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.

We recently posted an article asking if your child would be found alive if they were stranded outside. That led to a question of what situations would be best to stay where you are and what situations would you be best served by leaving the area. In most cases, you’re better off staying where you are rather than going off somewhere else. For those of you who don’t know my other posts on this site, I’m an active member of a Search and Rescue team in the Pacific Northwest, and I have a lot of experience in what’s effective at outdoor survival and being found.

Sometimes not doing anything is your best chance at getting out of a hairy situation alive. Several factors may influence the decision to stay put. You may be lost in an area you are not familiar with. You may not have reliable navigation. It may look like bad weather is coming in. If any of these are true, sheltering in place may be your best option for making it through the night and being rescued.

A lost person may panic and try to search for a way out of the wilderness in some way that makes sense to them. They may try to go uphill, downhill, upstream or downstream. In a panicky situation they may travel in any direction they believe carries even the slightest chance of getting back to civilization. But if you’re up a creek without a paddle, or up a trail without a compass, roaming around could only worsen your situation, and decrease your chances of being found and rescued. Your rescuers may have no idea which direction you went in, and therefore no direction on where to start looking.

Search teams work with your point last seen (where someone last had contact with you) and your last known point (determined by specific clues collected during the search). Deviating from where you currently stand without knowing where you are going will only increase the time it takes for teams to locate you. If you have a map, compass, are uninjured and have the means to endure the elements, then you will likely be able to make your way back without issue. But if you are lacking proper navigation and survival gear or are injured, your best option for survival and rescue is to hunker down. Wandering further will only increase your chances of being exposed to harsh elements. That exposure will lead to hypothermia, which will take a toll on your mobility and judgement.

You will need to establish some kind of shelter to protect yourself from the elements in your current position. An A-frame type shelter with branches, leaves and pine bows stacked over the sides can shield you from moderate wind and rain. And that’s just if you don’t have any equipment with you whatsoever. Having something as simple as a mylar blanket will drastically increase your odds of staying warm and dry. Add a knife and paracord and you have many ways to make a simple but durable shelter that will help you ward off hypothermia. The ability to build and sustain a fire further increases your odds and also serves as a signaling tool.

If you are in a position that is too dangerous to shelter in, move as short a distance as possible to take cover, and leave some kind of sign for rescuers indicating your direction. For example, make an arrow with sticks or rocks. Use whatever is available to tell people you are still alive and not far away.

The best way to avoid this situation altogether is to be both mentally and physically prepared. Know the area you are going to and know the weather forecast for the next 24 hours. Be sure to pack the essential items for outdoor activities, and enough food and water to last longer than you intend to be outdoors.

When it comes to dedicated survival kits, there are a number of options that are compact and lightweight for people who want simple shelter, fire and signaling solutions. You can also assemble your own from preferred components. As long as you don’t go without the essentials you’ll be able to go out and back safely. But remember, when things turn bad, there is no shame in making the choice to hunker down, stay warm and ensure your safety.