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I’m Lost! Hike Turns to Wilderness Survival Experience (Part 2)

stop We last left off where I was lost and signaling for help and integrating my S.T.O.P plan of action. (S=Stop; T=Think; O=Observe; P=Plan)

sun compassSo after working on signaling with sound, I decide to make a sun compass. Time is important right now so I only take 3 minutes to put this together. I get a straight branch and place it in the ground and mark the tip of it where the shadow ends with another shorter stick. The next part of the sun compass is time. As the shadow moves every 15 minutes, I mark it again. This allows me to form an accurate read on the sun’s trajectory and gives me an east/west line while getting other things done.

Off in the distance I hear the call of a woodpecker; I have an intuitive hit that this is important somehow but not sure at the moment. Birds are excellent allies because they know their place and are specialists and depending on the type of bird will indicate habitat.

A New Paradigm in Being LOST
There’s a lot of “charge” in the word “lost”; so much focus on the psychological fear of being lost. Things arise in the mind, like “I’m not going to have enough water, warmth or food.” This is a fear of the unknown. Let’s shift our paradigm about being “lost”.

Indigenous people all over the world lived (and live) so close to the earth that they did not call what they did on a daily basis survival. They did not consider where they lived “wilderness”; something separate from their lives. Historical research in ethnobotany as well as speaking to the native peoples directly, has taught us that it wasn’t about being lost, it was about “being”; it was not about surviving, it’s about “living.”

We can learn from this recognition of a close relationship to the land. In this paradigm, you are part of the forest. If you are at home in the woods, you are never truly lost. Knowing your place, the plants and wildlife as part of your community is what will nurture a healthy at-home mindset where ever you are.

Thinking of the forest as “home” starts by knowing your plants and their uses. What parts of them are edible, medicinal, and in what season? What edible plants have poisonous look-alikes and what are clues to proper identification? What trees are good for firewood, for tinder? As you get to know your plant neighbors, they become your allies in better understanding the habitat you are in.

Building a Shelter and Knowing Ecology
Pine TreeAs I scan the land and see what it has to teach me, I notice an area where there are a lot of small pines, and interspersed are large pines, 80 to 100 feet high. Why is this important? Because pines decompose slower, and they accumulate a huge layer of the debris that forms a thick mat. This is exactly what I’m looking for to create that insulative layer in the form of a sleeping bag. Clustered together they create a natural shelter from wind and rain while allowing sun exposure because the branches die off near the bottom. All of these decisions play a role in location; that’s why it is requires skill to be able to read the land.

I will not camp directly under the great pines where the bark is peeling and are probably infested with ants. That was what “that little bird told me.” The woodpecker’s activity tells me the tree is rotten inside and could become a potential blowdown hazard. I don’t want a tree falling on me. Also, lightning can strike the same place more than once so I am scanning for lightning scars.

Location! Location! Location!
Earlier, my sun compass lets me know how much light I have left to work with and this is crucial since I need to set my priorities. I choose my site and start building. It is very important to be able to read the land topography. A great shelter in a poor location equals a bad shelter; as the saying goes “Location. Location. Location.”

There are clues on the land to know where water pools even though the site looks inviting. By learning what plants grow in moist or wet soil, you learn that even when there is no water present, the plants tell you of a tendency towards moist soil conditions, hence, do not build your shelter in that spot. For example, when you see moss on the ground you know the soil will be damp. So I need to continue searching for a drier area.

leave shelterleave shelter young girlNatural-Shelter-fix 

Building My Shelter

I start with two leg-sized diameter logs, a little longer than my height laying down. Make them parallel like train tracks, which creates a container for all the small sticks I quickly throw into the middle, making a raised bed. This is vital for staying warm because you need to create a layer of dead air space between you and the ground as insulation. The reason is that the Earth is bigger than you are and the heat from your body will transfer to the Earth; this is called conduction. This is how you get cold from laying on the ground even if you are out of the wind. My bed is made out of a jumble of sticks and a thick layer of needles and leaves. This is really “comfy”; I’m not kidding!

Telling Time by the Sun
Marking the shadow on the sun compass again, I measure with my hand how much light I have left. With this method, each finger width represents 15 minutes; a full hand is an hour. I follow the path of the sun with my hand, and I realize I have 3 hours of light.

Since I used the S.T.O.P rule and stopped early enough in the day, I have plenty of time and light to take care of all of my basic needs, and even wander from my anchor point.

The Importance in Developing Skills and Training
I have slept out before when practicing making shelters and sleeping in them throughout the year to hone my skills. I have slept in home-made shelters under clear skies, rain, snow and freezing temperatures. My record lowest temperature is 15° below freezing in February with no fire while wearing jeans, fleece top, rain coat and hiking boots. This was to simulate for me a lost-hiker scenario. After teaching many classes on wilderness living skills and survival, I have the confidence and skills and freedom to be at home in the woods and not afraid of being lost. My hands-on knowledge enables me to share my personal experience so others can have confidence when they are learning and gain that sense of freedom.

Home Away from Home
Frank-FireIt is an amazing sensation being deep in the forest surrounded by the night with a glowing campfire for warmth and companionship. Everything is done! I have created my home away from home – a bed and shelter that keeps me warm enough even without a fire; my plastic bag to catch rain, dew, and drinking water; my sun compass for navigation, a safe fire location and firewood comprised of tree species that throw lots of heat, light and will burn long and steady over time.

Enjoying the experience of the setting sun, the sound of the owls in the trees, and crackle of a bright, warm fire, there is a real peace that washes over me. This is a gift to experience and learn from. I am camping; thriving, not just surviving.

It took me getting lost to truly find the gift of the present moment.

You’re LOST…Now What? (Part 1)

A Beautiful Hike in the Foothills of the Berkshires…

Nature ConnectionIt’s a beautiful spring day, and the sun is going in and out of the clouds. It’s cold at night and warm during the day…just right for the maple sugaring season. It’s been a cold winter, and I look forward to being able to get into the outdoors, and now is my chance.

I decide to go into the foothills of the Berkshires to go for a hike. I think I’ll take with me some basic essentials: a day pack, water bottle, bag of gorp, lunch, a way to make fire and light, heavy duty trash bag and a small first aid kit.

I tell my wife that I’m going for a day hike. I tell her I’m going to park the car at the trailhead…just in case. I always plan ahead like that.

When I get to the trailhead, I notice that the temperature has really changed; it’s a lot warmer, possibly mid-40’s. I’m wearing hiking boots, quick-dry pants, a fleece and the wind/rain jacket.

Pine TreeAs I enter the forest, the tall trees, like pines, oaks, birches and beech, are all around me. I feel a sense of peace wash over me. As I walk on the trail, I start to let go the details in my head and about the things I need to take care of—at home or for work, like returning emails, making phone calls; it all seems to get further and further away from my mind as I keep walking deeper into the forest.

I walk for a few hours or so, and I begin realize my body is starting to heat up now. I need to take off a layer; it’s really important not to sweat. This is a really good principle to follow in the outdoors—the no-sweat principle. As I walk I pass several streams, and I see the spring wildflowers, hear songs of the birds as they fly overhead, it is quite serene.

I journey on for a good part of the day stopping for a light snack and then a hearty lunch, drinking water periodically. Continuing on, as I head deeper into the woods, I hear the call of the red tail hawk above (“keer!” pause “keer!”); we all know this sound (the movies have played it over and over…it is often heard, especially when a wilderness scene is shown on the screen). I love that sound.

I thought I would be able to tell where the trail is, but as I get deeper into the wilderness, the trail is marked less and less. I take a few steps closer to one of the blazes. Normally it has a white painted marking between 4 to 6 feet high. When I look really close, I notice that part of it has painted over brown.

lost 2So I’m able to tell for about a half an hour but then all of a sudden, I can’t seem to find the trail. I look around and it all seems to look the same. It doesn’t look like there’s been any maintenance out here for quite some time.

I try to retrace my steps; backtracking is something that I’ve read about where you try to follow the path that you came in on. But it is really difficult to see. I try to remember the key parts of tracking: notice a crease in the leaves from the weight of the foot, the area that was dug up by the heel or possibly the drag marks of my hiking stick or the tired footfalls. None of these things worked.

There’s a moment when you have to decide to cut off any other possibility, and take action and allow yourself that recognition that you’re lost!

Once you decide you’re lost, it becomes easier psychologically; you know you need to do something…some kind of lost protocol…but as you decide that you’re not lost, you keep telling yourself “oh it’s gotta be right up here.” “I know the trail is just up ahead.” “No, I’m not lost, just a little disoriented.” It’s thoughts like these that have you get farther away from the last place where you knew where you were…thoughts like these can keep you getting deeper and deeper lost in the woods.

stop

When lost, this is an important acronym to memorize: S. T. O. P.

Stop: This means do just that. Don’t go any further. This has been an emergency protocol and has been very effective. It’s used by the Scouts, outdoor organizations and guide services, search and rescue and many others. When you stop, you also need to calm down; you may want to sit down and take a few breaths and get centered. This is important. Not only are you not going any further, you are also creating what’s called a “scent pool.” This is the term for when particles of scent flakes are falling off your body, onto the ground and the trees around you. It is a concentrated area where, if search and rescue are using dogs for searching, this will be really helpful for the dogs to locate you. This is also why you hug a tree when lost.

Think: A lot of things can be going through your mind at this time. You’ve accepted the fact that you are lost. This is very important step. You need to prioritize your thoughts. Think of your basic needs: shelter, water, fire, signal, food and first aid for the first 72 hours. You may have to spend the night.

A wilderness guide used a good analogy–the first hour or so, the search area can be represented by the size of a business card on a map, and a few hours later, it is the size of open newspaper!

Observe: Use your senses. Do you smell the smoke of a fire; listen for the sound of a roaring river; see the direction of where the sun is traveling across the sky; notice where you are; look for catching features on the landscape, i.e. rivers, streams, trail junctions, dominant boulders or trees, a ridge that you can get a bigger view to see a field or lake in the distance, or a road, a fire tower.

Plan: It is important to create a plan for yourself and know your plan and take ACTION.

This could be marking your area with bright clothing, create a visual signal that creates a contrast to the environment (red coat, orange poncho, etc.). You want to come up with some “what if’s” scenarios, such as “if I hear a vehicle, helicopter or people yelling, what do I do?”

Do you have a way to make noise or a bright light if it is dark and they are searching at night? Sometimes it is easier for the rescuers to see fresh disturbance of tracks at night with lights at a low angle (tracking tip).

It is now late afternoon, and as I make my decision and it begins to slowly sink in that I am here for the night…perhaps longer…I begin to take action. Although it is warm now, I remember the nights have been cold. Before I launch into creating an insulative layer up off the ground and sheltering me from the elements, my first action is making some noise. I get a good solid stick and look for a dead tree that is close by for a better resonance when I hit it. A solid live tree sound will not carry. I also have a skill of whistling with an acorn, and that is extremely loud. I know there is no one searching for me at this moment, however I may find another hiker or a farm house or logger in the area.

threeThe universal sign for emergency is 3! Three loud whistles, gun shots, car horns or banging a piece of metal if trapped underground in a mine or in a building in an earthquake. Always remember 3.

TO BE CONTINUED…I’m Lost! Hike Turns into Wilderness Survival Experience