Backcountry survival is often sold as an adventure, but it is not a romantic topic. The best way to avoid putting yourself in a survival situation is to be prepared. This means you need a plan before taking a trip in the backcountry. Yes, you should have basic survival equipment with you, but more importantly, you need to mentally prepare yourself with knowledge that can save your life.
Know What Survival Requires
There is a big difference between taking a day hike or backpacking into the backcountry, and finding yourself in a situation where your life is threatened. In the former scenarios, you have provided for your well-being ahead of time. In a survival scenario, you may have been prepared, but something has gone wrong. You are off script.
This can happen for any number of reasons. Mishaps occur in the backcountry, even for people who are well-prepared. One of the first mistakes you might make is to take for granted that you are ready, and that nothing can go wrong. Many of those with outdoor experience have overestimated their physical fitness, abilities, and the severity of nature, and paid a high price for it.
No matter how much expertise you have, you can’t discount random chance. One of the most common causes of backcountry mortality is falling. The other two most common are drowning and cardiac arrest. Getting lost is also one of the most common emergencies when traveling the backcountry. What you can do is be mentally prepared and understand how to take actions that improve your chances of survival.
1. What to Do if You are Lost
The vast majority of people who venture into the wilderness return safely. Of those that become lost, many are able to return to safety without intervention. The first step is to recognize that you are lost. Put aside your pride, and begin the process of putting yourself back in familiar surroundings.
2. Control Your Fear
Anyone with significant backcountry experience has been lost, injured, or otherwise found themselves in a difficult spot at one point or another. There is a particular feeling of disorientation in unfamiliar wilderness that you immediately recognize if you have experienced it firsthand.
Your surroundings take on a surreal quality, and your environment becomes oddly foreign. What was a pleasant experience turns into something uncomfortable. Reaching this moment is crucial. The first step to removing yourself from danger is recognizing that something is wrong in the first place.
Set aside pride and any assumptions you have about yourself and your abilities. The faster you come to this realization, the better. Stay calm. Remind yourself that your chances of survival increase if you do not panic. Take time to breath and begin forming your plan. There will be plenty of time to reflect on your errors when you’re safe by the fire, drinking a cup of hot cocoa, telling your friends the story of the time you bravely navigated back to safely.
3. Stay Put
Whether you have lost your way, or are injured, in most cases your best bet is to stay close to the spot you first realized you need help. This is your “lost point,” the location where you realized you are no longer operating according to your plan.
Often, people who lose their way in the backcountry aren’t actually that far from familiar surroundings. Take stock of your situation. In the event you are injured and can’t move easily, focus on making yourself as safe and visible as possible.
If you are disoriented, don’t move from your current spot until you have a specific plan in mind. If sunset is approaching, the last thing you want to do is travel in the dark. Do not walk aimlessly. Think about where you are, and what landmarks you should be able to see. You should have a map and compass with you, and you should know how to use these. But if for some reason this isn’t possible, error on the side of caution and do not move far.
4. Build a Shelter
Exposure is a significant risk in the backcountry. If you are in or near a vehicle, stay inside. Provided the vehicle is operational, run the engine to stay warm in careful intervals only when the temperature is too cold to tolerate. Keep in mind, however, that if you turn the vehicle’s engine off, it may not restart.
If you are outside, use what you have available. A survival blanket is indispensable emergency equipment in the backcountry. Find a place out of the wind, preferably with cover, and huddle up for the night. Keep yourself as dry as possible.
In an environment with lots of downed tree branches available, it is often possible to make a simple lean-to shelter. Place a long tree branch with one end anchored near the ground, and the other raised up and wedged against a tree. Lean additional branches against this main beam on both sides, forming a “V” wedge. Cover the outside with leaves, if available. With a survival blanket and this simple shelter, you should be able to ride out the night. If there is snow on the ground, building a snow shelter may be a possibility, as well.
5. Build a Fire
Remember to stay close to your lost point and focus on staying warm. Gather materials and build a fire if you are able. A fire offers warmth and some protection from the elements. A side benefit is that gathering materials to build and maintain a fire will keep you focused, leaving you little time for panic. Remember not to travel far from your lost point, however, and places markers within line of sight to stay oriented.
It isn’t easy to build a fire without specialized tools. It can take hours, and frustration will set in. Rubbing two sticks together is often a futile effort, and it takes up a lot of energy. Try making a fire with any friction method at home, under controlled conditions, and you will quickly learn how difficult this is. You need a nest of tinder made from highly flammable, dry material, and the patience to build up enough heat to ignite a flame.
Flint and steel are marginally more effective, but this method takes time and the right conditions to be successful. You must practice at home. You need dry tinder, and enough of it to hold a flame. Your best bet is to have redundant emergency fire-starter kits with you. Learn various techniques and practice them at home. Always carry an emergency fire-starter kit if you travel into the backcountry.
If building a fire isn’t an option, a simple survival trick involves a candle and a tool to light it. Bring a small candle in a tin as part of your emergency kit. Cover yourself with your emergency blanket, leaving a small opening to breathe through directly for ventilation, and light the candle. Keep your head as covered as possible using this method and ensure you do not burn yourself or your clothing with the candle. It is surprising how much warmth you can retain in your makeshift shelter this way.
6. Drink Plenty of Water
Dehydration is a serious threat in the backcountry. Do not drink from standing water, or any source you are unsure of, if you can avoid it. Rely on the water you brought with you as much as possible. Do not over-exert yourself, and drink water before you feel thirsty, even in cold weather. always travel with a sturdy, dedicated water container, and do not rely on disposable plastic bottles, even on day hikes.
You should always have a water purification system with you. This can be as simple as carrying water-purifying tabs in your emergency kit. Moving water sources are preferable to standing water, but there is no guarantee these are clean and safe to drink from. Use your purifier tabs to be safe.
7. Be Easy to Find
Do what you can to make your location as obvious as possible. If you have managed to start a fire, burn green, moist fuel to give off more smoke. Make as much noise as possible. Use your survival whistle liberally. If you can create a marker or signal, perhaps with a small piece of brightly colored cloth or reflective material, it may help searchers locate you.
8. Tell Someone Before You Leave
Do not venture into the backcountry without informing multiple people of your departure time, expected return time, your planned route, and where you plan to go. This is one reason it is so important to stay close to your lost point. If searchers know where you were headed, and you aren’t far from the spot where you lost your way, they are more likely to find you.
9. Carry Supplies
Putting together a survival kit is not expensive, and it does not need to be bulky. One of your most important pieces of equipment is adequate clothing for the environment you are traveling in. In addition to the regular supplies you would carry on a short hike or backpacking trip, keep your survival kit stocked with emergency items.
Never head into the backcountry without a compass and an adequate topographic map of the area, and know how to read both. Practice before you leave. A global positioning system and smart phone are great to have, but never rely on these alone. Always have an analog compass and physical map in your kit. An emergency locator beacon is also an excellent piece of kit to have, but these are more expensive.
This metallic sheet folds into a small square, is very light, and can save your life in an emergency. Emergency blankets are inexpensive, as well. There is no reason not to have one with you, even for a short day hike.
Fire Starter Kit
Include waxed matches in a watertight container, an emergency lighter kit, and some form of fuel at a bare minimum. A flint and steel kit is fine, as long as you know how to use it. Also carry a candle inside a small tin.
Keep a small head lamp in your survival kit. Make sure to change the batteries before you leave. Hand-cranked units or solar-powered flashlights may also be helpful, but these are not always easy to charge.
Water Treatment Tabs and Container
These are very lightweight and can save your life in a truly dire situation. Carry enough to treat at least 7 days worth of water, along with a durable container.
Signal Whistle and Mirror
A small signal whistle can alert searchers from quite a distance, especially if you are unable to move. Keep a small signal mirror as well. Both could save your life.
Sharp Knife and Multi-tool
You can accomplish a lot with a cutting edge and simple tools. Keep these in your kit at all times.
A small length of versatile cord is indispensable in a backcountry survival situation. You can use it to make a sling, tourniquet (if you know how to use one), or splint. Tie branches together to better secure a shelter. Fray the cord and remove the material inside to gather tinder. Paracord uses are seemingly endless in a survival situation.
A small, hand-operated radio, extra food, a first aid kit, and much more can all be extremely useful. But you are more likely to carry a survival kit if it is light and doesn’t take up much room. Build your kit, put it in a small carrying case, and store it in your backpack.
Study Before you Leave
Various books and courses can help you learn how to improve your chances for survival. Take the time and prepare yourself before you travel into the backcountry.
Backcountry Survival Titles
Learning backcountry survival skills from a book is only a starting point, but these titles have either withstood the test of time, or are written by experts with demonstrable experience. Reading about survival is not the same as training and preparing for a survival situation, but having more knowledge may save your life when something goes wrong.
- Outdoor Survival Skills by Larry Dean Olsen
- Outdoor Survival Guide by Randy Gerke
- The MeatEater Guide to Wilderness Skills and Survival by Steven Rinella
- U.S. Air Force Survival Handbook: The Portable and Essential Guide to Staying Alive, produced by the United States Air Force
- Special Forces Survival Guide: Wilderness Survival Skills from the World’s Most Elite Military Units by Chris McNab
- Survive!: Essential Skills and Tactics to Get You Out of Anywhere by Les Stroud
- How to Survive Anything: From Animal Attacks to the End of the World (and Everything in Between) by Tim MacWelch
- 98.6 Degrees: The Art of Keeping Your Ass Alive, by Cody Lundin
Survival Schools and Courses
When you are considering training in survival and backcountry preparedness, understand that you need to make a significant investment of time and resources if you want to be successful. These courses are operated by reputable people in the field, but do your due diligence before spending any money or trusting your life to someone else.
Advanced Survival Training: Tim MacWelch, an outdoorsman with more than 30 years of experience practicing outdoor survival, is the founder of the school and author of several books on wilderness survival. Classes are conducted in Northern Virginia, and range from $127 for one-day training to $697 for five-day courses.
Aboriginal Living Skills School: Cody Lundin, former co-host of Dual Survival on the Discovery Channel, founded and has operated the school since 1991. The school is based in Prescott, Ariz., and courses in survival typically run $695 and up.
Itchatad Outdoor Survival School: Founder and instructor Byron Kerns is a former United States Air Force SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) instructor with substantial teaching experience. His new school is based in Madison, Georgia, and offers beginner classes starting at $175, up to $1,600 for group courses.
Boulder Outdoor Survival School: School founder and noted survival expert Larry Dean Olsen established the program — known simply as BOSS — as a way to reach failing college students. In operation since 1968, BOSS is based near Boulder, Utah, and has a reputation for offering tough instruction in the field, with fees ranging from $1,895 for a 7-day survival course, up to the “Standard” 28-day course for $4,920.
Learn to Trust Yourself in a Survival Situation
Preparing yourself and studying basic survival skills greatly increases your chances of getting through a life-and-death situation. There is no way to avoid every risk you might face in the backcountry — short of never visiting in the first place — but you can almost always prevent disaster with a plan.