By Tom Tabor – I have a friend that has spent a significant amount of his life living and working in the remote outdoors as a backcountry hunting guide and outfitter. He is actually about as close to a primitive outdoorsman as today’s world will tolerate, as familiar with survival gear lists as anyone could be. One evening while sipping on a couple of after-dinner drinks and discussing issues of importance to people like us, he told me, “You know, I’ve never been lost in my entire life.” He quickly followed up, however, by saying, “but I have certainly been sorely confused on occasion.”
While my friend’s statement may sound a bit ironic, there is more than a kernel of wisdom to be found here. First off, it should be pointed out that if anyone tells you that they have never been “lost,” “turned around,” or for that matter, “sorely confused,” they simply haven’t spent any time in the outdoors, or their ego is keeping them from divulging the truth.
Virtually everyone who ventures into nature — even savvy outdoorsmen like my friend — will lose their way from time to time. What we call it is of little importance. What is important in this situation is that we must first accept the fact that we don’t know where we are and approach the problem in a reasonable, rational and calm manner.
Most of the time the realization that something is wrong strikes us when we expect to see some sort of landmark or familiar object and it doesn’t materialize. When we anticipate recognizing landmarks and it isn’t found, often fear and uncertainty envelop us. The blood begins to rush to our heads; our palms become sweaty; and many of us begin a decline into a state of utter panic. Maybe the best way to demonstrate how panic can affect a person’s judgment is to recount an actual incident that occurred a few years back.
While on a hunting trip in northeastern Montana, I was drawn into a search and rescue effort for a lost hunter. A sizable search party had been pulled together in order to aid the local officials. Our attempts to rescue the victim turned out to be unsuccessful, but overall the story ended well for the lost party. After a couple of very cold November days and nights in the wilderness, the hungry and forlorn fellow wandered out on his own. The stories that he told distinctly illustrate how panic can cloud a person’s ability to think clearly.
This incident took place in an area that had roads crisscrossing throughout. A few hours’ walk in literally any direction would have easily brought him to a road and eventually to civilization, yet he chose not to make any effort to get out for days.In some cases the best possible thing to do when lost is to stay where you are, but in this case this was not the decision that a rational person would make. Staying the first night probably made a great deal of sense in this situation. By the beginning of the second day the ground search had been expanded to include a search by air. The spot the lost hunter chose to hole up in was in the bottom of a brushy creek drainage-making it virtually impossible to spot from the air.
Some of the most interesting aspects of this tale are the comments he made when he finally walked out on the third day. He reported that he had actually seen the search party’s aircraft, but he failed to signal it. He also indicated that he had heard the search dogs barking on at least one occasion, but again did not make an effort to signal his position. Remembering that this was a hunter equipped with a rifle and ammunition, it was puzzling why he didn’t at least fire a few shots when the searchers were clearly close enough to hear them.
More confusing was why he didn’t build a fire large enough to be spotted. Our team of searchers were very close to his location at one time, and I’m sure we would have been able to spot a fire if it was very large at all. His campsite was in a creek drainage area that was literally engulfed in blown-down trees, brush and other debris. Yet when he was asked why he didn’t build a fire large enough to be seen by the aircraft or ground search parties, he ironically replied that he was afraid he would run out of firewood.
He had no food other than a candy bar with him, yet a deer wandered through his camp and he didn’t shoot it. He was a hunter; he had a rifle and ammunition; he had all the necessary licenses and tags; he was hungry and didn’t know how long he would be there, and he didn’t shoot the deer. Later, when questioned about this, he said he didn’t want to shoot the deer because he thought he would never be able to find his way back to that spot to claim the remains of the deer.
This was an adult man probably in his mid to late 40s. He was healthy and intelligent. Nevertheless, he simply panicked when he became disoriented. Little of what he did made a great deal of survival sense. Hour after hour and day after day he maintained his panicked state of mind. He was extremely lucky that it didn’t cost him his life and searchers were lucky they weren’t injured while looking for him.
There are many stories of people panicking when lost: Individuals peeling off all their clothing and wandering aimlessly over frozen terrain; people dying of exposure when civilization is only a short distance away. The most important item on your survival gear list is knowledge. Know that the first step to survival is accepting the fact that you don’t know where you are. This may seem like a logical step, but many individuals continue to deny that they are lost.
Even though time can be crucial, you should first take a few minutes and carefully evaluate your situation. Sit down and slowly look around. Are you sure that there are no recognizable landmarks? Think about the route you took to get there. Think about the direction you traveled, the drainage that you may have followed and the general lay of the land. Where was the sun when you began your travels? This may help you to determine direction. Were there communities, roads or houses in the immediate area? How populated is the area? Is it reasonable to assume that if you continue to walk you would hit a road or a settlement? While these questions may seem basic, in the case of the lost hunter, he certainly didn’t rationalize that if he continued to walk he could quite easily have walked out in a matter of hours, or what really turned out to be a matter of minutes.
The terrain and landscape will look different from different angles. For this reason it is always a good idea to stop periodically, turn around and view the path from the opposite direction. If you should return by the same path, this could help you recognize the terrain. Many times people are hesitant to retrace their course, they think if they turn around it will take longer and they will have to walk further. By retracing your path, even though it may cause you to walk a little further, it is often the safest and most viable way of finding your way out. This is particularly the case when a good covering of snow is present.
A word of caution about snow fall. It is important to recognize the fact that even a light snow covering can result in a dramatic change in the overall appearance of the landscape. Remembering this it is advisable to take extra precautions in the event of new snow. Evaluating how much time you have before sunset is crucial. Is there time to attempt to get out, or is it better to spend the night and try to get out in the morning? Certainly in some situations it may be most prudent to stay put, prepare for signaling, and wait for the searchers to find you.
In many situations, particularly in remote locations, it is best to stop all attempts to make your way out at least one hour before sunset. Traveling in unfamiliar country after dark should be avoided at all costs. You will need at least an hour to prepare for a night in the wilderness. Before making any preparations in the way of shelter, bedding, etc., it is a good idea to carefully inventory the gear you have with you. In an orderly fashion lay out all of the items you have and think about how each one can best be utilized.
Fire is very important and should be high on your priority list. If at all possible, get a fire going before doing anything else and then keep it going. Of course fire is vital for warmth and will double as a signal fire, but fire also has a calming effect on people, and calm is crucial when you become lost.
Even if the conditions are very wet you can still find dry pieces of wood and other material to be used as fire tinder. Pine and fir trees often have a tendency to bleed sap. This dries on the outside of the bark and works great as an aid to getting a fire started. If birch trees are available, try cutting or tearing the bark off and use it to start the fire. The green birch bark makes the best fire starter due to the sap it contains. This green material will actually burn better and hotter than the dry, dead bark. Another source of tinder can be found under fallen logs, trees, or rocks. Actually, a good place to build a signal fire is at the base of a standing dead tree. These trees become bone dry over time and because they are standing upright, they aren’t affected as much by rain and moisture. Without a great deal of effort the entire tree can be set ablaze, sometimes even with a single match or cigarette lighter. There are a couple of important things to keep in mind though, if you intend to use a standing dead tree for a fire. First off, you don’t want to start the whole forest on fire. And second, there could be the danger of the tree falling after the base has been weakened from the fire.
Branches and limbs can be lashed together to construct a lean-to. If a rope or cord didn’t make your survival gear list, your belt can be substituted, or even strips of cloth can be torn from an unnecessary cloth item. Limbs and branches with forks are particularly useful because these can be used to support cross pieces for a shelter roof. Standing trees with large trunks are great places to build a shelter from. The trunk will help to provide a windbreak and will retain a great deal of heat. Fir boughs and other dense vegetation can be woven to the lean-to supports to shed water in the event of rainfall, or keep the snow at bay.
A compass can help in some situations and is an excellent addition to a survival gear list. If you left yours at home, you can tell direction in many ways, including the angle and arc of the sun, the position of the stars, etc. You may also be able to fabricate a compass. Many times pins and needles have a tendency to become naturally magnetized over time. If you have a pin in one form or another, stick it through a piece of lightweight wood, maybe a piece of partially rotten material, allowing both ends of the pin to stick out. Then simply float the wood in a puddle of water. If the pin has become magnetized, it will swing around and point to the magnetic north. Be sure there are no metal objects around your homemade compass, because any metal located close by could give you a false reading.
Preparation before going into the wilds is crucial. For this reason let’s look at a few of the basic items that should always be on your survival gear list when you venture out. A fanny or daypack can carry a lot of emergency essentials that can mean the difference between survival, or devastation. Most of these objects are so small and lightweight, you won’t even know they are there.
Core Survival Gear List:
- Waterproof matches
- Marking ribbon
- Container of water
- Space blanket
- Fire starter
- 2 small flashlights
- Pieces of cord
- Visqueen or plastic
- Area maps
Optional Survival Gear List:
- Fish hooks and line
- Cell phone or 2-way radio
- Rain gear (can double as moisture barrier for shelter)
- Signal mirror
- Whistle for signaling
- Metal cup (for boiling water)
- Weather hazard radio
- Signaling equipment
- Water purification tablets
- Magnifying glass (fire starting)
- Extra clothing
- First aid box (contents might include adhesive bandages, gauze wrap, pain relievers, antacids and more)
- Cigarette lighters
Certainly different terrain, weather conditions and climate dictate the need to compile different survival gear lists.
The above survival gear list and survival skills list only provide a few ideas of the type of gear that may be appropriate.
There is no shame in getting turned around in nature. The shame only comes when we go unprepared into the outdoors, or when we succumb to panic and use poor survival judgment.
Originally published in Countryside November / December 2004 and regularly vetted for accuracy.