Preparation is critical to survival in an outdoor emergency, and most of us arent nearly as prepared as we think.
By outdoor emergency, for this discussion, I mean something between running out of ice at the beach house and two weeks of mountain winter behind enemy lines. Somewhere between those two situations are countless, legitimately frightening scenarios in which any of us might find ourselves. And which, if our packs are light and minds are weak, might kill us.
Among friends, we talk brave talk about our experiences---sidestepping a snake that might have been a cottonmouth or huddling in the bottom of a boat while a thunderstorm passed---those issues are marshmallows in the sea of manure that is true survival.
You dont need military-grade training to survive the average hunting or hiking or fishing trip, but neither would it hurt any of us to have some genuine skills (and the tools to execute them) tucked away.
Thanks to reality television, for example, weve all seen people build fires from nothing but stick and string and little slivers of whatever they scraped off the side of a tree. But could you start a fire? In a cold rain? In the dark?
Most of us could not. Which is why, even for non-smokers, there should be windproof lighters in our packs. And some dryer lint or Vaseline-soaked cotton balls or commercial kindling, all in a waterproof bag. Three ounces, tops, for the lot of it. And in exchange, you get fire.
No other animal gets fire. It provides light, warmth and comfort, and it is one heck of a predator deterrent. Let McGyver do it with flint and a pocketknife; you bring your lighter and oily rag.
Few of us carry enough water to maintain healthy hydration in a long-term emergency. Waters heavy. We leave camp or the dock with a pint or two, and most of that likely is gone by the time something goes wrong.
Since its impractical to carry more, pack instead some purification tablets or maybe one of those "super filters" that turn swamp slime into mineral water. Or if you really want to go hard core, a flimsy poncho that wont keep you dry but will help you gather dew or rainwater.
If youve got daylight, a functional GPS unit and a strong sense of where you can get help, consider heading in that direction. I like to leave strands of bright surveyors ribbon, like Hansels breadcrumbs, when I ditch main trails to follow blood or a fresh track. And in a survival situation, Id use the permanent marker thats (almost) always in the day bag to write brief notes on the ribbon.
Note to young people: An old-school compass is a reliable navigation tool when the batteries in that handheld GPS fail. (Carry spare batteries. And a compass.)
Ive met several men over the years who took great pride in hiking deep into public hunting areas to avoid crowds and intercept quality animals. A couple of them hunted Colorado routinely, one liked Wyoming, and a few more did (and still do) their hunting here in Texas.
To a man, they all preferred to "travel light." They had lots of ground to cover and knew it well. Familiarity, however, can breed a false sense of security.
One misstep so far from help, so deep in the woods that there is no phone signal and nobody to hear you holler, can render even the toughest man helpless. A sprain, a cut, a sting, a bite. Any could happen in a blink and leave you in need of quick, albeit minor medical attention. You do carry at least a modest first-aid kit, right?
Firing three evenly spaces shots, the adage goes, is a universally recognized call for assistance. But answer honestly: If you heard three shots ring out a mile away, would you climb down from your deer stand and race in that general direction?
And what if youre hurt while bowhunting? Thats the twist in an old joke about a lost hunter and his firing shots to raise help.
So whats the smart thing to do in a real tight spot? Avoid getting into a jam in the first place.
Let somebody who isnt leaving camp know where youre going, where else you might go on a lark, and when you absolutely positively can be expected to return.
Dont overdo it, but do pack basic "hang tight for 12-24 hours" gear thats targeted to overnight low temperatures where you are. Muscle up to carry one extra bottle of water, some energy bars, a little rope, multi-tool, some ibuprofen and that fire-starting kit. And a cool head.
On overwhelming odds, a truly lost person has a better chance of being found by staying calm and staying put. Rig yourself a makeshift shelter, build a fire and enjoy a little quiet time.
Funny how often we talk about everyday pressures and desperately wanting more time to ourselves. If you ever get it, by choice or by circumstance, make the most of it. Theyll find you all too soon.