Three fine articles have gave been posted in SurvivalBlog lately on the subject of Get Home Bags. First, J.M. addressed the question of getting back home if stranded at a distance by using exact planning. Second, St. Funogas described a more general plan that focused on the basics of minimal equipment and keeping up calorie intake. Last, J. Smith advocated for good-quality clothing and equipment and aligning priorities with resources.
J.M. approached the problem as an ultralight (UL) or super-ultralight (SUL) hiker. The problem set was narrowly defined: maximum distance, various possible routes and start points, range of weather conditions, and possible equipment sets. A collection of very nice high-end equipment was put together and explained, which would get the person in question into good shape to make a self-rescue trip in a chaotic situation.
St. Funogas looked at the question much more generally, framing it as seeking the surest and simplest way to get back from a distance reached with two or three hours of driving. His solution was to focus on foot care, on keeping up a high calorie intake with minimum effort, and on very little support equipment.
J. Smith advised that travelers prepare with good clothing and packs and a solid plan for making use of water and wood resources along one’s way. He also advised matching one’s efforts and resources to the order of threats.
My background is not in backpacking or in world travel, but rather in 22 years of Army service. But the Army doesn’t have any activity that’s the equivalent of “getting home”. Escape & evasion is most like it, but it presupposes a hostile environment. Of course, if we’re starting with widespread chaos in our getting home situation, that might be hostile too.
Military operations are mission-first, meaning a lot of things are basic combat load or relate to your task. Then comes your sustainment load – which is what you carry to take care of yourself. Maybe you’ve seen photos of D-Day paratroopers struggling to get into the C-47s for their flight. Reading their packing list will make you ache in sympathy.
These operations are also done as part of an organization. There are logistics elements whose purpose is to keep you provided with food and water. There are plans for medical support, for feeding, and for sanitation. There’s a big load that you’re carrying because it’s the job and a big load that you aren’t carrying because of support.
Another major difference is that the military operates in “non-permissive” or downright hostile environments, or at least simulates that in training. A road march is always, to some degree, a movement to contact. A supply convoy is also something of a combat patrol.
So, I’d like to approach this question from a different perspective of many hundreds of miles of Army-style marching and months spent in the field with various kinds of units, as well as training and experience with a wide variety of units and environments.
Dried is Fried
Dehydration is a killer. The risk is somewhat weather dependent, of course, but it’s absolutely real. Dizziness, weakness, disorientation, fainting – it can take only a few hours of exertion in very hot weather. Smoking and talking will make it worse. The most dangerous situation I dealt with in Iraq was dehydration. The physical danger could be felt, it was way beyond simple thirst.
In that extreme, bad water is better than no water. I have a bottle with a filter on it and a one-liter bag with a two-part purifying mix. Filtering water through almost any medium is a help. Digging a pit near a pond or stream is likely to yield water over a few hours – maybe a plan for overnight. A pair of pliers to open a hose bib or valve might be a way to get water in populated areas. Diarrhea can quickly lead to dehydration as well, so a good anti-diarrheal medication could be a lifesaver. An impacted bowel can be fatal, too, but nowhere near as quickly.
The Hold of the Cold
It’s easy to research average high and low temperatures for each month in any given area. Most of the continental US is cooler than one might think, since most of us are indoors during the night hours. Disorientation, fatigue, apathy, lost focus – these are all potential killers aside from the risk of freezing and hypothermia themselves. Hypothermia is the same thing that the old-timers called “exposure”.
The answer to exposure is what the infantryman calls “snivel gear” – the minimal clothes that will keep you out of trouble. Number one is a good waterproof shell. The difference in options between weight and quality makes it worthwhile to spend more here. I bought a rain jacket a few years back that adjusts to fit as needed over headgear and weighs less than some t-shirts. Expensive, but I don’t regret the cost. Because woods keep dripping and weeds and brush shed water on you long after the rain has stopped, a pair of gaiters or shell pants might be a good option.
For warmth, a balaclava is in my bag, along with a thermal undershirt. In a colder area, silk weight or heavier long undies would be there too. Gloves for warmth, maybe a thermal vest. Food is your heat source, so warm clothes reduce hunger. They also reduce overall misery, which leads to greater alertness and attention to your surroundings.
We don’t know when our hike will happen, or we’d avoid it altogether, so some shelter planning is in order. Two of the earlier writers recommended a lightweight bivy (bivouac) bag for shelter, and that’s a solid call. The Army’s Flexible Temperature Range Sleep System (FTRSS) has a winter sleeping bag, a lighter patrol bag, and an outer bivy. It’s vastly better than the “bag of feathers” M1950 sleeping bag that older soldiers might remember. Sleeping on bare sand in my clothing and the patrol bag alone was pretty decent even in the mid-teens, with conditions dry and sheltered from wind. Where the bivy bag shines is as a light and compact tent substitute that also retains some body heat and protects the thermal value of your clothing. It’s dead simple to use and very low-profile.
Some UL hikers prefer a hammock and small tarp. That small tarp could be all you need much of the time. An alternative used by some, especially in mountain ascents, is one or two large trash bags. (Be aware that garbage bags may have treated surfaces) Putting your lower body in one bag, and cutting the bottom seam of another bag so you can slide that over your upper body could be an effective answer for a few nights. A good quality poncho is another solution. Most of these coverings can be stuffed with vegetation if needed for insulation.
What about fire? Soldiers avoid making an open fire for a number of reasons that may not apply to your situation, but the time and effort spent on gathering fuel and tending it may not be worthwhile. It would be valuable for sanitizing water and for supplying external warmth in an exposure emergency, and that would be about it for me. Remember that the Israelites were guided by a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of smoke by day. In other words, fire is great for signaling, bad news for going low-profile. I would echo St. Funogas’s recommendation to have one or two mini butane lighters.
Related to snivel gear is the question of cleanliness. The business of field sanitation is serious enough that every Army company requires at least one NCO to go to a two-day course on the subject. Most field soldiers carry a package of wet wipes, many carry lip balm (and the medics will issue it) and a toothbrush – even without toothpaste – to clear that trench mouth sensation. MREs have an accessory packet that includes a “moist towelette” and so did their C-ration predecessors. The consensus opinion is that the morale boost is worth the weight. Preventing infection is huge, too. Other possible valuable small items are insect repellent and sunscreen. These are issue items from the medics, and often requested in care packages from home.
St. Funogas brought up another big topic with foot care. The Army manual on foot marching (yes, there is one) recommends frequent checks on your foot condition, meaning every few hours. Skip this at your own risk. His recommendation of slippery inner socks and cushiony outer socks is the right plan for your feet. A dab of duct tape can keep hot spots on your feet from getting worse. Trimming and filing toenails? Yes, do it. And this is another area where moisture is your enemy, softened skin blisters faster. Remember those gaiters? They used to be Army issue items before trucks came along. Sure, you can walk on bloody feet. I did it for almost three weeks once. The feet get numb after a bit, so you stay functional, but it’s pretty unpleasant.
If you’re in the woods, especially at night, you’re vulnerable to getting poked in the eye. In fact, a friend of mine had one of his eyes knocked out of its socket when a bungee cord holding a load down popped loose. Thankfully, surgeons fixed him up nicely, but…wear safety glasses. Also bring gloves, because you don’t know what you might be climbing over, crawling under, or wiggling through.
Long-distance runners use a variety of products to prevent chafing. Clothes get wet with sweat, skin gets wet and softens, clothes dry (maybe) and chafing is the result. Bloody spots through your clothes in less than ten miles type chafing. Synthetic tight-fitting undies for slipperiness is the traditional grunt answer. Pantyhose under your uniform in the jungle was a no-kidding solution in the past. Athletic compression wear is the modern way. Again, not kidding, this is a genuinely debilitating problem.
Another St. Funogas recommendation that’s on the mark for several reasons is high-calorie trail mix. It’s true that someone can tough out hunger far longer than they can tough out thirst, because starvation is a much slower-moving danger than dehydration. But again, misery, apathy, distraction, irritation – if you’ve spent a few weeks going hungry, then you know that it’s not good. I really like the trail mix idea. Even a few pounds will make a huge difference.
A long-ago friend remarked about C-rations that they were heavy and nasty, but that they had what you need in the field – plenty of sugar and grease. So, the nuts and chocolate ration would fit my friend’s assessment perfectly. Or there’s gorp- good old raisins and peanuts. Usually mixed with “pan-coated candy disks”, which is MRE-speak for a familiar candy – an M&M by any other name would taste as sweet. Some UL hikers rely on trail mixes based on granola, or on corn chips (crushed to reduce bulk). Others like dry provisions that they mix with boiling water to prepare. These might be freeze-dried meals or something simpler. Dried pasta and dry soup mix? Instant potatoes and milk powder? Peanut butter and cocoa powder mixes? Preferences and needs are individual, but the weight per calories rule is a definitive guide.
The Road Home
Every walking surface has its own qualities. Hard, level, dry pavement is the norm for us in the modern world; every other surface is slower. Even smooth lawns are a little slower. Dealing with tall grass or plowed fields or the irregular footing along railroads will slow the hiker down and introduce tripping hazards. In other words, that three or four miles per hour pace you’re anticipating might be optimistic. Hills reduce foot speed going up more than you speed up going down, meaning that hilly terrain is slower and more tiring than flat ground. (About 12% slowing on the ascent versus 7% speeding on the descent.)
Detailed work with pace beads and compass bearings is probably not in your future, but as J. M. expressed, good maps can be essential. These can go in your cell phone’s memory. Leave it turned off for the most part to conserve your battery. Other notes can go in there as well. Where supplies or transportation might be found along your way, for example. Not getting lost and retracing miles in the wrong direction can save you fatigue and wasted time. GPS might be a fantastic help, or of no practical use to you. Only you can decide, but the app on your phone will be as much help as you’re likely to need, as long as it’s working.
Since at least WWII, aircrew have been equipped with escape maps. The current versions have an air chart overlay to a physical features map. It’s not the same level of detail as a topographic map, but it’s a clear presentation of routes and features. The reverse side is printed with descriptions and pictures of hazardous wildlife and edible plants for that region.
Turning on your phone at scheduled times will also let you check communications. The Army uses Primary – Alternate – Contingency – Emergency as the communications plan template. It might look like P – FM transmission on frequency ______ A – HF burst at frequency ______ C – mobile phone E – a runner. Maybe you can arrange with home base that they’ll try contacting you every day at 5:15 AM and 5:15 PM, and you’ll try contacting them. Phone/leave message, send text, send e-mail. Remember, the Internet was invented in the first place as a post-nuclear backup to telephone landlines.
Shoes & Bags
It’s an old joke that light infantry are like ladies – always shopping for shoes and bags. Heavier packs and rougher ground call for sturdier shoes as a general rule. The UL and trail running communities have all kinds of opinions and info on these things. Good trail sneakers should serve the getting home purpose pretty well, maybe with waterproof socks if you’ll be traveling in soggy conditions. In hot conditions, you might be fine with sturdy outdoor sandals. Some are made for hiking with various strap systems.
With bags, heavier loads call for heavier suspensions, broader shoulder straps, add a waist belt, add a chest strap, etc. The lighter load that we’re planning on might be balanced with a chest pack for frequently used items. An ordinary bookbag might get you through your trip, and there are plenty of good-quality lightweight hiking bags out there in many colors. There are also plenty of other ways to hang a load on yourself – military style web gear, construction workers rigs, hunting and fishing outfits, etc. I’d skip those in favor of a good hiking bag.
Imagine that you have flown to a city several hundred miles from your home. The government shuts down all civilian air travel indefinitely, saying that dozens of surface to air missiles (SAMs) have been brought into the country and law enforcement needs time to track these weapons down. You’re at least able to get a bus ticket to a city closer to home, as many thousands of other travelers are similarly struggling to reach destinations. Soon after, the internet is clobbered and credit cards are out for an unknown time. You wind up 130 miles from home with a small carry-on of business clothes and toiletries. What to do?
Well, if you had a couple hundred dollars in cash you might be able to get to a store where you could get suitable outdoor clothing and a small pack, get to a home improvement place and get some equipment, and maybe get the ingredients for a bunch of trail mix somewhere. Put it all together and start hiking and in a week’s time you make it home in decent shape.
- Rain jacket.
- Work shirt, trousers and shoes, as needed.
- Pack, if needed.
- Utility knife with blades in the handle
- Roofing hammer
- 50’-100’ of light cord
- Small tarp or drop cloth Small box of plastic leaf bags
- Some small plastic food bags
- Pocket lighter or two
- All the high-calorie trail mix ingredients you can carry.
- Sports drink bottle for carrying water.
If you’d brought a set of good outdoor clothing and a rain jacket and your carryon was a backpack, then just a few twenties would be enough to outfit you reasonably well for the trip ahead. This one “weird trick” could solve a bunch of problems: cash. C-A-S-H. Maybe a twenty could get you a ride to the next town and save you a day of walking. Maybe you could buy a rusty bicycle or a spot to sleep or a solid meal or whatever else. Extra cash is easy to hide, doesn’t weigh much, so it is worth some thought. It would be good to count on a preplanned amount rather than “whatever I have on me at the time.”
(To be concluded tomorrow, in Part 2.)