....IN THE WOODS
The story of the lady who went missing along the Appalachian Trail in 2013 and whose remains were only recently found brought back memories of searches I was involved in as a young man. I would like to report that in those decades past I managed to find someone still alive, but sadly that was never the case. In one incident I was not called in until the man had been missing for a week. By that time all remnants of his sign had been obliterated by law enforcement (some of them on horses) and when I came upon the man he had only been dead a few hours. Over the years I’ve lamented that I was not called in earlier. Regardless, finding someone is not so much an exercise in following tracks as it is a matter of understanding human behavior. The same goes for animals of any sort. Critters follow the easiest routes and will seldom take to the thickest habitat unless forced into it. In the case of the Appalachian Trail woman it seems she kept a diary during her ordeal. She is said to have been an experienced hiker but obviously she was not learned in survival; in fact, it seems her skills were miniscule. What compounded her ordeal was that she is reported to have had problems with anxiety and panic attacks. She was also said to have been phobic of the dark, perhaps even the night itself. Nonetheless, I think she was a brave woman who was not about to let these obstacles interfere with her outdoors experience. But her mistake was stepping off the trail to use the bathroom and probably walking into the brush too far. I imagine when she turned around to look back she became hopelessly lost. With a poor sense of direction she headed off on the wrong course taking sinuous routes that took her farther and farther from the main footpath.
Being lost in the woods is an anxiety producing event in and of itself, but for one who suffers from panic it can be psychologically explosive. I’ve pondered what might have happened to her when she finally ran out of her medication. Anti-anxiety pills can have dangerous side effects if stopped suddenly. In her case when her pills were gone we can assume she was then subjected to an even higher level of anxiety. With increased panic and lessening food supplies it was indeed a dire situation. In one sense she was smart in keeping a journal. The act of writing is well known to produce calming effects. In so doing she most likely found her journal a friend.
News reports mentioned that the lady tried to send text messages. I can understand her desire to seek assistance, but her mistake was not deciding from the onset that she could manage her situation on her own especially since she was not injured. Relying too heavily on technology to save her drained her of energy better spent in other ways. She probably walked into the woods and never glanced back to see how the terrain looked from that direction. That too is a common mistake. Moving from point to point seeking a good cellphone linkage and thus wandering in random and disorganized patterns made her even more disoriented and also made searching for her more difficult.
Ultimately, her remains were found only about two miles from where she had stepped off the trail. When lost, even a short distance to an established path can become a life or death situation. I recall finding a man who had tried to cross from one trail to another (the space between the two trails only about two hundred and fifty yards) but he got lost in the thick, almost impenetrable brush in between. When I and another fellow found his body it was only about seventy-five yards from the trail he was attempting to reach. He had pulled a camera tripod over himself as a form of protection. There were fresh coyote droppings less than three feet from the corpse. He was a man in his late seventies and I presume he might have had a heart attack after a number of days without water or food and in a state of severe mental stress.
I’ve mentioned in other posts about going on extended hikes with people who I would have thought would know better but who took with them no water, no hat, no knife or cordage. US Fish and Wildlife Service employees, US Border Patrol agents, biologists and geologists too often trek into the woods as if it were a stroll in the city park. They come down with heat exhaustion, severe sunburn, and sometimes even heatstroke. A friend of mine told me a story the other day of a neophyte Border Patrol agent who ambled into a dense thicket along the Rio Grande even when told by his superiors that he had not developed enough expertise to wander into those areas alone. Within thirty minutes the neophyte was lost. In the ultra-thick brush the summer temperatures peeked over a hundred degrees. To further compound the problem the humidity was saturating. The young man began frantically calling on his radio for help but the brush was so thick that other agents were not able to find him. A helicopter was brought in but chopper pilots cannot see beneath the trees' canopy and thus were of no use. The same thing happened to the Appalachian Trail lady who apparently never thought to find a clearing from which to signal. In the case of the neophyte agent other Border Patrol personnel were able to triangulate his radio signal and thus find him. “He was in really bad shape,” said my friend. “They practically had to carry him out.” Getting lost in the woods is so common that every year searches are conducted to find lost hikers and in this part of the country to locate illegal aliens who call 911 to say they are lost and on the verge of dying from dehydration. Yes, many of them are carrying cellphones.
Survival list recommendations are numerous and oftentimes muddled, but in all cases one’s ability to survive being lost is dependent on only two things. First, comes one’s level of skill and second is one’s luck. The world’s greatest survival expert is doomed if he or she gets bit by an ant or bee and suffers an anaphylactic reaction on the spot. On the other hand there are countless stories of children becoming lost and then found a few days later scratched, bruised and perhaps mosquito bitten but not much worse. Come to think of it, the highest chances of getting lost are rooted in decisions that were made without forethought or analysis. What can happen by stepping off the trail to find a private spot to use the bathroom? I’m sure the Appalachian Trail lady might have a thing or two to say about that.
I’ve heard people say, “Nothing is going to happen” so many times in my life that I’ve come to detest those who say it. People who casually dismiss things—especially when related to wilderness survival—are dangerous to be around and I avoid them at all costs. Naiveté is not something I respect nor is it anything I encourage. Treat people who arrogantly say, “Ah, nothing is going to happen” as if they have the plague. Don’t follow them and don’t rely on their judgment. Instead, learn to use reason and analysis to examine the possibilities even when they seem remote.
WOODS ROAMING EDC
Need I tell you that if you suffer from allergic reactions to insect stings that you ought to carry an EpiPen® epinephrine injection? Must you be reminded to always carry a canteen full of water? I hope not. But like I said before, you’ll find people who do those things every day. So below is a basic list.
Water-filled canteen, 2-quart minimum
Snack, i.e., granola bars
Wide brimmed hat (not a cap)
Brightly colored bandana
The following are additional items you might consider but just remember they will add weight:
Lightweight chopping tool: Hatchet or Large Knife
Extra butane lighter
25-feet parachute cord
Small ultralight tarp
A Note on the Knife
Regardless of where you travel you should always carry a pocket knife. Some people consider a multi-tool or Swiss Army knife more appropriate. A good pocket knife will do just about anything a small knife will do especially when it comes to carving and food preparation tasks. Keep in mind, however, that a light hatchet or a small machete is infinitely superior to anything that might be referred to as a “bushcraft” knife. That’s not to say that a four-inch blade “bushcraft” knife with a neat Scandi-grind isn’t cool and the “in thing” these days. It’s just that if you are ever in a nasty situation you’ll wish you had a hatchet or a machete more than anything else.
A buddy of mine who lives in Durango, Colorado tells me he hikes the forests with no other cutting tools than a small hatchet and his Leatherman multitool. In his competent hands nothing else is needed. And that, my friends, is the important part: My buddy is well versed in survival skills. Here in South Texas where nothing grows without vicious thorns attached to it the machete replaces the hatchet. When I’m woods roaming with no intent to prune the trails and all I want to do is enjoy nature then I carry a Case carbon steel trapper model folder, a Swiss Army knife field-master and dangling from my belt a mini-machete. Two of my mini-machetes are from Tramontina. I cut the blades to 7 ½ inches on one of the knives and 7 ¾ inches on the other. Yesterday I completed a knife using 15n20 steel. The blade measures 6 ¾ inches. The spine is 2.4 millimeters thick. Note that lightweight Tramontina blades are 1.25 millimeters thick thus making them easy to carry.
It’s important to acknowledge that knives are what you ought to carry but not what you must carry. A beer bottle broken on a rock can be turned into an excellent cutting tool to use for everything from gutting and butchering squirrels to deer as well as for scraping bark off a tree to fleshing out agave leaves to make cordage. Just remember though that a knife makes it all a lot easier.
If you want to pick out one key word from this essay then that word should be, think. Never do anything without considering all the obstacles it might create. Don’t step blindly from place to place. Think about what grows around you and then analyze the patterns you’re looking at. City dwellers have particularly hard times learning to see, analyze and deconstruct what’s around them in the woods. They have become desensitized to noise and visual stimuli. Because of that urban dwellers should step even slower when hiking. Unfortunately, it’s just the opposite from what I’ve observed. But if you stop to think and observe and pay attention you’ll enjoy nature all the more and you’ll be less likely to get lost.