The AAD Survival Pack
One thing that we must have with us at all times when outside of the station limits is the Australian Antarctic Division’s (AAD’s) Survival Pack. It contains everything we need to keep warm, dry and safe in the field if something doesn’t quite go to plan. I’ll jump straight to some images and leave the explanations to later:
This is the pack itself. It’s a fairly generic sort of pack with no special chambers or external pockets. It’s made out of very thick and sturdy nylon. The sturdiness is a great for surviving being strapped onto all manner of vehicles and thrown about a bit, but is also a bit of a disadvantage here at Davis (we’re also known as ‘the walking station’) because of the opportunity to go on hikes.
The idea behind the survival pack is that it must have a particular set of items in it, but may contain more. Some of the items still count as being in the bag if we’re wearing them (for instance, our windproof outer-shell jacket and pants can be in the pack or worn; two sets aren’t required). Other items must be in the pack even if you’re wearing them, like a set of thermals, which live in the pack so that you have a dry set in case you get soaked.
The first set of items are for safety while travelling on sea ice and/or snow:
An ice pick is a standard bit of kit for travelling in ice and snow. It can be used for stability, as an anchor point, as a brake (should you fall and start sliding down a hill) and so on.
The throw rope must be in an accessible location on the outside of your pack. Whenever we’re traversing tide cracks to get from the shore onto the sea ice, one person will go out in front with an ice pick and closely examine the integrity of the snow and ice. Another person will follow behind them with a throw rope ready. If either fall through the ice into the water, the whole bag and the large loop are thrown over them. As the rope is slowly retrieved, the person who’s fallen in can put their head and one shoulder through the loop and be pulled out.
Micro spikes are an important part of fjord travel. The prevailing wind often scours the fjord ice of snow, leaving the hard, slick ice exposed. Regular boot chains don’t cut it, so we have these micro spikes to dig in to the ice. They’re lighter, more comfortable (rigid boots aren’t required) and easier to store than proper crampons, and they’re just as good down here as we won’t have anything steep to climb.
One of the two most important things we carry is a bivvy bag with a foam mattress. If the weather turns bad, or someone gets too cold or injures themselves, this is the portable shelter that will keep them warm.
The bag itself is made from a thick, strong synthetic material with an opening that cinches closed if required. It’s long enough to fit in a person and their backpack, and is wide enough to allow the changing of clothes without much drama. If a blizz blows in without warning, we’re taught to ‘go to ground’, which is to say we’ll crawl in to our bivvy bag, lay out our sleeping bag, get warm and comfy and just wait it out. We’ll be warm and safe, if a little bored.
The mattress is essential, and not because it’s comfortable; it’s included to insulate us from the ground. Many of our layers of warmth rely on creating an air gap for insulation. When we lie down, our weight compresses those warm layers and we start losing a lot of heat into the ground. This is why the first step is to get into the bivvy bag and on top of the mattress; it buys us all of the time we need to get set up and comfortable without getting cold.
And speaking of keeping warming, here’s the ‘dry bag’ that goes in the bottom of our pack. Aside from helping with organisation, its real job is to ensure we have dry clothes and a sleeping bag even if we fall through the sea ice. What I have here is the minimum requirement: Merino thermals (top and bottom), woolen socks, polar fleece (top and bottom), mittens, down sleeping bag and sleeping bag liner.
The thermals and fleece are not just for if you get wet, they’re also good for if the weather becomes colder than expected, or in case of simply not having dressed warmly enough. The mittens are great to have because they’re super toasty. They’re a generous size, so whichever gloves you prefer to wear normally will usually fit inside these big ones.
The sleeping bag and liner are the other most important piece of this setup, along-side the bivvy bag and mattress. If something goes wrong, you just get inside the bivvy bag and into the sleeping bag (and liner, if possible). If a blizz blows in, go to ground. If someone hurts themselves, just get them into their sleeping bag and bivvy and they’ll be warm until the Search and Rescue (SAR) response arrives. If someone falls through the ice, get their wet clothes off and get them into their sleeping bag and bivvy. We’ve had further training on both SAR and First Aid, but I hope you can see how important it is that we have warmth and protection from the wind with us at all times.
Now we’re making our way to the smaller details. These are my Gore-Tex pants and jacket. Lots of pockets, good options for ventilation and a very comfortable bib and braces setup. In practice, it’s too hot to wear the jacket in summer down here if you’re hiking. The hilly terrain means that a lot of time is spend in the lee of hills, so the sun warming the rocks can see the temperatures in the ‘teens’ on a calm, sunny day. Come winter, however, lots of layers under these two garmets will be needed to keep me warm. More on layering and practical clothing in a later post, though.
Plenty of self-explanatory stuff coming up. In the top pocket of the backpack lid I have my goggles, both for wind protection and for warmth if the wind really picks up. Maps are essential around here, and the maps produced by the AAD for Davis station are actually quite useful and overlaid with both important and interesting information. Finally we have sun cream, zinc cream (for the really high UV days) and lip balm.
Here we have a VHF marine band radio, a set of chemical toe, hand and body warmers (for just in case, not for routine use), a compass, a whistle and a mirror for attracting attention, and our field and first aid manuals. These documents are small and relatively easy to navigate, but they’re full of useful information to get you through a tight spot starting with the immediate response right through to keeping yourself warm and dry for days (e.g. information on making snow shelters). Not shown is a GPS or a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB, though they’re similar to an EPIRB for those that know them), which must be signed out on an as-needed basis. I only have a radio because it’s a requirement of my job, not because we each carry one routinely.
Water is a no-brainer, but what catches a lot of people by surprise is just how much water they go through down here. It’s quite easy to work up a sweat if you’re wearing even a single layer too many. On top of that, the air is always very dry, so an amazing amount of water is lost from our lungs as we breathe. Nearly all of us have had close brushes with dehydration after totally underestimating how much water we breathe out every day.
The chocolate is not for dessert. The idiom around the AAD is that food is the first layer of warmth. Without a ready supply of water and energy, the metabolism slows down and you create less heat. We take meals when we’re going out, but all of us also take high energy snacks like chocolate, dried fruit or nuts. I prefer the latter for planned snacks, but I also carry 24 hours worth of energy (2,000 calories minimum) worth of chocolate in the bottom of my pack. If I get stuck somewhere away from a hut with no food, I can still keep my body fed and creating plenty of warmth for at least a day.
I’ve saved the most interesting until last. This is my ‘wag bag’ and my pee bottle. In the interest of protecting and preserving the environment, we take nothing but photos and leave nothing but footsteps. That includes all human waste.
The pee bottle is actually pretty good. Unless it’s an especially warm day, we sleep with these in our sleeping bag so they don’t freeze. If you leave it out and knock it over during the night, you run the risk of it blocking the lid with a block of frozen urine. Then you have to hold on until you can warm it up again, and that’s just no fun. The practical upshot of this practice is that you don’t need to get out of your nice, warm sleeping bag in your nice, warm bivvy bag if you need to pee!
Last is the ‘wag bag’. It’s a large, thick plastic bag with a special dehydrating compound in it. In absorbs all of the liquid and neutralises the odour of human waste quite well, and when it’s used it comes with a second bag to put it inside. We then put this inside a large garbage bag in our packs if we’ve used them. These also freeze if the weather isn’t too hot, so they have no odour at all. It’s a touchy topic for some people at first, but peeing in a bottle (which can only be emptied into the toilets on station, or directly into the ocean) and pooping in a bag (which can only be disposed of by a special incinerator on station) is not difficult. The minor inconvenience is worth it to ensure we do our best to protect Antarctica.
I hope you’ve enjoyed seeing a long, detailed post about something that becomes a rather small part of life down here. We take it for granted that our survival pack is ready to go and has to accompany us at all times, so it no longer gets a second thought. I’m glad that is that case, because a lot of good ideas and experience have gone into this pack to maximise our safety in the field.