi-tool
- Fire steel
- Water proof matches
- Signaling mirror
- P-38 style can opener
- optionally, a small hand held GPS with way points marked
- Flash light/head lamp