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SURVIVE: If I Only Knew Then…

Three decades of trial and error from our favorite battle-scarred adventurer.
Survival TipsSurvival Tips

Humility. I wish I had more of it, as that’s what I’ve needed most on more than one occasion.

Case in point: There was a time when I thought I knew the mountains in my Wyoming backyard so well I couldn’t possibly get lost. To test this theory, Sue and I set out in a blizzard one afternoon. I knew where I was going the whole time. Never once looked at the map or compass. Around midday we stopped, got out the compass, and something was awry. The needle was pointing the wrong direction. I told Sue I was sure the compass was broken. She looked at me quizzically.

[3] Called bending the map, this is a classic mistake made by lost hikers. Be realistic about what you see, not what you want to see. Elevation can be a dead giveaway when you’re bending the map; use an altimeter to check your altitude against where you think you are. Trust your instruments.

[4] You can use this leapfrogging technique in a whiteout, as well, even with no trees. Send your partner ahead on the correct bearing. When he’s almost out of sight, have him stop, then walk to his location and repeat.

[5] Stay tuned to where you are on a map by constantly checking your location using “handrails” like rivers and ridges. Can’t place yourself? Triangulate your precise position by identifying two distant landmarks (like peaks) and taking a bearing to them. Transfer the bearing to your map. You’re standing where the lines intersect.

[6] These are not widely available in the wild. If you find one and need help, don’t scare her away by approaching too quickly.

[7] But emergency snow trenches are not. Just scoop out a trough in the snow, line the bottom with tree branches or your pack or bag, climb in, and cover the top. You can do the same with a tree well. Both will protect you from wind, if that’s your main concern. But beware: Snow sloughing off branches could bury you.

We continued on our course until late afternoon. I did an impressive job of making the landscape fit what I thought should be there. [3] I occasionally identified obvious landmarks, even though we should have arrived at our destination hours earlier. It began to snow so hard that the forest became dark. Expecting our jaunt to be a dayhike, I’d failed to bring a headlamp. Before being doused by snowflakes, my lighter revealed that the compass was still pointing in the wrong direction. We spent the entire night taking bearings from one tree to the next to get back out. [4] We crossed country that looked utterly unfamiliar, terrain where I had spent years. My shame was so great, Sue never said a word.

In serious backcountry travel, an orienteering compass is your most important piece of gear. Learn how to use it, and always believe it. [5] After I fully accepted this, wilderness veteran Ken Cramer and I skied the length of the Wind River Mountains along the Continental Divide, and even in snowstorms we were never more than 50 feet off course.

We used a tent on that Winds trip, unlike my first traverse of the grand range, when I took a tarp. At that time, backpackers were all bragging about the beauty of the tarp. The first night, I draped it over a boulder and spent an hour lining the edges with rocks, and I was still eaten alive by mosquitoes. By morning, my entire body was covered with itchy, red bumps.

The second night, I used my trekking poles to hold up the tarp. It started pouring at dusk and didn’t stop until dawn. By midnight, there was a slurry of sleet running beneath my sleeping bag. I only kept from dying of hypothermia by viciously scratching my mosquito bites.

The third night, the wind was so strong that the tarp flapped itself to death: It tore in two and was quickly shredded. Thank God! I bummed a bunk from a pigtailed college girl who’d been smart enough to bring a tent. [6] 

Take-away: Tarps work perfectly when you don’t need any shelter. Get a sub-five-pound, two-person, double-wall tent and rejoice. (Also worth noting: Two bivy sacks are the same weight as a tent, and waterproof/breathable tents don’t work in warm rain.) And while I’m on the subject of shelters: Unless you’re building a basecamp, snow caves are nonsense. [7] 

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