By Michael W. Williams
Originally published January 2001, in Making Tracks
The Newsletter of the Anchorage Snowmobile Club
After a 20 year Army career my family and I were at a crossroads, pursue a longtime dream or continue what had become a comfortable existence. The pursuit of a dream and a new life became our destiny. We have spent the last 7 years living in the bush at the base of Mt. Susitna. We purchased a piece of property there with some rundown cabins on it and called it EagleSong. Slowly, sometimes painfully slow, we have been building and developing EagleSong Lodge.
A cornerstone of our business has been the development of trails to draw on the winter recreation boom in the Mat-Su Valley. Most of our winter days now evolve around trail development and maintenance, guiding, supporting various winter backcountry races and tending to the needs of our guests.
I now log thousands of miles on snowmachines each winter. The snowmachine to me is what a tractor is to a farmer. You can often find me grooming 30 miles or more of trail at 2:00A.M. or cutting brush on isolated trails long before the first snowmachiner can cross the Susitna River.
I am often asked what I carry with me in the form of survival equipment since I spend so much time traveling alone. I’m asked this often enough that I thought an article on the subject might be appropriate. I’m not a survival expert by any stretch of the imagination, but 7 years of trail and error and observing others has given me some insight.
I must start by saying that the thoughts and ideas that I express in the article are things that work for me. The way a person prepares and responds to an emergency situation is governed by many factors. The way you ride, type of snowmachine you drive and where you travel have the most obvious impact on your equipment list and techniques. Some of the things I outline may apply or be adapted for your personal use while others will not apply to you at all. I won’t cover avalanche dangers and equipment here. There are many experts that cover this subject better than I ever could. I encourage you to evaluate your riding habits, then seek expert advice and training from one of the many organizations that specialize in backcountry preparedness.
With all that said, let’s start by looking at the snowmachine you ride. Does it have underseat storage, a cargo rack, saddlebags or a dash mounted bag? How much gear will you physically be able to carry on your snowmachine? Pulling a sled can increase your carrying capacity, but creates a host of other problems and I don’t know of anyone that pulls a sled continuously. Many snowmachines today have little, if any, storage space or even a hitch for a sled. The more remote you intend to ride, the more gear you will require.
So how do you carry equipment? Underseat storage is great if you have it. Items that need to stay with your machine all winter (tools, duct tape, baling wire and spare parts) can be stored there. You might want to consider adding saddle bags, dash mounted bags or a small backpack that you wear. On long, isolated trips a sled may be in order. I have back rests on most of my snowmachines and I’ve found multi-pocketed fanny packs can fit nicely draped over the backrest and not impede its use. You can strap them to a cargo rack too. A day pack strapped to your machine works equally well. I prefer a fanny pack or backpack because there may be a time that you have to abandon a dead or stuck snowmachine and you can strap a fanny pack/backpack on and comfortably carry your survival gear with you. I also carry a dry bag, the type commonly used in rafting. They come in many sizes, the better quality bags are unbelievably durable in the cold, they float and you can get models that have shoulder straps, so again you can take it with you if you must abandon your machine. I keep my sleeping bag, changes of clothing and anything else that must stay dry in this bag.
Some of the things I carry in my fanny pack are a small first aid kit, compass/GPS, flashlight, spare batteries, disposable heat packs, high energy food bars, metal cup for melting water and small sewing kit. I’ve attached an insulated pouch for my water bottle and partial roll of toilet paper sealed in a ziplock bag tucked handily in one of the outer pouches for quick retrieval. I also carry a nifty little devise called a pocket chainsaw. It works great for cutting firewood or extracting your machine from alder patches and it takes up very little space.
In my book, the ability to start a fire in an emergency is one of the single most important things to accomplish. A fire can warm you, dry your clothes, heat food, melt snow for water, and signal help. Make sure you have several different methods for making a fire. I carry 2 or 3 lighters, matches in a waterproof container, a magnesium bar with flint attached and a film canister packed with cotton balls saturated in Vaseline. The cotton balls work great as tender for getting a fire going and you can use them on chapped lips too. Steel wool works well as tender for starting a fire too, but it is tough on the lips. If you need a fire to warm yourself and/or dry clothes think about building 2 fires about 8 feet apart and stand between them. You will warm and dry yourself more quickly. I also carry a small can of Sterno (you know – the break stuff you use to heat fondue). It comes sealed in a can and stays ready until you need it. There is nothing to clog up, break or go wrong with it; simply light and use. You can melt snow, warm yourself or heat food quickly without going to a fuss of starting a campfire.
One of the most common problems you can encounter in the backcountry is overflow. It is especially debilitating if the temperature is extremely cold. The track of your snowmachine can be frozen solid in a matter of minutes. That is why I carry a geologist type hammer. It’s a hammer on one end and has a point on the other end. If you find your track coated in ice and unable to move, use the hammer to gently chip the ice off. This simple hammer has made a difference for me on numerous occasions in some extreme conditions.
Since I drive such heavy snowmachines (645/670 lbs dry weight) I have added a collapsible cable winch that stores neatly in a plastic storage box kept under my seat. Another thing I find extremely versatile is a 1 ¼ inch nylon ratchet strap. It can often be used alone to winch out a stuck machine, used as a tow strap to pull a disabled snowmachine home, or as a snatch strap to jerk a snowmachine or sled free. Of course, they work well for strapping down gear too. Don’t skimp on the strap size if you buy one or more of these. Get a strap that is a minimum of 1 inch in width and 1 ¼ inch is preferred. I always carry a collapsible shovel too.
What about a shelter if you become stranded? I carry a small poly tarp. It is compact, versatile, inexpensive, and light weight. You can stretch it out between trees as a cover, drape it over a pole and make a tent, or pile snow around and over it to make a snow cave. I now carry a lightweight, compact bivy sack for shelter, but I still carry a tarp as well.
Consider carrying a pair of snowshoes with you. As a rule of thumb each hour riding away from the trail head equates to a day of walking back. They make some very lightweight and compact snowshoes now. I carry a pair made of aircraft quality aluminum and hypalon.
A few years ago I added waterproof aerial flares to my list. I keep a couple in my fanny pack and a couple in a ziplock bag in my jacket pocket. You can use them to signal for help, start a fire, and they have even been known to turn a threatening moose away.
Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security because you have all your gear neatly strapped to your machine. You could easily become separated from your machine and gear in an avalanche or by breaking through the ice and submerging your machine. You can be left dependent on what is in your pockets in the blink of an eye. Consider carrying on your person a couple of fire starters, a knife, high energy food bars, cell phone in waterproof pouch, waterproof aerial flare and anything else you feel you many need. I know this is a tough one, since you only have so many pockets and you don’t want to feel like a pack animal when you are out enjoying your sport, but consider the alternative.
The items I’ve listed may sound excessive and for some it will be. The objective is to give you some ideas and to make you think about your personal safety. I continue to refine my list of emergency gear by observing others, looking for new or improved equipment and ways to make the gear I carry serve more than one purpose.
Don’t be dependent on your riding partners for your survival. It is quite easy to become separated in the backcountry and the gear your partner is carrying will do you little good.
Don’t become complacent – be prepared! Safe travel my friends.