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Houston We Have a Problem … Houston?

Houston We Have a Problem … Houston?

It was just another day trip to a recommended destination that sounded fun and easy.  I was out for a ride with a fellow adventure motorcycle buddy.  We had been riding the trails all day and were on the last downhill before we intended to head home.  My buddy was in front of me and I saw him go down … hard.  He had broken his collar bone.  Our circumstances were:  no cell service, it was getting dark, no expectation that anyone else would be coming by, his bike was still on the hill (steep and gravelly) and it wouldn’t start, we were pretty tired from riding dirt all day, and we were both low on gas.

A handful of little things can turn an ordinary problem into a life-threatening situation.  It’s easy to underestimate how quickly a situation can become dangerous and therefore a lot of adventurers don’t give enough thought to preventing problems from escalating.  Most overlanders have put some effort into preparing for these complications but at some point it’s easy to get lulled into a false sense of security because many of us have been traveling for years without having a major situation.  And sometimes those of us who try to be prepared forget to maintain our supplies or training - most of us can think of a time when something was missing from our kit (borrowed a tool, forgot to replenish our supplies after a previous problem used them up, or that tube of rubber cement has dried out).

If you are on a motorcycle or your four-wheeler is damaged in a way that doesn’t allow you to use your rig for sleeping then you may be looking at the prospect of spending the night in the wilderness.  Do you have enough water, food, alternate shelter, a way to stay warm and dry, and a method to signal for help?

Preparing for the worst is not a trivial exercise.  It will take some serious thought and preparation.  My goal here is to help you understand the Why and the How of preparing to keep problems from escalating.

Why you should Prepare:

Every problem occurs in a context.  We may have solved this problem many times and so we think we’ve got it handled … and then, the circumstances change.  For example, here are some circumstances, most of which are beyond our control, that have the potential to seriously complicate the problem and turn it into a more serious or life-threatening situation.

  • No cell service
  • Night time
  • Weather (rain, mud, extreme heat, bitter cold, snow, flooding, etc.)
  • Significant vehicle damage
  • Someone is injured
  • Far away from help and supplies
  • You are on an infrequently traveled road or trail
  • Traveling alone … or with people that you are responsible for (friends, children, etc.)
  • The problem is unfixable (even with your well thought out tool/repair kits)
  • Lack of familiarity with the location (exit routes, places to get help or resources, etc.)
  • Something is broken or missing in your primary fix-it kit
  • You have two problems at the same time

I was able to get my buddy’s bike down the hill by coasting, the bike eventually started (before the battery died), and most fortunately there was no challenging terrain between the bottom of the hill and the road to home.  My friend was able to get into the riding position with a tolerable pain level and managed to ride out the few remaining bumps to get to the road.  If the terrain had been too challenging he would not have been able to ride out and I may not have been able to ride him out “two-up”.

After we got on the pavement we headed to the closest gas station … and then my buddy ran out of gas.  We still didn’t have cell service and I was low on fuel also.  I told him to stay there on the side of the road and not to leave no matter what.  “I’ve got at least enough gas to reach cell service so even if I run out I will manage to get gas and I will come back to get you”.  Since I had no way of contacting him I would be unable to give him a status of my whereabouts.  I made it to the station, filled up, and went back for him.  It was night time now.  Fortunately I had a flashlight and a gas siphon to transfer enough gas to his tank so we could make it back to his house where his wife could take over.  Whew!

With only one more negative circumstance we might have been looking at an overnight situation in the outback for one or both of us.  I was feeling pretty good about having been prepared enough to keep the problem from getting any worse (I even have an emergency overnight kit).  When you have someone else with you there are times when you decide to divide and conquer a problem.  But without communication via cell service or ham radio, getting separated can create new complications when the plan shifts at either end of the effort and there’s no way to update the other party.

Before I get into the list of gear to have in your adventure vehicle (actually some of these should be in our everyday commuter car as well) let’s break down the possibilities.

Plan A:  Typically the focus on planning an adventure outing assumes that nothing will go wrong – that’s Plan A.  That’s what we assume when we create our itinerary (routes, fuel stops, destinations, etc.).

Plan B:  Something goes wrong … but we can fix it.  Almost everyone spends some time considering some of the things that might go wrong as they kit out their adventure vehicle.  Some might just grab some tools while others might be prepared to weld.  How far you go in your preparations is your choice … but do you really want your adventure spoiled by an ordinary problem?

Plan C:  It cannot be fixed … and the problem is real, urgent, and serious.  What now?  Even if you’ve really tried to anticipate what can go wrong and have all the tools, supplies, and training, some situations cannot be resolved with what you have on hand.  At that point the only solution is to get help from the outside.  In these situations you will want a surefire way to communicate with the outside world.  Do you have that?  If you were to only prepare for one scenario maybe this should be it – the worst-case scenario.

The deeper into the wild you are venturing the more time you should spend preparing for this extreme.  It doesn’t even have to be some epic journey – a solo motorcycle ride into a local forest with no cell service and little or no traffic can get you into plenty of trouble if you get hurt and can’t walk or ride out.  At the very least you should inform someone of your planned route and commit to getting in touch when you arrive safely in the range of the next cell tower.  But in order to be useful it needs to be a solid agreement on what to do if you don’t check in at the right time.   

How you should Prepare:

Proper preparation for what can go wrong isn’t just about gear and supplies.  You will need training and practice in order to make effective use of some of your equipment.  Storing a world-class First Aid Kit in your rig will not keep someone from more serious consequences unless you know how to use it.  For example, I make it a point to spoon on my own tires when they need to be replaced in order to refresh my skills for a trailside flat.

We all know that problem scenarios can be extremely stressful and it has been proven that stress impairs your brain function.  If your recovery supplies are scattered all over the vehicle and you have trouble finding, accessing, or remembering what you have at your disposal then your preparations may be for naught.  Being organized can really pay off in a stressful situation.  You should also consider options for where on or in the vehicle to store your emergency gear – some parts of the vehicle may not be accessible after you find yourself stranded.  The outside rear portion on the vehicle may be one of the best spots for universal access.

Grouping items into a kit to make things easier in a stressful situation is highly recommended.  You can always use individual items in the kits when you just need a tool but having everything together for when a SHTF situation arises is a really good idea.  To that end I have shown the recommended gear list below in suggested kit groups.

Worst-case Scenario:  I’ve fallen and I can’t get up

  • Emergency Communication Kit: When there’s no cell service and you have an urgent problem and need outside assistance you’ll want to have one or more of the following:  Satellite Phone, Garmin InReach, SPOT, PLB, and/or Ham radio.  Some of these will need an open sky sufficient for the selected device signal to reach the satellites.  And you should be familiar with how to use your device(s) and have the manual handy – you are likely to be pretty stressed out at this point.

Portable Kits:  Keep these in a backpack in case you have to hike it out

  • First Aid Kit: Have a complete kit that is at least up to your knowledge of first aid.  Consider getting training to the next level and upgrade your kit accordingly.  A more comprehensive kit may still be useful if someone else is present with more training.  Think about what injuries are most likely for your activities and plan accordingly.  You may want to install a first aid / survival app on your cell phone as a resource for survival (I have the SAS Survival app which comes highly recommended). 
  • Water & Food: Enough food and water for three days is recommended – water quantity will vary with climate.  High-energy food that is portable and doesn’t require refrigeration is imperative since you may have to walk out of your situation (energy bars, nuts, energy drink, etc.).  The general rule of thumb is that the body will die after three minutes without air, three days without water, and three weeks without food. 
  • Water Purification Kit: A water filter is a minimum but consider further mitigation of bacteria and viruses too small for filter (bleach, ultraviolet light, etc.).
  • GPS Tracker: Always use a GPS device or smart phone app to track your GPS whereabouts (even when your still on Plan A).  A simple smart phone app like Galileo or Pocket Earth will lay down a track wherever you go.  If you get lost you will always know where you’ve been and can backtrack to a fork in the road that you passed.  This will consume your phone battery faster so bring a USB backup battery to keep your phone charged (can bring vehicle Jump Battery that has USB outputs).  Some people like the solar panel chargers for extra security.
  • Emergency Overnight Kit: Includes emergency blanket, poncho/bivy, firestarter kit (including tinder for starting wet wood), body warmers (from Hot Hands), ear plugs.  This is a must-have kit for motorcycle adventurers for when you don’t have your camping gear on board.
  • Exposure Kit: Sunscreen, insect repellant, hat/cap/shemagh, lip balm, rain jacket/poncho.
  • Light & Power Kit: Headlamp, flashlight, extra batteries, charging cords/adapters, USB backup batteries to keep phone and electronics charged.
  • Signaling Kit: Signaling mirror, LED SOS strobe flashlight (this is also a backup to your headlamp), binoculars to see others at a distance.
  • Comfort Kit: Toilet paper, wet wipes, pain killers, moleskin, tissues, eye drops.
  • Problem Solving Kit: 550 cord or rope, knife, cash, gloves, trash bags.
  • Checklist: Make a checklist of other essential items to bring that may not already be in a kit but easy to leave behind as you head out on foot – phone, eyeglasses, rain jacket, clothing layers, socks, etc.

Vehicle-based Kits:  fix problem and carry on … at least that’s the Plan B

  • Tool Kit: Always use this kit to perform work on your rig, even at home.  You can add tools as you find others you need for repairs. 
  • Vehicle Recovery: Winch, cable, clevises, snatch blocks, gloves, shovel, ramps, axe/saw.
  • Battery Kit: Jump Battery (Antigravity XP-10 comes out on top of many reviews), jumper cables, distilled water, terminal cleaner & repair.
  • Tire Repair Kit: Spare tire, inner tube, jack & platform for soft ground, wrench for lug nuts, air compressor, plugs for puncture, marker for marking puncture and tire position, tire tools, spare valve stems and valves, patches & rubber cement, sandpaper for roughing surface, roller applicator, etc.
  • Generic Fix-it Kit: Extra bolts & washers, Gorilla Tape, 5-minute epoxy, zip ties, bailing wire, electrical tape, nitrile gloves, super glue, lubricant, Sharpie, etc.
  • Fire Extinguisher: At least one; there are many different styles – choose as appropriate for the types of fire you think are most likely.
  • Troubleshooting Kit: OBD-II code reader, multi-meter, see Manuals below.
  • Manuals & Guides: Instruction Manuals for your gear & devices, Service Manuals for your rig and appliances, First Aid and Survival Manuals, etc.  Ideally you can upload PDF Manuals onto your phone or tablet so they will always be accessible even if you hit the trail on foot.  If your manuals are not already available online in PDF form you can take a photo and file them into a folder on your phone or tablet. 

 Don’t forget to get the training and practice you will need in order to put this gear into action.  After this exercise you will be ready for anything.  That should give you a really good feeling and boost your confidence for heading into the wild.  Personally I also enjoy being the guy who is able to help someone else in their time of need.

Safe travels my friends,

Dave Thum (Adventure Dave)

 

Kit Kubes are ideal containers for many of these kits. 

Check them out at https://overland-adventurer.com

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