I’m often asked a question that begins as an inquiry about my gear and ends up revealing a person’s fear about their vulnerability in the woods. For the most part, they are just afraid of the unknown, and that’s the most natural kind of fear there is, but I’m always glad to help.
Your fitness to survive in the wild boils down to two factors; what you have on your person, and have in your head. Every bit of woodsy knowledge you learn is an arrow in your quiver, and any amount of gear you have at home or left in the car is as worthless to you as if you’d never seen it. Sometimes a greenhorn will poke fun at the amount of gear I carry on my person every day. Suffice it to say that a TSA scanner would take all afternoon to go through my pockets.
Most folks will never get off the highway, never be out of cell phone range, and the auto club is just a phone call away. I am not most folks. I once guided a highway patrolman miles off road to where I had found a stolen jeep wrecked in the swamps. The places I go, I am usually alone, often where even an ATV can’t reach, and one slip of the foot can mean I’m going to spend the night out in the wilds, alone, with a broken ankle.When it comes to that, you might be thinking that comfort is less essential. But take discomfort far enough and you’re in a real emergency. Here’s the basics to surviving an unplanned night in the woods;Stay warm, stay dry, stay hydrated, and stay calm.
Everybody likes those TV shows where a fellow strands himself in the wild and has to build a shelter out of vines and boughs. I think its fun to watch too, but let’s stay practical. A three dollar space blanket fits in a shirt pocket and will keep you warm and dry even in a snow bank.
When was the last time you made a fire without an armload of dry wood and a bottle of lighter fluid? I’m not saying you have rub two sticks together, but learn how to make a fire from a match. Feed tiny twigs and bark into a flame and then small sticks and eventually logs. Forget the fire-making gadgets like that magnesium stick that dulls your pocket knife. (You DO carry a pocket knife, right?) You can make a terrific fire with a one ounce bottle of Purell style hand cleaner. It’s jellied alcohol, almost napalm! Buy a drugstore butane lighter and put it in your coat pocket. They don’t leak, they’re cheap and they work. Fire means warmth, safety, cooking, and confidence. Arm yourself with this one little skill and you are better equipped for an unplanned night in the outdoors than most regular campers.
A small amount of high calorie food goes a long way when you’re roughing it involuntarily. Eating just a bite before you sleep warms the body naturally through the digestive process. I carry a “meal replacement bar” for body builders. Mental fatigue and confusion are accommodated by hunger. A few bites of high calorie sweetness will calm you, fuel you, warm you, and put you back on track to knowing you can get through this.
Something you hardly ever see the experts include in survival gear is the obvious, a survival book. There are many such books, and I’m not pushing one, but get one that fits in your pocket. I carry The SAS Survival Guide by “Lofty” Wiseman. It’s compact, full of illustrations, and besides being helpful, it adds a sense of adventure (as opposed to the tragic) to your present situation. I find that reading such a book in unpleasant circumstances will give direction to your efforts.
I’ve made several references to keeping a calm and composed frame of mind. I recently read about a woman who drove off the road on a snowy night and spent three days stranded in her car. The “fog” outside kept her from realizing she had landed in a farmer’s manure pit, and was only 150 yards from the farm house. Without your composure, you’re sunk. To paraphrase Shakespeare, so long as you can say, “This is the worst!”, it ain’t!
Wilderness survival is not a knife with a fishing kit in the handle. It’s not a weekend school taught by some guy who wears a talisman around his neck. Wilderness survival is not even a destination, it’s a journey. It’s a skill we learn for ourselves so that we can stay in the field longer without fear of being eaten by lions, tigers and bears. It’s what we do so that we can make that last cast as the sun sets on the water and we aren’t afraid of walking back to camp in the dark. We get to live meaningful lives in Nature, share more together time with our kids and grand kids, and pass on to them the gift of life in the outdoors.