True North Blog

Improvisation: The Lifeblood of Survival

This past summer on an EMS call, a paramedic taught me a simple, but important, lesson.  We needed to move a patient from her bed to our stretcher, which we had momentarily left in the foyer, for transport to the hospital.  However, since her bedroom was so tightly packed with furniture, and hallway access to it was also too tight and limited, we weren’t able to bring the stretcher the rest of the way to her bedside.  I assumed, then, I would need to make a run to the ambulance to grab another piece of equipment that is specifically engineered to be used in such instances.  However, the medic simply asked me to grab a sheet off the stretcher.  A sheet?  What good, I thought, could a sheet possibly do us now?  When I handed it to him, he unfolded the sheet next to her, and gently helped her slide on to it.   Then, he motioned me to a position where we could each tightly grip the corners of the sheet and lift.  When we did, the patient effectively was seated in a “chair” allowing us to more easily walk her from the bed, down the hallway, and place her easily on to the awaiting stretcher.  Not only was it extremely effectively for us, but it was far better for the patient — she was already in much pain from her ailment, and so using any other piece of equipment, no matter how high-tech, would have likely aggravated it.  After we transferred the patient to emergency department staff, I reflected on how this incident provided a terrific lesson, not just to emergency medical care, but to wilderness survival.

Yes, I realize, just as the sheet seemed incongruous initially to me, so too may the link appear between EMS and wilderness survival.  However, the simple truth is, no matter the situation or setting, simplicity is very often the key.  That is, it is important to be able to make do with what you have, rather than what you wish that you had.  After all, improvisation is the lifeblood of wilderness survival.

I admit that while I am somewhat of a gear-head and so often covet the “newest and best” equipment, more often than not I prefer to just keep what I already have.  But if I do actually purchase something new, I like to choose something that has multiple uses, or potential uses.  The reality is that, one can not have every piece of equipment for every potential situation … Besides, who wants to carry it all?

I also like to think of uses for equipment or supplies which will likely already be in my backpack.  Here is a short list of some of those items and a few uses (a couple which might surprise you):

Plastic Drop-Cloth

I always have a roll of 2-mil plastic drop-cloth with me when I go into the woods.  It is small, light, and cheap ($2.50).  Heck, one can’t more low-tech than this!  But with it, in a matter of minutes, I can improvise a shelter that is water-proof, wind-proof, and surprisingly warm.  Can you guess what else I can do with it?  I can unroll it to quickly and easily transport a patient short to moderate distances along the trail, rather then spending the time and energy to make a litter (which can be a real pain).  See, a paramedic’s lesson comes in handy!

Plastic Sandwich Bag

Do you need to clean a wound, but don’t have an irrigation syringe in your first-aid kit?  Take the sandwich bag that holds (or held) your lunch, fill it with potable water, prick it with a pin (or something similar), and squeeze.  Not only will the water stream flush your wound just as effectively as a syringe, but you will likely be able to squeeze more water at a time than the typical syringe allows.


Many of us carry honey in our packs as part of our food supplies.  Well, I recently discovered another use for it than just as a topping on my morning oatmeal.  Wound management.  Yup, wound management.  If, for example, one needs to clean and treat an abrasion, but doesn’t have the typical antimicrobial ointment, honey can be used to pack the wound until it can better cleaned or treated.  Think that I am making this up?  Well, think again!  Check out the Wilderness Medical Society‘s “Practice Guidelines for Wilderness Medical Care” (Fifth Edition, Chapter 6, §II, Part C).  It turns out that honey is a natural antisepsis.

In the end, my purpose now isn’t to give you an exhaustive list of all the surprising things that you may be able to do with what’s already in your pack, but rather to just help get your brain thinking.  After all, in an emergency, no matter where you are or how much training you have, it is your brain that is your most important tool!


Do you want to learn more about what is discussed in this article?  Then don’t hesitate to contact Erik to ask him (trust us, he loves to talk about this stuff!).

Or consider registering for one of our Basic Wilderness Survival or Wilderness First Aid courses … We’ve just added courses to Schedule, and we will soon be adding more.

Erik Kulick leaning aginst wall with True North badge on blue shirt

About the Author

Erik is the founder of True North Wilderness Survival School. He is a police officer, EMS provider, a Wilderness EMT, and a Fellow of the Academy of Wilderness Medicine. He has been featured in national and international media, including CNN, the Associated Press, and Backpacker. To learn more about Erik, visit him on LinkedIn and be sure to follow him on Facebook and YouTube.

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