Medicine for the Outdoors
Medicine for the Outdoors

Dr. Paul Auerbach is the world's leading outdoor health expert. His blog offers tips on outdoor safety and advice on how to handle wilderness emergencies.

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Surviving A Wilderness Emergency

This is the ninth post based upon educational sessions and syllabus material presented at the Wilderness Medical Society Annual Meeting & 25th Anniversary held in Snowmass, Colorado from July 25-30. It’s based upon an excellent presentation given by Peter Kummerfeldt, who is President and Chief Instructor for OutdoorSafe, Inc. of Colorado Springs, Colorado. In his presentation, Peter wisely made the point that the information provided was designed for educational use only and would not be a substitute for specific training or experience. When going into the outdoors it is the reader's responsibility to have the proper knowledge, experience and equipment to travel safely.


Each year, many people find themselves trapped by inclement weather, caught out after dark, are injured, become ill, or are lost and end up having to spend a night or two away from their intended destination, and sometimes outdoors. Spending an unplanned night out does not have to become a “survival situation.” Rather, if you plan for the event, spending a night out is more of an inconvenience than an ordeal. If you accept the possibility that you might be the individual involved the next step is to plan for it. Mentally preparing is as important, if not more important, than the physical steps you need to take. The more mentally prepared you are, the less the likelihood that you will panic. Panic will be your greatest enemy and must be controlled. Coping with an emergency has been said to be 80% mental, 10% equipment and 10% survival skills -- use your head and you can survive.


More people end up in survival situations because they become lost than for any other reason. Being lost is serious but it does not have to be dangerous if you react properly. An acronym to help you remember what to do when you lose your way is "STOP":

Sit down - don’t panic. Sit for at least 30 minutes to allow the emotion to drain away. Talk positively to yourself - out loud! Have a drink of water or eat a candy bar. Remember, your brain is your best piece of survival equipment.

Think about your situation. How bad is it, really? Are there injuries to which you need to attend? Are you losing body heat? What needs to be done first? How much time do you have before it gets dark or the storm rolls in?

Observe the area. What resources are available to help you survive? What natural hazards exist?

Plan what to do next - but be flexible. Remember that you have no control over the weather or the onset of darkness but you do have control over your actions!

When you become lost the first thing you must do is admit to yourself that you don’t know where you are - you’re lost! Or more accurately, you don’t know how to get back to your starting point. While you are sitting, go over in your mind what you did since leaving your car or camp earlier in the day and compare your recollections with the information provided by your map. What landmarks did you see along the way? Can you see these landmarks on your map? Have you been going uphill or down? How many rivers did you cross? How many ridges did you climb? Did you leave enough tracks to follow back to where you started? It helps to draw a map in the dirt. By a process of deduction and using common sense you may be able to unscramble your thoughts and reorient yourself. Often you’ll find that you’re not as lost as you first thought you were!

Unless you can positively locate yourself, the best advice to follow is to stay put and not travel. Do not run around looking for something familiar. Not only will this further confuse you - it will exhaust and dehydrate you and increase the likelihood of suffering an injury. It will also make the searcher's job much more difficult, because you may move into an area that has already been searched! Wait for the rescuers to find you. They are trained and equipped to rescue the lost and injured. Sit tight, protect yourself, signal and let them find you. Remember that most rescues in the United States are accomplished within 72 hours - especially if you have told someone where you were going! Your job is to survive until they arrive!

All outdoor users should carry and know how to use a map and compass before they go off into the backcountry. The first step in staying found is locating your position, and marking that position on your map, before you leave your vehicle or camp. Then identify the boundaries that surround the area in which you will be traveling. These boundaries could be prominent roads, railways, power lines or large rivers. Preferably you should identify boundaries on all four sides of the area in which you will be traveling. Having located yourself on the map and knowing the boundaries, you can then leave camp with the knowledge that, if you get lost, all you have to do is determine which boundary is closest and walk a straight line to it. Then relocate yourself and return to your vehicle or camp. Sometimes this can be a very long walk out!

Many people experience great difficulty walking a straight line and have wandered in circles until exhausted. The simplest way to walk a straight line is to use a compass, preferably an “orienteering compass.” Having determined the direction to the nearest boundary, point the “direction of travel arrow” towards your destination then turn the dial of the compass until “N” coincides with the north end of the compass needle. Follow the direction indicated by the direction-of-travel arrow always keeping the north end of the compass needle and the orienteering arrow aligned. Look up, sight on a landmark, and walk to it. Repeat these steps until you reach the boundary and can relocate yourself. In some areas only one significant boundary may be present. In this situation, determine, before you leave camp, the direction you will have to travel to get to the boundary in the event you become disoriented. Often the road or trail leading to your camp will serve as a primary boundary. If you walk in a westerly direction away from your camp you will have to directly opposite that, or easterly, to return to the road or trail that your camp is located on.

A compass needle is radically affected by any metal object that is nearby -- do not let firearms, knives, large metal belt buckles or other compasses near your compass when taking a reading or following a compass heading. The cardinal directions, north, east, south and west can be determined without a compass using the following procedures. Using a watch with hands, point the hour hand directly at the sun. The point half way between the hour hand and 12 o’clock will point generally “south.” North will directly opposite. At night, a line drawn through the two “pointer stars” in the bowl of the Big Dipper and extended approximately four times the distance between the two stars, intersects the Polaris, the North Star, which is never more than one degree from True North. Lay a stick on the ground aimed north so that you can determine the cardinal directions (north, east, south and west) the following morning.

To be continued…

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About the Author

Dr. Paul S. Auerbach is the world’s leading authority on wilderness medicine.