In case of emergency 

Gear you always pack, but hope to never use

Kendal Mint Cake

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  • Cathrine L. Walters

A British kayaker turned me on to Kendal Mint Cake, which is sort of like the confectioner’s version of lard. The high-calorie recipe (glucose, sugar, peppermint oil) has changed little since the 1800s, but today it’s more of a snack food for outdoorsy folk than a tasty dessert treat.

That might have something to do with the fact that Kendal Mint Cake is not very tasty. Its mint flavor is overpowering. “Cake” is also a deceptive label—the texture is more like drywall.

These unappetizing characteristics are exactly why I keep it in my pack. Snickers, Twix and other tasty emergency rations have a miserably short life expectancy in my dry bag. But I can resist eating Kendal Mint Cake until I am seriously hungry. (Monica Gokey)

Duct tape

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  • Cathrine L. Walters

I consider duct tape my best friend in the backcountry. It’s my tool box, my medical kit and my sewing machine all rolled into one. It has helped me fix broken skis, ski poles, kayaks and tent poles. I have used the silvery strips of magic to re-attach plastic buckles to my pack and soles to my shoes after they’ve come unglued a bit too close to the fire.

Duct tape provides relief for blisters, closes gaping wounds and assists in the creation of an emergency splint. One piece from this rescue roll can also patch my tent’s rainfly, the hole in my rain jacket and the crotch of my pants. Once, it helped keep the down fill in my sleeping bag after a midnight struggle with the zipper went bad.

Every time my duct tape is needed, something has gone terribly wrong. But it’d be a whole lot worse if I didn’t have the tape. (Robin Carleton)

Space blanket

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  • Cathrine L. Walters

I carry a very-well-stocked first-aid kit just about any time I’m in the backcountry, a bundle so chock-full of contingency preparations it barely squeezes into its zippered, paperback-size pouch. And it’s the squeezing that makes me reluctant to ever deploy the most intriguing item in there: the space blanket.

The tissue-thin, Mylar sheet will ostensibly serve as emergency shelter. If I were ever injured, stuck and cold, the space blanket would supposedly help me maintain a few extra degrees of warmth and minimize my exposure to wind, rain and snow. But the coolest feature is that it packs down to almost nothing, a tidy rectangle you could stick in a birthday card—or an over-stuffed first-aid kit.

I’m curious to break it out just to see what it actually does. Is it big enough to duck all the way inside? Would it quickly tear to pieces on a rocky bivouac?

But ultimately, I don’t really want to investigate, because once it’s unfolded, there’s no squaring it away again, no return to the pristine state of compact, cleanly cornered, utterly efficient storage in my bloated kit. So folded up and tucked away it will stay, until such time as … ugh, I don’t even want to imagine. (Matt Gibson)

Rope knife

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  • Cathrine L. Walters

My rope knife hangs from my neck like little more than jewelry. During countless river, ocean and mountaineering trips over the last 10 years, it has received little attention and been the source of occasional frustration (the sheath has a knack of snagging things), but I still carry it. It’s much more than some cling-on taking a ride. I put it there, after all.

I lost it once for three months and scoured every stopping place along the Clark Fork for its glimmering edge. I could have bought a better, newer one, but that was the one that was mine, and I was relieved when I finally found it. I consider it my last line. My last hope. When the time comes, it will have to cut the rope that threatens someone’s life, most likely my own. (Eric Oravsky)


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  • Cathrine L. Walters

Lugging a first-aid kit on backcountry adventures seems reasonable and wise—until you dislocate a knee, pinch off an appendage or char your sinuses blowing up a camp stove. Then that kit feels inadequate, if not useless.

So my kit is tiny: a Ziploc full of super-adhesive Band-Aids, duct tape and hardcore painkillers. Band-Aids are universally useful for small stuff. When the situation is dire, duct tape can splint or seal or stabilize (see previous page). But when things really hit the fan, a prescription painkiller like oxycodone is the big gun that increases survivability simply by improving an injured person’s mental state and allowing vital first-aid tasks to be completed.

Painkillers should be handled carefully. They’re powerful, commonly abused and not without side effects, so tell your doc why you need them and learn which one is best for you. If your health-care provider won’t oblige, try an E.R. doctor or someone who specializes in wilderness medicine. Once you get the pills, be sure to print the drug’s “Fact Sheet” from and avoid complications by affixing it to the bottle’s label. Then bury them in your pack and pray they go unneeded. (Chad Harder)


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  • Cathrine L. Walters

There is no more sickening sound than the clang of metal and the breaking of bones, followed by the whining of the family dog. It’s even worse when it happens 1,000 feet from a trailhead.

Conibear traps are the Rubik’s Cube of the trapping world, and anyone unfamiliar with them will be perplexed when it comes to releasing a dog. They cannot be released by hand.

I always carry a rope—think braided climbing cord, but a leash works just as well—on hikes with my dog. The rope should have a loop the size of your foot on one end. If Fido gets caught in a Conibear, place the loop around your foot, then thread the rope through the springs of the trap. Quickly pull the rope toward you, compressing the springs and releasing one side of the trap. On the spring, there will be a safety to hold it in place. Repeat the same steps on the other side and your dog will be free.

One of the hardest parts of releasing your dog from a Conibear trap is staying calm, and keeping your dog calm. If you have a rope with you—and know how to use it—you have that much more reason to keep cool in a terrible situation. (Jessica Murri)

Pine pitch shavings

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  • Cathrine L. Walters

In the mountains, I am most comfortable off-trail and alone, slipping slowly and silently about the woods, creeping ghostlike across the landscape. I stop often, listen, sniff, senses engaged, and leave little trace of my comings and goings. Consequently, I never build fires. Not in summer, not in winter. With adequate clothing, there is no need to broadcast my smoky presence to every animal and human downwind of camp. I prefer to travel and sleep less conspicuously.

For over a decade and a half, however, I have carried a small Ziploc bag of pine pitch shavings in case I find the need to build a fire for survival—for warmth, as an emergency signal, to keep a prowling grizzly at bay, whatever. So far, knock on wood, the sweet-smelling curls of fiber remain in the bag—dry and waiting. (Matt Holloway)


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