My previous SAR-related post involved a subject who was very prepared for an unintended night alone in the wilderness. This one involves a subject that could have prepared a lot better.

I answered a call to search for a missing mushroom picker in mid-October. She had gone missing the day before and had spent a cold and rainy night alone in deep woods. The temperatures overnight were in the 30s and the ridgeline a few hundred feet above our area of operations was covered in snow.

Our subject WAS NOT prepared for an unexpected night in the woods. She had become separated from a larger group, who had tried unsuccessfully to find her before calling SAR. My team was able to find her, but not before she spent more than 24 hours alone in the woods in wet clothing, no real shelter, and low nutrition. She was also succumbing to hypothermia. She had some insulating clothing, but no waterproof layers or survival equipment.

There were a couple of takeaways from this mission that are easy for people to follow and could drastically improve survivability without making major additions to your current kit.

  1. Dress for the activity: Our subject was wearing Ugg-style slipper boots that had blown-out, completely exposing her feet to low temperatures and water. This choice of footwear also significantly increases the risk of injury in the wilderness because they have very little rigidity and close to zero traction.
  2. Dress for the contingency: Some people by habit do not carry a lot of gear on their excursions. There are survival kits on the market that are not only compact but also contain easy-to-use equipment that will allow you to signal for help, build a fire, and give you shelter materials. These kits are usable for people who are survival experts or a novice hiker suddenly caught in a bad situation. I’ve said this many times before, but a knife in your kit goes a long way in giving you a way to cut firewood and build shelter. At the very (and I mean very) least, carry a whistle. It will travel farther than your voice and will not tire out like your vocal cords when trying to bring searchers closer to you.
  3. Keep track of your people: If you’re adventuring with a group, take note of what they’re wearing and equipment they’re using on the trip. Better yet, write it all down. Having a good physical description of a lost person makes life ten times easier for search and rescue staff. Keep track of important items like medical conditions and identifying features. Knowing the experience level and tendencies of your party can also help.

Even the simplest levels of preparation significantly increase survivability in the outdoors. Be smart and don’t go out without checking your gear and people first.