Survival Gear Dry Run: A Night in the Woods

Your Gear Dry Run Might Be One of the

Most Important Things You Do!


One never knows when a crisis might strike. With all the time we spend in our vehicles, it could easily happen while you’re on the road and you’ll need your emergency gear. With that in mind, I decided to test the emergency backpack I keep in my truck with a survival gear dry run. The test yielded some success and some lessons learned.

Bad Stuff Happens

In the “Big Blizzard of ’78” thousands of people in the northeast were trapped in their cars on the Interstate, some for days. Some people died. Both my wife and I had lived in rural Minnesota in our younger years, so we were well aware of how easily a car can get stuck off the road, and how long it can take for help to arrive.

The Gear To Be Tested

Awhile back, I assembled emergency bags for both my truck and my wife’s car. These were not the classic “Bug Out Bags” designed for escaping the zombie apocalypse by fleeing into the hinterlands and living off the land. These were for less dramatic use in case of automotive stranding in adverse conditions. I should note here that the backpacks and contents were nothing special or “tacticool” that would impress gear aficionados.

Defining the Test

If stranded, one can (a) call for help or (b) sleep in the vehicle. But what if neither of those options was available? (phone dead, vehicle unsafe to stay in) Playing a game of ‘what if’, I wondered if I could use my Truck Bag to survive a night (or more?) in the woods? Did I have the right gear? Better to find out in practice than during the real thing.

Of Interest: What Do I Put In My Survival Kit Link Bomb?

Scheduling a Crisis

To test my Truck Bag, I picked a day a couple weeks in advance. Of course, no one gets two weeks advance warning of a real crisis. Even so, the mental exercise brought on two revelations before I had even begun.

Revelation One: I knew the date, but nothing else. Would it be sunny and warm? Cold, windy and rainy? We had temps down in the 30s already. Realizing the uncertainty of the future was a good mental experience. It prompted me to reassess my Truck Bag’s contents to cover a wider range of possibilities.

Revelation Two: My Truck Bag was not equipped for sleeping outside the truck, or wet weather. I needed a few more things to cover wet and cold.

Pre-Test Adjustments

I added (with my wife’s help) some straps to the bottom of my backpack so I could attach a sleeping bag. I also added a good military-style poncho and a couple small tarps, among other bits. Only a test run would tell if I had what I’d need, too much or too little. (BTW, the bag weighed in at 21 lbs.)

The Plan

After work, on that scheduled Friday, I would drive to our church after work. Behind the church is 13 acres of mixed forest and I had permission to make a small campfire there. I planned to arrive, scout out a good spot and set up camp. I planned to use a tarp to make a quick lean-to, and use a long-burning campfire. (more on that later) I would have to adapt to whatever the weather conditions were on the actual day.

Testing Day

When the day came, the forecast was for a mild day and evening, but rain to move in around midnight. That Friday’s commute home just happened to be a really bad one. Two separate crashes on the Interstate caused dozens of miles of backup. The second crash was unusual enough to nearly close the highway.

Instead of arriving with a couple hours of daylight remaining, I arrived with very little daylight left. This added realism to my test. Who gets stranded first thing in the morning with all day to set up camp?

Making Quick Choices

I arrived just as the sun was going down behind the tree-line. I put on my backpack and set off into the woods. The spot I had imagined being a good place proved too irregular and lower than I remembered. Not good. I had to spend precious waning daylight to find a better spot. The perfect setup I wanted was a gentle wind at my lean-to’s back, and just a bit higher than my fire, so logs would not come rolling in with me. With little light left, I did not have the time to be choosy. I had to gather firewood while I could see far enough to spot windfall.

No Wild Water

I had my Sawyer Mini along to filter water, but there wasn’t any. The swamp was dry. The little stream, which usually babbles, was also dry. I had about a liter with me.

Working Fast

After I found an adequate spot, I set about finding firewood while I could still see without flashlights. Within about a circle of about fifty yards, I located three fallen oaks that had been down long enough to be dry. My Sven-Saw was marvelous. In a half an hour, I had a half dozen 4-5” logs, each about a yard long, and numerous branches for kindling. I hoped it was enough to last the night. Even though the air was getting cool and damp, the exercise had me peeling off my jacket and sweater. I did not need a fire for awhile.

Headlamp Plus

The headlamp was invaluable for setting up my tarp and things in the failing light. I had a reflective tarp to maximize heat from a modest fire and hopefully, enough coverage for when it rained. I could tie knots, pound in stakes, break up kindling and array my gear all with both hands. The headlamp was a definite plus for such close-quarters work.

Finnish Fire

Lonnie of Far North Bushcraft has a YouTube video on the traditional two-log fire. It’s supposed to give a long slow burn. I knew I would not have time to find such large, dry logs, nor time to hew them flat on one side like he did. So, I set up a variation on the Finnish ‘gap fire’, but using three smaller-diameter logs.

They call it “pinotuli”, or a “pile fire”. The rule of thumb is that 1” of log diameter equals an hour of burn time in such a fire lay. If so, my 4” logs would give me four hours. I had enough other (somewhat smaller) logs to add another four hours — maybe.

Slow Start

I had matches and a little lighter, but just for the bushcraft sake of it, I lit my fire with a Ferro-rod and a quarter of a cotton ball soaked in Vaseline. Both worked great. From the little teepee fire, I fed burning sticks into my “pile fire” to light the kindling.

This turned out to be more maintenance-intense than I expected. Since real-life logs are more irregular than idealized YouTube logs, it took a half an hour of fussing and feeding in sticks to get the fire self-sustaining. I almost had flame-out a few times.

Settling In

Around 8:30, the fire had spread all along the “pile” and was radiating nicely. It was time to relax a bit, eat my supper (half a sandwich saved from work) and listen to my little AM/FM radio. Civilization was still out there.

The radiant heat was perfect — not too warm, nor too feeble. I crawled in my sleeping bag with my flashlight and knife arrayed in easy-to-grab locations. I felt like I was never sleeping, but whole hour chunks of time would go by, so I obviously was.

Slow Burn

Awake at 10:30 and the “pile fire” is in a perfect mid-burn.  The heat was just enough. I could see that the top log was about half burned through, so I pulled over its twin for easier deployment when the time came. The air outside of the lean-to was crisp. I could see my breath.

Midnight Refueling

I awoke at 12:15 feeling cold. The top log had split and fallen away. I had its replacement, and some kindling, ready at hand, so I was able to get the fire going again fairly quickly. After a bit of adjustment of the top log, it was time to doze off again.

Refueling Two

Around 3:30, I awoke again, feeling cold. The two bottom logs had burned through and my “pile” collapsed. I pulled my last fuel logs over and made an ad hoc pile over the coals. They did not take long to become engaged. I dozed off again.


A bit before 5:00, I awoke cold again. My ad hoc pile had burned down quickly. My light-duty sleeping bag was not enough. Since I was too cold to go back to sleep, I pulled over my unused kindling and branch-wood to make a quicker fire. A little strategic blowing on the coals and the new little fire was crackling nicely. It was surprising how great the radiant warmth of even a small fire felt on cold hands.

I set my little camp cup on some mini-logs, to make some hot water for instant coffee. This took about seven minutes to bubble. Meanwhile, I snacked on a package of trail mix as my breakfast. A hot cup of coffee does wonders too.

The woods were very quiet as the blue light of an overcast dawn grew. Around 6:00, the crows and chipmunks woke up and it was no longer quiet. Not too long after I had broken down my camp and repacked my gear, it started to sprinkle and later turned to rain. If I had been hard up for water, I could have collected rain. But, my test was complete.


I realize that experienced campers will not be impressed that a guy ‘survived’ a night in the woods. What my test did prove, was that the minimal gear I had in my Truck Bag was sufficient to get me by if I were stranded far from civilization and I could not stay in my disabled truck. That’s good to know.

Lessons Learned

Have Appropriate Sleep Gear — Get something rated for the weather you’re likely to have to endure. A kids’ sleep-over sleeping bag (usually rated for 50 or 60 degrees) won’t help much when it’s below freezing. I’ll be replacing my old light-duty bag with a better one.

Gather Lots of Fuel — My rough rule of thumb was to gather three times what I thought I needed to make my initial fire. The “pile fire” technique worked great but still needs refueling. Better to gather extra early, than try to look for more in the dark and cold.

Bring Water — It’s a great idea to have the means to filter wild water, but you might get stuck where there isn’t any. You don’t need to haul around a three-day supply, necessarily, but a liter or so can tide you over until you locate more.

A Big Saw is Great — Wire saws are okay for kindling or tent poles. Little folding saws are nice for 2-inch branches. A bigger, aggressive saw like the Sven-Saw was fairly quick at producing bigger fuelwood. It can do all the little cutting too.

Headlights Rock — Flashlights are a must, but being able to work hands-free in the dark is great.

Make Adjustments — My homemade sleeping bag attachment worked but needs to be tweaked to cinch down tighter and make it easier put on and take off the backpack. The backpack also needs more inner bags for organizing gear. Loose stuff always falls down deep or is easily lost in leaf litter. I’ll also be looking to trim a couple pounds wherever I can.

With these and some other small adjustments, my Truck Bag and my wife’s Car Bag will be better set up to get us through a cold weather stranding. They aren’t perfect, but after my test, they will be better.

Articles of Interest:

This is reprinted from the former website Your Preparedness Story, owned by Prepper Website.

This article first appeared on Ed That Matters.

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