Every year I read about stuff like this, and every year I feel myself compelled to throttle someone silly over the ignorant ways in which people approach the wilderness.
The linked article is about a full-scale, multi-hundred thousand dollar, thousand-man-hour search and rescue operation for two youngsters who got lost in the woods in southern California.
The male in the party was found separated from the female. He was found disoriented, dehydrated, shoeless, and in a pair of board shorts about 500 feet from a well-traveled road. She was found on a rocky ledge nearby. Getting her off the ledge was difficult, to say the least, to the point that two rescuers were injured in the process of bringing her in safely. She was less than one mile from the car.
Look, I’m not trying to be mean to these kids. I try to live my life giving people the benefit of the doubt as much as possible, and I don’t know the whole story here. I mean no disrespect whatsoever in what I’m about to say, because I’m sure that these are perfectly normal, well-adjusted kids who just screwed up because they underestimated the mudhole that the wilderness can stomp in your ass if you go in unprepared. If either of them ever read this, I hope that they can understand that I’m not being mean when I say that they were really, really stupid to do what they did.
That being said, these kids had absolutely no business whatsoever being out in those woods, because they had no idea what they were doing there. Here is a very quick, unabridged list of the things that prove this to me:
1. What he was wearing – board shorts, a cotton t-shirt, and no shoes. The remainder of his attire leads me to believe that he was probably wearing sandals at one point in time. This is not wilderness attire, even in southern California. If what you’re wearing isn’t sufficient to spend an unplanned night out there without freezing your ass off, then you’d better be carrying the rest with you.
2. They were both dehydrated to the point of delirium, despite the fact that they’ve only been in the woods for 3 or 4 days. The male was 500 feet from a traveled road and could not walk to the road due to his disorientation and so forth from dehydration. Now, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that I have 5 days of water on me whenever I go into the wilderness. However, I typically run a quick calculation on how much I schlep in based on:
a. Opportunities to collect water along the way. I’ll take more when I go into the Snake River canyons in October, because there is zero water there then, than when I go in for turkey during the spring. Note, I said collect, and not necessarily “disinfect.” A good outdoorsman will carry a disinfection method along with him, but even in a pinch, the symptoms of giardia and other waterborne pathogens usually take several days to set in. There is no excuse to die of thirst next to a stream simply because you’re afraid of giardia – this is a little piece of info that a lot of people don’t understand. Every year you hear about people that were dying of dehydration despite having plenty of water available, because they were afraid of water born pathogens. My guess is that since it is spring, there were water sources available to these kids that they didn’t use because they didn’t know any better.
b. Amount I’ll need. How long am I planning to be in the wild? How much water will I need per hour (based on weather conditions)? How long can I expect rescue to take if I get lost or injured?
c. The final result is that I will have enough water to get me to my “expected rescue point” as I describe below.
3. No one was expecting them. The only reason that anyone knew to go look is because of the 911 call that they made to authorities. It sounds like they only got through, but weren’t able to communicate any information, because the authorities were basing their search off of the cell tower the call came in from. This could also mean that the kids had no idea where they were and therefore couldn’t tell the authorities where to start looking, which is really unforgivably stupid if that is the case. That being said, you absolutely must have someone expecting you whenever you go out. Tell them where you’ll be, how long you plan to go out, and the drop-deadline for calling the authorities if you aren’t back by that date. That way, you don’t have to rely on cell service, phone batteries, and the ability to communicate to save your life if you get in trouble. Using this information, you can mentally put together your “expected rescue point” if you get in trouble, because you’ll know when to expect them to come looking, and can plan to get yourself through to that point.
4. They separated. I hate rigid rules in anything because they remove individual initiative and can’t consider the conditions on the ground the way a well-educated individual can, but there are so few reasons to separate from your partner in a survival situation that I’m having trouble thinking of any good ones. Never (okay, rarely if ever) leave your wingman. Even if one of you is able and the other is non-ambulatory due to injury, I would advise very, very careful planning, preparation, and thinking it through before one person leaves the other to go get help. Also, just as a chauvinist aside: what kind of a man leaves his girl behind?
5. They were obviously unaware of where they were, and incautious about traveling. He was found 500 feet from a well-traveled road that he presumably didn’t know was there. She was found less than a mile from the car. She was found on a rock ledge on a steep slope, so steep that rescuers had trouble getting her out of there. She had no business being on that ledge. In 33 years of running around in the woods, I’ve never once found myself accidentally on a rock ledge that I couldn’t get myself off of. She probably fell in order to get there. In 33 years of walking off-trail in the steepest country in North America, I’ve never once fallen off a cliff onto a rock ledge. The fact that she did means to me that she didn’t have a clue what she was doing and took risks that she ought not to have taken.
6. They took no reasonable steps to save themselves. Okay, folks, here it is in a nutshell – if you’re lost in the woods, don’t know where you are, and aren’t sure how to get back out, wandering around aimlessly is possibly the worst goddamned thing that you can do. If you truly have no idea of your situation, then here are my suggestions:
a. Look around and decide if the area you’re in is a tenable hunker spot. Does it have shelter and water? If so, plunk your ass down and move on to step b. If not, then walk DOWNHILL. Down leads to water. Water leads to streams. Streams lead to rivers. Rivers always lead to civilization. The water gives you something to follow, so that you don’t end up walking in circles; the water also gives you a destination, as well as a source of, well, water. If you’re pretty much anywhere in North America, down is always your best bet. I’m sure that there are places on Earth where down is a bad idea, but for these kids, down would have worked fine if they found that they had to move.
b. Once you’ve found a likely place to hold up and stick it out, do so. The place you’re looking for will have water, and it will have an open area of some sort, and it will have shelter.
c. Build a shelter. It doesn’t have to be fancy, just get yourself out of the wind and rain.
d. If you’re smart, you can start a fire. If you can’t build a fire, then you have no business being in the wilderness in the first place, and should never have left your car. Build a fire.
e. Get water and disinfect it. If you’re smart, you have a filter, or iodine, or a container that will allow using the fire to disinfect it. If you’re dumb, you shouldn’t be out there in the first place, but since you’re there, prepare to get sick, stick it out for a bit, then when you get good and thirsty, drink up. You’ll probably get sick, but it won’t be until after you’re rescued if you’re lucky, and dehydration will kill you long before water borne pathogens do, anyway.
f. Go into the open area and make a big X or three lines (three of anything, evenly spaced, is the international symbol for “HELP ME I’M A DUMBASS AND GOT MYSELF LOST!!!” That includes three sounds, like gunshots or whistle blasts, or three fires, or three X’s, etc).
g. Wait to get found. Make any expeditions away from camp short and to the point, and never, ever get lost again so that you can’t find your way back to camp.
h. Forget about holing up ONLY if you know where you are and think you can walk out; remember that you need to follow landmarks and keep track of where you’re going, so you don’t just end up walking in circles. This is more advanced woodcraft than most folks have, so I don’t usually suggest it unless you’re SURE about your plan and stick to it. Also, don’t hunker down until you have water. Find water or die.
The problem is that too many people have lived in their concrete jungles for too long, and they don’t understand that the wilderness isn’t ADA accessible. There isn’t anything there to save you from yourself. There are no warning labels, and if you don’t know where to look, danger will spring up from the most unlikely places.
Start down a hill, it gets too steep, but the soil is too loose to go back up? Bam, you’re in trouble.
The sun goes down quickly in the forest. Bam, you’re in trouble.
Take the wrong fork in the trail on your way back? Bam, you’re in trouble.
Most people in our modern society live in oblivious little envelopes, because they can. Very few people who have grown up in the city understand the amount of self-awareness and attention that it takes to stay alive outside of the paved areas. If you are scoffing at what I’m saying here as being alarmist and overstated, then I suggest that you try to be humble enough to understand that you have no idea what you’re talking about. I know one man who froze to death 150 yards from a paved road in Colton, Washington while bird hunting, another who fell to his death off of a cliff outside of Index, Washington because he wanted to look over the edge and lost his footing, and another who drowned outside of Starbuck, Washington because he got too cold to swim any further after he fell into a river with steep sides and couldn’t get out. There are hundreds of these cases every year, and every one of those people would look you in the eye, if they could, and ask you to understand; beg you to.
I was at Glacier National Park two years ago and watched a man take his 5 year old grandson to within 5 or 6 feet of a mountain goat and its kid to get a photo taken. It never even occurred to him that he was walking up to a WILD ANIMAL with its baby at its side – he had spent too many days in Disneyland and not enough days in the woods to gain an understanding that that goat wasn’t an attraction at a petting zoo – it was a wild animal, with its offspring at its side, that will react violently if it thinks you’re a threat.
I hollered at him that what he was doing was ill-advised, and he looked at me, back turned to the animal, with the most confused look on his face that I’ve ever seen. It never even occurred to him that the wild animal that he was walking up to with his grandson would protect itself against him. It was so far beyond his capability of understanding that when the goat rammed him in the back and knocked him down, that he still didn’t even seem to comprehend what had happened. It was almost like he was trying to work out how the National Park Service had allowed this tourist attraction to become so dangerous. I don’t think it ever really occurred to him that he was lucky that goat stopped with one little love nudge and didn’t proceed to continue kicking his ass after he went down.
These aren’t forest-themed theme parks, ladies and gentlemen. They are nasty, brutish ecosystems filled with animals that live nasty, brutish, and short lives, and when you enter these places, you’re no longer protected by things like crosswalks, bridges, and sidewalks. The forest is not ADA accessible.