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 3

This is the eleventh 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.


There are nine basic rules for surviving a wilderness emergency that will help you return to safety:

1. Always tell someone where you are going and when you plan to return. If you change plans and move from one area to another, tell someone. Knowing where to begin a search will significantly reduce the time it takes the searchers to find you.

2. Never travel alone. Many of the illnesses (hypothermia, in particular) that outdoor users experience occur without the victim becoming aware of the onset. Accidents happen in the outdoors that lead to injury. In an emergency, the assistance of a partner to care for you and then to seek help could save your life.

3. Carry two compasses and a map of the area and know how to use them. Use one compass to navigate. The second compass serves two purposes. First, it can be used if your primary compass becomes lost or broken. Secondly, it may be used for confirmation. Many panicked people prefer to rely on an innate homing instinct rather than use their compass. They therefore believe that their compass is broken when it indicates a direction that does not correspond with their instincts. Two compasses, both pointing in the same direction, increase the chance that you will believe the compasses and follow the correct heading back to camp or to one of the pre-selected boundaries.

4. Wear clothing that will keep you warm and dry. Loss of body heat because of exposure to the elements, especially wind, precipitation and low temperatures, must be prevented or hypothermia will result. The weather can change very quickly. Select clothing that will keep you warm and dry when you spend an unexpected night out, or when you are inactive. Layers work best. The innermost layer must move water away from your skin. Synthetic fabrics accomplish this better than do natural fibers. Cotton holds moisture against the skin and conducts heat away from the body, so don’t use it in a cold, wet environment.

The next layer, the insulation layer, must trap “dead air” around your body and insulate you from the cold. Pile, fleece and wool work well for this purpose. The outermost layer of clothing serves as a barrier and must protect the inner layers from wind and from moisture penetration. The head and neck are the most critical areas of the body to protect, so keep them covered. Unprotected hands are easily injured and quickly lose dexterity when exposed to cold temperatures. Stiff fingers make it difficult to strike a match, aim a signal mirror, tie a knot, zip a zipper etc. Carry mittens and a pair of light leather gloves. Also carry at least one extra layer of insulated clothing to put on when the temperature drops. “Dress to survive, not to arrive!”

5. Always carry a survival kit. You will not be able to “improvise” what you need to survive.

6. Plan your outing so that you can return to your camp or your vehicle before it gets dark. Always carry one or more flashlights so that you can return safely after dark should that become necessary.

7. Drink enough liquid to keep your urine light colored. Dehydration seriously reduces the body's ability to function properly, especially its ability to stay warm, and greatly increases the possibility of other medical problems.

8. Practice survival skills before you have to use them in an emergency. Learn how to build a fire using the equipment you carry in your survival kit. Practice erecting an emergency shelter. Experiment with your signal mirror until you can quickly reflect a beam of sunlight to any point on the horizon.

9. Do not count on anybody else being around when you get in trouble. You must be able to do all the tasks needed to keep yourself alive until rescue arrives.

To be continued…

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About the Author

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