Survive Your Wilderness Vacation

Summer vacationers who enjoy recreation in the great outdoors need to understand that Nature can be a harsh mistress. Knowing how to cope with unforeseen situations in remote places with limited supplies can be a real life-saver.

Here are five wilderness survival tips to keep in mind when you leave the comforts of home – and civilization – in favor of a wilderness experience.

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  1. Be prepared to keep your body warm and dry.

Did you know that hypothermia – low body heat – is responsible for nearly 600 deaths a year in the U.S. alone?

“Hypothermia describes the rapid, progressive mental and physical collapse caused by the core temperature of the body cooling to below 95 degrees. Hypothermia is caused when you are exposed to cold, is aggravated by wet, windy conditions and physical exhaustion.”

Wet fabrics make it hard for the body to warm up. If you’ve ever been caught outdoors after an unexpected cold front swept in with spitting rain and plunging temperatures wearing summery attire, you probably remember how you wish you’d packed some extra clothes to repel water and hold body heat.

Hypothermia has been known to set in during temperatures as high as 60F to 65F. Together, wind chill combined with moist weather or perspiration can form a deadly combination which manifests as shivering, confusion, memory loss, drowsiness, exhaustion, and slurred speech.

Avoid wearing cotton which traps moisture. Instead, choose synthetic or wool garments. If stranded outside, conserve heat by stuffing your clothes or padding a make-shift shelter with dry leaves or any other dry material that is available.

  1. Respect the power of flowing water.

Who doesn’t enjoy an invigorating walk through a natural wonderland? Just be sure you know what you might be getting into before you go there. Check a map or ask around to see if your route takes you over streams or rivers. Remember that rainstorms can cause water levels to rise suddenly by inches and feet.

Let’s say you are hiking and need to cross a stream. Whether it’s been raining or not, don’t underestimate how strong the current might be. If you slip or stumble and fall down with your gear, you might be pulled underwater or propelled downstream, over sharp rocks and in the path of dangerous floating debris.

Find a straight, wide section of water to ford. Throw a stick into the current to measure how fast it is flowing. If it moves faster than a walking pace, don’t cross there. Unhitch the waist and sternum fasteners on your pack before crossing so that you can shuck it off if you take a spill.

  1. Be smarter than the average bear.

It can be terrifying to have a close encounter with a bear during a wilderness hike. Standing up, waving the arms, and yelling or screaming, all tell the bear that you are a threat. Dropping to a squat behind some shelter is non-threatening and many bears will pass by after a quick sniff test.

On July 6, 2011, Brian Matayoshi, 58, was hiking in Yellowstone National Park with his wife Marylyn. When the couple spotted a female bear and her two cubs about 100 yards away on the trail, they began to run and scream for help, “likely prompting the bear to chase them.”

Brian was bitten and clawed to death by the predator that can outrun and outclimb any human. Marylyn survived the ordeal because she had stopped running and hidden face-down behind a fallen tree. The sow picked the terrified woman up by her daypack, then dropped her unharmed on the ground.

The Park Service educates people who are approached by grizzly bears to walk away slowly. If the bear charges, lie motionless and face down. The Matayoshi’s walked by warning signs on the trail that advised: “If a bear charges stand still, do not run.”

  1. Drink water but not too much water.

It’s really important to drink enough water to keep the cells of your body hydrated every day. Physical exertion such as vigorous hiking typically speeds up water loss, as does mere exposure to the elements. However, drinking too much water can be hazardous to your health.

Exercise-associated hyponatremia (EAH) results from unbalanced sodium levels in the body which causes a dangerous swelling of the brain.

The solution is to drink no more than 1.5 quarts of water per hour during sustained, intense exercise. And be sure to consume plenty of salt, too.

  1. Escape a low-head dam water trap.

There you are, floating downstream and boating by a low-head dam, built on small or moderate-size watercourses to regulate water flow and stop invasive fishes from traveling upstream.

Despite the glassy surface, water rushing over the dam plunges down to the bottom of the slope and circulates back upward toward the sloping wall of the dam. This circular turbulence, a spinning cylinder of water, can trap a capsized boater or swimmer.

Although it’s counterintuitive, the way to get out of a low-head dam water trap is to curl up, drop to the bottom, and move downstream. The only outflow is at the bottom of the churning liquid vortex.

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You can see that the activities you engage in outdoors each present their own particular risks and dangers. Spend some time and effort getting educated on what you might face during your dream vacation, should nature take its course.

Learning a few coping techniques and taking along some essential gear can prevent a nightmare scenario in the event that bad things happen to good people who are just trying to relax and recreate.