You don’t know how it happened, but it’s happened: You’re lost in the woods. The bad news is that you’ve already made a couple of mistakes. The good news is that you are going to be all right.
So you’re lost in the woods. What now? Although Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is humor, the book contains several pieces of spectacular wisdom, the first of which is emblazoned on the cover of the titular Guide in large, friendly letters: DON’T PANIC. When you’re lost in the backwoods, that advice is the first and most important thing to follow. Although there are lots of ways to die in the wilderness, at root of most of them is panic. Remember this: You are going to be all right. You’ve got this. Here’s what to do right away, and I mean the very second you realize that you’re not where you planned to be and you don’t know how to get there.
What should you do when you realize you’re in a hole? Stop digging, of course. In much the same manner, the first thing to do when you realize you’re lost is to stop walking. In fact, maybe you should take a moment to sit down and accept the situation for what it is. Right now, your one and only job is to stay alive long enough to be found. The sooner you’re found, the easier that job is going to be. And the closer you are to where your soon-to-be-rescue team thinks you should be, the faster they’ll find you. Speaking of helping people find you, if you have a firearm with you, now’s the time to employ the universal distress signal: three shots fired in rapid succession into the ground. (Then stop, for at least half an hour. Otherwise it’ll just sound like someone going buck-wild plinking at trees.)
Build a Fire
The next thing to do is to build a fire, even if it’s the middle of the day and 80 degrees. If you can avoid having to search for suitable tinder (the flammable stuff, not that cute kindergarten teacher who lives a couple miles away) after dark, you should. A fire also serves as a terrific signaling method, even in the daytime. Just throw some green wood on the blaze, and you’ll have a nice, smoky beacon that can be easily seen from the air and the ground.
Having a fire going also allows you to address several of the things that can kill you in the backwoods all at once. The big one is dehydration, which can happen even with a source of fresh water nearby—because that water is very unlikely to be potable as-is. Most of the freshwater sources in America are infested with disease-carrying bacteria, and parasites like giardia. Those little buggers can cause the sort of diarrhea that qualifies as a medical emergency because it dehydrates you so quickly. Using your fire to bring the water to a full, rolling boil before you drink it will keep you healthy until help arrives.
The next thing that fire’s going to do for you is prevent hypothermia…and yes, that’s a concern even when it’s not that cold outside. If temps are dropping to 40 degrees Fahrenheit, if the wind is blowing, or if your clothes are wet, hypothermia is a very real threat to your life. Of course, the next thing you can do to protect yourself from the elements is…
Build a Shelter
A shelter, no matter how crude, is going to make the next however-long much easier on you. Simply having a shelter from rain and wind increases survival rates exponentially. What kind of shelter you build will depend very much on what’s in your survival kit and where you are, but even if you don’t have much to work with you should make doing so your #3 priority. There are many kinds of emergency shelters—too many to list here—but there are a few key points to remember.
First, you should abandon the idea that your shelter will repel wildlife; it probably won’t. (Your fire will take care of that for you.) Second, smaller is better. The smaller it is, the better it will retain heat. Thirdly, if you have any food with you, you’ll need to do the best you can to store it well away from your shelter if you’re in bear country.
Speaking of which, you’ll note that “food” isn’t on this list. That’s because most people have enough fat reserves to keep them alive for two or more weeks. (That’s not a beer gut—that’s my emergency cache!) Plus, if you wind up being stuck longer than 24 hours, your appetite will peak right at that one-day mark…and then it’ll recede. Human beings have been dealing with intermittent fasting as long as there have been humans, and we as a species actually handle it pretty well.
In fact, human beings are excellent survivors, and that means you. You’re going to be okay. You’ve got this. Don’t panic.
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