For many years I have felt that the emergency blanket is one of the most versatile tools you can have with you in a survival situation. However, you rarely see them used. Survival blankets are most often associated with the shiny sheets they wrap around people in the movies when they have been through a traumatic experience. However, these tools are so much more.
To understand the uses of an emergency blanket, you have to understand the priorities a person has when trying to survive. Anybody in a survival situation will be focused on food, water, fire, shelter, and signaling for help. This inexpensive and simple tool can help with most of these concerns.
Types of Blankets
There are two primary types of emergency blankets available. There are the thin mylar ‘space blankets’ and thicker tarp style blankets. There are advantages and disadvantages to each, so here are some points to consider:
Mylar – Mylar blankets are thin sheets of synthetic material intended for use by one person. They are shiny on one side and are designed to reflect 90% of your body heat back to you. In a general sense, mylar blankets are considered disposable meaning they normally will not endure more than one use. They are not insulated in any way, but the reflective nature does a great job of keeping you warm. They are also solid sheets and are waterproof, so they block the wind quite well.
The real downsides to these blankets are the disposable nature. They have no grommets on the corners, so they are really not ideal for structural purposes. You can place a small stone in the corner and tie cordage around it to attach the corners to stakes or trees. However, you must be very careful with these thin blankets as they will rip easily. Their best and primary purpose is simply to wrap around your body and keep you warm. However, the reflective surface serves a few other purposes that we will detail below.
The best use for these blankets is to inexpensively cover the needs of several people. It is ideal to have one for each person in your group when traveling or camping. These blankets cost around $1 per unit, so they allow you to buy several of them for minimal cost. If money is a concern, these are a good option.
Tarp Style – These use the same reflective principles of mylar blankets, but add some features that increase the functionality of this tool. These blankets are still reflective sending 90% of your body heat back to you. In addition, they are made with a fibrous tarp material that has insulating properties. They still block the wind quite well, but I feel that they keep you warm better than the mylar blankets. They are also typically larger, so wrapping up is easier.
The tarp style blankets have grommets in the corners and along the edges. Because of their size and grommets, they are ideal for building shelters or other structures. It is almost impossible to tear these blankets, so they are designed to be used over and over again. These are also waterproof, so they have several functions in the rain.
The best function for these blankets is to cover the needs of just a few people. I take mine with me on every survival challenge, and always leave a spare at home. They normally cost closer to $10, but for my needs they are well worth the extra cost. However, I would never buy one of these for each person if I was travelling with a bus full of kids.
Most people are surprised by the wide variety of survival functions you can get out of a simple survival blanket. Most of these functions can be accomplished by both types of blankets, but the tarp style is much more reliable. Just remember that you can replace grommets on mylar blankets with stones wrapped in cordage at the corners. This will give a mylar blanket more function than using it by itself.
- You can use emergency blankets to build a super-fast waterproof shelter. Emergency blankets can be used to make a variety of different shelters with the most popular being lean-tos and pup tents. You can put one up in about 5 minutes and then leave it as is or add natural insulation to keep extra warm. This is by far the most waterproof survival shelter you will ever build, so having an emergency blanket is always smart. I completed a wet weather survival challenge in the spring and sat through three days of pouring rain under an emergency blanket. I stayed completely dry, and it ended up being one of the easiest survival challenges I have ever faced.
- Sometimes the best shelter is just wrapping up. I recently completed a 34 mile long-distance challenge over 3.5 days. On the last night it was getting dark and I was so exhausted that I did not have the energy to build a shelter. I just wrapped up in my emergency blanket and laid down under a tree. I could have been warmer, but it did well to prevent hypothermia despite some nasty temperatures.
- A wind block is a good function of an emergency blanket if the weather is dry but windy. If you find a hillside or rock formation to block the wind from one side, you can stretch your blanket vertically between two trees or poles to block the wind from the other side. This may be all you need to stay warm through the night, and it can also help keep a fire from blowing out.
- Super shelters are designed to absorb the heat from a fire and hold it inside the shelter. This is done with a clear plastic sheet and some insulation, but one of the key components is a reflective surface to send the heat towards your body. Once your lean-to is built, stretch the blanket along the inside of the roof with the reflective side facing your body. As the heat from the fire hits the blanket, it will bounce back down towards you to keep you warmer.
- The best function for emergency blankets related to fire is to build a deflector shield. This structure uses the reflective side of the blanket to bounce heat back towards your body from the fire. Once you have built a fire, drive two poles into the ground on the opposite side. Then stretch the blanket between the poles with the reflective side facing the fire. You will stay much warmer.
- The reflective surface of the blanket can be used to start a fire. I should warn that it can be difficult and you have to have the perfect fluffy, fine tinder. Use the reflective surface to create a bowl shape. You can use an existing bowl or cup if you have one. Then use cordage to suspend your fluffy tinder in the center. Place the setup in direct sunlight and move the opening perpendicular to the sun. The light will bounce off the blanket and hit a central focal point which will get very hot. You may have to adjust the placement of the tinder to get it into the ideal spot. Soon it should be smoking and create an ember.
- You can use an emergency blanket to make an ice lens. Form an indentation in the blanket and fill it with clean water. Wrap the blanket up around the water and tie it off at the top creating an orb. Set it out in the cold until it freezes. Then use your bare hands to shape the ice into a lens about three inches in diameter and two inches thick. Again, place it in direct sunlight and use fine, fluffy tinder. Prop the lens in place with sticks and adjust your tinder to hit the most focused point. It will take some time, but eventually you should have an ember.
- Because emergency blankets are waterproof, they make great containers. You can use one to make a rain trap if rain is in the forecast. Just dig a hole or find a low spot and spread out your blanket. Put rocks or logs along the sides to hold it in place. After the storm, you should have a pool of clean water in the lowest spot of the blanket.
- You can also use an emergency blanket to trap water from a stream or pond. Pull the blanket underwater and then form a pocket in the middle. Slowly raise your pocket up above the surface of the water so that some water is trapped in the pocket but the rest runs off. Continue to raise it up and then twist it off at the top. Tie it with cordage and keep it upright for a makeshift canteen.
- You can build a pit trap. Find a game trail and figure out the size of your target animal. Dig a pit deep enough that the animal will not be able to jump out of it. Then taper the walls so that the pit is slightly wider at the base than it is at the opening. Drape your emergency blanket over the pit with the reflective side facing down. Put stones or sticks around the outside edge to keep it in place. Then use light debris such as leaves or grasses to cover the blanket. When an animal comes along, they will step on the hole and the blanket will fall in with them. They will be wrapped up, but even if they get free they will not be able to climb out.
- You can gather wild edibles. Again, a survival blanket can make a great container. Use sticks or vines to make a ring shape. Then push the center of your blanket through the ring to form a deep bowl shape. Collect your wild edibles and put them inside your container. You can then transport them to your camp site without smashing them or letting them wilt.
- You can smoke meats or fish. One of the biggest issues in the wilderness is food preservation. Smoking meats is one way to remove the moisture and kill any bacteria. This will keep the meat preserved indefinitely if you keep it dry. After building a fire and suspending thin slices of meat above it, you need to hold in the heat and smoke. By wrapping your emergency blanket around your teepee frame with your meat, you accomplish both of these goals. You are best to wrap it with the reflective side facing inward to reflect the heat back onto the meat. Be careful not to get the blanket too close to the flames or it will melt.
- The reflective surface of the blanket makes for an ideal ground to air or ground to ground signal. For the best surface and movement, use sticks or vines to create a frame about three feet wide by four feet tall. Then stretch the blanket over the frame with the reflective side out. Use cordage to tie the blanket with it stretched as flat as possible. When you see a plane or vehicle, point the reflective side towards the sun and flash it back and forth across the rescuer. If you want better accuracy, you can poke a small hole in the middle and use it as a sight to aim the device at your target vehicle.
With all the different uses for survival blankets, I hope I have convinced you to get at least one for yourself. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that mine has helped me make it through several different survival situation. In some cases it kept me dry. In other cases it kept me warm. It even kept me fed in one instance. However, do not just buy one and leave it in a closet somewhere. Take it out of its package and learn how to use it. If you have the knowledge needed, it could very well save your life.