Offering frequent news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Emergency preparedness is important

"Business as usual" has come to a halt these last few days as residents of the Central Puget Sound cope with the lack of power, heat, hot water, or all three.

My family has been without electricity since Thursday evening, which was almost seventy two hours ago now. Though power has been restored in much of downtown Redmond, most of the city's residential areas don't have it back yet.

For some people living without electricity is and has been really difficult. For me and my family, it's another exercise which demonstrates the value of emergency preparedness. We've not been thrilled with our lack of power and heat (we do have hot water) but we're not miserable, either.

In fact, compared to other folks whose stories I have heard, we're doing great.

That's partly because all of us are veteran campers. When we go on a road trip, we usually stay at campgrounds instead of hotels or motels. And that's because we like the great outdoors. We're not RV campers, either. We're tent campers.

And when you are tent camping, you don't have electricity. Sometimes you don't even have running water, let alone hot water. Key weapons in a camper's arsenal include a good cookstove (either one burner or two), a tinder box for starting fires, battery powered flashlights, a propane lantern, and a warm sleeping bag.

Frontcountry camping is more comfortable because normally you have access to running water, showers, and waste facilities.

You can drive up to the site and make use of your car and or trailer for storage, to charge cell phones or laptops if you have them.

In backcountry camping, which requires considerably more patience and tolerance, you don't have any of those luxuries. To go backcountry camping you need all the "camper's weapons" I described above, but they can't be big or heavy. Bringing a big two burner stove, for example, would be completely impractical.

Especially if you're going snowshoeing into the wilderness, you need a reliable backpacking stove such as the WhisperLite (I own one, and it works virtually anywhere). You also need a good sleeping bag designed for cold temperatures - a mummy bag. These have a distinctive shape.

They taper from the head end to the foot end, reducing the volume and surface area, and offer better heat retention properties.

Blow up air mattresses are out of the question. You'll need a durable sleeping pad, either a foam fold out or a self inflating pad, like a Thermarest.

You'll need a lightweight, portable tent that can weather snow, wind, and anything else the Earth might throw at you. (It can't be bulky either since it has to fit into your backpack). For cookware you'll want a set that can be stored inside its largest container, with collapsible pot handles and utensils, as well as a cleaning kit that includes biodegradable soap.

A water purifier is a really useful tool to have.

Preferred fuels for cooking and keeping warm are propane and white gas. They're easy to transport and they burn fairly cleanly.

You'll also need the Ten Essentials - a term referencing a list of important items originally popularized up by the Mountaineers, that famous hiking and conservation group based right here in Seattle. They are:
  • Map (for orienteering!)
  • Compass (for orienteering!)
  • Water (having a water purifier, as mentioned above, is excellent as well)
  • Extra food (you don't want to go hungry)
  • Rain gear and extra clothing (stay dry, stay warm)
  • Firestarter (preferably waterproof matches)
  • First Aid kit (prepackaged ones are good. Take a First Aid class too).
  • Pocket Knife (Swiss Army knife, for example, or multipurpose tool)
  • Flashlight (for orienteering, signaling, finding your way)
  • Sun protection (Sunscreen, sunglasses)
Other useful items, in addition: insect repellent, a whistle, duct tape, trash bags, extra batteries/bulbs, and talk about walkie talkies for communication.

Most serious backcountry campers practice Leave No Trace - a set of ethics which mandate respect for the wilderness. It's exactly what it sounds like: camping that leaves little, but preferably zero, impact on the environment. That means virtually everything you pack in must also be packed out.

The point I'm making here is that even people who are not elderly, very young, or ill - people who are simply too accustomed to living with numerous comforts and luxuries - can have a tough time of it when an emergency or disaster arrives, such as the windstorm we just had.

But when you've had some good experience camping a power outage doesn't faze you much. You've got the gear for staying warm, for cooking, for maintaining light. And you know how to use that gear. You know not to use a grill or stove inside, for example, because of the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning.

If your house is cold, you're not too bothered, because after all, you've already slept in a tent where it's been that cold or even colder.

You're good at building and lighting fires, at preparing food without a microwave or oven (though Coleman does offer a few tantalizing frontcountry camping accessories we think are worth owning - a camp oven and a camp coffeemaker, for example). You're an expert at carefully packing your cooler and replacing the ice when it has partially thawed out.

Even if you're not interested in doing any camping, having the gear is still very important for emergency preparedness purposes. You'll want the Ten Essentials at home, battery powered radios and lanterns (electric for inside, propane ones for use outside next to your grill), candles, as well as fleece or wool clothing and blankets. More recommended items are here.

But the best gear in the world won't save you if you don't know how to use it. That's why it's good to get camping and survival experience and learn how to apply common sense to make good decisions so when you're faced with an emergency, disaster, or life-threatening circumstance, you can react and survive.

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