Survival skills fundamental to backcountry adventures
August 27, 2004
When you’re lost, everything changes
By Amanda Fehd
Tribune staff writer
Two weeks ago, an experienced hiker was rescued from Desolation Wilderness at 1:15 in the afternoon, almost 24 hours after being separated from his hiking companion. He was airlifted to Barton Hospital and treated for severe dehydration. The hiker lit a fire to attract attention, which by the time rescuers arrived had grown to 10 square feet.
“The major mistake was not having a map, not telling anybody, going off by himself – very strange for an experienced camper – but he was just frustrated,” his companion John Trauth said. The man did not want to be named. When Trauth arrived at the hospital around 3 p.m., his friend was OK, but still recovering.
“He looked a little shaken, and he was still a little dehydrated,” Trauth recalled. “They had an IV in him and had given him a tetanus shot because he was pretty scratched up.”
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Getting lost in the wilderness is no fun. The greatest threats to your life are through exposure: dehydration, heat exhaustion or hypothermia. These conditions can cause you to make poor decisions, which could result in other injuries. Being out in the elements also exposes you to animals and water-born diseases in streams and lakes.
Tahoe’s El Dorado County Search and Rescue team responds to an average 35 incidents a year, according to coordinator Mike Sukau. Last year that number jumped to 50, but this year remains below average. In Douglas County, the numbers are about the same, according to Shawn Thomas, operations leader for Douglas County Search and Rescue. This year is below average because they only had one winter rescue.
“A lot of times people don’t have a map and don’t have a plan,” said Susan Herrgesell, who teaches a course in wilderness survival for the California Department of Fish and Game.
Those who are least prepared are most susceptible to getting lost, she said. Trauth agreed that he and his friend had made a crucial mistake in preparedness.
“One lesson is: Always pack so you will be self-sufficient if you are separated,” said Trauth in hindsight. The way they divvied up the supplies that morning left him without any food and his friend without any water filtration system.
Trauth said they were hiking out after four days of backpacking when he lost contact with his friend, who had hiked ahead. They were still four hours from the trailhead.
“He didn’t have a map and had mistaken Azure lake for Granite Lake, and every step he took took him further away,” Trauth recalled. “He had no water purification, and was afraid of giardia.”
Not only should you have a map, but you should know how to use it, Herrgesell said. A compass, knife, duct tape, space blanket (for signaling) and a lighter or waterproof matches will also come in handy.
Admit there is a problem
But first, you have to admit you have gone astray. One issue of lost hikers is denial.
“If you are lost, the first thing you have to do is admit you are lost. Say, ‘I’m lost.’ You are not going to be able to find your way,” Herrgesell said. Then you secure water, food, fire, shelter and signaling.”
Signals in three are a good alert to search and rescue teams and helicopters of your location. A mirror, a reflective CD, a whistle or three shots from a firearm are considered appropriate.
Many hunters are trained to light a fire as a signal if lost, but law enforcement officers disagree on the appropriateness of this, especially in highly fire prone areas.
“We don’t agree with that, you could burn down a thousand acres in Desolation Wilderness,” said Sukau. “Don’t start a fire unless it’s really a last resort.”
Watch what you eat
The next order of business is securing food and water.
As for food, your choices include meat and vegetables.
“You can, with relatively few exceptions, eat anything that crawls, swims, walks, or flies,” says Jeff Banke, author of a survival course for the Fish and Game Department. That includes insects, worms, frogs and lizards. Stay away from skunks and foxes, which are known to carry rabies.
Wild edible plants are a curiosity for many, but being lost is no time to take it up as a hobby. Those who have no background should approach eating wild plants with extreme caution, as many have toxic parts and look similar to edible plants. One rule of thumb mentioned in many wilderness survival books is to not eat anything which you cannot positively identify. That means stay away from mushrooms unless you know what you are doing.
Wild edibles in California include madrone berries, Indian paintbrush flowers; Mariposa lily bulbs; thistle roots and stems; fennel; stinging nettle, cooked; cow parsnip (sometimes mistaken with poison hemlock); green shoots of mule’s ears; dandelions; cattail roots; day lily roots and flowers; Jerusalem artichoke; violets; and wild onion, garlic, strawberry, blackberry and raspberry.
Herrgesell has a bag of tricks for securing water. Wrap a large plastic bag around the green branches of a tree. Trees sweat and the bag will become lined with water droplets. A small rock weighting the bag will coax the water to one point.
“Always go down, you will go down to water, and water will take you to civilization,” Herrgesell said.