A Practical Guide to Wilderness Survival
By Denise Long, Andrew Brozyna
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2011 Denise Long
All rights reserved.
ANYONE CAN GET LOST
(and What to Do If It Happens to You)
Anyone can get lost or have an emergency while hunting, hiking, or playing in the wilderness. It happens to kids and adults — even experienced hunters and hikers — and occurs most often during simple day hikes or quick outings. That means that this chapter is the most important one in the book. Maybe you skipped it at first so you could read about the fun stuff — building different kinds of shelters, identifying animal tracks, or creating a solar still. (I probably would have done the same thing!) All that other stuff is important, but none of it is as crucial as what you'll learn in this chapter. You need to read this section carefully, and you may want to talk to a parent about what you have learned.
The most important things you can do to stay safe are actually very easy. First, tell someone where you are going, whom you're going with, and what time you'll be back. Adults forget to do this as often as kids do. But how are you going to be found if no one knows where you went? Rescuers could spend hours or even days looking for you in all the wrong places. So remember: the best way to make sure that you are found is to make sure that somebody knows where you might be lost.
Another great thing you can do is to take friends along with you. Having one or more buddies along makes good sense for lots of reasons. For starters, it's much easier to find a group of people than it is to find just one. Also, friends can help you build a shelter, collect water, and make noise so that people can find you. And being lost is less scary when you are not alone. Your buddy doesn't even have to be a person — you can bring a dog friend with you to keep you company and keep you warm. If you are with another person or a group of people, stay together.
Last, always carry water, food, and a survival kit. Your kit can be as simple as a water bottle and purification tablets, a lighter, a candy bar, a flashlight, toilet paper, some garbage bags, a first-aid kit, and a whistle. You can read more about more advanced survival kits in chapter 12 (p. 191).
Just by doing these three things — letting someone know where you're going, taking a buddy along, and having a survival kit with you — you'll know that you've done the most important things you can to make sure that you'll be found alive and well. But what is better than being found alive and well? Not getting lost in the first place, of course. So how can you help to make sure you don't get lost? Let's look at some of the most common reasons that people (adults as well as kids) find themselves lost in the wilderness:
* It gets too dark to see where you're going. It's easy to misjudge distances or lose track of time when you are exploring and enjoying the outdoors, and activities such as day hikes and rafting trips frequently last longer than expected. Out in the wilderness, especially in the mountains, it can get dark quickly: all of a sudden, the sun disappears behind a hill and you realize you have a long way to walk in the dark to return to your camp or car. Always carry a flashlight or headlamp, as well as extra batteries, with you when you head out into the wilderness.
* Someone gets hurt. It's easy to twist an ankle or stumble and fall when hiking, and you can get sick out in the woods just as easily as you can at home. If you or someone you're with is hurt or ill — even if that someone is your dog — you may not be able to make it back to civilization before nightfall. Be sure to bring along basic first-aid and signaling tools whenever you go on hikes or other wilderness excursions. That way, you'll be prepared for emergencies and you'll be easier to find if you have to be rescued.
* The weather changes suddenly. I live in the mountains, where it snows at unexpected times, even in the middle of summer. In both mountains and deserts, fierce rainstorms can occur with very little warning and make rocks and trails slippery. In many areas of the country it can become foggy, making it difficult to see or stay on trails. Oftentimes it is more dangerous to try to walk through bad weather than it is to sit tight and wait it out. If you have your survival pack with you, you can make a raincoat out of a garbage bag and build a fire to keep you warm as you wait for the weather to clear.
* You take a "shortcut" that turns out to be a mistake. When you are tired and on a switchback trail — one that zigzags up a steep hill — it may seem like you can save time by going straight up the hill instead. But once you leave a trail it can be surprisingly hard to find your way back to it. Hike only on marked trails and avoid shortcuts that lead you off them.
* You follow a false trail. Well-worn animal paths often look like trails made by and for humans. It's easy to veer off onto an animal trail by mistake and be unable to find your way back to the "people path." How can you make sure that you stay on track? One way is to mark your trail as you hike into the wilderness so you can follow your markings when you hike back out. To show where you've been, you can put a small rock on top of a big rock or place two sticks together on the trail so that they point like an arrow to show your direction. You can also tie brightly colored flagging tape (which can be bought at most hardware and outdoor equipment stores) to branches or rocks to mark your path. The test is to look back and make sure that you can always spot the last marking as you go along; that way, you'll know that you will be able to spot them when you return along the trail. If you use flagging tape, be sure to remove it as you walk back. No one wants a messy forest.
The trail is rocky and there aren't any footprints to help you stay on the path. How can you tell that you haven't veered off the trail if you have to travel over rocks? Some trails are marked with "ducks," which are little piles of rocks that show you where the trail is. One rock on top of another means "go straight ahead," a small rock to the right of a big rock means "turn right," and a little rock to the left of a big rock means "turn left." If a rocky trail isn't marked, you can make your own ducks, tie some flagging tape to a rock, or mark your way with branch arrows.
* You go exploring and end up in a place that is totally unfamiliar to you. As you go along, try to pick out landmarks that you can look for when you head back. Of course, if you bring a GPS (Global Positioning System) with you, you'll always be able to tell where you are. (See chapter 10, p. 172, for information on navigating via GPS.)
* You have to leave the trail in order to get around something that's in the way. In the spring, streams of rainwater or melted snow may block sections of a trail. Big trees and boulders may fall across the path. If you have to leave the trail to get around an obstacle such as these, you could wind up off track. Pay attention to what your trail looks like, and when you get back to it on the other side of the obstacle, make sure it looks the same. You don't want to end up on an animal track or a different trail by mistake.
* You leave the trail to go swimming, fishing, or exploring. Everyone has left a trail to watch wildlife, go fishing, or investigate something interesting. If you do, keep track of the path you take, and be sure to return to the trail the same way you left it.
* You become dehydrated. When you are exercising and you don't drink enough fluids, you can quickly become dehydrated, which means your body has lost too much water to stay healthy. This happens most frequently in hot or even warm weather, but it can happen at any time. Dehydration can make you too weak and sick to get back home on your own. To prevent this, bring extra water and don't forget to drink it.
* You deliberately go off on your own. Kids sometimes get mad at their parents, a brother or sister, or a friend and just take off without paying attention to where they're going.
The secret to being a smart adventurer is to be prepared for any of these possibilities and to know how to take care of yourself if something unexpected happens.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU GET LOST
Realizing you are lost is a really scary feeling, and most people make it worse by becoming angry, frightened, sad, or ashamed instead of taking control of the situation. Your biggest survival tool is your brain. So stop blaming yourself or others and don't waste valuable time. Stay calm. You will be found — probably soon. You are going to survive, and you need to get to work to make your situation better. Remember, your main job now is to stay healthy and protected until you are located. If you find yourself panicking or running in circles, just take a deep breath and say to yourself, "STOP":
* S is for Stop. If there are many hours left before sunset and you can clearly see your tracks, just follow them back to safety. But if you don't have enough time to get back before sunset or if you have no idea how to get back, stop moving. The more you move around, the longer it will take others to find you. Also, stop panicking. It is normal to be scared and upset, but you are the only one who can make things better, so stay calm. Remember that you know how to make a shelter and take care of yourself. Tell yourself that you will be OK until you really believe it, even if you have to say it a hundred times. You will make it. You are a survivor!
* T is for Think. After you take a couple of deep breaths, start thinking. Who knows where you are? What's around you that can make your situation better? Is there something in your pack or pockets that will help? How many hours are left until dark? Are you in a good spot to set up a shelter? What is the weather like? What kind of shelter can you build?
* O is for Observe. Look around you. Is there a meadow with high grass nearby? Meadow grass makes soft bedding. Is there a lot of snow? Maybe you can dig into a snowbank to make a snow cave. Listen and look for water; you will need it to survive. Also look for a wide-open spot that you can use to signal for help.
* P is for Plan. Decide what to do, and in what order. What do you need to do first?
Are you in a safe spot? If there is a thunderstorm and you're high up on a mountain or hill, you need to get to lower ground as soon as you can. Be sure to stay away from big boulders and tall trees that are standing by themselves — lightning is most likely to strike there
Do you need to build a shelter to help protect yourself from bad weather? Do you need to make a fire to stay warm? If so, these tasks should be at or near the top of your "to do" list. Plan where you will look for shelter-building materials and firewood. (You always need more firewood than you expect, so plan to collect more than you think you will need.)
Do you have water? Finding a supply is also important, if you have forgotten to bring extra and the weather is hot. However, do not wander around looking for water, especially if you know someone will be coming to find you.
What can you do to help people find you? Is there an open space where you can signal an airplane or helicopter? Can you build a signal fire safely, or are you surrounded by flammable grass? Are there rocks that you can use to make an X in the snow or in a field?
HELP IS ON THE WAY
If you go missing, the first thing your parents or guardians will probably do is notify the police or a park ranger. These officials will call in a SAR, or search and rescue, team. These dedicated searchers help to find kids and adults who may be lost, injured, or caught in bad weather. Oftentimes they are trained in wilderness survival skills such as first aid, navigation, and knot-tying.
Search and rescue teams may include park rangers, deputy sheriffs, and volunteers who live in the area. Some team members work as "ground pounders," who travel on foot to find lost people, while others serve as ATV (all-terrain vehicle) drivers, searching back roads and trails. Mounted searchers ride horses that have been specially trained to work with search dogs and to not be spooked by things like ATVs, chainsaws, tents, sirens, helicopters, or blowing flagging tape. And search and rescue pilots may fly helicopters and airplanes in order to search from the sky.
Essential to search and rescue are K-9 teams made up of search dogs and their handlers. The dogs can smell people from far away, and they can follow the scent trails people leave behind as they walk. Search dogs are trained to ride in helicopters and ATVs, to be obedient, and to follow instructions well. In addition, they are usually excellent swimmers. A search dog may be any breed, but all search dogs have two things in common: they are eager to work and they love to find people.
There are two kinds of search dogs. Area search dogs run free and look for any human who's nearby. If they find someone, they run back to their handlers and tell them by barking or jumping up on their human partners. Then they bring them to the lost person. Trailing dogs work on long leashes that are held by their handlers. Usually the handlers allow the trailing dogs to smell something that has the lost person's scent on it, such as a sweater or other piece of clothing. (Every person on the planet has a different smell. Even twins smell different to a search dog.) Then, ignoring hundreds of other smells, the trailing dogs follow that unique scent into the wilderness until they reach the source of the smell — the lost person.
Most dogs that work in search and rescue wear orange vests, called shabracks, that identify them as working dogs. Also, most of these dogs wear bells on their harness. The bells help the handlers keep track of the dogs, and they help lost people to know that help is nearby. If you are lost and you hear bells, start yelling or blowing your whistle to help the search teams find you.
If they are called in to help find you, search and rescue people will grab their search packs, load up their horses, dogs, and ATVs, and report to the search headquarters, which is called the command post. Your parent or guardian will be asked many questions, such as what you look like, how old you are, what you are wearing, and whether or not you have any survival training. They may be asked for a piece of clothing or some other item that has your scent on it so that the dogs on the search and rescue team can learn your smell. Pilots might fly planes or helicopters over the area where you went missing. That location is called PLS, "place last seen" (or "point last seen"). If there are dangerous weather conditions and it is dark, the searchers may not be allowed to search until daybreak or until conditions improve. That is why it is important for you to be able to take care of yourself for a few hours or a day until they find you. Remember, people are coming to find you, as soon as they can.
What if you're not lost, but someone that you are with, like a little brother or sister, wanders away from you and goes missing as you are exploring the wilderness together? What do you do? You can be a big help to search and rescue by marking the spot where you last saw that person. Perhaps you could make a big X on the trail with sticks. Then go get help from an adult.
Lots of kids who are lost do something that could prevent them from being rescued: they hide from the people who are searching for them, either because their parents told them not to speak to strangers or because they think that people will be angry with them for getting lost. There have been cases where, for several days, searchers were just a few feet away from the lost kids they were looking for, but the cold and hungry children stayed hidden in the bushes because they were afraid of what would happen to them when they were found. This kind of behavior is dangerous and it isn't very smart. Search and rescue people not only risk their own lives to find lost kids, but they often put their horses and dogs in danger, too. Don't be one of those kids who hide from the people who are trying to save them. Your parents want you to be found. Just ask them. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Survivor Kid by Denise Long, Andrew Brozyna. Copyright © 2011 Denise Long. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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