Enough to Survive the Night

9

The first time I fell wasn’t really a big deal. I should have known better and not worn road shoes in the snow. My foot found a patch of ice hidden beneath a thin layer of fresh powder and my legs flew out from under me as if I had slipped on a banana peel in a bad comedy sketch. The second fall, the one that happened a few months later, is the one I’m writing about. Years later and I still can’t shake this experience from my psyche. There was no broken femur, no search and rescue mission, no helicopter evacuation, and no reenactment of my saga on the tv show, I Shouldn’t Be Alive. No, what happened to me that late spring day is far from feature-worthy. It’s a common tale that anyone who has spent time on the trails can likely relate to. And that’s why it’s so important to share.

Rotten Road earned its name for a reason. Few people bother to run it. The rocks are loose and scattered, and just the right size to roll an ankle on. I didn’t pay much attention to this on the way up. Towards the top of the climb, temperatures began to drop and a chilling breeze cut through my minimalist attire. It was a comfortable 50 degrees at the trailhead—shorts and tee weather for any Pacific Northwest trail runner— but up here it was cold enough to wish I had taken a jacket. Still, I didn’t fret about being underdressed or underprepared. No one worries about being underprepared when things are going right.

As the snow began to fall, I decided to turn back. I don’t remember the exact moment my ankle gave, but I do recall slamming into the tree – a tall pine on the side of the trail, with branches reaching out as if trying to embrace or perhaps destroy me. I vividly remember lying there in a mess of needles, alone, trembling from both the cold and the fear.

I was unable to stand at first. I could not bear weight on my swollen right ankle. But I knew I had to move, and eventually I got to my feet and began the slow, peg-legged hobble back down the Rotten Road. I glanced at my Suunto. I was just shy of four miles from my car. I pulled out my cell phone hoping a bar would miraculously appear. It did not.

Nearly three hours later, just before the sun retired behind the ridge and aided by a large stick turned makeshift crutch, I caught sight of my car. As I limped into the trailhead parking lot, I pumped my fists and hollered as if I had just won Western States. My fingers were numb, my ankle throbbed, but overall I was okay. I was relieved and thankful.

Later that summer I took a wilderness first responder course. I learned what to do in case of an accident and, just as importantly, I learned the essential gear that runners and hikers should carry when venturing into the wilderness. I now have several “safety kits” pre-packed in my gear closet that I carry along depending on weather, location, distance of my run, and whether or not I’m running solo. I only carry what I consider to be the bare essentials and, in truth, I should probably carry more. But having gear in easy-to-reach bags prevents me from being lazy and just heading out the door.

When running in the backcountry, or any remote area, I now follow a simple rule: take enough to survive the night. If something unexpected happens and I’m unable to walk myself out, there’s a good chance that I’m not going to be found by rescuers until the following day. I need to be prepared to get through the night on my own, using only the supplies I am carrying on my back. I also no longer forget to tell someone where I’m going, regardless of whether it’s a short jaunt on a local trail or a long training effort in the high country.

I don’t love running with the extra weight, but I just imagine how light I’m going to feel during my next race when I don’t have to carry the additional supplies. And I remind myself that taking along a few extra items may not only save my life, but could also help to save a fellow runner or hiker who gets injured on the trails.

I also have a young son waiting for me at home to come back from my runs. That’s really the only motivation I need to carry an extra few extra ounces in my pack.

Here are the items currently in my “safety kits.”

For runs on remote trails

  • space blanket
  • headlamp with extra batteries
  • water treatment tablets
  • assorted bandages
  • extra food
  • whistle (with athletic tape)
  • fishing line (with duct tape)
  • fire starting kit
  • safety pin
  • medicine
  • insect repellent
  • after bite
  • toilet paper
  • sunscreen

For short runs on popular local trails

  • extra gel
  • water treatment tablets
  • toilet paper
  • after bite
  • sunscreen
  • assorted bandages
  • insect repellent
  • duct tape

Extra clothes

  • buff
  • socks
  • beanie
  • jacket
  • gloves
  • waterproof glove outers

(Depending on conditions I may also add a merino wool top and/or bottom layer).

*Note: This is just what I feel comfortable carrying on normal training runs. I may add/remove clothes and items depending on conditions or length of the run. I also do not normally carry a SPOT or other tracking device, however I do think it’s a good idea if going on a long adventure in the backcountry.

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About Author

Drew Dinan traded the tropics of the Florida Keys for the trails of Bend, OR. Once living the Jimmy Buffett lifestyle, working on fishing boats and owning only a single pair of flip flops, he now has way too many running shoes in his closet and never hears the end of it from his loving wife. He is on a constant quest to find the best happy hours, likes to complain when it’s cold outside, and one day hopes to travel the country writing reviews on chicken wings.

9 Comments

  1. That’s the exact scenario – a turned ankle that slows or stops progress – that has me going out with a 25L running pack for winter runs in Maine. When temps are below 15F and you stop producing body heat from running while dressed in soaking wet clothes, the need to change into dry clothing is critical!

    Your idea to have pre-packed safety kits for different scenarios is a great one – it’s a lot easier to pick out the right “modules” and throw them in a bag than completing a checklist of individual items before a run.

    A few pieces of gear that I consider helpful – a Sawyer mini for refilling water bottles, a SOL Escape Lite bivy sack in case a night in the woods becomes a reality, and a poncho which can be a ground cloth, tarp or rain/wind protection.

  2. Drew Dinan on

    Thanks for your reply, Aaron. I find runs to be much more enjoyable when I’m better prepared and have some peace of mind. And I find the pre-packed kits just keep me from being lazy and not taking the appropriate gear along.

    I forgot to mention the SOL bivy sack in the article. That is great advice. I carry one on my long runs and a space blanket on shorter runs- the idea being a space blanket is easier to wrap around the body if you can walk yourself out, while the bivy is great if you have to stay put. The space blanket I carry is also a little more durable.

    The poncho and the Sawyer mini are good calls as well. I’m not supposed to know this 🙂 but my wife is getting me a Katadyn Microfilter softflask for Christmas. I’m excited to give it a try and see how it holds up for backcountry water filtration.

    Thanks for your feedback and stay warm and safe up there this winter!

    -Drew

    • Thanks for this article. I recently found myself out on an out and back trail that can be fairly well traveled in sections. I stopped to chat with a friendly hiker and that put me behind my pace. By the time I finished chatting and started heading back to my car I realized I was chasing sunlight. Not being a fast paced runner (more of a walk-run person) I realized that if I wanted to beat sundown and the park gates closing me and my vehicle in for the evening I would have to run almost the entire distance back. Talk about motivation and negative splits. Everything worked out (thankfully). Since that run I have carried a headlamp with me on every excursion even if it is mid day. You never know what may occur.

      • Hi Liz, thanks for sharing your story! I have a small waist belt that is perfect for carrying a headlamp, car keys, phone, etc. when running on well-traveled trails or close to home. I usually don’t even know I have it on. Not sure if this is what you use, but I’ve found it to be a great tool.

  3. Love this article! It’s one of my big beefs with ultraracing in the US. So many races let you race with as little as you want which is fine most of the time, but for that once that you trip and fall just off the trail, just out of site, with the wrong weather and you could be in deep crap.

    • Thanks Josh! I have a dream of one day running UTMB, so in addition to safety I also look at carrying extra gear as good training for International races where it’s mandatory!

  4. I’ve heard of this Rotten Road. Very dangerous, glad you made it back. Good article. Keep publishing!

  5. Joanne Mullen on

    You might also add a large, heavy duty bin liner, a disposable plastic poncho and a small laser pointer to your bag. All of these weigh next to nothing, but the bin liner can provide shelter or catch rainwater, the poncho keeps you dry and the laser pointer is an unmissable signal in an emergency. A small LED torch, instead of the extra batteries, adds hardly any additional weight but gives you a second light option. A cotton ball smeared with vaseline will always light, so ditch the toilet paper too. Remember you can use aluminium foil to short a battery to start a fire if your other methods fail. Have some redundancy and split your pack into two smaller packs, just in case you lose one.

    More important than any gear though is to stay out of trouble in the first place, and following a clear and simple plan if things go wrong. Have a map with you and stay on the trail and never take ‘short cuts’ through the bush. If you get lost then stop, get your bearings and retrace your steps to the path again, rather than blundering on in a panic. Never take the short but dangerous route if there’s a longer, safe way to be found. If you hurt yourself, then treat yourself – stop bleeding with pressure, splint a broken bone – and keep fighting.

    You can go weeks without food – leave the fishing stuff at home – and a couple of days without water, but exposure can kill you fast, so know how to put together a shelter and make protection from the elements your number one priority if you’re going to have to rough it through the night. Second is water. If you have to drink untreated water then do it, your odds of actually catching anything nasty are much smaller than the immediate danger of dehydration.

    If you can’t walk out then make it easy for people to find you. Light a fire and make smoke. Remember SOS is three short blasts or flashes – s for short – three long, and three short again. Don’t give up, if you can breathe, you can whistle. If you can move a finger, you can flash that torch or laser pointer every ten minutes. If you’re on a trail, someone will find you if you’ve left word of where you’ll be so never lose hope because pretty much everyone gets rescued if they keep their head screwed on straight.

    Sometimes the difference between those who make it out and those who don’t is pure bloody mindedness. People panic and do stupid risky things or sit down and give up way before they have to. You’ve always got a little something left in the tank during a race, but you’ve got a whole extra 50% to call on from deep inside when your life is at stake. People have crawled down mountains with broken legs to survive. Don’t think about how cold or hurt you are, think about someone you love and how you’re getting home for them.

  6. Fantastic topic and content. Thank you for sharing. Another thought comes to mind – know and practice with your gear before you actually need to use it. For example, there are many “tinder” like fuel sources, and everyone will say theirs is the best, but I am the one who will need to get a fire started, so I tried multiple options and chose the one I could start easily and keep lit. This pretty much goes for everything. I try / test it all out in advance. Above all, I always tell someone where I am going and when I expect to return.

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