Most people dedicate some level of preparation to their adventures. To not prepare would be the height of foolhardiness. But beyond arranging things like route, destination, camping spots and meals, too few outdoor enthusiasts actually plan for the possibility of a survival situation.
If you’re going to take it upon yourself to travel in remote areas, then pre-trip preparation and planning is vital. The alternative is not pretty. It’s not pessimistic to anticipate the worst-case scenario prior to a trip and then take measures to plan for it. It’s just good bush sense.
Planning and preparing for your adventure begins with research, a particularly easy undertaking in today’s information-rich digital age. Between the Internet and the countless books available in public libraries, the foundation is there for anyone to begin to build a location-specific store of knowledge for just about any region on Earth.
Ideally, anyone going on a backcountry wilderness trip should take the time to train in that regionwith a local expert, one who can offer such tidbits as which plants are edible and which ones will kill you. Spend some time finding out who the expert is and try to dedicate at least one day with him or her on the land. The training and teaching may even be available in your own area. The very first survival courses I ever took (to prepare me for northern Ontario) were taken in Toronto.
Although local experts will obviously know the best ways to build shelter, make fire, gather food and find water, I often find that it’s not the big lessons they teach that ultimately help me, but the little bullets of wisdom they throw out in passing that really impact my ultimate well-being. When a native Costa Rican taught me how to eat mussels, he shared a subtle tip with me, though almost in passing: if the water that drips out of the mussel is green, it’s poisonous; if it’s clear, then it’s good to eat. That information was nowhere to be found in any of the books on the region, but it could’ve saved my life.
I realize that spending time with a local expert is both time- and budget-driven. Most people only have one or two weeks off work and can’t dedicate any more time to training or education while on vacation. But if you can somehow find the time and resources to do this sort of thing, it will make your more self-reliant, enhancing your trip in ways you never thought possible, even if you don’t get caught in a survival situation.
Failing that, you can also gain a significant amount of knowledge from books and other publications that pertain specifically to the area. This helps you in two ways. First, reading about the area gets you excited about the trip and empowers you with information should a survival situation arise. Secondly, published materials might provide you with a few choice nuggets of wisdom that you might recall later.
Types Of Information To Gather
Now that you’ve made the commitment to learn about the area, the next obvious question is, “What should I be looking for?”
You should be intimate with your route and destination. Carefully study your maps to get a feel for the land before you see it. Other things to learn include:
What kind of vegetation, trees or plants can you expect?
What, if any, of these are edible?
Where are the water sources?
What kind of animals are there, and which are dangerous?
What’s the worst possible weather for that area and season? (Checking the weather forecast is a must, as well. Maybe you should postpone your trip for a while if conditions are looking bad.)
What will the day and night temperatures be?
When do the high and low tides occur, and how big are they?
Who are the local people, what are their customs or taboos, and are they friendly?
People can play a bigger part in your wilderness adventure than you think, and unfriendly people can prove a significant hurdle to overcome, even where I live in Canada. A river in northern Ontario flows through a region that was once rife with controversy; the old loggers-versus-tree-huggers chestnut. At one point, the local logging community decided to take out their anger on anyone who traveled the river. More than once over a three-year period, groups of paddlers and anglers reached the parking lot at the end of their trips to find their tires slashed. Imagine if you had emerged with a time-sensitive casualty in tow!
Nobody should venture into the wild without at least the basic skills to use a compass and interpret a topographical map. You don’t play hockey without learning how to skate, you don’t go sailing without learning how to sail, and you don’t shoot a rifle without learning how to shoot. So don’t venture into the wilderness without learning how to navigate (and survive).
You should always carry a map, whether you’re on your own or with a guide. If you’re with a guide but have neglected to bring one, ask to see your guide’s map as often as possible. Become familiar with it, as well as the route you are travelling. Your guide should not be annoyed by this, but pleasantly surprised that someone else on the trip is acquiring emergency knowledge should the worst happen.
In preparing yourself by reviewing a route map, you may have noticed, for example, that a road parallels the river or trail you’re travelling on. This is a good bit of knowledge to have should you run into trouble: A half day’s walk due east will put me onto a road and into the path of a possible rescue. You may also remember seeing landmarks such as bridges, buildings or even small towns. You would never have known that if you hadn’t looked at the map before it got lost or washed down the river.
I’ve often found that people will be fairly good about researching a trip if they’re going by themselves or in a small group. Where people tend to get lazy, however, is when they go with a guide. Assumptions are made that a) the guide knows what they are doing, b) they know the area really well, c) the guide has made all the necessary provisions should an emergency occur.
Trust your guide, but don’t rely on them. In other words, you must be self-reliant. Your guide will be very grateful that you’re taking responsibility for yourself. Remember that your guide is human just like you, and many have been known to make errors that led their parties into otherwise avoidable survival situations.
If you’re travelling in a group situation, share as much of your survival knowledge and skill with your partners before disaster strikes. You don’t necessarily need to devise serious plans, but make sure that everybody has a basic understanding of the steps to take should an emergency occur.
How far you can trek in a day, how well you can build a shelter under extreme weather conditions, how effectively you can dig a hole for a solar still are all directly related to your strength and conditioning. In fact, Dr. Kenneth Kamler in his book Surviving The Extremes: A Doctor’s Journey To The Limits Of Human Endurance, considers conditioning and fitness to be one of the four additive forces at work in the struggle for survival (the others are knowledge, luck and the will to live.) With physical fitness comes greater self-confidence and self-esteem, both of which are critical to maintaining the will to live.
For me, the importance of being physically fit is only magnified in those moments I go into the wild. I am accepting the risk of undertaking these activities, and I have a responsibility to myself, my family and my travelling partners to be properly prepared. This isn’t to say you can’t go into the wilderness if you’re not fit. But you’re putting yourself at a disadvantage from the start.
As part of physical preparation, consider any nagging or chronic health (including dental) conditions that may impede your ability to function. In the Hollywood movie Castaway,Tom Hanks’ character, called Chuck Noland, ended up in a survival situation with a horribly abscessed tooth. To me, that was one of the most realistic parts of the film. If travelling in a group, it’s also a good idea to know what health issues, if any, your partners have, in case you need to look after them.
If you do suffer from a chronic condition such as diabetes or high blood pressure, take this into account when planning your trip. Also carry enough medications to last you for longer than you may expect.
Finally, if you’re travelling to an exotic or topical location, make sure you have received any vaccinations you may need for diseases such as yellow fever, cholera, typhoid, hepatitis, smallpox, polio, diphtheria and tuberculosis; an anti-tetanus injection is also a must. Failure to do so may mean you are not immune to diseases that are prevalent in the area. Note that some of these are administered over the course of several months, so leave yourself enough time to receive the full course.
A good way to mentally prepare yourself for a trip – and the survival situation you may find yourself in – is to accept the possibility that the worst can happen. If you go into any kind of outdoor adventure with the notion, “It can’t happen to me,” you’re only deluding yourself.
You should go into your trip thinking exactly the opposite: “It can happen to me; I could end up in the middle of this wilderness alone, even though I’m rafting in a group of 12; I could get turned around and lost even though it’s just a Sunday hike and there are 75 other people out here today.” As soon as you accept the fact that it could happen to you, then the next step will be to prevent it from happening by preparing properly.
Equipment Preparation & Planning
It’s important to note that anything you bring with you on an outdoor adventure should be up to the task: strong, versatile and robust. Don’t ask yourself if it will function under the best conditions, but rather, will it do so under the worst possible conditions? If not, do you want to stake your life on it?
Your equipment preparation is almost entirely dependent on your destination. To that end, I highly recommend that you speak with someone local or someone who has done the same sort of activity in the same place. They will help you determine the equipment you need.
You can also learn a fair bit about equipment by meandering around local outdoor stores that are tailored to the type of activity you’ll be doing. These are also great places to meet people who have experience in your destination and activity. Consider posting a notice on a board in stores like these, as it may help put you in touch with other experienced adventurers.
I would not trust my equipment selection solelyto what’s suggested in books and other printed materials; there are too many errors and omissions. It is really important that you base this decision on somebody’s personal experience.
Assuming that you have all the right equipment for your excursion, the next step is to make sure you know how to use it. So get yourself out in the backyard, on the deck, or in the living room and spend a few hours acquainting yourself with your gear. Practice setting it up and (more importantly) figure out how to fix it should it break; it may have to last you for a lot longer than you think.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you will have the chance to learn about your gear during your adventure. Your survival ordeal could take place within the first few hours of the trip and you may end up panicking because you don’t know how to set up your tent in the middle of a storm.
Equipment planning and preparation pertains to clothing as well, yet another situation where a little local knowledge goes a long way. Wind, rain, cold, poisonous creepy crawlies and extreme heat are the main elements you’ll face. Your clothing should be able to withstand all of these. Make sure it fits well and is not too restrictive. You want clothes that will keep you dry and warm, but that also offer enough ventilation to prevent overheating.
When it comes to clothing, don’t rely solely on the word of the salespeople at your local outdoor store. I’ve seen many cases where a clerk has recommended the wrong item of clothing just because he’s been told to push that particular brand. Again, try to speak with people who have been there. Remember, poor clothing choices won’t make much of a difference if everything goes right, but they can sure go along way towards making you miserable should things go wrong.
Think of your clothing as your first shelter. Proper clothing should enable you to withstand extreme elements without building a shelter. So whether it’s bitterly cold in the Arctic or a torrential downpour in the jungle, you should be able to stand still in only your clothing and survive.
Inform Others About Your Plans
Telling people when and where you’re going is an aspect of trip preparation that’s as vital as any other. Unfortunately, people sometimes get lazy in this regard. Don’t.
Any time you’re undertaking a backcountry adventure – or any kind of journey that takes you into remote areas – you should have a system in place whereby at least two different people (including local authorities) know:
The nature of your activity;
When you’re starting;
When you should be finished;
How they can communicate with you;
How they can come get you if there’s a problem.
There are now websites (such as sendansos.com) and devices such as the Spot that allow you to enter your own personal travel plan and then send an SOS message to your contacts if you don’t sign in after your return date or when you hit the help button.
If you take advantage of all the preparatory/planning resources and fail-safes available to today’s outdoor enthusiasts, your chances of making it through a survival situation will be radically increased.
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