Outdoor Survival Skills 101
By Jason Frye | Photography courtesy of adventure.com and wildernessawareness.org
Going camping? You may want to study a few survival tip videos or at least make sure your cell phone is fully charged.
Let’s say you’re camping with friends and on a hike one morning. You step off the path just out of sight to answer a call from nature, and when you step back on the path, everyone is gone. The trail is empty. The woods are a riot of insects and birdcalls, but you can’t hear your friends. You’re camping and hiking in a new place and it’s beautiful, but unfamiliar, and the more you look at the trail, the more you realize you’re not exactly sure if camp is this way or if it’s that way. You call out but the sound of the cicadas is too much for your voice to overpower, and you realize all at once that you’re lost.
Growing up in West Virginia and working my way through the ranks of the Boy Scouts of America in Troop 23 (earning the rank of Eagle Scout in 1995), I was constantly reminded, warned, and told, “Don’t get lost.”
No one plans to get lost, and, fortunately, I never have… well, I’ve never been lost for more than a few minutes before I recovered my bearings and made my way home. But that’s not the case for everyone. My dad got lost on a hunting trip when he stalked a deer over a ridgeline around the same time the weather turned. Fog socked in the whole valley and he found himself in a strange place with no landmarks and visibility limited to about 100 feet. He was gone for a good part of the day, but we found him tired and hungry beside a logging road after he’d descended the wrong side of the mountain and followed the wrong stream the right direction and encountered the road. A little bad luck and a couple of bad decisions got him lost, and a bit of good luck and a wise choice got him found.
Dad was no Eagle Scout; he was just a man who loved the woods, enjoyed hunting, and found himself as an ad hoc assistant scoutmaster supervising skills competitions and helping with merit badge classes. Most of his survival knowledge came from sitting on the couch with me watching “First Blood” and “Red Dawn.” If we needed to elude Brian Dennehy or if the Soviets dropped paratroopers onto the ball field outside the high school, we were set. But lost in the woods? Not so much.
Getting lost is act one of a longer play of wilderness survival, but, thankfully, most situations never take a dire turn like those in movies, such as “127 Hours” where Aron Ralston self-amputated his arm in order to be rescued or like “Hatchet” based on Gary Paulsen’s experience of spending 54 days in the Canadian wilderness with little more than a hatchet.
But people do get lost in the woods. What if it’s you?
The answer is simple: STOP.
That’s the acronym for Sit down. Think about the situation. Observe your surroundings. Plan your next step. If you’re hiking with friends, someone will come back down the trail looking for you when they realize you’re not with the group. If you’re alone, the STOP principles are the key for keeping things manageable.
You’ll have some decisions to make right away. How far is camp? When is it dark? What are your supplies like? Do you have water, shelter, light? Will you need them? Are you dressed for the weather? What if it turns rainy or cold or blazingly sunny?
Questions like these will guide your next steps, which are essentially try to find camp or get ready to spend the night where you are.
If you opt for camp, move slowly and cautiously. Mark where you began; as you move out, leave obvious trail signs like broken branches, rock stacks, even marks scuffed into rock faces or deeper into the dirt; conserve your energy and your water.
If you stay, you might need to start a fire. Easy when you have a lighter or matches, but tough when you’re making a bow drill out of branches and bootlace (it’s tough, but doable with practice). It’s even tougher if you’re trying to get a spark by banging two random rocks together. To do that, you will need flint and steel – something you should keep with your first aid kit and water purification tablets in any pack you wear on the trail.
You may need shelter, which can be as simple as a snake-free rock overhang or more complex like a lean-to built from pine boughs, which should be enough to keep you dry, warm, and safe in for the night.
In Scouts, we earn wilderness survival, emergency preparedness, and first aid merit badges, but as adults it’s much harder to pick up these skills. But that’s what YouTube is for and there are loads of fire starting, shelter building, survive-in-the-woods-for-a-night videos online. You just have to remember to watch them — and practice — before you need them.
If your cell phone has a signal, you can, of course, just call someone and tell them, “I’m lost, come get me.”