How to Use the O.N.S. System

There’s no way around it - getting caught out is not fun. Depending on the weather and terrain, it’ll range from uncomfortable to dangerous. The O.N.S. system is designed to improve your chances so you can keep your wits, avoid the panic, and make good decisions.

You have reasons to stay calm. Here’s what’s included in the O.N.S. sleeve:

  • Space blanket
  • Mini flashlight w/ AAA battery
  • Whistle
  • Waterproof Matches
  • Fire starter materials
  • Strike paper (for matches)
  • Water purification tablets for 3 quarts of water

What else should you bring? Packing is a balance between being prepared and going fast and light. The heavier your pack, the slower you move perhaps increasing the chance you won’t make the distance before dark. The less you bring, the more you risk if your ride plan goes sideways.  Only you know the balance of what you are willing to risk.

At a minimum, in addition to the items in the O.N.S, we suggest:

  • Bug spray (at least if you are in the mountains in the spring or anywhere in the Midwest)
  • Food – maybe that old bar that you said you would only eat if it was the only thing you had.
  • Navigation - map/ compass and/or GPS/ PLB and the knowledge of how to use them.
  • Spare clothes for conditions – might be just a jacket. Might be a dry base layer
  • Enough water for planned route with some to spare.

Where ya’ headed? Check in and check out. Tell someone where you are going, your route and when you expect to be back. The only way anyone will come looking for you is if they know you are missing. Having an itinerary of where you are narrows the search, should you need one. Close the loop by telling them when you are back out safely.

Know thy weather. Adventure involves research – not just terrain and distance but also weather. What has it been doing? What will it be doing? If you’re riding into an incoming snow storm, it sure would be good to know before it happened so you could be prepared. Or reschedule.

So, you’re caught out. What now? At some point, you have to accept the hard fact: you’re not making it back before dark. If you’re close to the trailhead or the route is easy it might make sense to push on in the dark to get home. But if you are deep in the wilderness, the route is complicated and/or technical or you’re truly lost the safest thing may be to dig in. Make that decision while there’s still time and use the remaining light to set yourself up for a night out. Stay calm.

Here’s where O.N.S. comes in. You have a few basics (and hopefully others you packed) to help get through safely.

The O.N.S sleeve includes:

  • Space blanket. Space blankets are designed to reflect your body heat back in towards you. It is not an insulative layer. Wrap it tight to trap heat in and have appropriate. It will keep you warmer than if without. But you won’t be toasty and warm. It’s about survival, not comfort. In the event that Search and Rescue comes looking for you, you can wave it at a helicopter and use its reflectivity to catch their eye.
  • Mini flashlight. If you are in the middle of nowhere, it is going to get very dark. Especially if there is no moon. This flashlight is minimalist but it can help you navigate, set up camp or move about at night. Screw down the cap to turn it on.
  • Whistle. If Search and Rescue is looking for you, the whistle can come in handy. Most search team will do what is called a sound sweep. This practice varies a bit by region, but generally they will do two whistle blasts and yell your name. If they are close by, you may hear whistles and yelling but if they are further away, you will hear only the whistle. If you do, blow on yours like hell. That sound travels further than your voice. If you hear whistles, yelling or sirens… blow! There are some birds that will mimic your (or searcher’s) whistle and this can be confusing but bird “whistle blasts” will be shorter and more even. If that happens, try to see the humor and concentrate on the real whistling.
  • Waterproof Matches, strike paper and fire starter. Lighting a fire creates warmth and light but also adds risks and responsibility. Before you start a fire, ask yourself some questions. Do you really need it? Are you going to get dangerously cold or just uncomfortable without it? Can you control it? Are even legally allowed to make a fire?

If fire conditions are dangerous where you are (dry, windy and/or low humidity) think long and hard on this.  Yes, a fire can keep you warm and if you may become hypothermic without it, it may be necessary, but if you will just be uncomfortable or it is illegal, skip it. If you decide on a fire, prepare a bomber fire ring of rocks well away from trees, brush, grass or any flammable items. Remember, just because you want a fire does not mean it is possible or advisable. If it is windy, it just might not be able to be done safely.

Matches are waterproof and inside a plastic bag. We use old sections of inner tube as fire starter. It is easy to light and burns whether wet to dry. It is not the cleanest burning material and we’d never encourage you to burn trash. But this is an emergency and you won’t use much.

  • Chlorine Dioxide Water purification tablets. You are in the middle of nowhere and you need water. That stream is probably clean, right? Maybe. Maybe not. There are animals everywhere and they poop everywhere (as do humans). You should purify water. These tablets can make water suitable to drink.

One tablet purifies 1 quart/liter of water. Here’s the kicker. Good things come to those who wait. The tablets will kill bacteria, viruses and giardia within 35 minutes however for it to kill Cryptosporidium, you have to wait 4 hours.  Also know that while this purifies the water from organisms, it does nothing for any mineral, chemical or other contaminants in the water. To use, take out of package and put one tablet per liter in the water container and let it react for 4 hours.

If you ever have to use the O.N.S, send us your story. We are adventurers at heart and while it won’t be the same as hearing the story around a camp fire, we would like to hear about your adventure.


  • Each situation is different. We are providing items and opinions that we think will improve your situation but ultimately success if is up to you, your skills and your preparation.  Having the O.N.S. does not guarantee success or survival.
  • The O.N.S. should be part of the backup plan – not the primary plan. Do not take extra risks just because you have the O.N.S. with you. Items may not work as expected in your conditions.
  • It may be tempting to unpack the O.N.S. sleeve when you get it, but unless you are good at putting toothpaste back in the tube, don’t. The inside of a seatpost is tiny and the O.N.S. sleeve is tightly packed. It should be considered one-time-use. See our website for photos of what is included and trust us – it’s all in there.
  • Re-fill O.N.S. Sleeves are available on our website.