What emergency equipment do you bring into the backcountry?

Lately I’ve been taking a look at the emergency gear I bring with me during backcountry skiing day tours – something I try to do at the beginning of every season.  Its important to continually evaluate what you bring along.  As your survival skills, equipment, and mountaineering abilities evolve the gear you require to stay safe in the wilderness should evolve as well.

When deciding what to pack one of the main things to look at is the terrain you will be experiencing. I do most of my skiing in the Pacific Northwest which means steep mountains and wet, deep snow.  The possibility of being soaked to the bone at the end of a long day trudging through barely freezing conditions is pretty high.  If something does happen and you are forced to stay in the woods overnight hypothermia is a huge risk. You need some way to deal with being wet. What seems to be most people’s go-to solution, starting a fire, is pretty much out.  The deep wet snow means any dead wood is going to be wet and buried.  Cutting enough tree branches, even if you brought an axe, to last the night is a monumental task and green wood doesn’t burn that well anyway.  This means you must, at a minimum, bring a dry layer of clothing to put on and a way to keep that clothing dry throughout the night.

My standard set of equipment is an insulated jacket (TNF Supernatural), insulated pants (Arc’teryx Atom LT), down socks (the liners from my FF Down Booties), rain jacket (OR Helium II), rain pants (CAMP B-Dry), emergency bivy (SOL Emergency Bivy), space blanket, Esbit titanium stove and fuel, small titanium pot, 1’x1′ piece of tinfoil, rope, knife with saw (Swiss Soldier’s Knife), headlamp (BD Storm), 20 feet of cord, water purification pills, waterproof paper & pen, wind/waterproof matches and a couple extra power bars.

My thinking is that I can change out of my wet ski clothing and into the insulated jacket/pants/booties and rain shell jacket/pants and then crawl into the emergency bivy to wait out the night.  I can use the saw attached to the knife to cut evergreen boughs for a bed to insulate from the cold snow underneath me (three feet of boughs will compress down to about one foot after a night sleeping on them so make sure you cut enough).  Overall this is a pretty weatherproof shelter when you combine the water and wind proof emergency bivy with the shell jacket/pants and the synthetic/treated down insulation layers.  If I start to get really cold I can eat a bite of power bar or boil some water with the stove and pot (make sure you put the tinfoil under the stove to keep the stove from melting the snow underneath it and tipping over).  Nothing like a cup of pine needle tea to warm you up at 3 am.

If conditions get really bad I have the option of digging a snow trench (using my avy shovel) and covering the top over with the extra space blanket (weighted down on the sides by my skis and with branches layered over the top to keep the wind from shredding or from it from blowing away).  Putting my bough bed inside creates a really secure shelter that can withstand a significant amount of snowfall, wind, or other nasty weather.  Just make sure that you keep an air hole clear if it is snowing heavily.

Lately I’ve been wondering if bringing the stove, pot and fuel along is really necessary.  The main point was more to provide a hot drink to ward off the cold verses using it to melt snow for water.  The pot is also a bit bulky and its annoying to find a good place to put it in my pack.  Rather than bringing the stove, pot and fuel I’ve switched to bringing six single use hand warmers.  The thinking is that, because they last 12 hours each, I could use two or three a night.  Rotating them around my body to warm whatever body part is cold.  It would also be pretty frustrating to be forced to crawl out of your emergency bivy, letting a ton of your built up heat out, to set up the stove when its snowing, the wind is blowing and your hands are stiff from being cold.

One thing I did like about bringing the pot with me was that, outside of the clothing, everything fit inside of it.  I could toss it into my pack without thinking and know I had everything I needed.  The pot also ensured this stuff stayed dry.  To solve the issue, now that I’m leaving the pot at home and opting for hand warmers, I put everything into a small dry bag.

I am generally surprised by how little emergency gear the average backcountry traveler brings with them.  At a minimum I feel like a couple hand warmers and an emergency bivy will go a long way toward keeping you alive.