Survival skills 101


Dr. Dan Smilkstein, a Steamboat Springs physician with plenty of experience in high-altitude recreation, offers the following advice for flatlanders heading straight to the high-country hills:

• Be aware of your elevation. Some people develop altitude sickness as low 4,000 feet, while 8,000 feet affects most others.

• Watch for the following symptoms: disrupted and irregular sleep, loss of appetite, mild nausea, low energy, drowsiness and mild headaches. If you’re experiencing any of these, don’t go any higher. You don’t necessarily have to go back down; within 24 to 48 hours your body should adjust. But if the symptoms get worse — breathing problems, headaches, etc. —  descend to a lower altitude.

• Drink plenty of fluids and eat a carbohydrate-rich diet. Avoid alcohol. Eat regularly to keep a steady flow of calories and energy.

• Rule of thumb: Don’t sleep 1,000 feet higher than you did the night before. If you’re just coming up to altitude, spend two to three days in the valley before heading up to camp.

• Don’t push yourself hard the first 24 hours. A high level of exertion as your body is acclimating can aggravate health problems.

• Tylenol and Ibuprofen (and hydration) are fine to treat headaches. Be careful with sleep medications (Smilkstein recommends Diamox for sleep quality and ventilation). Before heading to altitude, speak with your doctor about potential medications and any underlying pulmonary and cardiac conditions.

With most trophy animals off the beaten track, inherent risks come with chasing record-book racks. When hunting, you’ll often be far from help in unfamiliar terrain, and oftentimes you’ll be alone.

Knowing basic survival techniques and packing appropriately for mishaps is essential.

Just ask Steamboat Springs’ Darrel Levingston, a member of the Routt County Search and Rescue team who has spent many a cold night locating lost hunters.

He’s seen all the mistakes, from not monitoring the weather to being ill-prepared and getting lost.

To combat the latter, he suggests bringing modern technology into the mountains. Not only can cell phones and GPS do wonders for your own orientation, he says, but they can also help rescuers.

But he also cautions against relying on such gadgetry.

“Technology has changed the way search and rescue works, but electronics have limitations,” he says. “Even though they’re great to have, you should also take such basic essentials as a map and compass.”

Electronics, map and compass aren’t the only extra items you should pack. Brett Mason, of Routt County’s Longshot Ranch, recommends always bringing more supplies than you think you might use.

“At the very least, you want to have a basic survival kit,” he says. “Even if it’s just a first-aid kit, matches, water and a flashlight, you want to be prepared.”

A survival kit also should include an emergency poncho and blanket, whistle, extra knife, cotton balls or other materials to start a fire, and a small signal mirror.

Mason also advises to stay hydrated. He brings between three and four water bottles with him per hunt. “You can go a night or two without food,” he says. “But you definitely can’t without water.”

Weather is another factor to consider. While a cold snap can bring animals down from the high country, it can also wreak havoc on hunting parties, causing people to lose their bearings, post-hole through snow and get hypothermia.

To deal with unpredictable weather, Scott Brennise, of Craig’s Superior Guide Service, recommends having layers of dry clothing on hand.

“Around here, the weather will go from 60 to zero really quickly,” he says. “I tell people to bring Gore-Tex tops and bottoms, a good jacket and two sets of boots — one for when it’s snowy, cold and sloppy, and another lighter pair for when it’s normal.”

No matter the forecast, adds Levingston, be ready for anything. “The weather can change in an instant,” he says. “You need to have clothing and equipment for all four seasons, regardless of what the day might look like.”

This is especially true in the later hunting seasons. “Later in the year, weather becomes more of a factor,” says Kevin Rider, owner of Rifle’s Timberline Sporting Goods. “Pay attention to weather reports before you go out. You need rain gear in the earlier hunting months and winter layers in the later seasons. Weather protection is something all hunters need to think about.”

So is alerting others of your whereabouts, adds Levingston. Telling someone where you’re going and when you plan to return can spell the difference between a safe, successful harvest and a miserable, extended stay in the backcountry.

“Northwest Colorado is a big place to look for someone,” he says. “Knowing where people are going and when they expect to return can cut search time down dramatically.”

This holds true no matter how long your hunt. Mason and Brennise usually hunt a day at a time. But they say the amount of time doesn’t matter; everyone should be prepared, no matter what.

“We usually go out for just half a day,” Mason says. “But we’ve had people get lost and not get back until that evening.”

Because even familiar territory mixed with foul weather can present danger, the only thing certain is how smartly you’ve packed, he adds. “You never know when you mightget hurt or get lost,” he says. “You should always bring the basic essentials.”