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Survival Equipment

Gear you don’t need: Dump the mylar blankets from your survival kit

Gear you don’t need: Dump the mylar blankets from your survival kit

Do you carry a mylar blanket in your survival gear as an emergency shelter item? If so, here’s why you should get rid of it.

by Leon Pantenburg

I stopped at the wilderness survival seminar at the Deschutes County (OR) Expo Center more out of curiosity than anything else. The presenter was Peter Kummerfeldt, and he has the  wilderness survival credentials. A retired Air Force survival instructor, with 30 years service, Peter had taught wilderness survival all over the world in such diverse places as the military’s arctic survival school in Fairbanks, Alaska, and the jungle school in the Philippines.

Survival expert Skip Stoffel demonstrates how fragile a mylar blanket is in a survival situation. (Blake Miller photo)

Survival expert Skip Stoffel demonstrates how fragile a mylar blanket is in a survival situation at the 2013 Washington state Search and Rescue conference. (Blake Miller photo)

A survival mindset requires always being open to learning new things, and I figured I could pick up something. It took Peter about 20 minutes to point out my ignorance.

It was an almost born-again experience. I went to every seminar Peter taught that day, then followed him back to his booth, and plied him with more questions.

That night, I went home and reviewed all my survival gear. My setup was well-traveled, but unused,  and I had carried it backpack hunting in the Idaho backcountry for years.

And  I threw away several items that had been in the pack for a long time. Among these were two mylar blankets. The outer plastic packaging showed wear.

Today, I buy lots of mylar blankets. (We’re talking the cheap ones,  not the quilted, reinforced Space Blankets or  the Heat Sheets Survival Blankets.)  My friend Blake Miller, a navigation expert and survival instructor, and I shamelessly duplicate Peter’s mylar blanket demonstration at classes and seminars.

And Blake, Peter and I, based on experience and field testing, think  mylar blankets are dangerous.

Here’s why you should not rely on them.

Proponents claim:

The blankets were designed by NASA, and use space age technology.  The idea is that the shiny  surface reflects heat back to the body.

The cheap mylar "blankets," as usual, failed miserably under survival conditions!

This mylar blanket failed miserably during a Boy Scout wilderness survival overnighter. (Leon Pantenburg photo)

Cheap: I buy the blankets in bulk for less than a buck apiece.

Widely available: True. There is some variation at every WalMart or box store.

Compact: Again true – the packages are about the size of a fat cigarette pack.

Lightweight: Yes.

Signaling: The mylar’s shiny surface can reflect sunlight and allow a search aircraft to find a lost person.

Why you shouldn’t carry or rely on mylar blankets:

NASA designed: Not all space age technology is necessarily good, or the best choice, in every situation. Equipment designed for a space station, weightlessness and outer space, or the interior of a climate-controlled hospital, may fail miserably in a thicket full of stickery thorns and brambles in Mississippi.

Cheap: Because these blankets are so cheap, people stock up on them. They may scrimp on the shelter aspect of their gear so they can invest in other things.

Signaling: In bright sunlight, water, rocks, ice, snow tin cans or any shiny surface will reflect light to searching aircraft. In the dark, you may be able to shine a flashlight on the shiny surface to attract aircraft. But I’ve also heard the Taliban uses  mylar blankets to hide their heat signatures from NATO aircraft. It would not be a good thing to be wrapped in one of these blankets if you are lost in the wilderness and hoping to be found.

Compact: The blankets were designed for a space craft, where room is at a premium. The blanket sizes of two different brands I have on my desk are 52 inches by 82.5 inches and 84 inches by 54 inches.   This is too small to provide much shelter.

False confidence: If  you think your shelter needs will be met by a couple of Mylar blankets, you may not think to search out a better solution. That’s what I thought.

Fragile: The mylar is easily torn or ripped. This can happen from a gust of wind or by leaning up against a tree branch. I’ve managed to tear the blankets just taking them out of the package in a controlled environment. It would be a real mistake to cut a head hole in the center of one to make a poncho. Chances are, the material would rip in half.

classroom blanket

This student in Blake Miller’s wilderness survival class learned how difficult it is to unfold and use the blanket. (Blake Miller photo)

Unwrapping: The sealed packages can be hard to rip open with your fingers. You may need a knife, and then you risk cutting the blanket. Before you consider carrying one of these things, try opening the package with one hand to simulate being injured.

Unfolding: Once you get the blanket out, try unfolding it. Typically, this is difficult anyway, but this could be disastrous if you need to get out of bad weather quickly.

Quick shelter: Forget it. The corners don’t have grommets. You might wrap a rock in each corner, but that adds several more steps to the survival shelter process. Besides, the blankets are so small  their sheltering ability is minimal.

Noisy: Mylar is really loud. If you manage to cover your head with the blanket, and the wind is blowing, the noise may cover up the sound of rescuers. If you’re in cold and deep snow, for example, the snowmobiler searcher may not be able to hear your cries for help through his insulated helmet and engine noise. You may not be able to hear the snowmobile. This is really bad.

One shot application: Most lost people are found and rescued within 24 hours. But what if you aren’t and have to move because of a flood or fire? Assuming your blanket is intact, good luck trying to re-fold it into the package or a compact size.

Any survival gear – or advice – should be suspect. So take this for what its worth. Several knowledgeable, real survival experts warn against using the mylar blankets.

And I’m sure there are folks out there who will send me stories of how a friend of an acquaintance, distant cousin or somebody used a mylar blanket to save their bacon. And maybe somebody on a survival show demonstrated how to make a shelter, and a mylar blanket was part of it.

So here’s what you do: Go buy several of these blankets, and try them out in your backyard before venturing off the pavement. I think you’ll find they are inadequate for wilderness survival use.

Wilderness survival gear isn’t complicated. But it does have to work. Don’t stake your life on gear you haven’t personally tested.

“It needs to work for you.” – Blake Miller.

Here are some proven, simple emergency shelter tools and techniques: trash bag shelter, make an A-frame tarp shelter, and common sense emergency shelters.

Contact Peter Kummerfeldt or Blake Miller for more wilderness survival information.

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Leon Pantenburg is a wilderness enthusiast, and doesn't claim to be a survival expert or expertise as a survivalist. As a newspaperman and journalist for three decades, covering search and rescue, sheriff's departments, floods, forest fires and other natural disasters and outdoor emergencies, Leon learned many people died unnecessarily or escaped miraculously from outdoor emergency situations when simple, common sense might have changed the outcome. Leon now teaches common sense techniques to the average person in order to avert potential disasters. His emphasis is on tried and tested, simple techniques of wilderness survival. Every technique, piece of equipment or skill recommended on this website has been thoroughly tested and researched. After graduating from Iowa State University, Leon completed a six-month, 2,552-mile solo Mississippi River canoe trip from the headwaters at Lake Itasca, Minn., to the Gulf of Mexico. His wilderness backpacking experience includes extended solos through Yellowstone’s backcountry; hiking the John Muir Trail in California, and numerous shorter trips along the Pacific Crest Trail. Other mountain backpacking trips include hikes through the Uintas in Utah; the Beartooths in Montana; the Sawtooths in Idaho; the Pryors, the Wind River Range, Tetons and Bighorns in Wyoming; Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, the Catskills in New York and Death Valley National Monument in southern California. Some of Leon's canoe trips include sojourns through the Okefenokee Swamp and National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia, the Big Black River swamp in Mississippi and the Boundary Waters canoe area in northern Minnesota and numerous small river trips in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest. Leon is also an avid fisherman and an elk, deer, upland game and waterfowl hunter. Since 1991, Leon has been an assistant scoutmaster with Boy Scout Troop 18 in Bend, and is a scoutmaster wilderness skills trainer for the Boy Scouts’ Fremont District. Leon earned a second degree black belt in Taekwondo, and competed in his last tournament (sparring and form) at age 49. He is an enthusiastic Bluegrass mandolin picker and fiddler and two-time finalist in the International Dutch Oven Society’s World Championships.

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