Most hunters have enough experience in the backcountry to keep from getting lost. They know the basics, such as being familiar with an area before setting off on a big trip and keeping fresh on their orienteering skills.
But when the unexpected happens and a hunter can’t find his or her way back to camp, valuable tips can increase chances of being found and surviving in the outdoors.
“We keep a first-aid kit with us all the time, whether we’re on horses or ATVs,” said Don Markley, who has led pack and hunting trips with Steamboat Lake Outfitters in North Routt County for 25 years. “In wilderness areas, we carry a satellite phone for emergency use. Our first-aid kits include a space blanket. And we feel that if you can start a fire, you can deal with a lot of things.”
Markley said a great fire-starting tool is a dryer sheet, the small towel put into a dryer to reduce static and collect lint.
“After they come out of the dryer, they’re great for starting fires,” Markley said.
“They’re lightweight and you can just put them in your shirt pocket.”
Charley Shimanski, education director for the Mountain Rescue Association and author of the Mountain Rescue’s General Backcountry Safety workbook, said those precautions begin even before a hunter leaves home.
One of the most important steps is to tell someone exactly where you are going, and exactly when you expect to come back, Shimanski said. Also tell them what circumstances could change that timeline, he added. For instance, light snow could mean better tracking and an extended hunt.
Another key is to orienting yourself with basic navigational tools such as a map and compass. New technology such as handheld GPS systems can be helpful, but if batteries die, those machines can quickly become worthless.
“A GPS is not a substitute for a map and compass,” Shimanski said.
Most hunting injuries and deaths do not happen because of a hunter getting lost, but rather because of misfired weapons or heart attacks, he said. Hunters who are not used to the physical exertion the sport requires may push themselves beyond what their ability, he said.
But even the most experienced outdoorsman can get lost, and Shimanski said it’s critical to know what to do in that scenario.
“Most people who are lost make their most significant mistake in the first 30 minutes,” Shimanski said. “You’re best at that point to stop for a minute (and plan).”
First, think back to the last time you realized you were not lost, and figure out what you remember — for example, whether there was a stream, a distinctive grove of trees, or a prominent ridge. That could help determine what to do next.
If you have told someone where you are and when you expect to be back, it’s usually best to sit still and wait to be found.
While giving search crews time to reach your area, do things to make yourself visible.
Build a smoky fire with wet wood, and fire a rifle or blow a whistle in groups of three. If there’s a trail nearby, you can write your name or leave a pile of branches, pieces of an orange peel or any other signal on the path.
“When we search for people, we’re not looking for the people — we’re looking for clues, because there are a lot more clues than there are people,” Shimanski said.
If you start moving on the trail, you should write your name and draw an arrow signaling which direction you’re headed, he added.
If there aren’t any trails around but you want to start moving, try what Shimanski calls the “wagon-wheel approach.” From a starting point, walk 100 yards to see if you find anything familiar, turn around and head straight back to where you started.
Repeat the process at each 90-degree angle, until you find a familiar landmark.
Shimanski said that it’s best to stay calm. An average person can survive three weeks without food, and three days without water.
Carrying a map and compass, as well as other essential backcountry survival items such as a flashlight, extra clothing, food and water, a pocket knife and a first aid kit, should help hunters make it through the worst-case scenarios that they could encounter this hunting season.
“The potential for accidents is there, for sure,” Markley said. “You have weather that moves in real quick, horses, sharp knives and guns — the potential is tremendous for accidents. When we’re using sharp knives on animals, we only have a couple people at a time doing the job.”
One of the best ways to be safe outdoors is to bring a friend, Markley said.
“I don't think it's good to go in the backcountry by yourself — just slip and fall, and you have an injury,” he said.”I don't think it's good to go in the backcountry by yourself — just slip and fall, and you have an injury,” he said.
“I don’t think it’s good to go in the backcountry by yourself — just slip and fall, and you have an injury,” he said.
For more information on surviving in the backcountry, go to the Mountain Rescue Association’s Web site at www.mra.org.
The “10 Essentials” according to the Mountain Rescue Backcountry Safety Workbook are:
U.S. Geological Survey topographical map, magnetic compass and other navigational aids as wanted
Flashlight (with extra batteries and bulb)Flashlight (with extra batteries and bulb)
Extra clothing (including mittens, hat, jacket and rain gear)Extra clothing (including mittens, hat, jacket and rain gear)
Extra food and waterExtra food and water
Waterproof matches in waterproof containerWaterproof matches in waterproof container
Candle/fire starterCandle/fire starter
Pocket knife, good skinning knifePocket knife, good skinning knife
First aid kitFirst aid kit
Space blanket or two large heavy-duty trash bagsSpace blanket or two large heavy-duty trash bags
Flashlight (with extra batteries and bulb)
Extra clothing (including mittens, hat, jacket and rain gear)
Extra food and water
Waterproof matches in waterproof container
Pocket knife, good skinning knife
First aid kit
Space blanket or two large heavy-duty trash bags