My Survival Shakedown Experience / By: Sara Bernal

By: Sarah Bernal

I assembled my flight emergency kit after having taken Shaun Glass‘s classroom survival course at Chinook Helicopters as part of ground school for my commercial pilots license. This weekend was the first time I put it to the test. I have been looking forward to taking the practical BC General Aviation Survival Course for several years, so I was very excited that the weather cooperated and challenged us with light rain, flurries, wind, and +3C. Overall my kit was adequate, but I learned some important lessons and will be making some changes as a result. I will also definitely be taking this course again and I can’t wait to apply what I’ve learned. 

At 8:00AM Saturday morning, ten students and five volunteer instructors met at the Fraser Valley Search and Rescue Headquarters in Abbotsford for an in depth briefing with Shawn. I was reminded of the priorities, and learned a couple of excellent new tips. One important tip was to make sure that when I’m flying, my Garmin Inreach Mini account contains information that I’m a pilot and what kind of aircraft I would be flying, so that if the SOS button is activated, the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC) springs into action with air assets right away and knows what to look for. 

We carpooled to the simulated crash sites on top of Sumas Mountain at 2500 ft. We were each allocated a piece of forest, and then left to our own devices. The instructors milled around while we started putting together our camps and gathering wood. They watched us struggle, offering key tips when they saw we were really in need. I learned some crucial lessons.

Lesson 1:
I rushed my site selection. I felt a little frantic when I started, since I didn’t want to feel like I was wasting time. Because I’m used to camping with a tent, I picked a flat and relatively open site. But this wasn’t at all what was needed in this case. My first site didn’t have enough trees close by for my shelter. The wind was also pretty steady and without any wind break it made lighting a fire even more of a challenge than the soaked wood alone. The instructors helped me see that this layout wouldn’t work very well. They recommended a nearby site with more trees. Unfortunately my lean-to was directly perpendicular to the wind, and as soon as I got my fire going I discovered that the resulting wind eddy completely filled my shelter with smoke. I did my best to shift the lean-to diagonally but I had limited space up against a rotten log. One of the instructors Trevor encouraged me to keep improving my situation constantly. I struggled all night since I was a bit too far away from the fire, and the smoke kept pooling in my lean-to. I kept adjusting the angle of my lean-to and huddling my shelter closer to the fire overnight. At about 3AM another of the instructors Theresa gave me a fantastic tip, which was to pull the front end of my lean-to forwards by tying it to a movable piece of wood. This helped me get a better angle with the wind and get that much closer to the fire. Next time I will take my time to look at the terrain, and look for some natural hollows and features to provide more shelter from the wind and retain heat. 

Lesson 2:
I thought I was pretty good at making fires, but I grew up making fires in Quebec in relatively good weather. Doing so in the rain in BC is an entirely different thing. The fire making items I packed included storm-proof matches and a candle. I didn’t bring fire starter because I didn’t get the point. The tiny twigs I gathered would have been great if they were dry, but they refused to light, no matter how long I held them under the candle flame, which didn’t last long in the wind. I tried feathering a stick with my knife, but that didn’t work either. I really struggled; this was the point at which my morale was lowest. Theresa noticed this and gave me an indispensable tip. She showed me a rotten log that under its wet moss covered surface was dry and crumbly. This finally allowed me to get my fire started and morale improved greatly. One of the instructors Ryan handed me a lighter, but since I had the dry rotten wood I felt confident enough to stick with the matches and candle – although I will bring a lighter next time. Ryan also showed me some awesome fire starter cubes that will absolutely get added to my kit. The moral of the story is, make it as easy as possible to start a fire. I want to make it so that I can start a fire with one hand next time. I believe I gathered enough wood for about 48 hours. Next time I’ll gather more though, and organize it more into small medium and large pieces. 

Lesson 3:
The biggest challenge was staying warm enough overnight. Clothing is critical. I immediately put on everything I brought: fleece pants, rain pants, winter mittens. I couldn’t lay down for long or get any sleep because I would start shivering and my fire would need tending. I exercised to stay warm: squats, shoulder circles, dance moves etc. Next time I absolutely need to stay warmer. I’ll choose a better site closer to the fire, change into dry socks, and bringing warmer clothes overall. 

Lesson 4:
I rarely go anywhere without a couple of granola bars, and rarely go more than 4 hours without a meal or snack. I fully expected hunger would be the biggest challenge, and I thought I would be uncomfortably hangry the entire time. But I was happily surprised. After some stomach discomfort at lunchtime on Saturday just as we were arriving to the sites, I got way too busy with staying warm and keeping my fire going, and didn’t feel hunger at all. I didn’t eat anything between breakfast at 7AM Saturday morning and breakfast at 6AM Sunday morning. I made a point of staying hydrated though.

There were tasks I would have had to do in a real situation that I didn’t have to worry about in this exercise, like gathering and treating water, signalling for help, and administering first aid to myself and maybe my passengers. I boiled one bottle of water just because, and it was nice to sip on something warm, but it was slow and labour intensive if I had to rely on it for potable water. I was glad I brought a 4L container of tap water. In a real situation, aquatabs dropped into a drybag full of water would be most energy efficient.

It was pretty quiet out there. I fixated on the fire that needed constant attention, while a pop song played on repeat in my head ALL night. It was a good song but of course this became extremely annoying. To avoid this in the future, I will prepare some good camp songs to sing to myself or even a mantra to repeat to myself. There is a lot of quiet time to deal with. Perhaps I can bring a notebook or some useful reading material, like a guide to edible plants or a book of knots. When I took breaks and closed my eyes, all I heard was that stupid song and all I saw was the fire.

There were some additional lessons I took from this experience. The foil emergency blanket was annoyingly light and delicate. I’ll replace it in my new kit with a second high-vis heat reflective tarp. I had passable gloves that stayed warm while being wet, however they had soft rubber grips on the palms that melted onto my metal bottle in the fire, so I’ll replace them with more rugged work gloves. I brought a Leatherman multitool, but with cold fingers it can be difficult to fold and unfold the knife, and I didn’t use anything except for the knife anyways. I’ll switch it out for a simple knife with sheath in my new kit. Although I don’t think it’s necessary, a small saw was definitely nice to have, so I might add that to my kit. I’ll also try to make as many items as possible h
igh-vis / colourful, or stick on some reflective tape. It’s easy to drop small objects in the dark, especially with cold fingers. 

At 6:00AM everyone straggled out from their camps to gather around the propane fire at the instructors tent. Ryan made up an enormous batch of the most delicious hot chocolate I have ever tasted. Those were the first calories I had had in almost 24 hours. I also wolfed down a couple of apple pastries and a chocolate chunk muffin. We then walked around as a group to everyone’s camp to learn from each other. 

The instructors kindly gave me a special mention and a cool BCGA hat for embracing the spirit of the training, by not eating, packing extremely light, and continually improving my situation all night. I can’t explain how much I appreciate these five lovely volunteers who organized this event and taught us how to survive. It was fantastic to get to know them a little. I can only do my best to pay it forwards! I went home covered in soot and smelling of campfire. After staring at the fire constantly for so many hours, I had the sensation of seeing smoke for the rest of the day. That afternoon was glorious; I had BBQ sausages for dinner with my husband Steve while we watched the new episode of Game Of Thrones. My bed felt heavenly.

What I brought:
Metal Water bottle containing:
Garmin Inreach Mini  
Emergency foil blanket  
Extra headlamp batteries  
Stormproof matches, candle
2 x Glow sticks
Water tablets in ziploc
Signal mirror  
Extra plastic grocery bags  
Small Backpack containing the metal water bottle and:
Lip balm
Phone in drybag  
Multi tool
High vis heat reflective tarp
Large heavy black garbage bag
Wearing: synthetic baselayer, hiking socks, waterproof trail runners, waterproof breathable hardshell, synthetic puffy insulator, fleece, gloves, fleece hat, softshell gloves, watch
Large water bag with spigot 
Nalgene wide mouthed water bottle 
Extra drysac:
Tissues, hand sanitizer, shovel  
First aid kit
Clothing: extra winter mittens, fleece pants and rain pants, change of socks

Revamped kit:
Dry pack (MEC nano 20) to hold it all and also function to store treated water
(Once everything is unpacked, keep items in plastic bags)
Clothing (either wearing or packed up – brightly coloured where possible and/or stick on reflective strips): waterproof hiking shoes, gaiters, 2 pairs socks, merino wool base layer tops and bottoms, fleece pants and sweater, synthetic puffy insulating jacket, waterproof breathable hardshell jacket and pants (Carhartt high-visibility class E waterproof pant), heavy winter mitts, fleece toque (Carhartt high-visibility color enhanced beanie)
Extra headlamp batteries
Glow sticks
2 x lighters
3 x Esbit fire starter cubes
Work Gloves (Husqvarna Chainsaw Protection)
Camping knife with sheath (Mora companion)
Folding saw (Silky pocketboy 130)
2 x high vis heat reflective tarps
Escape lite bivy sack (breathable!)
Heavy duty large garbage bag
Water tablets – aquatabs
Pot with lid
Metal water bottle
Garmin Inreach Mini
Signal mirror
Extra plastic bags
3 days of rations 500 cal per day: salted nuts, coast protein bars, larabars, jerky/pemmican, milk powder + dark hot chocolate powder
Bug spray and net
Tissues, hand sanitizer
First aid kit