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.