Friday, March 31, 2017

I wasn't a Girl Guide..

..but you'd never know it from the way I pack for a day of trailrunning.

Straight talk here, folks: I'm clumsy and stubborn, and will go running by myself on singletrack trails in terrible weather where it would be difficult for help to get to me if I got into trouble.

Not ambulance-friendly, but so very pretty.

So, I pack along an emergency kit (apart from any traction aids, trekking poles or spare clothing I deem necessary for that particular expedition), and I'm going to show you what I keep in it. Yours might differ in appearance and the actual items you bring along, but if you're going for a trek through the woods on foot (or xc skis, or snowshoes) I highly encourage you to have one. If you make it small and light - my basic kit is under a pound - you'll have a much better chance of coming out of a nasty situation with just a great story to tell your friends if you have a few basic tools for your health and survival.

Say hello to my little friends.

Trail Running Emergency Kit

Loosely based on the Ten Essentials, I have tailored my kit to my own needs while on the trail. I don't need to worry about food & water, as those are already accounted for on any trip I take into the woods, whether it be an hour or a week. I'm more concerned here with the "what could go wrong" scenarios - specifically dealing with a situation that makes it difficult or impossible to get myself off the trail to safety. Note that I did not receive any compensation for any product mentioned below, nor do I get any commission from any of the links I've provided. I'm just trying to see you all safe here, folks - that's all the reward I need!

Just a few helpful items.

I already carry a headlamp if I'm going to be out near sunset (or before sunrise, though I can't ever remember that happening..), but batteries can be a fickle thing - even more so in cold weather. So, I carry a full change of batteries for my headlamp. I specifically pack lithium batteries for three reasons: they're lighter than alkaline batteries (which is a minor point); they actually contain more ampere-hours than alkalines (i.e.: will power my light longer), and most importantly they're a dry cell with no liquid electrolyte to freeze. If your headlamp dies on you on a cold run, the last thing you want is to fumble new batteries into it only to find it only produces a weak glow!

A small zipper baggie keeps them all together and protects from moisture

Now, having spare batteries is all well and good, but it's impossible to change your headlamp batteries by the light of your headlamp. So, I bring along a 10 gram solution that can even be considered a backup light source if my main light fails completely due to some kind of damage: a simple glow stick.

I got 3 of them for a dollar just after Hallowe'en.

I wouldn't want to try to run by the light of one of these things after dark, but it should provide just enough illumination that I could hike my way out carefully in a pinch, and would certainly give enough of a glow that I wouldn't be railing in frustration over being unable to get my spare batteries into my headlamp.

Navigation stuff

Being able to light the way is fine, but you also need to know where the heck you're going. When possible I do bring maps along, but not all of the trail systems that I run have published maps. I have a compass app on my phone, but if its battery is low or I'm trying to conserve it, a simple magnetic compass only weighs a couple of grams. I use one that's not liquid filled since I don't want it freezing up on me, and I add a couple of metres of biodegradable trail marking tape in case I go somewhere like Dryden Tract where the trails seem to be designed by M.C. Escher. Going in circles never helped anyone find their way to safety, and Tanker knows that if he finds red trail tape along a route, I'll be somewhere in that direction. I do not advocate using this in anything other than an emergency, though - take only photos and leave only footprints!

Hopefully no blood trails..

As I said before, I am a clumsy oaf. That means I'm at pretty high risk for some manner of damage when I'm out gallivanting in the forest, so I bring along some stuff to patch myself up. The Aventure Medical Kits Ultralight & Watertight .3 is a pretty good option since it's self contained in a sturdy, water-resistant pouch and has most of the things I'm likely to need. Apart from the list shown below, I add a couple of lengths of kinesiology tape that I can use to try to hold a damaged muscle or joint together long enough to get me off the trail, and I write my emergency contact information and health insurance information on the outside in case I am unconscious or unable to communicate.

I do carve it down so I'm only carrying 1 of each supplied item.

Of course, the medical kit only works if you have some idea of how to use it. I have taken numerous first aid courses throughout my life, and I strongly advise anyone - whether you spend a moment in the outdoors or not - to do so as well. They're often offered for a very low cost (sometimes even free - check with your employer or community centre to see if they provide a course), and everyone benefits when a majority of people have the training to handle emergency medical situations.

Getting a bit more esoteric here..
So far most of the things I've detailed are pretty common-sense items, but these might come a little out of left field. I keep a spare shoelace on hand because I won't be able to run - or even hike properly - if one of mine breaks and I'm unable to tie it back together again. The adjustable strap can serve multiple purposes: if my headlamp strap breaks it can act as a temporary replacement; it can be employed as a tourniquet, or secure a couple of branches to act as a splint on a damaged limb. Unfortunately I don't think Backcountry Research makes this ultralight version anymore, but Zpacks has something similar.


If you've been active outside and then stop, you're likely to get cold. If you're dressed for running in anything other than hot, summery weather, you're almost certainly under-dressed for standing/sitting still in the outdoors. Thus, I keep a stash of warming products in my emergency kit, because hypothermia really sucks.

Starting on the left is an emergency blanket, a.k.a. a "space blanket". This particular one is sized for up to 2 people, which means I can wrap more of my body in it than one of the 1-person size. It's the usual silver on one side but blaze orange on the other, so it's more visible in the woods if rescuers are looking for me. It can also be used to rig an emergency shelter if I'm stuck out overnight.

The chemical hand warmers are pretty self-explanatory. I was brought back from a hypothermic state at the inaugural Steaming Nostril in 2013 by slapping a couple of these on my chest, enabling me to finish the race. These can also be used if I just find myself under-dressed when I'm out running - popping one or two in my sports bra can make a huge difference if the temperature drops suddenly on me or if I get unexpectedly soaked.

On the right we have a zipper baggie with a box of waterproof matches and a couple of firelighters. If I really am stuck out in the woods somewhere in cold weather, the space blanket and hand warmers aren't going to cut it. A flint and steel sounds like it has more survivalist cred, but if I'm cold and tired and scared I'm not looking to piss around with a method that can be difficult even in the best circumstances. The firelighters will help even wet wood catch, and then I can use the space blanket to reflect the heat of the fire so its warmth surrounds me. I hope never to find myself in a situation where I need these, but they do provide peace of mind when I'm traipsing snow-covered singletrack in solitary silence.

Tools for the job.

I carry a Leatherman Micra mostly as part of my medical kit, but it serves other functions as well. The scissors will cut open the hand warmers, space blanket or glow stick packaging if my fingers are unable, and the screwdrivers, small blade and tweezers can handle some minor repairs on the trail. It's a fairly robustly built little thing that's lightweight while actually being a useful size.

That's not candy.

These are a bit of a frill, but small and light enough that I bring them anyway. Sometimes called "coin tissues", they're highly compressed cloths in blister packages that will - with the addition of a bit of water - expand into about a 10" x 10" sturdy towelette for wiping anything and everything. I picked up some packs of 10 for about 50 cents each at a local surplus store, and just cut off two from one end of the package. If I drop my phone in a pile of snow or a mud puddle, these will clean it up. If I fall in the mud I can do an initial clean-up to see if there are any wounds that need attention. They're also a backup plan in case my digestive tract is having a rough day and I've already used up the zipper baggie full of toilet paper that I'm pretty sure every single trail runner already carries. It's only a matter of time..

Just put your lips together and blow..

A whistle should be part of every single emergency kit. Its sound carries further in the woods than a human voice and is much more sustainable - you will grow hoarse and unable to yell for help long before you are incapable of blowing a whistle loudly. Three sharp blasts is a universal distress signal that will alert anyone in earshot that you need help. The Fox 40 Classic is a near-perfect emergency whistle as its pealess design has no moving parts to fail, it will work perfectly in the rain or sub-freezing temperatures, it is quite loud (estimated 115db) and both cheap and plentiful. I attach mine on a length of lightweight cord to the zipper on my kit so it's easily located if I need to signal for help in a hurry, and won't fall out and be lost if I'm fumbling around with cold hands.

One bag to hold them all..

To contain all of these wonderful items, you might choose a zipper baggie, but I go with the Eagle Creek Specter Quarter Cube. The lightweight ripstop nylon is a bit more durable than a baggie while still providing a bit of water resistance, and it's sufficiently translucent that I can still spot most items inside it. The bright red colour means it should be hard to misplace, while the webbing handle on top means I can easily hang it by my hydration packs to grab quickly, or hang it off a branch if I desire in the woods. I write my name, emergency contact and health insurance info on the back in case I'm found unconscious or unable to communicate.

The whole kit and caboodle.

As I stated in the opening, all of this kit together weighs in at less than a pound - 0.92lb or 14.67oz, to be exact. I wouldn't carry the extra weight while racing, but training is all about getting stronger, so why not train a bit heavy when it could make such a huge difference to your safety?

As packaged, this kit slips easily in the main compartment of any of my hydration packs, one of which I will certainly be using if I'm going for a run of 90mins or more. I also carry the same kit even when just out hiking in the woods with Tanker, because there's always a chance one of us could be hurt or the weather could turn on us. None of the contents are very expensive or difficult to source, and of course you can tailor it to your own circumstances by adding, subtracting or substituting items that are best suited to the kind of outdoor activity you prefer. It doesn't hurt to be prepared!

Even as signs of spring begin to appear..

There's one other item that you may have spotted above that I haven't discussed yet, mostly because I don't always carry it and I do consider it a frill. However, I've had to use it a couple of times and will generally carry it if I'll be out for 3 hours or more.

I love multifunctional gear

This puppy is a combination light and powerbank, with enough juice to give my phone a full charge. I like to take a lot of photos if I'm out running somewhere pretty, and that drains my phone's battery fairly quickly - especially in cold weather. I was caught out once on very technical trails as fog and darkness were descending - my headlamp stupidly forgotten, and before I started carrying my emergency kit. I had hoped to use my phone's flashlight to guide me out, but I'd also needed it for navigation, as I had gotten a bit lost. The combination of having taken a bunch of photos, messaging with Tanker (who was out hiking), plus trying to use Trailforks and Google Maps to find my way back to our car meant that I had no battery power left to use for light. This gadget would have helped with both of those problems, since I can plus my phone in to the standard USB port in its base to charge it, and it's also a really bright light on its own!

These photos do it no justice at all

On the left is the low power white setting, which is still brighter than my headlamp. The centre photo is the high power white, which will light up an entire area.

If, say, you just happen to want to have a bit of a brew up in the woods in the dark.

It also has both a constant and strobing red, plus an SOS pattern flashing red setting. You cycle through the modes by the simple expedient of pressing the textured rubber-sealed button on the end, which gives a very positive response and doesn't seem to turn on accidentally very easily. One final press from SOS mode turns it off, and a blue LED will flash to show you how much battery life is left. The whole unit is IP68 waterproof rated and will withstand being dropped from about 2m/6' off the ground without issue. There are more specs available here, though the brand name is different than the one I have. For under $25, this is something I'm delighted to have available to use - it may make my glow stick a bit redundant, but I can easily plug my phone in with the provided USB cable and stick it in the pocket of my hydration vest to charge, which will take about 30-45mins depending on how much I've drained it.

It's fairly lightweight, too.

So my entire emergency kit including the powerbank and cord comes to 551g (or 1.21lbs / 1lb 3.4oz) - just over the weight of half a litre (a bit more than one pint) of water.

While none of these items are a substitute for a bit of sense and good judgement, even the best-planned outdoor adventures sometimes go awry. Hopefully I've given you enough reasons to start packing along a few supplies that could help get you out of a nasty situation, if not actually save your life. Yes, I make Tanker the Wonder Sherpa carry his own emergency kit when he's out hiking while I run - I want him back safely, and I'm sure there's someone who wants you back, too! I'm also very keen on keeping myself healthy enough that I can continue to venture into the woods to find the pretty places you just can't see by road.

Even if it's all covered in ice.

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