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October 2006

Survival Skills for Hikers

Guaranteed to get you out of trouble fast.

Ascend a scree slope
Scree slopes often provide obstruction-free access to higher elevations, but they can also be tiring to climb. Kick a step with your toe into the loose stones and shift your weight onto your forward foot. Repeat by bringing your back foot up.

Descend a scree slope
Walk using short, shuffling steps with your feet pointed downhill while digging in your heels. In open areas without hazards such as cliffs or boulders, try taking longer, plunging steps as if you were descending powder snow. An ice axe or trekking poles are helpful. Group members should move close together or side by side to avoid dislodging rocks that could injure someone moving below.

Make water from snow
Melt snow over a stove by adding a little water to the mixture. Choose the wettest snow you can find. Icicles also work. No fire? Fill a bottle one-third full with snow or ice and one-third with water. Shake it well, and place it between the layers of clothing. Do not put the container next to your skin; it will rob your body heat through conduction.

Splint a broken arm
Wrap a deflated sleeping pad tightly around the broken limb; secure the pad with pack straps, and then inflate it. No pad? Place straight sticks as splints on either side of the arm and secure them with straps or cloth strips. Don’t tie knots directly against the skin. Immobilize the limb by securing it across the victim’s body. For wrist fractures, rest the forearm on a flat piece of bark and suspend it with straps from the torso and neck.

Escape an avalanche
If you’re caught in a slide, move your arms and legs in swimming motions to remain near the surface and upright. Grab any objects that you can push off against to maintain your balance. As the slide slows down, cup your palms in front of your face to create a breathing space before the snow hardens around you.

Estimate daylight
Approximately four fingers of your outstretched hand between the sun and horizon indicate 1 hour of sunlight remaining. Each additional finger represents 15 more minutes of daylight.

Know your water needs
In a temperate climate, a person loses an average of 1.5 liters of water every 24 hours through sweating, breathing, and urination. Physical exertion and high heat can increase that deficit to as much as 1 liter per hour. The minimum level of water replacement depends on the air temperature and your activity level. If you’re resting at 80°f, you will need to consume a minimum of 1 liter every 24 hours to stay alive. If your water supplies are limited, you need to stay in the shade and avoid exertion.

Collect dew
Wrap absorbent clothing around your lower legs, and walk through tall dew-covered grasses. Then wring the moisture from the clothing into a container or your mouth

Tie a prusik loop
Besides the bowline (see Skills, May 2006), the prusik loop is another knot that can save your life. Tie it to a climbing rope using smaller-diameter cord (usually 5mm to 7mm nylon) to use for ascents and descents along the main rope. As a friction knot, it grips the line when your weight is on the loop, but slides easily when the pressure is released.

Make rope
Peel away the outer bark of dead tree trunks to get at the long strands of dried inner bark. Or strip and roll together the fibrous stalks of hemp plants such as dogbane, which has red stems and smooth leaves and grows along riverbanks and marshes.

Signal distress
Build a large X (as large as you can make it) on the ground with rocks or gear; signal SOS (three dots, three dashes, three more dots) with a whistle or a mirror; or wave your arms in a circle if you are spotted. For signal fires, create black smoke by burning petroleum products.

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