Alyssa Miller

Survival time: Two nights outside in Montana

January 11, 2012 by Alyssa Miller, AOPA Online Managing Editor

It’s 39 degrees Fahrenheit outside, my toes, knees, and fingers are cold. Note to self: Pack more layers.

Like any pilot preparing for an exciting or particularly challenging flight mission, I’m preparing for an upcoming aviation-related mission—a winter survival course near Kalispell, Mont., Jan. 13 through 15. The majority of the course occurs on Saturday, and the weather is forecast to be sunny with a high of 39 degrees Fahrenheit. While most pilots review charts or “fly” their challenging course on a simulator or check out the destination airport environment on Google Earth, I’m preparing by working outside for an hour or two this evening in Maryland to get acclimated to the temperature and figure out just how many layers I need to wear. Thirty minutes outside has already taught me that thermals and ski pants won’t be enough.

Leading up to this survival course, I’ve learned that my emergency preparations for cold-weather flying have been woefully inadequate. My typical survival gear for flying across the Appalachian Mountains to visit family during the winter consists of gloves, a bottle of water, a pack of crackers, a flashlight, my Leatherman, and my cell phone. If I had to make an emergency landing in the mountains or foothills, where the good landing spots are few and far between, I wouldn’t survive long in the cold.

The Montana Department of Transportation Aeronautics Division, which is hosting the course, recommended that participants bring with what we normally carry as a winter survival kit. It’s pretty obvious my “survival kit” won’t do. Thankfully, they also provided a packing list and some helpful questions to get us thinking in survival mode.

Fire starter: I picked up a FireSteel fire-starter kit designed by the Swedish Defense Department (something developed by any DOD should start a fire, right?). It has a built-in emergency whistle, and striking the two keys against each other should produce many sparks (haven’t tested this yet). I’m also taking cotton balls that I’ll coat with petroleum jelly to help get the fire going (thanks to REI for that tip).

Shelter: I picked up utility cord (similar to para-cord) and a tarp, and am packing my Leatherman and the AOPA knife. If the snow levels are appropriate, we might make snow caves, but I’ll have to improvise without a shovel.

Water: We’ll learn to purify and filer water, and to help with that I bought water purification tablets that work in 30 minutes and will pack my water bottle with a built-in filter. While I won’t be taking the kitchen sink, I will be taking a sauce pan to boil water in. (My checked bag will probably raise some eyebrows as it goes through TSA screening.)

Food: While we get meals during the course, I picked up freeze-dried chicken and noodles (what could taste better than that when you’re cold?).

Signaling device: Mirror. Although I don’t have a personal beacon to carry with me in the aircraft, that’s next on my list to purchase and carry on every flight, thanks to a gift from my family.

During the course, we’ll learn how to immobilize broken bones and treat burns. We’ll also be able to spend at least one night outdoors in the survival shelters that we make, and it might be possible to spend the other night in an aircraft fuselage. (My sleeping bag is supposed to be good down to 10 degrees Fahrenheit, and the lows that weekend are forecast to be in the 20s.) The best part is that I’ll get to test all of my new survival kit items. They are all remarkably light and compact (except for the sleeping bag), which will make it easy for me to carry in whatever aircraft I’m renting.

So far, all of the advice I have received has come from a packing list and REI. I want to hear from you—pilots who pack winter survival kits or who have had to make an emergency landing and survive in the cold for a few hours or longer. What do you pack? What are the must-have items? If you had a forced landing, what was the most important thing that helped you survive? Share your stories below for me and all of your fellow pilots to learn some new tips.

I’ll be checking back frequently leading up to the course to see what tips I can try out! Signing off for tonight though. My fingers are numb (those of you who fly regularly in arctic conditions can call me a wimp for being cold when it’s 39 degrees out).

39 Responses to “Survival time: Two nights outside in Montana”

  1. Brad Koehn Says:

    Wait, snow pants and thermals aren’t warm enough for 39° F? Since when? I carry a Spot locator (on my person in case I’m immobilized in the plane), so at least somebody knows where I am. That’s no guarantee they’ll get to me quickly, but it means the search will be really fast. carries a lot of good stuff as well (I’m not affiliated, just an occasional customer).

    Looking forward to your next installment!

  2. Jim Says:

    Preparing a survival kit is just about forethought. To survive, you need fire, signals, water, shelter, and food, more or less in that order. In winter, shelter comes before water. Make sure you have adequate means of creating / collecting all of those. You also must have a good knife and a multi-tool.

    Notwithstanding the forecast high, I assume there will be some snow at your site, so that’s what I would plan for.

    In an airplane crash, you have lots of materials available, unless your airplane burns to a cinder, of course. You have fuel and paper to burn, you have seat belts and cushions to make snowshoes (cut slots and feed the belts through), you have aluminum to make reflectors for signals and heat, you have wiring to use for rope to build your shelter, and lots more, limited by your imagination only.

    You have to be properly dressed to stay out overnight. You should have more than one pair of gloves / mitts, because they will get wet. You should also carry a small survival kit in a pocket, in case you have to leave the airplane in a hurry. Make sure your kit has the material to do the five critical things – fire, shelter, etc. Have more than one way to start a fire – nothing is more important.

    A SPOT tracker is a great thing to have. You should also make sure your cell phone is fully charged, because phone companies can often narrow the search area if they’re picking up any signal at all. Also, you might be able to send text messages even when you can’t phone – get your lat and long off your gps or chart, and text it to someone who will help.

    Don’t take shelter in the airplane, it’s too large a space to heat. Build your shelter alongside, or at least near, the airplane. Keep snow off the airplane to make it more visible, and try to clear the trees around the area to make the crash site visible. Keep at least one fire going all the time – you will have to collect a **lot** of wood. If you can find them, dead standing trees are the best wood.

    Collecting water in the winter shouldn’t be a problem, but food will be very hard to find. Bring granola bars or rations. Don’t eat anything the first day.

    A mirror is one of the best signalling devices. Hold the mirror so that the reflection shines on your hand, then move your hand to cover the search airplane, and take your hand away. A digital camera flash works great at night. Don’t forget to use the radio, if it works.

    There’s lots more I could say about this, but I’m stopping here, at least for now.

  3. Marvin Says:

    Sounds like a great experience! One thing about emergency shelter, if you’re frequenting REI, Adventure Medical Kits makes an Emergency 1 and 2 person thermal bivvy bag. If you had to stick it out in the cold it’s a great makeshift sleeping bag/shelter. They’re pretty cheap if I recall.

  4. Hank Says:

    I pack a winter travel kit in an old bookbag, but any small backpack will do. Small folding shovel, blanket, candles, lighter, peanut butter crackers, water bottle. Keep it within reach to be useful! A knife is always in my pocket except when traveling by airliner. At night, my flashlight is in the pocket on front of my seat, and spare glasses now stay there.

    For firestarting, the easiest and least-messy route is dryer lint. A sandwich ziploc bag will start several fires. It is very flammable, and you really should clean the dryer vent at home. It is also a renewable resource. Putting Vaseline on cotton balls sounds messy to make, greasy to transport, and be careful to not catch your vaseline-y fingers on fire!

    Have a good time, and remember–39º is the high temp, and it may not be that warm for very long. Night comes early in Jan that far north!

  5. Jeanné Says:

    Don’t forget an emergency “blanket” or 2. They take up less space than a rain poncho, are wind and waterproof, and are like one huge mirror.

  6. Norm Hartz Says:

    The best single thing would be a sat phone. The second best is the 406 ELT. A medical kit suitable for stopping significant bleeding could be life saving. After that, warm clothing is next, along with the previously mentioned fire starting items, such as a propane torch used for home bbq’s. If one has the phone and ELT, water and food should be a non issue.

  7. George Says:

    Since you have your spark maker and your petroleum jelly-filled cotton balls, try them. Make a fire.

    What do you have for water? Liquid water turns to ice. You can get small, light water filters at REI (a great resource).

    Take all your new toys, open them up and play with them.Read the instructions. See how they work.

    Your survival kit should live in your car and then move to your airplane when you fly. You probably spend more time in your car than your airplane (sadly). Lots of people lose their lives skidding off a road into a ditch after a snow….

    Make a fire. Make a fire. First. Make a fire.

  8. Joyce Rust Says:

    When flying over mountains I ALWAYS wear my survival gear. Yup. Wear. I have a vest designed for use by fisherman that has many pockets. In it I carry everything I would need to survive, so if I get out of the plane, my gear does too. The vest carries basics, in the tail I have a bag of extras that will make survival more comfortable, but are not essential.

  9. Tom Ricks Says:

    Remember -Most body heat is lost thru your head..Bring several knitted caps that go over the ears. We are not talking fashion statement here. We are talking survival

  10. Jack Voss Says:

    Survival is all about attitude. (Come to think of it – all of Life is about attitude.) You have to be determined to want to make it. Think through the expected environment you’ll possibly be in. Think food, clothing, and shelter.
    I wear a fishing vest and carry a 406 EPIRB (PLB) that is my primary piece of emergency gear. After all, if you’re rescued, you have no need of other stuff. I also carry gear to produce food – 6ea 24″ cable fishing leaders with swivels and clasps at both ends, and 12ea fish hooks with snelled leaders. These can produce fish or snare small game animals if the rescuers are busy elsewhere and I vacation out there a few days.
    Fire starters and flint and steel. Aluminum foil to cook in. Purifier tables for water. A compass, whistle, and utility tool are in there too. Aboard the plane is a very pistol and flares that can signal nearby rescuers, start a fire, or maybe for defense against an overly curious animal.
    Space blankets may help survival, but you won’t be comfortable. They hold in perspiration so you’ll get soggy and more vulnerable to chill. They also make very nice fires, as some of them are flammable second only to avgas.

  11. Frank Doerr Says:

    While in the Air Force, back in the ’60’s, stationed at Duluth AFB, MN – the F-106 pilots brought in a local outdoorsman for advice in surviving the harsh winter environment in the event of an unplanned ejection somewhere in the frozen north country. The ejection seat had very little room for storing things, but the local pro convinced them to add as much dry rice as possible, as it is very high in protein, takes up little space and swells to much greater volume when cooked. Thankfully, I’m not aware of any instance where it became necessary for any of our pilots to eject under these circumstances.

  12. Alyssa Says:

    Thanks everyone for the advice so far–keep it coming, I’m finding it all very valuable.

  13. mitty Says:

    A couple of people have mentioned the Spot gadget. The Spot emergency signal will be sent to a privately-operated center, staffed by people who may or may not be awake, and who may or may not have any training on what to do. Good-hearted guys that they are, they will probably try at some point to contact the _real_ emergency search & rescue folks and tell them what they are receiving.

    You want a real beacon, built to a real performance specification, that talks directly to the real SAR system. I carry a McMurdo FastFind. Plus, when you consider the Spot subscription cost, the real beacons are cheaper. Not that Spot isn’t a great toy, it is. But it is not what you want in an emergency.

  14. Philip Says:

    I am a former instructor of Wilderness survival skills.

    Wilderness survival, particularly in Winter, is best performed in the following order: shelter, water, fire, and food.

    For more info, see Tom Brown’s Field Guide to Wilderness Survival available at

    These skills (and they are just that–skills) must be practiced until perfected.

  15. Bonanza Babe Says:

    Perhaps a good survival plan, in addition to the excellent information in this article and comments, might start with flight planning to overfly as many airports and towns en route as possible. Yes, it might take longer, but it beats the option of being forced down into the middle of absolute nowhere…

  16. Chuckles Says:

    Ok… Good on the class. I attended one here in Colorado several years ago and learned tons. I learned that I, personally, don’t need much gear to survive. However, I’m not usually the only one in the airplane and I’m responsible for them too and they may not be as self-sufficient as I am, particularly if I’m injured. For them, I need extra stuff. So I added to their kit.

    The tip on Prepared Pilot is good.. I’m one of their customers too. I bought their kit before my class and added to it after my class and we had the “well, that sucked” discussion at the end. The key is don’t buy cheap stuff. The last thing you need in a survival situation is for your knife or something to break because you went cheap. You hope to never need it, but if you do, make sure it’s stuff you can rely on. A lot of the stuff listed below is in their kit.

    I have really basic stuff I keep in my flight bag and carry an extra survival bag on any cross country, particularly here in Colorado. I have a Prepared Pilot pocket survival kit, 2 AA maglights (red and white lenses), extra batteries, a Leatherman, gallon freezer ziplock bags, portable radio, and, in opposite pockets, a 9 volt battery and some fine steel wool. You can start a fire anywhere with that since lighters dont work too well at altitude. I also have a couple climbing carabiners on my bag because you never know. The flashlights are on lanyards and I have wrapped several layers of blaze orange duct tape around the handles. I also wrapped the case of the leatherman in the same orange duct tape and put some on the leatherman handles too.

    for my survival kit is in a bright yellow deck bag from a fishing store. They’re waterproof and can be used as water containers if needed. And bright yellow is easy to see… 1 tarp is good. I carry 3 that are orange on one side and aluminum on the other. not much more weight and with 3, you can quickly build a shelter that stops the winds. And not just any cord, but parachute cord. “Official” cord is grey or white. But you can also get blaze orange cord that’s made the same way – an outer wrapper surrounding 5 or 7 interior cords. 4 vinyl ponchos. 2 survival blankets, 2 survival bivys. I also have a pocket chainsaw and a fixed blade knife that I have resharpened every year whether I use it or not.

    2 more AA maglights are in there with extra batteries. They can act as a candle if you take the focusing lense off. FIXED blade knife. Water purifying tablets. The MicroPur tabs are great and the water tastes pretty good. Speaking of water… I have 2 quart bottles of water. And have stainless steel cups that fit perfectly over the bottom of the bottles. 4 pair thin knit gloves and 1 pair leather ones. I went to my eye doctor and got some of those roll up disposable sunglasses. I have 4 pair in a plastic film case. I carry waterproof matches, a butane lighter, and a magnesium fire starter. And i have 2 ziplocks of cotton balls/vaseline. There’s a good medical kit but I added to it with 6 maxi pads (bleeding) and a trauma kit. I also acquired 8 blaze orange leaf trash bags to signal, for shelter, or whatever. Last, I wrapped everything I could in blaze orange duct tape and put half a dozen lanyards in there. You can’t have too much cord or duct tape and might as well get it for signalling too. Whatever you do, check it once a year and replace anything that needs replacing.

    The whole thing weighs less than 20 lbs. It goes with me any time I’m doing more than just pattern work, and particularly if I’m heading west to the mountains.

  17. Terry Says:

    I made these in Montana for survival purposes to start fires when it might be difficult. I mixed melted candle wax (be careful melting) with sawdust, both fine and large, poured the mixture into medium size dixie cups with extra large cotton twine as a wick. they light easy, burn very well with a much larger flame. You can use these to light damp wood or even sit with it wrapped in a “space blanket”. I have had mine for 30 years, and have used a couple just to test them. They work great.

  18. Byron Jones Says:

    No one size fits all. The appropriate winter emergency gear for the Alaska wilderness, the northern Great Plains, the desert Southwest, the Appalachian Mountains, etc. will not necessarily be the same. Also, it is not just about you. You need to provide for every person in the aircraft, perhaps a child, an elderly person, etc. Keep in mind that you, and others, may be seriously injured and unable to perform even simple tasks which could negate the value of much of your survival gear.

    Regardless of the environment, one needs to prioritize by time. What does it take to survive an hour, a day, a week, etc.? For just about any location, absolutely the first priority should be a good sleeping bag, appropriate for the climate, for each person on board. That is all you need to survive the first 24-48 hours. Chances are, if you survived the landing, so did the aircraft fuselage so you have a shelter but a tarp gives you some additional options and may be a good addition. Or better yet, use bivy bags as was mentioned by a previous commenter. If water is not readily available in the environment (e.g. snow), then it is your next priority. A quart or two of some liquid drink for each person will get you though the first week in survival mode. To go longer than a week, you need to include food and, if it is not available in the environment, more water. If you have a good sleeping bag, water, and food, you can survive more or less indefinitely in a winter environment and all of those neat knives, axes, and other survival tools and gadgets that folks like to sell you are not essential. The key is to not get fixated on living for a month in the wilderness like Klondike Joe and then ending up freezing to death with a broken leg the first night.

    Of course, the above discussion is just about surviving and does not address the rescue aspect (signal mirror, locator, radios, etc.) which is a whole other factor to consider. Again, what makes the most sense for Fargo North Dakota is not necessarily the best for Flagstaff Arizona or Fairbanks Alaska. But, I have already taken up enough column space so will sign off here.

  19. Jon Heckendorf Says:

    Just the mention of survival gear is a step in the right direction. Granted, 99% of us will never require the need for any survival gear but for those poor souls who do, it can and will save your life and those with you.

    Those few who have responded to this article, I commend you. Unfortunately, there should be more of you responding.

    My question to the flying community is, “Why practice emergency procedures and not think about survival gear? Don’t they go hand-in-hand?” If you don’t think survival and survival gear then why practice for emergencies?

    My life has been full of adventures that required survival knowledge to be a key part of my life, so, at my age, I now come to it naturally only by the grace of God because I am still alive and able to talk about it.

    What I carry on my person is just the basics which weighs in at 22 ounces (knife, compass, signal mirror, LED light, multi-tool, Satellite Personal Location Beacon, water tablets, zip-lock bag, wound closure, cordage, what I am wearing, and some odds and ends). My, all inclusive, gear bag which I carry in my car weights in at 16 pounds. Less depending on situational requirements for my flight.

    Last year I joined a “Cessna 172 Club” forum. Seeing they had no topic on survival and survival gear I started a thread on the subject. I wanted to contribute to the forum and for those who flew cross country a lot. I took the time to develop a nearly all inclusive list of items to take along for an emergency event. Everything could be contained in a book bag weighing in at 16 pounds. Less, if items were removed. It was suppose to be food for thought and a shopping list of items to take on their particular kind of flight. It was also suppose to start an engagement for thought leading to a “perfect” list of survival gear. That is how a forum is conducted. Oh, was I ever surprised when I was met with jokes, sarcasm, and downright hostility.

    I wonder what they will be thinking when they are trapped, alone, lost, hurt, wet, cold, thirsty, hungry, no cell coverage, aircraft radios are inop, and knowing no one knows they are missing and where they are located. Are they near death or about to be? Can they stay alive long enough to be found and rescued?

    You decide. It is your life and your passengers too.

  20. Dan Swanson Says:

    I know pilots who put their jacket in the back seat before getting into the plane. Even if you have an excellent heater, ever try to get that jacket out and put it on with a broken arm or dislocated sholder? Keep it on. No sneakers in the snow or even low shoes. Warm boots are a must to walk in snow but you must be able to use the pedals. Mittens with glove liners. The mittens are warm and can be taken off to work with gloves. Extra scarf, mittens, blanket, LED flashlights for each person. Bottled water, but if there is snow, just melt it for more water. Energy bars. Fly in day VFR and stay near highways it it is really cold.

  21. Jon Heckendorf Says:

    Ms. Alyssa Miller, Thanks for this article. It opens the door to thinking about survival. I will be taking a refresher course here in Colorado this year. I am always amazed at what I do not know when I take classes of any type. I have even learned a few things reading some of the comments. I can substitute and save some weight by using some of these ideas.

    If you read everyones comments and stir them up you should get a very nice amalgam of survival philosophy and gear. At least, it is a start. Nice job everyone.

    I forgot to mention my whistle (high Db, loud, with no ball) of all very important things. Get several and wear one around your neck. When you need it you will instantly know why. Saved my life several times over the years. Skiing in avalanche country and in Viet Nam to name but a few places. Been of help locating people in other places.

  22. Bob Carlson Says:

    Wear in the plane what you would need if you were outside, and wear a Nomex vest with the essentials that you would need to survive and be rescued. That would be some ways to make a fire, a shelter such as a space blanket or mylar bivy sack, signaling devices, a small first aid kit, and a personal locator device with GPS positioning – I prefer a PLB, but there are others. It’s great to have more gear in a jump bag in the back, but assume that you’ll only escape with what’s on your body. You can go a long time without food, and unless you are in the desert, you can almost always find some sort of water. You don’t necessarily have to disinfect it, as you will likely be rescued or dead before the bugs have a chance to work you over. That said, the most compact and effective way to make potable water is to carry chlorine dioxide tablets.

    Your greatest survival tool is your brain, and hands-on training is the most effective way to keep it sharp. You have the right idea.

  23. Tony Chez Says:

    You are smart to be preparing for something like this. you already have alot of great advice. One thing I will tell you if not covered already is not to wear cotton on any part of your body! Their are some sites on youtube for packing an emergy kit for just about any conditions. I have taken Tom Brown Jrs Tracker course and found it to inspire confidence, but are skills that need to be practiced. Also awareness of your surrondings and conditions can not be understated. you have alot of good advice on this already so I will not be repeatiive. Good luck and stay warm and hydrated.

  24. John Says:

    The cotton ball and petroleum jelly idea sounds like a good one, but on a recent boy scout winter camp out I learned that these little balls are not as easy as you might think to ignite. I now favor prepackaged small fire starting sticks akin to dura flame logs (basically paraffin and sawdust), which ignite easily and last long enough to ignite locally available fuel. I also like to carry a small container of hand cleaner with alcohol. Good for clean hands, cleaning small wounds, and fire starting. Make sure you field test it, because not all brands will ignite. Don’t forget a lighter!

  25. tom Says:

    98.6. That’s what it’s all about. Maintaining body temp. Fail to do that and bad things happen. If they have Skip Stoffel there to instruct he’s pretty big on staying warm and dry. Skip wrote the book ‘The Handbook for Aviation Survival Sense’. Review it here:

    I’ve attended the MAD winter class twice when they held the campout on Stemple pass. The first time it rained, our snow caves dripped and I had no sleeping pad. Brrrrr. The second it got to minus 20F, and I was late getting there so they ‘offered’ to let me sleep in the fuselage. It was a bitter cold night in that aluminum box. I wore snowmobile boots, pants and coat in a sleeping bag on a sleeping pad and still had problems. A snow cave would have been perfect in those conditions.

    If you plan to sleep on snow take an inflatable sleeping pad. Tarps and old charts don’t stop the cold. Sleeping bags made of hydrophobic material are great too – they can lie in water and stay dry.

    Take nothing made of cotton – it kills when wet. Wool is best, but unless you are playing with fire, synthetics are darn good. Skiers sit on a ‘butt saver’ when riding snowy chair lifts so body heat doesn’t melt snow into your shorts, which of course should not be cotton. If you even think you’ll be sitting in snow get one. Or,a 55 gallon trash bag makes a good place to sit and to crawl into if the need arises.

    Railroad fuzees, aka road flares make the best fire starter/ signaling device/bear repellent you can buy for 99 cents. Bring several. Just don’t let them drip on synthetic clothing tho. Lacking that, dryer lint is a standout fire starter, and I have plenty of it. A small bow saw helps with firewood. A machete too. People are fond of hatchets but not well skilled in their use. You have to work at it to hurt yourself with a bow saw.

    A camelback backpack with your stove, flares, butt saver, flashlights, sleeping pad, mirrors, MREs etc makes a really nice package. Get one with the insulated sucker pipe to delay freezing.

    It’s good to go to bed with a warm belly. A small stove to boil water for your mac and cheese is handy. but MREs will do in a pinch. Take at least one headlamp and a flashlight on a string around your neck.

    Gloves: wool inserts in synthetic shells are great because you can keep swapping the inserts as they get wet. A few disposable pocket/toe/hand warmers are handy too if the pinkies get really cold. Ditto the feet. ‘Pacs’, aka mukluks are wool booties in canvas shells. The are cheap and incredibly versatile. Fitting is a problem: too loose and they will stay warm but be hard to walk in. Fitted well enough to walk in and they might slow circulation. If you can make up the difference with socks you have a solution. So bring lots of socks.

    I flew SAR in MT and the people we found signaled us with a smoky fire or mirror. That’s a hint son. One intrepid snowmobiler heard us overhead and tossed the rubber snow flap off the rear of his sled on the fire to make smoke. We smelled it before we saw it.

  26. Darren Says:

    Speaking as a relocated Canadian, there is lots of great information here. The one point I did not see noted very much, if at all, is to file a flight plan and then fly your plan. AOPA has a great flight planning website that permits you to input user defined way points in addition to using existing IFR intersections, airports, NAVAIDS, etc. When you are finished building your route you can submit it as a flight plan as your way points are automatically included in the route section of the flight plan form. Any user defined points are entered with a lat/long. One of the issues in Canada, and I know this from speaking with a fellow pilot friend (and serving RCAF CC-130 Air Navigator) who worked as a SAR Coordinator at one of our Rescue Coord Centers (and also taught navigation for the ground school at the local flying club), if there is no flight plan to go off of, they have no idea of where to even start looking.

  27. Mark C Says:

    Most of what I’d have said has already been said, but if you’re going to carry a sleeping bag, and that’s a great idea, why not go for it and carry a 0 degree or better mummy bag. You can take a good down bag and a compression sack and make it very small. Don’t store it in the compression sack, let it free when at home, it takes only a minute to pack it before a flight. And I’ll repeat the advice to get a bivy sack to cover the bag, if the sleeping bag gets wet it’s useless and drying it in the winter would be nearly impossible. A pair of good trekking poles will help if you have to walk your way out, and also can be used with a tarp to rig a shelter. I’ve found I can fly well wearing goretex hunting/hiking boots with 400 grams of Thinsulate, and if I was overflying a large unpopulated area I’d probably pack some “boot blanket” overboots for when I was not moving. Good backpacking raingear will cost you close to $200 but weighs next to nothing, keeps you dry, and is nearly totally windproof. The high calorie protein bars sold for athletes and weightlifters pack a lot of nutrition into a small, albeit heavy, space, and don’t require any cooking/water/etc. to eat them. While you can survive a long time w/o food, the psychological boost of not being hungry and the extra energy are a definite plus. If I was REALLY overflying a lot of backcountry I’d throw my snowshoes in the back, my Tubbs Mountaineers weigh less than 6 pounds for the pair and along with the trekking poles and protein bars I’d be prepared to walk 10 – 20 miles a day for a week if I had to. If that was the plan, I’d probably use another 6 pounds or so to put everything in a good 3-day backpack so I could carry camp with me. To reiterate what’s been said, NO cotton. Wear wool, polyester, goretex, thinsulate, with a tough nylon shell. And I’m bringing a ski mask, balaclava, or the like, I may not be pretty but losing my nose or cheeks to frostbite will not be an improvement, and I sleep better wearing a ski mask so my face doesn’t hurt and wake me up. If you want some tips on a good firestarting/cooking system, google on alcohol stoves and check out what you can make out of a pop can and a bottle of isopropyl alcohol.

  28. C Templeton Says:

    After an afternoon spent on top of a mountain with a broken aircraft in the middle of winter in CO, I added a partial roll of toilet paper to my survival kit. The partial roll doesn’t take up much space, and if not needed for its intended purpose, will be good for starting a fire.

  29. airwolf Says:

    All this is good advice. I would think the first thing to do is file a flight plan and stay in touch with the ATC. That is the first line of defense. If you don’t close it within 30 minutes of its end, they start searching for you.

  30. Curtis Says:

    I’ll never forget the two young American transport pilots I met at Entebbe (EBB), Uganda. They were dressed in white shirts with epaulets, cargo shorts and very sensible lace-up boots, and carried day-packs. Obviously, they were prepared as much for ‘walking home’ as flying, which is my philosophy …. be prepared to walk-out, whenever and wherever you fly. Wear shoes or boots appropriate to the terrain you will be overflying, and inflammable clothing. That warm fluffy down jacket will light-up like a Roman-candle with the first spark in a crash, which could ruin your otherwise impeccable survival plans.

  31. Pete buitendyk Says:

    Just a few that haven’t been mentioned, a 22 caliber rifle with a folding stock and a 25 round clip will provide you with ample food and protection if required.
    Melt a bunch of paragon wax into a large pot and immerse a roll of toilet paper I to it, allow it to soak up the wax fully, take out and let harden, once hard you. An cut off slivers and use it to light fires, works excellent and lasts an amazingly long time.

    Pack a couple of bags of Hawkins cheesier, good munchies and also burn very well as a fire starter


  32. Rob Payton Says:

    Flying in AK for 15 years.
    in winter, wear wool pants (Swedish Military with thigh pockets work well) as wool will not burn and will keep you warm when wet.
    ALWAYS have a Filson or Pendleton wool coat..(amazing warm and won’t burn) buy the best here…
    WIGGYS’ sleeping bag (when your zip code is 99789, you only want the best.
    Signal mirror (best and cheapest) is the hard disk from a failed disk drive…Metallic, smooth and hole in middle.. Free at any junk yard or computer repair place.
    Fire-Carry strike anywheres, vaseline soaked cotton balls and Trioxane military starter in a flat wallet size carrier (in thigh pocket of wool pants).
    Carry multiple knives (BUCK self opening made in USA) on you at least.. Others can be in pack.
    Food- REI has a great selection of High Fat content bars.. put a couple in coat pocket..
    LED button light in coat pocket.
    Sunglasses – Safety polarized… Cheap but a necessity in snow.
    You’re flying a $50k+ aircraft… pony up to 406mhz EPIRB…
    You’re flying a $50k+ aircraft… pony up for Lithium batteries
    SPOT is always a good coat pocket item.
    There is no reason that 48hr rescues cannot be the norm… Just a little planning ahead..

  33. Bill M Says:

    Ditto to all the above and in my bag…
    Bright orange tarp from U-Haul – inexpensive shelter and highly visible
    Wire saw – small, light, easy to use
    Sportys strobe and an extra D battery
    Jet-Boil and coffee (hot liquid adds core warmth, coffee, although dehydrating, makes me feel better)
    Roll of aluminum foil – reflector of heat from fire, and laid out in the open during the day to locate me.
    Bear spray – yes, they’re hibernating, but the wolves aren’t, and they can smell injured prey for miles.

  34. Bill M Says:

    …and one more thought…
    I prefer to file a flight plan with my spouse. I get very detailed about my route, with many waypoints that FSS won’t accept. I also set up my Spot to send a msg to her cell phone when I arrive at destination, because in Idaho & Montana backcountry, there is usually no way to contact FSS to close a plan. We both sleep better.

  35. Jack Voss Says:

    At the risk of being giggled at, here is how I make my survival bars. (They also taste good when sitting at home, with a cuppa coffee/tea/cocoa).

    Cap’n Jack’s Power Bars
    Dry ingredients: into a large bowl put:
    1 cup powdered milk
    1 1/2 cups dried fruits, well diced and mixed w/powdered milk – (dried cherries or dates or cranberries or whatever you have.) Dice up (1/8” – 1/4”), thoroughly mix and. coat each bit with powdered milk first, then add:
    6 cups oatmeal (I prefer the Old Fashioned stuff)
    1 cup chopped nuts (walnuts, pecans, almonds, whatever nuts you have around)
    1 cup sunflower nuts
    1 cup unsweetened chocolate bits
    1 cup flax seed
    1 cup sesame seeds (unhulled best)
    Combine all dry ingredients & mix well.
    Wet ingredients:
    1 cup applesauce (I prefer without High Fructose Corn Sweetener, home made is best)
    1½ cup honey (pre-warming honey helps)
    Add wet stuff to dry stuff & mix well. Press firmly into a baking pan w/ raised edges (12” X 17”) and bake at 350° about 30 – 40 minutes.
    Pre-score w/pizza cutter into 2” bars, let cool, then complete cutting.
    These are a standby for me. Breakfast, lunch, extra day’s food. Store in freezer for months. Carry in hot or cold conditions.

  36. Carrie D Says:

    Thank you for the informative and thought provoking article and to all the respondents. I’ve just begun flying in the North East region of the U.S. and this topic is now very relevant to me. I am going to shop online this evening for a PLB and will get some warm wool pants to fly in immediately.

  37. Bill M Says:

    Just a thought…a few keep referring to “walking out”, IMHO, better to prepare for staying with the plane and carry the lightweight gadgets that bring the cavalry to you. Moving around makes it very difficult for S&R. Easier to find the airplane than a hiker and plan for some physical challenges – injured psgr, broken leg, separated shoulder and the like. Plan to stay with the plane.

  38. Rick Stafford Says:

    Thought you would like to know …. The winner of the AIC/UAF Arctic Innovation Competition was the Airlite Inflatable Snowshoe. 212 inventors from around the world entered this competition held on Friday, Oct. 19th, 2012, at the University Alaska Fairbanks. Please see the website found below.


    Rick Stafford
    Airlite Inflatable Snowshoes
    Phn. 907-242-3543
    FAX 907-349-3668
    Po Box 112568
    Anchorage, AK 99511

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