The fog arrived about an hour before dark and very quickly deepened in intensity until visibility was measured in feet. Until then it was simply another nasty November day in New England with rain that turned first to sleet and then snow as the temperature headed south. I was ostensibly looking for turkeys, but with all the upland and small game seasons open I kept my options loose. When a snowshoe hare busted out from under a spruce tree a few hours earlier I had added him to my game bag.
I love watching the woods surrender to the night, even in this weather, and I have always had a propensity to stay too late. This time I paid a price. It was my first time on that mountain and after walking for too long on what I thought was the track back to my truck, I had to admit I was lost. When I reached some very rough country with lots of ledges and cliffs, I thought it would be safer to hunker down for the night and walk out in the morning.
I made a shelter under a large spruce tree and built a fire. I skinned the rabbit and was cooking it on a green stick when I first noticed the spooky lights approaching. The thick fog muted any sound and diffused the lights, and as they flickered through the mist and trees it looked like a UFO approaching.
I was wet, tired, hungry, cold, lost, grumpy and not in the mood for any abductions or probing. I picked up my shotgun and checked the extra shells in my vest. But, the lights just passed on by. It took a minute for me to realize that it was a truck. Apparently I was camped less than 100 yards from a town road! It took me quite awhile to figure out what road, as everything was backwards, upside down and moved out of place, no doubt the work of those space aliens. But, after walking about a mile in the wrong direction, I finally recognized where I was. It was a long way from my truck and it would be very late before I saw my own bed that night, but at least I had a road to follow.
This is often how hunters die, not on elaborate expeditions deep into the wilderness, but on “short” hunts that were only supposed to last a few hours. In reading hundreds of accounts of other hunters in trouble, that same theme often emerges, that they were “just going to be gone for a little while.”
Obviously, the best thing is to not get lost in the first place and perhaps that’s the topic of another article. However “stuff” happens and if you venture into wilderness settings you can never guarantee that you won’t become lost or disabled. The question is, “can you survive?”
Step One: Get Control
The single biggest obstacle is mental. The problem with modern hunters is that they feel they “must” get back to camp every night, no matter what. Once they realize that’s not going to happen, they panic, and nothing is more dangerous in a survival situation than panic. People in panic don’t think; they act, usually in a bad way. Lost hunters don’t starve to death, they die of hypothermia, and usually because they panicked.
If you feel panic setting in; stop, sit down, breathe deep and think. Admit that you are lost and accept it. Once you have accepted that this will probably be nothing more than an inconvenience and perhaps an uncomfortable situation, you can survive. Don’t worry about spending the night and don’t be scared of the dark. It’s no different than spending the day in the woods, except it is darker and perhaps a bit colder. You don’t have any problems in the daylight and don’t expect to die, so why expect problems at night? Nothing really changes.
There very few places with “wild animals” that pose a serious threat; besides, don’t you have that gun with you? The way I figure it, I am lost, grumpy, hungry and armed. The “wild animals” had best leave me alone. That really doesn’t change anything except my attitude, which is the key to survival. If I am aware of the wild animals, but not scared of them, it’s one less thing to worry about. The less you worry, the more you can think and act. That’s not to say I am dumb enough to camp on a bear trail along an Alaskan salmon river. (Actually I have done that, but I was in a tent and hunting brown bears, not lost and trying to survive!) Show some respect for any animal capable of hurting you, but don’t have an irrational fear of them.
Keep your head and you will be fine. Probably cold, hungry and tired, but fine. After all, men have been living in the woods for eons without a house, electricity or even a hot tub, and they survived. Do you think the mountain men had a pop-up camper? They just slept on the ground where they were.
In the morning you will be better prepared to decide what the next step should be. In some situations that step is to stay put and wait for help, but other situations may require that you help yourself. Either way, do not make any decisions until it’s daylight. The light of day has a remarkable calming power over men’s minds.
Step Two: Gimme Shelter
In the event you do get “lost” and have to spend the night the best approach is to find some shelter, build a fire and stay put until daylight.
In almost all short term survival situations the single biggest threat is hypothermia. Don’t worry about food or water for now; just concentrate on staying dry and warm. For that, shelter is the first concern. Water and wind are a deadly combination and you must get out of the wind and any rain or snow that is falling.
In the adventure novels the hero always finds a dry cave to hole up in, but in real life caves are usually in short supply. When I do find one, it’s usually wet, cold and half-full of porcupine dung. If you stumble onto one that’s warm, dry and doesn’t smell too bad, great, but don’t count on it.
The reality is that by the time we admit we are lost and accept that we will need to spend the night, it’s usually dark. The key now is to find shelter fast. You can build a more elaborate fortification in the morning if you think it’s necessary. But, that’s in the future; you need to deal with “now.”
Finding shelter is often a matter of improvising. Some old mountain men liked to climb inside a hollow tree or log during a bad storm. I have never tried it, but have read enough accounts to know it might work if you find one.
Always look for places that provide a lot of natural shelter and then improve on that. For example, look for a spot that is low and out of the wind. Use a big rock, a tree or a large clump of bushes for a windbreak and build around that. The goal is to get out of the wind and rain and anything that helps accomplish that should be used.
In most places the best, fast shelter is an A-Frame lean-to. Place a pole on a tree fork, or anything that will support it, and then lay branches at an angle along the sides to form walls. Keep piling on more branches until it forms a thick mat, and then cover the mat with leaves, spruce boughs or whatever you can find to form a crude roof. Make sure you build it with the opening facing away from the wind. Make it very small so that you can heat the space easily. Use dry leaves or spruce boughs to line the floor and keep you off the cold ground. Depending on where you are and what the vegetation is like, you can make enough of a shelter to get you through the night in less than an hour. Be careful, though, to not work up a soaking sweat. This will put you in danger of hypothermia and speed up dehydration.
Step Three: To Build a Fire
Jack London’s short story by this title perhaps best describes the classic struggle of man against the wilderness. Except that in the story, death won in the end. But I suppose it always will, it’s just our job to delay that event as long as possible. In that light, a fire is the salvation of any lost hunter.
If you are lost, you will need a fire for the heat it provides, but also for the well-being it projects. Fire is what elevated us from the animals and ultimately led us to the ability to build cities, create computers and cook filet mignon. A fire will warm your body and soothe your soul, and for centuries men have passed long nights staring into a campfire and knowing that things would be fine.
I always carry three fire starting tools in my pocket, every time I enter the woods.
- A disposable lighter. Like so much else in the country today the lawyers have redesigned these. Many of the lighters today will have a non-adjustable flame. These are useless for the outdoorsman. Try to find a lighter that will make a large, tall flame. If it doesn’t have the child proof lock (another lawyer invention) on it, so much the better, these are a nuisance at best and with cold fingers they can be dangerous.
- A waterproof case filled with strike-anywhere matches. Because the matches rattle in the case, I pack in a piece of paper towel, which will also serve to help start the fire.
- A small magnesium fire starter. These things are completely waterproof, extremely reliable and they burn very hot to help ignite damp tinder. If I could only have one fire source, it would be this one.
I also carry some more fire starting aids. A couple of small candles will burn for a long time. If you light one and slide it under your tinder pile it will continue to burn to dry out damp tinder and ignite it. They can also provide light. One time on the Alaska Peninsula we were stranded in the bush overnight. While there was nothing to burn for heat, the candles did provide some light during the long, cold night.
There are a lot of commercial fire starting aids on the market and it’s a good idea to have some in your backpack. Keep everything in double zip lock plastic bags. Moisture has a way of working into everything on a wet day.
Step Four: Tomorrow is Another Day – Plan a Strategy
With the dawning of a new day you can decide what to do next. The experts usually advise waiting for rescue. All well and good if you can reasonably expect that somebody will be looking for you soon. If that’s the case, use the next day to improve your shelter, gather more wood and perhaps find some food and water. Cut a bunch of evergreen boughs to throw on the fire and make signal smoke if a plane or chopper flies over.
In a lot of circumstances you may simply have been overtaken by dark rather than lost. With a new day you can walk to safety.
In many wilderness hunting situations nobody will know you are missing or lost for days. They might not expect to hear from you for another week or two, and it can be several days after that before they send the Cavalry. You may have to get yourself out of this fix. Or if that’s not possible, spend your time building a better shelter, finding safe water and food. Then wait for rescue.
Regardless of what you decide to do next, the knowledge that you passed that first critical night and emerged in good shape should help give you the confidence that no matter what is ahead you have the skill and strength to face it and survive..