I recently learned about wilderness survival in my northern climate. So I thought I would share some of the interesting information that was imparted to me. First off, I highly recommend everyone take a wilderness survival course offered in your area, as it is a wealth of information on the existing elements in your environment, and how to use them to your benefit.
First and foremost, if you get lost and you believe someone is coming for you- stay put! Do not try to find the trail that you happened to wander off of or the road that led you there. The odds are simply against you finding what you lost to begin with. If you foolishly left without telling anyone where you were going or how long you expected to be gone for, chances are that no one will be looking for you when you have decided that you are lost. This is an entirely different situation and you are now on your own for better or worse.
I had always believed that the most vital, top of the list, get it now or die item was water. This is incorrect. Perhaps the rules change depending on where you are but here, in my northern climate the most vital element is maintaining a core body temperature of 98.6 degrees F or 37 degrees C (+ or – a degree or so) .
The first line of defense is clothing. It is very important to dress for the season when you decide to go on any outing in unfamiliar territory. Natural fibres are the best as they won’t melt to your skin if you accidentally come in contact with fire. Layering is also very important in maintaining a good core temperature. Wet clothing with the addition of a cold wind can be your worst enemy. Always remember to remove outer layers before commencing any chores that might cause you to sweat. Again, sweaty, wet clothing is bad.
Footwear is also ranked very highly on the scale of importance. A good, sturdy, strong, comfortable boot is certainly worth its weight in gold. We lose a surprising amount of heat through contact with the cold or frozen earth or snow. To add an extra layer of insulation, always create a mat for your feet when sitting or standing for longer periods of time. This can be achieved by using anything within the immediate area such as fallen branches, dry leaves or evergreen boughs. One good tip is to warm rocks near your fire and use them as a foot stool. Just be careful not to heat them too hot so as not to melt the soles of your boots.
Aside from clothing, your next line of defense is shelter. Remember that you can live without water for three days and right now exposure is your worst enemy, not dehydration. A shelter can be made out of pretty much anything so I won’t get into the styles and types, rather we’ll focus on the primary functions it must serve. The main goal is to minimize heat loss therefore the shelter must facilitate this goal. It must offer protection from the elements such as rain or snow and wind. The other vital element a shelter must provide is protection from the ground. This can be created again with a mat formed out of branches and dry leaves. Anything that puts a barrier between you and the cold ground is necessary. [JWR Adds: See the repeated warnings in the SurvivalBlog archives about wool versus cotton. The old saying is “Cotton kills.” When cotton gets wet through perspiration or precipitation, it loses nearly all of its insulating value.]
Once you have a shelter, you can work on the next step in wilderness survival which is, of course, fire. Imagine my surprise when I believed water was number one and again it has been pushed farther down the list. Please understand that this is for the northern climate and wilderness survival in a southern climate might be a very different ball game.
Fire is your greatest tool in maintaining the proper body temperature. It is required to boil water and cook food. It is also a great morale booster and a good signaling tool if you are lost. In a wilderness survival situation, fire is your absolute best friend. You should always carry some form of a fire starting tool as well as learning the basics of how to start a fire without the aid of tools.
Third on the list is at last, water. Again, this is tailored to my environment where water is often easily located and the rules may change depending on where you are. You should always be aware of the area you are in or going to and the dangers that might be present in your water or the water found locally. Of course boiling is best to purify water however if you find yourself in an emergency situation, filtration might be your only next best option.
First locate a source. The next step is to dig a hole several feet from the source to allow the water to filter itself from the source, through the earth and into the hole. While you wait for the water to filter and the sediment to settle, you can make a makeshift Millbank filter with available materials. This is done by using a birch bark as a cone, or some large, strong leaves in the form of a cone as a filter. Cover the bottom tip of your filter with a small piece of cloth, a t-shirt or sock will work fine. Layer materials beginning with fine sand, then charcoal fragments, then coarse sand, then fine gravel, then on top, coarse gravel. This water that is filtered, is just that, filtered, and not purified. This process is slow, about 5 pints in 5 minutes. Then the water should be boiled.
Another method of purification aside from boiling is solar disinfection. This is accomplished by filling a clear PET or glass bottle with water and allowing it to purify on it’s side, in the suns direct rays, for at least 6 hours. Of course, you would need a bottle to do this with.
One last method of water purification would be by making a solar still. I’m sure you have heard about it and know how to do it, the only issue with that are the required materials which are difficult to come by when lost in a forested area.
If (God forbid), you find yourself in a position where rescue is likely in a reasonable amount of time and you for some reason or another cannot purify water, you will have to make the decision of whether or not to drink it as is. I have made the decision to drink directly from a creek and I did live with no ill effects. Keep in mind that the symptoms of Giardia can begin to show in only 2 days. That gives you 2 days until you might become violently ill and in dire need of rescue. I was lucky and not in danger at the time. Only you can make that choice, hopefully it will be an informed decision.
Surprisingly food is not high on the list of survival necessities. The body can go for 40 days without food, it won’t be the most comfortable 40 days you ever experienced but you could live through it.
There are two schools of thought on the food issue. One believes you should eat anything and everything you can to meet your required caloric intake. This should help to maintain your body for as long as possible without forcing it into survival or starvation mode. The other believes you should force your body into survival mode without creating that confusing ‘grey area’ in between. For example, if all you can muster are a few leaves and berries, perhaps you are better off sending your body the clear message that it is time to kick into starvation mode. This idea is on the belief that the body is equipped to handle this period of fasting as long as it is sent a strong message to do so. I cannot say which is best, nor have I done the research to advocate for one or the other. Again only you are responsible for the choices you might be forced to make and as with everything, an informed decision is the best one.
If you find yourself lost without a compass and map, or worse- you have a compass and map but don’t know how to use them, it tends to be very difficult to simply backtrack to where you should be. The best advice seems to be to stay put until someone comes along to help you. If no one is coming for you or you otherwise have no choice, there are some simple things to help you navigate. During the day, the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. With this information you should be able to roughly find the direction you should be going. Direction is not the only obstacle in getting where you need to go. The other major issue we seem to have is traveling in all directions. It is a very difficult objective to travel in a straight line in a forest. One way to keep your travel line straight is to line up 3 or 4 markers straight ahead, once you pass those look back and make sure they align. Then find more markers ahead and continue to check back to make sure that those align.
Night travel is ill advised for so many reasons. Many predators hunt at night, it is much too difficult to see where you are going therefore navigation is uncertain, also the terrain can be difficult to navigate and may cause you to become injured. In a worst case scenario, the north star is often cited as a guide although difficult to keep track of in a forested environment.
To make the best of a worst case situation, I believe that having a few simple items on your person can really make the difference between life and death. These are a few things you should always carry with you inside an inconspicuous bag, backpack or purse especially when venturing into unfamiliar territory.
-bottled water- this can be used aa a ready source for drinking, also used to solar disinfect when the pure water runs out.
-water filtration device, i.e. filtration straw.
-fire starter -matches, lighter, magnifying glass, etc. (I also like to keep a few tea light candles in my fire kit, you never know).
-emergency space blanket -folds up to nothing, weights almost nothing, can be used as a blanket, also a shelter.
-pocket knife -great for shaving sticks into tinder, trimming small branches for fire.
-extra sweater, or light windbreaker jacket.
-signal device -mirror, whistle.
-charged cell phone
-small flashlight (I like to keep a small radio as well)
-snacks -candy, gum, nuts, etc
-small first aid kit including -band-aids, pain relievers, antibiotic ointment, gauze and tape as well as hand sanitizer.
Once again, there are no firm rules in a survival situation. With each case differing from person to person, environment and tools on hand, I believe the rate of success increases with knowledge and practice. The more you know, the better decisions you will make.
Reference: Wikipedia: Giardia