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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.

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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