After three decades of fishing and hunting in Alaska, it’s a miracle I’m still alive. More than two dozen people I’ve known over the years–close friends, pilots and guides–have died in outdoor pursuits. I’ve survived planes running out of fuel and free-falling as a result of downdrafts. I’ve survived sinking boats and collisions with moose. I’ve also put myself in harm’s way to rescue people. My making it through all such episodes was the result of a combination of luck and preparedness.
There is no substitute for applying common sense to a survival situation. Like snowflakes, each one is different. Whatever the circumstances, however, there is one constant: Your most important ally is self-confidence. No matter how terrifying the scene, no matter how hopeless the outcome might appear, you must will yourself not just to survive, but to triumph over adversity. When you’re prepared, you successfully tackle not only the anticipated challenges, but also the dangerous surprises. And with survival comes reward.
You’ll know it after you’ve fought off a grizzly charge or strained every muscle in your body to extract yourself from swirling white water. You might still be wet, cold and bleeding when the feeling of self satisfaction starts welling from within. You are alive, standing tall and proud against the elements that tried to crush you.
There are countless life-threatening situations that outdoorsmen get themselves into. Here’s how best to get out of them.
At the first sign of a blizzard, find or create a suitable shelter or lean-to near a natural windbreak. Forget about relying on your tent: The framework of most tents won’t support heavy snow loads. In open terrain, find a depression and wrap up in a tent or tarp. I once survived 14 hours by rolling up in a foil blanket after our boat overturned on a November hunt.
Try hard to remain dry. If you overheat, vent or remove clothing, but stay warm. Keep water, food, tools and a firearm within reach.
In deep snow and extreme cold and wind, build a snow shelter. Construct a framework of branches over solid ground. Cover it with at least a foot of snow, create an entrance and then drill a ventilation hole. Properly dressed and dry, you’ll remain relatively comfortable at a constant inside temperature of 18 degrees or warmer, even if the outside temperature drops to 40 below.
Once the blizzard has subsided, stay put until help arrives. Find a nearby clearing and prepare a signal fire or some other ground-to-air signal and be ready to activate a flare or strobe to alert rescuers.
While they are rare, animal attacks happen. In addition to carrying pepper spray or a firearm when traveling in bear country, it’s important to know what you can do to avoid an altercation altogether. Alaska wildlife biologist Cathie Harms teaches the public how to interact safely with large game animals.
“Forget the old rules of playing dead for brown or grizzly bears and fighting off black bears,” she says. “Whether you encounter a black or a brown bear, your first reaction should be to stop and talk to it, observe the bear’s behavior and then respond accordingly.”
If a bear exhibits a slow, cautious approach, it might be curious or trying to assert its dominance. The worst case is that it thinks you’re food. Stand upright and hold your ground. If the bear keeps walking toward you, move aside and let it have the trail. If the bear walks directly at you after you have moved, be aggressive. Hold your arms above your head, shout, throw rocks and use pepper spray. (You remembered your pepper spray, right?) Stand your ground. If the bear touches you, fight it. Use a knife or walking staff and gouge at its eyes, ears, nose and mouth. If a bear rips into your tent in the middle of the night, consider it predatory and fight for your life.
A startled or surprised bear that feels threatened might pop its teeth, huff or salivate. Don’t act aggressively toward a bear that appears distressed by your sudden appearance. Keep facing the bear and talk to it. Back away slowly. Even if the bear charges from a distance, maintain your composure–you’re not going to outrun it. Often a bear is bluffing and wants to hurry you on your way. Use your pepper spray if the bear gets uncomfortably close.
If a bear catches you unaware or unable to defend yourself and it swats at you, drop to the ground and play dead. Roll onto your stomach, with your legs slightly spread, hands behind your neck, and remain there. The hope is that the bear will decide you’re no threat and move on.
On the other hand, dropping to the ground, crouching or changing your position might pique a distant bear’s curiosity and cause it to approach you. Harms knows of one person who saw a bear 200 yards away and decided to play dead. The bear saw the movement and investigated. Only when the victim began shouting because the bear was biting him did the animal finally run off.
If a cougar approaches you, it’s probably hungry. Make yourself as large as you can. Raise and spread your arms out and yell. If that doesn’t stop the cougar, fight for your life.
Moose are more likely to attack in spring, when they have less fat reserves. Winter stresses them out and they’ll have little energy or patience, especially when confronted in deep snow.
A moose usually give clues before it attacks. Its ears will go flat against its head; it might lower its head as well. If a moose approaches you, running is a wise move, says Harms. “Moose don’t kick out like horses do. They rear up on their hind legs and stomp.”
Put something between yourself and the moose, such as a vehicle, picnic table or tree. Even a 4-inch sapling can provide some protection.
The streamer has hooked big trout all day, and you just snagged it on a log in deep, fast-moving water. Breaking it off is out of the question. Easing out into the current, you can almost reach the fly with your rod tip. You poke the rod into the water and stretch out an inch, then another. Just one more inch to go as the water breaks over your waders. The sand bottom gives way and the current sweeps you off your feet.
First, activate your inflatable fishing vest (mustangsurvival.com; sospenders.com). Neoprene waders will keep you afloat temporarily. A wading belt will help keep water out of non-neoprene waders.
Flip over onto your back. Allow your legs to float to the surface to keep the remaining air in your waders. Keep your toes out of the water and your feet pointing downstream. If your feet hang down or are pointed upstream of your body, the current can wedge your feet between rocks and pull you under.
Back-crawl to the shallows; paddle with your hands and arms the best you can and avoid sweepers and boulders. Sit up in shallow water, get your feet underneath you and then walk to safety. Dump the water out of your waders, put them back on and start walking immediately to prevent hypothermia. If you wind up on the same side of the stream as your camp or vehicle, go to it. If not, head for the nearest road and seek help.
If you fall into a lake from a boat, check to make sure your personal flotation device (PFD) is secure and climb back into the boat. If the boat overturns, grab a cooler, a decoy bag, a paddle or anything that floats to help keep you on the surface. Climb onto the boat’s bottom and shout or blow a whistle to attract attention as you locate the nearest point of land. If the boat has sunk, climb onto a floating item and try to paddle to shore.
Non-neoprene waders with booties can fill with water and pull you under. Remove your waders if necessary, fill them with air and use them as a flotation device. Don’t attempt to swim to shore unless it’s very close, the water is warm and you are absolutely sure you can make it. In ice-rimmed water, people have lost muscle tone and drowned trying to swim less than 40 yards. If your boat has sunk and shore is beyond reach, enter the heat-escape-lessening position (leaning back, arms crossed, knees to chest) and remain like that until help arrives.
If you feel yourself falling through ice, stretch your arms out wide. Carrying a shotgun, a long pole or an ice auger parallel to the ice can also help to prevent total immersion. The shock of cold can cause you to suck in water involuntarily, so immediately kick yourself to the surface and breathe.
Place your elbows on the edge of the ice in the direction from which you walked. Find solid ice. If you’re wearing chest waders, keep the top above the water’s surface. Blow a whistle or shout for help to attract attention.
Stab into the ice with a pocket knife or keys to help yourself crawl out of the water. If you don’t have either of those, break your ice fishing rod in half; even the small metal rims of spent shotgun shells are better than wet hands on slick ice. As you pull, kick strongly and ease yourself onto the ice.
Once your feet have cleared, crawl or roll to thicker ice or shore. Quickly remove wet clothing and treat yourself for hypothermia and shock.
If you find yourself in close proximity to a wildfire, use caution. Wind can blow embers for miles and ignite a new fire in front of you. If a very narrow wall of fire is blocking your escape and you’re positive of safe passage to the other side, run through it quickly. Don’t inhale until you reach clear air again.
Kevin McIver and other firefighting experts at the Bureau of Land Management Alaska Fire Service and National Interagency Fire Center say that if you’re surrounded by fire in a forested area and can’t escape, immediately move downhill to a wet, grassy or swampy area away from any conifers. Lie face down with your boots facing the approaching fire and dig a hole for your face so that you can breathe. Wait for the fire to pass and seek immediate help or medical attention.
You can also swim out into open water in a pond, lake or stream pool. If you have access to a canoe, kayak or other small boat, cinch on your life vest and paddle out to mid-lake. Then overturn the boat and remain under it. The cool air will help protect your lungs from the fire’s hot gases.
Don’t wet your skin and clothes with water. Wet clothing attracts heat to the skin five times faster than dry clothing. Save the water for drinking.
While rocks don’t ignite, they can burn you with radiant heat. If you’re in a rocky area, climb into a cool gorge to find adequate protection. If your clothing catches fire, stop, drop and roll until the fire is extinguished.
Brake failure can and does happen for a variety of reasons on all types of vehicles and ATVs.
The first thing to do is remove your foot from the gas pedal. If you’re not going too fast, downshift to allow the engine to slow the vehicle. Attempting to downshift at high speeds can blow a manual transmission and eliminate the engine braking effect, so downshift in increments.
Work your vehicle into the right lane and then toward any available shoulder or exit. Change lanes smoothly and carefully, watching in your mirrors for approaching traffic.
Use your hazard lights to indicate your plight or intentions to other drivers. Continue to shift the car into the lowest gear. If necessary, sideswipe a guardrail to slow the vehicle.
Once off the main road or onto the shoulder, shift into neutral and gradually apply the hand brake until the vehicle stops. If that brake has also failed, direct the car onto a soft shoulder or rub the wheels against a curb or embankment. Once you’ve stopped, position flares and markers to avoid a rear-end collision and alert rescue vehicles.
You don’t have to learn to fly a bush plane to go on a hunting trip in the back country, but knowing how sure comes in handy if something happens to the pilot mid-flight. You should at least familiarize yourself with the basic controls of a modern small plane. Ask the pilot questions about the controls and how things work.
Kathleen Roy of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association has instructed the Air Safety Foundation’s popular Pinch-Hitter course, which helps non-pilots handle midair emergencies. A DVD of the course is available online (aopa.org/asf/store). Here’s what she advises, assuming you have an understanding of a small plane’s instruments.
Remain Calm: Take control of the yoke if there’s one in front of you. If not, release the pilot’s safety belt and remove him from behind the controls. Instruct any passengers to provide first aid and attempt to revive him.
Level Out: Look to the outside wings and surrounding terrain for a visual reference to maintain level flight.
Check the Gauges: Locate the fuel gauge, altimeter, compass, airspeed indicator, throttle and flaps. Note and maintain the current airspeed. If in clouds, refer to instruments to maintain level flight until you can orient yourself.
Call for Help: Set transponder to 7700 to alert air traffic control (ATC) to the emergency.
Keep Talking: Attempt verbal communication. Roy says most student pilots are intimidated by the radio because they don’t know what to say or the right terminology. Just find someone to help guide you through the emergency. Press the microphone button on the yoke to speak on the radio and attempt communication on the radio frequency already set. If there is no response, dial to 121.5 and repeat “Mayday! Mayday!” Even if there is no reply, read out your aircraft ID number located on the instrument panel as well as your apparent current location and status. Ask for help.
If Contacted: Tell ATC or any pilot who might answer that you are not a pilot and explain the situation. State whether or not you have taken a Pinch-Hitter course, and allow your contact to provide further instruction.
Prepare to Land**: If you can’t reach ATC, try to locate maps, the pilot operating manual and the checklist placard. They are usually kept in the glove box or around the pilot’s seat. Follow the compass heading to an airport or landing strip. In an extreme emergency, set up a glide path to a field, farmland, golf course or long stretch of back road.
Keep Your Cool: Approach an airstrip or runway 1,000 feet above the ground. Circle the airstrip, if possible, to verify the runway alignment and ensure that it is clear of traffic and debris. If the plane is equipped with retractable landing gear, lower it. Line up for the runway, and maintain your approach speed. Don’t worry about damaging the aircraft. Attempt the best landing the circumstances allow to ensure the safety of all passengers.
Had a few too many brandies celebrating your latest trophy? Firing up the coffee pot shouldn’t be your first move.
“Coffee is okay, if you first treat the dehydration that accompanies a hangover,” says Ramon Hannah, M.D. “Sport drinks high in electrolytes will help the body replenish itself.”
Exercise can help the body dispel hangover toxins by circulating blood and oxygen. Be sure, however, that you are in good physical condition. A hangover creates a neurological imbalance and increases heart rate. Neuromuscular performance is also impaired.
Consider spending a day in camp to recuperate.
Saunas and alcohol-stressed bodies don’t mix–take a shower instead. Next, eat a light, nutritious breakfast of oatmeal, toast and yogurt. Avoid fatty foods and meats for a while. And remember, a morning drink only makes a hangover worse.
“Keep the alcohol at home and celebrate after you return from the woods,” Hannah advises. “Drinking in camp can contribute to hypothermia, hypoglycemia and dehydration, not to mention all the bad behavior that leads to trouble. It’s the loosening of inhibitions that makes people do stupid and dangerous things in the outdoors that they might not do otherwise.”
According to psychologist James Swan, author of In Defense of Hunting, you shouldn’t make a bad situation with an unprofessional guide even worse. “Under no circumstances should you bully or threaten a guide,” he says. “Your life might depend on him.”
If your guide suggests something illegal or dangerous, refuse and document the activity. Don’t be macho: Feign an illness, fear of heights or whatever.
Approach the guide with your concerns. Perhaps he is suffering a personal problem that is adversely affecting him. Guides are often like pilots. They feel they must appear invincible to their clients. If you can gently nudge aside the facade and relate one-on-one in private, he might bounce back and reveal his better side.
If that doesn’t work, Swan says, keep your head and be creative. If he gets too out of line, focus on remaining safe and returning home. Take lots of photographs of camp and your guide and scribble notes in a notepad. Mention that you are writing a story about the hunt for a publication. A little white lie might prompt him to change his behavior. Try to reason with him. Bad publicity will hurt his future business; tell him you don’t want that, but unless he becomes more considerate of his customers, you’ll have to spread the word.
If you’ve signed a guide-hunter contract, read the fine print to determine your legal options. Report the guide to the state licensing agency or wildlife enforcement officials.
BOLT OF TROUBLE
Stephen Hodanish, a senior meteorologist and thunderstorm program leader for the National Weather Service, says that when you hear thunder, head for shelter. Something bad is approaching, and it’s letting you know it’s coming.
“Nature has its own warning system,” he says. “You can hear thunder about six to eight miles away, but sometimes mountains will block the sound.”
Hodanish stresses that no place is safe from lightning, though some shelters are better than others. An enclosed building with wiring and plumbing is best. The second safest sanctuary is an enclosed, hard-topped metal vehicle. Avoid tents, picnic shelters, lean-tos and shacks. Do not use a cell phone or radios of any type. Close and move away from all windows and doors, and avoid touching any metal surfaces. Remain indoors until 30 minutes after the last rumble of thunder.
Don’t position hunting or fishing camps near isolated trees or objects like fire towers. In lightning-prone areas, pitch tents in a valley or low-lying area. Avoid setting up camp on flat, open alpine tundra or prairie. If no shelter is available, assume the lightning desperation position (crouched down on the balls of your feet with your hands clasped over the back of your neck and covering your ears) as a last resort. Remove and distance yourself from metal-frame backpacks, and do not hold fishing rods, firearms or wet ropes.
According to Hodanish, you might be in serious trouble if you’re caught on open water in a boat with no cabin.
If thunderstorms are forecast, stay close to shore and move toward a protected building or vehicle at the first distant thunderclap. If you’re in a boat with a cabin and can’t reach shore without passing through a storm, anchor the boat and remain as low as possible inside the cabin.