Surviving in the woods alone demands knowledge, preparedness
“Don’t get lost.”
Now there’s some sage advice.
It seems like my dad was always saying stuff like that; the last words that absolved him of any guilt in the event that things didn’t work out too well for me.
Don’t get hurt, don’t cut yourself, don’t lose this…
Back in the old days, before handheld Global Positioning Systems or the most recent Personal Locator Beacons, every trip into the woods was like tempting fate.
If you hunted uphill you needed to go downhill to find the road. If you hunted downhill, you were just plain stupid because no one would ever want to carry a deer or elk back up a hill.
Keep the sun at your back going in and in your face coming out.
Ah, the simple words of wisdom that rung in my ears every time I stepped off the road and confronted the line of trees that would soon envelope me and cover any signs of the road.
I’ve heard a lot of people say that they have never been lost in the woods, but they have been deeply concerned. I guess I fall into that same category. I’ve never had to rely on Search and Rescue to save me, but I have found myself navigating by flashlight and giving myself a time limit to find the truck or find a place to bed down for the night. Yes, I have been concerned.
Stepping off the beaten path, though, is part of what I do and I refuse to live in fear of becoming lost. Back in the old days, though…
HEAVY WHITE CLOUDS rolled across the tops of the peaks and the day, which had been unusually warm for the heart of the second rifle season, suddenly took on a bite that promised of snow. After having hunted hard for a week, the perch where I found myself sitting had been comfortably warm and cozy in the late afternoon sun but now, with the air taking on a bite and the clouds beginning to look a bit more sinister, I awoke to find myself staring into a solid white mass of clouds.
I didn’t mean to drift off during the afternoon hunt, but a week of climbing through the mountains and finding myself in a cozy perch with the sun on my face did the trick and it didn’t take long before I was asleep. Now, with the storm bearing down on me and clouds sunk down low enough that my usual landmarks were covered and unrecognizable, I felt that first ping of doubt enter into my gut. I had followed a fence line up the hill, but left the fence about half way up the mountain so that I could check out a few promising looking parks, and even though I could still see across the park where I was sitting, the snow was starting to come down hard and the far side of the park was slowly disappearing.
No compass, no GPS, and no real good idea about where I was, I figured the smart thing to do was to start heading down. I had climbed up to get here, so I would have to go down to get home. The road was down, the truck was parked on the road, and no matter what I did in this area, if I could manage a straight enough line, I would eventually come out at the road or the highway.
IT’S AMAZING HOW disorienting the snow can be though. With the white stuff coming down in earnest now, I put my head down and kept telling myself that the road would be over the next ridge, but the top of each ridge only revealed more mountains, more snow choked valleys, and periodic glimpses of a white ball in the sky that used to be the pleasantly warm sun. I was headed in the right direction, due west, but where was the road?
Even when you know your relative location, it’s easy for the disorientation and panic to begin to creep up into your chest when you’re unsure. The sun always sets in the west, though, and during an afternoon hunt, with the sun directly overhead and the fence line running to the east, I pushed the doubt away and continued down. I hadn’t crossed all these ridges on the way up the mountain, but, I told myself, I was crossing them now. Don’t panic, it’s just another way home.
Eventually, as I crossed the last ridge, I did find the ribbon of road. It was covered in over two inches of freshly fallen snow and when my feet touched down I realized that I had come out nearly two miles from my truck. The route that I had taken dropped me down into a series of small canyons, each of which ran relatively parallel to the road, so each time I crossed a ridge and dropped down into the next canyon, I was basically heading further away from my truck. The last canyon, though, opened up into a large field that was bisected by the road and, relieved, I began the walk back to where I had parked.
Concerned? Yes. Hunting the edge of a wilderness area where roads are uncommon and thousands of acres of trees and canyons lead to thousands more, it would have been simple to make a wrong turn and end up going deeper into the wild. Knowing that there was no way to miss the road if I continued west, though, was the key to keeping my head and I eventually made my way out and back to my vehicle.
To say that I was grossly ill prepared for a survival situation then would be an understatement. Dressed in winter clothing, but lacking a shelter, signal device (other than my rifle), or good fire starting materials, I was not equipped to spend the night in the trees. To be lost, under those circumstances, could have been fatal.
THESE DAYS, THINGS are different and it was experiences like that which led me to a reevaluation of my capabilities and the capabilities of the equipment that I carry into the woods each year.
The personal hand held GPS is my most relied upon piece of equipment. With its ability to hold and store hundreds of tracks, waypoints, and landmarks, it’s no real trick to find my way around anymore. Extra batteries and a back-up compass in my pack give me the confidence to delve deeply into the woods without fear of losing my way.
But, if I do find myself in a position where I become lost or injured and cannot make it back to my vehicle in a single day, I also carry signaling devices, shelter making equipment, and fire starters that will make a night’s stay in the woods a little less challenging. I carry three saws, rope, and knives that can be used to build a shelter. A whistle and an old CD that can be used as a signal mirror, along with a concoction of melted crayons and dryer lint, and a three pack of butane lighters, ride in a re-sealable plastic bag in my pack. Last, and for the worst case scenario, I carry a tourniquet, a second gallon sized plastic bag, a roll of duct tape (good for everything from equipment repair and shelter building to emergency bandaging), and medical compresses in another section of my pack. All that gear is in addition to my flashlight with extra batteries, a change of clothes, rain gear, and high energy snacks that will keep me quite comfortable during an unexpected night out.
Equipment, though, is only part of the survival equation. Having the right mind set and doing the right things at the right time is also important.
MIND SET IS a funny thing. Anyone can be brave when they’re sitting on the couch, but when faced with adversity, that’s when it matters most. It’s certainly more comfortable spending an unexpected night in the woods when you’re prepared with the right equipment, so adding emotional control and confidence to the equipment list is important too.
First know, if you do become lost — and I mean lost to the point that you have no idea where you are or how to begin finding your way out — the best thing to do is to sit tight and make yourself comfortable. It’s much easier to find a stationary person than a moving one. As I demonstrated in the story above, though, if you know where you are, roughly, and you know your way out, go. Knowing the location of roads and how they relate to your area will help you to make your way out of trouble.
But, if you’re in that situation where you have no clue, you will have to make some decisions and get the survival ball rolling. That begins with admitting to yourself that you’re lost and then working on shelter and fire.
SHELTER IS FAIRLY simple in the conifer forests where downed trees and limbs are readily available. Southern facing exposures are typically less densely forested and will offer better visibility for searchers, so plan on making your camp there. A simple lean-to, made of limbs and shingled with pine boughs will keep you surprisingly warm and dry, and will be simple to construct.
If enough light exists to allow you to safely do so, construct a fire ring with rocks, and clear the surrounding area of dry vegetation. Collect a good amount of downed, dry limbs for your fire and pile them up away from your fire ring. You’ll need tinder, too, so collect plenty of smaller sticks and the small dead limbs from the underside of pine trees to get your fire started. Use your fire starter material – cotton balls and Vaseline or dryer lint and crayons – and your matches or lighter to get the flames going and add tinder until you have a good flame. Smaller fires are better than big ones in this situation, but you’ll want to have enough wood on hand to keep the flame burning to provide light and warmth.
YOU PROBABLY WON’T starve to death during a one night stay in the woods, but having some extra snacks in your pack for these types of situations will certainly make the stay a little more bearable.
Shelter and fire are essential, no matter the time of year that you find yourself in this situation. Once those items are taken care of you can rest fairly comfortably overnight and be able to re-evaluate your situation the next day.
If you are still unsure of your location the next day, sit tight. Replenish your wood supply, keep your fire burning, and wait for rescue. If you’ve done the right thing and told someone where you plan to be and the time you plan to be back, someone will come looking for you if you’re overdue.
Technology has made it easier and safer to travel off the beaten path, but as we all know, technology can and will fail us at times. Knowing how to survive and having the essentials with you when you’re confronted with a survival situation will help you gain the confidence and mental mind set needed when things don’t go your way in the woods.
Pueblo West resident Bill Claspell is an avid outdoorsman, hunter and fisherman who also enjoys writing about his adventures. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org