Drilling Down to Three Reasons Why People Die in the Wilderness

Just came out of a workshop today where we did a “table-top” survival scenario as part of a problem solving and communication workshop. The question was asked later in class, “what really causes people to die”. I had answers ready but decided to allow time for discussion on the issue. Since it was problem solving, we used the formula I had been facilitating through the day. We eliminated heart attacks and other similar physical ailments, and we dismissed incidents where people are killed instantly like lightning strikes, the random bear mauling, and alien abductions gone wrong.

Here is the list- and then my commentary on what barriers have to be overcome to increase you chances of coming home alive or in a body bag. Out of 9-10 items on the list (Fire, Shelter, Navigation, Signal, and Water) the team narrowed it down to three basic reasons people wind up with Mr. Murphy and the Grim Reaper as outdoor pals on what may be their last adventure.

Underestimate or Miscalculate the Risk

Just a day hike. Just a trip to the woods. Taking a drive to scout deer. We’ll talk ego and the adage of “my husbands an expert in ….(fill in the blank) in a moment. The majority of survival situations start-off routine and innocent. Nothing spells disaster quicker than a fishing trip with a buddy, a quick hike on your favorite trail, or the yearly planned elk camp/ hunting trip you have taken since you were a kid.  Chaos is an incredible factor and it only takes a few subtle events for things go terribly wrong and you are suddenly facing  a life and death scenario.

You have to plan for the unexpected no matter how remote the chance. Play the “what-if game and prepare for those contingencies before you set off on your trip.  Once you’re in the boat, on the trail, or pursuing an elusive geocache the back country it’s too late.

Gap in Knowledge- No Gaps in Ego

Boy Scouts walk with the motto, “Be Prepared”, and at one time it really meant something before the days of coddling parents and litigation. The Scouts were a path of passage into masculinity.

The sad truth today is most people who wind up in a crate  and a long black car or in best case, a medivac is because in a wilderness survival situation, have very poor at best knowledge on how to surviva and are usually totally unprepared. Equally as bad is the number of people who feel they “got all the skills”, so they think they don’t need training or get updated on the latest thoughts on survival.

Here are the 5 key things to know and practice in Fort Backyard before your next trip:

  • Create fire in all conditions (wet, windy, rainy)
  • Create shelter with minimal supplies- including water proofing
  • Find and purify water
  • Know how to signal (smoke, sound, sight)
  • Apply first aid or self aid.

For each of these you should master one method using modern techniques and master one using primitive techniques.

All Dressed Up and the Wrong Place To Go

The ability to regulate your core body temperature to 98.6 is the signal most important factor in survival.

In 2009 Abby and I section hiked the Continental Divide. We encountered snow, rain, wind, and of course some simply wonderful days of sunshine, well actually all the above weather was the cycle of each day. We would routinely run across people in shorts and flip-flops on a trail as much as 3 miles from the nearest trail head.

Abeni on the CDT with me in 2009

Abeni on the CDT with me in 2009

Its better to have and not need than need and not have, an old adage Ranger Sean Kazmire used to tell me. The basic rule is dress one layer warmer than you need and take stuff off and throw it in your backpack before you get hot. But once you leave a jacket or poncho behind there is nothing worse than being cold knowing that you left it in your rig or base camp.

Use clothing that retains warmth even after it becomes wet. I only use cotton as an outer-layer in hot dry climates that there is minimal chance of rain, and keep poly-pro or wicking under-garments in case I need to get dry in my pack.


Demonstrating the cooling properties of the Ghotra at Scooter’s Youth Hunting Camp in Emmett, Idaho

Don’t dismiss hot climates either. Something as simple as a Ghotra or Shemagh can provide shade and when wet, act a swamp cooler to keep your body temps down.

It’s a pretty simple solution to a complex question, why people die in the wilderness. Getting trained and then being ready to use that training in preparing for circumstances increase your odds of living. Taking the right tools and knowing how to use them solves so many issues and in addition doesn’t put other’s live in jeopardy when they have to go out to the woods to find your corpse.


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