Survivals Skills: When to Stay Put, When to Walk Out

If you look at enough true accounts of survival emergencies, you'll find abundant examples of people who were rescued when they stayed put, and you'll find people who were rescued when they went looking for help.

Tragically, you'll also find many cases where someone went looking for help, only to die in the process; and there are even a few stories about people who stayed put too long, hoping for help that never came.

Let's say you became injured and were stuck in a remote location. If someone missed you, and knew where to look for you, the likelihood is high that you would be rescued. Conversely, if no one knows you are having a problem, or they don't even know where to look for you, there's a better chance that you might never get rescued.

But what if someone should have missed you, and a couple of days have passed and no help has come?

Since there is no average emergency, it shouldn't be surprising that there really isn't a definitive point at which you should change the game plan from staying put to walking out. It would be easy to say "wait for help for so many hours, then walk out." But that doesn't account for all the variables. Some illnesses and injuries may require you to find help that day, against all other risks. Other situations could improve if you allowed a little time to pass, for example waiting until first light to start travelling, or waiting for the weather to break for better visibility. We might stay put for the night, but we ought to spend our energy trying to self-rescue while that energy lasts.

The best advice that I can give you is to explain what I would do, and then let you modify that plan to fit your specific situation, if (God forbid) you ever needed it. My formula is as follows: If someone knows I'm in trouble because I haven't returned by my predetermined time--and has an idea of my location--I will stay put for 72 hours, signaling for help every 30 minutes with a whistle while I am awake. Of course, there will be a fire and a shelter if I'm physically able to make them, and I will use the fire as a signal also. If there is a medical event that needs prompt attention, or no one knows my situation or whereabouts, I will wait one night in camp and self-evacuate at first light.

I won't travel at night, in a white out, or in thick fog unless I would die within hours by staying put. If I am in a remote place, and my location and situation are known, I will wait longer than 72 hours for help to arrive because of the additional travel and search time. Most rescues occur within 72 hours of the person being counted as "lost." Many agencies will start calling off searches after that period, depending on the weather and the situation. Again, this is a murky topic, with no clear-cut rules or deadlines for us to use. I hope none of us ever is ever faced with having to make that gut-wrenching decision to stay put or walk out.

We welcome your thoughts on this tricky subject, and hope you will leave a comment with your point of view.