Emergency Wilderness Survival, Part 3

Black-Tailed Prairie Dog (Cynomys ludovicianus) © Mike Spinak


[Editorial note: This is the third part of a series which starts here.  Part 2 is here.]


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Planning and Preparation

Nobody intends to become trapped in a dire situation and then struggle to survive, but some people do what they reasonably can to ready themselves for the possibility. The steps you take before you encounter a potentially life-threatening situation can greatly affect your outcome. Here are some preemptive measures that could save your life:

Leave your itinerary with someone before you go.

Tell someone where you are going, when you expect to return, and when to consider you overdue if you fail to establish contact. Tell these trip plans to someone responsible and close to you, whom you trust to take seriously the duty to keep track of your absence and, if necessary, alert Search and Rescue. Give as much detail as you can about the route you are taking, where you expect to be each night, and which alternate paths you may take. Giving loved ones your itinerary could be the difference between receiving prompt aid and receiving no aid at all.

Leave Materials to Facilitate Search and Rescue

Take some clothes you’ve worn for a day, and put them in a plastic bag, so that tracking dogs will have your scent. Place a sheet of aluminum foil on carpet and step on it in the shoes you’ll be wearing, so that searchers will have your footprints. (You might also choose to cut a distinctive mark into the soles of your shoes, to make your footprints even more identifiable.) Leave the clothes, footprints, and a map with your intended route marked onto it, where it will be available for searchers (with the person entrusted to alert SAR, or on the front seat of your car, etc.) Leaving materials to aid Search and Rescue could be the difference between a rescue party speedily following your path right to you, and a rescue party searching in vain for days.

Bring someone with you

When possible, take a companion with you on your outdoor adventures. Pick someone responsible, and preferably trained and equipped for handling likely emergencies (or, perhaps, get her/him training and equipment). Discuss any special needs either of you may have, such as medications you need to take regularly. Discuss critical decisions in emergencies, such as, if you get seriously injured, when to tend to you, and when to leave you and go get help. Bringing a companion could be the difference between immediate rescue or evacuation, and facing a serious accident and injury alone, with no help coming for days, if at all.

Carry a personal survival kit

Put together an emergency kit of items to facilitate meeting your basic survival needs. [Details on building a personal survival kit will be discussed a little later.] Make it small enough and light enough to carry in your pocket. Keep this kit with you when you are outdoors. Carrying a personal survival kit could be the difference between dealing with a potentially dangerous situation in an effective and timely manner, and being ineffective while a situation worsens.

Check the weather forecast

Keep informed about the expected weather. Check the forecast before you head out. If possible, keep apprised of the coming weather while you are out, by weather alert radio receiver, cell phone, barometer watch, and similar means. Also, be attentive to natural indicators of coming weather, such as flowers closing their petals, changes in hair curliness, and vegetation becoming more fragrant. Use your advance warning to avoid trouble. Steer clear of weather-related perils, such as slots canyons during flash floods, avalanche slopes during blizzards, high peaks during lightning storms, cliffside beaches during storm surges, desert dunes during sandstorms, icy highways during dense fog, and the like. Wear proper attire for the weather, and bring appropriate clothing and gear for the harshest conditions that are plausible for the area and time of year. Prepare for the coming weather before it overtakes you (i.e., put on rain clothes before a coming downpour has a chance to soak you; batten down your tent before a coming gale has a chance to thrash it to shreds; etc.). Determining what weather is coming, and acting sensibly upon that knowledge, could be the difference between averting danger entirely and blundering headlong into disaster.

Familiarize yourself with the locale

Study the lay of the land where you will be going, what landmarks can help you orient yourself, which general direction leads toward civilization, and what is the quickest feasible route out of the wilderness. Learn where the most reliable water sources are likely to be. Learn what ignites easily, and learn what burns well. Learn what is edible. Learn which direction weather systems usually come from. Learn what the most significant dangers in the area are, and how to avoid them. And so on. Knowing these specifics about the area where you will be could be the difference between knowing what to do and wasting critical time on risky trial and error.

Get in Shape

Get as fit as you can, especially your cardiovascular fitness. Simply put, your cardiovascular capacity is your body’s ability to perform work. This equates to how fast you can gather and prepare wood for a fire or for shelter, how far you can hike in a day, how much body heat you can generate, etc. Getting in shape could be the difference between having the physical wherewithal to do what becomes necessary in order to survive, and being unable.

• Maximize your will to survive

Exercise your will power in your everday life, so that it is strong when you need to rely on it. Practice survival skills, not only so that you know what to do in thorny circumstances, but also to feel competent and ready, and thereby prevent panic and dangerous acts of desperation. Carry survival technique notes in your kit, to remind you what to do, if your mind goes blank in the heat of the situation. Carry a picture of loved ones in your kit, to remind you what to live for, and keep up your resolve.


Continued in Emergency Wilderness Survival, Part 4.


Black-Tailed Prairie Dog (Cynomys ludovicianus), Henderson , Colorado


All pictures and text are © Mike Spinak, unless otherwise noted. All pictures shown are available for purchase as fine art prints, and are available for licensed stock use. Telephone: (831) 325-6917.