Wilderness Survival: What to do in the Great Outdoors

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The National Park Services (NPS) conducted 2,658 search and rescue operations in 2014 alone. Day hikers account for 43% of search and rescue missions, with 54% of them being for people between the ages of 20-29. Most search and rescue missions occur because of ill-prepared hikers and what the NPS calls an “error in judgement.” Hikers may underestimate the time a hike will take, not pack enough water, or overestimate their physical condition.

While the NPS does not publish an external account of fatalities, many individual parks do. Yosemite National Park averages 12-15 deaths per year, out of approximately 4 million visitors. In 2014 there were 181 search and rescue missions in Yosemite. These actually aren’t incredibly staggering numbers. Venturing into the mountains can be a low risk activity with the proper knowledge and equipment. There are some things you should not “learn as you go.”

Here is an outline of basic pieces of equipment and knowledge you should have in order to stay safe in the wild. Be prepared, be alert, and have fun.

Map and Compass – Lou Lepsch is a Land Navigation Instructor with Compass Rose Apparel and knows the importance of packing a map and compass, as well as being knowledgeable on how to use them. “Batteries die and technology will fail you at the most inopportune time. Knowing the basics of a compass and map may save your life.” Don’t rely on your phone or GPS system alone. If you’re on the East Coast and looking to gain or brush up on your land navigation skills, Lou offers multiple backcountry navigation courses. Otherwise, learn the vital navigation skills by checking out clinics at your local outdoor sporting goods store, enlisting the help of a knowledgeable friend, or using the many tools available online.

Extra Water – Even if there are water sources on your route and you have a method of purification, it’s a good idea to carry a little extra. Heat, sun exposure and over-exertion can leave you dehydrated within an hour. Some parks and trip itineraries provide guidance on a minimum amount of water that you should carry.

Fire Starter – There are numerous options for incredibly lightweight and small fire-starting supplies, each with their pros and cons. You may choose waterproof matches, a flint, or cotton balls dipped in Vaseline and a lighter – whatever you choose, know how to build a fire. Check out Graywolf Survival’s guide to building a fire here. A fire provides warmth, light, and peace of mind when in the wilderness at night. Fire also keeps animals and bugs away, gives you the ability to purify water or cook food, and is an excellent way of signaling for help.

Leave your Itinerary with Someone – Have you read 127 Hours: Between a Rock and a Hard Place? If you haven’t, here is a short synopsis—experienced climber and canyoneer, Aron Ralston, goes into the Blue John Canyon and doesn’t leave his itinerary with anyone. A boulder falls on him, crushing his arm and trapping him. In order to save himself, he has to cut his arm off … with a pocket knife. Don’t let this be you. Tell someone where you’re going, who you’re going with and what time you should be expected back. If things go awry, at least someone knows where you are.

Emergency Blanket – This small, practically weightless piece of equipment has so many uses. First, and most importantly, it can provide a lot of warmth and ward off hypothermia in a cold-weather emergency. The blanket can also be used to build a shelter, signal for help, or make a solar still.

First Aid Kit – Many outdoor outfitters sell fully stocked first-aid kits that will meet your wilderness needs. You can also create and customize your own first aid kit. Before you wander off, learn about the kit’s contents and how to properly use them.

Headlamp & Extra Batteries – Sometimes a day excursion rolls over into the night. It happens. The beautiful views, the siesta by a lake—it takes time to soak that in. Perhaps you underestimated how long your adventure would take. Please don’t rely on your cell phone as an emergency light source. Pack a headlamp and extra batteries.Extra food – While it’s true that you can survive many days without food, chances are you won’t want to. Food is energy, and packing some extra energy will come in extremely handy when presented with a survival situation.

Iodine tablets – Toss a few of these tablets in your first aid kit for an emergency water purification system. (Don’t forget to label them.) If your water bladder springs a leak, or you run out of water, you have a Plan B, permitting there is a water source around. You don’t need Giardia or E. coli ruining your return home.

Layers – A phenomenal time to visit Joshua Tree National Park is in April. The days are crisp and hover around 85 degrees—but night temperatures usually hover around 50 degrees. In a t-shirt, this 35-degree difference could leave you on the brink of hypothermia. Regardless of the temperatures you’re starting in, pack extra layers appropriate for the low temperatures. A raincoat is a must have as well. You should always have the ability to stay dry. A one-dollar plastic poncho weighs a couple of ounces, and packs down to a tiny size. It’s not ideal, but better than nothing. Also, leave the cotton at home. Cotton soaks up moisture, leaving you wet. Always pack and wear moisture-wicking layers.

Your Wits – Your brain is your most important resource. Staying alert to your whereabouts, weighing the risks and benefits, noticing weather changes, and trusting your gut—these are some of your most powerful wilderness tools. If you can stay calm, there is a good chance you can survive an unexpected situation. Don’t let adrenaline-fueled poor decisions decide your fate.

There are numerous resources and classes available to help you master wilderness survival. Do you have any resources you’d like to share? If so, click here to comment!


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Stephan Aarstol is an American internet entrepreneur and author of the book The Five Hour Workday, which is based on Tower Paddle Boards' invention of the 5-hour workday in 2015 that would eventually spread the idea to over 10 million people worldwide. Since founding Tower in 2010, it has gone on to become one of America's fastest growing companies and Mark Cuban's best investment in the history of Shark Tank. Tower has diversified into a direct to consumer electric bike company called Tower Electric Bikes, a beachfront event venue called Tower Beach Club, and NoMiddleman.com, where consumers can shop all the world's finest direct to consumer brands from one easy place.