Life-and-death situations in the outdoors come in many forms. Do you have the skills to to endure these six worst-case scenarios?
Lost in the Backcountry
You’re hunting elk with your buddy in central Colorado’s Gunnison National Forest. You were keeping a little distance between the two of you so you could cover more ground, but somehow you got separated. Since you were bushwhacking and not following an established trail, you suddenly realize you’re lost. Evening is approaching, and the occasional rain that has been plaguing you all day is now steady and worsening. What do you do?
This scenario is the most likely threat to anyone who hunts or hikes in remote areas. The simple combination of getting lost and suffering from exposure can be deadly. Most hunting is done in cooler weather, and even 50 degrees is cold enough for hypothermia (the lowering of your body’s core temperature) to take effect. And while the rain is providing you with some much-needed hydration, the water in your clothes is stealing your body heat a lot faster than the cold air would alone.
This is already looking like the details of another lost hunter story, but in our scenario, there is one other disturbing variable: Your buddy is still out there, too. Is he lost like you? Should you walk around calling for him, or stay put? Is he looking for you? Did he make it back to camp?
It seems like a million questions are running through your mind, and the more you try to weigh your options, the more overwhelmed you get. Once the reality of your situation has set in, you have a very sobering choice to make. Do you stay put, make camp and signal for your friend? Or do you keep walking in hopes of finding him? What’s the right choice?
In this situation, you should definitely stay put and make camp. With night approaching and the rain coming down, there’s a very good chance you and your buddy will experience some degree of hypothermia. The decreased visibility from the rain and darkness makes falling down and injuring yourself more likely if you keep moving. You should find a spot to set up shelter and try to get a fire going.
If you both have a communication device, try yours. A cell phone, two-way radio or walkie-talkie can take the guesswork out of your escalating emergency. If you don’t have communication equipment, or there’s a problem connecting, use some low-tech gear, like a whistle. Blow three whistle blasts in a row every 15 minutes. This might attract your buddy’s attention and help him to find you, if he is still wandering out there.
If you can get a large bright fire going, the heat will help you stay warm and the light could help your buddy navigate toward your improvised camp. If you cannot get a fire going in the wet conditions and failing light, create the best shelter you can and wait until morning. Keep blowing your whistle periodically. If your buddy is still walking around in the dark, he will probably need your help.
Make sure that someone responsible knows where you are going, where you will be parking your vehicle, when you will be back and all the other details of your excursion. Get a map of the area and study it before your trip.
Take the map and a compass or GPS with you. Consult your map often so that you don’t get lost in the first place. Bring and use communication equipment. Have a plan with your buddy in case you get separated. Take into account the terrain, the expected weather and temperatures, and don’t be afraid to overpack a bit so you can handle the worst that Mother Nature throws at you.
You’ve taken your pickup far off the beaten track in the California desert in search of early-season quail. You are miles off the pavement when your engine suddenly sputters and dies. The sun is unrelenting now, but once it sets, the temperature will plummet. You forgot to charge your cell phone and it’s as dead as a stump. Now what?
Finding yourself stranded in an unforgiving desert with a dead truck is a serious predicament, but all hope is not lost. First, stay with your vehicle; it is much easier to spot from the air or the ground than a single wandering individual. You need shelter from the extremes of the daytime heat and nighttime cold. The truck offers you shade during the day, and the cab will keep the wind, scorpions and snakes off you at night. Your vehicle provides lots of valuable commodities, too. The mirrors can be ripped off to use for signaling. The upholstery can be improvised as bedding.
Except for the coolant, the fluids of the engine are flammable and will burn with a black smoke, which is more visible than the white smoke of a wood fire. I’d recommend that you stay away from the gasoline, though. It’s too volatile and dangerous to bother with. But if you can get a fire burning, you can then pour on some motor oil, power-steering fluid, brake fluid or any other oil that you can get to. The tires will also create black smoke when burned. Make a big “X” on the ground as a ground-to-air signal for help. Stay put, stay hydrated and wait patiently for your rescue.
Take your truck for a thorough checkup before you head out to the middle of nowhere. Bring some tools and common repair equipment–a spare air filter, some starter fluid, a full-size spare tire, a jack, jumper cables and duct tape are the essentials. Bring communication equipment to alert someone of your emergency. Have an emergency phone charger or solar charger. Bring a friend and take two vehicles so you have a way out if there’s a breakdown. Carry a couple of gallons of extra water.
It’s the end of spring gobbler season in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. It’s a nice, warm day and you’re scouting around quietly for turkey sign when you smell a strange chemical odor in the breeze. You walk a little farther, wondering what that pungent scent might be, and as you crest a hill you spot several things at once. Three men are coming up the path from a shack down in the hollow. The forest is littered with small propane cylinders, and that weird smell just got a lot stronger. You’re not sure if the men have seen you in your camo gear. What do you do?
This is a tricky set of circumstances. You have probably just stumbled upon a meth lab. If that’s the case, the men coming your way are criminals. You could be in some serious danger. Don’t panic. You’re armed, but you want to avoid any conflict. The other thing you have going for you is that you’re decked out from head to toe in camouflage.
In this position, however, you don’t have time to think about all these things. The best strategy you can use now is to get out of the way of those men quickly and silently. You are outmanned, you’re probably out-gunned and you have no backup. If these guys are criminals, they might not think twice about shooting you in defense of their little drug factory. Slip far off the trail and sit or lie down, using the camo to your advantage. Let the men pass and then stalk your way back to your vehicle.
If you have a GPS, mark the coordinates of the shack to help the authorities locate it. If you have a cell phone with a signal, you can try to call 911. If you don’t have a phone or have no signal, try to pick out some landmarks that can help police locate the lab. You need to get back to your family alive. Leave the Rambo work to the DEA, the FBI and all the other brave professionals who do it every day.
The first and most important preventive measure is to be aware that more and more criminals are using the woods for their illegal activities. Crystal meth shacks and marijuana farms are booming businesses in today’s world. Sadly, you need to be very vigilant in the outdoors for more than just wild game. Don’t think that trouble can’t happen in your backyard. It’s going on in every state in America. Unfortunately, you now have one more reason to carry a phone and GPS with you into the woods.
Big Bear Encounter
It’s early fall in Wyoming’s Wind River Range. You and your friend
are on a day hike to some alpine lakes in search of fat cutthroats. Your buddy is in the lead and follows the trail around a particularly large boulder as you suck wind and regret eating that large order of fries with your burger last night. A couple of seconds after he is lost from sight, you hear him yell. You rush around the corner to find your friend cowering beneath a huge grizzly that is standing on its hind legs.
What should you do?
Welcome back to the Stone Age. Our ancestors had to deal with oversize predators for a very long time. Thank goodness we inherited only a few of the nightmare creatures they had to face in life. But this is still no joke; you are in a life-threatening situation.
You are no longer at the top of the food chain when you step into the wild. Even the sickest old bears are stronger and faster than you. Bears have killed approximately 100 people in the United States over the last hundred years. Here is exactly what you need to do to have a good chance of surviving this encounter and keeping your name off that list.
In a calm, strong voice, tell your friend to open his jacket to look bigger. You do the same and get your bear spray ready. If you have no jacket, raise your hands above your head like you’re being held up. The idea is to make yourselves appear as large as possible. Back away slowly while still facing the animal and tell your friend to do the same until you are side by side. Never turn and run. This stimulates a predatory response in carnivores, like a game of cat and mouse. Back away to a climbable tree or tall boulder and get on top. If there is no place to go and you have a firearm, firing a warning shot into the dirt in front of you may be all that’s needed to scare the bear away.
What if the bear keeps coming? Now is the time to call on your cornered-animal instincts. If you have bear spray, deploy it. Aim for the bear’s nose, mouth and eyes and unload the entire canister. If you have a gun, you can try to shoot the bear, but you better be prepared to defend yourself to wildlife officials and be able to prove to them that you were facing a do-or-die situation.
If you have nothing, pick up a big stick and swing for the fences, because you are literally fighting for your life. If you can’t get to a spot out of the reach of the bear and you have no gun or bear spray, play dead by curling up into a ball, protecting your face and belly. If you are wearing a backpack, use it to cover your head, neck and back.
At the time of this writing just two men had been killed by wild grizzly bears in the United States since 2010–one in Wyoming and the other in Montana. There are more than 32,000 brown bears (of which the grizzly is a subspecies) in the U.S. and 22,000 in Canada. Ninety-five percent of the American bear population is located in Alaska.
Obviously, the odds of even seeing a brown bear in the wild are extremely slim, never mind the chances of being attacked. That said, it can happen, and if it does, there are few survival situations that can prove to be as horrifying.
Before you leave for your trip, contact the wildlife agency in the area you plan to visit. Find out if there are any warnings for the area or recent bear attacks that you should know about.
There are two common factors that can lead a bear to attack–surprise and curiosity driven by its sense of smell. Make lots of noise as you travel through bear country to avoid surprising one. Bag your food when camping. Keep no food or scented items in your tent or camp. This means that pots, pans, groceries, soap, deodorant and so on need to go into a bag that’s hung high in a tree, downwind of camp. To accomplish this, tie a biscuit-sized rock to the end of 100 feet of cord. Hold the other end of the cord and throw the rock up over a high tree branch. Tie the bear bag to the cord, then hoist up your bag and tie off the free end to a different tree.
You and two of the boys have spent the day offshore on Lake Michigan fishing the humps for walleyes. The weather begins to worsen, kicking up some large waves, so you decide to head back. But when you try to start the motor, it’s dead. As the weather continues to worsen, so does your situation. You’re about to send an S.O.S. when a rogue wave suddenly flips the boat, throwing you and your friends overboard. What do you do?
You’re in the water with a bad storm all around you. You’ve never been in such trouble before, and it all happened so quickly. You grab your dazed friends with one hand to keep them from being swept away as you hold onto the capsized boat with your other hand. All that cold water around you will make you hypothermic in no time. You have to move quickly.
First, have everyone climb onto the upturned hull of the boat to get out of the energy-sapping cold water. Most boats will float for a long time after they have been capsized, unless there is a hole in the hull somewhere. If there is a hole, the buoyant bubble of air under the hull will be leaking out and the craft will sink. Since you all have life jackets on and at least a temporary vessel to cling to, drowning isn’t your biggest problem–hypothermia, however, is. Hypothermia can occur in 90-degree water, it just takes several days. In colder water, however, symptoms of exposure can occur in minutes.
If the shape of the boat will allow it, huddle close together to conserve your body heat. Cover up exposed skin as best you can. If your life jackets have pockets, you should have crammed a space blanket in each one as a preventive measure before the trip. These can help immensely to deflect the wind and rain, and can serve as a signaling device with the fluorescent side turned out. The space blankets also reflect back precious body heat, maintaining what warmth your body can generate.
Since you didn’t get out your S.O.S., no one knows you’re in danger. It’s up to you to signal for help, and to hang on until your rescue. You obeyed the law and packed the boat with more than the required amount of signal gear, so now it’s time to use it. Waterproof strobe lights should be attached at the top of each life jacket. If your accident occurred during the day, a dye marker can be used in the water to make yourselves more visible from the air. Smoke flares and signal mirrors can be used to catch the attention of passing watercraft and aircraft. Flares, parachute and otherwise, can be used at nighttime. If you have an EPIRB, now is the time to use it.
Take a certified over-water survival course to be prepared should the worst happen. The best preventive measure for watercraft is to have your boat inspected and the engines serviced regularly.
The Coast Guard Auxiliary performs Vessel Safety Checks to let you know if everything is in working order. This is smart preventive medicine on their part. If they can keep you out of trouble, they don’t have to come rescue you. Also make sure you’re following the state and federal laws pertaining to your boat. Many of these laws are in place to keep you safe. Then go a little above and beyond with your gear. Have a life ring, ropes and flotation cushions in addition to the gear listed on this page.
Backwoods Bone Break
You’ve hiked 5 miles into the backwoods of Maine to reach a remote area where you know the native brookies run big. Getting there requires fording several streams. As you’re crossing the last one, you slip. Your
foot jams into a rock, taking the full weight of your pack, and you feel something snap. Blinding pain shoots up your leg, you feel nauseated and faint. Now what?
Murphy’s Law has really had its way with you today. First, you’re injured and will have trouble traveling. Second, you’re miles from anywhere. Third, you’re by yourself, with no one to help you hobble back to the cold beer in the truck. Fourth, you’re going to be all wet from crawling out of that creek like a whipped pup. Your fishing trip just turned into a rescue mission. Are you going to wait for someone to come to rescue you, or are you going to rescue yourself?
In your current situation, you need to get out of that cold water and assess your injury. You also need to make a plan based on some important questions. When would someone start missing you? How long would it be before they started looking for you? How many square miles of remote country would they have to search to find you? Are you going to have to “self-rescue”? There is no standard answer to this set of problems, because there is no typical emergency. Each person’s skills and limitations have to be weighed against the weather and injuries. For this scenario, you’ll need to treat your foot and bind it up as best you can. Then you’ll need to make a game plan to stay put if someone will miss you the next day. Or plan to hobble out to rescue if no one will miss you until next week.
You might be able to cover only a mile a day if you’re moving through rough terrain. A friend of mine fell and broke his pelvis while hiking alone. It took him five and a half hours to crawl and limp one mile. Thankfully, he met some good Samaritans on the trail who sent for help.
Always file a flight plan before you head out so that someone knows where you’re going and when you’re expected back. Leave a copy of your flight plan in your truck.
Let’s ignore the obvious “Buddy System” solution to this survival event, and suppose you still decide to go out alone. If you’re after brookies, you probably have some waders, or at least some boots, to get out in the water. Wading boots are designed to provide great traction on slippery river rocks. Put those on before you cross each creek. For more stability, have a staff or pole in each hand when you’re crossing water. Take along a phone, a radio or even a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB). Enroll in a certified Red Cross First Aid course to be better prepared.