The day I fell off a cliff and broke my leg on a solo backpack hunt for Dall sheep in Alaska was the day my survival skills were tested to their limit. I was 50 miles from the nearest road, and the only things that saved my bacon that day were having the necessary gear to take care of myself, the skills to use it and, of course, a large dose of Lady Luck.
That “adventure” and its results – three operations, a metal plate that remains screwed into my fibula, a big screw running the length of my big toe, a shrunken calf muscle, an Achilles tendon that doesn’t flex like it’s supposed to and all the toes on my left foot fused straight – were harsh reminders that every time a hunter steps into the woods, he or she must be prepared to take care of themselves should the dice roll snake eyes.
In the modern world we’re surrounded with high-tech gadgets and gizmos that give us a false sense of security. Most people bet the farm that they won’t get in trouble in the first place, but if they do, their gadgetry will save them. It is this “It can never happen to me” attitude that can kill you.
Skookum sportsmen and women always plan for the unexpected. They know there are more ways to get into trouble in the wilderness than you can shake a stick at. Most people who find themselves in trouble get lost. Some take nasty falls and break bones, severely sprain ankles or cut themselves deeply. In the Far North and, increasingly, the mountains comprising the Yellowstone ecosystem, grizzly attacks are rare but occur every year. Many are taken by surprise by unexpected bad weather. Experienced woodsmen know that good weather only means that bad weather has been blessedly postponed for a few hours or days. One should never leave home without being prepared for horrible weather, because, simply stated, Mother Nature rewards the prudent and punishes the unprepared unmercifully.
Common Sense Precautions
Never, ever go hunting without telling someone where you’ll be going and when you expect to return. That’s as true for a half-day’s sit on a whitetail stand as it is for a week’s backpack hunt. Know the country in which you’ll be traveling. On backcountry trips, carry topographic maps and a compass, and know how to use them. A GPS unit is great, but you best be ready if it fails. Also, know the area’s weather extremes. Historically, what are the worst conditions you can expect? Be prepared to handle them.
Naturally, the gear you pack depends on where you’re hunting and how long you expect to be gone. For backcountry hunts, always pack basic survival gear, including a first-aid kit customized to your individual needs. If you have not taken a certified first-aid course, do so. A call to the Red Cross or your local college, hospital, fire or police department can help you find one in your area. The knowledge gleaned from a short, one-day first-aid class can literally save your life, or that of your companions.
Survival instructors teach you that the first thing to do when something goes wrong, whether it be an injury or getting lost, is to STOP – Stop, Think, Observe and Plan. Sit down and think the situation through. Remember the “Rules of Three:” You may be doomed in three seconds if you let panic rule; you cannot live more than three minutes without oxygen; you cannot live much more than three hours in extreme temperatures without body shelter (warmth); you cannot live much more than three days without water; you can live up to three weeks without food.
With this in mind, prioritize your next moves in a calm, orderly and controlled manner. Build your course of action around the following steps: 1) Choose a well-sheltered campsite, preferably near water and fuel for a fire; 2) set up a system of signals, with backups; 3) build a shelter, if you have sufficient strength and materials handy, without wasting valuable energy; 4) gather firewood and water; 5) maintain a positive attitude, dispel your fears and boost the will to live.
One of the most important things in a survival situation is being mentally tough enough to handle the stress and deal with whatever the problems are with a calm mind and upbeat attitude. Don’t be embarrassed if you’re “temporarily misplaced” (lost); it happens to everyone sooner or later. And, really, having to stay overnight is nothing more than a Boy Scout campout – if you are prepared. Remain calm, move deliberately, stay disciplined and don’t panic. Because you’re carrying the right survival gear and took the time to learn how to use it before leaving home, you know deep down you’ll be fine. If there are physical injuries, that Red Cross refresher class you took and your first-aid kit will help you get through it. If you’re with someone else, remember that an upbeat attitude is contagious. Laughter and old war stories are much better than worry.
I never, ever head afield without basic survival gear. That’s true whether I’m traveling by foot, horseback, boat, vehicle or airplane. In fact, I am so anal retentive about it that I never head off on a day hike, climb in the back seat of a Super Cub or hop aboard a small boat without a little butane lighter in my pocket. On backpack or fly-out hunts, I have a more complete first-aid kit in camp and a small, pack-sized kit in my pack. I know how to use each and every item. What good will all that gear do if, when the time comes, you have no idea how to use it or whether or not the things you’ve been carrying work at all? An emergency is not the time to go to school.
Regardless of the size or type of survival kit you carry – and I have several, depending on the trip, time of year, terrain and mode of transportation – it must be able to do the following: carry out basic first-aid chores; build a fire, using two different techniques; construct a shelter; signal for help; and purify water. My kit also contains spare eyeglasses, a compass with mirror and a small, wallet-sized survival guide.
In addition to basic survival clothing items (a packable rain suit, stocking cap, warm gloves plus a compressible wind-blocking hunting jacket are always with me), in my day pack you will always find the following items: space blanket, compact space bag, 50 feet of nylon parachute cord, a multi-tool like a Leatherman, a hunting knife, a half-roll of black electrician’s tape, one new butane lighter, fire-starter materials, a half-roll of fluorescent-orange flagging, water-purification tablets, one wide-mouth quart-size plastic water bottle with screw top, a small wire saw (with which I can cut poles for rigging a lean-to) and a small square of aluminum foil for melting snow. I also like to carry a couple of very large, extra-heavy plastic garbage bags – trash compactor bags are great – both for storing stuff out of the elements and for use as a crude shelter if need be.
Basic First-Aid Kits
First-aid kits are personalized for your needs and should include a few spare prescription pills. In mine I carry a half-roll of one-inch cloth athletic tape, a small tube of antibiotic ointment, several assorted Band-Aids, a roll of mesh gauze, a small roll of antacid tablets, ibuprofen tablets, a small bottle of eye drops, lip balm, prescription pain pills, suture materials, butterfly bandages and a small tube of Super Glue. Believe it or not, you can stop reasonably serious bleeding by gluing deep cuts together rather than stitching them up.
Shelters and Signaling
The secret to staying alive is keeping dry and warm, an important consideration even in temperate climates and good weather. That means staying out of the elements. Building an emergency lean-to-type shelter and fire is paramount to this. Your space blanket, rigged with your parachute cord and some poles as a crude lean-to, can keep the wind, rain and snow off.
The silver side should be toward you so it can reflect warmth from your fire back onto your body. Remember that you can use literally anything and everything Mother Nature provides to build your shelter, including blown-down trees, chunks of sod and mud, rocks, overhanging rocks or small caves, and even snow.
On winter hunts, one shelter type I use often when I’m cold and miserable is to dig the snow out from around the base of a conifer tree that has limbs that hang down to the snow level, trim all the dry inside branches away both for comfort and tinder, and line the bottom of the shelter with green limbs. It can get quite cozy.
Hypothermia is your worst enemy, and it doesn’t have to be below freezing for this killer to grab you. Statistics show that more people die from hypothermia in temperatures ranging from the low 40s to mid-50s (Fahrenheit) than any other. If it looks like you’re going to be there a while, even overnight, creating a crude shelter from wind, rain and snow is important.
The four ways to avoid hypothermia include staying dry, staying out of the wind (thus avoiding wind chill), understanding the cold and never ignoring shivering, which indicates that you could be on the edge of hypothermia.
Another “gotcha” in cold weather is frostbite, which is the freezing of body parts. It is a constant danger in freezing and sub-freezing weather, especially when strong winds are blowing. The first sign of frostbite is numbness – not pain – and a grayish-yellow or whiteness to exposed skin. It is important to get potential frostbite victims into shelter and near heat as soon as possible, warming the affected parts with warm (not hot) water until soft, even if this hurts (it probably will). Body heat, commercial heat packs, and extra clothing and blankets can be used to help treat frostbite.
Cellular telephones are more common in the wilderness than ever, and they are certainly helpful at times. However, like radios, they don’t work in all places all the time, so I never count on one as the only piece of survival gear I need. Satellite phones are readily available today and much better than a cellphone, though they are bulky. I never, ever hunt areas without my radio and/or a cellphone. Also handy are small units like the Celestron Elements Firecel three-in-one portable power pack, red and white LED flashlight, and hand warmer that will charge my iPhone 6 twice before running out of juice. It weighs just 4 ounces.
The key to backcountry survival is avoiding trouble in the first place. However, as one of my bowhunting buddies is fond of saying, “In bowhunting, anything that can go wrong will go wrong – and then something else will go wrong.” The same is true with wilderness hunting. The more time you spend in the backcountry, the greater your chances of needing your survival gear and skills. Will you be ready to meet the challenge when it happens to you?