All things considered, the backcountry isn’t as dangerous as many people think: as is often said, the drive to the trailhead might be the riskiest part of a typical hike. Prepare thoughtfully, come properly equipped, and keep a clear head, and you’ll usually be just fine out there.
That said, sometimes things don’t go so smoothly, and you find yourself in a potentially dicey situation. Today at the Mountain House blog we’re going to look at five wilderness survival scenarios and how to act in them. For several of these, we’re summarizing topics we’ve delved into more deeply on our blog before, and we’ll link to these in-depth posts to give you some further reading.
Almost everybody who spends much time in the great outdoors gets at least turned around at some point. The feeling of being lost is unsettling; often enough, it’s downright panic-inducing. But it typically has a positive outcome if you remain calm.
One of the critical ways to keep yourself safe in the event you do go astray is a precaution taken before you head out into the wild: letting somebody else know where you’re going and how long you intend to be out. If your general whereabouts and your intended itinerary are known, it’s that much easier to zero in on your location if you don’t return when expected.
There’s a useful acronym to remember the actions you ought to take if you find yourself off the map, so to speak: S.T.O.P. Here’s the breakdown:
Staying put is usually the best thing to do, especially if you’ve given somebody the heads-up of where you’ll be recreating. A moving target is harder to find than a stationary one, after all. Being in one place also allows you to stay close to a signal fire or an emergency message spelled out in rocks or sticks for aircraft.
However, if you’re armed with a compass (and you should be), you can also scout for landmarks, trails, roads, and the like by navigating from and back to your base camp. By counting your steps and using your compass to follow straight lines and make right-angle turns that can be retraced, you’ll be able to search in a controlled manner and safely get back to your camp if need be.
Read more about what to do if you get lost in this previous Mountain House blog post!
Crossing rivers is a major hazard for any backcountry traveler, and we’ve written a whole article on the art and science of doing so safely right here. But here we wanted to focus on what to do if—despite your best efforts—you’re knocked off-balance and swept downstream during a river crossing. What’s the best move?
Well, shake off your backpack if you’re wearing one; as you’ll read in our blog post on safe river crossings, one step to take before stepping into that current is to unbuckle your pack’s chest strap and hip belt so it’s easy to shed the thing in a hurry. Turn over onto your back with your feet facing downstream, which allows you to roughly push away from obstacles and protect your head as much as possible. Riding on the surface of the flow in this way also lessens the chance you’ll get snagged on underwater logs and other snags.
Paddle with your arms and shove along with your feet to try to maneuver yourself to the riverbank.
In North America, an attack by a bear is probably one of the more common imagined dangers when people—especially those new to the outdoors—think about possible bad wilderness situations. In fact, such events are rare indeed considering how many people annually recreate in bear country.
Here again, we’ve written a more thorough blog post on bear safety, including how to behave in the fairly unlikely event you’re actually attacked. We’ll run through the main points here, too, but keep in mind we don’t have the space to cover precautions to take in bear country and how to deal with an initial encounter with a bear—check out the dedicated post for that info.
At the outset, let’s emphasize that anyone hiking, fishing, hunting, or otherwise spending time in bear country should carry bear spray and know how to use it. Aimed at the ground in front of a charging bear, this deterrent shows significant success thwarting an attack. The following advice is, more often than not, irrelevant when you use bear spray, which can literally stop a bear in its tracks and give you time to exit the scene.
How to respond to an attacking bear depends on the bear’s species and its behavior immediately leading up to the attack. The bigger, generally surlier grizzly bear is most likely to attack people in defense: when it feels itself threatened, or in the case of a mother bear (sow) with cubs, or a grizzly maintaining control over an animal carcass. Playing dead is the best course of action when attacked by such a bear: roll onto your stomach, put your hands behind your head to protect it, and keep quiet as best you can. A defensive grizzly is attempting to neutralize you as a threat, and normally won’t continue its assault if you’re unmoving and unresponsive (many a grizzly charge is a bluff one, by the way; standing your ground in the face of it, which is the right thing to do, often means the bear will turn away at the last second without contacting you).
A caveat to the above: If a grizzly bear attacks you and continues to attack you even when you play dead for a few minutes, you should shift to fighting back.
The smaller, much more numerous and widespread, and generally less aggressive black bear is unlikely to actually attack you in this sort of defensive manner. Because the majority of serious black-bear attacks on people in North America appear to be predatory in nature, authorities recommend fighting back if you’re attacked by this species (this is not to say that a black bear feeling threatened that doesn’t go the normal route and run away from you won’t show signs of aggression, such as flattened ears, huffing, and swatting the ground. These are clear warnings to back away and give the animal some space).
Water is more immediately essential than food, of course, so whether you’re simply dealing with a tapped-out supply on a day hike or you’re lost or stranded in the wilderness, tracking down a source of water is often a paramount concern for outdoors people.
A good topographic map, not to mention a mapping app, is your friend when it comes to finding water, given it’ll show you the location of rivers, lakes, springs, and the like. But if you don’t know where you are, or you’re too far from these mapped sources, there are many strategies you can pursue to find water in your immediate vicinity.
One is to get to some kind of vantage and look for sunlight glinting off water—most obvious in the morning or evening, given the lower sun angle—and to listen for running water.
You can also keep tabs on the behavior of animals. Swarming bugs and regular flights of bird flocks can clue you in to local water sources.
Snow isn’t, all things considered, a great source of water, given eating the white stuff directly isn’t an efficient way to stay hydrated, and melting snow (a) requires fuel and (b) only generates a small amount of drinkable water. But you may not have a choice. In spring and summer, depending on your geographic location, you might be able to find remnant snowfields (or meltwater pools) on north- and east-facing slopes, in dense shady forest, and generally at higher elevations.
A cloth tied to the bough of a tree, shrub, or swath of grasses can accumulate water via morning dew (or in humid, misty conditions).In a desert survival scenario, you may be able to obtain water by digging at the outside bend of a wash or arroyo until your hole starts filling with groundwater. You can also construct a solar still: learn how here.
Another of the “classic” wilderness emergency situations in mountain regions is finding yourself in the teeth of a thunderstorm above the relative security of the timber. Now, like all of these survival scenarios, there's much you can do to avoid getting yourself in this situation in the first place, including timing your climbs, ridgetop traverses, and other visits to the high country early in the day so you're back down before the afternoon pop-up of heating-induced storms, and of course paying heed to weather forecasts.
If you are caught in a storm up on the mountaintops, though, do your best to get down below timberline if at all possible. Sheltering in extensive forest, especially of uniform canopy height or low-level canopy edged by taller stands, is best. If you can't get to a lower, timbered elevation, try to retreat to low terrain, such as ravines or saddles—but stay away from water. Crouch down low—preferably atop a foam sleeping pad or an internal-frame backpack—and cover your head with your arms tucked close. Don’t lie down, which exposes more of your body to electrical currents passing through the ground.
Stay safe out there, and have fun!