The stories of these people exemplify how unexpected events can turn staying out into a fight for survival.
Two brothers clean their cooking equipment in a stream during a live course in Baden-Württemberg, Meinhardt, Germany, in June 2020.
Christoph Schmidt / Picture Alliance / DPA / Getty Images
For those who didn’t intend to go into the woods, accidents – such as taking a wrong turn or breaking a car – or severe weather changes could be the culprit, said Dr David Towns, professor of emergency medicine and adjunct. Professor of Global Health at the University of Washington.
for the adventurous Those who seek external challenges, “the general theme is that they have underestimated what they plan to do and become tied up with it, almost overestimating their capabilities,” Towns said.
“If you can avoid getting into trouble, that’s clearly the most successful strategy,” he said. But if you ever get stuck in the wild like these guys, being prepared can be the deciding factor in whether you return safely or suffer serious injury, illness, or death.
Here’s what the experts want you to know about how you should plan ahead for safe travel and address worst-case scenarios:
Before you go, research your chosen destination by looking online and/or talking to locals familiar with the site, Towns said. Both can tell you just about any needs you may have regarding trail quality, animal presence, water access, maps and more. In addition, regardless of the time of year, always look at the weather forecast – from several days in advance to the day.
Depending on where you’re going, you should pack these essentials that can help prevent or minimize emergencies:
— Water and water purifying tablets or drops
– Non-perishable, nutritionally valuable foods such as dried fruits or nuts, energy bars or beef jerky
– First aid kit including disinfectant, tourniquet, bandages and aluminum splint
– Comfortable ankle support shoes
– Insulation (an emergency blanket, jacket, hat, gloves, waterproof rain shell, thermal underwear)
Sunscreen and hat
– Light shelter, if possible, such as a bivy sack, tarp or one-person tent
– torch or headlamp
– Waterproof matches, lighters and fire starters
– Duct tape, knife, screwdriver and scissors
– Map, compass and locator beacons
–Charge portable battery
In addition to the clothes listed above for summer, you’ll also want to make sure you’re prepared for the elements. If the weather is cold, cotton clothing won’t be ideal because wet cotton won’t dry well and therefore won’t keep you warm, Towns said.
The ingredients for starting a fire are on the list of essentials of the forest.
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Choose materials that are water resistant or retain insulating properties once wet, such as wool or synthetic materials.
“A down jacket is a great insulating layer, but when it gets wet the down isn’t very insulating,” he explained. “If you cover your down jacket with some sort of thin waterproof jacket, now you’ve got a waterproof, insulated layer… layering is important because then you have options.”
Even if you’re going to be in the desert, you should still bring a warm jacket as temperatures can drop at night. And weather conditions can change dramatically throughout the day in many mountainous regions.
deal with worst case
If you get lost, know that “terror is your worst enemy,” says the Forest Service.
“Your best chance of survival is to think rationally and calmly,” Towns said. “Think, ‘What options do I have? What things do I need to worry about in case of danger? Like the weather, is it getting dark? Is it late? Do I need to go out tonight? Going to try or am I here for the night and I need to work on it in the morning? And so, I need to figure out where I’m going to spend the night.'”
For these situations, the Forest Service recommends following its “STOP” protocol: stop, think, observe, and plan. In the beginning, pause as long as you mentally retrace your steps, to remember how you got there. Ask yourself what landmarks you should be able to see, and don’t proceed unless you have a specific reason. Use your compass to determine directions.
Based on your observations, prepare possible plans, compare them, then follow the plan you believe in the most.
If it’s dark outside or you’re injured or tired, stay for the night, the Forest Service instructs. If you are on a trail, stay on it, especially if it has signs or markers.
Downhill can lead to civilization following a drainage or stream — but it can also be dangerous if you have to travel through thick brush or steep terrain, Towns said.
If there is something you can climb and see above the tree line, it can also help you locate civilization and choose which direction you should go.
At this point, you are focused on surviving until the rescue. It’s more important to maintain hydration than to feed yourself, Towns said, because dehydration can be much more dangerous.
Every time you see water, top off your bottle, even if you think it’s unnecessary. You can’t be sure when you’ll see another water source.
Towns said that running water, such as a stream or river, is generally clearer than still bodies of water. “If you have to use stagnant water like a lake, people tend to assume that it’s better to bring it from the middle to the shore.”
If you run out of food, any berries or proteins you get — like fish or insects — are usually edible, Towns said. He did not recommend eating wild mushrooms because their toxicity can be a gamble.
A young man lies in his emergency shelter made of spruce tree branches.
According to the Forest Service, the optimum time is to rest and eat or expend energy. If you are starting to feel tired, stop and rest for at least 30 minutes before reaching exhaustion. You will also need to rest for at least half an hour after eating, as your body will have to grow and try to digest the food all at once.
Also, when you notice small problems, solve them. “If you ignore your body and keep pushing, the pain or illness will only get worse and make recovery more difficult,” the Forest Service says.
If you’re stranded during hot weather, avoid hiking between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Instead, sit in a shady spot until the weather cools. When you rise, your pace should be comfortable.
When you need shelter, look for structures like cabins, lean-tos, or rock formations. Towns said to only choose a cave if left untouched would be life-threatening.
Don’t go too far into the cave to become trapped, and watch out for bats or larger animals, as they can pose a risk of disease or other harm.
Encountering the Elements and Creatures
If you’re fighting shivering or want to cook, a fire should only be started under certain circumstances and with extreme caution, Towns said.
“Always know the (local) rules about campfires and try not to break those rules, because we’ve seen these terrible fires on both coasts over the years,” Towns said.
Build your fire so that it is blocked by wind that carries embers, perhaps with rocks or other objects around it that are not flammable, he recommended.
Your first aid kit is handy in case of injury. If you don’t have disinfectant, any potable water is probably fine for washing your wound, Towns said. Sprains or breaks can be treated with the aluminum splint you expect, or an improvised aid made from branches.
return to safety
What some of the above lacked in luck or preparation, they made up for with some survival skills.
Steele, the man who was trapped after his Alaska cabin burned down, was found three weeks later when helicopter soldiers spotted his waves and a large “SOS” sign carved out of ice. While awaiting rescue, he ate canned rations and peanut butter, and slept in an ice cave and shelter, which he had built around his wood stove.
Gir, lost after scattering her husband’s ashes in Washington state, survived searchers for six days Got it. He had built a shelter of wood and moss, drank water from the stream and ate currant fruit, pine needles and ants to survive.
With some practical knowledge and clear thinking, it is possible to avoid a nightmare situation.
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