Survival stories make for good instructors

Those harrowing tales of true wilderness survival often capture our interest and fuel our imagination about cheating death, but each story is also like a short course in survival; full of valuable lessons and without the pain. We unlock those lessons by taking a closer look behind the facts, for example: How well-prepared was the individual; What specific decisions and actions made things worse; What could have been done to make surviving easier? Anyone can extract potentially lifesaving lessons from simple stories like the following.

Consider the middle-aged, married man (Mr. Smith) who drove to a state park one afternoon to hunt squirrels and brought with him only a shotgun and some shells. Smith had never been lost before, but after just thirty minutes in the woods he had wandered off trail and gotten himself totally turned around. His instinct told him to find that trail again so Smith decided to keep moving. After several hours of fruitless searching and frantically yelling for help he had hiked several miles back into the thick forest. Some where along the way he had discarded the heavy shotgun and shells and, as darkness fell Smith was still blindly stumbling through the trees, jabbed and scratched with every step. Finally exhausted and bloodied he took shelter under a pine tree just as it started to rain.

Sleeping exposed and on the cold ground had left Smith soaking wet and stiff all over. Once the sun was up and shining through the trees he started walking again, in no particular direction. To quench his thirst he licked rain drops from leaves and to ease his hunger pangs he ate raw acorns which caused him to vomit, and that made his throat burn. Over the next few days Smith lost all track of time in what became a long, repetitive cycle of walking, crawling, praying and sleeping. At one point he heard a helicopter flying close by, but he had no way to signal and was too tired to crawl out into the open. That night Smith was awakened by voices urging him to get up so, in the dark he struggled to his feet and resumed walking. It was just before dawn when, completely exhausted, he laid back down for what he believed was the last time. Later that morning a hiker found Smith lying just off the trail.

Another story involved a single young man (Mr. Jones) who decided to day-hike a popular 15-mile trail through the mountains. He was in great shape and figured it should only take him five hours. The weather was clear and cool as Jones started out early, packing only a bottle of water and a granola bar. He wanted nothing to slow him down. Jones had been hiking about ten miles at a brisk pace when he decided he wanted to bush whack a shortcut to save time. He picked his way through the thick understory for over an hour but found no trail. By now he was sweating heavily and his legs ached so he rested and finished his water, and devoured the granola bar. He was convinced the trail was nearby so Jones kept searching as night fell over the dense forest. In the darkness he unknowingly crossed over the trail and continued off in the wrong direction for hours before finally calling it quits. He slept wrapped in his coat.

Temperatures dropped that night and by morning Jones felt so cold and achey he thought he was dying. His legs were numb but he forced himself up, walking painfully and stiff-legged. He wandered through the woods all day and into the second night, mumbling to himself and shivering uncontrollably. By the third day he was delirious and considering suicide, but couldn’t work out how to do it. That night as he fell asleep Jones imagined the smells of cooking but the next morning before he had walked very far Jones stumbled into a clearing with a small cabin. Call it luck or the hand of God, but just then a man came out to fetch firewood and discovered Jones standing outside talking to himself and barely able to move.

I frequently use such stories in my courses to remind students how much we can learn from others who have had a brush with death in the wild. To learn more about preparing for wilderness survival check out my website: www.mountaineerwilderness.com