Having been through several days of experiments with vapor barrier socks, due to reading an interesting book on backpacking techniques, I am reminded of all the things I’ve learned from genuine survival experts that turned out to be pretty crappy ideas. Even experts aren’t infallible, and everyone who teaches must pass along a lot of information gained from listening to others who also have good reputations. Sadly, quite a bit of bogus information slips through the good old boy network. If you’re building a survival kit, test everything before your life depends upon it, otherwise you’ll have a good selection of useless garbage.
Some ideas are almost good, and I’d have to put vapor barrier socks in that category. Robert S. Wood, author of The 2 Oz. Backpacker, recommends wearing plastic bags next to your skin instead of over your socks, and even wears a plastic trash bag under his shirt to keep warm. He claimed in his book that you stop generating moisture when you do this and your skin doesn’t get soggier. I had never tried this, although I have used trash bags as rain gear and found them much better than nothing. Doing that I had the usual problems with condensation, so I wanted to test Wood’s idea myself.
I have now used the plastic bag socks in several thoughtful configurations and find only marginal benefits. Worn next to the skin, the plastic does trap and increase moisture, although there’s a point of maximum sogginess that possibly Wood found comfortable. Wet feet are always a problem in cold weather and plastic socks won’t make them a lot wetter. If you start with dry feet, dry socks and dry boots, wearing the plastic under all of that, you do keep the insulating value of the outer layers high for a longer time. In snow, they’ll still get wet, and then you lose most of that advantage. I found plastic against my skin very unpleasant. Wearing a pair of cotton socks under the plastic and a pair of wool socks over the plastic worked better, and in snowy situations it’s worth a try. There are no miracles packed in your plastic socks, however.
Like many makeshift survival concepts, plastic socks are better than nothing. If I were dressed for a day-hike on a mild winter’s day and found myself trapped by a sudden snowstorm, putting plastic bags over my socks would be sensible enough if I had them along. I usually carry two or three one-gallon ziploc bags just because they’re so handy. They make good emergency canteens and keep food scraps and other trash away from your clean gear. They’re not a substitute for a pair of wool socks.
I would prefer a ziploc bag to a condom as an emergency water container. Some survival experts actually do recommend carrying a couple of condoms for that purpose. That’s just ridiculous. True, it’s possible to carry about a quart of water in them, but they aren’t dependable and the practical carrying distance is more likely measured in yards than miles. Ziploc bags survive some mild abuse without bursting. You can even seal them and set them down for a little while without losing the water.
There’s no real argument about using these odd survival tricks if they’re all you have. If you need a canteen and all you have is a condom, you’d be silly not to try the condom. The problem comes in when these gimmicks become a person’s basic survival gear. If you’re assembling a basic pocket survival kit, put sensible things in it. A folded one-gallon ziploc bag makes better practical sense than a condom. Don’t, for example, take a big plastic trash bag instead of a rain jacket or a poncho. You can get real rain gear that’s light and compact and durable. On the other hand, if you’re stranded in the rain somewhere with a bag of trash next to you, don’t be proud. Dump the trash and wear the stinky bag. Heck, there’s probably lots of useful stuff in that trash, pick through it while you’re dumping and save the good stuff. You might find containers, tinder, fuel and much more in a bag of trash, but none of it is the kind of equipment you should intentionally pack.
Even some of the survival gear that makes good sense to carry is pretty marginal. If you day hike in difficult places, where it’s possible to get stranded in bad weather, having a minimal camp set is much better than having nothing. But if you try out minimal gear just for fun you can get a much more realistic view of how large that margin of quality actually is. Two things many people recommend really are worth putting in a day pack, but only if you’ve really experienced their limitations. Tube tents, for example, set up quickly and provide a minimal shelter against rain and wind. They aren’t durable and they do let in lots of weather. You gain some protection but not much. Sleep in one before you decide it’s fundamental to your system. Mylar space blankets, another popular item, do help retain heat and deflect wind and rain, but you’ll find them much less helpful than the manufacturers imply.
I don’t carry a tube tent. I much prefer a rain poncho, because I can either wear it or set it up as an emergency shelter. I do carry a pocket space blanket and I use it fairly regularly, either as a ground cloth or an extra layer over my sleeping bag. They don’t last long and it’s best to wear them out and replace them as needed. If you keep one in its original package because it’s neat that way, you may find out that it’s all melted together when you actually do need it. Keep an eye on those things if your life might depend on them.
A way to make fire is always at least handy, even if you can whittle a bow drill and a fire block and make a friction fire. The primitive methods require perfect materials and in primitive societies people carry them, they don’t depend on finding them handy in an emergency. Today you should follow that same advice and carry both tinder and a firestarter. Set yourself up with waterproof matches in a waterproof match box and you might think you’re well prepared. Try lighting a waterproof match on a metal waterproof matchbox lid and you’ll be glad you tried it at home first. You have to take the wax off the match or it gums up the striker, and they frequently won’t light anyway. Putting regular strike-anywhere matches in a waterproof container works better for me. A Bic lighter is equally good but needs replacement from time to time even if not used. Don’t rely on a cheap one. I’d lots rather carry a Zippo, for sentimental reasons, but Zippo lighters leak fuel and run dry. That always makes me sad, because otherwise I really like Zippos. Magnesium spark igniters work well if you practice, but don’t take one and depend on it unless you’ve practiced at home.
For tinder all you need is something that catches fire easily, and in most places you can work with found materials. If you can’t find dry tinder, you probably don’t have dry fuel, and many people find starting a fire with wet materials impossible. It takes a lot of practice and a lot of scrounging, but usually you can find dry stuff somewhere, even if you have to split it out of wet stuff. Once you have some promising kindling and fuel, it’s really nice to have some dry tinder in your pocket kit. It gives you a much better shot at getting the fire going. My favorite emergency tinder doubles as a medical supply item. If you pack a half dozen McKesson Medi-Pak Alcohol Prep Pads you have some great tinder. Light one with either a spark or a flame and it gives about 30 seconds of hot alcohol fire. The wipe itself burns slowly, it’s that first 30 seconds of alcohol fuel that counts.
Experts give more advice on survival tools than any other thing, and it’s easy to get ripped off, even by people who mean well. A Special Forces sergeant who taught me survival skills recommended a pocket wire saw. Other people recommend a Swiss Army knife or a multi-tool because of all the handy options that come along with them. I recommend leaving that stuff at home and taking a good pocket knife or a belt knife with you, and if you spend lots of time in the outdoors get in the habit of carrying a tomahawk like frontier people did. In the real world of rock-paper-scissors, rock beats everything, and the tomahawk is the rock. It does whatever you need to do. A knife is a good substitute, but don’t depend on a wimpy knife or a complicated knife. Multi-tools and Swiss Army knives are good for the car and the tacklebox, but I’ve not owned one as yet that had a good knife in it. In the woods, the knife is the part you need. I like the Buck 110 Folding Hunter, even though it’s modern stain-free steel. It’s rugged, convenient and doesn’t terrify suspicious park rangers.
As for wire saws, I recommend you buy a few of them and see how long it takes to cut through a four-inch tree branch, or, well, anything. You’ll need several, and lots of bandaids, and at the end of the practice session you’ll need some more wire saws. They break easily. Break some twigs to put through the rings for handles or you’ll rip off a couple of fingers playing with them. Then leave them at home and bring them out when friends come over and see if a good story will sell a few at a profit. All they’re good for is making money.