Wilderness Survival Tips

By Peter Kummerfeldt

Surviving a wilderness emergency begins with a recognition that somewhere, sometime you might have to spend an unplanned (not unexpected) night or two out in the backcountry. Unfortunately, the majority of people believe that it will always be someone else who is thrown from a horse; someone else who becomes the lone survivor of an aircraft accident; someone else whose car slides off of the road and they end up having to survive in the car until rescued; someone else who gets lost after taking the wrong turn in the trail when returning from an evening photo shoot. That “someone else” is in fact each one of us! Survival experiences can occur anywhere and often occur when we least expect to find ourselves in trouble – when we are least prepared to cope! 

There are many scenarios that could result in a person having to survive a night or two in the open. Becoming lost is often the catalyst that begins a chain of events that result in you having to practice your survival skills. Inclement weather may force you to hole-up for the night. Illness or injury may cause you to have to stay-put until rescue comes. You can find yourself stranded when bad weather prevents you from being picked up at the appointed time. Traveling on foot after dark is dangerous, and while the urge to be back in camp with your buddies or home with your family is very strong it is usually safer to bivouac for the night. Faced with any one of these situations you must now “survive” – it may only be a few hours until the sun comes up or the weather clears, or several days could elapse before the rescuers locate and rescue you. 

What does it take to survive? What does the word “survival” mean? Why do some people survive and yet others die in similar situations? What kind of preparation is needed for an “unplanned night out?” Beginning with this Survival Tips column, these questions and many more will be answered. The purpose of the column is to:

  • “Heighten your awareness of potential life threatening hazards and thereby reduce the number of injuries and fatalities occurring in the backcountry.
  • Motivate you to better clothe and equip yourself so that, when confronted with a night out, the situation does not become life threatening — just inconvenient. 
  • Teach you practical survival skills, NOT primitive skills! While primitive skills have their place, few people will devote the necessary time to become proficient to the point that the procedures can be counted on in an emergency.

My point of departure will be the belief that no one is more concerned about your safety than you are, and that, while you would like to believe that there would always be someone to help you, many times there isn’t. Don’t depend on others – carry your own emergency equipment, learn how to shelter yourself, to build your own fire, to affect your own rescue. We would also like to believe that we will be unhurt as we begin our survival experience – often this is not the case and we find that normally simple tasks are infinitely more difficult to accomplish. (Try zipping up your jacket with one hand – your non-dominant hand!) 

 I welcome your questions and topic recommendations for future columns. I would also like to hear about your experiences – we can all learn from the “lessons-learned” by those who have “been there, done that, didn’t like it” but survived nonetheless.

Send your queries and stories to survival@rmowp.org.