Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Trip Report: Wilderness Survival Challenge – The Lost Day Hiker

Lately I’ve been writing a bit about wilderness survival, so I figured I would try to do a trip which would reflect that. So, this month I decided that instead of going for a regular backpacking trip, I would try to turn it into a survival exercise.

The survival scenario I wanted to try out was that of the lost day hiker. The set up was that I would pretend that I went out for a day hike, and brought only the minimum gear I would need for a nice day out in the woods. I would bushwhack for most of the day, thinking that I know where I am going, and that I am almost out of the forest. When the sun was about to go down, I would “realize” that I was lost, and have to spend the night out in the woods only with the gear I had in my day pack. I figured this would be a good trip to film, so I brought the camera with me, and made a video. It is my first time filming a trip, so it is not of any notable quality.

I started out in the late morning. The temperature was about 7F (-14C) and it was snowing. Many of the roads into the mountains were closed, so I drove to the first accessible location I could find, and picked a direction into the woods.

With me, I had a few pieces of gear. First, I had my pocket kit. If you are not sure what that is, check out the post here.


In addition to my pocket kit, I also had my day pack with a few items.


The items were: the Patagonia DAS Parka, a Nalgene water bottle with a Stoic TI 750ml cup, a Bahco Laplander saw, a Ziploc bag with food, an 5’x9’ emergency blanket, and a neck gaiter. In addition to that, I was wearing a t-shirt, a Patagonia R1 fleece pullover, a Patagonia Nano Puff jacket, and an Arcteryx Beta SV GoreTex shell. On the bottom I just had my regular backpacking pants.

My route took me along a lake. I spotted a few people ice fishing in the distance.


I kept walking along the lake, and then continued up the mountain. For a while I had to push through some evergreen bushes, which slowed me down.


When I emerged from the bushes I stopped for a bit to eat lunch, and share some of my musing on camera.


From there I continued walking up the mountain until about 4 pm. Sunset this time of year is around 5 pm, and it is pitch black by 5:30 pm. As it was starting to get darker, I decided that it was time to start thinking about how exactly to spend the night in the woods. Indeed, I could have started preparing much earlier, and shown you guys a nice shelter with a big long fire in front of it, but that wouldn’t be realistic. I was a “lost day hike”, and in such a position one rarely realizes that he is lost before the day is almost over. After all, if you just walk for a bit longer, you will find the trail again, or maybe even the parking lot.

So, with no time to waste, I pulled out my emergency blanket and pitched it as a tarp using some of the artificial sinew I had in my pocket. I had previously reinforced the corners of the blanket with duct tape and had punched holes through it, which made the job much easier.


I found some more of those evergreen bushes I encountered earlier, and gathered some of the tops as bedding. I find that it is important to not just gather leaves, but to take them with the stems when possible. That way they do not compress as much when you lay on them, and preserve more of the dead air space, providing better insulation.


Around 4:30 pm I stopped gathering bedding, and transitioned to collecting fire wood. By the time it got dark, I would have neither enough bedding, nor enough fire wood. Before long it was too dark for me to continue working, so I lit the fire and settled in for the night. I had managed to collect about two dozen wrist thick pieces of oak, each about a foot in length. I also had an assortment of smaller pieces of wood. I knew that wouldn’t be enough.


I had managed to dig up a small rock from under the snow to use as a fire reflector. I had also created a wood platform for the fire. I managed to get it going using my lighter and a few small pieces of birch bark I was able to find. Once the fire was going, I tried to keep it as small as possible so that I don’t use up too much wood. I would burn two pieces at a time, which would give me about an hour of burn time. Simultaneously I would be drying out the next to pieces I was planning on using next to the fire. During those hour long intervals, I would lay down and get some sleep. Each time I would wake up when the fire died down and I got cold. I slept curled up right next to the fire. The flames were not large enough to throw off much heat, so the emergency blanket did not reflect all that much heat.

During the night the temperatures dropped to about 0F (-18C). On a few occasions I let the fire die down too much in an effort to preserve wood, and had a hard time getting it going again. All of the wood was covered with a solid layer of ice, which made it hard to burn. To make things worse, around 2:30 am the wind picked up, and ripped my emergency blanket out from the ground. The earth was frozen, so the tent pegs I had made were not going deep enough to hold. I tried to fix it, but could not. So I took down the blanket, and wrapped it around me. I then took the top corner and pinned it against the fire reflector rock. The funneled a lot of the heat into the blanked and kept me warmer than I was with the shelter. Unfortunately, it also funneled a lot of smoke into my face, making it an unpleasant night. Around 5 am I was down to my last two pieces of wood. I put them flat on the coals and kept the oxygen getting to them to a minimum. That kept them from flaming up and kept them going until the sun came up. The heat from the fire was minimal at this point, but it was enough to cut through the cold.

When it was light enough, I packed up and got going. I went back down the mountain.


Before long I spotted the lake a passed on my way into the woods. I followed it out.


I made good time, and I was out of the woods shortly after noon. Overall the trip was uneventful. There were a few annoying moments like when the blanket got blown away, or when my water bottle froze on my way out of the woods. The worse is the smoke inhalation (I am still coughing), and I got slight frost nip on my right hand-I have no feeling in the tips of three of my fingers, a result of holding the aluminum camera tripod. Other than that, it was pretty standard. If I had had the time to gather about two and a half times more wood than I did, it would have been a very comfortable night because I would have been able to have a fire twice the size and kept it burning all night. Then some of the heat would have been reflected by the blanket, making a nice little shelter. Anyway, I hope you like the video. It is the best I was able to do for my first one.


Since I published the post, I have had some interesting questions from people, so I thought I would write about them here, in the body of the post, in case others want to read them.

Q: Why not use the dead fall around the area? There seems to be plenty of large wood on the ground that could have been pulled onto the fire.

A: There are several parts to the answer. One is that the wood you see behind me in the video was not good. It was too rotten. There was however better wood further out. The pieces of maple I got for the base of the fire were cut from a large fallen tree. Unfortunately, those pieces of wood were too heavy (and in many cases had too many tangled up branches) for me to move them any distance without first processing them. All the smaller wood was covered by the snow. Since I only had a small saw, I was not able to take pieces from them. Also, all that dead fall was wet/frozen through and covered in a layer of ice. Even if I was able to drag a piece to the fire, it would have served to extinguish it rather than keep it going. I was able to dry out the smaller pieces to a degree where they would catch fire, but that would have been much harder with larger logs. It is however a viable strategy, although it is a risky one. It is indeed possible to get large logs, even wet and frozen ones to burn. However, to do that you need to make a very large fire. That would have require that I burn all of the smaller wood I had gathered. The risk is that after doing so, if the large logs had not started burning in a self sustaining manner, I would have been out of usable wood. Similarly, even if the large logs start burning, and then go out in the middle of the night, I have no way of building the fire again. I chose to go for the sure thing, and ration out the smaller wood which I was sure I could keep burning. If I was burning something like pine rather than oak, then maybe I would have made a different call.

Q: Why not continue gathering more firewood even after it was dark? Either use the flashlight, or wait until your eye adjust.

A: Part of it was that I wanted to film the set up while the camera could still pick something up. Besides that however, I wanted to make sure everything was set up before it got pitch black. When the sun goes down, the temperatures drop fast. I wanted to make sure that i got the fire going and that everything was set up, while I still had a small window to make corrections if I needed them. I knew I had close to enough wood to make it through the night, so I decided to do what I did. On a different occasion I might have made a different call. In retrospect I should have spent some more time processing wood.

Q: Now that the trip is over, what would you have done differently?

A: Well, there are of course the answers you always get when people talk about survival: “Don’t get lost”; “Stop early and prepare for the night:, etc. Of course those answers are as true as they are useless. The whole point is that things have not gone right. So, assuming that the set up is identical, what things could have I done differently? One thing is to just carry different tools. If I had an axe and a large saw, I would have had more than enough wood for a comfortable night. Of course, there is no way I am carrying such tools on a day trip, so that is out of the question. If I had to carry an axe, I woul dhave just brough my sleeping bag and been comfortable all night.

The shelter was clearly inadequate for this set up. These emergency blankets are good at reflecting heat, but the fire I had was too small to throw heat far back enough to reflect it off the blanket. The result was that the shelter was not much use past being a wind blocker, which I could have equally gotten from a large rock. Since realistically, with the woods I had I would not have been able to make the fire much larger, I would have used a different shelter set up. I am however not sure exactly what that would have been. I could have brought a more elaborate shelter (I know some people hove made Mors Super Shelters that weight about 2 lb), but I would not be willing to carry much more weight for an emergency shelter than one or two space blankets. So, at this point, other than spending a few more minutes gathering a few more pieces of wood, I am not sure what I would have done differently. Clearly I needed a different shelter set up, but I am not sure what. It would have to be equally light, and set up just as fast. I will think about it and see it I can come up with something.

Q: What were your most valuable tools on the trip?

A: The MVPs were the BIC lighter and the Bahco Laplander saw. Both were game changers. Without the saw I would not have been able to process nearly as much wood, or burn it nearly as efficiently. I would have had to push in whole branches, but even just trimming them with a knife would have taken much more time; time I didn't have. Similarly, having to start a friction fire in these conditions would have been a huge waste of time. It would have translated into having a lot less wood because so much time would have been spent finding and preparing the friction fire materials.

Q: Aren’t worried about wearing so much synthetic material around a fire?

A: No. I have never had a single issue. I think several decades ago, when synthetic fabrics first came out, there were some that were very flammable, or would just melt onto your skin. People from that time got scared, and still think that modern synthetic fabrics will do the same. In my experience, they do not. They do not combust, and they do not melt onto your skin. Even you basic fleece, when exposed to flame will just shrink. The most realistic issue you would have with a synthetic material around fire is getting a little hole the fabric from an ember. I was inches from the fire, wearing a whole bunch of synthetic materials, and I had no issue, nor have I had any issue in all the time I have gone into the woods. On the same subject, the emergency blanket is synthetic. At times, I had it directly on the fire, and when it even wound up in the fire itself. The only result was that the corner exposed to the flames wrinkled and shrunk a bit. I didn't even get any holes in it. I know nothing about the flammability of these blankets, but I had zero issues.

So, these are the questions I have gotten so far. As more come along, I’ll post updates here.

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