emergency preparedness

Do Emergency Blankets Work?

Nadia Tamara A Little Bit of Everything, Camping, Emergency Preparedness, Wilderness Survival 1 Comment

emergency preparedness space blanket

Space blankets, also known as emergency blankets, have become a very popular item to put in emergency preparedness or outdoor survival kits. They are not only lightweight and easy to store, but are also extremely cheap if bought in bulk.

What many people expect when purchasing one of these blankets is that in the event of being caught outdoors in a cold winter storm, they’ll benefit from a comfortable warm experience by covering themselves up with this shiny aluminum foil type material.

The name “emergency blanket” can be a little misleading, however there is a science to them. They are much more useful and versatile than you would expect! When we learn how they are made, we will be able to understand their true purpose and how to use them adequately in different situations.


Brief history of the space blanket


The space blanket was originally designed in 1964 by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center for the US Space Program. NASA and National Metallizing used the space blanket in 1973 as a way to protect the Skylab from overheating by reflecting heat away from the rocket. The success of this lightweight aluminum sheet was remarkable and it continues to be used today as a sunshield for all space missions!

This advancement in technology quickly made other companies aware of the amazing benefits that these blankets could have on society. They have since been used a number of ways. It is very common to see them being used after marathons to help runners maintain their body temperature. In October 2005 they were used throughout Pakistan, India and Afghanistan to help a large number of earthquake victims receive cover throughout the day and keep them warm at night.

Just as they have proven their effectiveness in the past, they will continue to be used in the future for mass-emergencies and even in smaller scale survival situations.


What are emergency thermal blankets made of?


The thermal blanket was built to be very lightweight yet insulating. According to NASA, “The material is created by depositing vaporized aluminum onto thin plastic substrates. The result is a thin, flexible material that provides superior thermal-reflective properties. The highly pure aluminum coatings are carefully matched to their substrates to efficiently redirect infrared energy…to create either first- or second-surface reflecting. In some instances, the material is intended to deflect the infrared rays and in other cases, it is meant to conserve them as a passive warming system.”

In other words, the materials used to make an emergency blanket are designed for the blanket to be used in two ways: it can either bounce off heat, or preserve the existing heat. It is said to reflect between 80 to 90% of radiant heat. In space it is a vital tool in maintaining the inside temperature of the space crafts because of the ever-changing atmospheric temperatures.

In survival situations they can be life-saving if used properly, but the opposite is also true if used improperly.


Are all emergency blankets the same?


There are several types of emergency blankets but essentially they work the same. Their primary goal is to prevent heat-loss by retaining up to 90% of your current body heat. They’re not designed to produce more warmth.

Most blankets have two sides to them: one side will be very shiny/ metallic and the other will be dull or of an entirely different color, typically orange, olive green, or camouflage. Sometimes the shiny side is gold, but oftentimes it’s silver. As with all products you’re unfamiliar with, make sure to thoroughly read the instructions that come with your blanket because every manufacturer is different.


Why are emergency blankets shiny?


They shiny part of the blanket is vital in reflecting heat off of the object its facing, whether it be a body, a fire, or the sun. It works not only to keep heat out but also to insulate and keep heat in, thereby stabilizing body temperatures.


How do you properly use an emergency blanket?


This is a multipurpose item that can be used in a variety of ways. The following options are the most clever ways to use an emergency blanket.

REFLECT HEAT:

The shiny side reflects heat. In a situation where you’re suffering from hypothermia, you will want to have the shiny side facing you (inward) so that your body heat will be maintained and reflected back to you. Note that your clothes need to be as dry as possible because in order for you to reflect warmth inside the blanket, your body will need to be generating some heat. Most people expect that the blanket will magically warm them up, but in reality it works to slow down the process of heat loss. Some people use emergency sleeping bags in place of emergency blankets. Keep in mind the potential risk of hypothermia and asphyxiation when doing this. Never put your head inside the sleeping bag!! For one, you can become asphyxiated by having your head covered, but also your breathing will cause condensation and may lead to hypothermia.

  • NOTE: If you’re looking for an emergency blanket for the sole purpose of warming you up (not retaining heat alone), then we recommend using a Bivvy instead. They’re more expensive but especially effective in warming you up when exposed to cold temperatures and they will last you much longer than any mylar emergency blanket.

Many people use emergency blankets as a lining of insulation for their boots, gloves, pants, jackets and even sleeping bags. This works as a very effective way to keep you warm so long that there is a layer of clothing between your skin and the metallic blanket. 

REPEL HEAT:

If you’re stuck inside your vehicle during a snowstorm, the blanket can be used to cover the windows (shiny side facing inward) to help maintain your car warm.

If you’re camping, the blanket can be used to cool down the inside of your tent or your blazing-hot vehicle by using the shiny side facing away from your tent/ car (outwards), so that the sun’s heat will be reflected in the opposite direction.

EMERGENCY SHELTER:

If you don’t have a tent, the blanket can be used sort of like an awning or tarp covering. With four sticks, a few feet of paracord, and a little creativity, you can set up a basic shelter or create shade from sun protection.

You can also purchase tents made from the same material as emergency blankets. These are great for temporary shelter but are especially practical for using inside your home to create a warm space when the power is out.

WATER PROTECTION:

Emergency blankets are waterproof and can help keep you and your gear stay dry.

Cutting a slit in the center of the blanket large enough for your head to fit through and use it as a poncho.

WATER GATHERING:

Rainwater can easily be gathered by attaching two ends of the blanket (length-wise) to sticks about 2 or 3 feet above the ground. The other two ends can be tied to sticks about one foot above the ground. Making this lower to the ground is better when it’s windy. Keep tension on all sides and create a valley in the middle to catch the water as it rains. Pour this water inside a bucket or container that can easily be used to transport it into water bottles. Another option is to create a lip at the edge of the blanket where water can directly be poured into the container.

GROUND PROTECTION:

If you need to set up camp and the ground is wet or cold, use your emergency blanket as a base layer between the ground and your tent. It will keep your tent and sleeping bag dry, while reflecting your body heat back to you from the ground up.

FIRE STARTER:

There are two ways you can use a blanket to start a fire. One way is to create a parabolic mirror with the blanket. A parabolic reflector is a concave mirror that reflects light, sound, and radio waves and has the capacity to concentrate light in one spot- it works almost like a magnifying glass but is much more powerful. This is a great video if you want guidance on how to make your own.

If you’re in the woods and it’s a sunny day, you can try to make one with less tools. All you need to do is dig a hole in a place where there is direct sunlight, put the blanket on top of the hole with the shiny side facing up, and put dry leaves or pine needles on top to create some tinder that the flame can eventually ignite. Try to stretch the blanket so there are as few creases as possible and leave a little air pocket between the blanket and the tinder. You will need to be patient for a while but if you get it right, it will be worth the wait. 

Another way to use an emergency blanket as a fire starter is to crumble it up, put it under your tinder and light it. Space blankets are extremely flammable and will catch in flames in a matter of seconds…all it takes is a small flame. Use this as a last resort because it will produce black noxious fumes and it can be potentially toxic!

FIRE REFLECTOR:

If you have set up a bonfire, you can reflect the heat from the fire by making an emergency blanket backdrop around a section of the fire (shiny side facing the fire).
Another way to reflect the heat from the fire is to cover your back with the blanket (shiny side facing you). You can also put the blanket behind your camp chair for the same heating effect. These options are likely more effective than covering yourself completely with the blanket. Make sure to keep the blanket away from any direct flames at all times. The blanket itself can withstand temperatures of up to 500 degrees Fahrenheit but is extremely flammable and one spark can light it up immediately, potentially causing severe burns to the body. 

GROUND MARKER RESCUE SIGNAL:

One of the most effective ways to use an emergency blanket is for ground signaling. The orange blankets make it very obvious to be discovered by rescue teams but the shiny metallic side can be equally beneficial.

GARDENING:

One of the best ways to protect your crops during cold winter months is to use an emergency blanket as a backdrop to your plants. This allows light to reflect off the blanket and onto your plants, even on cloudy days! The metallic material can be cut and mixed in with your gardening mulch to confuse and deter pests trying to eat your veggies.

During high summer temperatures, you can cover/ shield your plants with an emergency blanket so that the moisture doesn’t evaporate. Secure the ends so it doesn’t blow away.

You can protect your crops from birds by cutting the emergency blanket into strips and attaching them to a pole or stick. Bids are deterred by the shiny objects and the blanket material is noisy too.

WIND PROTECTION:

Emergency blankets can be the best windbreakers and shield you from the chilly air.

FIRST AID:

In case of a sprained or broken arm, you can use the blanket as a sling.

If you have suffered from a wound that involves blood loss, you can make a compression bandage. First use a piece of clothing to cover the area and then cover that with the blanket by forming a bandage.

ROPE:

Cut the blanket into strips and twist them clockwise until it forms a tight rope-like string.

CATCHING FISH:

Fish are attracted to shiny things. You can make a fish lure by cutting the blanket into thin strips and attaching it to the fish hook.

Well there you have it! Those are several ways you can maximize the use of your emergency blanket.


Does size matter when it comes to emergency blankets?


Emergency blankets come in different sizes and yes, size does matter. We narrowed down and explained the most popular sizes (width x length).

79” x 39” - This blanket is below the standard size. Beware of some backpack kits or bulk packages that come with emergency bags included. They may contain a smaller than normal blanket which will be disappointing if only a child can fit into it. (I know this from experience).

82” x 52” - This is a standard size blanket but some people complain that it barely covers people over 5 feet tall.

82” x 62” -This size is considered extra-large. It is ten inches longer than the standard size.

59” x 87” - These are larger than most emergency blankets on the market. They are ideal for people over 6 feet tall.

71” x 142” - This is an oversized blanket that is can warm up two or three people. It can also be used in building a makeshift shelter.


Can you reuse an emergency blanket?


In theory yes, they can definitely be reused so long that you are gentle with them. A cheap blanket has the tendency to tear easily. This can become very problematic in emergency situations, so it’s recommended to keep duct tape on hand as part of your survival kit (to repair those tears). As with most products, it’s nearly impossible to re-fold and store the blanket in the package it came in, but can easily be re-packaged in a resealable sandwich ziplock bag.


How long does an emergency blanket last?


An unopened mylar emergency blanket should last between 1 to 2 years. The short shelf life is possibly due to moisture, oxidation, and UV exposure, among other factors. Over time, you may notice your blankets deteriorating and fading as a result of the aluminum delaminating from the mylar sheet. We recommend replacing (or at least checking) them once a year. The climate you live in and the way they’re stored could have a lot to do with their shelf life.

A used blanket, on the other hand, can be reused but its longevity really depends on how it was previously used, and how much wear and tear it received. The silver lining may come off after being exposed to water.


IN CONCLUSION


If you’re putting all your life dependency into a one-dollar blanket, then I sincerely wish you all the best but your chances of survival are slim. However, if you’re using it as a tool, among other tools, to keep you warm and/or help you survive an uncomfortable situation, then you will quickly find it to be one of the most practical objects in your survival kit!

Surely, your creativity may take you to explore a variety of other uses than the ones discussed above. What has been your experience using emergency blankets?

We would love to hear about those in the comments below!



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