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Surviving An Outdoor Crisis  at Cabela's

Surviving An Outdoor Crisis

Author: Frank Ross

Getting back to your vehicle is a simple concept that too many hikers and hunters take for granted. No one ever expects to die on a outdoor excursion, but it happens.

When unexpected weather rolls in, the best thing you can do is to stay calm.
Getting back to your vehicle is a simple concept that too many hikers and hunters take for granted. No one ever expects to die on a outdoor excursion, but it happens. The worst usually happens because of the unexpected.

Without proper preparation for the unexpected, a twisted ankle, or non-fatal accident can often lead down the trail to a headstone that might read- "I didn't think it was going to get that cold."

Knowing a few basic skills for survival can mean the difference between another expedition and an article in the paper that lists surviving relatives. The following information will provide you a basis of ensuring your own survival, and a protracted wait for your executor's dispersal process.

Unfortunately, no two situations are alike, and without a crystal ball, you can only prepare yourself with the proper tools of survival and knowledge about what you can do in case you find yourself in a difficult situation. When going into the wilderness during the winter, your watch words should be -"Plan for the best, prepare for the worst."

The basic rules of survival are simple, but all too often, outdoor enthusiasts ignore them with brash bravado. While no list of survival techniques can address all situations, the following guidelines are a good foundation to consider.

1. You should always make sure someone knows exactly where you are going to hike or hunt, and when you plan to return. If your plans change, leave a note in your vehicle where it can be read through the windshield, or better yet, tell a local who has knowledge of the area. If you live alone, it is a good idea to make it a habit of arranging with a friend to call them and give notice of your return.

2. No matter how experienced you are, never go into a wilderness area by yourself. This is especially important if you are getting up in the age bracket when an unexpected chest pain, or health problem can limit your ability to help yourself.

3. Make sure you have enough clothes, in case you become immobilized. A few layers might be adequate when you're walking and hunting, but if you are unexpectedly incapacitated, it takes more layers to maintain body heat.

4. One thing in the outdoors is a given. The weather can and will change. Keep your eye on the sky, and be prepared to alter your plans if you are hunting far from access to roads and easy travel.

5. Learn how to use a compass, and never go into the woods without a compass and a topo map. Check your direction of travel before leaving, and never doubt your compass if you get disoriented.

6. Always carry a waterproof container of matches.

7. If you get lost or hurt, it is best to stay put and build a fire. The fire will provide warmth as well as a signal to make locating you much easier. If you followed rule #1, you will be found. It may take a while for people to realize that you are overdue, but the odds are in your favor.

8. Always carry a survival kit, and be familiar with the use and application of all elements it contains.

9. Remember that survival is largely attitude. With the right attitude, equipment and knowledge of how to use it, you have an excellent chance of being rescued no matter how dismal your situation might seem.

10. Above all, don't panic. Take time to think through your actions before you do anything. By making well-calculated decisions, you will increase your odds with each step that you take.

If you become disabled or injured in severe weather, the three most important elements that you need for survival are shelter, and warmth, followed closely by a way to signal your location.


Once the sun goes down, temperatures will drop dramatically. This can be a very demoralizing time if you don't have some type of shelter to protect you from the wind and cold. If possible, choose a location close enough to a large clearing where you can create a signal.

You must choose your shelter site and fire location with an eye toward uncontrollable elements. Consider the possibility of an avalanche or snow slide before starting to build your shelter. Energy and body heat are precious commodities, and you don't want to waste either. More importantly, you don't want to have your shelter wiped out by an avalanche that can trap you inside of your intended salvation.

If you are mobile enough to gather limbs, you can build a crude lean-to without much effort. Once you get the larger limbs in place, add a topping of evergreen limbs that will increase the density of your makeshift roof and walls.

An overhanging rock also makes a good shelter, especially if you are on the leeward side. Failing a rock or tree for shelter, a snow cave can be dug where snowdrifts are deep enough. You only need to dig a cave big enough for you to slide you body inside. Don't make it any larger than necessary because you'll need your body heat to keep the space warm. Snow offers excellent insulation from the outside elements. You'll need to make a ventilation hole to keep enough fresh air for breathing. Arch the sides when you dig your cave so that the moisture from your breath and from melting snow will run down the sides and not drip on your clothes. Remember that wet clothes will sap your body of heat, wicking it away very rapidly. If possible, cover the floor of the cave with boughs of trees or bushes or a space blanket to insulate your body from the cold and dampness.

Even if you run out of food or water, if you can maintain your body heat in a shelter, you're going to survive if you keep your wits about you.


Clothing provides your first line of defense. It's the shelter that you carry with you. When dressing for severe weather, layers are more important than thickness. Long underwear, shirts, and fabrics with GORE-TEX, or Thinsulate provide an excellent barrier between your body and sub-zero wind-chills.

Heat dissipates rapidly from your outer extremities.

Warm, wool socks and sock liners are critical for keeping your feet warm during extended periods in the cold. Having an extra pair of warm dry socks will be well worth the extra weight they add to your pack.

Boots that are designed for the terrain you hunt in, with both insulation and a high degree of water repellency, are mandatory for keeping your feet warm.

Gloves that wick moisture away from your hands are important, but having a second pair in your coat will be vital should your main pair get wet. In extreme cold, mittens are better for keeping your fingers warm. Having heat packs that you can open and insert in mittens will keep your hands warm for up to 12 hours per pack.

Proper headgear is essential. Up to 45 percent of your body heat escapes from your head, neck and shoulders. Good winter headgear should breathe, be water repellent and conserve heat.


Hypothermia is a killer if you don't recognize the symptoms or are caught unprepared. The first signs are uncontrollable shivering. You body is shivering because its core temperature has gotten too low. As this condition worsens, you will experience an increased lack of coordination, followed by a loss of good judgment and a fairly quick descent into unconsciousness and ultimate death. Hypothermia doesn't require extreme temperatures, although that is where the most severe cases occur. If you become wet or through prolonged exposure to cold winds, you can experience this condition in temperatures as warm as 45 degrees Fahrenheit. The most likely candidate for hypothermia is exhausted, thirsty, and unprepared for the conditions in which they find themselves. Alcohol is the worst thing you can drink. Warm liquids and a good fire are your best options.


Heat from a fire built under a tree will melt the snow that has accumulated on its branches and cause it to fall or drip heavily and extinguish your precious fire. While a heavily branched tree can provide an excellent source of shelter, make sure that you shake the snow from its branches before you settle in. You can also cut some of the branches to form an even better shelter to surround your body and break the wind. You also must consider removing lower branches over your fire to avoid setting the tree on fire. Scrape the snow away from the ground if it is not too deep. If the snow is too deep, you can build a bed of green branches or rocks to support your fire. Surrounding your fire with logs or non-porous rocks will reflect the heat into your shelter, but be sure not to use porous rocks. Rocks that hold moisture can explode when heated by a hot fire.

Building a fire requires more preparation than anything. Make sure that you have all of the elements necessary, before you light your first match. A collection of small, dry tinder is the first and most important element of building a fire. You can't light a log with one match. If dry tinder and wood are not readily available, you can create it from fallen and rotting logs. Use your knife to cut away wet wood and dig down into the inner layers to collect your wood. If there are no ready sources of tinder, you can always create it by whittling a larger limb past the wet outer bark until you get to the dry inner core.

Taking your own tinder is a great idea, and actually will add very little weight to your pack. Several items will provide an excellent fire starter. Take a small container with a tight seal and put a good quantity of sawdust soaked in paint thinner. It is a good idea to tape the lid as well, to insure that neither liquid nor odor escapes. While the odor could spoil your hunt, even small quantities of thinner on your skin can cause irritation or even blisters over prolonged exposure. If you prefer a less volatile tinder, a film canister or plastic bag filled with cotton balls or fine steel-wool works very well. You simply expand the fibers of either and put them at the bottom of your tinder pyramid. Once you start them smoldering, simply blow gently and a bright fire will quickly grow.

Regardless of your source, once you've acquired a sufficient quantity of dry tinder, you'll need a selection of slightly larger twigs to increase the intensity before adding larger limbs and ultimately larger logs.

Remember that there are three elements to building a fire. A heat source, fuel and oxygen. You must stack your tinder and subsequent twigs in a pyramid to allow adequate oxygen, which will enable the fire to build properly. Once you get a good fire growing, it will be possible to add slightly wet wood gradually. If your fire is hot enough, damp wood will dry out enough to burn; however, if you overload your fire with too much damp wood it may lose its intensity and go out.

Remember to gather enough firewood to last through the night, before it gets too dark to locate. Once you've got your fire going, rationing the wood so that it lasts till dawn will take some personal restraint, especially if the temperatures drop significantly. As you continue to stoke your fire, keep in mind that it is better to have a small fire than a pile of dying embers.


Assuming that your new digs are not so luxurious that you'd want to consider an extended stay, you need to consider help and how long it might be before it arrives. After you've established your shelter, got your fire going, and dried out a little, take an inventory of your situation. How much food and water do you have? How long will it be until people decide that you are in trouble? How serious are your personal injuries, if any?


Once you've answered these basic questions, you'll know more about what to do, and how you need to conduct your efforts at helping your would be rescuers. Having a good plan for signaling searchers is a vital aspect of your survival. You need to do everything possible to increase your odds by raising your level of visibility.

Your prospects of quick rescue will depend somewhat upon your location, and weather conditions. If you are in the mountains, most aerial efforts are suspended at sundown because of the inherent danger to pilots, and the difficulty of a visual sighting after dark in heavy timber. If you are in the desert, or more sparsely forested area on flatter ground, the search may continue at night, especially for the ground search.

Once enough time has elapsed that you are sure searchers are looking for you, consider your clothing and determine what are your most colorful items that can be spared in the daytime. Spread them out in a clearing where they can easily be seen from the air or an adjacent hillside. When darkness falls without your rescue, you can retrieve your clothing for the evening's chill.

Your first and most visible signal from a distance will be the smoke from your fire. Create a triangle of three fires, with the apex at your main fire. Prepare the two other signal fires, but do not light them until you hear or see an aircraft. During the daytime, you should feed green branches and pine needles onto the fire slowly to create as much smoke as possible. During periods of drought like the one most of the nation has been experiencing, smoke will get a lot of attention.

You can also use fallen branches or debris and create a large V or arrow in a large clearing, pointing to your location. To be seen from the air, your signal should be from 30 to 50 feet long and at least 3 to 4 feet wide. This works better against snow, since the darker wood will stand out, but if you don't have snow to use as a background lighter colored wood will increase the odds of your signal being spotted. If you don't have enough debris to make a signal, stamping one out in the snow, or scraping back the snow to expose bare ground will also work well.

Signal Mirrors, Flares and Whistles

There are two basic types of signals you will want to be prepared for. The first will get your rescuers in your neighborhood, the second will enable them to pinpoint your exact location. Aerial signals are the most difficult to create, with the exception of a handy survival mirror. The rays of the sun, reflected by a small mirror can be seen for up to 20 miles on a clear day. You can use to signal both aerial and search ground parties. A loud whistle will serve to pierce the air with a high-pitched tone that is audible for greater distances than shouting, and it also takes less effort. If you were wise enough to purchase a survival kit, you can also use the aerial flares to further enhance your visibility without gathering all the firewood. Just be sure that you don't fire them until you can see your searchers. The noise from an aircraft on a distant leg of their search pattern can be too far away to get their attention and when they finally come close enough you don't want to be out of flares.

Many states limit the use of flares to distress on the water; however, if you have flares, and use them close to your fire, you'll avoid starting any inadvertent forest fire that might do more harm than good.


Even if you are not exerting much energy, your body is constantly dehydrating. Since your body is mostly water, keeping hydrated is far more important than food, although you might find it hard to convince your growling stomach of that fact. An average sized adult requires about 3 quarts of water per day to maintain energy reserves and remove wastes and toxins from the body.

The days of taking a drink from a "clear" mountain stream are gone, possibly forever. Until recent years, finding drinking water was the least of your survival worries. With the exception of a desert setting, lakes, ponds, streams, rivers and snow banks are commonplace in outdoor situations. Today, all of these potential sources for water should be considered suspect. NEVER drink untreated water anywhere in the outdoors.

The beneficial aspects of water can be negated if it contains bacteria or disease carrying organisms that can cause nausea, diarrhea or dysentery. Giardia lamblia is a surface water born intestinal parasite that produces a disease called giardiasis, which is now found throughout the U.S.

You should always carry enough water for a day's consumption when leaving civilization, but in severe climates and environs, you should also be prepared to purify your own drinking water.

The most common method is boiling. You must start counting from the time the water starts a rolling boil, and calculate five minutes at sea level. Higher elevations will require more time. A general rule of thumb is to add one minute of boiling for each 1,000 feet of elevation. Since it might be a good idea to note that you are lost and probably don't know exactly where you are, let alone what your elevation might be - adding a couple of more minutes would be wise. Remember, you can't over boil water. It is also good to drink the water while it is warm. Drinking cold water will lower your body temperature and sap valuable heat reserves.

You can also use a solar still, iodine tablets, or chlorine to purify water. The still is slow, and both of the latter methods are not 100% effective in all situations, and they require 30 minutes to work. You will also find the flavor to be wanting. Since most hunters or hikers don't pack a pan to boil water, or anything else that adds unnecessary weight, you might want to consider the newly developed survival straw. This lightweight straw eliminates impurities with a system of alloys that destroys bacteria and viruses, water-soluble heavy metals, pesticides, arsenic, mercury, EDB and other carcinogens and there's no filters to replace. In layman's terms: stick the straw in the water and have a pull.


I always carry enough snacks on an outing to sustain me through the evening, but I don't usually eat much during the day and your own personal calorie intake may vary. Generally, unless you are in very dire straits, you'll be rescued long before you need to be concerned about starving to death. If you're hunting, you should be able to shoot something that's edible, but basically anything that crawls or slithers by is edible providing you cook it and can overcome a social predisposition toward the lesser elements of the food chain. If you find a snail, think escargot!
Many red berries are toxic.
Berries and wild mushrooms should be avoided at all costs. With the odds of eating a species that is fatal, you'd be better off eating worms. For many berries and mushrooms, a single mouthful can be fatal. Approximately 95 percent of all white and yellow berries are poisonous, and 50 percent of red berries are also toxic. About 85 percent of blue and black berries are edible, but of the remaining percentage, about 5 percent could be fatal depending upon the amount ingested. All of the toxic berries won't kill you, but they will make you so sick that you might contemplate eating more to end your misery. When it comes to berries, if you aren't sure exactly what it is, you're better off dealing with the hunger pangs.

All in all, your chances of survival will depend more on the equipment to have to work with than your menu during this brief period of want. You can minimize your discomfort by making sure you have the basic essentials and keep your head about you when it comes time to accept the fact that you are in trouble.

Before you leave on any hiking or hunting trip during a period when you have the chance of being lost under adverse conditions, make sure you have all the equipment that will maximize your chances of surviving the experience.

1. Always dress properly and make sure you have an extra pair of gloves and dry socks.

2. Take a first aid kit, even if it is a small one that only contains the basics.

3. With the advances in lightweight, packable rain gear, there is no good excuse for being wet.

4. A knife is your most important survival tool.

5. A survival straw or some method of water purification is essential.

6. Fifty feet of parachute cord or similar light rope is invaluable.

7. In extreme weather, a survival kit is mandatory.

Your survival kit should contain:

1. Mirror
2. Whistle
3. Space survival blanket
4. Signal flares or smoke
5. Matches
6. Tinder materials
7. Large candle
8. Toilet paper

In summary, you should never underestimate the seriousness of your situation, or overestimate your own physical strength or condition. Waiting may be a far more boring option than striking out to save yourself. But if you are truly lost, and weather is a major factor in your critical evaluation; stay put, use your head, and you'll have a great story to tell to the newspapers when you are rescued.

For more information on the Survival Kits, click here.

For more information on the Frontier Water Filter Straw, click here.

Author Frank Ross
Frank Ross grew up on a lake in Florida, where fishing and hunting were second nature. He has pursued his passion from the jungles of South America to the northern reaches of the Arctic Circle and most points in between. With a background in newspapers, the wire services and magazines that began in 1970, Frank brings a unique perspective to his work with Cabela's. He is an award-winning photographer with a flair for getting to the bottom line of every story.

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