Every year, hunters find themselves in serious trouble in the forest. Survival, live or die depending on how they respond, trouble. Some are prepared for the eventuality and do well. Others are not and end up making a single contribution to the local morgue. Since that’s not my idea of a successful hunt, let’s take a look at what we can do to prepare for tough times in the hunting forest.
Last fall my 13 year old son and I were sheep hunting 24 miles down in one of Montana’s “Unlimited” areas (we never saw a sheep). We had been hunting a large exposed ridge at almost 11,000 feet, looking for sheep in the cliffs and canyons below us. Strong winds had been doing their best to blow us off the mountain all day, and as night fell, the gusts intensified. I didn’t have a gauge, but I think there was a sustained wind of 45 to 50 miles per hour, gusting up to 70. The terrain was too steep to descend in the evening light, and we wanted to be in position. to glass from the top of the cliff at dawn. It was cold and we needed shelter if we hoped to survive the night. We had a good tent, but even the best tents experience a high mortality rate in that kind of wind.
Backcountry hunters face similar scenarios every fall, and with good judgment they can be weathered with ease. But without good judgment, these situations can quickly become life-threatening, introducing the most important survival tool you possess: your wits.
In any survival situation, staying calm and using your wits is key. Do not panic. Instead, take a deep breath, look around you, and weigh your options. Think calmly and you will find a way out of any situation you find yourself in.
In the scenario above, my son and I faced severe exposure to wind and cold, with the potential for a fatal fall if we made poor decisions. Instead, we found a tiny copse of stunted trees with a sheltered pocket inside big enough to hold our tent. Then we crawled out and crouched down for the night. Our bed was at roughly the same angle as the free fall slide at a water park, and enough wind blew through the stunted wood to make the tent rattle like a ’78 2-stroke. We didn’t sleep much, but we stayed warm and alive.
Skills and Training
Besides your wits, your skills and your training are the most important survival tools of your team. If you’ve never built a fire in a humid climate at 11,000 feet above sea level, you probably won’t be able to light it when things go wrong and your life depends on it. Did you know that fires are reluctant to burn at high altitudes due to reduced oxygen in the air? It is true. Combine that with wet fuel, and a fire can be difficult to start. So practice until you’re really good at starting fires.
Creating shelter is another essential skill for the Woodsman. It’s silly, but a lot of guys don’t even know how to pitch a tent. If that’s you, take the time to learn. Also learn how to build a primitive shelter out of a tarp or just the natural materials available. Most survival experts agree that shelter is the first and most important element in establishing when your life is on the line.
Learn to navigate using observation, the map and the compass. Getting lost in the woods is an experience most people will forget about given the choice. Sure, if you have your phone or a GPS, it will save your bacon, until the battery runs out. Electronic devices can and often do fail, so learn to navigate and stay “found” without them. You’ll be a better lumberjack and more in tune with the nature around you if you use observation instead of a screen to navigate.
Train with all your hunting and survival tools. Develop the skill and gain the knowledge you need to keep your wits about you and survive any adventure nature throws at you. Don’t look for trouble, but be prepared for it.
three personal items
There are three elements that, combined with good luck and even better judgment, will allow you to survive the simplest emergencies in the wild. Every time I go out into the field I carry in my pockets: a lighter, a multi-tool and a headlamp. With them I can light a fire, build a shelter, repair rigging, skin a deer, travel or work at night, give distress signals, and a thousand other things. Even if I somehow lose my backpack, I have the necessary tools in my pockets to survive for a short time. Without them, I am reduced to tooth and nail, neither of which is very sharp.
survival tool pack
Inside your package should live a lightweight yet comprehensive kit of poop-hit-the-fan tools. Combine them with your wits and skills, and they will allow you to survive a pretty serious calamity by the forest. Here are the tools that I personally think every hunter should have in his hunting gear whenever he ventures out into the field:
Contractor Grade Trash Bag: Quite humorously, this $.50 item could save your life. You can hide from moisture or wind in it, use it to collect rainwater, cool meat in a spring on the mountainside, and 101 other things. Get the super resistant suitcases. I always carry two.
fire team: It’s a great idea to have a backup cigarette lighter and compact waterproof matchbox, along with some cotton balls dipped in Vaseline or a similar high-octane fire starter. Be sure to test all of your items in real world settings to verify that they will work for you. Dire times are not ideal for testing equipment; do it in advance.
stainless steel canteen: They are ideal for carrying water (none of that unpleasant plastic taste), as well as for boiling water for cooking or purification. I like the wide mouth ones from Klean Kanteen. Simply remove the plastic cap, fill with water and turn on the heat.
Knife: I always carry two: a lightweight fixed blade knife and a lightweight folding knife. That way, if I lose one, I can still skin a deer, carve a spoon, or craft a fish trap.
backup headlight: Take an extra headlamp with you, as well as a set of spare batteries. I’ve had to process animals and navigate through nasty dead woods with no light, and trust me, it’s no fun. Has a backup light.
Water filter: If you are going camping and hunting from your backpack, it is a good idea to carry a compact and lightweight water filter. If you’re just doing day hunts, it’s not necessary, especially if you have a stainless steel canteen that you can boil water in if needed. A good backup option for day hunts is the LifeStraw – they weigh a little more than a feather and you can suck water straight from the source. (Read instructions; they can clog if not “blown out” after use.)
map and compass: As mentioned above, these can save you when your electronic devices break down. They require some basic knowledge to use, so study up. Use 7.5-minute USGS topographic maps; they will offer a wide angle perspective of your hunting area that you will never be able to get from a screen.
Clothing: Don’t go crazy with this, but try to pack enough clothing so you can stay warm and dry in whatever weather comes your way. One of the biggest dangers in the backcountry is hypothermia: getting too cold. Plan ahead and bring enough layers to cope.
medicines: This one is easy to forget, but if you find yourself held up by some unexpected disaster on the field, you’ll want your meds. Carry enough to survive for 5-7 days. If you are severely allergic to bees or the like, keep an Epipen handy. And don’t forget Vitamin I (Ibuprofen) in case of severe pain or inflammation. Lastly, add a small tube of Neosporin or similar triple antibiotic ointment.
First aid: Carry a small, lightweight first aid kit. This only needs to contain a couple of Band-Aids, some alcohol pads, gauze and athletic tape for large wounds, and a small packet of Quick-Clot or similar. Some Benadryl and Imodium tablets will complete your kit. Anything intractable with this kit should probably inspire you to hit the SOS button (see below).
Within reach: This is probably the most capable lifesaving tool you can carry. With it, you can communicate with loved ones or emergency personnel, navigate, save waypoints, track your own movements, and much more. And in a life or death situation, you can summon the cavalry directly to your position by pressing the SOS button. I recommend the inReach Mini 2 – it’s super light and incredibly capable.
There are some special considerations that don’t fit into the “all packages must have this” category. Take a look below to see if any of these fit your hunting habits.
bear protection: If you live and hunt in Alaska, Canada, or the Rocky Mountains of the northern US, you should carry some type of bear deterrent, either bear spray or a solid-state gun (or both), and know how to use it.
Replaceable Blade Knives: Don’t shoot me for this (you Havalon fanatics), but replaceable blade knives have no place in a field hunter’s kit in my opinion. They are too sharp and too dangerous. I personally have a friend who cut his leather boot and went deep into his calf without even knowing it until the boot was bloody. Another friend personally witnessed a man lose his eye to a Havalon blade that snapped when it shot out of the moose hip he was shearing off and stopped on his broken eyeball. Good fixed blade hunting knives have served lumberjacks well for centuries; learn how to use and sharpen one and take it with you when you head out into the desert.
Suture: On the subject of nasty cuts, if you’re going to be hunting deep in the field, consider learning to sew and bring a small suture kit. If you’re good with your hands, you can learn how to do it on YouTube and practice with thin orange peels. I have sewn myself twice, and other people, dogs and horses many times.
Don’t be afraid to venture further, but be prepared for trouble. A little training combined with foresight and good tools can turn a life-threatening event into a simple hardship that makes you stronger as a hunter and lumberjack, and leaves you with fond memories and stories to tell. Plan ahead, learn the skills and bring the tools. Then leave the rest to good luck and God above.