In the Wilderness Essentials -- The Basics of Survival

“Fear is a part of life. It’s a warning mechanism. That’s all. It tells you when there’s danger around. Its job is to help you survive. Not cripple you into being unable to do it.” ― Jim Butcher

Wilderness Safety: The Essential Skills of Survival

What You Should Know Before You Leave the Comfort of Your Home

“Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.” ― Seneca


My 2 Cents

When we listen to the scanner most of the calls relate to driving into the trail head, being lost, hurt, or ill. In talking with the rangers or Search And Rescue the major causes of the need for back country rescue are from one of the following:

  1. Relying heavily on electronics
  2. Not having mastery of the skill set necessary for the level of risk they put themselves in heading out of civilization
  3. Thinking they had mastery of that skill set when they did not
  4. Not following their training
  5. Getting separated from those that had mastery

Mastery of a skill equals having the training and practice to perform the skill with the tools available.
All too often Search And Rescue (SAR) are being called out because the lost were relying on GPS or GPS apps and did not have the most basic skills or tools of navigation and a closer look shows they didn’t have any real survival skills or because they got hurt because they were not practiced in the task they were performing or they lacked awareness of the hazards of the area. This article does not go deep into each skill only identifies the basic skills and the “Why” of the necessary skills. Further articles will go deep in each one of these skills.


All too often people confuse going along for the hike as gaining experience at leading the hike. Do we call a teenager that has been along for the ride 100 times or even 10,000 times an experienced driver? No, the teen is only an experienced passenger. If the passenger had actively and deeply watched each task performed and got mentoring in the why, and then performed each task with a mentor critiquing the skills performed then practicing it 10,000 times with the intent of getting better each time we would then consider the teen an experienced driver.

The same thing is true with wilderness travel. All too often I will read a headline of, “Experienced Hiker Lost in the Wilderness,” when the person had gone on a lot of hikes but never lead any or had only lead hikes on established trails.

An Example

Gerry Largay’s death is a tragic example of one bad choice caused a little problem and then more bad choices which ended up leading to her death. Many of those bad choices happened before she left the comfort of her home. Gerry “Inchworm” Largay, a retired nurse that was doing a Hike Through on the Appalachian Trail. A hike through is doing the entire trail typically broken up into a series of backpacking trips with stops to buy food and spend a night or two in a hotel. Her story is a sobering example of what could happen if one is not prepared for the What Ifs; her death, I hope, will teach others the importance of training.

Gerry stepped off the most heavily used well established trail in North America, during the most heavily used time of year, she been hiking that trail one day short of 3 months, she had hiked nearly 1,000 miles and “only” 200 to go. On the surface you would think she was experienced, the news described her as being an experienced backpacker, but in reality she was an experienced follower and only on a well-established trail. Throughout this volume I have gone into detail of many of the poor choices that were made relating to this case many well before the day that she stepped off the trail and a few by others involved.

She Only Stepped Off to go Pee

She only stepped off the trail to pee; the result was she got disoriented, she panicked, she got farther from the trail and ultimately nearly a month after stepping off the trail she starved to death. There was no foul play, no injury, in fact she had everything she needed in her pack; what she lacked was skill. Two years later her mummified body, her journal, and her gear were all found. We know a great deal from her journal and the clues she left as to what caused her ultimate death. Her absence of training and her relying too heavily on hiking companions, her cell phone, and her GPS all lead to her death. Her not using her compass to take a quick heading, the fact that she panicked, her not using her whistle when the largest search in the history of the Appalachian Trail was looking for her and the rescuers were only 100 feet away. In my work I use her as an example, if she had mastery in the following eight skills she would not have perished.

Things You Must Know, Some Skills You Must Have Before You Leave Town

Do You Truly Need To Know These Skills?

You may think you do not need some or all of these skills to go in for a day hike if your plan may be a simple day hike, following a well-established trail, in great weather. The simple rolling an ankle, stepping off the trail to pee and then getting disoriented, getting stalled and wet by a change in the weather, having the trail blown out by an uprooted tree (yes this is very common), a failed buckle on a backpack, merely the trail was more strenuous than you anticipated, the guide book was out of date and did not reflect the current conditions, the spring you were hiking to and planning on getting water for your return hike was dry, the hike took longer than you thought, a hose on your vehicle failed at the trail head, someone wants something you have or perceive you have are all common unplanned events that would put you in a situation that requires you to use one or more of the skills you will learn in our volumes that make up Venturing from 68 Degrees: A Handbook for Thriving in the Wilderness as well as you will be mentored in our series of classes In the Wilderness in the skills you need to know before you undertake a trip.

“Learning is not compulsory, neither is survival.” – S. William Demi

What is a Survival Situation

SURVIVAL Situation = 1. Getting Hurt or Sick 2. Getting Lost 3. Your body can no longer maintain 98 degrees 4. Someone is after you to do you harm or wants something you have 5. You have been separated from your resources

Don’t Get Hurt, Don’t Take Unnecessary Risks, Do Not Go Outside of Your Skill Set

If you watch any of the survival shows like History’s Alone you will note that many of those that had to quit early did so because of injury. Getting cut with your knife or axe, rolling an ankle, falling and breaking a bone are a few injuries that are self-inflicted that will take you out quickly. Don’t get hurt by taking unnecessary risks. Example, if you are not truly skilled at using a hatchet to make kindling get a skilled mentor to model it first. Cutting kindling sounds so simple but using a hatchet is a hand eye motor skill that you will be clumsy at until you have had practice. Four days into the backcountry is not the time to learn axe or knife skills, these skills and many more need to be truly mastered before going into the wilderness.

Typical Reasons People Getting Hurt, Sick, or Die in the Wilderness:

  • Panic
  • Vehicles
  • Exposure
  • Falling
  • Burned or asphyxiate by stoves
  • Cut by Knife, hatchet, saw, or broadhead
  • Lack of proper hygiene
  • Contaminated Water
  • Objects falling on them
  • Drowning
  • Eating poisonous plants or fungus
  • Encounters with wildlife
  • Criminal activity
  • Lightening
  • Firearms – Please note: firearm accidents during hunting is surprising low. Most injuries during hunting are attributed to the other factors listed above.

Why? Lack of knowledge, practice, agility, or awareness, i.e. training or following their training.

Do Not Get Lost

Getting lost is so common the first word in the Search And Rescue Team. It is all too common that people get disoriented and do not have the skills to navigate in their vehicle back to town or navigate on foot back to their vehicle. Once you are lost the time clock that determines your probability of survival starts ticking and now most if not all of your survival skill set must come into play.

Do Not Get Over Exposed

Being unable to maintain your core temp at 98 degrees and you must be diligent maintaining your layers or shelter to not become too cold or too hot both will kill you and soon. It can be a late afternoon swim or late morning hike in the sun that leads into tragedy.

Panic is a Real Killer

If you are hurt or sick, lost, or wet and cold, panic will cause you to make bad decisions followed by more bad decisions. Largay and those involved made roughly 20 choices that ultimately lead to her death and many were due to panic.

Things You Need to Know Before Your Trip

Know the Hazards of the Area

Something as simple as knowing that the cliffs are unstable sandstone and following those warnings could save your life. Each year people fall to their deaths on the cliffs overlooking the beaches of Santa Cruz just to get a selfie.

There are common things you need to know as you are planning any trip. Find out:

Where is the Last Chance for Fuel

Not only ask where but how reliable is it. It is not uncommon for remote stations to be waiting for fuel or be understaffed. Older independent fuel stations may have closed since the last time you made the trip or the guide book was written. Also check that your vehicle has the range to get from the last fuel to the trail head and back. I have been the last jeep on the trail in fall. If I had run out of fuel and no one was looking for me they would not have found me until the spring thaw.

Where and How Do You Obtain Potable Water

You must know where your last chance to find potable water would be, it is one of those items on your checklist that you call on the day before you head in. During the drought hose bibs at ranger and fuel stations were dry, springs that people depended on were dry. If you have to pull water from a lake or stream you need to have the knowledge and skill to make it safe to drink. This is another example that the less technology you have the better the skillset you must hold. If you rely on technology and it is lost or damaged do you have the skills to fall back on?

What Issues Can Occur With a Change in Weather

What Happens When it Rains

You need to understand that a small change in the weather or weather far from where you plan to hike can put you in a survival situation. You may ford a creek in your car in the morning that could wash you away in the afternoon. In the forest the duff on the forest floor catches the rain, slows it down, spreads it out, so it can soak-in. The desert has no duff. Rain as soon as it hits the ground is heading for the lowest point, all of it follows the path of least resistance. All of the rain that fell on a 10 by 10 mile area in a brief thunder shower could head to the dry wash you are planning on hiking in. Flash flooding may be common in the area you are planning. Many had to be rescued this past year and a few died trying to cross swollen creeks this past year.

What Happens With the First Hot or Untimely Hot Weather

In the early 90s a friend and I driving in BLM land in the mountains of San Bernardino County to do a day of telemark skiing. We drove about an hour in after leaving pavement to get to the remote trail head. The skiing conditions were splendid, we were in our tee shirts on fresh virgin snow most of the day, and we had the whole mountain to ourselves, just a few wispy clouds in the sky. When we were ready to head home in the late afternoon, the creek that we had snaked across at sunrise had risen from the days snow melt to just enough for me to notice, but as we continue down the mountain with each crossing the water was getting higher. At our last crossing before getting to the highway the water was up to the fan on the engine it threw it on to the engine and shorted out the ignition. If we had been a little bit later getting to the crossing we would have been there for weeks and would have lost the jeep. In the deep wilderness access workshops we go deep into reading and crossing creeks on jeep, horse, or on foot. As a beginner what you need to know is what other options for creek crossings you have before you head in and what is the likelihood of the creek being blocked. You also need to know that there are other weather related risks you may not think about that injure and kill people.

What Dangerous Plants Are In the Area

The ureshiol producing plants are an example: poison oak, poison ivy, and poison sumac cause contact toxicodendron dermatitis in 90% of the people that contact it, western poison oak is the most abundant native shrub in California, its oils can spread from your boots to your hands, from your hands to every part of your body you touch, and any one you touch. One single droplet can cause a rash to every kid in a high school. The oil is insidious in that it takes three days to develop the rash, and some reactions are bad enough to require a hospital stay. However, if you know these plants and you know the simple protocols after contact you would be less likely to get the rash. This is just one example and there are others plants that are invasive and less well known that are also dangerous.

If you like to forage you must know of any look a likes of the plants you are planning on gleaning that can be found where you are planning on visiting.

Fire Danger

If the posted fire danger for the day is rated extreme you may not want to go in where the only road in and out must go through a forest of standing beetle killed Jeffery pines, you may not want to park that new jeep, that has been pulling up the mountain road for the past hour, on the dry grass. Fire is a necessity it warms us, gives us light, dries our clothes, cooks our food, makes our water potable, and more. However, if conditions are wrong fire can be out of control in seconds, do millions of dollars of damage, and take lives. Everyone needs to know how to read conditions without having to look at a Cal-fire sign and know how to make the smallest safest fire for the task, know how to prevent it from traveling underground, and know how to make sure it is truly out. We believe that fire and fire safety is so important that we hold a 2 ½ day class just on that topic and it is one of two requisite classes for all the other one hundred plus classes we tech.

What Dangerous Animals are in the Area and What You Should Know about Them

Preparing for Your Trip

Some Things You Need to do During the Preparation Phase

Train Physically

You need to walk daily on the terrain, carrying the weight, and gear you will be using. You need to know what your true limitations are. It is not fair to the rest of your traveling companions to not have the physical ability to meet the rigors of the trip planned unless you have fully disclosed ahead of time your limitations.

Get training, practice all the skills listed below, and keep practicing not until you get it right but until you can’t do it wrong. With knots not only must you perform the skill with your dominant hand but also your non-dominant, upside down, and in the dark. If you can do all of that without thinking then you have mastery of the skill.

Call someone in the know about recent conditions of the area you are going to this could be the ranger station or a friend.

Help Your Rescuers Well Before You Head into the Back Country

In reading the documentation of the Largay case if she had done the following the outcome would have most likely been different.

Leave a Detailed Itinerary

Leave a detailed itinerary with a friend and another on the seat of your car and don’t deviate from it.

Complete Your Own Missing Person Report

Leave a nearly completed missing person report along with photos of yourself, the only thing that should be missing is when you were reported as missing. Attach this to your itinerary you gave to your friend and left in your vehicle. Do not expect your friends to know everything that is needed on the missing person form or be able to have a clear enough head to be able to correctly fill it out. They are probabily not going to know what meds our are on, what the dosage is, or what will occure to you if you suddenly cease to take them. In a later article I will go in depth what needs to be included in this document and why.

The Day You Enter the Back Country

Your last bit of preperation is stop by the ranger station on your drive in, also chat with people that have come out. You might find out that a mama bear and baby bear are near the trail, or there is aggresive

The Nine Minimum Skills You Need to Have Mastery of Before You Lead a Trip or Head Off Alone.

If problems arise you must KEEP A CLEAR HEAD. To do this you must have the Skills which equals Training + Tools + Practice of the next eight skills and you must have the mental capacity to handle the stress of many survival scenarios and know the priorities you must set.

  1. Signal for help
  2. Navagation
  3. Building shelter (in 10 min or less in the rain with no more than what you can carry in the pocket of a jacket)
  4. Building fire in wet conditions, and know when not to build fire, and more
  5. Repair your grear
  6. Locate and make potable water
  8. Find and prepare game

The skills of locating, taking, and prepaaring game go beyond what the minimum skill set for this article. I will discuss the why of that statement in the next article, “Setting Your Priorities for Survival”

Ethics and Survival

Further articles will go into depth into each of the skills. One last thing we are big on is before going into the wilderness everyone that steps into the wilderness should have good wilderness ethics. We truly believe that this would be a better world if everyone was connected to nature but, one person’s adventure should not impact the land or anyone else’s experience. Hacking down 2 dozen cedar saplings in our national forest to make a shelter because you put yourself in a survival situation is not good stewardship of the land and it negatively affects others experience in the wilderness. The necessity of deploying teams of SAR by helicopters will also impact others experience in the wilderness. Putting yourself into a survival situation does not validate breaking laws or ignoring good wilderness ethics. Besides the skills I shared in this article I also want you to also develop skills and habits of good wilderness ethics before venturing from the comforts of your home. So please read the articles in the ethics section of this website.

"The enemy is anybody who's going to get you killed, no matter which side he is on."
—Joseph Heller,
"You don't drown by falling in the water; you drown by staying there."
—Edwin Louis Cole