Developed by NASA in the 1960s for the US space program, emergency blankets are being employed by outdoor enthusiasts for a far broader range of uses. You’ll find them tucked away in the packs of mountaineers, hikers, adventure racers, backcountry skiers and kayakers. They’re small, light and cheap, but also incredibly versatile. The obvious uses are for warmth, as a sleeping bag or for shelter, but can also reflect light off a campfire, as a signaling device in an emergency, or even to collect rainwater or carry firewood.
Emergency blankets go by several names, being called everything from space blankets (NASA’s original name), thermal blankets and weather blankets. Their form has also been adapted over the years into alternatives, such as the emergency bivvy, bivouac sack, or survival bag. The principle is generally the same, however – to trap your body heat in for added warmth and reflect the wind, rain, snow or sun away. The technology used to make an emergency blanket differs by manufacturer, but all essentially use windproof, waterproof, lightweight, durable and reflective materials. The much sought after panacea for emergency blankets, however, is to additionally make them breathable in order to avoid the damp from condensation, yet retain the warmth. It’s a difficult problem, and one that many outdoor apparel manufacturers are trying to solve, as well.
At the recent Snow & Outdoor Trade Association (SOTA) trade show in Canberra, Australia, I took the opportunity to test several emergency blankets and their derivatives provided to me by the manufacturers. Temperatures overnight dropped below the freezing point and I woke up with frost on the ground around my campsite. The best I tested are as follows, all of which go beyond the typical emergency blanket made of a single layer metallised polyethylene sheet:
Adventure Medical Kits – SOL Sport Utility Blanket:
Adventure Medical Kits (AMK) is one of the biggest names in first aid for the Outdoor Industry. While AMK has a straight-forward emergency blanket, the SOL Sport Utility Blanket can do much more. Similar in look to an emergency blanket with one side reflective and the other a bright orange to make it easier for rescue teams to spot. Unlike many emergency blankets, however, the fabric is woven, making it stronger and more durable, thus more versatile. The blanket also has 6 metal grommets to tie down corners for various shelter configurations.
Used traditionally, the Sport Utility Blanket claims to reflect up to 95% body heat. Wrapped inside, it took several minutes for the blanket to warm up. The usual battle with condensation was apparent, but not overwhelming. With a weight of about 320 grams (11.3 ounces), the blanket is heavier than a typical emergency blanket, which weighs closer to 70 grams (2.5 ounces). The versatility, however, is what you buy this for. As a blanket, shelter, ground tarp and to haul heavy loads, the AMK Sport Utility Blanket is ideal for adventures such as backpacking, car camping, hunting and fishing, where weight isn’t the primary concern.
Adventure Medical Kits – SOL Escape Bivvy:
On top of its traditional emergency blanket range, AMK has recently introduced the SOL Escape Bivvy. It looks like a lightweight sleeping bag and has all the same benefits, such as a drawstring hood and side zip to seal the weather out.
It’s made from a proprietary spunbonded olefin fabric that makes the bivvy breathable. It’s wind and water resistant, not waterproof, and I found it does sacrifice warmth to achieve the breathability. With the exception of a real emergency (e.g. hypothermia), I’ll gladly accept this to avoid the build-up of condensation. And while it’s intended to be used on its own, the Escape Bivvy can also slide over a traditional sleeping bag for extra warmth (though a snug fit).
At around 240 grams (8.5 ounces), it’s light enough to take on almost any outdoor pursuit. I’ve met adventure racers competing in places like Tasmania who brought nothing else to sleep in overnight.
Blizzard Protections Systems – Survival Blanket:
Blizzard Protection Systems is a UK company owned by US-based PerSys Medical. Blizzard incorporates Reflexcell technology to its line of emergency blankets and related products. Reflexcell’s cellular construction is shaped a bit like an accordion that traps air inside the cells for insulation, along with a metallised film that coats one side to reflect body heat. The Blizzard Survival Blanket is one of the warmest on the market, more than doubling the thermal performance (measured in Togs) of a polyethylene sheet or single layer reflective foil blanket.
Wrapped up, I felt the warmth of my reflected body heat immediately. The Survival Blanket has self-adhesive taping along one side to further secure you from the elements. You also have the option of leaving the bottom of the bag open if you need to walk or hike out of danger. The downside is noise (think aluminium foil when crinkled). The blanket needs to be stretched when taken out of its packaging and woke me when I moved. The Blizzard Survival Blanket is really at its best for emergency and casualty care, particularly related to extreme cold. The US Army has endorsed the product as a first response for hypothermia.
Both AMK and Blizzard products are available in Australia and New Zealand. Search online for the best price as they vary greatly. And go beyond the specialist outdoor retailers, as army surplus stores, adventure specialists, and survival supply companies may also carry the products.