Included: Inexpensive Survival Gear AND Specific Gear Uses for Avoiding Wilderness Emergencies
Let's talk about serious injuries in the wilderness and how to prevent them.
Lightning Storms - In the mountains, lightning storms are reported to strike most often in the afternoons, so it's a good idea in questionable weather to get your hiking done early, so you can be off the mountain. If a sudden thunderstorm rolls in, your best move is to turn back and head to shelter. Better safe than sorry. If that is not an option, at the least get inside a closed car or truck, and sit away from the sides, and do not use anything electrical like a radio, CB, cell phone booster, cell phone charger, etc. If lightning strikes a car it will travel along the exterior, and drop into the ground. So you are typically safe inside a vehicle with the windows rolled up.
Stay Calm - If no cars, homes, or other buildings offer shelter from the storm, and you are caught outside, stay calm and do not panic.
Get away from any exposed areas, especially hillsides and mountain crests, ridges and cliffs, watery areas, and meadows. Avoid, tall, solitary trees, and ultimately seek cover under a thicker section of trees. If there's no trees nearby, head to a low-lying area, and make yourself as small a target as possible for a strike, by crouching, and covering your head and ears with your arms -- specifically during an intense lightning storm as can happen in various regions. Do not lie flat on the ground, as a lightning strike nearby has a great chance of carrying a short distance across the ground and striking you.
How to tell a lightning strike is imminent - A "positive streamer" will occur, a tingling sensation where your hair may seem to stand on end as the electrons in the air collect underneath the storm clouds and the sudden charge your body has taken can precede a sudden lightning strike that hits in the direct area you are standing. Take a deep breath and stand on the balls of your feet, crouching, and continue to hold your breath, trying not to breath. This can lessen the impact a lightning strike can have on your body. Read More: First Aid for Lightning Strike Victims
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What to do:
Carry elastic bandages - these are the kind of bandages typically used for healing a light sprain. A severe sprain may call for two of these bandages, one wrapped over the other, to increase support for the sprain.
We're going to assume that you are out of range of calling on a cell phone for help, and that you're not carrying a satellite phone. Even if you are, wouldn't you rather hobble your way out of the wilderness on one leg and make-shift crutches, then call for help and end up with a hefty bill to local search and rescue services to pay for the helicopter that was sent up to find you? Most of us would be smart to tend to our own wounds, regarding any sprain. (A broken knee or broken leg however is another story ... it might not be possible to hobble out on a broken knee, though you can try, if you can make a good crutch easily.)
Making a crutch - When using a crutch to walk, two crutches are a lot more effective than one crutch. You may have to crawl around on the ground for a few minutes, but many wilderness areas have fallen trees and tree limbs you can scavenge.
What you're looking for is a sturdy branch, potentially 3 - 4 inch diameter at the base, 4-5 feet in length (depending on your height) with a second branch "forking" off it, forming a "V".
4 inches from where the base of the "V", break or cut off the second branch. The "V" is where your armpit will rest, so that this branch can be used as a crutch.
Tie clothing around the "V" area, even using long socks to create a padding to rest your armpit. Find a second tree limb approximately the same height (or simply break one or cut one, if you have a saw blade) and build a second crutch.
Two additional elastic bandage (that's 4 total in your pack) can be used to secure the clothing you've tied to the "V". And now your crutches are well padded for heavy travel.
Duct tape can also work well, even better in many cases if you use enough of it.
Slowly, and carefully make your way out of the wilderness making every step count.
You may have to stash some of your hiking gear off the trail, if your pack is too heavy to carry on your back while on crutches. Keep survival essentials that you'll need with you for possibly another night out if you don't make it back to the trail head before nightfall.
* To help prevent any sprained ankles or banged up knees, did you know that you can wear protective gear -- ankle braces and knee braces -- to help prevent injuries from falls or excessive use? At any age, arm yourself in advance with ankle support and knee support, and you can completely avoid a common slip and fall injury. These include Ankle Braces for Preventing Sprained Ankles and Knee Braces for Protecting Knees from High Impact use or trauma.
Even people in great shape and accustomed to long hikes can suffer from a twisted ankle. It's amazing that such an easy way to avoid sprains is overlooked by so many people every year who show up in emergency rooms with a sprained ankle while hiking in the outdoors.
Hopefully authorities will put the National Guard to work, and assign them to regular patrols through mountainous back country, on the look out for illegal growing operations. Isn't that a better use of the National Guard rather than just assigning them to chores and classroom time on base? How often do they ever see action? Lets put them into active units, and send them out on real patrols (if you agree, please send this suggestion to your local congressmen) and get the drugs out of our national forests.
In areas of high danger of forest fire, choose a route for your travels that offers escape from fire, in any direction that fire may be coming from. If fire is coming from a higher elevation, then you simply need to move to a lower elevation, and get out of dodge as soon as possible. But any time fire is coming from a lower elevation, now you have to be careful on what route you choose to escape, as canyons and chutes in foothills and mountains can act as chimneys, carrying heat and flames quickly to higher elevations, especially in times of high winds.
If a forest fire is catching up on your position, ask yourself a few questions fast: Which way is the wind blowing? What direction is the heat moving? What geographical features in the landscape will hinder a forest fire's travel (lakes, wide river, tall ridge line, wide open meadow), and which features (canyons, chutes, dense forest) will encourage the fire's growth, and the path it takes?
The correct answer to these questions can help you choose the best path of escape, so that the fire misses you completely. The wrong decision can leave you at a dead-end, with a forest fire quickly catching up on your position. Heat from the approaching flames can melt your lungs, killing you before your clothes have even caught fire. Dense smoke can choke you and kill you. Avoiding all three, heat, smoke, and flames are essential steps to take to survive.
Extreme forest fire survival tactics include building a make-shift raft out of logs already floating along shore, and then floating out to the middle of a lake, and attempting to wait out the fire there. If you don't have a way to float, you can wade out into the water as far as you can walk, splashing water over your head, repeatedly, if any winds carry high temperatures in your direction. Covering your head with clothing, and breathing from inside your shirt, can help keep you from choking on hot gases in the air.
Exercise - Push ups, jumping jacks, picking up really heavy rocks and doing squat exercises, running in place -- all of these can be used to help get your blood pumping, and get temporary and immediate warmth to your extremities, which in the early stages of hypothermia are lacking adequate blood flow to keep you warm.
Another great exercise and one that makes more sense for your emergency situation: Look for downed trees and large, dry logs that you can begin building a burn pile with. Move quickly to collect twigs and sticks. Only take this step if you actually have the means to start a fire (which if you're anywhere near the wilderness, you should have multiple ways -- a couple lighters, box of wooden matches, emergency candle, emergency fire starter, etc.). Getting a fire started, and collecting adequate amounts of wood that you can burn can get you through a freezing night and save you from hypothermia.
Hypothermia caused by cold water - If you've fallen in the water in cold temperatures, now you're in trouble. Severe cold can effect your body quickly, making it difficult to do simple tasks such as lighting a fire, and for some people, even thinking clearly. You have to fight off the shock of the cold, and force yourself to focus on the task at hand. Get out of your wet clothing and shoes immediately, and begin doing those exercises stated above. Exercise vigorously for 30 seconds, and proceed to begin collecting wood to build a fire. Every minute (or less, depending on temperature), take repeated breaks from wood collecting and fire building to exercise in 30 second intervals. This way you can fight off hypothermia while taking steps at the same time to build a fire.
What if you have no way to build a fire? - Your second step after you've built a fire -- and the first step to take if you have no means to light a fire in the first place -- is to build a small, insulated shelter out of available materials at hand. First, you need to get a few inches off the ground. Otherwise, the exposed ground below will sap the heat from your body where you attempt to sleep, so the first step to take to help avoid this is to layer brush (evergreen boughs work great, but so can other dry brush that may be present) for the floor of your shelter. The second step is to build a wall -- you can build a simple lean-to shelter out of available materials, and then move quickly to stack brush, and keep stacking it up against the walls, so that your shelter looks like a pile of brush and sticks from the outside.
Use whatever you can (moss, grass, clumps of grass and dirt stuck together) to fill any open spaces in the walls, and add additional insulation to your shelter. Think of it like building a human-size bird's nest.
Finally, build this "bird's nest" in a location that is blocked from wind by natural features in the environment. This reduces the danger of wind chill bringing down the temperature even more inside your shelter.
* Last word of note: If you have the means to get a fire started, get your fire burning first, and then build an emergency shelter around it, with the opening facing away from any wind, and the fire built near the opening of your shelter... this will allow any possible breeze that is making it through your shelter to push smoke from the fire away from where you will rest inside.
In the outdoors, any time you get off trail to look for firewood, or to clear an area of brush to set up camp, these are common times you can encounter it.
Identifying Poison Oak - One strong identifying feature of Poison Oak, Poison Ivy and Poison Sumac is that all three plants have shiny leaves. The leaves on Poison Oak grow in clusters of three, and usually it's a small plant near the ground, or can grow into a small shrub a few feet in height. Poison Ivy can grow as a small plant or as a longer vine. Poison Sumac can grow into a tall shrub. Usually one of these plants can be found in just about any region of the U.S, though Poison Sumac is only found in the southeastern United States. Read more: Outsmarting Poison Ivy and it's Relatives
Preventing Giardia - Go out of your way to always boil or filter water from outdoor sources, and be familiar with the best ways to filter and or purify water when away from civilization. (We have published several articles in past months that give specific instruction to making water safe to drink in the wilderness or following a disaster. Please use the search bar at the top of the website for specific instruction.)
For $20 or less Lifestraw makes an emergency water filter for backcountry use, and a device currently saving lives in third world countries due to it's effectiveness, inexpensive price, and total water volume that just one Lifestraw can be counted on for. (Also a recent Time Magazine invention of the year award winner.)
Grizzly Bears - When in grizzly country, odds are greatly increased of a dangerous encounter. It's important to understand grizzly bear behavior, and what places they are most likely to frequent (near streams, near berry patches -- especially when berries are ripe, so pay attention -- also the edges of meadows, and any time you spot any type of dead carcass realize a grizzly may not be far off. Again, be extra alert in these areas so you can be ready for a grizzly attack. A grizzly can charge you, spotting you before you spot the bear. Grizzlies can move fast, and attack with little warning. Around camp keep food stored far away from where you sleep -- tents should be as far away as 100 yards from where you cook and store food (store that food high in the trees, using rope, etc.). After you've packed up camp and are on the trail, don't carry open food with you -- open food will have the strongest smells, and winds can carry the smell of food you're carrying in the direction of dangerous and hungry grizzlies.
One hiker must-have in bear country: Highly potent pepper spray formulated to deter bears as well as the presence of mind to use it in an emergency ... even prepared to deter a bear, why not take steps along the way, whenever possible, so that you possibly never have to use that can of pepper spray?
To deter bears before you ever see them, make a lot of noise along a trail, especially approaching a blind corner or area with limited visibility, or hiking next to a loud creek.
A Sept. 2015 article in National Geographic is an eye-opener and shows just how many lives have been saved by bear pepper spray when people have had encounters with bears. Bear pepper spray has been proven in countless situations.
National Geographic: How a Potent Pepper Spray Became the Best Bear Repellant Don't travel alone, and strongly consider a rifle with the stopping power to bring down a charging grizzly.
That means for us in grizzly country that we can have others in our party on point also, with rifles at the ready, alert in any grizzly areas for a possible and sudden charge from the trees. Sure, these people on point can carry bear pepper spray, but realize that a rifle with a minimum stopping power of a 30.06 is going to have the best odds of stopping or deterring a charging grizzly. But if you're going to be in grizzly country, why go with minimum stopping power?
Rifles specifically rated for hunting and defense in grizzly bear country are the Ruger Hawkeye Alaskan (.375 Ruger) and the Winchester Model 70 Alaskan (.375 H&H). See Outdoor Life: 9 Great Guns for Grizzly Hunting and Backcountry Defense
One more point -- it's not enough to simply be a grizzly hunter -- grizzly hunters have been attacked and mauled as well. So it's not enough to simply have a powerful gun. In addition, having 1 - 2 people on point, rifles raised and ready, actively watching the surrounding environment for grizzlies, can offer the greatest protection when traveling through grizzly country.
Mountain lion / cougar - Small children are most at risk, since they are seen as defenseless and an easy meal to a mountain lion. Keep children close by at all times. Don't let them run ahead on a trail, or fall behind. You and your children should be alert for mountain lions. If one is spotted, stand up tall and waive your arms, and shout / scream at it. Throw rocks and sticks also. Keep shouting. Roar at it if you can muster a roar. You're trying to scare it, and you are trying to look dangerous at the same time. A mountain lion can be bluffed, and scared off.
Alligator - (Southern states) - If you're not near the water, or near an alligator nest, most alligators won't come after you. In the rare occasion one should move toward you, simply run in the opposite direction -- though they are fast they don't run far and you can make an easy escape, as long as you are quick on your feet. Never get closer than 15 feet near an alligator. Near the water line and near an alligator nest you are most at risk for attack. Be alert. Additional details here: Common Myths and the Truth About Alligators
Wolf - Most wolf packs will avoid humans. But if the pack has gone long enough between meals, the possibility exists that you could suddenly be seen as food, and now at risk of a wolf attack. Like a mountain lion, wolves can be scared off by you (and other members of your group) yelling and throwing rocks and sticks, jumping up and down, roaring with the best roar you can muster (this is war, you should realize). If you can get to your firearm quick enough it's time to start shooting ... but these are just warning shots ... no need to actually shoot any wolves -- not unless it's obvious an attack is imminent. Go with your instincts at that point.
Stories of men wrestling and choking wolves into submission have made reports as well. Worst case scenario, wrestle the wolf into a headlock and choke the life out of it (some of our readers may be capable of that sort of thing, but sure, it's not for everyone). It's been reported that jamming a fist down a wolf's throat can cause it to choke, and scare it off, the wolf deciding that you're too dangerous, too tough of an opponent.
If you're fast enough, and have a good knife handy, stabbing an attacking wolf several times can win the fight; with knife injuries to it's face, neck, and throat, that wolf is likely to run off.
Use a repeated stabbing motion, not a slashing motion, which can miss, or simply not hurt a wolf at all.
Quick, powerful stabs can push a wolf back, keeping you steady on your feet, and able to defend yourself, the knife always between you and the wolf. Video: Stabbing knife deters three pitbulls in Tacoma, Washington attack
Removing a tick - It's not as simple as swatting at a tick -- you might knock it off your body that way, but realize that it's head can break off underneath your skin, infecting you with lyme disease, or simply becoming infected even if this particular tick doesn't carry lyme disease. The way to remove a tick is to hold something extremely hot to it's back-end (such as a hot knife or something else metal, or even a lit cigarette). A tick reacts by backing out of where it is feasting, and the head becoming exposed. Once the entire tick is exposed, now you can swat it away and safely dispose of it. If you've been bit by a tick, a smart move is to be seen by a doctor, and checked for lyme disease.
Avoiding ticks - A few products exist for repelling ticks and contain substances such as DEET that are powerful insect repellents. Native Americans that lived off the land in previous centuries are known for using cedar oils (from cedar needles), and rubbing it on their skin. Ticks are naturally repelled by this substance. American pioneers are known for spreading cedar saw-dust across their floors, to help repel pests (like ticks) as well. Cedar can be used in multiple ways to protect from ticks and a few other problem insects. Read More: Natural Insect Relief for Your Home and Pets: Cedar oils
Avoidance is the best way to protect against a snake bite - What that means is that paying attention to your surroundings, and specifically being extra alert if you are venturing through the brush, are ways that you can completely avoid a snake bite. In an area known for venomous snakes, stay out of the brush and stay in the center of trails, paying attention to things like rocks, and downed trees, and overhanging brush -- any place where a snake may be resting, or waiting for prey.
Snakes can also appear along a trail -- so stay alert as you travel.
Clear away brush from where you set up camp, leaving plenty of exposed ground around your tent. Keep tents zipped at all times when in snake territory. Finally, always check your sleeping bag before crawling into it. Feel around on top for anything that may have crawled inside somehow unexpectedly, should someone else in your party forget to secure the tent at some point.
When collecting firewood, use a long stick to poke around any suspicious piles, and watch for movement, before proceeding. In rattlesnake country, listen for the tell-tale sign of a rattler.
When crossing through the water in these areas, be on the look out for water snakes, as several sub-tropical regions have deadly snakes that spend much of their lives in the water.
Water Snakes - In a jungle or swamp, a venomous water snake is a real threat (though there are also non-venomous snakes in these areas). Specific regions of the United States stretching from southern Illinois to Texas and to the southeastern states -- especially Florida -- are known for Water Moccassins (Eastern Cottonmouth, Western Cottonmouth, Florida Cottonmouth).
Clear away brush, not only from a wide area of ground where you want to set up camp, but also from any tree branches that may hang down into camp. Snakes can descend from overhanging tree branches, so removing these branches before hand can reduce the risk of a snake bite.
Climbing dangers - If climbing a slope, be careful where you place your hands, especially on ledges. Rattlesnakes (and a few other species, depending on region), will sun-bathe, and you can easily place a hand right within striking distance. Keep a tall, curved stick at your side, and use it to poke around above you, swinging from side to side to clear the ledge of a possible snake, and at the same time -- if you're in rattlesnake country -- listening for that rattle they are named after. When not in rattlesnake country, listen closely to the sound of any movement coming from the ledge above you. A swinging stick can trigger a snake to bite at it -- you are listening for movement from any possible snakes.
Snake gear - Wear heavy boots and pants to minimize bite risk to your legs when crossing through brush, tall grass, or collecting firewood -- but still be careful -- a false sense of security can cause you to stop being alert, and that's exactly when you may be bit. Also, remember to watch ahead and above you -- snakes can climb brush and trees.
Treating a Snake Bite and Symptoms of a Snake Bite - Read More: Treating a Snake Bite
The smart choice at high water may be to simply turn back, rather than risk your life or the lives of people you are traveling with by attempting to cross. If you must continue, you can hike either up stream, or down stream, to find the safest place to attempt a river crossing.
Send your strongest, most fit person across the water with a long rope first, to secure a line. Secure multiple lines, if possible. That same person, if he (or she) is capable, can then take each person's backpack across, so that each remaining member can cross the stream minus a backpack (packs can pull a person under water, in a rushing stream -- it's best to remove your pack, and then have it carried across, rather than try to wear it on your back -- if you fall in a stream, your pack can pull you under, and the weight of the water make it nearly impossible to get back up -- not unless you can kick off your pack. More detailed techniques here: How to Live Off the Land -- Crossing a Dangerous River
Mark out things like mountains, lakes, ocean, roads and towns, in the dirt.
Find a High Point - Now, look for a high point you can climb to nearby -- which can include climbing a tall tree, if you're in a forest -- where you can now get a 360 degree view (or as much of a view as possible), of the horizon, above the tree canopy. Do you see any landmarks that you noted on your map?
Determine the Position of the Sun - Now, note the position of the sun (if it's cloudy, yet daytime, study the sky for a few minutes, and try to determine where the sun is behind the clouds. Be patient, thicker clouds may give way to thinner clouds after a period of time, where you may now be able to pick out the sun.
Return to you map that you've drawn in the dirt, and using the location of the sun (and the most likely time of the day), figure out east and west (the sun rises in the east and sets in the west). It's not a perfect science, but using these methods can help you move in the general direction you need to move, if you don't have a map, compass, or ability to read either. (If you're going to do any backpacking, you should take the time to learn both map reading and compass navigation.)
Stay the Course - Continue to find high points periodically where you can study the horizon, and make sure you are heading in the right direction. People who think they are traveling straight, yet not following a marked path, can have a tendency to curve, and you can end up traveling in a circle (a common report of escaped POWS in Vietnam, who escaped confinement in the jungle, to often end up in a circle, rather than a straight path of escape).
A smarter tactic is to carry a mid-size container for water, at least a gallon in size, knowing that you may need 2 - 3 gallons of water per day.
If you are traveling through a desert environment though you may have no choice but to take special steps for carrying large amounts of water (which may include a deer cart or game carrier commonly used by hunters to carry heavy weight through the backcountry).
You will need to have a means of purifying water along the route you travel, in order to replenish your water supplies; having multiple ways is the best strategy.
Those can include a backcountry water filter like Lifestraw, and also emergency tablets for purifying water, and finally a means to boil water. Should you experience any equipment failure, or loss of equipment in any way, you have back up.
Finally, understand that staying hydrated with water isn't as simple as just drinking a lot of it. You can quickly deplete electrolytes during exertion (older people are most at risk), and so foods and supplements that replace these electrolytes are strongly encouraged.
Take care on the trail and always be prepared.