Emergency Blanket

Emergency Blankets: Unscrupulous Myth or Life Saving Miracle?

We’ve talked about the emergency blanket in a couple posts already and those of you that follow the blog know it’s a love hate relationship with these things. The pros are simple: an ultralight, portable and versatile piece of gear. That also means they definitely have a place in our packs.

The cons however are bad, very bad! Most people have a deeply misconstrued expectation of what an emergency blanket is really used for. Not to mention, what its very limited capabilities are. This is of course thanks to overhyped marketing from companies trying to pawn off their products to the masses rather than those who truly have a use for one. The unsuspecting purchaser then believes this miraculous blanket will keep them alive when the SHTF. Sadly, the way most people in cold climates intend to use these will lead to near certain death.

Emergency blankets are way over hyped and most people have a completely wrong notion of how, when and why to use them. We’re going to fix that today.

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What is An Emergency Blanket?

An emergency blanket is usually very thin and made of some form of plastic. One side is foil lined or at least lined with some form of reflective material with the intent to reflect body heat. Generally, these blankets are small or typically suited for 1 person. The very properties that make for a small and lightweight piece of gear also means that most of these blankets are made very cheaply and of flimsy construction. Great care should be taken in the quality department when buying one.

The emergency blanket however is not what most people think. To define it properly, we actually need to rename it! An emergency blanket is technically a casualty blanket and it’s a concept born in the military.

It is indeed standard issue gear for military members. Even for soldiers that are on duty in the desert where you’ll find no shortage of heat. One may wonder why would you need something like this in the desert? The answer is quite simple and based purely on an emergency medical concept: with enough loss of blood, it’s difficult to maintain core body temperature.

What is An IFAK?

The military certainly loves their acronyms and IFAK is no different. It means individual first aid kit. But you won’t find band-aids in here. Most items in an IFAK are to treat severe wounds and STOP bleeding. Items such as a tourniquet or Israeli pressure bandage. In most cases, the soldier can apply these themselves, if of course they are conscious.

After stopping the bleed, the patient is wrapped in a casualty blanket simply to help maintain body heat while being transported and/or while waiting for proper medical treatment from a medic.

And no, by discussing the IFAK we haven’t side stepped at all from the emergency blanket discussion. THIS is exactly what the “emergency” or casualty blanket is designed to do. It is its true and ultimate purpose.

What About My $10 Survival Blanket?

That heading is chosen carefully and for good reason. Other than “emergency”, these blankets are also mass marketed as survival blankets. Going forward, we can use these terms interchangeably as it’s all in reference to the same thing…

Is There Any Value Outside of Medical Use?

Yes of course, we’ll get to that soon. However, to answer this question properly we need to consider the intended civilian use of these which is none other than to stay warm! I’m sure millions of people have seen these $10 items close to cash registers while waiting to be served. I’m also sure they are thinking wouldn’t that be great for the car. That means we need to focus on its merits solely as a blanket.

So let’s consider this scenario: It’s -30 outside, the car breaks down in the middle of nowhere and you need to spend the night. Do you want to open the glove box and get a piece of plastic or would you rather have a real blanket? If anyone thinks that a shiny piece of plastic is magical enough to keep you warm, they are wrong. Dead wrong and literally I’m afraid.

Let’s Compare to a Real Survival Blanket

Generally around October or November, a real survival blanket goes into my trunk. It’s usually there until about March or April. Also military, we are talking about the MMS sleep system. It’s a sleeping blanket that nests inside another sleeping blanket providing more temperature range options. Then it all goes into a bivy sac that can be tossed right on the ground or even into the snow. -30 is now achievable, even outdoors with no cover!!!

The problem is this blanket weighs almost 10 lbs and its huge! Even compressed in the stuff sack it’s big. For clarity, the size or footprint of the blanket isn’t big, these are tight and uncomfortable mummy sacs. By big, we mean there is so much bulk from all the insulating fill inside the blanket.

Reading this one may laugh thinking you’re not hiking with one of these. They would be right. But you’re not hiking with a little piece of plastic and staying alive either! Once you realize what it really takes to stay warm, the limitations of the little plastic blanket becomes pretty obvious.

Proper Ways to Use An Emergency Blanket!

There is no doubt the emergency blanket does help hold in some body heat. It does this thanks to it’s foil that reflects heat back in. Granted and agreed.

Air is also an insulator in itself and these blankets certainly don’t breathe. That means trapped air around your body will also add an insulating factor, just don’t expect much in the R value department. This can also be a very bad thing which we will cover a little farther below.

The point here is in a very moderate temperature, there is some merits to these blankets. We simply need to be realistic that no one is surviving any heavy cold with one of these. At least not without some additional gear!

Adding a Candle

So you are out in the woods, something goes wrong and it’s getting very cold. All you have is this plastic blanket and it’s not really helping. Hopefully you packed a candle!

There is quite a bit of heat that comes off of a candle. Trapping that air we just covered above, the emergency blanket in tandem with a heat source becomes a lot more valuable. You would need to sit down somewhere, get a candle lit around your feet and wrap yourself with this blanket. Obviously, extreme caution is an absolute must or being cold will be the least of your problems. But it does work and it works well! Good luck getting some sleep:)

Make a Fire

Hands down the most widely used method of employing the emergency blanket (from those in the bush and those that KNOW what they are doing) is acting as a reflective tarp. This is done by stringing a ridgeline and attaching the blanket to it. Then you stake out the bottom trying to get the blanket at around a 45 degree angle to the ground – reflective side facing down!

This serves 2 immediate purposes. When you get under it, this becomes your cover from the elements above. If you place it right, you’ll also block the wind.

Next, you will want to make a fire beside you but not under the blanket for obvious reasons. This is in the hopes of reflecting some of the heat from your fire. This is where the reflective foil side comes in handy.

Finally, you wake up all night to feed the fire. You’ll also periodically do push ups, sit ups or any other physical activity (without working up a sweat) to keep you warm. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news here but while you might live, it may well be the most miserable night you’ve ever had. This is also the survival instructions that seemingly went missing on the shiny packaging of these “survival blankets”.

Signalling Device

The second use for the shiny foil side of your blanket has nothing to do with heat. A giant, bright, silver object is a lot easier to spot in the woods amongst the trees than anything else. This applies where you are looking to be spotted from the ground or from an aerial rescue operation.

Other Uses

In a genuine survival situation, we have to do what’s called improvisation. You use whatever materials you have at your disposal to achieve whatever survival needs you have.

Your emergency blanket is waterproof thanks to the fact that it’s plastic. Allowing you to collect water with it. Cut off a small piece and you have some great tinder for a stubborn fire. If you have a tarp and blanket, great. Then use this as a ground sheet to stay dry. Whatever the case may be, there are infinite uses for even the most mundane objects. And in the woods, a large plastic sheet isn’t mundane at all.

Water Can Be Your Worst Enemy

I grew up in the 80’s and remember fishing on those rainy days. Perhaps you remember those hideous yellow ducky rain suits we used to have. Again, some form of plastic that does not breathe. While they were definitely waterproof, after wearing them for a while you would find yourself soaked from head to toe! We used to say it finally soaked through as we didn’t know any better but the truth is, we were soaked in our own sweat!

Our bodies are always releasing moisture and you need not be “sweating” from heat to achieve that. Sweating simply accelerates the process. Modern fabrics meant for rain are water permeable in one direction and that’s away from your body. There’s an art to locking out water on the shell while still being breathable from the inside. This comes at a great expense of cost as these fabrics are not cheap whatsoever. Fabrics such as gore-tex for an example. Certainly, this is not technology you’ll find in a $10 emergency blanket.

When the average person turns to an emergency blanket, it’s almost always for warmth. That means we are in a cold climate scenario and we already know cold can be deadly. Being cold and wet is infinitely more deadly!!!

Beware of Moisture

If wrapping yourself too tight in an emergency blanket, theoretically the risk of trapping moisture is there. While the risk level is probably low, it can be mitigated by opening up every so often if you feel yourself getting wet. This holds true anytime you use something that doesn’t breathe in a tight manner around your body.

The Verdict

I carry one of these blankets with me in my pack. The pros far outweigh the cons when you know exactly how to use them. But I also generally carry either a real tarp or a military poncho which doubles as a tarp simply by tying off the hood. When it’s cold and physically feasible, I also pack a real blanket – which may not make it into the woods but will at least be close by at camp or in vehicle. Let’s not forget fire making tools which are ALWAYS in the pack!

Image portraying the thickness of various emergency blankets
Image portraying the thickness of various emergency blankets

Pictured above are some of my blankets. As an extra or backup piece of gear, they should be small enough to tuck somewhere in a pack without stealing space from something else.

However, there is ZERO value on the super thin ones such as the one on top. If it was back in its packaging, it would be a third of the size of the one in the middle. When they fold up that small, they have no meat or thickness to them and are likely to fall apart before providing any real value. To be specific, the blanket on top is equivalent to tinsel on a Christmas tree.

Out of the many mass marketed blankets, the SOL Emergency Blanket in the middle is a little heavier and a better built blanket. But even so, there is only so much you can expect at the sub $10 range and I can’t see tarping as an option here.

The Arcturus Heavy Duty Survival Blanket

Arcturus Heavy Duty Survival Blanket
Arcturus Heavy Duty Survival Blanket

What I strongly suggest for anyone that wants a serious emergency blanket that can be tarped as described above is the Arcturus Heavy Duty. It is a heavy gauge, fully re-foldable/useable and it takes an absolute beating!!! Especially for anyone that doesn’t carry a tarp, it’s a one stop solution.

The last thing you want is to be in a real survival situation and have your blanket fall apart on you. Anyone who has spent any time in the woods knows how rough things can be and how quickly you can shred your gear. Add wind, rain or snow to the mix and it’s a recipe for disaster. The Arcturus emergency blanket is the real deal!

To sum up the post: Survival is about having the right gear, at the right time and in the hands of people with proper skills. Please share this post and educate your loved ones – because there is a use for the emergency blanket, it’s just not what most people expect.

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Stelios Lazos
Stelios Lazos

Stelios comes from the corporate world where he was a highly successful executive. Inspired by his love for the outdoors he has re-located with his family to live to the BushLife where he blogs about his adventures. Finding inspiration in the never-ending questions from aspiring outdoors people, Stelios aims to share his knowledge, one post at a time.

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