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Sierra magazine
How Not to Die in the Woods

Today's emergency kit: a cell phone and a lighter

By Paul Rauber

Uh-oh.
"I thought you brought the map!"
"It never snows here this time of year."
"What do you mean, you're out of water?"
"That was our last match."
"A tin of Altoids and a PowerBar? That's it?"
"He's not moving."

Slowly the realization sinks in that maybe you're not going to get back home in time to watch Survivorman. The joy of a day spent stalking wily pheasants or scouting spring wildflowers is replaced by a cold lump in your stomach. Then, depending on how well you've prepared, you either stand around in a daze or get to work staying alive.

Preparedness is not my strong suit. It was sunny at home, for example, when I packed for my February wilderness survival clinic at Southern California's Tejon Ranch, so I left the wool socks behind. I'm an optimistic sort and presumed beneficent sunshine would follow me.

It snowed.

Attendees at the clinic, sponsored by the California Department of Fish and Game's hunter education program, had been asked to bring along their "personal survival kits." Unwilling to admit I didn't have one, I threw together a couple of kitchen matches in a plastic bag, an old compass I'd forgotten how to use, some ancient Band-Aids, a Leatherman multipurpose knife I stole from my wife, and a spare Clif bar.

Luckily I didn't take the wrong turnoff from Highway 5, get lost in the snowy Tehachapi Mountains, and have to put this pathetic packet to the test. Even more luckily, I never had to show it to Paul Turpin and Russell Marta, the beefy, no-nonsense dudes who had volunteered to teach our motley collection of 20 hunters, anglers, and dayhikers what to do when things get rough.


From left, garbage-bag architecture in action; the author wonders how to cook a squirrel; Eden Rosales takes shelter.

Both have a lot of experience in that area: Turpin, a former Green Beret, and Marta, whose face looked like it had seen duty as a punching bag, are guards at a maximum-security prison. Neither could be accused of being an optimist: On the first day, we discussed the wisdom of carrying a lightweight titanium revolver in your backpack. "Depends on where you're going," said Turpin. He and Marta also made it clear that we wannabe survivalists shouldn't expect any Euell Gibbons- style foraging for wild asparagus and hickory nuts.

Paul's new and improved survival kit.

Survival Pack Checklist

  • Cell phone
  • Compass
  • Lighter/flint and steel/ waterproof matches
  • Duct tape
  • First aid supplies
  • Parachute cord
  • Knife
  • Whistle
  • Signaling mirror
  • Garbage bags
  • Space blanket
  • Water-purification tablets
  • Pictures of loved ones
  • Dryer lint

Don't get lost with a lame survival kit like
this one.

"If you're lost in the wilderness," Turpin said at one point, "you want meat." And sure enough, by the end of the weekend we could build shelters out of garbage bags, start fires with flint and steel, and ensnare (or at least thoroughly annoy) small woodland animals.

"I believe in using technology to its fullest," Turpin declared at the outset. First thing to do when you're lost? Take out your cell phone. "If you're in an area that has coverage," Marta said, "help is as close as 911." And before setting off your aerial pop-up flare (a lost hunter doing so in 2003 burned down a big chunk of Southern California), take the time to hike up the closest hill: "You just might see that nice AM/PM [convenience store] on the other side."

But let's suppose you are truly lost in the boonies. (You don't need to have been tracking javelina--it could be that the minivan died in the middle of that shortcut that looked so promising on the map.) Here's what our clinic's Survivor Men advise: Sit down. Breathe deeply. Think things over. "Fear is like being hot or cold," Turpin said matter-of-factly. "You just learn how to deal with it."

Your job is to answer some questions: What is your main problem? What resources are available? What's your plan? "The thing that gets most people in trouble is that they panic and do something totally stupid," said Turpin. He cited the case of the misfortunate Kim family, who got stuck in a snowstorm after taking a shortcut through the Oregon mountains in December 2006 without telling anyone where they were going. After six days, James Kim set off in search of help; his body was found four days later. His wife and children stayed with the car (which was visible from the air), were rescued, and survived. The moral, according to Turpin: "If you're lost, 72 hours is the longest it will take [searchers] to find you--if they know you are missing."

So if you want the nice folks in the helicopter to come looking for you before you accustom yourself to a diet of squirrel-on-a-spit, you need to tell someone where you're going and when you'll be back. Leaving a note in your vehicle at the trailhead helps. While you're at it, suggested Turpin, also leave an imprint of your boot on a piece of tinfoil, so the search-and-rescue crew will know which footprint to look for.

In wilderness survival, as in so many other realms, success is greased by money. A clever but pricey fix for lost souls is a cell-phone-size gizmo called Spot ("the greatest thing I've seen in a long time," declared Turpin). You push a button, it signals a satellite, which signals an earth station, which sends a message to someone who cares with your GPS coordinates and an indication of whether you're just saying hi or would prefer a medevac. Another option is the Bushnell BackTrack, which marks the GPS coordinates of your starting point and guides you back at the end of the day. It's also helpful for finding your car at the mall.

So you're stuck somewhere and maybe someone is coming to get you and maybe someone isn't. This is where preparedness comes in. Every time you go into the wild, Turpin insisted, your car and backpack should both have an emergency kit with the tools to start a fire, make a shelter, acquire food and water, and signal the Seventh Cavalry when it comes looking.

The time-honored method of keeping your spirits high in a tough spot is to build a fire, partly for the instant feeling of accomplishment it gives you. (Just don't burn Southern California down again, please.) Turpin recommended always being ready to spark a fire in several different ways--with paraffin-soaked matches, a flint and steel, or (duh) the cheap cigarette lighters you should keep in multiple pockets.

Turpin split us into teams to practice our fire-starting skills. Everyone began with a hole in the ground (to shield the starter flames from wind) and a "nest" of the most flammable stuff we could find. (Real bird nests reportedly work great.) Ruben Rosales and his seven-year-old son, Eden, tried--and tried and tried--rubbing two sticks together with a friction bow, sadly without success. (Life before Bic was tough.) Young friends Laura Rubin and Briana O'Rourke attempted to ignite an Ignite-O fire-starter packet with a flint and steel, succeeding only when they ignored the directions and opened the packet to expose the flammable contents. A father-son hunting team took apart a bullet to ignite the smokeless powder, and some of the younger hunters had a little more fun than was absolutely necessary mixing a small amount of potassium permanganate with a teaspoon of antifreeze to create homemade napalm. (Very effective, if of dubious backcountry utility.)

I opted for old-school flint and steel--a very nice "Aurora" model from Solo Scientific. It threw a massive spark once I learned to apply sufficient pressure, but not enough of one to set fire to my nest. Taking pity, Turpin threw me a lifeline: a wad of clothes-dryer lint doused with petroleum jelly. One spark was all it took. I vowed to replace the kitchen matches in my sorry survival kit with a film canister packed with these bomblets. (Marketing opportunity for an unemployed environmentalist: "Lint-O, the only emergency fire starter made with recycled dryer lint.")

Once you get a fire started, you need a place to shelter your bones. It doesn't take much: Our teams concocted an astonishing variety of very usable refuges using a 55-gallon plastic trash bag (Turpin thinks everyone should carry one) and a couple of yards of cord. (Another must-have for my kit: parachute cord, a.k.a. paracord or 550 cord. In a pinch--like when you need to make a shelter out of a garbage bag--you can unravel the braided strands, multiplying your cordage length.) For a cushier emergency experience, carry a military poncho or Mylar blanket, the reflective surface of which is also handy for signaling a rescue team. When the cold night comes, stuff leaves in a trash bag and call it a sleeping bag. All you'll miss is the mint on your pillow. Well, and the pillow.

After having warded off hypothermia with a cheery fire and a good sleep in your garbage bag, you wake up hungry, with 48 hours until Turpin's search-and-rescue friends track you down. Time to trap some protein! It's not easy to explain without lots of diagrams, but with just a few yards of paracord, a strategically bent sapling, and a carefully whittled trigger, you can construct a nifty and possibly even lethal snare. Marta admitted that these are a "low-odds solution," so "you've got to set up three or four and hope for the best." (One of our teams made a particularly lame version that was dubbed the "vegan snare.") But that's okay: A common problem faced by folks stranded in the wilderness, according to our instructors, is figuring out how to keep mentally occupied. And, as Marta said, "you can sit and think for days about triggers."

There's an infinite amount more to learn about keeping yourself alive, of course--much of human history has been Survival 1A. There's "How to Signal for Help" (three of anything: whistles, fires, gunshots) and "How to Find Water Where None Is Obvious" (put a plastic bag with a weight at the bottom around some leafy green foliage, tie the neck securely at the branch, and water will condense out of the leaves and gather in the bottom of the bag). People used to learn such skills from their parents; now they learn them from reality shows, books, and the California Department of Fish and Game.

One reason this body of knowledge is withering away is that people just aren't getting lost the way they used to. Today you really have to work to get so far away that you need more than a charged-up cell phone.

Still, if you are among that dwindling number of Americans who wander beyond the alpenglow of the city lights, it takes only minor forethought to avoid becoming a cautionary news story. Just head down to the local army surplus store for some basic equipment for your pack and car. Finally, add snapshots of your spouse, kids, and even your pet to the kit. When you're in a tight spot, Marta said, "you need to change your mentality and stay in the fight until you get out of it." Having a tangible image of a loved one can make the difference. Because sometimes the most important part of surviving is the will to do it.

Paul Rauber is a senior editor at Sierra who aspires to getting his two young daughters off-trail.

Photos by James Erin de Jauregui; used with permission.

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