Thursday, November 8, 2012

The SAR 24-Hour Pack in Winter

The air is getting a little chillier, and hunting season is coming: it's the busy season for Search and Rescue teams.  Thinking back to November in prior years, this is the time when resources are stretched looking for lost hikers, missing hunters, and those who have wandered away in the night.
Search and Rescue in Winter

I also recall heading out to searches where searchers were vastly unprepared to deal with the weather, terrain, and other issues of conducting SAR in a winter environment.  I've seen people show up for searches in snow wearing sneakers and jeans - of course, they aren't carrying any water or basic survival supplies either. Yes, though it is hard to control what the myriad of volunteers bring with them, as SAR team members - we must do our best to be prepared for all conditions.

Though clothing and footwear is a huge component for venturing out into the woods, what I think we should talk about first is the 24-hour pack.  Yes, we could load all of our winter camping gear onto our backs, but as the weight adds up - the mission gets tougher.  Our packs must be comprehensive, yet light and agile enough to deftly maneuver through the brambles.

Here is a basic list for what I carry in my SAR winter 24-hour pack.  


  • Pack - Internal frame, about 40 liters 
  • Radio Chest Harness
  • Waterproof stuff sack for bivy system and spare layers
  • Waterproof bag for essentials 

  • Radio (with extra battery if available) 
  • GPS (with extra lithium batteries) 
  • Office: Notebook, pen, markers
  • Compass and protractor 
  • Flagging tape -multiple colors
  • String line (depending on mission) 
  • Headlamp (with batteries)
  • Small backup headlamp 
  • Powerful handheld flashlight
  • Reflective strip for pack
  • Safety glasses 
  • Tape measure 
  • Assortment of plastic bags for evidence collection 
  • Maps of area
 Ice and Snow: - traction devices from skis to crampons are mission and terrain dependent

  • Snowshoes
  • Microspikes
  • Crampons 
  • Ice awls
  • Trekking poles
  • Avalanche shovel 
  • 2 locking carabiners
  • 30 ' of tubular webbing or harness
  • 2 prusik slings 
  • Climbing gear as required
Survival / First Aid

  • First aid kit
  • Blood trauma kit in top of pack 
  • Fire starting kit 
  • 50' of parachute cord 
  • Toilet kit
  • Whistle
  • Large garbage bag
  • Knife

  • High-energy snacks (about 3,000 calories worth) 
  • Freeze-dried meal - boil in bag
  • 2 Water-bottles (no bladders)
  • 2 Water-bottle parkas
  • Chemical water treatment like aquamira 
  • Spoon
  • Liquid fuel stove and 2 Liter pot for cooking and melting snow - 1 per team [one person carries stove, other carries fuel, and another carries the pot]

  • Worn clothing - baselayer, midlayer, weather layer, hat, gloves, neck muff, boots, gaiters
  • Waterproof / breathable jacket and pants 
  • Puffy /belay jacket (for standing around) 
  • Extra gloves and mittens 
  • Extra hat or balaclava 
  • Spare pair of socks
  • Vapor Barrier socks
  • Glacier glasses or goggles
Bivy: Though you may not plan on staying out, you never know what will happen.  This is espeially true if you are sheltering in place with an injured subject.

  • Tarp or floorless tent like MSR twin peaks - one for ever two members 
  • Bivy sack
  • Sleeping bag (elephant's foot with puffy jacket works too)
  • You can also check out my idea of a multi-component SAR sleep system in a previous blog post. 
  • 3/4 ensolite pad (also handy for first aid)- use your empty pack for additional ground insulation 
  • Mylar blanket

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Initial Review of the OKC Ranger Little Bird Knife

Though my gear reviews are tediously long and comprehensive in their tests, this is my initial impression of the Ontario Little Bird knife.  Before lashing out at my general lack of cohesiveness and use of hardcore testing methods which snap blades in half, please remember that this is an initial review only.  
First of all - I have a lot of knives - a lot of them.  That said, I am extremely picky about the ones I carry.  Unfortunately, most of my knives sit unused and under-appreciated in boxes in my basement.   
There is something, when you first hold a knife in your hand, when you can tell it is meant for you.  Or perhaps you are meant for it.  Who knows what ancient chemistry awakens when we touch a fine blade?  Perhaps this is the "riddle of steel" after all.  

OKC Little Bird

Manufacturer: Ontario Knives OKC (Ranger)
Model: Little Bird II
Overall Length: 4.25 inches
Blade Length: 1.8 inches
Steel:  1095 carbon steel
Handle Material: Micarta (tan or black)
Weight: 3.8 oz
Sheath: Kydex
Why Did I Want This Knife?  
So, you may ask yourself, especially those of you with Crocodile Dundee knives, why I would actually want such a miniscule knife.  As a backpacker, SAR-team member, and general outdoorsman I have grown to love neck knives.  There is nothing handier than a fine blade around your neck - this becomes especially handy when you are wearing shell pants without pockets.
I also wanted this knife for personal protection purposes. Though I usually tote around a Spyderco Rescue as my everday carry, there are certain defense applications that a stout little blade like the Little Bird may excel at.
I've also been a big fan of Ontario knives for a long time.  Not only are they made in the USA, their plant is only a couple hours away from me in the scenic Southern Tier of New York State. I carried one of their Spec-plus knives when I was in the Army and they haven't failed me yet. 

Testing so Far:

  • General carry around neck around town and while hiking.  
  • Cutting parachute cord.
  • Cutting 4mm climbing accessory cord. 
Notes on this Knife (So Far): 
  •  The fit and finish is fine for a workhorse knife. On the glass-breaker pommel, the handle doesn't conform as nicely as I would like - but just a minor point.  
  • I have large hands, well at least my gloves are sized large or extra-large, and this little knife fits my hand fine.  The beefy micarta handle really conforms to my hand well, even with cutting tasks.  
  • The thick blade cuts nicely through nylon cord  - which is my primary cutting task.  I'll see how it works on wood.
  • The cord that came with the Little Bird is rather short for a neck cord.  I strung some 550 cord and tied it with a double figure 8 for a comfortable neck carry.  
  • In preparation for hiking, I attached a Ultimate Survival Jet Scream whistle to the neck cord. 

      Sunday, October 7, 2012

      Wilderness Survival Resources for Venturing Powder Horn Training

      As a consultant for the "Wilderness Survival" section for Powder Horn training, I thought that an online resource list would help Venturing and Scouting leaders.  If you have an additional resource that you feel would be appropriate,  please use the comment section below.  As always, keep the links appropriate for Scouting. 

      What is Powder Horn training?  Powder Horn training exposes Venturing leaders to different high-adventure opportunities from horseback riding to backpacking.  Check out BSA Powder Horn Training for more information on this exciting course.

      Remember the Rule of Three: You can survive ....
      • 3 minutes without air
      • 3 hours without shelter
      • 3 days without water
      • 3 weeks without food

      What are the seven survival priorities?  
      1. Positive mental attitude
      2. Shelter 
      3. Fire
      4. Signaling
      5. First aid 
      6. Water 
      7. Food

      Risk Management: 

      • For an introduction to hiking and backpacking safely, check out my article on the Ten Tips For Safe Hiking.
      • Components of a good trip/float plan: 
        1. Who is going? Include names, phone numbers, vehicles driven, and emergency contacts. 
        2. Where are you going?  List not only the destination, but the route traveled.  
        3. When? What is your rough time table, and when do you expect to return? 
        4. What are you carrying? List the types and colors of your crew's gear.
        5. Map I always leave a copy of my map at home with my travel route and times/dates listed.  

      Survival Kits: 

      Survival kit contents vary upon your environment and personal survival style. 
      Just walk into an outdoor store and you'll see just how much gear is out there.  It can be rather overwhelming when deciding what to buy, what to carry, and where to carry it.  In the following articles, I've addressed the basic essential items for survival kits and for what we should all carry with us whenever we venture outdoors. 

      First Aid: 

            A medical emergency can quickly catapult "first aid" to the top of the survival priority list (just under positive mental attitude of course). Though an online article is no substitute for actual first aid training, the following link from NOLS has outstanding information. 

            For those of you that have taken the American Red Cross "Wilderness and Remote First Aid" training class, check out the Wilderness First Aid Reference Guide.  


      You never know when you'll have to rig a tarp with a tautline hitch or rig an emergency rappel with a munter.

      Primitive Skills: 
      Carving a fire board for a bow drill with my Esee Izula
      Though food and water are low on the survival priority list, the ability to acquire food and water is essential for long-term subsistence. 

      Survival Shelters: 

               Everyone should be able to make a improvised shelter for the region in which they are traveling; the debris hut is an ideal shelter for most situations.  That said, the process of building a primitive shelter can be environmentally destructive and violate the principles of Leave No Trace.  For eco-friendly survival shelters, consider the following: 
      1.  Build debris huts in the Fall using fallen leaves as the weatherproof barrier on the sides of the shelter.  
      2. After a storm rips down live trees, use the boughs in a hands-on survival shelter demonstration. 
      3. Teach Venturers how to find improvised shelters that occur naturally: overhanging rocks, uprooted trees, and tree holes.  
      4. In the winter build quinzees and snow caves.  
      5. Emphasize that each person should carry shelter items with them in their survival kits.  A mylar space blanket can be easily rigged into a tarp when the weather turns foul.  

      A debris hut is the ideal wilderness survival shelter in most circumstances
      Once we have some snow on the ground, building a quinzee is a fun activity for Venturers. 
      Train Venturers how to find an improvised shelter like this uprooted tree. 

      Great Survival Books:

      "Wilderness Survival" Core requirements for the Ranger Award. 

      NOTE: (Before you begin wilderness survival, you must have completed the cooking, land navigation, and first aid core requirements.)
      1. Write a risk management plan for an upcoming crew high adventure activity such as a whitewater canoeing or rock-climbing trip. The plan should include nutrition, health, first aid, supervision, insurance, safety rules and regulations, proper equipment, maps and compass, in-service training, environmental considerations, emergency and evacuation procedures, and emergency contacts.
      2. From memory, list the survival priorities and explain your use of each in a survival situation.
      3. Learn about and then make a tabletop display or presentation for your crew, another crew, a Cub or Boy Scout group, or another youth group on the following subjects:
        1. Emergency signals used in the outdoors
        2. Search and rescue patterns
        3. Evacuation procedures and value of when to move and when not to move in a wilderness emergency
      4. Explain the following environmental exposure problems. Discuss what causes them, signs and symptoms, and treatment.
        1. Hypothermia
        2. Frostbite
        3. Sunburn
        4. Heat exhaustion
        5. Heat cramps
        6. Heat stroke
        1. Explain dehydration and the necessity of conserving fluids in a survival situation.
        2. Explain at least four methods of obtaining water in the outdoors and demonstrate at least two ways to purify that water.
        1. Demonstrate at least two different fire lays-one for cooking and one for warmth.
        2. Learn and discuss the use of fire starters, tinder, kindling, softwoods, and hardwoods in fire making.
      5. Explain and demonstrate how you can gain knowledge of weather patterns using VHF band radio and other radios, winds, barometric pressure, air masses and their movements, clouds, and other indicators.
        1. Explain the different rope materials and thicknesses that are best for wilderness use and how to care for them.
        2. Know the use of and demonstrate how to tie the following knots and lashings:
          1. Sheet bend
          2. Fisherman's knot
          3. Bowline
          4. Bowline on a bight
          5. Two half hitches
          6. Clove hitch
          7. Timber hitch
          8. Taut-line hitch
          9. Square lashing
          10. Shear lashing
        1. Explain the usefulness and drawbacks of obtaining food in the wilderness, including things to avoid.
        2. Prepare and eat at least one meal with food you have found in the outdoors.
        1. Make a list of items you would include in a wilderness survival kit and then make copies to hand out to visitors to your wilderness survival outpost camp.
        2. Using your list, make a wilderness survival kit. Explain the use of each item you have included.
        1. Set up a wilderness survival outpost camp and spend at least two nights and two days in your site.
        2. Use and demonstrate several knots and lashings from requirement (h) in your wilderness survival campsite demonstration.
        3. Know how to plan a wilderness shelter for three different environments and then build a shelter as part of your wilderness survival campsite demonstration.
        4. Have your crew, another crew, a Cub or Boy Scout group, or another youth group visit you in your outpost for a presentation you make on wilderness survival (at least one hour).
          (Note: Remember to use the Leave No Trace principles you learned.)

      Monday, June 18, 2012

      Snakes in the Niagara Gorge

      Who would have thought that the largest snake I ever saw in New York would be in the Niagara Gorge.  

      Yesterday I went hiking with a friend from the SAR team down into the Gorge.  Yes, we hiked under the guise of "physical conditioning" and getting ready for the work-capacity test, but in a place that is wild and unique as the Gorge - it is the best design I've even seen for a gym.  

      After descending the ailing Whirlpool stairs and making the rounds by the Flats we headed down the trail toward the old Great Gorge Railway stop in the rapids.  As an old hand in the area, I was leading the way and then something large moved on the ground just ahead of my feet. I stopped dead, then turned to Jamie, saying "look, it's a snake!" 

      We both stared at the slithering snake sunning itself on a patch of open ground.  Its unblinking reptilian eyes stared back at the two hikers, probably wondering if they were going to hurt it.  It curled itself into an S, as I grabbed my camera and began taking pictures - what a crappy day to not bring the good camera.  

       The snake was thick around the middle and close to four feet in length.  Sure I've seen snakes that big on the southern Appalachian Trail and in Panama, but wow!  This surely wasn't the garter snakes that I usually see.  

      Thoughts raced through my mind. Was this one of famed Timber Rattlers of the Gorge?  I thought they were extinct, but every now and then, somebody "sees" one.  Of course the head wasn't diamond shaped, nor did it have the famed tail that gives the Rattlesnake its name.  Maybe though, just maybe, this was a genetic variant...

      Of course, it could be something totally different. 

       I snapped a few pictures as we thought about what we were seeing; the snake retreated into a fortress of bushes and rock.  We talked about it for the rest of the hike, postulating what species of snake this was.  

      No rattle on the tail! 

      When I got home, I blew up the picture on my laptop and began researching what kind of snake we saw.  I was leaning toward a large Milk Snake, surely the largest I ever observed and with non-traditional colorings.  But then, I matched up the pattern with the Northern Water Snake.  

      Besides looking at several pictures online, I found a pdf of New York State snakes in the Conservationist quite helpful. 

      Whether it is a Milk Snake or Northern Water Snake, these snakes do not pose a danger to humans.  Yes, if they were threatened, they would bite you and it would hurt.  However, you aren't going to have to run to the hospital for anti-venom.  

      My advice for any kind of wildlife, is to watch it from a distance and wait for them to move - on their own terms. If you want to get close, buy a telephoto lens or go to the zoo.  
      Anyone who is more knowledgeable than I about snakes, reptiles and the lot are free to correct my guess.  I welcome it, a thing learned about nature is always appreciated. 

      If anyone is looking for great hiking in the Niagara Gorge, check out Hiking Trails Around Niagara Falls

      Sunday, May 27, 2012

      Preventative Search and Rescue in Zoar Valley

      Perhaps the problems with SAR teams, is that we respond after the event happens.  By the time we get the call out, arrive, organize, and venture out  - the subject is severely hypothermic and out of lifelines.  So what if we worked to prevent these wilderness accidents in the first place? 

      I like to call this activity Preventative Search and Rescue.

      Yes, our team has started doing outreach, letting people know they should carry the "10 Essentials" and always file a trip plan.  But -could we, as SAR volunteers, be doing more? 

      With over 4,000 acres of rugged terrain, the Zoar Valley Unique Area and  MUA (Multiple Use Area) is a treasure of Western New York and a place where one can experience pristine forests.  It is the perfect place to recharge from the stresses of the work week and reconnect with your natural self.

      However, over the years it has also become a favored place to "party."  (I'm not sure why I used quotation marks around the word "party" except to show that one person's party is a community's mess.)  One of the most popular places to party and hang out is the Big Falls on the South Branch of the Cattaraugus Creek.

      Yes, there are "No Trespassing" signs up
      For years, people have left the Forty Road access and walked upstream to The Falls.  The problem was - they were off State land and on private property while doing it.  Of course, this area is one of the more dangerous areas in WNY - numerous rope teams, SAR, Fire, and Law Enforcement resources had to be called out because of lost, confused, or injured individuals.  In a few instances, people died on the steep rocks and in the quick moving water.

      I'm not sure if I should even mention the vandalism and pollution left in the wake of many visitors.  

      Anyway, I am giving too much background here...

      The shale walls of Zoar Valley are beautiful in their fragility. 
      My SAR team partnered with The Nature Conservancy, the Nature Sanctuary Society of Western New York, and other private landholders to help protect this fragile area in South Branch of the Cattaraugus Creek Gorge.  We maintained a presence in this beautiful area and let people know of the dangers ahead and inform them that they should turn around.  

      As we inform flip-flop clad people headed toward the no-no zone that they are liable to incur a $250 day-use fee (AKA-fine) they turn around and look for adventure elsewhere.  I also realize, that there is one less person that will have to be rescued out of this gorge.  

      Yes, this is preventative SAR at its best.  

      Saturday, April 21, 2012

      Preparing for the Buffalo April Storm

      The offices of Buffalo meteorologists are once again abuzz with their favorite word- SNOW- but this time it is forecast for late April. Not that we hardy folk are strangers to unseasonal weather shifts, it is part of life here on the Niagara Frontier. 

      Of course, what really grabs out attention is when weather forecasters throw around the term, "It could be another October Surprise."

      As I look out my living room window at the budding trees in my yard, I realize that this statement is a means of urging precaution as much as it is a ploy to keep us tuned in to the TV just a little longer.  For what caused the destruction of the October Storm was wet snow clinging to our tree leaves; the limbs broke bringing down power cables across Western New York.  Some people were without power for two-weeks.

      The October Surprise storm taught us so much about ourselves, glued to the radio for a week, working together, and utilizing skills most of us forgot.  I lived in Lockport at the time and was disappointed that we were only without power for three days.  I am a backpacker and a bit of a survivalist - moments like those are what I live for. 

      Everyone should have a survival kit

      I had lanterns, sleeping bags, stoves, fuel, and food.  However, most people found themselves greatly unprepared. 
      So, what can you do to prepare yourself and your family?
      • Fill your vehicles up with gas
      • Fill up containers, and perhaps the bathtub, with water.  Plan on one gallon per person per day.  
      • Inventory your food supplies, plan on unrefrigerated easy to prepare food. 
      • If you have a generator, make sure it is in working condition and that you have enough fuel for it.  
      • Review how to cook and boil water without succumbing to Carbon Monoxide poisoning. 
      • Keep your cell phone charged.
      • Make sure you have a portable radio with batteries.  Information is key in a disaster.  
      • Have a few flashlights and battery powered lanterns.  Look for lights with LED bulbs- they are much more battery efficient.  
      • Check your battery supply.  Trying to find batteries was impossible during the October catastrophe.  

      If you want to know what to include in a survival kit, check out my article Prepare Your Family for Disaster: Survival Kits and Bug Out Bags

      Most importantly in any disaster, is to look our for other people in your community that might need help.  Granted, your family comes first, but make sure you check in on elderly neighbors.

      I love the snow, but I hate to see our community suffer.  I hope that the weather prognosticators are wrong on this April storm.  

      Tuesday, April 17, 2012

      Biking The Canalway Trail from North Tonawanda into Buffalo

      High winds, heat, and a potential storm - great day for a bike ride along the Erie Canal and Niagara River. 

      Though I'm not a cyclist, I like riding my bike for recreation as well as transportation.  Why am I not a cyclist?  Probably because I identify myself as a backpacker, a mountaineer, and a kayaker - those are the schema around which I base my life.  Also, I've never really embraced the cycling culture, I look ridiculous in bike shorts, my bikes are ill suited for what I do, and I don't hang out with other cyclists.  I'm just a guy that rides a bike. 

      Of course, I'm training to tour the Erie Canal from Albany to Buffalo next month so I guess I am kind of a cyclist; however, I wear my bicycling shorts underneath a pair of hiking pants.

      Anyway, I started from my home in North Tonawanda, weaving through the sleepy streets riddled with bike flipping potholes till I reached the relative safety of the Erie Canalway Trail, which is paved and generally car free.

      Niawanda Park was busy as usual with people holing hands strewn out across the trail - always keep a hand on your break and watch your speed.  Because of the wind, there weren't many cyclists out but a few joggers and walkers abounded. I even saw a roller blader: I didn't think people did that anymore. 

      A little while past the Grand Island Bridge and not quite to the LaFarge plant, I saw a curious sign.  One that has been there for a while apparently and one that I never paid any attention to. 

      I didn't pay much attention to it this time either, until I saw this sign: 

      Yes, the Town of Tonawanda succumbed to the marketing tactics of annoying road side attractions like South of the Border.  Anyone who has ever driven through the Carolinas know about their obnoxious signs which appear for hours before and after passing the tourist trap. 

      So what was there, warranting four signs - two in both directions - this:
       A short paved trail led to a shallow muddy flat with a sign stating "The Original Erie Canal" with a blurb about the foundation of the waterway on both sides.  Nice sign, but I'm not sure if this was the dedication spot or what, I'll have to find out more information. 

      I peddled down through Tow Path Park, Squaw Island, and Broderick Park before turning around.  All in all a good day. 

      A breezy day at Tow Path Park in Buffalo