Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Terrorism Ramps Up

Today's bit of news out of Homeland Security is that the enemy is trying to ramp up the use of IED (improvised explosive devices) in the United States. Yes, it's true — IEDs are not only roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan; they're also used by guys like the infamous attempted shoebomber, the attempted underwear bomber, the Times Square bomber, etc. Any type of improvised explosive device  qualifies.

But the news that the enemy is accelerating attempts to bring that kind of terrorism to our country is what will probably surprise many folks. It shouldn't. Terrorists, by their very definition, try to create terror among their target population. Any way they can do that is part of their playbook. Naturally, they will try to target places where significant numbers of people can be affected. Buildings, sporting events, entertainment events, transportation hubs, stuff like that.

So what can you do about this threat?
  • If you see something that seems strange, report it to authorities
  • Report packages that are left alone
  • Report people sneaking around looking over their shoulders as if they're up to something
Being alert is the best we can do, but at the same time we don't want to allow the way we have to live in this day of terrorism to totally alter our ability to enjoy life. If that happens, the terrorists have already won. Their intent is to disrupt our way of life by causing us to be afraid to live normally. So, as much as possible, we need to continue to live normally — if for no other reason than to prove to the enemy that they can't beat us. 

This is the best country that has ever existed, producing more good throughout the world than any other nation ever has, being more charitable than all the rest put together. An honest and open-minded look at the record proves that there is no reason for us to hang our heads, feel guilty, or apologize to anyone. Yes, there will always be detractors, apologists, whiners, and folks so laden with personal guilt that they would love to suck all the rest of us into their pity-party. Let them whine alone. Don't become involved in that losing lifestyle. Be proud to be Americans, hold your head up, bow to no one. And then go out into the world and do as much good as you possibly can, to prove the kind of people we are. 

That, more than anything, will terrorize the terrorists. When they see that we cannot be beaten, it will discourage them. Let them be discouraged. Let them be depressed. 

As terror threats ramp up, be vigilant and report unusual behavior or situations. That's the best you can do. Then go about enjoying life and doing good to everyone you meet. That, is our best weapon against terrorism. 

Monday, June 28, 2010

Expect The Unexpected

The problem with history is that we can tend to take it for granted. When we do that, we expect certain things to happen, and other things NOT to happen. And that can lead to problems. A hiker named Tim Scott found out that just because, historically, an event has never happened is no reason to assume that it won't happen. In his case, it was a bear attack.

According to the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, the black bear attack that put Scott in the hospital over this past weekend was the first recorded bear attack on a human in the state's history. That being the case, avid hikers like Scott have always felt fairly immune to bear attacks while trekking in Kentucky. And that, my friends, is a mistake.

Ordinarily, black bears are not very aggressive. Unless you come between a sow and her cub, or just totally surprise one of these bears, they normally run from human contact. That kind of "historical" behavior can lead us to feel fairly safe, even when we know black bears are somewhere in the area.

But in this case, the black bear actually pursued Tim Scott — very unexpeccted behavior.

The lesson to learn from all this is that we should expect the unexpected. Just because something never happened in the past is no reason to think it won't happen in the future. The moment we start begin too sure that a particular thing can't happen (because it never has before), we leave ourselves vulnerable.

This is exactly what leads to Day-Hike Syndrome. You casually engage in a short hike in familiar territory, feeling totally assured that nothing can go wrong — because you have done this same hike a dozen times before, and nothing ever went wrong in the past. Ka-Boom! That's when something happens that leaves you stranded. Maybe you become injured, or lost, or a hellacious storm suddenly sweeps in out of nowhere. And there you are, unprepared to spend extra time (maybe a few nights and days) living in the woods with no shelter, food, water, fire, first aid kit, or means of summoning help.

This happens all the time, by the way. It's because the victims of such incidents were over-confident, thinking that nothing could possibly go wrong. That's what Tim Scott thought about his chances of being attacked by a black bear on that trail. Even though this was known to be bear country, the bears always left people alone and an attack had never happened before … so he could feel safe; right?

Okay, here's the deal. Forget history. You must always expect that anything can happen, and be prepared to deal with it. A good place to start your preparation is by reading the final chapter of my book Rich Johnson's Guide to Wilderness Survival. Then give some thought to all the possibilities and how you would handle different circumstances that might crop up.

Be safe out there.


Sunday, June 27, 2010

Adapt or Die

I'm a sailor. On the surface, that might not seem to be much of a connection to survival, but hang with me for a minute and I'll explain.

As a sailor, I know one thing — I don't control the wind. I don't control how strong the wind is, and I don't control the direction it blows. All I can control is my response to the wind. I can either let the wind knock the boat down, or I can use it as a tool to get me where I want to go. My choice.

On the boat, there are several key indicators that tell me what the wind it doing. At the top of the mast is a thing called a Windex — a pivoting pointer with an airplane-like tail that shows where the wind is coming from. On the shrouds (the cables that hold the mast up) are ribbons that do the same thing. On the sails are telltales that show how efficiently I have the sails trimmed to take maximum advantage of the wind. I watch all these things constantly and make appropriate adjustments to the direction I'm sailing, or to the way I have the sails trimmed, or to the amount of sail I have up.

So what does all this have to do with survival? Just this — to sail successfully, it is absolutely necessary to be adaptable; and to be a survivor, it is absolutely necessary to be adaptable. You must be willing and able to make adjustments when the situation changes. If you don't adapt, you die.

In order to adapt to changes, you must first be aware of the changes. You have to be watching for the shifts  in the wind, so to speak. You can't just go through life with your head down, your earbuds blaring, and ignoring what the key indicators are trying to tell you. Pay attention to what's happening around you, and then take appropriate action.

On the boat, I can actually feel the shifts in the wind  by the way the boat suddenly stands up or heels over. I hear the wake increase or decrease. I can sense when things aren't quite right.

In life, if something doesn't feel quite right, doesn't sound quite right, doesn't smell quite right … it's time to figure out why. Maybe it's a sudden rustle in the bushes beside the trail, or unexpected footsteps in your house. Maybe it's the faint odor of rotten eggs, or a whiff of smoke in the air. Maybe it's a creepy feeling that raises the hair on the back of your neck when you're walking along a dark road. DO NOT IGNORE THESE THINGS!

Use all of your senses to keep yourself alive. They will alert you to dangers you may not be able to see or identify immediately. These are the telltales that indicate a shift in the wind that is going to require some action on your part to keep your ship afloat and upright.

Don't get stuck on one plan of action that would exclude adaptation. Being stubborn is good, insofar as you refuse to give up and die, but it can get you killed if you are unwilling to adapt as the situation changes. One of the key characteristics you must acquire in order to survive is a willingness to adapt and employ a foundation of skills and knowledge that give you the ability to modify your actions to keep you alive.

In sailing, we can't control the wind, the waves, the tides, the currents. In a survival situation, we can't control every aspect of the situation, so we have to learn to adapt if we want to live.

On the boat, there's a time to sail, and there's a time to take the sails down. There's a lesson in that.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Situational Awareness

A guy steps out of his tent, yawns and stretches into the pink dawn and watches his breath form a small cloud as he exhales. Suddenly, a bear rises from the bushes and charges across the clearing, tearing our camper right out of his pajamas. At first glance, that sounds like a mishap that was unavoidable. It certainly wasn't caused by anything the camper did — right? 

But accidents don't just happen. Survival situations don't just happen. There is always a root cause for every outcome. In many instances, some decision, somewhere along the line, leads to a set of circumstances that eventually evolves into consequences, either good or bad. 

I am not saying that people intentionally get themselves into hot water, nor that they deserve what happens when problems arise. I've seen my own share of uncomfortable consequences that could have been prevented, had I (or someone else) made different decisions. Stuff happens. But lots of that kind of stuff can be prevented, if we learn to pay attention to what's going on around us. 

Let’s have a look at the unfortunate situation above, to see if we can identify some root causes and decisions that led to these unpleasant consequences. 
  • The man chose to go camping — Hey, good decision, but a decision nonetheless, so we can't say this was inconsequential. 
  • The man chose where to camp, perhaps understanding that this was bear country. But then maybe not. Decisions based on ignorance or incomplete understanding might be deemed innocent, but they can still lead to unfortunate consequences. 
  • After last night's supper, the unburnables were gathered and stuffed in a plastic trash bag, ready to be hauled out and disposed of later. This was a decision about food/trash etiquette. A scrap of tin foil with the hint of last night's supper on it is all it takes to invite unwelcome company into camp.
  • It was his decision (although probably not consciously made) to exit the tent with less than complete awareness of what was going on outside. 
Hopefully you see the pattern. Decisions, even those we aren't intending to make, contribute to final outcomes. Nothing just happens. You step left instead of right and, Wham!, a rattlesnake strikes your calf from behind a log. Who is to blame? Well, blame isn't the name of this game — the name of this game is Situational Awareness, a technique that is valuable in the prevention of mishaps. 

Situational Awareness is nothing more than being aware of what's going on around you all the time. If you're aware that rattlesnakes like to hide in the shade where they feel safe, and if you are aware that you are in rattlesnake country, then you can make decisions to avoid "snaky" places and take other measures to reduce the chances of a nasty encounter. 

But it isn't just about bears and rattlesnakes. It might be running out of gas, or food, or propane, or firewood. It might be about a lost child, or getting lost yourself, or getting sick from drinking foul water. It's about a lot of things, all of which involve decisions that lead to consequences of one nature or another. 

To put situational awareness to work, it's necessary to gather pertinent information and be able to answer fundamental questions. Here's a checklist to get you started. It's by no means complete, so customize your own checklist to fit your situation. 

Where are we going? 
  • Are there natural predators in the area? 
  • If so, what are their habits? 
  • What is proper behavior to avoid confrontations? 
  • Are there seasonal hazards? (extreme heat, cold, flood, avalanche, etc.) 
  • Are there other dangers? (tides, waves, poisonous spiders, snakes, disease-bearing insects, killer bees, fire ants, etc.) 
  • Will we need passports or photo ID and birth certificates? 
  • Do we need special permits? 
  • Are inoculations required? 
  • Is it recommended that we take precautions for water purification, or that we avoid certain foods? 
When are we going? 
  • Is it hunting season? 
  • Is it tornado season? 
  • Hurricane season? 
  • Is this the season and region that baby rattlesnakes are born? 
  • Do we have to travel through rush-hour traffic? 
  • What is the long-term weather forecast? 
What are we going to be doing? 
  • Are we adequately trained and equipped for special activities? 
  • Have we personally inspected and tested the equipment? 
  • If we get separated, can we maintain voice contact? 
  • Are we prepared to handle medical emergencies? 
  • Are we prepared to handle evacuation? 
  • Are we prepared to fight a vehicle fire or a runaway campfire? 
Who is going? 
  • Does anyone have special medical or nutritional needs? 
  • Are there children who will require constant supervision? 
  • Is there a detailed plan about camp duties? 
How will we be traveling? 
  • Are we prepared to handle vehicle-related emergencies? 
  • Do we have maps for the route? 
  • Have we made reservations, where necessary? 
  • Do we have enough food and water for the trip? 
  • Do we have a cell phone so we can call for assistance? 
  • Do we have a PLB to summon search and rescue? 
  • Do we have enough money (are you kidding!)? 
  • Have we left a “flight plan” with relatives or friends? 
How does everybody feel? 
  • Is anyone ill, or feel something coming on? 
  • Is anyone apprehensive about the trip? 
  • Is everyone well rested? 
  • Is anyone nursing an injury? 
These questions might seem tedious and trivial, but answering them will lead to decisions that will, in turn, lead to consequences. Being aware of what is going on around you, and the way the situation is evolving, will help you identify and trap potential problems before they can become mishaps.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

First Do No Harm

There is a concept in medical care known as "first do no harm." That's the directive to professional medical care providers (doctors, nurses, etc.) and it should apply to us as providers of first aid when we are faced with a medical problem in a survival situation.

Depending upon the type and severity of the injury, there are times when you don't want to move a victim, because if you do you might makes matters worse. And there are other times when you absolutely must move the victim and take your chances on the damage.

For instance, let's say you come upon a terrible car wreck and the driver is trapped inside, hanging upside-down in his seat belt, and unconscious. If you survey the situation and it appears that there is no apparent risk of a fire (fuel isn't leaking, sparks are not flying), you should call 9-1-1 and let the pros handle everything. Don't move the guy. He might have internal injuries, or spinal damage that you can make worse by trying to extricate the victim.

On the other hand, if you come upon the same accident scene and there is fuel spilling and sparks coming from under the hood, you don't have the luxury of waiting 15 or 20 minutes for the EMTs to arrive. You've got to get the unconscious driver out of the car immediately. To leave him there places him as risk of death in a car fire. So you are pretty much committed to getting him out of the car and dragging him out of harm's way, even though technically there is a chance of making his initial injuries worse by doing so.

It's a judgment call that you have to make on the scene. You might be able to wait a little and hope the Paramedics get there quickly, but once you suspect that things are going to go from bad to worse in a hurry, you have to make your move.

In all cases, try to avoid creating more damage or injury. Treat the victim as carefully as the situation will allow. If time permits and the situation allows, stabilize the head and neck in line with the spine, and immobilize limbs before moving the victim.

But if you're dragging the guy out of an active fire, just grab him by the shoulders of his shirt or jacket, cradle his head between your forearms (to keep his head/neck from moving), and drag him away from the danger.

It's a tricky situation, this "first do no harm" stuff. You need to be careful not to increase the injury, but you can't just let the guy perish because you're afraid to do anything to help. Consider taking as many emergency first aid courses as you can, perhaps even qualifying as an Emergency Medical Technician and making yourself available as a volunteer at the local fire and ambulance department. The more education and hands-on experience you have, the better.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Do You Have What It Takes?

According to Ben Sherwood, author of The Survivors Club, we all fit into a ratio he defines as 10-80-10. Figuring out where you fit among those numbers makes all the difference.
  • The first 10 represents the percentage of humans who, when faced with a crisis, basically go screaming down the trail like their hair is on fire. They panic, lose control, and end up as non-survivors. 
  • The number 80 represents the percentage of people who don't panic, but don't do much of anything. They freeze up, can't think, can't act, and they also end up as non-survivors. 
  • Then there's the final 10. That's the percentage of folks who instinctively do the right thing. Well, maybe not always the right thing, but they do something. And something is almost always better than nothing (or running down the trail like your shorts are on fire). 
This is an interesting book. It's full of stories of real survivors, and analysis of what they did to make it out of their tough situation alive. It delves into the psyche of the human condition, and makes an attempt to pick out those characteristics that will give you a better chance of survival.

This is not about wilderness survival. It is about surviving every type of deeply emotional and physical catastrophe — whether it's being trapped in the World Trade Center on 9/11, a diagnosis of terminal cancer, finding out you've lost all your family to a tragedy, or hearing the captain announce that the plane you're on is going to crash. It's about all the stuff inside you that determines whether or not you are a survivor. And there's a test you can conduct for yourself, to learn where you fall on the 10-80-10 scale.

Being a survivor isn't only about knowing what weeds you can eat, or how to catch a lizard for dinner, or where you can find shelter. In certain circumstances, those are important details about survival living under specific conditions. But you may never face a situation in which those skills will save you.

However, in every type of crisis situation, if you expect to survive, you must have what it takes on the inside. It's about emotional strength, the ability to remain calm, exercise clear thinking, set achievable goals, take action, and never give up.

It's about your ability to help calm others around you, to lead them to safety, to convince yourself and others that you're going to make it out alive. That's what makes a survivor, when all is said and done.

Despite what you see on TV, being a survivor is not about the public image you try to portray of being "a survival type" (whatever that means — maybe dressing like a native and walking barefoot ). The most important determination of whether or not you fit into the desired 10-percent is really what is on the inside of you.

I recommend the book.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

New Water Filter

I recently tested a new water filter called the Frontier Pro Filter System, from Aquamira Technologies, Inc. ( It has a lot going for it. First off, it fits easily in the pocket of my cargo pants, and weighs only 2 ounces. That means I can carry it around with me, and if I manage to lose my way in the woods, I’ll be equipped with an important piece of survival gear.

But the best part is the variety of ways it works. Designed with versatility in mind, the Frontier Pro can be used three different ways. First is by attaching the base of the filter to a regular grocery store variety water bottle (the filter base has a screw cap arrangement that fits standard 28mm threaded bottle mouths).

A logical question is, why would I need to filter springwater from a bottle I bought at a store? I wouldn’t. but eventually that water will be used up and then I would use the empty bottle as a canteen of sorts, refilling it from a pond or stream. And that’s when I would filter the water for drinking.

The second method is to attach the unit to a hydration bladder (such as a Platypus). And the third is to drink directly from a pond or stream by attaching the included 12-inch plastic straw and sucking through the bite valve (be careful to keep the straw away from the bottom of the pond, to prevent sucking up silt). No hoses, no pumps, no work.

There is still one other mode of operation that I tested — a gravity-feed drip system. To set that up, I removed the bite-valve (hidden beneath a cap on top of the filter), attached the filter to a container of water and hung it upside-down with the filter at the lowest point and a vent at the top (to keep from creating a vacuum inside the container as the water drained out the bottom). Gravity pulls the water through the filter and clean water is collected below. Works like a charm.

The filter is rated to screen out 99.9% of giardia and cryptosporidium, and the guts include an activated carbon element to help reduce waterborne chemicals and to improve flavor. Miraguard antimicrobial technology is employed to suppress the growth of bacteria, algae, fungus, mold and mildew inside the filter media.

A pre-filter element fits inside the base, to catch big chunks before they can get to the “real” filter element. That prolongs the useful life of the filter, which, by the way, is rated at 50 gallons. A total of 5 pre-filters come in the package.

I tested the filter in all modes, including sucking up water from a source pool. Of course, sucking takes some effort. What I discovered was that the filter became easier to draw water through after all the air was purged from the filter media and it became thoroughly saturated with water.

For a suggested retail price of $24.95, this compact, versatile filter system seems like an excellent way to make drinkable water, no matter where you go. It is now part of our 72-hour kit, and I’m getting another one to keep in the survival kit we keep in our vehicle.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Bottle Bomb Warning

This morning, I received information about a rash of "bottle bombings" taking place around the country, and thought I should pass along the warning to you.

The bombs are made of pop (or water) bottles that contain some Drano, water and tin foil. When the container is disturbed, a chemical reaction between the Drano and the tin foil creates high pressure within the bottle, resulting in an explosion. Apparently, these bottle bombs are being left in front yards and other locations where people are likely to discover the bottle, pick it up and move it. When that happens, the chemical mixture sets off the explosion after about 30 seconds.

There is a more thorough explanation about the way these devices are made, and a video clip of an explosion at

Even though these are just high-pressure explosions in plastic bottles, they are still dangerous and can cause serious injury, chemical burns, loss of eyesight, etc. If you find a suspicious object in your yard, the safest thing to do is to leave the object alone and call the police.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Survival story

A couple weeks ago, I ran into a fellow named Brian Gawley. He's the author of "Lost 65.5 hours in Olympic National Park: My story of survival." It's a long title, but an interesting story, and one worth reading. 

This is a textbook example of how to get into trouble without even trying. Brian is a distance runner who has done several marathons. To help with his training, he likes to take what he calls "psycho" hikes — long distances at very fast pace — in the mountains. The altitude and pace help with physical conditioning, and he had done several 20-mile hikes at high elevation before, covering the ground at a blinding pace. To be able to do that, he travels light. Running shorts, t-shirt, a couple of granola bars and a water bottle comprise his total load of gear. 

One of the sneaky problems with life is that it, if you succeed at activities often enough, you can be lulled into a false sense of security. Brian had always succeeded at these psycho hikes in the past, so he had fallen into the trap of thinking that nothing could go wrong. But it did.

On the day of his fateful survival incident, he set off as usual on a 20+mile out and back hike, following a well established trail. In fact, part of the trail was a paved lane. After the pavement petered out, the rest of the trail was excellent and well marked. You couldn't miss it with your eyes closed. Or could you?

Brian got a late start, but figured that his pace would put him back at his car before dark. You know what they say about the best laid plans … 

Deep forest, tall mountains, late season all combined to bring on sudden darkness after the sun set — and Brian was still several miles from his car. He thought he was a lot closer than he actually was, and that error in calculation caused him to press on even though he could hardly see the trail in the growing darkness. 

And then it happened — he took a tumble off the side of the trail, injured himself, and then couldn't find the trail again. He wandered deeper into trouble and farther from the trail that he was now desperately searching for. 

In the telling of his tale, Brian Gawley spells out, step-by-step how easy it is to get deeper and deeper into trouble. It's so easy that it happens to hundreds of people every year. Many of them survive. Some don't. Brian was one of the lucky ones. 

I'm glad I got a chance to meet Brian and read his story. If you want to get a copy of his self-published book, it's available on Amazon as a "real" book, or on Kindle as an e-book. Go to to find some other links. 

The upshot of the whole thing is that it's the little things that kill you. 
  • It's the lack of understanding the concept that you might have to spend an unplanned night or two in the wilds, and the corresponding lack of preparation to do that. 
  • It's the failure to let people know exactly where you're going, what you're doing, when you'll be back — filing a "flight plan" so to speak. 
  • It's the lack of understanding basic survival techniques and fundamental concepts that open the door to making bad decisions — such as not stopping to make an overnight camp before it gets dark. 
Those are the things that will kill you.

When I met Brian Gawley, he was attending a presentation I was giving about my own survival book, Rich Johnson's Guide to wilderness Survival. He sat on the front row, and I noticed him nodding in agreement as I spoke. He had been through the kind of Hell that my book is intended to help people avoid. I'm glad he made it out alive. I'm glad he took the time to write about his experiences. 

Most of all, I hope my book will help others prevent  that kind of thing from happening to them. I seriously recommend that you get my book and make a study of it. It might save your life. It's available on You can also link to my website at

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Personal Story — Hot Rock Bed

It was supposed to be just a short day hike on a crisp winter afternoon. Our destination was a cave where a thousand years ago ancient people of this part of the country might have taken shelter. The very thought of it was intriguing.  The sky was clear and no foul weather was forecast. So we left our gear in the vehicle and headed down the canyon without a care in the world, figuring to be back by nightfall. That was a mistake.

Near the end of the hike, Becky’s foot blistered.  At first, it was just a hot spot on her heel, and she decided to ignore it for a while.  By the time she told me about her foot, we were almost to the cave and she was starting to limp. We removed the boot and sock to have a look at the injury, and I knew immediately that we weren’t going to be hiking back up the canyon until her foot had a chance to recover somewhat. 

So there we were, five miles from our vehicle. Night was only a few hours away, and we had nothing except the clothes we were wearing to keep us warm.  Our clothing was simple — blue jeans, a long-sleeved shirt and a jacket.  Not the best, but after all, we weren’t planning on spending the night. And that’s exactly how many survival situations begin — people trek off into the backcountry, sometimes less prepared than they should be, because they’re not expecting problems to arise.

From the looks of the weather, the night was going to be clear. And that meant cold air at our elevation of nearly 6000 feet.  On this night, the water in the creek would freeze hard, and I knew it would seem like an eternity before the sun rose to warm the earth again.  

Our choices were to either sleep on the frigid ground in our lightweight clothing, or come up with some other plan.  The priority list read something like this — stay dry, get out of the wind, get a fire going so we can keep warm. Fortunately, all the natural resources were at hand to accomplish everything that needed to be done.  But some additional survival techniques also came into play.

Because the weather was fair, all we had to do to remain dry was stay out of the creek. During the hike, we took precautions to keep our feet dry, even though we crossed the stream several times.  We looked for shallows where we stepped from rock to rock, and we used narrow spots to jump across. In a few places, we had no choice but to hike up and around terrain where there was no natural water crossing.  This made the way more difficult, but it was preferable to the consequences of getting wet.

A breeze will naturally follow a canyon and funnel through it like a wind tunnel, so one of our concerns was to get out of the wind to conserve body heat.  If you wait until you feel the cold, it’s already late in the game. Not necessarily too late, if you have the means of restoring lost body heat, but it’s better to conserve than to restore.

As we covered the final distance to the cave, we made use of natural windbreaks as much as possible, moving in the wind shadow of boulders and brush.  Suddenly, the cave was an even more important destination than it had been before, because now it was to be our shelter, not just an attraction for the sake of curiosity.

Cold air sinks to the bottom of a canyon, while warmer air rises.  Staying in the canyon bottom exposed us to the bitterest cold the night offered, so we were fortunate that the cave was located mid-way up the side of the canyon wall. If the cave had been near creek level, we would have sought the protection of a rocky overhang, or some other form of shelter at a higher elevation, where the ambient air temperature was more survival friendly. But with a topographic map in hand, I knew almost exactly what we would find when we turned the final corner and saw the cave a hundred feet up-slope, where the air was warmer.

The final need was to add heat to our environment by making a fire.  Not just a little campfire that warmed our faces and hands while our backs froze all night long, but something that allowed us to sleep in comfort without the need to keep feeding the blaze. We didn’t want to sit there and shiver through the endless gloom of one of the longest nights of the year, waiting for a reluctant sun that seemed like it was never going to rise again.

We had to assess the situation, look around and discover what was available, and do the best we could to improve our conditions. At the back of the cave where the sandy soil was loose and soft, we scooped out a shallow trench that was about eight feet long, four feet wide and a foot deep. Next, we lined the bottom of the trench with stones — not creek stones that might have moisture trapped inside that would turn to steam and shatter the rocks when heated, but dry rocks from the area around the mouth of the cave.  Then I went in search of firewood.  Because of the technique we were using, we needed only enough firewood to keep the blaze going for a couple of hours.

We spread the wood throughout the trench, and ignited it.  We kept the fire going strong for about an hour, to heat the stones thoroughly and to warm up the soil beneath them. Yes, it was smoky in the cave, but the convection current carried the smoke up against the cave ceiling and out the entrance, so all we had to do was stay low. In the gathering darkness and chill of night, the light and warmth of that fire felt very comforting.

After an hour or so, we moved the remaining bit of fire to a location we had prepared for a small campfire to provide light until we fell asleep.  With the fire out of the trench, we raked the previously excavated sand over the hot rocks, covering the stones to a depth of eight or nine inches.  Then we sat around our new campfire and waited for the heat from the rocks to penetrate the covering layer of sand, driving out any moisture remaining in the soil. Because the soil came from way back in a desert cave, there was very little moisture in it, but we gave it half an hour anyway. After 30 minutes, we stretched out on the warm sand that covered our hot rock bed.

It felt so good to lie on the warm ground and feel our muscles relax. At first, we each had to lie beside our hot rock bed, because it was too toasty for us to lie directly on top. As the night progressed and the ground slowly lost its warmth, we gradually migrated toward the middle. By morning, we still felt a little bit of heat from the ground beneath us. We slept comfortably through a frozen night on soft, warm sand, and we were ready for a slow hike out of the canyon, going easy on Becky’s injured foot.

It doesn’t really matter whether there’s a cave available, or you use a downed tree’s root system as a wall to build a shelter against, or you find a rocky ledge.  The techniques for surviving in the wilds are the same. And they are not difficult, if you have a clear understanding of the priorities.  Stay dry, protect yourself from the wind and other elements, and get a fire going. If you are without camping gear, use your ingenuity and the natural resources at hand to make the best shelter and fire you can.

Unexpected things happen in the outdoors, and it is important to be prepared with the equipment (a knife and fire starting equipment) and techniques (such as building a hot rock bed) to get you through difficult situations. The rule is: stay dry, stay warm, stay alive.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Perspiration Can Kill You

In an interesting experiment this past week, I put the power of perspiration to the test. My son, Ryan, and I went for a 9-mile hike through a Pacific Northwest rain forest just as it was proving how it got named that way. During our 4-hour trek (much of which was on a cedar plank walkway), it was like standing under a shower head, but fully clothed.

Speaking of clothing, Ryan was wearing a loose-fitting $1.79 plastic pocket poncho over some lightweight appropriate (meaning non-cotton) outdoor clothing. On his head, beneath the poncho hood, he word a wool cap. On his feet were leather hiking boots that had been treated with waterproofing a few years ago.

I was wearing cotton sweat pants beneath a pair of waterproof foul-weather pants, a cotton long-sleeved shirt under a high-dollar waterproof shell with a hood. No cap or hat. On my feet were cotton socks and lightweight trail shoes that were mostly mesh but had solid soles with aggressive tread pattern.

So, out through the forest we went, getting thoroughly dumped on all the while. Even under the forest canopy, water fell in giant drops. Every bush was drenched and anxious to share moisture with us as we brushed past. The ground was saturated and puddles flooded parts of the trail that were not on the cedar plank boardwalk.

Ryan is taller and has a longer stride than I do; plus he's half my age, so he hikes faster than I can comfortably keep pace. In the first hour, pushing myself to keep up with Ryan, I quickly overheated and  had to open my jacket and remove the hood to keep from overheating. There went the benefit of a waterproof shell.

Without a hat, my hair was immediately drenched. And even by aggressively trying to vent the heat out of my jacket, the fast pace and exertion caused me to sweat so much that my cotton clothes were soaked. The result was that the inside of my $150 waterproof jacket was as wet as the outside. The same was true of the inside of my waterproof pants; the cotton sweats were so wet that it made me think the outer shell had failed.

Actually, the only failure was in the choice of clothing. The foul-weather jacket and pants were doing their job. But by wearing cotton against my skin, and then by exerting myself with the pace of the hike, I was able to totally negate the benefits of proper outer clothing.

Ryan, on the other hand, wearing his loose-fitting (so it vented excess heat and humidity easily) cheap plastic poncho over clothing made of synthetic fabrics, was dry. His cap kept his hair dry. His boots kept his feet fairly dry. The pace for him was ideal, so he didn't work up a sweat. He came out of the rain forest 4 hours later almost as dry as when he went in.

So here's what we learn from all this:
  • Do not wear cotton clothing during cold and/or rainy weather. Merino wool is best, and synthetics run a close second. 
  • Wear loose-fitting waterproof shell clothing that will allow your body to ventilate easily, permitting moisture to escape to the atmosphere rather than being trapped in your clothing. 
  • Even a cheap waterproof shell is adequate if it will protect you against moisture from penetrating to your clothing. The key is not building up moisture on the inside. 
  • Do not allow yourself to perspire. If you do that, you might as well not wear a waterproof outer shell. 
  • Slow your pace to a comfortable work load that will minimize sweating and overheating. Even if the slower pace is going to mean a longer period of time before you reach your destination, it is better to arrive dry and late rather than on time but wet and exhausted. 
This is exactly the stuff that survival story headlines are made of. Someone goes on a short day hike, gets wet, gets tired, becomes hypothermic, and ends up in serious trouble (or worse).