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Coping with emergencies

Travelling light: comfort and survival in a remote environment

by John C. Gilpin

Rev. 1a — page content last changed July 1, 2004
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Packing for travelling light

Always a problem – so many compromises have to be made. The old adage, "If in doubt, leave it out ...", needs to be applied often, but there's still lots of pondering, hefting, agonizing, and re-packing. I've gone through the process dozens of times over the years, preparing for long backpacking and motorbike trips, and now ultralights. It does get easier, especially with the lightweight gear now on the market, and I have learned a few tricks that I'll pass on to anyone interested. As you'll see, I like my comforts as well, and have found ways to bring them with me, folding chair included!

First of all, I would never leave my self-inflating mattress behind. It's 3/4 length, 25 mm thick when inflated, rolls up to a small bundle deflated, and weighs very little. You'd think that thickness (thinness) wouldn't be of much use, but it does wonders for a comfortable sleep! If the cost seems too much (about $90 when I got mine), then at least get one of those blue foam mats. Even 8 mm thickness of that blue foam is enough to make a really big difference on cold, hard ground, and cut down to 3/4 length also weighs very little. To carry the mattress on the aircraft, I use a couple of short pieces of light bungee cord (3–4 mm diameter) tied in loops like strong rubber bands to keep the mattress rolled-up, then another couple of loops of the bungee tied around a convenient tube on the aircraft, and just slip the rolled mattress under these loops — nothing to tie/untie every time, and very secure. Inside the wing would be a good place, if you have access on your aircraft.

A sleeping bag is the next obvious necessity for camping out. There are lots of options here, but I find that combining a light-weight sleeping bag with lots of cold weather flying clothing gives the most flexible combinations for all-weather flying and camping at minimum weight. So let's first have a look at flying clothing.

Flying warm

Having been raised on the central plains of Canada, then spending months at a time living on motorcycles in all weathers has taught me a bit about dressing to survive the cold. I did a lot of suffering in those early days before I learned better. Let's start at the inside, where you can make the biggest gains in warmth. I really don't understand why long underwear gets the jokes and ridicule that it does. It's by far the most effective warm clothing of all, for it's weight.

The polypropylene thermal underwear available these days is soft, form-fitting and stretchy, and easily fits under other clothing. It wicks moisture away from the skin and provides a layer of warm air next to the skin, just like I would imagine the layer of fur does for a cat! When not being worn it packs into a soft bundle and weighs very little. The jeans and shirt going over it provide very little warmth for all their weight; far warmer and more comfortable is to travel in a track suit.

Over the shirt go a couple of lamb's wool sweaters. These are the soft, fluffy, 'lounging' sweaters, either V-neck, or crew neck to your preference. Two (or more) layers like this is much, much, warmer and lighter than one heavy jumper, and more flexible and comfortable. When not needed they stuff easily into your travelling bag. When your flying jacket goes over all this fluffy bulk you'll feel like a fat teddy bear, but at least you'll be a warm and cosy bear! The sweaters are for sale in 'recycled clothing stores for a couple of dollars each, so not a cost problem, but get a larger size for comfort. (I actually bought a couple of them in Narromine one time, when ferrying an open ultralight from Geelong, and a freezing cold front caught me unprepared; nice and warm all the way after that.)

If you wear a flying suit then your legs are already covered, but if you wear a flying jacket, then you need some outer pants – it's no use being a cosy bear on the top while losing all your body heat from your legs. Those insulated ski pants are ideal. They're wind-proof, warm, light-weight, and come well up under the jacket for a good seal. But this isn't all that you can do; don't forget those cold feet. I carry several pairs of light wool socks, and wear two or three pairs at once on a long, cold flight, with another couple of dry pairs to change into at fuel stops.

Another important bit of clothing is a scarf, to seal around the collar of your jacket, and protect the back of your neck. I just use a T-shirt for the purpose, since it can double as a spare shirt as well. Even more effective is a balaclava, which will seal in the whole head and neck. For the hands, ski gloves with the tips of the fingers cut off, work well for me – warm and still have good dexterity. Dress like this and you won't be cold, regardless of the conditions.

I know that all this seems like a lot of stuff, but the extra, besides what you would wear anyhow, doesn't weigh much at all, and much of it will double for your sleeping gear as well. Of course, the other advantage of all these layers is that you can arrange them to suit the conditions at the time, whereas if you depend only on a very warm flight suit, it can be stifling on a hot day, and yet too bulky and difficult to pack away.


Sleeping warm
So I just carry a lightweight summer sleeping bag all year. But a roomy one, because inside it I wear as much of the flying clothing as is necessary for the temperature of the night. I don't know where the myth comes from about it being warmer in a sleeping bag with your day clothes off — I find just the opposite, and I've had many teeth-chattering nights to put it to the test. There are several advantages to wearing lots of clothing inside a sleeping bag; not the least of which is, if you need to get up in the middle of the night for whatever reason, it's no sense exposing any more skin than necessary to that chill night air!

As a minimum I use my thermal underwear as pyjamas, and if the night is cold enough, then my track suit pants and a jumper as well. The track suit pants are the ones with two layers of light fabric rather than the thick fleecy ones — lighter and easier to pack away. Then when I get up in the morning to stir up the fire, I'm already dressed enough to be comfortable, without having to get into cold clothes. If it's a really freezing cold night then I'll wear everything (except jeans, they're just too uncomfortable), including flying jacket and ski pants, not forgetting a couple of pairs of dry wool socks and the T-shirt wrapped around my head.

With all these options I can be comfortable anywhere from the tropics to the frosty high plains. The sleeping bag should have a hood to keep your head warm, since 20% of body heat is lost there. And it must not have a fleece lining — the fleece feels nice on bare skin but it drags on your clothing when you roll over, and collects every bindi [burr] in the west if it gets a chance.
Sleeping really light
The next essential for lightweight camping is a 'space blanket' (that may be a trademark name, but I'll use it anyhow). It's also an essential part of any survival kit so I have a space blanket permanently in my aircraft, even for local flights; once again it weighs little and is held in by a couple of loops of light bungee cord around a convenient tube. When camping really light, I use the space blanket as a ground sheet, pulled partly over the sleeping bag on the side which any draught is coming from. Stopping that draught from getting at your back makes a really big difference to staying warm at night.

Putting another space blanket right over the sleeping bag sure is nice and warm, but condensation will wet parts of the sleeping bag — but if it's raining it's still a lot better than cold rain soaking the bag. If the second space blanket is set up like a lean-to, with a fire in front, it's like a reflector oven and is the warmest camp of all! Avoid the cheap imitation space blankets on the market, made of that blue tarpaulin material aluminized on one side — they're much heavier and stiffer than the original brand 'Space Blanket', and not nearly as useful.

One last essential for sleeping out is a mosquito net! It only takes one persistent mossie at 3 a.m. to ruin a good sleep (and if there's one buzzing around you, others will hear the buzz and come over to get their share). The lightest solution that I've found is to carry one of those fly nets that fits over a hat. So I sleep under my hat and try to tuck the net into the bag — it's awkward and prone to coming loose if I roll around to much, but sure is better than trying to breathe inside the sleeping bag on a tropical night!
Five star accommodation
Of course the way to really beat the mossies, and get a whole lot of other comforts as well, is to have a tent. And that's possible these days with the light-weight tents on the market. Mine weighs just 2 kg, and is a great little 'cocoon'. It not only keeps the mossies well away, but it stops that chilling draught, keeps the dew off, and provides shelter to keep my gear and boots dry if there's rain in the night. I used to 'sleep rough' with only a ground sheet and sleeping bag, but now I'm hooked on the comforts of my little tent.

So what do all those 'very littles' add up to?

The flying clothing — ski pants, track suit pants, 2 sweaters, T-shirt, gloves, 5 pairs socks, and thermal underwear — weigh 3 kg. (The flying jacket is so much a part of me that I consider it as part of my personal weight.) The sleeping bag, mattress, and 2 space blankets add another 3 kg, and the optional tent is 2 kg. Stuff it all into a light-weight sports bag (along with a small pillow for real comfort) and that's 9 kg — not too bad for a kit that's sufficient for flying and sleeping-out in just about any weather, and in reasonable comfort.

Basic survival gear

Every aircraft should always carry some basic survival gear, even on short local flights. That may seem a bit extreme to most casual fliers, but let's have a think about it, and maybe you'll decide to carry at least the basics in future. Hopefully it'll never be needed for a critical 'survival' situation, but much more likely just an unplanned night spent out somewhere, due to bad weather or mechanical failure.
In this hot, dry Australian land it's really amazing to see fliers ignoring all lessons of common sense by flying off without any water at all on board! Even without the possibility of being stranded by an emergency landing, it's really nice to have some good drinking water at hand. I always have at least two litres of water in my aircraft — one litre bottle right handy for a refreshing drink whenever it suits, and another litre bottle secured in the pod. That's enough, if used sparingly, to make a really big difference if I get stranded somewhere overnight.

Two litres is the absolute minimum, but if you're going away from the settled coast and the weather is really hot then of course much more is required. To carry more water the best containers these days are those tough nylon water 'bags' sold by good camping stores — much easier to pack into corners of the pod, or wherever, and easier to tie down than hard containers. They're also handy for trimming the balance of an aircraft (seems ridiculous to see some aircraft with a lump of lead permanently in the tail, when a few litres of water would have the same effect, and be a handy reserve as well!)
Space Blanket
This is the most useful survival equipment you can carry; it could save your life in either hot or cold conditions. I have one permanently secured in my aircraft. It weighs less than very little and is easy to roll up and tie to some tubing somewhere out of the way.

One of the most likely causes of being forced down is due to bad weather, and that might well mean being caught out in cold rain for a couple of days or more. No shortage of water, but without shelter it could easily get to hypothermia. In extreme cold, wet conditions it's best to crouch down, or sit in the aircraft seat, with your knees against your chest, trying to be as small as possible, with the space blanket over your head and around you like a shawl. This way you best contain your body heat and shed the cold rain. It gets pretty cramped and uncomfortable, but you can at least survive in some really cold conditions this way. If you have the means of lighting a fire and keeping it going, then the the space blanket rigged as a lean-to can turn a survival situation into real comfort.

In the event of being stranded in hot weather, the space blanket once again is a saviour. If you have limited water, then it's very important to reduce the losses. Watch kangaroos for a good lesson on how to manage these conditions. During the heat of the day, especially in drought conditions, they select the best shade they can find and then just lie there without moving at all — same should go with us. Chasing around looking for bush tucker or digging for water is usually a complete waste of precious energy. Tie the space blanket over some low bushes, crawl underneath with the water you have, and lie absolutely still. Try to 'slow down' and get into a state of slumber, breathing as slowly as possible through the nostrils, and stay that way; you can survive much, much longer in this state of suspended animation than if you were up and moving around. Let's hope it never comes to this extreme for any of us, and it shouldn't if you carry an ELT, but it's good to know, just in case ...
Fire lighters
I always keep at least two of those gas cigarette lighters on hand, one inside the rolled up space blanket, with another one always in the shoulder pocket of my flying jacket. Some purists insist on matches, but my experience indicates that the lighters are much better than even the best 'waterproof' matches — with those lighters that have an adjustable flame it's like lighting a fire with a blow-torch! In Australia it's nearly always possible to find enough suitable wood to light a fire, and that fire can be really essential for survival. With the space blanket rigged as a lean-to in front of a good fire, you can be dry and cosy. Light the fire against a log, with a couple of heavy bits stacked across on top, and it reflects the heat into the lean-to as well as protecting the fire from the rain.

VERY IMPORTANT! A campfire isn't all that visible from the air unless it has a good plume of smoke in daylight or a flare-up at night. So if you're depending upon an aerial search (due to your ELT signal of course), then keeping a good fire going is essential. Have a bundle of foliage ready to throw on to make lots of smoke in the daytime, or a big bundle of light branches on hand to make the fire flare up quickly at night, in case you should hear an aircraft approaching.
Another way to assist a search aircraft, or even possibly attract the attention of any passing aircraft, is with a signalling mirror. A bright, persistent flash from the ground really catches the attention, and that's easy to do if you have a mirror on a sunny day, and know how to use it. The plastic ones from camping supply are light and easy to carry, so is a CD; mine lives in the map pocket, but inside the space blanket would be good. It should have a hole in the middle; if not then drill an 8mm hole. To use it, hold the mirror against your eye with the reflective side away, peeping through the hole at the aircraft. Reach out with the other hand as far as you can, holding a finger tip in line with the target, and adjusting the angle of the mirror to shine the reflection onto the finger tip. Practice it with a friend at your airfield and you'll see how brilliant and distinctive the flash is, even at a great distance.
Well of course every aircraft should carry an Emergency Locator Transmitter. The little pocket ones are excellent, and affordable — no logical reason not to carry one these days. They're really effective, as I've proven a couple of times — both times I could have been rescued really quickly if the emergency was real. Those false alarms were just embarrassing, but it's very consoling to know that the system works so well. But the ELT must 'live' in the aircraft at all times, even for short local flights. Work out some form of mounting so that the ELT is permanently near at hand, but can be quickly removed if a speedy exit is needed.
Food is certainly the most over-rated item in most survival manuals. All that talk of chasing around looking for little bits of 'bush tucker' and trapping animals is nonsense — far better to just lay still and conserve the reserves of energy your body already has in store. We can all go for a couple of days without any food at all, and some could even benefit from the enforced diet!

Some care also needs to be taken in selecting food to carry along. For example, the often recommended 'beef jerky' would be absolutely the worst selection I could think of — not only is it a desiccated product that needs water to reconstitute, and salty that needs water to balance, but all such meat protein foods need even more water for the digestion process. It's not as if we need body-building protein in that situation — we need energy, easily digested energy.

So I carry tubes of Nestle's sweetened condensed milk! Yes, it's by far the best 'survival' food that I can find. It has heaps of sugar for that instant energy, and milk for sustained energy, and the little bit of fat and protein that makes the stomach feel like it's had at least a bit of a feed. If you also have a little billycan hidden away in the aircraft, then Nestle's milk in hot water makes a very warming and sustaining drink on a cold, wet night. In a pinch you can just suck it out of the tube, along with comforting memories of childhood. So, inside my rolled up space blanket I also carry a tube of Nestle's, just in case ...

I usually have several muesli bars stashed away in a pocket under the seat of my aircraft. They're for snack food and 'flying breakfasts', but would make good survival food — if enough water was at hand.
Last, but not least, I reckon insect repellant is an essential to good survival. Not only do mossies drink your precious blood, but a night spent fighting them means the next day being so tired that you can't even think straight — and sufficient rest for clear thinking really is an essential for survival. Many survival crises have been made much worse by muddled thinking and panic, often brought on by exhaustion, so this is important. Just the smallest bottle available, or those individually packaged 'wipes', is all that's needed.
Shouldn't even have to mention this, but a hat can make a real big difference for comfort, and even the chances of survival in either cold rain or hot sun. If you don't wear a hat regularly, then at least include one in the survival kit. My insulated flying jacket comes with me in the aircraft all the time, winter and summer. My ski pants are stashed out the way in the wing all the time. With the jacket and ski pants and the space blanket, and a good fire, I can be pretty comfortable on even a very cold night.

So the minimum 'survival kit' that I reckon should be in any aircraft, all the time, (space blanket, lighters, mirror, repellant, ELT ) weighs less than a kilo, plus two kilos of water. So that's 3 kg for enough gear to survive for a day and a night without too much distress – sure sounds a lot better to me than being out there with nothing!

Copyright © 2004 John C Gilpin

The last section of the Coping with Emergencies Guide is a copy of the 'ERSA emergency and survival procedures' in PDF format.

Groundschool – Coping with emergencies

| Guide contents | Knowing the aircraft | Deceleration forces | Forced landing procedures |

| Overcoming aircraft control failures | Procedure when lost | Safety and emergency communication procedures |

| Aviation distress beacons | Understanding SAR services |

| Comfort and survival in a remote environment | ERSA emergency and survival procedures |