On a recent weekend, one of my activity groups arranged for several of us to take a wilderness survival course at Boreal Wilderness Institute. I was really wondering about spending an entire beautiful Sunday in a classroom since the program ran from 0830 hours to 1730 hours. It’s very difficult for me to sit still and listen to someone speaking. As much as possible, I prefer interactive, hands-on learning. However, this course was well worth the time and money that I spent to learn about how to survive in the wilderness. I took 10 pages of notes at the class, and the instructor gave us a 100-page manual, so I won’t be writing about everything that I learned in the class. For me, I will share a few specific things that I realized when I took the course.
When I go camping or on a canoe trip, I carry many different survival items in my car or in my canoe. As long as I have a problem at my campsite, I probably have most of the supplies that I need to solve my problem. However, I often go hiking or canoeing without carrying survival gear on my person. There are many reasons that I could need these supplies quickly:
• Car accident or breakdown (I don’t keep a candle, matches, or sleeping bags in my car)
• Canoe is swamped and washed away. If I lose my canoe, I’ve lost all of my food, fire-lighting, and other survival gear, and I’m probably cold and/or injured
• Injury or getting lost on the trail. If I’m stuck out on a hiking trail overnight, I don’t usually have any shelter or fire supplies
As a result of these realizations, I decided that I must take a critical look at supplies that I already have, to see how to adapt them for use in my hydration pack, my life jacket, and my vehicle. Of course, I don’t want to carry a tent, firewood, and lamps for a 10K hike on a marked trail, but there are compact supplies that would be very useful if I had a big problem. These are excellent articles, with pictures, to help plan emergency supplies.
Another thing that I realized is that I’m very comfortable and confident about fire-lighting, shelter-building, and food preparation under ideal conditions (at a campground, with dry supplies for my car). However, in an emergency, conditions will not usually be ideal. I need to practice making a fire in wet conditions, setting up a tarp as a shelter, and also, taking care of first aid in a backcountry location. One useful adaptation might be to bring a small tarp or garbage bag, to set up as a “sterile field” for wound dressing or other first aid, if necessary.
Our instructor, Bruce has life-long experience with survival teaching, and he was able to show us many useful (and not-so-useful) supplies to carry, whenever leaving home. He really stressed the importance of fire, for warmth, an emergency signal, cooking, and purification. Bruce carries 3 different methods of fire-lighting in most settings. One tool I have depended on was the “space blanket”. According to Bruce, these are almost completely useless, except to block wind or rain. Instead, he recommended carrying brightly-coloured garbage bags, which can provide emergency shelter, and which also improve our visibility.
We learned that most missing people in Canada are found within a few days, at most, but people are often stuck because of poor visibility/darkness. It’s always a good idea to carry a headlamp because darkness will increase our panic, and make it harder to think clearly. Many people who need to be rescued have stopped in one place because of darkness. It’s best to be aware of the time because finding firewood, or preparing food will all be harder once it’s dark. Spending a lot of time in the wilderness will improve your survival odds, because you won’t panic so much.
In an emergency:
Plan: planning is always useful, even if the plan isn’t really excellent since the act of planning will calm you down.
When going out in the wilderness, the act of driving there is always our highest risk activity, and wildlife and other factors are very low risk. When choosing supplies, a toque is much more practical than bearspray. Warmth and fluids are extremely important for survival, so it’s important to have some method of water purification available, as well as items like handwarmers, that can be used to reverse hypothermia. When trying to get warm, or stay warm, your neck is an area that can cool you down, or warm you up very quickly, depending on whether or not it is covered up. Synthetic or wool clothing is far more effective for warmth than cotton (“Cotton Kills”). Mild hypothermia affects your brain function very quickly, and it can also worsen rapidly. Carry handwarmers to use in the groin, armpits, and neck if body temperature begins to drop.
Personal factors, such as optimism or mindset are critical. Being in a group always maximizes your resources, because far less effort is needed for fire and shelter-building. Also, group dynamics often mean that 1+1=3. In other words, when a team begins to work together, the group can often think of new ideas that individuals wouldn’t consider.
If you can, take this course, so you have better ideas about what to do in an emergency situation. Bruce has a variety of courses, to help you survive in various situations. You can also go out in the bush, for an extended course, where you practice shelter-building and other important skills.