The term Wilderness survival guide may conjure up visions of lists and hard non-contestable rules which must be followed or your chances of survival are slim to none. Well, it ain’t quite that clear cut. Are there rules and lists, of course there are, but there are far too many variables to overcome in the wilderness to have a preconceived plan in mind. Instead we must draw on our skills, instincts and experiences to address our essential needs if stranded or lost in the wilderness.
In my opinion a wilderness survival guide should be a blueprint, a connect the dots map, which sets you in the right direction and offers basic information on how to survive. It’s easy to create a list of every popular newfangled piece of survival equipment available and recommend carrying them into the wilderness. That would definitely make life easier, but is not feasible nor does it teach anything besides how to spend your money.
Let’s exam basic survival rules and why they are essential, including options of how to fulfill these requirements and knowledge that will prompt your own survival imagination into high gear. It’s imperative you know the main reasons people go into the wilderness and do not return, in order to avoid making the same mistakes.
If you would research the main reason people perish in the wilderness it would not be from falling from a cliff or being mauled by a wild animal, although both have happened, but you’ll continually see the word Exposure.
That code word simply means they died of hypothermia or heat exhaustion. And the reason for that? They either didn’t bring a shelter (tent, tarp) with them, or they didn’t have the skills or knowledge to build one from nature’s available assets.
We acknowledge the survival rules of 3, which states you can live 3 hours without shelter, but we qualify that rule as ambiguous at best. Questions such as: Where am I at? What’s the weather conditions? Time of day? What clothes am I wearing and are they wet? How these have a direct bearing on how long you can survive without a shelter.
A mild sunny day in early summer doesn’t bode the dangers that a cold wintry day does. Being wet in the desert is not a bad thing, but wet in frigid conditions is a quick pathway to the after life.
The point I’m trying to make is as a Wilderness Survival Guide rules are important but not concrete in nature. Do I need to know how to build a primitive shelter from natures’ goods? Yes, definitely, but will I die in 3 hours if I don’t … depends. That’s what makes surviving in the wild so unpredictable and dangerous.
Underestimating the Risk:
I’ve yet to hear of anybody who says they meant to get lost and risk death on purpose. Getting lost is kinda classified as an “Accident” which wasn’t intended to happen and most of the time you aren’t sure how it happened … it just did. It began as an innocent hike on a familiar trail, or a fishing trip on a well known lake area, or a family hunting trip.
Then things go horribly wrong. An unexpected snowstorm catches you on top of the mountain trail, the boat tips over sending everyone into the cold water, tracking a deer leads to getting turned around not knowing which way camp is and it’s beginning to grow dark.
If you think about it, the most dangerous things we may do in the wilderness are things we’ve already done before. We’re comfortable with it and nothing bad has ever happened before. We fail to plan! Imagine it this way … a snake charmer (Cobra) is relaxed and comfortable being close to the snake, but you or I wouldn’t go within 10 feet of it. We’ve never been exposed to the danger before and are not comfortable with it.
Before you venture into the wild sit down and make a contingency plan for a couple of obvious things that could go wrong. “Failing to plan is planning to Fail”
Returning to the rules of 3, a person can last 3 days without water before dying of dehydration. I don’t dispute this rule but I do want to qualify it. For all practical purposes, without rescue, you are dead after 2 days without water. By that time you will have become lethargic, not really wanting to move, you will become delirious which leads to bad decisions, and ultimately you’ll lose the will to live and succumb to death.
Obviously locating water is a priority if you have failed to pack enough water to last a few days. And what is enough water? Again … depends. Stranded in the scorching desert you will lose more water through perspiration than on a cool sunny day in the flat-lands. Big difference in water consumption.
Possibly no other need will force you to make critical life and death choices as lack of water will. Literally dying of thirst you discover a small pond of water, you are saved. But looking at the water it doesn’t appear to be entirely safe to drink. There are common waterborne organisms, such as cryptosporidium and giardia that can make a person deathly ill. You will experience severe diarrhea, painful stomach cramps, vomiting, all actions that only hasten the dehydration process. But… if you don’t get water soon you will die of dehydration. What to do?
It’s imperative you learn how to sanitize water safe for human consumption. You can do this by boiling the water for an extended time, there are chemical tablets that are designed to make water drinkable, bleach, Iodine and other household chemicals will purify water. A water filtering straw will clean water, collecting dew and rainwater are other options. Point is … Water is critical to survival. Learn how to make it drinkable.
No Navigation Tools:
Another Wilderness Survival Guide item that is often overlooked is the lack of navigation equipment. Anyone who ventures into the wilderness without a good compass, GPS and map, has a death wish.
Anyone, even an experienced woodsman can get entangled in thick brush or dense forest and can easily get turned around and head the wrong direction. The difference between him and you is he has a compass and GPS to tell him he’s going in the wrong direction so he can correct his course.
Why do you need a GPS and a compass? There’s a survival motto that says “Two is one and one is none,” which simply means repetitious means of surviving are good. If you lost your compass, the GPS would guide you, but if you only had a compass, you’re now in big trouble. Learning how to navigate by the sun and stars are an excellent backup. They always stay the same and can be utilized to find direction.
This encompasses 2 issues. One, dressing in layers is the best method for addressing the environment and dressing one layer warmer than you need is good common practice. You can always remove a garment if you become too warm, and you can carry it, tie it around your waste, stuff in you backpack. It’s like cutting a board to a certain length. If you cut it too long you can always cut it again, but cut it too short and the board is a waste. Some mistakes cannot be corrected.
Secondly, what the clothing is made of is of utmost importance. A lot if not most of our normal clothing is made from cotton and cotton is taboo in wilderness survival. Wear wool or other fabric that is designed to retain your body heat even if it becomes wet. If possible have some sort of rain gear with you. One must remember, most cases of hypothermia happen in temperatures above 40 degrees F. A surprising fact to me.
Inability to Make Fire:
Lack of Fire could be viewed as the number reason people die in the wilderness. Unless it’s pouring down rain or snow, a raging fire can keep you warm without a shelter, that is until you have time to build one.
Fire allows you to boil contaminated water making it safe to drink, when otherwise it would make you sick. Fire will keep animals at bay providing a safe environment in an otherwise dangerous one. Fire can be used as a signal for rescue workers to track you.
It’s imperative you know how to make a fire by numerous means. Lighters, matches, fire sticks, even primitive rubbing two sticks together are options. Know how to create fire…your life may depend on it.
A Wilderness Survival Guide is intended to teach you how to not only survive, but to thrive in the wilderness. However, that is much easier said than done. We are pioneers, but only in the loosest form of the word. To roam the Rocky Mountains like mountain men of the 1800s or homestead a plot of land in Oklahoma after the land rush is beyond our capabilities, at least 99% of us.
I don’t want to leave the impression I am against lists or rules, as that would be silly if not plain stupid. I’m saying don’t only count on the rules and lists. Use your own brain, the most valuable asset you possess.
To prove I’m not lying here are a couple of my favorite acronyms which help me remember.
S is for stop. Physically stop and sit down, relaxing your heart beat and becoming more emotionally and mentally stable. Take several deep breaths, close your eyes.
T is for think logically and rationally about the situation. The situation may not be as bad as you first thought. Eliminate the panic.
O is for observe your surroundings. Slowly and carefully scan your immediate surroundings looking for potential threats, an unsteady boulder overhead and too close for comfort if it fell. Seek out potential resources which can help you. Lots of dry firewood available, a huge fir tree where you can lodge under its boughs.
P is for planning. Will people be looking for you immediately? Do you have plenty of water? Do you stay put or venture out? All parts of a plan for survival.
P is for protection. This is the time to be selfish. You must protect your body, externally and internally, from heat loss and dehydration. It may be as simple as getting up off the cold ground and change location to behind a large tree or boulder. Adjust your clothing paying attention to your head and neck area. Build a fire. It’s much easier to stay warm than try to thaw out after enduring near frostbite conditions.
L is for location. Put yourself in a rescuer’s position. What would I be looking for? Maximize your thoughts. If possible move out from under the forest canopy into clear view. Build a fire, keep your signaling devises (whistle/mirror) handy.
A is for adapt. You must be able to adapt and change quickly. That great campsite you built in the open field may have to be abandoned to get out of the frigid winds a sudden blizzard is creating.
N is for now. The best made plans are useless unless you act on them. If you have a good plan, overcome your fear and act now.
In closing I’d like to state a Wilderness Survival Guide should teach well established survival techniques and create the ability to think for yourself. Lists, rules and acronyms all have a place in your overall survival strategy, but don’t neglect your most powerful tool … your mind.
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