The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.
The WildeBeat edition 78 & 79: Counting Up Essentials
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The ten essentials. Are there ten, and why are they essential? This edition of The WildeBeat; Counting Up Essentials.
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News from the Wildebeat, the audio journal about getting into the wilderness.
This is combined edition of programs seventy eight and seventy nine.
I'm Steve Sergeant.
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STEVE: When you start out studying skills for almost any outdoor activity, you'll eventually run into a discussion of the ten essentials. The original list of ten essentials is widely attributed to training by The Mountaineers, a Seattle-based group. But even their spokesman was unsure of the exact origin. What we do know is that since that first list appeared in the nineteen thirties, people have debated and argued what should be on that list, and how many essential items there are. So I contacted Doug Ritter, the executive director of the Equipped To Survive Foundation, about why we need a list of essentials.
DOUG RITTER: ...There are two major reasons people find themselves in a survival situation. One is they got lost, two is they get injured.
STEVE: The list of ten essentials is intended to answer the question, "What are the minimum items I need to survive when help is delayed?" One person who found out the answer to this question, the hard way, is Amy Racina.
AMY RACINA: It was August of two thousand three, and I had planned one of my, to me, my most exciting backpacking trips ever. It was a hundred and seventy mile loop through King's Canyon National Park, and it would take me through some of the most remote and most beautiful places in North America... I was traveling by myself. I was soloing... The trip was intended to take two and a half weeks, and up until day twelve of my trip, it was everything I'd hoped it would be. It was just beautiful. On day twelve, I was working my way down into the Tehipite Valley, which was meant to be the high point of my trip. As I was working my way down a steep unmaintained trail around a hillside, the ground crumbled and gave way beneath me with absolutely no warning. I found myself falling sixty feet through the air with nothing beneath me but rock.
STEVE: Amy knew where she was, but a lot of survival situations happen because someone loses the trail.
DOUG RITTER: ...the ten essentials starts out with a map and compass. And certainly a map is an essential item to have with you. But, unfortunately today, the vast majority of people I find have trouble figuring out even how to find north on a compass. It's not a skill that is widely taught anymore... So from my perspective, if your first goal is to stay found, not get lost, a G-P-S these days is more essential than a map and compass. You can get a mapping G-P-S for very reasonable prices. Carry a spare set of batteries for anything you carry that's electric and battery powered.
STEVE: In Amy's situation, she may have been using an old map showing a route which was no longer safe, or perhaps the limitations of her navigation tools and skills got her off the safer trail. We'll never know.
AMY RACINA: I was extremely glad that I had with me a map and a compass because I knew almost exactly where I was, and as it turns out, I was very accurate about that. I was twenty five miles from the nearest trailhead... I was in a place in the wilderness that only sees a handful of travelers each season.
[Fade up stream SFX.]
AMY RACINA: I was certain, during the one and a half to two seconds when I was falling, that I'd be dead when I hit the bottom. But when I hit the rock, I found to my surprise that I was still alive. So the first thing that I did was sort of push myself upright and take inventory of my injuries. I had broken both legs in several places each, including a gaping open wound where my right knee had previously been. It was bleeding all over the rock. I had broken my hip in two places, snapped off a front tooth. My nose was smashed, several fingers appeared to be sprained. But I actually considered that I had been fortunate not to have been more seriously harmed. My backpack had fallen within arms reach of me, and in my pack I had all of the essential gear that I needed to have at least a chance of surviving. So my next question to myself was how could I stay alive? How could I survive until I would be found and rescued?
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DOUG RITTER: ...your number one survival tool is your brain. If you don't bring that along, on your hike or your backpacking trip or your skiing trip or whatever, it really doesn't matter how much gear you have. Without your brain along for the ride you're going to find yourself in a lot more difficult circumstances... And it is probably one of the key items that we often see missing when we have to go out and rescue people. You know, if they had engaged their brain before they found themselves in this situation, they would have probably not got in that situation. And once in the situation, if they'd thought about what they were doing, they would not have made it much worse, which is often what happens.
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AMY RACINA: The first thing I did was apply basic first aid to my injuries. And for that I needed the first aid kit that I always carry in my backpack.
[SFX: Unpacking. Fade out stream SFX.]
DOUG RITTER: Next on the list: I would have to list a knife. A knife is pretty far down on the original ten essentials list, I think it's like number eight. But I would put that right up at the top, because a good knife, ...is your next most critical and useful tool, besides your brain.
AMY RACINA: I'm not certain what sort of situation the knife would provide the tool to save your life.
DOUG RITTER: OK. I think the first thing is to imagine doing the things you need to do in a survival situation when you don't have a knife. This can include things like making shelter, of critical importance often times. That includes helping make your bed, helping make your fire, all that sort of thing. If all you have is your bare hands, it's not that you can't survive, it's that you have to work a lot harder at it. Energy management is essential in a survival situation, because you have limited resources and limited energy.
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AMY RACINA: The next thing I noticed about myself was that I was going into shock. I was shaking uncontrollably. I knew that I had to warm my body up, both externally and internally, so I pulled my stove out of my backpack and made hot liquids. I made chicken soup.
[SFX, camp stove.]
[Fade out stream SFX.]
DOUG RITTER: The ability of a fire to both improve your morale, and keep you warm can be essential to your survival. The difficulty with fire is that it can become your enemy just as quickly. We've had a number of occasions where people have tried to use fires as signaling devices and it's gotten out of hand and it has resulted in, you know, hundreds of thousands of acres burned. So you do have to respect fire tremendously. But particularly in colder weather, there's just not much substitute for the warmth that a fire can provide... it vastly improves your morale as anyone who has sat around a campfire can testify to... Next is water. It gets short shrift in a lot of lists. But, if you recall, we talked about bringing your brain along. Well, in order for your brain to function right, it's got to be hydrated. As little as five percent dehydration results in some adverse effect on your faculties, your reasoning ability. And if your reasoning ability isn't working well, you're going to make poor decisions which is going to make your survival situation worse.
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AMY RACINA: ...I didn't actually need the water because I had fallen next to a small stream. What I did need was my water carrier so that I could reach out and scoop up some of the water and bring it to me... I had about four, five days of food left in my bear canister. I was in so much shock I couldn't really eat, but it was comforting to have the food there.
AMY RACINA: I pulled on every scrap of clothing I had with me to keep my body warm, and then I pulled my down sleeping bag over me, all in an attempt to keep the body heat that I needed so desperately at that time.
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DOUG RITTER: Next I would put shelter. This can be as simple as a couple of large trash bags, or as sophisticated as an Adventure Medical Kits Heat Sheets bivy sack, or Heat Sheets emergency blanket. The idea is something that's going to protect you from the environment, reduce wind chill, provide some protection from rain and wind... I am not a fan of the traditional, widely available, mylar survival blanket; emergency blanket. In my experience, they are not very robust. Most of them are too small, ...but mostly, they tear so easily that the protection that you're hopefully gaining from them is very quickly lost.
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AMY RACINA: For the next three days and nights, I dragged myself down the ravine into which I'd fallen, because I knew from my map that there was a larger trail down below my ravine. At the end of the third day I had come to a place where I couldn't go any farther. I was starting to weaken, and there was a barricade of rocks and sticks in front of me. That was about as close as I came to despair, and I had been calling out occasionally all through the days that I spent in the ravine, and I called out one more time, I shouted out "help, help, I'm ready to be rescued" not really thinking that anyone would hear, but desperate for any chance.
DOUG RITTER: Next items, I would have to say is some means of signaling your distress. Certainly a signal mirror is probably the most basic signaling device. They're lightweight, they're inexpensive, they're very effective... But obviously you can signal with almost anything reflective if you use two hands to aim it with. So a signal mirror, a whistle. There have been a lot of people saved because of their ability to capture attention with a whistle. Our voice does not carry very far, particularly in wooded areas and those sorts of situations. Yelling gets old very quickly, your voice goes away, and then you're left with nothing. Blowing on a whistle, anyone can do. And a good whistle will carry significantly farther than your voice will ever carry. So I guess that's two items, a signal mirror and a whistle.
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AMY RACINA: The only thing that I wished I'd had was a whistle... I shouted out "help, help, I'm ready to be rescued"... And it was at that moment that I heard a sound. Two tiny toots of a whistle. And when I heard the sound I went absolutely crazy. I knew that it meant that there was some human being out there, and that this was my chance for rescue, maybe my only chance. I went absolutely wild banging on my pot, shrieking at the top of my lungs, desperate to attract attention.
[SFX pot banging.]
AMY RACINA: About two hours later, a man who had climbed down this very steep slope and he was standing in front of me, and he said "hi, my name is Jake." and I said "hi, my name is Amy." And he said we're not going to leave you. And so Jake, his wife Leslie, and his friend Walter had been hiking-by and they just randomly heard my call, determined that it was a human being in need of rescue. twenty four hours later, because we were still a long way from a trailhead, Walter had run for help and with the aid of a group of vacationing firefighters who had horses, and one of whom had a short wave radio, they were able to call nine-one-one and summon the helicopters. So for twenty four hours after I heard those two little toots, a helicopter was airlifting me out of the ravine.
[SFX stream down.]
DOUG RITTER: And then the final thing is, and admittedly not inexpensive, but it solves an awful lot of these problems through technology, and that's a personal locator beacon... We've had recent rescues where people have turned on their P-L-Bs and were rescued within a few hours.
STEVE: One other item that I sometimes see on lists, although I'm loathe to call it an item, it's listed as an important element for survival, is a partner.
DOUG RITTER: I think there's a lot of validity to that. I mean, certainly it is less risky to go out with a partner than it is to go out solo. And if you're going out solo, carrying something like a P-L-B becomes of even more paramount importance... Yeah, in some respects the P-L-B substitutes for a partner I guess. But there is no real substitute for having someone along who can assist if you find yourself in trouble. In many cases, it eliminates the potential emergency, because, while you may not be able to get yourself out, with the assistance of your partner, getting out may be easy... I would never say don't ever go out solo, but certainly if you go out solo, you should be more responsible in ensuring that if something goes wrong, you're not going to have difficulty getting rescued.
AMY RACINA: ...In the case of my fall, we'll never know for sure, but it's possible that if I'd had companions, they would have fallen too. If I had been with other people, I would have probably been rescued sooner. It would have taken about two days, still, maybe three days for the helicopters to reach me.
STEVE: Amy was out of the wilderness, but not out of the proverbial woods. She was only hours away from death by septic shock.
AMY RACINA: The first shock was to learn how very badly injured I was. There was some question about whether or not I'd be able to walk again and whether or not I'd keep my legs. So the first milestone was when eight surgeries were completed, and I knew I would keep my legs. The next milestone was when I was actually able to stand up without clutching a walker or a crutches or hiking poles. Being a hiker, I know that if you just keep putting one foot in front of the next, you'll eventually get to where you want to go. So I kept working up from a block to eventually a mile, to two miles, and at about nine months after the near-fatal fall, I took my first backpacking trip. I took a friend with me, and we were only able to do about three miles a day, but it was a huge milestone for me. Now I can do about sixteen miles in a day if I need to. I prefer more like twelve miles a day. I carry my own backpack. I am soloing again, and extremely grateful to be alive, well, walking, and hiking.
STEVE: You've been giving talks and teaching, especially children, about what they can learn from your experience? Can you tell me what you're doing now to help people learn from your experience?
AMY RACINA: I'm going around and sharing my experience with various kinds of groups with hiking groups. Groups of young people, junior high school kids, boy scouts. I consider myself to be only an expert in my own experience. But I also consider that many other people out there might at some point in time might be faced with a life and death circumstance. At that point they will need to know that other people have made it out alive. And I hope that if it ever happens to anybody who has heard my story, ...that they will use my story as inspiration to make it out alive themselves.
STEVE: Amy's story is an example of how the ten essentials made a difference. But there was an element of luck in her story. She was lucky that her gear and supplies were all available to her, and then she was even more lucky that someone found her who could help. So the ten essentials, no matter what version of the list you use, are devised to improve your odds of survival when things don't go according to plan.
DOUG RITTER: So for Doug's ten essentials, I think we start out with navigation. Preferably a mapping G-P-S, with a spare set of batteries, or a map and compass, and the knowledge on how to use those two together. That will keep you out of trouble in many circumstances. Number two, your knife. Something that is well made, robust, one-hand opening, a locking blade, a knife you're willing to bet your life on. Number three, fire starter and tinder. This can be as simple as some water proof matches, but I prefer a flint and steel fire starter, such as the Sparklight with matches and maybe even a lighter as backup to that. Number four is water, and some water purification so that if you're in a situation where you can top-up you can keep that canteen or water bottle or Camelbak topped up. Number five would be a whistle; definitely more effective than shouting. Number six would be a signal mirror, which allows you to reach out significant distance and attract attention. Number seven would be duct tape, the ultimate, multi-purpose component. Number eight would be shelter. This can be as simple as a couple of large garbage bags, or something like Adventure Medical Kits Heat Sheets blanket. Number nine would be a flashlight or headlamp. L-E-D, lithium battery, with a constant-on switch. Ten, sunscreen or insect repellent as appropriate to the environment you're going to be in. And finally an eleventh, but I think very important, a personal locator beacon, so somebody knows you need help and knows where to come get you.
AMY RACINA: My personal essentials list are specifically those items that helped me to survive a near death situation... So I think Doug's list is wonderful. I do carry all those things. I didn't carry a personal locator beacon at the time of my fall because they were not yet licensed in the United States, but I do carry one now.
STEVE: What are your ten essentials, do you have a different list? You can call our toll free comment line at 866-590-7373. You can find links to Doug Ritter's Equipped To Survive Foundation, Amy Racina's book, "Angels in the Wilderness", other information about the ten essentials, bonus audio content, and an extended high fidelity stereo version of this show, on our web site.
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Next time -- Animal Terror.
Our official website is WWW dot WILDEBEAT (that's W-I-L-D-E-B-E-A-T) dot NET. Please click on the support link to make possible future editions of this free service. The WildeBeat is produced by Steve Sergeant, with help from Jean Higham, as a public service of Effable Communications.
This has been The WildeBeat, combined program numbers seventy eight and seventy nine.
Thank you for listening.
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