by David Hart
Expect the Best, Prepare for the Worst
Mike Cramer knew better, but the sight of a big bull elk can make even the most sensible man throw common sense aside. So with two hours left in the day, Cramer worked his way down the steep Colorado mountain, weaved his way through the thick timber and crossed a boggy meadow as he closed the distance on the bull. He never made it.
“It got dark, so I headed back up the way I came, but apparently I kept veering off to the right,” recalls Cramer, a retired plumber from Houston and a member of UA Plumbers Local 68. “I ended up walking all night. I figured I’d find camp sooner or later. I walked the entire next day, too.”
Three days later, exhausted, disoriented and slipping in and out of hallucinations, the USA member started screaming for help in a last, desperate attempt to make it home to see his wife, who was pregnant with their first child
“I thought I heard someone yelling back at me, but I was hearing that before, so I thought I was just hallucinating again,” he recalls
Turns out, they weren’t just voices, they were his friends who were heading out of the Colorado wilderness on foot to get help. Cramer was less than a thousand yards from camp.
Mistake Number One
Before heading out for his hunt, Cramer was smart enough to grab an emergency blanket, often called a space blanket, and he had a lighter with him. However, he had nothing else he needed to survive in the wild.
Erik Kulick, founder of True North Wilderness Survival School, knows more than most about surviving outdoors.
“The biggest mistake people make is not being prepared,” Kulick said. “They don’t expect to get lost because they aren’t going far from camp, or they know the land or something like that, so they don’t have the necessary equipment when they do get lost,” says.
What’s equally important, adds Kulick, is simply admitting you are lost and accepting that you will likely not make it home when you thought you would. No one likes to spend the night on cold, hard ground, but there comes a point when it’s critical to acknowledge you won’t make it back to camp safely. That point varies. Weather, terrain and your physical condition can dictate when it’s time to stop walking and start preparing.
Kulick says it can take two hours or more to fully prepare properly for a night in the woods.
“The psychology is critical. People tend to panic and behave irrationally when they realize they are lost and it’s getting dark. Nothing is more important than keeping a level head, so you can make rational decisions,” he adds.
First Things First
First, build a shelter. Without one, you’ll risk getting wet and losing precious body heat from wind and cold. Books and TV shows often tell us to build one from branches and leaves, but there’s a simpler way.
“I always carry a 10-by-10 sheet of plastic. It’s light, it’s cheap and I can use it in a number of ways to make different shelters,” Kulick says.
Where you build a shelter is less important than simply building one, but given a choice, find a place that is protected from the wind and as protected from rain and snow as possible.
Next, build a fire. Cramer had a lighter with him and the woods were dry, so he was able to build a fire quickly. He might not have succeeded if the woods were damp, though. That’s why Kulick says it’s critical to have some sort of highly flammable tinder. He prefers cotton balls soaked in Vaseline. They burn hot, and they flame long enough to catch even damp sticks on fire.
“You can start a fire in a downpour if you have the right tools. It won’t be easy, but there is almost always enough dry fuel out there to get a good fire going,” he says.
Should you learn how to build snares or identify edible plants? That’s unnecessary, says Kulick. Most people can go a couple of weeks without food, but few people lost in the wilderness are lost for more than a few days. You’ll lose some weight, and you’ll feel like you might starve to death, but eventually you’ll forget about food.
“The U.S. military did a study and found most people burn up more calories trying to gather food than they actually gain from the food itself,” he says. “Focus more on staying safe and warm and dry.”
Once you survive your night in the woods, you’ll have a much better chance of making it out safe and sound the next day.
Whether you strike out into the backcountry for a few hours or a few days, there are things you must always carry with you. It could mean the difference between life and death.
Survival expert Erik Kulick recommends a 10-by-10 sheet of 2 mil plastic for a shelter, a wind-proof lighter, and a ferrocerium rod—a man-made metallic material that produces sparks.
Also carry reliable and effective tinder, 50 feet of parachute cord, a fixed-blade knife, a flashlight, a signaling device and a water purification tool. A metal cup can be used to heat water, which can raise your core temperature.
If you run out of water in your canteen, you’ll need to drink.
“I like survival straws, but you’ll have to get on your knees to drink, so you may get wet,” Kulick says. “Iodine tablets work, but you’ll need a bottle or something to hold water.”
It’s also good to have a map and compass, but only if you know how to use them.
The best way to learn basic survival skills isn’t from a reality TV show, but from a skilled, experienced instructor. There are numerous wilderness survival training schools throughout the country and most offer high-quality instruction on basic and advanced skills.
Simply going through one course isn’t enough, though.
“You have to practice what you’ve been taught. The more you do it, the better you get, and the faster you can do it when you really need it,” says Eric Kulick. “Go out in the woods when it’s raining, and practice starting a fire. It may save your life one day.”
Survival School Contacts
True North Wilderness Survival: www.exploretruenorth.com
Nantahala Outdoor Center: www.noc.com
Wilderness Awareness School: www.wildernessawareness.org
Boulder Outdoor Survival School: www.boss-inc.com
The Union Sportsmen’s Alliance website is designed to provide valuable articles about hunting, fishing and conservation for members of AFL-CIO affiliated labor unions and all sportsmen and sportswomen who appreciate hunting and fishing and want to preserve our outdoor heritage for future generations. If you would like your own story and experience from the outdoors to be considered for our website, please email us at USAmembers@unionsportsmen.org.