Into the Wild

No one expects to land in a survival situation. And that’s why being prepared is the secret to making it out alive.

By Matthew Halverson January 26, 2010 Published in the February 2010 issue of Seattle Met

A MARRIED COUPLE is missing on Mount Ashland. Keith and Jennifer Lee set out in search of a Christmas tree on December 1, and no one has heard from them in more than 24 hours. Overnight low temperatures in nearby Medford, Oregon, have crept below 30 degrees and figure to fall further in the coming days. The search and rescue party is…searching.

This disquieting news comes via Dave Scott, an instructor at the Wilderness Awareness School, a nonprofit environmental education outfit based in Duvall. The cynic in me suspects that he delivered it at the beginning of my introductory lesson in wilderness survival to shock me out of my naive, citified sense of security and to reinforce the importance of the life-saving wisdom he’s about to impart. (You know, the way your shop class teacher taught band-saw safety by queuing up a Faces of Death–style video of accidental dismemberments. Or was that just my shop class teacher?) But then the clinical detachment with which he ponders the Lees’ fate (“We’ll find out, I guess, in the coming days what became of them”) hints that this is just a run-of-the-mill conversation starter for a guy whose job description is “Keep people alive.”

That task can be both exceptionally easy and remarkably challenging. Easy because there are only a few skills to learn and most of what Scott demonstrated under a canopy of Douglas firs near the school’s office in Duvall could be mastered, with enough practice, by a Boy Scout; challenging because the average person’s tendency to freak out in a crisis can render those techniques useless. “The biggest thing that gets people killed is panic,” Scott says. “It can make intelligent people act in very unintelligent ways.”

Take starting a fire, for example. The step-by-step process is relatively straightforward: Strip a bird’s nest–sized bundle of branches off of nearby tree trunks; a conifer’s dead, low-hanging twigs are good for dry kindling because they remain attached to the tree and the dense upper branches protect them from the rain. Set up camp, so to speak, under a large tree with lots of cover. Using one of the matches you should have with you at all times, light your loosely packed tinder (from the bottom, because flames travel up). As the fire grows, carefully add progressively bigger twigs and branches until you’re warming your hands over a small inferno. Heave a sigh of relief knowing that even if you’re destined to be attacked by a cougar, at least you’ll die warm.

When fear isn’t a factor, that fire-building method is the kind of self-evident concept that average, halfway-intelligent people could figure out on their own. But when the wood chips are down, Scott says, even the most logical city folk can lose it and forget how to start a fire with anything other than the tools—like starter fluid or newspaper—that modern living makes possible. “There are really hardy people out there who are able to keep their cool no matter what, and there are some people who have a propensity to panic,” he says. “If you’re one of the latter, you have to acknowledge it and train yourself out of it.”

So how do you not panic? Simply put: Be prepared. No one expects to skid into the ditch in a mountain pass or get lost while hiking to a scenic outlook, but those who keep some essentials in their car or backpack (the aforementioned matches, a couple bottles of water, extra blankets, a knife) are more likely to keep their cool if they do. It’s possible to start a fire using the old “rub two sticks together” method, but it requires a lot of practice and dry conditions that are rare in this region in winter. Surviving a night (or several nights) in the woods is stressful enough without the fear that comes from not knowing if you can find flame.

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Prep time: A familiarity with nature is crucial to surviving in the back country.

Preparedness isn’t just about stuffing the right tools in your trunk and pulling them back out when it’s go time, though. It means practicing survival skills at home, too. “One of my mentors used to say that you never want to try something the first time when you need it to save your life,” Scott says. Think you know how to build a shelter out of tree branches and leaves? Drive to a nearby forest and try it; if it doesn’t work, at least you can warm up in the car as you analyze what you did wrong. But more than that, when you know what you’re doing, that peace of mind will calm you down in a survival situation. “It’s a way to grasp back onto something that’s real,” he says. “You’ll have something to put your energy into.”

With Scott’s coaching—and thanks to a premade kit consisting of cottonwood root and nylon cord—I started a small friction fire on my first try and in less than five minutes that afternoon last December. The experience tapped into a primitive part of me that I rarely have to call upon in my cushy city life, and it convinced me—briefly—that I was ready to go it alone in the wild. But in reality it was just a fluky demonstration of outdoor acumen that, despite the warmth of the mini fire I built, left me cold: I’m no Grizzly Adams, and I knew I couldn’t do it again if my life depended on it. So I took a lot more comfort from the suggestions for a “survival fanny pack list” that Scott emailed me two days later, complete with an update on the missing Christmas-tree hunters: “By the way, just saw that that Oregon couple made it back home safely… I bet they have a story to tell.”

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