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Dan’s Take on the Survival Essentials
August 2014
Dan Martinez

Schrade SCAXE2 survival hatchet

First, read this:
DAVE CANTERBURY’S 10 C’S OF SURVIVAL

Then, read this:
THE NEW TEN ESSENTIALS -- A SYSTEMS APPROACH

You’ve just read two different perspectives of what you should always take with you on backcountry excursions. Dave Canterbury’s perspective comes from a military and “bushcraft” background; The Mountaineers perspective is from a Northwest recreational mountaineering organization – think backpacking, granola, and glaciers. Yet, it shouldn’t be surprising that there is a high degree of agreement between the two lists.

I recently discovered the world of “bushcraft,” which got me interested in this subject. Bushcrafters purposely go out with a minimal kit of gear, with the intent of practicing their survival skills and knowledge. They will go out and construct a survival shelter, build a fire without matches, maybe catch a rabbit for a meal, boil water they have scooped out of a creek, etc.

These skills have been popularized in recent years by the various survival shows that have popped up. Dave Canterbury is one of the original guys from the show Dual Survival, partnering with Arizona’s own Cody Lundin. Both are no longer on the show, they have been replaced by a couple of new guys.

I do spend a lot of time in the Arizona backcountry. When I’m not hunting, two or three weekends out of every month I’m geocaching out in the boonies. While most of my hunting is out of a comfortable car camp, and most of my backcountry geocaching is day tripping, I’ve also had overnight backpacking experiences for both activities.

But as both articles mention, even day hikes can turn into something more “adventurous” than you had originally planned. For example, I’ve been caught out in some good storms a number of times and have crashed hard in rocky backcountry, both while hiking and on dirt bike.

When you look at these lists, your first reaction might be, “I’m not carrying all that crap with me on a hike!” I’ve never consciously sat down with a checklist and made sure that I had anyone’s list of 10 essentials in my hiking pack. However, thinking about it now, I realize that I do carry a lot of what is on these lists. And thinking further, maybe I should add a couple more of these things to my kit.

For a good place to start, I have to agree that Dave Canterbury’s first five of the 10 Cs really make a lot of sense as the core survival essentials:

Cutting Tool: You can’t argue with that, though you might argue about type and size. I have always carried a folding knife with around a 3 inch blade. Canterbury says that your primary tool should be a burly full tang fixed blade knife. One of the reasons for the recommendation is that such a knife can be used to process wood for your survival fire, something that a folder is not suited for.

I have recently added a new toy to my hiking pack. It is a Schrade “survival hatchet”, model SCAXE2. With a fiber reinforced plastic handle 12 inches long, it’s small and light for your pack, but it is big enough to swing with enough momentum to do the job that a hatchet is supposed to do. The back of the hatchet, or the “poll”, has a serrated hammer surface useful for pounding wood into tinder or driving stakes into the dirt. As a bonus, The SCAXE2 comes with a ferrocerium fire starting rod in the handle. A stout fixed blade knife is a great tool for many things, but a hatchet will always be better for processing wood.

Combustion: I have never had to make a survival fire, but it is smart to prepare for the day you might have to. I have long carried a book of matches and a trioxane bar in my pack, and gave the same to my sons for their packs.

Trioxane is a tablet of solid fuel used by the U.S. military for heating field rations. Commercial solid fuel stove tablets are available at most outdoor stores. If you carry a modern multi-tool with pliers, there’s always the option of opening up a bullet and dumping out the powder.

Lighting up any one of these under a pile of wood kindling will give you a quick and easy start for your survival fire, even in wet conditions. You will see recommendations for other concoctions of homemade tinder (dryer lint, sawdust & paraffin, cotton balls & Vaseline, etc.), but I like solid fuel tablets the best.

Now I have a backup to the matches with the ferrocerium rod in the survival hatchet. My buddy Brad swears by the ubiquitous and reliable BIC lighter as a primary fire source. But don’t overlook the need for something to catch your initial spark and burn hot and long enough to get moist natural fuel burning. And that’s another reason for the axe. It allows you to split wood that’s wet on the outside to get to the dry center wood.

Cover: Now here’s something that I probably should add to my kit that I have not carried in the past. With the possibility for rain or snow, I usually take a rain jacket, sometimes rain pants, sometimes a poncho. A poncho can double as a small rain shelter, but better would be a tarp of around 8’x10’. These can be purchased for very little dough at Walmart for example, and they do not weigh that much. Higher quality outdoor survival tarps made of waterproofed nylon are also available.

However, to rig a tarp shelter you will likely need tent stakes, cordage, and at least one pole. If you are in the forest, natural tent poles are all around. Your survival hatchet could be very useful for fashioning shelter poles and even stakes. But in the desert, you will probably need to carry a trekking pole or two and lightweight aluminum stakes. When hunting, a camo tarp can be very useful to set up a quick blind, sheltering you from rain or sun.

Container: This is another piece of survival gear that I will have to consider adding to my kit. I have carried plastic canteens or water bottles, but not metal containers capable of boiling water for disinfection or cooking.

I have always relied on carrying all the water I will need for the planned length of the excursion on my back. This has meant that I have carried 6 liters of fluid or more for an overnight trip. Now that gets damn heavy!

A metal cup, pot, or water bottle allows you to boil water that you find in the wild, to supplement the water you have carried in. Of course this means being able to find water, which is not always guaranteed here in Arizona. By the way, Survival C number 7, “Cotton,” a bandana, is very useful as the first stage of filtering to remove the larger particles from wild water before you boil it.

Cordage: The most useful cordage overall for the outdoorsman is parachute cord. I’ve already mentioned using cordage to build your emergency shelter. Also, shelter frameworks can be built by lashing poles together.

Cordage is also useful to the hunter to tie open the legs of big game while you are field dressing. I have long carried paracord in my pack just for this purpose.

For some of the wilder places I go, I will carry a light 9mm x 30m climbing rope. Sometimes I use the rope just to lower or raise my pack up a steep cliff because climbing the cliff is safer without a heavy monkey on my back.

But my primary use for a climbing rope has been for rappelling down cliffs and for belaying a partner for safety. It is not essential survival gear, but it can be quite useful in certain situations. If you are caught high in the jagged and rocky peaks when a thunderstorm rolls in, rappelling may be the fastest and safest way down to lower land.

A litter to carry out an injured companion can be fashioned by wrapping the rope between two poles from young trees, then topped with your tarp. A rope would also make a stouter ridge line for your tarp shelter than paracord.

So now let’s take quick spin through the rest of the essentials from both lists:

Candle/Illumination: Agree with the recommendation for a headlight, but I also often carry a small LED flashlight.

Cotton: I always take at least one and often two bandanas. Useful around your neck to prevent “redneck”; useful as a headband to keep the sweat out of your eyes and ears; and as a water filter as mentioned previously.

Compass/Navigation/Map: I always have an advanced GPS on me with detailed topo maps – and I am an expert with it. I rarely have a paper map or compass with me. I always have extra batteries (lithium preferred). I suppose that I could be in trouble if I fell and broke the GPS. I have cracked the screen, but have never totally killed a GPS on trek. Plus, I carefully and exhaustively study where I am going on Google Earth in 3D before heading out. I pretty much commit the land to memory before I ever get there. This may or may not work for you, but it works for me.

Cargo Tape/Canvas Needle/Repair Kit and Tools: Exactly what kind of field repair tools a trekker may choose to pack will be a personal decision for each of us.

Sun Protection: For sun protection I take Blistex lip balm (always!), a booney hat, and the bandanas.

Extra Clothing: My answer: lightweight layers. I often wear a long sleeve base layer; over that a short sleeve shirt; I pack a fleece vest, very lightweight with minimal bulk; then top that with a high-tech breathable rain jacket.

First Aid Kit: I carry a small one with Band-Aids, alcohol swabs, medical tape, and gauze pads.

Extra Food: Besides a planned lunch, I always take two granola bars, a packet of Fruit Snacks, and a small packet of beef jerkey. These I hold in reserve and do not plan to eat. But I may grab one if I feel like a snack.

But we are gunnies! Did you notice that neither list included a trail gun as a survival essential? We gunnies know better. Today my favorite trail gun (when I am not specifically carrying for a purpose) remains the Smith & Wesson Model 632 Carry Comp Pro in .327 Federal Magnum that I wrote about in September of 2012.

With light loads it emulates a .22. With full power loads it thinks it is a .357 magnum. Ammo is small and lightweight so you can take along a decent quantity. The gun itself is small and lightweight, so it doesn’t weigh you down. It is plenty accurate enough to cleanly take bunnies and squirrels to supplement your survival diet.

At full power with 6 shots, it is potent enough to stop an attack by a rabid fox or coyote. A predating cougar or wolf surely would be discouraged from pressing an attack. Others may prefer a different choice in a trail gun, but for me, the S&W M632 Carry Comp Pro is the perfect answer.

You can see how these essentials have interlocking uses to answer the most pressing needs of emergency wilderness survival. So now go forth, start assembling your kit, and practicing techniques!

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