The most dangerous threat in the wild

With many still waiting for the winter-like weather to break, thoughts of outdoor activities are beginning to churn in the minds of many folks. So, what is the greatest danger to every hiker and hunter who ventures into the outdoors? You might think it’s bear attacks, snake bites or being hit by lightning. In fact, most of the 140 fatalities in the national parks each year are from falls or drownings.

But, there are also at least 50,000 search-and-rescue missions every year in state and national parks; state and national forests: and wildlife management areas. Almost half of these missions are to retrieve lost day hikers and hunters, some only a few miles from a town or major road. Sadly, 2,000 of those rescue attempts are unsuccessful, which means getting lost may actually be the most dangerous threat.

It is easy to see why, when you consider most hunters and day hikers only plan to be out for a few hours. They may not be dressed for bad weather and hikers may carry little more than a cell phone and a bottle of water.

Hunters usually have a firearm and ammunition but still no survival gear. Getting lost means being off a road or trail where no one else is likely to see or hear you. So, now you are stuck trying to survive alone without the right gear, water, food or clothing. This simple mistake of getting lost can trigger a more dangerous chain of events.

Once it hits you, “OMG, I’m really lost!” your body instantly pumps adrenaline into your blood stream and forces more blood into your legs.

This is the acute stress response commonly known as “fight or flight.” It is a primitive urge to keep moving and looking for a way out of danger. This is why students in survival schools and hunter education courses are taught to STOP — Sit down, Think, Observe and Plan.

Your body is prodding you to keep moving. Instead, you must get off your feet and take time to think.

Wandering around will just get you more lost, plus you keep burning calories — energy you’re going to need to fight hypothermia as night temperatures drop below 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Even during the summer the average lows in Canaan Valley are in the 50s. Wearing wet or sweaty clothing means that the wind can quickly rob your body of heat. Lying on cold ground makes it even worse. Shivering kicks in as your body tries to generate heat. Every bit of energy is being used up trying to keep your core temperature at 98.6 degrees F.

When the blood starts to cool just a few degrees, your brain becomes the first real casualty. In addition to having pale skin and feeling cold, you begin to have trouble thinking clearly.

You lose your balance and are suddenly very uncoordinated. You can’t tie your boots and even if you had matches or a fire starter, you might forget how to use them.

Victims of hypothermia have been found with all their survival gear intact and totally unused. Just holding a cell phone becomes difficult, let alone making it work. Your body is working overtime to preserve heat and protect the vital organs, so it drastically reduces blood flow to your arms and legs. Your muscles ache and it becomes difficult to move. As the blood vessels constrict, you get a strange sensation that your skin feels hot. Many hypothermia victims have been discovered lying beside their coat and boots, removed in an attempt to “cool down.” When your body is nearly out of energy the shivering stops, but you will be too delirious to notice. Without warm blankets and shelter, and drinking warm liquids, you have little chance to survive.

Getting lost in the wild is not an accident. It’s a mistake and one you can avoid:

• Always study your map before going out and learn how to navigate.

• Track your movements on the map and note key features as reference points.

• If you get lost, immediately sit down. Take time to think and backtrack your movements in your mind.

• Always bring a survival kit including what you need to keep warm and dry overnight.

• Don’t forget to invite a friend. The victims of hypothermia often do not recognize the symptoms in time.

Find out more about preparing for wilderness survival at www.mountaineerwilderness.com.

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