Surviving A Night In The Outdoors

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Surprisingly, few people seem to understand how easy it is to wander away from an unfamiliar trail - even a well-marked one - or the risks of an unexpected night outdoors.  Many survival books and websites begin from the assumption that you are warm, hydrated, nourished and thinking clearly: unfortunately, by the time you realize you are in trouble, this is unlikely to be the case.

However, with only a few preparations, you can greatly improve your chances of surviving the night in relative safety.  

  • Mental Preparation: As my grandmother used to say, “Hope for the best, plan for the worst.” Don’t let the excitement and optimism of a day trip get in the way of preparing yourself mentally and materially for things that might go sideways.
  • Fire: The ability to stay warm is key to survival.  It is very difficult to start a fire without a lighter or matches - and most commercial ‘weatherproof’ matches are not very dependable under truly adverse conditions.

  • Shelter: It is impossible to build a completely wind- and water-proof shelter in the wild, but lightweight commercial options are relatively cheap.

  • Signal: Inexpensive, lightweight signalling options are easy to come by.  

  • Food and Water: You won't die of malnourishment or dehydration overnight, but you will need energy for heat production (shivering) as well as performing basic tasks of survival.  Consider water purification options and a few energy bars.

Mental Preparation for an Unexpected Night Out

The more effort you make to visualize and plan for unexpected circumstances, the more quickly you will be able to overcome the fear and stress of a bad situation.  Take some time to engage in mental pre-planning, including:

  • Ask yourself, “What scares me the most about spending a night out?”  
  • Ask yourself, “What is the worst that can happen, and how would I cope with it?”
  • Make sure you give someone a trip plan with your expected route and check-in time.  Don’t let the worst that can happen be that no one even knows you’re missing!

What To Do First

No matter how prepared you are - or think you are! - discovering that your day hike has turned into an unexpected overnight is going to be alarming.  

  1. Stop!  

  2. Sit down for 15-30 minutes.  Panic is your enemy - control your breathing.  “Box breathing” - three second inhale, hold three seconds, three second exhale, hold three seconds - to slow your heart rate and calm your mind.

  3. Have a sip of water.

  4. Think.

  5. Address any immediate medical needs.

  6. Think shelter, fire and signalling.

You might not be comfortable, but with proper preparation and by carrying a few precautionary items, you will make it through the night, and be hale and hearty when professional rescue finds you.

Clothing

  • Ensure you have the clothing to stay warm overnight in the worst expected weather.  Layers are best, with a base layer of synthetics or wool.
  • A waterproof outer layer is also optimal.  If you are not wearing or carrying at least a rain jacket or shell, consider two large, orange garbage bags that can be improvised into a highly-visible poncho.

Equipment

Consider a few lightweight options for fire-starting:  

  • Firestarters with magnesium shavings require quite a bit of preparation (and the shavings are prone to blowing away) but a cotton ball impregnated with vaseline will burn surprisingly hot for a couple of minutes, making excellent ‘kindling.’  
  • Vaseline-impregnated cotton balls pair well with ‘metal ‘matches’ that reliably and consistently throw sparks.  
  • Most weatherproof matches don’t function well in the most adverse conditions, but REI Stormproof Matches are an exception - just be sure to keep them dry!  
  • Finally, you can always carry a lighter - but be cautious of plastic disposable lighters, which crack easily, especially when cold.
 "Metal matches" throw a spark in any weather.

"Metal matches" throw a spark in any weather.

 A vaseline-impregnated cotton ball lights easily, and - if sheltered - burns surprisingly hot for a few minutes.

A vaseline-impregnated cotton ball lights easily, and - if sheltered - burns surprisingly hot for a few minutes.

 A small pill bottle holds several vaseline-impregnated cotton balls.

A small pill bottle holds several vaseline-impregnated cotton balls.

 If I really needed a fire, I'd clear or build a proper base.  Even on snow, though, my young flame is growing nicely.

If I really needed a fire, I'd clear or build a proper base.  Even on snow, though, my young flame is growing nicely.

Shelters from sticks and leaves are very time- and energy- consuming, and won’t provide complete shelter in cold, wet or windy conditions.  Commercial shelter-building options include,

  • Sil-Tarps are a bit expensive, but are lightweight and provide excellent shelter.  Pack yellow or orange for maximum visibility.  With some paracord or rope pre-tied to the grommets, these can be used to set up a quick shelter even when injured.
  • Large orange garbage bags and duct tape achieve much the same effect with a little more work.
  • Space blankets are thin and tear easily, but can be used to line your shelter, preserving body heat and reflecting back heat from your fire.  They are noisy, though, and can make it difficult to hear searchers.
  • Snow caves and snow pits provide effective insulation, but are very energy intensive to construct.
 It would be nice to have some padding under me, but my mighty shelter will keep me dry.  A bit of snow banked around the sides, and a carefully tended fire near the opening - taking care not to let sparks near my tarp or smoke myself out - will make my night easier.

It would be nice to have some padding under me, but my mighty shelter will keep me dry.  A bit of snow banked around the sides, and a carefully tended fire near the opening - taking care not to let sparks near my tarp or smoke myself out - will make my night easier.

Consider multiple signalling options as well - depending on the time of day, weather, and terrain, some options will be more suitable than others.

  • A signal mirror is only useful in daytime, but can be seen from many kilometers away.  
  • Signal fires are highly visible at night, but require constant attention.  
  • Manmade structures in the landscape catch they eye, and are surprisingly easy to spot from the air - a large ‘X’ made of rocks or sticks works well, but they are time-consuming to build - perhaps impossible with an injury.
  • Many headlamps have a ‘strobe’ function - battery power depending, these can attract attention from distant searchers and passersby.
  • Whistles are not heard any farther away then yelling, but they require much less energy to use over a long time.  Three blasts, repeated, is the universal call for help.
  • GPS signalling devices such as InReach and SPOT are a little expensive, and require ongoing subscriptions, but transmit your location accurately to rescue personnel.
 A folded piece of aluminum foil will work, but  commercial signal mirrors  are inexpensive, lightweight, and improve accuracy in signalling.

A folded piece of aluminum foil will work, but commercial signal mirrors are inexpensive, lightweight, and improve accuracy in signalling.

 The Spot GPS Messenger is lighter and considerably less expensive then the InReach...

The Spot GPS Messenger is lighter and considerably less expensive then the InReach...

 An SOS in the snow can be easy to spot from the sky - but remember that it's the  shadows  that are visible, and the contrast won't always be optimal.

An SOS in the snow can be easy to spot from the sky - but remember that it's the shadows that are visible, and the contrast won't always be optimal.

 ...but in an emergency, you might find the InReach's two-way texting feature to be worth it.

...but in an emergency, you might find the InReach's two-way texting feature to be worth it.


    Scenario

    In our Wilderness First Aid courses, we focus a lot of  time on hands-on training and practice to ensure that our students have as genuine an experience as possible to prepare them for a real emergency.  The following scenario is one you can try yourself, so that you can feel more prepared in the case of an unexpected night out in the wilderness.

    Setting: It is an early winter’s day and you have headed out for some snowshoeing on Cypress Mountain, about 15 kilometers from downtown Vancouver.  It’s snowed the last couple of days, and you are enjoying a nice, long solo expedition, communing with nature the way they do it on the West Coast.  

    At about 16:00, after a long day, you begin to head back, and realize that you must have gotten turned around.  Heading in what you believe is the right direction, you fall into a gully that was hidden in the fresh snow, twisting your dominant ankle and injuring your dominant hand and wrist.  You can’t go more than a couple of steps on the injured ankle, and the hand and wrist are unusable.  After a moment of panic, you control your breathing, have some water, and think.  Your roommate expects you back by 8 pm, after which time she is going to report you missing.  Thank goodness you planned ahead, because it’s getting dark, and you’re likely going to be here overnight.  

    Setup: You have firestarting materials in your pack, a Sil-tarp or garbage bags, 30 feet of paracord, signal mirror, whistle, a knife, a space blanket and a basic first aid kit.   Put a glove on your dominant hand, and wrap duct tape around your fingers, binding your thumb to your palm at the same time, to simulate the decreased use from injury.  Remember that your dominant ankle is also injured as you perform the scenario.

    Engage: Consider your priorities in this situation.  

    • Splint, sling or otherwise immobilize the injured areas.  
    • Select various locations to establish shelter, considering pros and cons for each before determining which you will use.
    • Set up a shelter and experience being inside.
    • Use vaseline-impregnated cotton balls to start a small fire (if there is no fire ban in effect).  Be sure to put your fire out safely when you are finished.
    • Practice using a signal mirror. Do not signal any passing helicopters unless you are prepared to explain your scenario to professional rescue when they arrive.  If this occurs, you don’t know me, and I don’t know you.
    • Try to use sticks, logs or rocks to build a ground signal - an ‘X’ - experiencing the discomfort and difficulty of doing so while injured.

    If you attempt this scenario, please describe your experience in the comments section.  Photos and videos are also more than welcome!

     

    Kieran Hartle

    Coast Wilderness Medical Training, 704-1960 Alberni Street, Vancouver, BC