Our time in the woods is a valuable retreat. A chance to distance ourselves from the hustle and bustle of daily lives and to momentarily escape the constant input and demands on our time and energy.
For many, hunting seasons provide the only escape into the wilderness they will have every year. The hunt, then, is as much about that escape and break as it is about harvesting an animal. There is much to be gained from our time in the field; but to realize those benefits, we must also make it back home.
Every year hundreds of people find themselves lost in the woods or confronted with some type of emergency while out hunting. My years as a search and rescue K9 handler has shown me just how easy it is to become lost or to get oneself into danger. I’ve responded to calls to find people lost on trails with no turn offs, recovered injured or deceased persons from popular hiking areas and very often never found the lost person at all. Based on my years of experience in search and rescue and on my own, private adventures, here are the top 3 things you can do to make sure you are ready for anything mother nature might throw at you during one of your own hunting adventures.
1. Training: Most new hunters tend to head out on their own not really knowing what they are doing. It’s understandable, as hunting traditions slowly dwindle in our modern world there are not as many seasoned hunters for new hunters to train with. In the past, where hunting skills were needed for our survival, learning to hunt was expected and the first solo harvest was one’s rite of passage into adulthood. Currently, hunting is more commonly seen as a recreational activity that is discouraged by many and taught by few. If you are a seasoned hunter, I ask you to pass those skills on, if you are a new hunter, don’t be dissuaded, find someone to teach you.
The skills to actually hunt are important, but of equal importance are the skills needed to survive and return safely when you do. Some of these peripheral skills will also assist you in your hunting. It’s my recommendation to take the time to learn the following skills:
-Land Navigation: Learn to read and use topographical maps and compass and GPS.
-Basic Survival Skills: Learn to purify water, find or make a shelter and make a fire from natural materials in the worst of conditions.
-Animal processing: Learn to process any animals that you may harvest in the field.
-First aid: Learn to deal with injuries in the field, as they will happen sooner or later. Taking a first aid and CPR class is highly recommended for all hunters and outdoorsmen.
Spending time learning those basic skills will help you to become a better hunter. More importantly, having those skills will increase your comfort and confidence in the woods. That higher level of comfort and confidence will allow you to go deeper into the forest, find more plentiful game, unpressured animals and make it home safely.
2. Don’t forget fire: The most dangerous thing we face while out in the woods is not predators or other humans, it’s Mother Nature herself. While nature is beautiful and serine, the law of nature is survival of the fittest. Nature does not play favorites or give mulligans, if you’re not ready for what Mother Nature throws at you, eventually you’ll regret it. I live in the Pacific Northwest myself. Because of the level of moisture and cool temperatures here, the #1 cause of death of lost persons is exposure. Most our hunting seasons are in the fall, as the weather is turning from warm and dry to cool and moist. As we are just coming out of summer, leaving our homes in the lowlands, it’s easy to forget about the changing conditions and cooler temperatures we will face in the areas we will be hunting.
"I rarely have needed to start a fire, in an emergency, in the forest, but I don’t leave these items out of my pack, because it will be a life-or-death situation if I do need them. "
The rule of 3’s is that in the forest, in extreme conditions, we can only expect to survive for 3 minutes without air, 3 hours without warmth, 3 days without water and/or 30 days without food. Warmth does start first with one’s clothing. Wearing appropriate clothing for worst condition you might face is very important. Just as important is the need to be able to reliably start a fire, anytime, anywhere, in any conditions, while you’re experiencing the symptoms of hypothermia.
Most hunters enter the woods with plenty to eat and drink yet barely give any thought to the need for warmth; yet warmth is the most critical concern when we are in the forest. In my pack, I carry several ways to start fire. I carry a lighter, Waterproof matches, a ferro rod, some fire tinder/starting material and… a propane blow torch. I rarely have needed to start a fire, in an emergency, in the forest, but I don’t leave these items out of my pack, because it will be a life-or-death situation if I do need them. The fire will warm you but it is also one of the best ways to signal for help if you need it. A series of three fires in a line is a distress signal if there’s no one looking for you. If there are people looking for you, a fire is very helpful to help them pinpoint your location. Don’t forget about fire.
3. Telling others your plans: Telling others of your hunting plans is important. The more information you can give them the better. If your plans change, you should update your at home support with that new information. When I head out, I tell my wife and another trusted friend what my plans are. I give them the GPS coordinates for my planned camping area and update them if I decide on another location once in the field. I tell them the areas I plan to hunt and provide them with GPS coordinates of a landmark in that area as well. I let my support people know when I plan to come back and try to check in throughout my trip. This information is critical for anyone that may have to look for you in case of emergency.
I’ve talked to too many families of missing persons that were frustrated because law enforcement agencies would not start a search for their missing family member for lack of good information about the person’s location. Think of how hard it is to find animals to hunt at times in a thick forest, then imagine how hard it would be to find and individual person, that doesn’t pattern like animals tend to. Without a good starting place, it’s all but impossible to find them. With a good starting place, it’s still like hunting for a specific grain of sand in a haystack. For every 100 yards away from that starting point the search area grows exponentially, in every direction. Our very survival may depend on the information we give our support people at home. Give them as much information as you possibly can.
Please, do not let any of the dangers involved with being in the outdoors dissuade you from hunting or just simply getting out and enjoying nature. Safety and security is always a false concept; anything can happen anywhere, at home or in the forest. I implore you not to let fear to stop you from truly living your life, wherever you choose to live it. We humans do belong in the forest, it is our first home, we are just as much a part of the natural world as any of its other creatures, even if a bit divorced from it. Do head out into nature with a bit training, some forethought, preparation and most importantly a mindset that you can and will survive anything that’s thrown at you. Do those things and return home more peaceful, more enlightened and with stories and adventures to share with the rest of us. Happy hunting my friends!
-Ray Livingston – The modern Survivalist