There are host of resources exist on the topic, from 20-minute videos to multi-day courses, one culminating in a two-day solo equipped with only a knife. The key to them all is getting out and actually practicing the skills. Do you know how to use your map and compass? Could you start a fire with a bow-drill at night, when you’re stressed, in a rainstorm? The chances of that are pretty low if you have never even practiced in favourable conditions. One thing that all the literature on the subject agrees upon is that the most important aspect of survival is in our heads.
Tom Brown, director of the world-famous Tracking, Nature and Wilderness Survival School, is a world-renowned teacher of survival skills. In one of his many guidebooks on outdoor survival, he says, "It is truly said that the most important survival tool is the mind. But to keep the mind functioning smoothly, you must establish and maintain a positive attitude. Attitude can mean the difference between life and death."
Be prepared for your chosen recreation
Being fit enough to go the distance takes physical preparation. Stick to your turnaround time. Take the proper equipment, have a trip plan and use reference and guide books.
Slowly work up to new activities. You can learn a lot about difficulty or commitment levels in reference or guide books. As you become more able in your chosen activity, you will be better equipped to estimate travel times. Be conservative to begin with, and always give yourself plenty of time for the return part of your trip. Being prepared also means being mentally prepared. Ask yourself, "What would I do here in a survival situation?" Another aspect of being prepared is being able to evaluate your own skills, including physical ability and outdoor skills such as map reading and route-finding.
Grant Cromer, Campbell River SAR, says that an inability to properly evaluate one’s own skills can turn an outdoor trip into a SAR incident.
"Every year we do 3-5 rescues from Strathcona Park, using helicopters and quite often stretchers to rescue people who have overestimated their ability or are the "weak link" in the hiking party. I can’t even count the number of times we have rescued people who, after debriefing, all said the same thing, "The book said it would only take 2-3 days!"
"These are the same people that have poor map reading skills and don’t take into account terrain features, weather or other unforeseen events. Many people don’t understand the difference between a trail—a designated well defined marked trail usually maintained for public access, and a route—an undefined, often unmarked, potentially overgrown or non-existent route which will require navigation using map and compass and geo referencing."
Grant also reminds outdoors enthusiasts with existing medical conditions such as heart problems, diabetes, asthma, etc. to be particularly aware of the extra stress that a new outdoor activity can be on the body, and to proceed with caution. As well, bring along any daily medications. A trip that takes longer than expected can end up as an emergency situation if important medications are forgotten.
Clothing: In cold weather, the best way to stay warm is to trap your body’s own heat and using it as insulation. As well, you want to avoid getting damp from your own perspiration and keep the rain and the wind out. The best way to accomplish this is to wear layers.
- Base Layer: The inner-most layer is critical because it’s in direct contact with your skin. Base layers (also known as underwear) should transport moisture away from the skin and disperse it to the air or outer layers where it can evaporate. Because water is a good heat conductor, damp garments draw precious heat away from your body. Even in conditions above freezing, this rapid heat loss can cause a dangerous drop in your body’s core temperature.
The best base layer materials are synthetics (polypropylene and polyester). These are light and strong, absorb very little water, and are quick to dry. Silk is lovely and cool against the skin when it’s hot, but is not an excellent choice for wintery conditions. Seamless or flat-seam garments lie flat and won’t press into your skin under a harness or pack. Base layers should fit snugly without being constricting.
Base layers are available in light, medium, and heavy weights. Light layers suit aerobic activity where sweat dispersal is paramount. Mid-weight underwear provides moisture control and insulation for stop-and-go activities. Heavy layers are best in very cold conditions, or when you’re relatively inactive.
- Mid Layer: The mid layer provides insulation and continues the transportation of moisture from the inner layer. To slow heat loss, this layer must be capable of retaining the warmth generated by your body. Wool and synthetics are well suited to this because the structure of the fibres creates small air spaces that trap molecules of warm air.
Additional features, such as pit zippers and full-length front zippers, allow venting. As with the inner layer, this layer should be snug but not constricting.
- Outer Layer: The outer layer protects you from the elements and should allow air to circulate and excess moisture to escape. For dry conditions, a breathable (uncoated) wind shell or a smooth-surfaced soft shell may be all you need. If you expect conditions to be more severe, a waterproof (coated) rain jacket might be adequate. A shell made of a breathable and waterproof fabric, such as Gore-Tex®, will protect you from wind and rain, and allow water vapour to escape. When it’s hot out, you want to choose clothing to protect yourself from the sun’s burning rays, as well as to make use of your perspiration for cooling.
- Footwear: Specialized outdoor footwear is not just for mountain climbers and backpackers. Whether you’re lacing up for a rigorous trail run or an afternoon amble, the right footwear can enhance your comfort and safety. Unlike roads and sidewalks, even well-maintained trails can be rocky, rooty, and rolling. Your footwear needs to provide support against ankle-twisting irregularities, protect against the foot-bruising impact of trail debris, and perhaps shed mud, rain, or snow.
Thanks to new materials and production processes, great strides have been made in the lightness and comfort of backcountry footwear. Originally developed to meet the needs of backcountry users who want to move light and fast, some of these innovations have been incorporated into mountaineering and regular backpacking boots.
Other equipment: Each sport or activity may have its own important pieces of equipment. Touring in winter, for example, requires avalanche rescue gear, including a transceiver, probe and shovel. Water sports have their own list of essentials. Most outdoor enthusiasts would include some kind of repair kit to deal with equipment problems out there, and duct tape seems to be a unanimous choice among the experts as a fundamental repair kit item.
Always carry the essentials If necessary, be ready to stay out overnight. Carry a flashlight. Many people become lost because of darkness. As Wayne Merry, SAR guru and mountaineering pioneer says: "If you don’t have what you need with you, it’s a survival situation. If you have it, it’s a camping trip."
Complete a trip plan and leave it with a friend The trip plan explains your destination, the route you are taking, who is in the group and your return time. If you do not return as planned, the friend with whom you left the trip plan can give the form to the police to initiate a search.
Never hike alone Hike with a group and keep together. Travel at the speed of the slowest person. If a person becomes separated, they are more likely to become lost. If you do hike alone, be aware of increased risks and always tell someone where you are going!
Do not panic Maintain a positive mental attitude if you become lost. Being lost is not dangerous if you are prepared. Remember – if you have what you need, it’s a camping trip!
"LOST" Physiology and Psychology To understand the importance of the simple phrase, "do not panic," we need to look at the physiological and psychological aspects of fear, and also to understand the specific syndrome associated with being lost outdoors, called "woods shock." The more we understand what might happen in our bodies and in our minds, the more we can work to avoid these negative effects.
- Fear inhibits your metabolic process: Your body produces heat by digesting calories in the foods you eat. If this is impaired, your body has a harder time regulating core temperature in cold weather. Thus, the onset of hypothermia can manifest much more rapidly. By metabolizing food, your body creates energy that can be used to create shelter, signal for rescue, or make a fire.
- Fear impairs your circulation: Basic first-aid training stresses the importance of the ABC’s (airway, breathing, circulation). Your circulatory system is how your body feeds itself, delivers oxygen to cells, eliminates waste products, and keeps itself warm and cool. In cold weather, blood flow is the primary means by which your body maintains its peripheral temperature, which is automatically restricted by the Sympathetic Nervous System’s (SNS) response to stress. Compromising circulation puts your odds for living into a serious tailspin in both hot and cold climates. In addition, the chances are good that your circulatory system will already be impaired due to dehydration.
- Fear impairs your good judgment: Good judgment is your number one tool for preventing or dealing with a survival predicament in the first place. Poor judgment calls, without a doubt, are the hallmark of most outdoor fatalities. Occurrences such as auditory exclusion, tunnel vision, irrational behaviour, freezing in place, and the inability to think clearly have all been observed as by-products of survival stress. Do all you can to chill out and calm yourself, redirecting your energies away from the fear factors.
- Fear impairs your fine and complex motor skills: Although these phenomena have been observed and documented for hundreds of years, and formally studied since the late 1800s, there is very little understanding by researchers as to why stress deteriorates performance.
- There are 3 classifications of motor movement or skills:
- Gross: involves larger muscle groups – running, jumping, pushing, pulling, punching
- Fine: hand-eye coordination – threading a needle, making a mandala
- Complex: a whole string or series of movements – shooting a bow and arrow, riding horseback at a gallop
- When fine and complex motor skills are affected, things like striking a match can become nearly impossible (brain is working on a more basic level). Gross motor skills can be performed very well (easier, quicker to remember under stress). Pack survival gear that is simple; note that two of the four impairments involve basic body temperature regulation. The biggest people-killer in the outdoor is exposure.
Woods shock: The syndrome was first named by William Syrotuck, and further study was conducted by Kenneth Hill in Nova Scotia. Although the study of lost person behaviour is a relatively new discipline and there is a lot of variation, the following is a description of the five stages of wood shock.
- You deny that you’re disoriented
- You panic when you admit that you’re lost
- You calm down and form a strategy
- You deteriorate both mentally and physically, as your strategy fails to get you out
- You become resigned to your plight as you run out of options
Anyone can get lost, but not everyone can survive the experience. "The hardest thing is to admit that you’re lost," said Bill Antell, who still remembers vividly the five nights he spent in the Breton woods of Nova Scotia 30 years ago.
"I figured that I’d wake up Monday morning and I would be around," he said, "but I wasn’t betting too much on Tuesday. I knew I was getting more tired, I was cold, I was wet, and I knew that my time was starting to run out." He was rescued. A small navigational error cost him 5 toes.
Admitting that you are lost and doing what you know you need to do in the situation is a way of avoiding proceeding through all five stages of woods shock.
S | T | O | P — Stop Think Observe Plan Then ACT!
The acronym STOP (stop, think, observe, plan and then act) highlights the importance of a survival attitude that involves carefully planned actions rather than irrational behaviour based on fear.
- Stay where you are: People who carry on after they become lost usually get further from the trail and from people who are looking for them. Going downhill often leads to natural drainage gullies, which typically have very thick bush, expansive cliffs and waterfalls, making travel and searching more difficult. Staying put reduces the potential search area for SAR, because you will have left a trip plan with a friend, and they will know where to start looking.
- Use signaling devices: Blowing a whistle, lighting a fire and staying visible will help searchers find you. Help searchers find you even if you are embarrassed or afraid. Remember that animals will not be attracted to your signals. Searchers may also use planes or helicopters – make yourself visible to them.
- Remember that three of anything is the universal distress signal: (3 fires, 3 whistle blasts, 3 gunshots, etc.).
- Whistle: The whistle is much louder than the voice, uses less energy, and carries over a greater distance.
- Mirror: A signaling mirror is very effective, and is responsible for more aircraft spottings than any other device. The best is one made specifically for this purpose. It helps you "aim" your signal. You can also use the mirror on your compass.
- Flares: A good-quality pencil flare gun can send a signal above the trees in a forested area. It is also very useful for ocean rescue. Flare visibility depends on atmospheric conditions and time of day. They should be used only when there is a high probability of being detected.
- Fire: Besides the other survival benefits of fire, it makes a very effective signal. The smoke is visible from a long way. A signal fire should be very smoky, and is most effective if you actually build three fires in a triangular pattern at least 30m apart.
- A cautionary note on fires: even in an emergency, you want to keep a fire under control. Don’t make matters worse by starting a forest fire. It is good to keep a supply of water or sand on hand, and to build your fire directly on mineral soil or on a base of green logs. Don’t build your fire right under a tree as the sparks might ignite the branches.
- Orange tarp or blanket: The reason your personal emergency shelter should be orange is for the visibility.
- Symbols: Made of rocks, sticks, or drawn in the sand or soil, an "SOS" or large "X" or arrow can be very helpful, especially for air searches. Remember to make these symbols in an open area where they can best be seen. If an aircraft is overhead, you can make yourself be seen better by lying down with outstretched arms and legs (make yourself look "big").
- Importance of helping searchers: Children have reported the scary "one-eyed giants" (searchers with headlamps) that walked by them at night while they hid. People also talk of being very embarrassed and don’t answer calls. The importance of helping in your own rescue is clear. Even if your pride is hurt, be a survivor!
- Build or seek shelter: Protect yourself from the rain, wind and excessive sun. Be as comfortable as possible, but when it is daylight make sure you are visible to searchers in helicopters or planes. This is very important and can be as simple as a plastic bag with hole for your face, a tarp, a snow cave, or a lean-to constructed with branches.
- It is most important to stay dry and to insulate from the cold ground. This is also possible using branches, leaves, etc. It cannot be overemphasized how important it is to stay dry – this is essential for avoiding heat loss from the body!
- The most common mistake: is an individual’s belief that "it could never happen to me" is summed up as ego. By being prepared, you can enjoy your trip outdoors regardless of what nature throws at you! Ego plays into embarrassment, which will cause some people to try desperately to get out on their own, rather than wait for searchers. This results in increasing the search area, using up the body’s fuel supply and can end up in injuries in the panicked attempt to get out.