You have awakened to a sunny cloudless sky, temperatures hovering in the 70s and expected to rise another 10 or 15 degrees. You take your freshly brewed cup of coffee out onto the wrap around porch, lean against the rail and survey the horizon …. and decide.
“Yes!” you say out loud to yourself smiling. “ By the end of the day I’ll be in a life or death situation and may never survive to see home again.”
Obviously survival situations rarely occur with such drama or certainty. They more than likely begin as a day hike in familiar territory, some alone time to clear your head of the hassles at work or formulate the plan to build a new barn. All is good with the world.
Then suddenly it isn’t.
The growling gray clouds of an unexpected blizzard envelopes the once sunny sky as it roars over the mountain peak, or you twist your ankle leaving you anguishing in pain unable to stand much alone walk. Daydreaming turns into a nightmare when you realize you misjudged time and will be caught in the woods with the blackness of a moonless night leaving you exposed to the elements and wild animals.
This may be a slap in the face but … for the most part you are to blame for your now survival situation. Why? Because we tend to overestimate our abilities, mostly because we have never experienced a situation that tests our abilities to the maximum. We really have no idea what we are capable of so we draw on our memory, which consists of television programs of Dual Survival, Bear Grylls and Naked and Afraid. Fantastic.
Then we compound the severity of our problems, while overestimating our abilities we underestimate Mother Nature. A not so uncommon mistake that have cost many people their lives. As they say “It is what it is.” How do we avoid becoming a victim of our own mistakes? And if it is unavoidable … How do we live through it?
Be aware … this article is not intended to demonstrate methods of dealing with the topics Per Se’ but to make you aware of the most common and critical life threatening mistakes people make.
Mistake Number One – Hide and Seek
All pilots, commercial and small private planes are required to file a flight plan before being granted permission to take off. One reason for such a FAA requirement is to let ground control know where in general to begin looking for a downed aircraft should something bad happen. Sounds pretty elementary, but novice and experienced hikers often neglect to tell anyone where they are going. The experienced woodsman always think they know everything and nothing bad could happen. Pioneers who lived their lives without electricity, lived off the land and forgot more survival techniques than we’ll ever know died from unexpected events in the wilderness.
Why do people act like it’s a sissy thing to inform someone where you are going? NASCAR , NHRA, all professional sports have protective equipment to prevent serious injuries. Telling your best friend, girl friend, mom, next door neighbor, somebody that you’re going to Bear Claw mountain to hike the West Trail is protective equipment. Knowing you were suppose to be home Sunday, yet not showing up to work on Monday will send a red flag up. Authorities can be notified of your missing and know where to begin looking.
As an addendum for this subject. Try not to deviate from your announced travel path without letting someone know. That won’t always be possible, so stay in the area you’re suppose to be in unless severe situations force you to deviate. People will be searching Point A for you and if you move to Point B, it could create a real problem of being found, in good shape anyway. They will expand their search zone, but it could delay rescue for days … days you may not live through.
Mistake Number Two – I Think I Can
This is a combination of overestimating our abilities and deviating from a common sense travel plan. When traversing wilderness areas, unless its a commonly used trail, terrain changes either naturally or as the result recent man-made or nature catastrophe, forest fire or major logging/mining operations. The point is just because you told people you were going to Point A canyon, doesn’t mean they can easily find you if you decide to play superhero and take a perilous route to your destination.
“Don’t worry. I can do this.”
Analyze the map. Resist always taking the shortest route to your destination. The shortest route may involve climbing steep hills or trans-versing a creek, which may be a raging river due to rains in the high country. Again, television is designed to portray dangerous situations being overcome by the star. This is make-believe people. Off camera there is an army of trained rescuers ready to save the day. You won’t have that luxury.
Your number one concern is to avoid injury. We never think about that until we are injured, then it becomes priority. Injured by yourself is really bad, but even with people your injury jeopardizes their safety by slowing them down and restricting escape routes.
As a last plea for you to act sensible. Imagine a pair of rescuers looking at the map trying to guess where you may be.
“There’s no way he’d take that route,” one rescuer would say.
“Because only an idiot would face those dangers when he could safely walk an additional 2 miles and get there.”
You don’t want to be the idiot.
Mistake Number Three – Home Sweet Home
The classic term news medias employ to describe the death of a person(s) lost in the wilderness is “Exposure.” What that actually means is the person died of hypothermia, exposure to the cold, or heat stroke, exposure to extreme heat. The tragic reason for these deaths is the person’s inability to construct a suitable shelter to help shield themselves from the elements.
The single most important reason for building a shelter is to stay dry. Wet clothing has the effect of acting like an air conditioner, even in temperatures not considered frigid, like 80 degrees F. Wet clothing in an overcast, windy environment will quickly send your body into shivers trying to combat the cold. Wind is second only to wet for causing heat loss by convection. Another issue people will overlook is what they are lying or leaning against. For instance, a rock overhang may be appealing for blocking rain, but if the rock is cold, laying or leaning against it will sap heat from the body through conduction.
The bottom line is: build a shelter that protects you from wind, rain and contact with cold surfaces in order to avoid hypothermia. In hot weather protect against direct exposure to the sun, hot wind and hot surfaces in order to avoid dehydration. For the most part failure to build a proper shelter is the number one cause for deaths of people stranded in the wilderness.
Mistake Number Four – Ain’t No Fashion Show
Vanity has no place in the outdoor wilderness environment. Wearing designer clothes, tank tops, sandals and/or shorts may look splendid in the commuter parking lot, but lost in the coldness of night, you’d quickly trade your $300 fashion statement for a $60 sweat shirt and pants. Instead of looking at your clothing as a “style” appearance, see them as your first line of defense against the elements and insects, as well as scrapes and cuts.
The most common mistake people make is choosing clothing made of the wrong material. Seems nearly everything is 100% cotton, because it is comfortable and easy to care for. But, it also holds moisture close to the body, which can have catastrophic consequences in cold weather. Wool is more durable than cotton, wicks moisture away from the skin and still offers, at a reduced factor of course, some insulation even if wet. That small factor could result in huge differences in staying alive. Most hypothermia occurs in temperatures over 40 degrees F.
“We’re ready to go.”
Wearing an inner t-shirt is fine, but your outside layer shirt should be long sleeved and button at the wrists. This will reduce cold air movement up the sleeve and allow for you to roll the sleeves to your elbow to cool down. Be wary of sunburn and insect attacks should you roll the sleeves up.
Pants should be long, no cargo shorts, in order to protect the legs from scrapes and cuts as you wrestle through the brush. Head cover is important in order to retain body heat or shade the head from a blistering sun. Remember color makes a difference. Dark colored clothing absorbs the heat of the sun, while white or lighter colors reflect the heat.
Footwear is possibly the most important defensive decision, but can hit the wallet pretty hard. Good sturdy hiking boots or shoes are not cheap. However, when you consider every move you make, walking, climbing, jumping begins with the feet, and footwear that offers little ankle support or rubs blisters, making walking to safety impossible or excruciating painful, the cost doesn’t seem quite so bad.
Last tip. Always dress in layers. One rule of thumb is to dress one layer warmer than you anticipate needing. You can always remove a jacket and wrap it around your waist, but if you leave it at home or in the car because you probably won’t need it, it can make for a long cold night filled with regrets.
Mistake Number Five – Unable to Secure Drinking Water
Considering the body is 50% to 65% water it shouldn’t be surprising lack of water will kill you much faster than lack of food. It’s not only the complete dehydration of the body that kills, but the severe symptoms you endure while dehydrating which occurs rather quickly. You will experience a complete lack of energy, resulting in you just wanting to lay down and do nothing. You will become incoherent which results in making poor decisions, and finally you will lose the will to live.
Ironically although dehydration is normally associated with hot weather conditions, cold weather can create the same conditions, faster in some cases. Cold air is very dry, therefore every breath you take dehydrates your body. What could be the most deadly thing about cold weather dehydration is you do not feel thirsty. If you forget to consciously force yourself to drink, symptoms of dehydration can set in without the person being as aware as if he were sweating in the jungle or desert.
It’s imperative you learn water purification methods or you’ll be faced with two choices … bad and worse. If you drink water contaminated with organisms like cryptosporidium or giardia you will incur severe illness of vomiting and diarrhea which will hasten your dehydration. If you don’t drink the possibly infected water you will die quickly from dehydration. Die sick or just die. Lousy choices. Take the time and expense to learn methods of purifying drinking water.
Mistake Number Six – Caveman’s Best Friend … Fire
In the wilderness survival situation the word Fire has many definitions. Warmth in order to protect you and your loved ones from the bitter cold. Protection from wild animals too curious for their own good. A raging fire will keep critters away and a long fiery stick poses much more danger than just a stick to an aggressive animal. Survival Signal as a blazing fire can be seen for miles at night and the smoke can be seen during the daylight. Purifier as fire can be used to boil water, making it safe to drink, and cook meat making it safe to eat.
The mental aspect of survival can not be overstated. Sitting alone in the blackness of night has a huge negative physiological effect on a person’s mind, which leads to panic, foreboding and poor decision making. A blazing fire can feel like companionship in an otherwise dire and lonely situation. Being able to make a hot meal or a hot drink will greatly enhance your body functions as well as lift your spirits. Being able to dry your clothes, especially socks, will ward off sickness and greatly increase comfort.
The inability to create and maintain a fire is one of the most serious mistakes you can make in a survival situation.
Mistake Number Seven – Motel Six? – Unprepared for Overnight Stay
Whether you are hiking, hunting, four wheeling or whatever in the wilderness always remember the Boy Scout Motto … Be Prepared. Bad things happen and they don’t always happen in the morning or early afternoon … they happen at dusk, which will mean an overnight, or longer, stay.
Everyone who ventures into the wild, or off the beaten path, needs a basic survival kit. We’re not talking a bug-out kit, which should be carefully packed and equipped with the most effective equipment you can afford, but an easy to carry emergency kit.
Basic items required should be an emergency blanket, fire making equipment, water treatment devises or chemicals, a good quality knife, a mirror or whistle for a signaling devise, sturdy line (para-cord), some high energy food bars, and a compass and map. Armed with knowledge and these basic tools you can set up a campsite suitable for surviving several days or more if necessary.
You may have skimmed over the knowledge portion of the kit…. bad decision. Without acquiring the wilderness skills necessary to utilize the tools available, you are up the proverbial creek without a paddle. Problem is you can’t buy these skills at the store. You must spend time in the outdoors practicing primitive survival skills, as hands on experience is the only effective method of mastering these skills.
I can not convey the utter exuberance one feels by successfully setting up a primitive camp, consisting of a shelter, campfire and adequate water supply, for only a night. The confidence and mental conditioning achieved by this seemingly simple task (it ain’t) will greatly enhance your chances of survival … and that’s what it’s all about.
Mistake Eight – Not Knowing When to Stop
Unless you are a seasoned wilderness expert, there’s something about being lost that induces sheer panic. Panic causes you to make unwise decisions, some which could be quite fateful. Upon really realizing, not just questioning if you are lost, but knowing you don’t have a clue where you are … STOP. Take several deep breaths. Talk out loud to yourself if it helps calm you down. Analyze the situation. What time is it? What are the weather conditions? Will I immediately be missed?
Instinct may dictate that you keep moving. You can’t be that far from civilization, can you? Just a little farther and you’ll stumble upon a road or a house. This is a dangerous and potentially deadly mistake. The reality is you have no idea where you are in relation to safety. Keep moving and you may be going farther and deeper into the wilderness and away from rescuers who are searching for you.
First Rule of Being Lost … Stop and Stay Put. Come on Boy and Girl Scouts you know this stuff.
Trouble is some people, even knowing the rule, push just a little further to see if they can get themselves out the mess they are in. Major mistake. By not adhering to the rule immediately, they have now burned daylight. It’s beginning to get dark and they have no time to set up a camp.
A general rule of thumb is: Begin to earnestly look for a suitable campsite by mid-afternoon.
1.The location should be as level as possible, not an easy task in mountainous areas.
2. Out of the wind. Protected by trees or dense brush for a windbreak or against an outcrop of some sort.
3. Adequate firewood availability. A campfire is a must.
4. Water supply. Creek nearby.
Step 1. Build a shelter.
Step 2. Gather firewood. Gather enough. Go get more.
Step 3. Collect and purify enough water for that evening and the next morning.
Step 4. Get a fire started.
Where did I put the other matches?
Had you stopped when you should have you will have plenty of daylight to accomplish these tasks at a normal pace, not rushing around trying to beat the setting sun. This helps prevent you from injuring yourself by rushing or stumbling around in the dark. It helps conserve energy not only by maintaining a normal pace, but also by eliminating energy uselessly burned by nerves and fear.
Don’t become an obstacle to your own rescue. Stop, set up camp and wait. You’ll live longer.
Mistake Number Nine – Inability To Navigate
Never venture into the wilderness without a map and compass as even a seasoned woodsman can become turned around in thick trees and underbrush. Having said that, let’s qualify that statement. Remember this, “Two is one and one is none.” Meaning, never take only a GPS with you into the wilderness as there are too many variables, like dropping it over a cliff, that can render it useless. Always bring a compass along as a backup and learn how to use it. Don’t let a crisis situation be the first time you unwrap the box containing the compass.
Not making a stupid mistake is one thing, but there are incidents which occur when prior preparation was impossible. It is important to know basic navigation techniques by using nature. Simply knowing the sun rises in the East and sets in the West and how to locate the North Star can potentially save your life. Again, learn and practice skills. Moss doesn’t always grow on the north side of the tree.
Mistake Number Ten – Inability To Signal for Help
It’s hard to imagine anything worse when lost than seeing a rescue vehicle, boat, helicopter, men on foot across the valley, disappear because you could not signal them and draw their attention to you. Talk about a kick in the groin. There are store bought high tech devises, using electronics, radio or locator beacon, intended to help searchers locate you. But who carries a locator beacon with them?
Let’s get down to basics. Rescuers are looking for you and you are trying to make your location as visible as possible. There are two ways to accomplish this. Visual and audible. A simple whistle is an effective tool for the audible part. Woods are a funny creature, it will let sound out, but not necessarily let sound in. People on the edge of the woods could be calling for you but you’re not able to hear them, but the shrill of a whistle will penetrate the woods and be audible to them. How much energy does it take to blow a whistle every 30 seconds or so?
A mirror is an excellent choice for signaling aircraft, such as helicopters or small planes which more than likely are looking for you. Reflecting sunlight off a mirror can be seen for miles.
Pretty Straight Forward
Rescue personnel are detectives and are taught to look for anything out of place in the natural environment. Therefore, your job is to create unnatural signals to detect. For instance, pile rocks or tree limbs in an unnatural way, trench SOS in the soil or spell it out with tree limbs, especially effective if using green/dark limbs on snow.
Obviously these mistakes are not all inclusive as there are hundreds of other mistakes novice and seasoned woodsmen make that can easily cost them their lives, but these are my top ten picks. As a parting comment know the 5 keys to wilderness survival and acquire the skills to address them.
Know how to build a shelter
Know how to signal for help
Know how to start and maintain a fire
Know what to eat and where to find it
Know how to find a prepare water to safely drink