Backcountry survival tips to avoid common mistakes

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Anyone who has spent any time in the outdoors has made mistakes–more than we’d like to admit. I’m not going to dwell here about obvious backcountry survival faux pas–like forgetting mosquito repellent, matches, raincoat; or not taking enough food, a knife or extra socks.

I’ve done all of those things at least once, and some even worse. I’d rather confine this discussion to the more subtle, seemingly benign mistakes that can compound into bigger problems.

On a winter camping trip a few years ago, when temperatures hovered below zero, I forgot to bring along lightweight gloves to wear underneath my mittens. For finger dexterity, I removed the mittens, and before I could get my stove started, my hands became numb, useless stumps. “Circulation isn’t what it used to be,” I thought, remembering a physical constitution 30 years ago that would have tolerated such carelessness.

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It took quite a bit of effort to warm my hands, getting them limber enough to do the fine work necessary for lighting a match.  When I finally got my stove lit, I was in good shape. In the northern story classic, “To Build A Fire,” by Jack London, the character faces a similar predicament, but in much colder temperatures, and with much more dire consequences—the loss of his life.

In retrospect, there was plenty of wood around and I should have started a fire immediately after finding a camping spot, while I was still warm from skiing. Through painful experiences like this, I am a much better judge of how long it takes my body, and its extremities, to cool down after rigorous exercise like skiing or hiking.

I now perform the important work right away—getting a fire or stove started, maybe even getting the tent erected, before the body cool-down. And I always bring along some lightweight gloves, with spares in case they get wet.

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Here’s a scenario that wasn’t life threatening, but could have cost me some toes: on an overnight winter camping trip near Eklutna Lake, Alaska, I forgot to wear gators…you know, the leggings that attach to your boots and fit snugly just below the knees.

The slope became too steep for snowshoes, so I lashed them to my pack and commenced to posthole up the mountain to find a campsite. With no gators, snow got into my Sorrel boots, made the felt liners wet, and by the time I found my campsite my feet were numb. The temperature dropped to about five degrees above zero, not really that cold, but cold if you have wet feet.

I didn’t have replacement boot liners, another major error, and I immediately had to get a fire going to warm my feet. With all the spruce trees around, that was no problem. Had I been higher, with no wood to build a fire, I would have been in big trouble. Once I had warm feet, I quickly made camp, drank some water, ate a couple of candy bars, crawled into the sleeping bag and was fine for the night.

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But stiff, frozen Sorrel boots awaited me in the morning, and after walking in them for about 30 minutes, my feet were numb. I had to build another fire and warm my feet again, this time trying to dry the liners as best as I could. No gators, no extra boot liners…stupid mistakes that could have cost me toes.

Experience is, as they say, the best teacher. Here are a few things I’ll never do again: take a long trip on a snowmachine without a pair of snowshoes, or a companion snowmachiner; take an outboard motorboat anywhere without extra shear pins, a life vest and a can for bailing water; go camping without making sure my tent has been seam-sealed in the not too distant past; I won’t forget to take along sunblock and sun glasses on a summer outing; forget to bring a hat, summer or winter; and always, always, I won’t forget to pack plenty of water, water containers, and a water filter.

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Of course, on any outdoor excursion, there is one thing that should always be left at home—complacency. Those who have been bending bushes in the backcountry longer than I have will tell you that there is always something new, totally unexpected and unpredictable on every trip.

After all the careful planning, equipment inspections and checklists, physical conditioning and training, there is one critical, irreplaceable tool that will save your life and perhaps, the lives of others: common sense. In the backcountry, it’s your most valuable possession.


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