Tech tips for wilderness survival

Summary:Want to be prepared if you ever get lost in the backwoods? News.com readers offer tips that may one day save your life. Video: Survival 101

This article is the first in a three-part series. Coming up tomorrow: A look at improvements in car safety and navigation systems. And here's information on how to help the James Kim family.

The tragic death of CNET colleague James Kim and the wilderness rescue of his wife and children last week have prompted many of us to wonder if we're prepared enough for bad weather and other emergencies.

On Friday, News.com asked our readers to offer their suggestions and promised to turn them into a news article. Keep reading for our summary of the responses.

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"I think one of the important things to remember, and this is what got the Kims into difficulty, is nobody plans on getting stuck in the backcountry," said survival consultant Doug Ritter, who runs the Equipped.org Web site. "Stuff happens to people that's totally beyond their imagination, and you end up stranded someplace."

Reader feedback during the past five days tended to fall into the following categories:

Food, water, shelter: We've lost count of how many readers stressed the low-tech approach. One reader, dfarin, suggested: "When traveling in remote areas, because an extended storm can continue to suck the heat from the car quickly, you will need water, food, and a heat source. The car is your shelter."

The general advice was to keep a full tank of gas and bring a few gallons of water and extra food, jackets and, in the winter, even sleeping bags. Drinking enough water can help prevent hypothermia and frostbite. Mittens and chemical hand-warmers are useful. Details vary, of course, depending on the route and the weather.

In a true life-or-death situation, most people aren't going to worry too much about the water quality of a nearby stream. But they'd probably still like to have a LifeStraw, a tiny filtration device that Time magazine called one of the best inventions of 2005. A more compact alternative would be Katadyn water purification tablets.

Fire and light: Be able to reliably start a fire. NATO survival matches ($3.50) come in a watertight container and will burn intensely for 12 seconds even if dropped into water.

The Windmill Delta lighter ($45) is impact- and storm-resistant. But because lighters can leak and matches may not work when wet, a backup might be flint or magnesium fire starters that backpackers sometimes use.

One reader, Will Patterson, wrote that he spent the night in minus-20-degree Fahrenheit weather in heavy clothing and "a Mylar sleeping bag," which reflects up to 90 percent of body heat. They sell for around $5 online.

For light, ThinkGeek.com sells the Dynamo Spotlight ($35), a hand-cranked job with 16 LEDs. It's weatherproof and will also run off of 120 volts AC or an automobile's 12-volt DC lighter plug. Because it uses LEDs instead of an incandescent bulb, it should be more reliable and last longer on a charge.

One reader from northern Canada suggested candles. Equipped with six movable wicks, the Nuwick 120-hour candle can generate both light and heat--enough heat, in fact, for cooking.

Communications: If we had written this article a decade earlier, the available backups to a cell phone would have been something like ham radios or citizen band radios. Today there are two excellent alternatives: a satellite phone and a personal locator beacon.

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Video: Survival 101
Wilderness expert Brad Bostrom describes the must-have items travelers should throw in their trunks before a road trip.

One reader said that satellite phones used to be too expensive. But "lately hardware prices are coming down and service plans are becoming as affordable as cell plans once were with emergency usage plans being, in my opinion, very affordable."

Terrestrial mobile networks are limited in truly rural areas: if you're out of the range of a cell phone tower, you're out of luck. That's not the case with satellite phones, which need only a clear line of sight to the sky. If you're traveling within North America, the two best choices are Globalstar and Iridium, which operate constellations of satellites in low Earth orbit. Globalstar claims to have better U.S. coverage and cheaper rates; for a $38 base monthly fee, airtime costs between $1.40 to $5 a minute. Rentals are available.

Equipped.org's Ritter said his strongest recommendation for personal survival gear is for readers to consider a 406MHz personal locator beacon, which can transmit a distress call and its GPS-derived coordinates from anywhere in the world. The transmission is picked up by the Cospas-Sarsat satellite system and relayed to the appropriate rescue agency. Personal locator beacons became available in America's lower 48 states in 2003.

"For anyone who does any camping, hiking, fishing, water sports, boating, flying, a personal locator beacon from my point of view is number one on your list," Ritter says. "Because in many respects, if you have one of those, that will get you rescued quick enough that a lot of the other stuff that you still may need isn't as critical."

REI sells a beacon with GPS for $700. One of our readers suggested that companies purchase a few of them and permit employees to sign them out for vacations as needed.

In addition, our colleague Rafe Needleman over at Webware.com has been discussing how to use Web 2.0 technologies, combined with cell phone tracking and automatic alerts, to track loved ones and raise the alarm when one doesn't check in as scheduled.

Tracking: GPS devices may not help you get rescued if you need it. But they'll help to prevent you from getting lost in the first place. You'll need one with a built-in road map, and they fall into two main categories: handheld or laptop-based.

In the handheld category, CNET Reviews gave an Editor's Choice award to the Lowrance iWay 500c, which can be bought online for $500 to $600. The other option is to bring your laptop, plug in a GPS receiver through a USB port, and use something like the DeLorme Street Atlas USA software for Windows.

One reader, Wen Yu, reported that: "A simple GPS receiver together with electronic maps such as Microsoft Streets and Trips, or Delorme Street Atlas USA, (only about $100) works very well in any laptop. We were able to pinpoint the exact locations, regain our orientations several times in the New Mexico and Nevada deserts during our cross-country driving venture."

Another reader who's an outdoors enthusiast said with a handheld GPS device, hiking is simple: "I can just turn it on and walk off in any direction I choose. When I get tired or hungry, I can have the device show me which way to go and how far it is to get there, or simply follow my own track back to the campsite... This summer it has been important for boating in the San Fran Bay Delta which is filled with multiple channels and dead ends. Without the device, I'd never have found my way back to the boat launch."

Electricity: A personal locator beacon has a lithium battery that should last for between 5 and 10 years. But most of the other electronic gadgetry we've listed is going to need a source of power.

Your wilderness options include the IST SideWinder charger, which relies on muscle power to generate DC current. Charge 2 Go is a similar option that runs mobile devices off of AA batteries.

Global Solar sells foldable panels in 6.5-, 12- and 25-watt sizes. The company claims that, on average, a cell phone takes about two to three hours to charge. Solar panels, of course, work far better in direct sunlight than under thick cloud cover.

For home preparedness, the no-electricity-needed Freeplay Plus Alternative Power Radio is available from Amazon.com for $100. It's a windup AM, FM and shortwave radio that also features a solar panel for charging and a tethered LED flashlight.

Tools and medicine: A decent first aid kit is always a good idea at home and on the road. More advanced kits might include the QuikClot, a battle-proven substance--the manufacturer calls it a "hemostatic nanotechnology"--that can quickly stop bleeding when poured on a wound.

One of our readers mentioned a ".22 survival rifle that breaks down to small sections" that can fit in a backpack. Kel-Tec's folding SU-16C rifle fires heavier 5.56mm rounds, which would be more useful in self-defense or for hunting. (Until recently, Alaska law mandated that private pilots carry firearms for wilderness survival.)

Equipped.org's Ritter and other survival experts also recommend a sturdy knife, which has countless purposes in the backwoods. One reader, Carl Yee, said he is a forester and recommends that everyone have "at least a knife or better, a small ax in your car or emergency kit."

We spoke with Martin Colwell of SAR Technology, which has written a nifty Windows application called Incident Commander. It's designed to help search and rescue teams coordinate their efforts, and has been used successfully in rescuing backcountry skiers from the alpine wilderness between Canada's Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains.

It features "44 categories of missing persons. It'll give you the median distance of travel" for each type, Colwell said.

CNET News.com's Anne Broache contributed to this report

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