If you are in a true survival situation in the wild, odds are a hundred to one you screwed up badly and in multiple ways. It is easy to say “Never screw up and you have nothing to worry about.” Everyone screws up once in a while. However, it takes a chain of screwups to cause really bad trouble. If it didn’t, I’d never leave the house. You are safer in the wild than you were driving to get there. The wild is a relatively benign environment yet holds danger for those who behave stupidly.
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Be aware of the climate and the weather.
Before you go on a trek, check the weather forecast. That much is obvious but consider that the weather forecast may be off. A high of 90 and a low of 55 with a 20% chance of rain can change into a cold and wet mess if you happen to be in the area where 20% turns into 100%. 20% is a bad risk when your well-being is on the line.
That isn’t the whole story. The farther in advance a weather report is made, the less accurate it will be. For any trip longer than a weekend you need to know the climate. What are the normal high and low ranges? What kind of precipitation is normal for the area? Do you often get a lot of wind? Is it normally dry or is the air often humid? You aren’t just looking at the weather at the trailhead, look at the microclimates you will be traveling thru.
A lot of wilderness areas have micro-climates, areas where the weather is substantially different from nearby. A simple example; for every thousand feet of elevation gain, the temperature drops an average of 3-5 degrees. On hot days I worship at the alter of the dry adiabatic lapse rate.
Another example. The north slope of a mountain typically has a few degrees cooler temperatures and more plant and animal life. The south face gets blasted by the sun. This can be a benefit or a problem, depending on the season.
In hot weather, you may want to go up in elevation. But also understand that mountain sickness can become an issue if you get up to 8000+ feet. Go slow and acclimate!
Higher elevations get hit by stronger winds, heavier storms, and lightning. Air is forced to rise as it climbs over the mountain. The elevation gain causes temperatures to drop (adiabatic lapse rate). Dropping temperatures means eventually it will get cold enough to cause the moisture in the air to condense. That means clouds – and big mountains can make big clouds. Thunderstorms. You definitely want a quick way to retreat below the tree line when trekking the mountains or gear up accordingly for the extreme weather.
OTOH, once over the mountain air gets compressed and heated as it drops elevation. This leads to powerful, hot, dry winds called “foehn winds”. In the lee of the Rockies they are known as Chinooks, in SoCal, they are known as Santa Anas. Such winds are desiccating and can lead to high fire danger in the forests and dehydration for you.
Here is yet another example. You’re camping in a nice warm valley. During the day the wind will blow gently up the valley because hot air rises. The sun sets and a cold wind blows down the valley because cold air sinks. If it is a narrow valley, those winds can become very fast, fast enough in some places to demolish a tent. Now you are freezing and your tent is flapping in the wind. (I have fond memories of seeing tents being demolished and flying thru the air at Gaviota Beach.)
If you are traveling through a slot canyon, accurate weather becomes a matter of life and death. Every year people die in flash floods in narrow places because there was a rainstorm a hundred miles upstream. Zion Canyon is particularly known for this.
Know your limits.
It is not uncommon for people to collapse after hiking in triple-digit weather – and it didn’t matter how much water they had.
Or lose so much mental acuity from dehydration (or fatigue or hypothermia or fear) that they get lost where they shouldn’t or do stupid things. Or people hiking on thru the rain when they should have buttoned up in a poncho or simply set up camp early. People thinking they can tool up a monster hill without first achieving some measure of cardio fitness and ending up having a heart attack. Pride and stubbornness are responsible for most outdoor tragedies. Pushing on because they imagine safety is just ahead. Or pushing on because they think they are tough enough to take it.
Hydrate more than you think you need. Stop and seek shelter before you think you need to.
Pushing your personal envelope is something one does after careful and honest consideration of your capabilities. You know what you are capable of from experience, not from conjecture. There is no room for bravado. It is also not a good idea to do it if you have no plan B. Take it easy and have a relaxing day instead.
Start your outdoor adventures slowly, then work up to see what you are capable of. An honest and experience-based assessment of your ability will lead to better trip planning. The one thing you do not want to be in the wild is in a hurry. It is a prescription for error and injury. Finish every day knowing that you could have gone farther if need be. I honestly do not understand people who schedule themselves right up to the limit of their ability, as though there won’t be all kinds of random delays. If you could complete 15 miles by pushing yourself, schedule 12 miles and rest for a couple of extra hours.
Tired people make mistakes. Hungry and thirsty people make mistakes. Cold people make mistakes. People who are pitted against a clock make mistakes. Do not push yourself to the limit and thereby avoid making stress-based mistakes that can kill you. Take more food, more water, more clothing, and more time than you need.
Getting sweaty is a good way to ruin your insulation. Layering is the key. Stay comfortable by removing or replacing clothing as needed.
You really do want to start small and work up, even if you are competent in some related sport.
Know your vehicle’s limits too
It seems that every year there is some new story of someone getting their vehicle stuck in the desert or the winter. If they are fortunate it is an epic tale of survival. If not, it is a tragedy. So drive prudently and stay off those truck trails unless you have a vehicle designed to handle them. In the deep desert, you should go in a convoy.
No excuse not to carry a few gallons of water, blankets, and a box of food in a car. It will prevent you from being famous for how you didn’t survive, stuck in a blizzard or spinning wheels in the sand.
Vehicle GPS units are not trustworthy in remote areas. They will steer you onto long-abandoned roads and then you get stuck in the sand or the mud or the snow – and there you are. Twenty miles from nowhere on a track nobody else will be driving for the rest of the year. Don’t go driving into the wild if there is snow coming. The road was clear on the way in but you kept going until you couldn’t anymore and now you can’t go back. Hope you brought lots of blankets, food, and water.
If you do get stranded in your vehicle, stay with it. Do what you can to modify it to be a better shelter for whatever environment you are in. Cars are terrible at heat management. You are inside a painted metal box, after all. Use what you have available to cover windows and trap in heat or block it out, as needed.
I like to sleep in my car on off-road trips. On hot days I take towels and use them to cover the windows on the sunny side, yet still keep them open for the breeze. Sun shades over the front and rear windows, side doors, and windows completely open (depending on the temperature) with maybe an improvised awning over the open door next to you. In bad weather or the winter, I simply button up. Don’t run the motor without cracking your window an inch or two. Carbon monoxide is a killer.
If I were stuck somewhere in winter, then I’d have other concerns. I’d need to ration my gas, using it only during the coldest part of the night. During the day, try to brush the snow off. You want the metal to absorb any heat the sun might offer and the windows to let the sun inside. More importantly, the car needs to contrast against the snow for maximum visibility, not be camouflaged by it.
You can heat a car with a fire. Open the door(s) on the downwind side and put the fire there. Crack the upwind window a bit. You don’t want to smoke yourself out.
Stick with the car if there is any chance at all someone will be searching. It is far more visible than you are on foot. In the winter it has a heater, in the summer it is shade and it is always tight against wind and rain and snow. The radio can give you weather reports. There will always be a little fuel in the tank even if it is too empty to run. The battery can be sparked to start a fire and the horn, lights and mirrors are signal devices. You have 5 tires, several quarts of oil, all kinds of plastics you can burn as a signaling device and there are multiple sources of insulation. Make a big SOS sign in the snow, the sand or with sticks.
Your cell will NOT work in many remote locations. This is where a satellite communicator shines.
Communicate your intentions redundantly
That means you have left a map of your route and your schedule and when to call out the SAR folks with someone who actually cares. Each of your hiking partners has done the same, right? No? Or you are hiking alone? Then at least leave a copy under the windshield of your car for when the Ranger comes to check out your apparently abandoned vehicle. Sign those silly trail registers as proof positive that you made it that far. Call in by cell phone when possible or text by a satcom device regularly. Brownie points if you make an aluminum foil impression of your boot print and leave that in the window too. Double brownie points if you notched the tread to make the footprint unique.
Be prepared to stay comfortable in the worst likely conditions.
That’s the whole point of watching the weather. The forecast for 3 days from now is a high of 90 and a low of 50 with a 30% chance of thundershowers. That doesn’t mean you don’t go. It means you go but you are prepared to be completely comfortable at those extremes. You will have adequate rain gear to protect you and your pack. If you have to cross a creek, be prepared to fall into it (drybags). If the temp goes as high as 100 or as low as 40 and that shower turns into a storm, you’ll be able to survive. Use the same logic for winter hikes.
If you get stuck out there an extra day and the weather turns bad you’ll have the gear and supplies to get by. No sweat. Ah… but what if you sprain your ankle? Get bitten by a rattlesnake? One careless step and you are banged up, at the bottom of a ravine. Some thought has to be put into preparing for medical emergencies on the trail. Real first aid on the trail isn’t band-aids. It is about sprains, strains, breaks, scrapes, and serious bleeding. It is about mountain sickness, diarrhea, ticks, poison oak, frostbite, hypothermia, dehydration, and hyperthermia. Take your wilderness first aid lessons from the Red Cross, from NOLS, or REI, and stock your first aid kit accordingly. (Mine has a literal mini-pharmacy in it as well. Every drug I have a prescription for plus every OTC medication I might want.)
Bushcraft skills are a bit overrated. The ability to lay a campfire is a good thing to know but starting one from friction and sticks is a non-starter. The rule of thumb here is two is one and one is none because you should start from the assumption that something has gone wrong. Maybe your Bic lighter died. Or been lost. I like to have three independent means of starting a fire, say some waterproof matches, a lighter, and a magnesium striker tool. Keep one in my pocket and in two different parts of my pack. For tinder, you can use Vaseline saturated cotton balls but my fave is a few drops of Coleman fuel.
But… it may simply be too wet to sustain a fire. Or blowing so hard you can’t keep the stove going or it is so dry a campfire would be suicidal. And all that prep I just took you thru? Useless. Simply be prepared to be comfortable in the rain in a cold camp.
Navigation skills are more important. Know how to navigate with map and compass. It isn’t tough and is an essential skill in the backcountry. Navigation without map and compass is also important. Using the sun and the stars and distant landmarks to keep going in the direction you want is how the Native Americans did it.
Or you could just stick to the trail. Most trails are obvious from heavy use. If you have to go off-trail, do it at right angles to the trail so all you need to do is a 180 and you’ll be pointed back. Leave obnoxious breadcrumbs along the way if it will be any distance. You are never lost if you can retrace your steps back so goddamit, don’t keep pushing ahead if you become unsure. Go back. In the west, you are often hiking in an area that is open enough that you could just orient the map by landmarks and you can leave the compass in the bag.
A GPS unit is a wonderful thing to have (but unreliable for a vehicle in the wild). A satellite communications device should be
almost mandatory. Both are electronics, subject to failure and dead batteries (Damn! I thought I turned it off!) and being lost in the current of that creek you fell into or maybe accidentally dropped over a cliff. So carry extra batteries and be prepared to not have it when you need it.
Really, there is nothing to fear but fear itself.
There is a certain kind of panic that sets in when you realize you are in trouble and help is 35 miles away and you’ve no way to get to it. The heart starts pounding, skin gets clammy, and movement becomes jerky. You start looking around and thinking, “Oh my God what am I going to do!” This is usually followed by frantic action that may just make your plight worse.
Usually simply standing still and remaining calm is the best course. If you are in immediate peril, (i.e. bear attack, avalanche, capsized watercraft, auto wreck, life-threatening injury) deal with it first and then slow down. Panic clouds one’s judgment destroys fine motor skills and causes you to lose intellectual control over your actions.
If you have any interest at all in wilderness survival you will have investigated the various risks you may encounter and learned countermeasures and mitigations. All that goes down the cat hole when your fight or flight reflex is engaged. Once the immediate danger (if any) has passed, sit down, close your eyes and take deep breaths. Maybe say a calming chant of some sort. The Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalms will do. So will the Litany Against Fear from Dune or it may be a song that you know calms you down. Maybe prayer or thinking about loved ones.
Don’t be the person who simply gave up and died. People and things you love – and don’t want to lose – will give you strength. You will think your way thru this. You will analyze the problem, look at your resources and come up with a plan. You will execute your plan and come out on top.
If you want to accuse me of unfiltered optimism, go ahead. Negative thinking leads to giving up and that dooms you even when you have a fighting chance. The will to survive is more important than anything else when things fall apart.
Knowledge is power and safety.
There isn’t enough time for me to get into details here. If you are really interested in wilderness survival, there are a few books I’d suggest. You want a well-rounded knowledge of the flora, fauna, climate, geology, geography, and hydrology of the area. You want to know about risks specific to the area and solutions to specific problems. That is several books’ worth of data. Fortunately for you, I have read these – and many more.
A source for the identification of almost anything natural is the Audubon Field Guide and Peterson Field Guide series.
For basic general survival techniques. there is Camping and Wilderness Survival by Tawell and Outdoor Survival Skills by Larry Dean Olsen.
For first aid, the Red Cross has basic classes in Wilderness and Sports first aid. Often you can find local entities, like REI or a local CERT team or advanced hiking groups that will offer a little more advanced first aid training. If you are really serious about it, take a NOLS class in Wilderness First Responder.
Now, there may not be a doctor around for a long, long time. Many third-world places are like that. Where There Is No Doctor: A Village Health Care Handbook, Where There Is No Dentist, and The Survival Medicine Handbook: A Guide for When Help is Not on the Way are good references. (However, they will NOT turn you into a suitable doctor substitute.)
For specific info pertaining to your local area, you’ll need to start “Googling”. You’ll want to find out which Native American tribes lived in your area. Google the tribe name and you might want to add other terms like survival or ethnobotany. They are the final word on primitive survival. Likewise, do the same thing for the earliest non-natives in the area, be they long hunters or voyageurs or mountain men or cowboys for survival with a touch of technology. There are often historic reenactment groups that can point you in the right direction. Falcon Guides has a great series on foraging written by one of the top men in the field. (I know Christopher Nyerges personally and he is top-notch.) Some books for my area are:
You want general texts on the flora and fauna, geology, and geography of your area. Google is your friend. Falcon has a good text on animal tracking. Another book is Tracking and the Art of Seeing by Paul Rezendes.
For navigation, there is the classic Be Expert With Map and Compass by Bjorn Kjellstrom. Navigation without map and compass? This book is an oldie but a goodie, Finding Your Way Without Map or Compass by Harold Gatty
The weather is critical to your survival. Grab a basic meteorology text for a general understanding. There is no good substitute for a professional weather forecast but you have to apply the understanding that the farther in advance, the less accurate. There are plenty of internet links for this but I like the Weather Underground site best. NOAA also has an excellent site. Without internet access, a “weather radio” is a good option, possibly the only reason I’d ever have a radio in the backcountry. Probably the most important thing is to know your own climate, what the probable ranges are, and what kind of extreme weather to look out for. Better yet, become a weather spotter (Skywarn).
Amanda Ripley has an outstanding book on survival psychology and behavior in disasters titled, The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes and Why.
I am a big fan of Gavin DeBecker’s, The Gift of Fear and Other Survival Signals that Protect Us From Violence for “peacetime” urban survival.
The best and most inspiring book on the topic of general survival is Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why by Laurence Gonzales. In this magnificent book, the author explores the most important factor of all, the psychology of survival. If you only read one book, this is the one.