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Backpacker Magazine – December 2007

Backcountry Survival: How to Survive in the Backcountry

There's a backcountry killer on the loose, and it's not hypothermia, grizzly bears, or rockfall. The thing mostly likely to maim you on your next hiking trip is living inside your head.

by: Mark Jenkins


Without a rope, Montopoli spent the next several hours working out a safe route up and over the mountain. He climbed up and down the same line repeatedly, going a bit higher each time. Eventually, he summited, and stumbled back to the valley floor.

"The point is, given the right situation, almost anyone can panic," says Montopoli. "The trick is to recognize you are panicking and know how to get a grip before things get bad." "For all but the most experienced hikers," adds professor Wilson, "when confronted by a threat in the wilderness, you should expect to panic."

Why? First of all, most people don't experience outdoor crises enough in their lives to develop the ability not to panic. Secondly, most of us are conditioned by the media to believe that we're screwed if something goes wrong. Which is utter nonsense. The only stories that make headlines are those with drama and/or death. Our national parks see nearly 300 million visitors a year, and yet there are only about 3,000 search-and-rescue operations annually. For every person who needs a rescue, there are thousands who get themselves into trouble. "You must believe you have the knowledge and power to help yourself," says Kathleen Hall. Knowing that 99.99 percent of people lost or hurt in the wilderness get out fine is a good start.

Whether you practice panic preconditioning or not, you can still develop your most powerful physiological tool for preventing or managing a panic attack: conscious breathing. Whenever you get anxious, use the calming breath and your mantra. Panic is automatic, autocratic, and instinctual. But if you practice controlled breathing—a bit of modern-day rewiring for the primordial brain—it will become your new instinctive default, your all-purpose escape plan for the next fix you find yourself in.

I'm certain that you'll soon hear about some unfortunate soul who died in the wilds from extreme heat, bitter cold, or getting lost. Read between the lines. Panic probably killed them. But it won't kill you.



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READERS COMMENTS

Star Star Star Star Star
Leigh
Dec 05, 2013

Well written. It's amazing how much of life and the decisions we make simply comes down to how we choose to breathe.

Dinah Beres
Apr 20, 2011

I think every backcountry hiker and backpacker should read this.

Steve B
Apr 15, 2009

To Chris P-Zwit - What exactly does a college education have to do with someones judgement in an outdoor survival situation? It seems kind of odd that you question someone elses judgement with such a bizarre and off the wall judgement yourself...

Chris P-Zwit
Jan 03, 2009

See the movie Gerry by Gus Van Sant. It uses this story. Fear and ignorance turned into panic and despair which spiraled into confusion and over reaction. Having hitched and hiked America, you have to stay oriented and not wander too far out. These guys barely left the car and freaked out. College educated, but no street or outdoor smarts. What a sad note on "higher education."

Anonymous
Dec 16, 2008

good article, very informative, lots of good examples used to illustrate panic and solutions to it

pat
Sep 11, 2008

It would be nice to kn ow how many pages are in the article before starting

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