When some people think of survival, they think of a tanned and toned woman in a bikini eating bugs on “Survivor.” Others may think of Chris McCandless burning his money and throwing off the world’s restraints to live in a bus in Alaska from the story, “Into the Wild.”
Not many people think of huddling beneath a snowy pine tree, sopping wet and shivering so hard you can hardly breathe while looking at a starless sky and wondering if you’ll see the morning.
Not many think of the mixed feeling of stupidity and panic when you find yourself lost in an unexpected snowstorm without snacks and water because you thought you’d only be out an hour.
“People have this romantic notion of survival,” Sheridan College winter survival instructor Dave Malutich said. “They have this idea of heading into the mountains, something happening and relying on their intuition to get out alive. That kind of thinking leaves out a piece that’s very important to survival: what they should have done before they left.”
In short, survival is less about playing the hero and more about thinking like a Boy Scout. Prepping before trekking — anywhere for any reason — is key.
As long-time Sheridan Search and Rescue member and avid outdoorsmen Ron Condos would say: “The best survival tool anyone has is their brain.”
Factors that lead to risky situations
There are several facets of human character that can often lead to risky situations that end up in survival situations.
F – Familiarity: When someone feels like they know a place and don’t notice changing conditions.
A – Acceptance: When people seek acceptance from their peers and don’t speak up when they are uncomfortable.
C – Commitment: When people cave in to a “We’ve come this far already,” or “We’re so close” mentality.
E – Expert halo: When people trust a leader’s judgment like he or she is wearing a halo of expertise.
T – Tracks: When people seek fresh tracks and a fresh thrill and ignore dangerous warning signs or get too far out.
S – Social proof: When people want bragging rights and push too far.
Prep like a Boy Scout
Always be prepared to spend a night outdoors when heading out on a winter excursion, Malutich said. If a trek does end up in a tight spot, the outcome will be better if trekkers are prepared.
“It’s not a morbid thought process focusing on what will kill you out there, and it is good to think about the possibilities,” Malutich said. “Just don’t freak out about it.”
Use your plan created with the five Ws to guide your preparations. Are you snowmobiling or snowshoeing? How long will you be out? What will the weather be like where you’re headed? Knowing what your trip will entail will help you prepare.
Malutich said every person on every trip — don’t rely on someone else — should always take the 10 essentials for survival in some form or another.
The longer the trip, the more supplies should be packed, but even an afternoon trek can turn into an overnighter if a snowstorm rolls in or a snowmobile breaks down. While a pack of supplies may seem cumbersome for a short trip, it won’t be if it’s needed.
One of the most important preparations? Tell your plan to someone you trust. Tell them where you are going, what you are doing and when you will return. Also give them an indication of when you would like them to call for help based on your comfort level with spending a night outdoors. Be realistic and give yourself some wiggle room.
In his 30 years on Search and Rescue, Condos said the most common situation that gets people in trouble is overextension.
They go farther than they should, disregarding skill level or time constraints, forget how early the sun sets in the winter or get miles into the backcountry and their snowmobile runs out of gas, gets stuck or breaks down.
“It’s the snow machine that strands the person, not the person that strands the snow machine,” Condos said.
One example of overextension happened about 10 years ago near Cutler Hill Nordic Ski Area off of U.S. Highway 14.
Local skier Susan Savage had planned on cross-country skiing from Cutler to Tongue River Canyon but didn’t realize what that would entail. Thinking she’d be out for just a couple hours, she left her food, water and other supplies in the car and set out with her dog.
Over the course of the afternoon, she lost track of time and got farther from her car than planned. She also fell through the ice of the river, which sapped more time and energy.
Darkness fell, and she realized she’d have to spend the night. She curled up with her dog under a pine tree for warmth and waited for someone to find her. She got up to move around often to prevent sleep and to stay as warm as possible.
Rescuers found her early in the morning, cold and hungry but otherwise unharmed.
Savage said what she learned from the experience was to always have her backpack of survival gear with her.
“Having faith, family and friends is always comforting; additionally having fire, food and a first aid kit means surviving in the mountains,” Savage said.
Overextension can also occur when people push their limits, often as the result of peer pressure or fear of looking weak, Malutich said, or when they tolerate cold. Be honest about your abilities and combat cold the instant you feel it. Protect yourself from wind, cold and moisture with proper clothing and by generating your own heat through movement and calorie consumption.
“You must fuel your own internal combustion engine,” Malutich said.
If you do get stuck…
Even the most prepared can wind up in a sticky situation. If you do get lost or stuck, stay calm. Panic leads to poor decisions.
“Stop what you’re doing. Smoke the proverbial cigarette,” Malutich said.
Do something small like eating a snack or looking at a map. Focus on what you can do in that moment and not on what you should have done or can’t do. Examine the situation and decide on a rational course of action.
If you are 100 percent sure of the way out and have enough light to make it, start the trip out. If darkness is setting in or you aren’t sure, build a shelter, put out markers to catch rescuers’ attention, ration calories so you have enough to last the night, build a fire and hunker down for the night.
“It’s better to stay put. If you’re prepared and someone knows where you are, you’ll make it,” Malutich said.
Also, don’t underestimate the importance of staying warm. It’s better to go a night without sleep and keep moving to stay warm, Malutich said.
Condos noted that common sense can go a long way, too. He was once on a rescue where a woman had been told to stay with her snow machine if it got stuck, so she did. However, she was so panicked about being stuck and about not leaving her machine that she didn’t realize she was only 30 feet from the road even though she could hear other snow machines passing nearby.
In that situation, it would have been better to keep the machine in sight but trek toward the sound of potential help, Condos said.
Remember: your brain is your best survival tool, so don’t forget to use it.
Make a plan…and stick to it.
Before any trip, even an afternoon of cross-country skiing, make a plan.
Malutich said the five W’s work well. Ask yourself who you are going with, what you are doing, where you are going and when you will depart and return. The “why” is obvious: because it’s fun!
Use maps, books, the Internet and friends to gather information on the area you will visit.
“Know what you know, and know what you don’t know. Look for the question marks,” Malutich said.
If you’re not sure what the terrain is like where you’re headed, ask someone who knows. If you don’t know how to properly read a map, learn. Knowing distances, terrains and predicted weather conditions will help you create a realistic plan.
Also, know the skill level of those going with you on the trip, Malutich said. Be honest with each other about what is do-able with the time and skill levels in the group.
If possible, avoid being a lone ranger, and always stick to your plan. Condos said several rescue operations have resulted in rescuers searching in the wrong area because people didn’t go where they said they would go.