Staying home is the only way to eliminate all the risks of going outdoors, and even that sanctuary can be violated by a big pine tree uprooting into your kitchen during a storm.
Sequestering indoors, of course, is not a viable option for hikers, hunters, skiers and others. Go we must, and some of us go farther than others. Being on the edge is a challenge we sometimes embrace within the comfort zone commensurate with our skills and experience.
Yet all of us — even those who get off on pushing their limits — have a responsibility to come back safely to friends and family and avoid rescues that could put others in peril.
When people find themselves in extreme survival situations, they’re stuck with decisions they made or didn’t make before they set out. Who they talked to and what they brought, the fitness they achieved and the skills they honed — these can be critical factors.
Lives surely have been saved by “127 Hours,” the 2010 movie about solo adventurer Aron Ralston, who amputated his forearm with a dull pocketknife to free himself from a fallen rock that pinned him for five days in a Utah desert canyon. He had nearly no hope for rescue because he hadn’t told anyone where he was hiking or when he planned to return. Lesson learned.
Before an outing, leave a responsible person with written notes on your destination, your activity plan and expected return. Go a step further by leaving the phone number for the county sheriff and a map or marked page in a trail guidebook showing where you’ll be.
Discuss with all participants on the trip what to do if someone is injured and a deadline for meeting at a given point should they become separated. Know details such as where the vehicle keys are kept, who has medical issues and medications, and if cellphone service is available.
Books could be written on close calls and tragedies resulting from communication devices running out of power. Cellphones and other devices should be fully charged when leaving for any outing. Consider topping them off in your car as you drive or perhaps carry a portable charger and cord.
If using GPS navigation on your phone, download maps at home and use airplane mode in the field to save power. Know how to use apps on your device to pinpoint your location, which could be relayed to a rescue coordinator. For example, on Gaia GPS, touch the hyphen in the space to the right of the record button, and then select “coordinates.”
Practice dropping a pin in Google Maps and sending your location to a friend. I’ll never forget the news story of a woman who used that feature to get help when she was pinned in her car after it rolled off the road and down an embankment in a remote area where she may not have been found for days.
Personal locator beacons such as the Garmin inReach relay messages through satellites rather than cell towers and therefore are the surest bet for communication in the backcountry. They require a subscription for service.
Basic gear should always be with you. My wife and daughters, for example, routinely have water and sleeping bags in their vehicles when they travel out of town, especially over mountain passes. Preparing for unexpected hitches in travel plans is even more critical during foul weather and when you leave the road.
In 2017, I wrote a story about a Spokane family that went on a simple summer day hike in the Columbia Gorge that turned into a miserable overnight survival epic when the 2017 Eagle Creek Wildfire erupted and cut them off from returning to the trailhead. The mom vowed to never hit the trail again without a daypack, extra clothes, water and other essentials.
Outdoor groups such as The Mountaineers, based on years of trial and error, preach the need to carry about a dozen essential items when heading outdoors. They include:
An old-fashioned paper map and compass. GPS phone apps are excellent tools — if your phone or device doesn’t conk out.
Extra food and water (or a way to purify water if it’s abundant).
Extra clothing. In addition to rain gear and insulation related to the season, consider carrying a zipper bag with dry gloves, knit hat, wool socks and a Capilene top. Replacing wet items with these dry items will thwart hypothermia if you must hunker. Also, survival instructors recommend bringing a weightless plastic shopping bag that, among other uses, can be draped over the head like a shower cap to shed precipitation and retain heat in a pinch.
Headlamp with extra batteries. A high percentage of outdoor emergencies stretch into darkness.
Sharp knife as a tool for improvising or fire building.
First aid kit. In addition to wound-care items (including QuikClot), carry personal medicines and, perhaps, Benadryl for allergic reactions. A clean bandana can be used several ways, including as a sling.
Matches in waterproof container. It’s fine to pack a small butane lighter for convenience, but not as a substitute. Survival experts favor a magnesium sparking rod.
Firestarter can’t be overemphasized, since igniting a lifesaving flame in cold, wet weather can be difficult, even for experts. I carry a commercial product, but cotton balls coated in petroleum jelly and stored in a waterproof container or zipper-type plastic bag are a cheap, easy and effective accelerant that warrants them being in everyone’s pack. The key, when needed, is to pull the cotton balls apart like peaks on meringue to create more surfaces. The cotton tufts should be only lightly coated with jelly.
Sunglasses and sunscreen may not seem like lifesaving items, until you consider snow blindness and skin cancer.
Signaling devices stretch your range in calling for help. At the least, carry a whistle rated at 100 decibels or higher. I have one on my pack strap. Incidentally, I also have one on my life jacket. Washington law requires boaters, including stand-up paddleboarders, to carry a sounding device such as a horn or whistle.
Three toots on a whistle (shots from a gun, flashes of light) are a universal signal for “I need help.” A response of one long blast of a whistle or car horn acknowledges that the signal is heard. Continue signaling to help orientate a response.
Emergency shelter. At the least, carry a mylar space blanket. The SOL Emergency Blanket (gift idea!) weighs just 2.5 ounces yet unfolds from hand-size to 84-by-56 inches. Wrap in it to conserve heat and shed rain or incorporate it into a lean-to for blocking wind and moisture and reflecting heat from a fire. This product has an orange side and a reflective silver side for signaling.
Hunters often violate the rule to carry all these essentials as they grab their rifles and knives and hike away from their rigs for a “short hunt.” What if fog rolls in? What if you slip in downfall and impale your leg on a broken branch? In November 2020, northern Idaho hunter Mike Bundy became lost on what was supposed to be a short afternoon elk hunt. He miraculously endured a cold, wet night in the woods while his son, 12, had to cope with the unknown in their vehicle.
Think ahead. For example, a hunter’s campfire story years ago convinced me to package fire starter, matches, a small candle and space blanket in a soup can (or, say, a titanium cup) for my day pack. “You can’t melt snow or boil water over a fire in a plastic bottle,” he said.
Partners should carry their own essentials, a point rammed home last year in the story about northern Idaho backcountry skier Edward Moellmer, who fell through a cornice in a whiteout. While he survived a 760-foot freefall and tumble, he was irretrievably separated from his sole partner, his 16-year-old daughter.
She narrowly survived a frigid wet night without most of the essential gear, food and water that was inaccessible in her father’s pack.
Good active outdoor clothing probably contributed to conserving enough body warmth to spare Kelly Moellmer’s life from advancing hypothermia long enough to be rescued by a Two Bear Air helicopter. The investment backcountry adventurers make in shell clothing, wicking base layers and tops and bottoms that provide warmth when wet paid off.
Colors are another consideration for clothing. Washington and Montana hunters have the advantage of being required for most seasons to wear some fluorescent orange, such as a vest. The bright color stands out to ground and aerial rescuers in case of a search.
Idaho hunters who wear camouflage should consider stashing a light blaze-orange vest in their packs for emergency use. This color also offers a measure of safety when packing out a turkey or big-game antlers to prevent being mistaken for game by another hunter.
Seminars for search and rescue unit volunteers conducted by Air Force survival instructors emphasize that in case of an accident you should get out of harm’s way, shelter from the elements, build a fire and signal your location.
Watching Bear Grylls and survival shows on TV is instructional, but it’s far different being out in bad conditions and trying to put those skills to use. Practice, survival instructors say. Especially practice making a fire. Perhaps you could initiate a friendly challenge with your pals or kids.
Wise outdoors enthusiasts prepare for personal sagas we hope will never happen. But no gear has saved more lives than good judgment and the guts to avoid dangerous situations.
Don’t be embarrassed to turn back when conditions go sour. It’s often the bravest and best call.
Landers writes for the Spokesman-Review.
To build a fire
Building a fire in wet conditions might be the most basic and important skill for an outdoorsman. Survival instructors emphasize a step-by-step approach, starting with selecting a site out of the wind, protected from elements away from snow-loaded tree limbs. (Recommended reading on this point includes “To Build a Fire,” a classic short story by Jack London.)
l Gather fuel of different sizes. Prepare the fuel using a knife or hatchet to split and expose dry wood. Make large piles — three times more than you think you’ll need — of pencil-size sticks and sticks the size of a thumb, plus piles of larger fuels.
l Make a stable platform at least 1-foot by 1-foot out of logs to provide a base. Lay a 3-inch diameter piece of wood across the platform to provide wind protection for the tinder.
l Make several “feather sticks” by forcing a knife down the dry sharp edge of a split length of wood to shave five long curly wisps of wood that are left attached at the base like a feather plume on a hat.
l Ignite tinder and feather sticks and gradually add more and larger fuels in a crosshatch pattern against the brace log on the platform to provide good air flow to the flame. Behold the warmth.