I have a little multiple-choice survival quiz for you.
Here’s the scenario — Your hike has taken you far from camp, and now the sun has set. As the blackness of night deepens, you can see the faint glow of the campfire perhaps a mile distant. You imagine your buddies sitting around the cheerful fire, and you’re tempted to hike through the night to reach camp. But the terrain is steep and brushy, and in the darkness you can see no clear trail to follow. What do you do?
For this survival quiz, you have four choices to choose from:
- Start yelling for help, hoping maybe your buddies will hear you and they can come and rescue you.
- Keep hiking toward the distant glow of the campfire, figuring you will eventually get there if you just keep going.
- Clear a spot and make a temporary camp, hunker down, start your own fire and wait until morning to continue.
- Run as fast as you can toward camp, so you’ll get there before your buddies put the fire out for the night.
So, what’s the right answer?
Is it 1 — Start yelling and hoping your buddies will hear you and come rescue you? No, it isn’t. Actually, your voice won’t carry a mile, so they’ll never hear you. You would just wear yourself out screaming into the night.
Is it 2 — Keep hiking through the night toward your distant camp? Although this is the most tempting option for most people, this is not the right answer either, and I’ll explain why in a minute.
The correct answer is 3. Clear a spot and hunker down until morning.
Unless you’re involved in a tactical military operation, night movement across difficult terrain should be avoided. Traveling on foot at night is a recipe for disaster, because it is so easy to end up taking a stumble or running into something in the dark that leaves you injured. One night, while out in the desert chasing jackrabbits, I actually walked right off a cliff that I never even saw. It was a total surprise to me when I found myself in midair and falling. Fortunately, I came out of that alive and uninjured, but it could have been much worse.
Even if you don't end up injured, you will probably get lost. The guiding glow of that distant campfire may suddenly disappear as you descend into a canyon, or dense foliage comes between you and the fire, or because your buddies put the fire out. That would leave you disoriented about the direction to camp, and perhaps in a tough spot on the terrain. So don’t try hiking through the night to reach your camp.
The best plan is to stop at the nearest suitable place and prepare an emergency overnight bivouac. Clear a spot on the ground and build a safe fire (one that isn't going to ignite nearby foliage) to provide visibility, warmth, psychological comfort and a signal to anyone who might be searching for you.
If possible, take a compass bearing to that distant glow of the fire at the camp where your friends are. But if you don’t have a compass, at least make an arrow on the ground by using some sticks or rocks to point toward the distant camp. Or just scratch an arrow into the soil, so you can use that as a directional reference in the morning when there is no glow from the distant campfire.
Now, hunker down for the night and plan to continue your hike in daylight. Do whatever you can to shelter yourself from the elements (wind, rain, snow, dew), and keep yourself dry. This is where having an emergency blanket in your pocket can really save your bacon.
And not to leave out Choice 4 from our quiz — running on a trail after dark is almost as bad as running with scissors. It’s a good way to get injured.
So, how did you do with your quiz? Doing little “what if” exercises like this might seem silly, but it helps develop critical thinking. And if you’re ever stuck in a survival situation, being able to make the right choices can save your life.