Shit Happens - How To Prepare For An Emergency On Your Outdoor Adventure
Sod's Law states that “anything that can go wrong, will go wrong, at the worst possible time”. Being prepared for when things go south is as much a mindset as it is an equipment list. Through careful planning and practising your skills you are often able to navigate some highly stressful situations in a relatively comfortable manner. As well as adequate preparation, extra gear often also needs to be carried in order to help solve these issues. The answer to the ‘what should I bring’ question is a tough one though as nobody wants to be carrying a 30kg pack half full of gear that never gets used. What contingency gear we take with us on our adventures depends heavily on the nature of the activity. For this reason, the following guide intentionally is non-specific about the individual items I bring in my kit but rather is written to help in constructing your own set of emergency equipment and to give you some key things to think about when approaching your adventures.
Planning For Success Comes Before Preparing for Failure
Planning for success is always the first step to a great adventure and if done thoroughly will not only significantly limit the chance of failure occurring but drastically help you prepare for what to do should something go wrong. Take for example planning for a climb at Pierce’s Pass in the Grose Valley. Part of planning for success is knowing that you will need double ropes to rap in from the lunch ledge. In planning for success you’ve already eliminated the possibility of rapping half way down and realising you don’t have enough rope to reach the ground and need to activate "self rescue" mode in order to get back out.
Another example might be a snow shoe trip from Blue Cow to Thredbo. If you don’t plan effectively, don’t study a map, but just know that you start at Blue Cow and follow the Snowy River, you might be able to wing your way through it. But if something goes awry you are going to be incredibly lost and exposed. Planning for success would naturally require studying a map and in doing so you will know that Charlotte's Pass lies almost right in the middle of your trip just to the south of the river. A safe haven should something go wrong like the weather coming in or an injury. In planning for success you’ve just started efficiently preparing for failure.
What Equipment Categories are the Essentials?
When it comes to gear and constructing a contingency kit the overarching idea is that there are no essential items, only essential categories. Statements beginning with “you should never leave the house without…” are flawed in this way. Most people probably don’t bring a headtorch for their midday walk of the dog for example. There are three main categories which, when adequately satisfied, will provide you with the equipment to get you out of almost any scenario.
The preference in every scenario is to self-rescue where possible. This is largely dependent on how far you are from the trailhead and what the injury is. Incidents such as twisted ankles, sprained knees, small burns, and cuts can usually be resolved without assistance if you are not far from the car. Self-rescue gear is one of those areas where you can often make a few pieces of kit do a lot of work. In a climbing situation, a set of prussik loops and a few spare locking carabiners can turn into a hauling system, a belaying system, an abseiling system, a system for escaping the belay, and a contingency anchor in a pinch when things take a turn for the worst. On the other end of the spectrum is a rack of pulleys, a spare belay device, a progress capture pulley, and a set of ascenders. While carrying all this gear means that you can more efficiently deal with emergencies, it can become quite cumbersome to carry, especially with the infrequent nature of such situations. What you carry in this realm must be suited to your scenario (are you guiding a total beginner up a long climb or are you in a party of proficient and highly skilled big wall climbers with good problem-solving capabilities?). Self-rescue gear can also include things like a map of the area or some water purification tablets (or even an opal card for more urban outings). Shelters, space blankets and extra warm clothes also fit into this category as they will allow you to ride out inclement weather systems. Having adequate gear to self-rescue means that you are more equipped to take on adventures that have higher levels of objective risk.
Second in the order of importance is equipment for stabilising (as much as possible) the victim whilst waiting for emergency services. This means having an adequate first aid kit for the remoteness and seriousness of your situation. In Australia the most important thing you should carry on adventures is a compression bandage (for snakebites for example). The best way to evaluate your first aid kit is to go through every component and determine which of the categories each piece falls into: This will save a life, this will allow us to finish the adventure, this will make someone comfortable. For example, an EpiPen may save a life, some blister pads may allow you to finish the adventure and eyedrops may make you comfortable. It is very easy to over-build a first aid kit and so you need to consider whether the comfort items are actually necessary (or likely to be used) or whether they can be ditched. The biggest mistake made with first aid kits (especially store-bought ones) is bringing things that you don’t know how to use. If neither you or one of your party members know how to use an item, there is no point carrying it. For example, Potassium Permanganate crystals can be found in many survival kits and can be very useful in emergency situations as they have many applications but are totally useless if you don’t know how to use them in practice.
The last thing that you need to consider is a method of communication. This may be as simple as telling someone where you are going or taking a Survival Whistle on a trail run, or as robust as carrying a PLB on an alpine climb. The key thing to remember in this instance is the communication method must work throughout the whole trip. When picking a device for communication it is important to consider the way in which the device works. In a bad situation, ideally, you would be able to communicate with the emergency services directly and discuss the situation with them. For this reason, mobile phones are the best device for places with reception. They allow you to save time and effort by communicating precise details to the emergency services about where you are, what the problem is, what equipment you have, and who is in your party. Radios are good options for situations where there is limited reception but the potential for radio contact as they also allow for the communication of details, albeit often in a less direct manner. As a final resort for remote areas with little to no reception, emergency beacons and PLBs offer a very robust way of communicating distress to emergency services. Despite being quite dependable they usually do not allow for communication and so in many cases leave you waiting for a rescue which you don’t know when will arrive and result in emergency services going in blind with respect to the severity of the injury and the situation of the party. Some PLBs are small enough to carry as a backup form of communication with the primary form being a phone.
What Situations Do I Need To Be Prepared For?
Determining what scenarios we actually need to prepare for can often be difficult. While there is often a suggestion that we should be “prepared for anything”, you probably wouldn’t take a hazmat suit to your camping trip. This adage is better altered to say “be prepared for anything that could occur with a fair probability”. There are two main techniques for analysing risk in outdoor activities. The first one, the 'Prediction Technique' is often used by individuals when planing their own activities whilst the 'Evaluation Technique' is what is used by guiding companies (and even commercial and corporate entities) in their risk analysis. They are most effectively used in combination with each other.
The Prediction Technique
This involves thinking through all the possible things that could happen and working out what you would do with the available gear to solve such an issue in a timely and safe fashion. An example would be asking yourself “What would I do if my partner had fallen and broken his/her ankle?” to take this further you may ask things like “How would this approach change if they were not conscious?”. This method has the benefit of increasing your creativity when it comes to what gear can be used. For a canyoning trip you may consider bringing a space blanket for the scenario when someone becomes hypothermic. Then in the case that you are benighted you would also be able to use this to sleep under or in the case that someone gets heat stroke on the walk out it may be strung up to provide shade. In this example we have found solutions to three potential issues by predicting them and determining how we could use the gear we have with us.
The Evaluation Technique
The second method involves working out what the risks are and what the likelihood and impact of those risks are. In reality we do this all the time without even thinking. Imagine climbing a really long and easy route; the chance we are going to fall is really low but the consequences of a fall are extreme so we would probably opt to use a rope. On the other hand, the chance that we get a small scratch on our hands whilst climbing is very high but the consequences are almost nothing so we don’t often take this into account when selecting our gear. This technique means that we tend not to carry unnecessary gear which is beneficial. For hiking in the Blue Mountains in summer for example, a potential risk is mosquito bites. Whilst this is quite a likely thing to encounter, it is usually merely a mild annoyance with little consequence. A snakebite on the other hand, despite being relatively unlikely would result in a very serious situation. So in this case a compression bandage would probably be added to your kit before a mosquito net was. Here we have determined that one issue is of greater importance due to its impact than the other and hence we can address that issue with a higher priority.
What Gear Should I Actually Choose For These Situations?
There are a few main criteria that should be satisfied by a good candidate for inclusion in your contingency kit. The following are the most important ones:
Simplicity – Is the item something I can effectively and safely use in a high stress situation? Emergency situations are often accompanied by a sense of urgency, pain, and fear. All of these things can affect your judgment and abilities to utilize complex systems. Therefore, gear selected, especially to satisfy the ‘stabilising equipment’ component of your emergency kit, must be relatively foolproof. Ask yourself: ‘Could I correctly and effectively use this piece of kit whilst holding my breath underwater?’
Size and Weight – The size and weight of a device is a major consideration in selecting what you will bring in your emergency kit. If these factors were not an issue, we would all be running around with our own personal pocket-hospitals. Not only does excessive weight make for harder work when carrying your gear around, but it can also cause its own problems. For example, a massively overweight first aid kit can cause you to walk slower, which in turn means you get stuck in the storm you were hoping to avoid. Ask yourself: ‘Do the benefits of this item outweigh the reduced weight and bulk of a smaller item?’
Multifunctionality – In general it is best not to bring single-purpose items. One example of where this is important is the number of wildly specific shapes and styles of bandages available on the market. You could foreseeably carry a different bandage for every different possible break/wound that may occur, but this is impractical. One example of applying the multi-use criteria could be using a small stove (such as the Pocketrocket) for cooking, purifying water, and keeping the core warm (via tea). The pitfall of the multifunctional requirement is that losing or damaging one piece of equipment can cause you to lose a large number of functions so it is important to have backups of vital items such as matches or lighters. Ask yourself: “What else can I use this item for?’
Efficiency – Many emergency situations are time-sensitive and tend to occur in the worst possible locations. You must, therefore, consider how efficiently your item may be used. Consider getting injured in the wilderness, in a situation where you need outside help. You reach deep into your pack to find your emergency signaling device; a super simple, ultralight, and highly multifunctional packet of matches, perfect for generating smoke signals. While this packet of matches satisfies all the other criteria, it will be hours before anyone sees the signals (if they even see the signals). Efficiency is therefore another very important consideration, your chosen method/device must work quickly and effectively with a high success rate for it to be worth carrying it as part of an emergency kit. Ask yourself: “Would I trust this device if I knew in advance that I would need to depend on it?”
Other Key Considerations
There are a number of other considerations in relation to emergency scenarios that can affect how you construct your contingency kit.
Skills Trump Equipment
This is possibly the most important point in this guide. We have all seen that person with 4 litres of water, a PLB, and a first aid kit to rival the local hospital as they take on the expedition to the local park. Whilst being prepared for things to go awry at some stage we begin looking like Christmas trees. Luckily there is an easy way of reducing this bulk while being just as safe. This method is skilling up. Having the skills to deal with an adverse situation will always trump having the specific gear. This is because real-life issues rarely have straight forward solutions. Learning methods of keeping yourself warm for example, such as a few star-jumps before getting into the sleeping bag and properly selecting a layering system is much better than carrying an expedition grade sleeping bag on your springtime Blue Mountains overnighter. These skills are best learnt from a mentor or guide but can also be read about in instructional books or online (On websites such as VDiff for climbers or OzUltimate for canyoners). When reading these books it is important to take the time to practice applying the skills you have read as practical knowledge is far better in an emergency situation.
Moreover, equipment is useless without the skills to use it effectively. A common example is the HMS style carabiner (such as the DMM Boa). While touted as a 'must have' on every persons harness, it is lesser known that HMS abbreviates the German word Halbmastwurfsicherung, which translates to 'half clove hitch belay'. The common name for this belay is the Munter or Italian hitch. Despite the HMS carabiner being a seriously good piece of rescue equipment (which has many other applications), without being able to tie a Munter (or clove) hitch the HMS carabiner is essentially redundant. The gear you carry becomes more justified the larger your skill set gets and hence it is important to develop and practice a broad range of techniques.
One of the key messages taught to cave divers early in their training is that individual issues almost never cause an emergency. The problem is that they tend to occur in combination with other issues which can quickly cause the situation to spiral out of control. To further complicate this, we almost never practice emergency skills in scenarios where a combination of things are going wrong. For example, as a climber you may practice abseiling, but have you practiced abseiling in the cold and dark when it’s very windy and raining heavily? This is an example of a situation you may experience when you get caught in a storm on a long route, but most people haven’t attempted this until they get caught out. Compounding issues can be solved by having your techniques practiced to the point that they are second nature so that when under the pump you can focus on the other things. Another good way to mitigate this is by ensuring your gear is simple to use, especially in stressful situations.
Emergencies are solved not simply through having the right equipment but also through preparation, practiced skills and through reasoned decisions. An effective kit needs to be able to deal with all of the things that may occur in your chosen activity. Despite this, they do not need to be large and cumbersome, and their size can often be reduced through knowing what dangers may occur with a reasonable probability and what are unlikely to eventuate. Every item you add to your pack makes it heavier but every skill and competency you learn you get to bring along for free! A few small items may be all you need for the adventure you are embarking on and it is not necessary, in these scenarios, to carry large amounts of not so relevant emergency supplies. It is important however to plan your adventures effectively and within your own abilities.