True Tale of Desert Survival
We recently learned that a Texas woman got stranded in a remote part of Arizona after she ran out of gas during a solo trip to the Grand Canyon. We didn’t hear about this case until after the show about this woman’s rescue aired on 20/20 in March. But it is an interesting example of many survival scenarios coming together along with something we’ve written about before . . . surviving in the desert. (Read: Seven Rules of Desert Survival). How did this young woman do? Let’s check it out.
Amber VanHecke is 24 years old and was stranded for five days. When I was 24 I would have had no idea how to survive, having given emergency preparation zero thought back then, so she probably automatically did better than I would have at her age. A mishap with Google Maps caused her to go way off track in the Havasupai Reservation and consequently she ran out of gas. You can watch a short, minute-long video of her 20/20 appearance on this Dallas News.com page.
WHAT SHE DID RIGHT:
She prepared for the possibility of being stranded. She had extra food and water with her, including high energy foods like almonds, pumpkin seeds, Goldfish and dried fruit. And she ate only enough to keep from starving. She said her stash of food could have lasted her 18 days. She cooked ramen noodles by leaving them on the dashboard of the car.
She built a HELP sign out of rocks. She noticed that planes occasionally flew overhead. I’m not sure whether her sign was large enough to be visible from the planes, but it couldn’t have hurt.
She parked her car by a man-made structure. This increased the chances that someone would come by the structure, and it provided some shade. Unfortunately, though, this structure blocked the view of her car by the one truck that drove by.
She left a note in her vehicle explaining where she had gone when she left the car. She left the vehicle and hiked an estimated 11 miles to make a 911 call. The call dropped before her location could be pinpointed, but rescuers were able to zero in on an area where they started looking. They found her car, but it was empty. They went down the road the note indicated and found her.
WHAT SHE DID WRONG:
She turned onto a road that didn’t exist. People are leaving nasty comments online about this decision and we admit that this as not a smart choice. After going so far on the initial Google Maps directions and then finding out that there was not a road where it was telling her to turn, that should have been her warning that she was not in the right place. The post she put on her Facebook page about the incident says that she thought the road may have washed away, so she turned anyway thinking she would encounter the road shortly. Instead, she came to a fence with no road in sight. At this point she had also lost her GPS.She backtracked then and found the road she was supposed to be on, but by then was out of gas. If your directions are telling you to turn and there’s no road where it’s telling you to turn, take this as a sign that you are doing something wrong.
WHAT YOU SHOULD DO:
- Approximately 80 percent of people who get lost are day hikers who did not plan for emergency situations.
- Before you go out on a trip, tell someone your planned route. If you get off course like this, chances are you will be in an area close enough to your planned route that someone will have some idea of where to look for you.
- If you’re in the desert, or truly, anywhere where there is harsh summer weather, always take extra water. You can’t survive without water and you may use all of your physical reserves looking for it.
- Carry an emergency blanket. In the desert, temperatures drop wildly at night and rise high during the day.
- Bring sunscreen and protective clothing such as hats and long sleeves.
- Bring something to signal with, like a mirror, whistle or something brightly colored.
- Carry a first-aid kit with basic supplies.
- Rest. Conserve your energy as much as you can.
- Keep a positive mental attitude. Keep something in your pack or car, like a deck of cards at a minimum, that can help you pass some time.
- Keep a notebook and pen in your car so you can leave notes, as Amber did.
Image from Associated Press showing the positioning of Amber Van Hecke’s car by the silo and her HELP sign made of rocks.