Surviving the winter woods

When lost in the wild, preparation and perseverance make all the difference

Posted: Sunday, January 14, 2007

Josh Shrader knows what it's like to feel helpless. On a July 2001 hike to the icefields above Juneau, he got lost in a fog bank and fell down a crevasse. He spent almost two days stuck in the wild with a broken wrist and a gash on his face that wouldn't stop bleeding.

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But he lived.

People get lost in the woods around Juneau all the time. Most find their way out on their own. Others need to be rescued, and sometimes help doesn't arrive in time.

Experts say the difference between life and death can depend on several factors: luck, preparation - and a simple refusal to die.

Capt. George Reifenstein of Capital City Fire and Rescue said two of the most important factors are preparation and the ability to stay calm.

If you didn't do one, you better have the other.

"There's a very common thread among survivors. They have an awareness they're in a bad situation. They have some level of knowledge. They have some kind of survival capability," said Reifenstein, a specialist at trail rescue.

Keys to staying alive

1. Stay calm. Your mind is the most important survival tool.

2. Take inventory. Note your surroundings, personal condition and the items in your pack. Find out, "What do I have to work with?"

3. Try to let someone know you are lost. If your cell phone works, use it. If not, try to set up some type of indicator that tells people where you are.

3. Find or make shelter. Stay out of the wind. Maintaining your body core temperature is extremely important.

4. Make a fire. Remember to gather materials to keep the fire going.

5. Drink water and eat some food. Get something in you, "preload" to keep your mind level.

6. Hunker down. Stay put, stay dry and stay positive.

7. Keep your mind active. Give yourself chores to do. When you are lost and doing nothing, you will start concentrating on being lost, instead of being found and surviving.

Source: Capital City Fire and Rescue

"Typical survivors have a very strong sense of family and a strong core sense of beliefs. They have a very strong reason to survive, and they're fighters."

Reifenstein said there is no single local area where people tend to lose their way. Summer brings tourists unfamiliar with the region and its pitfalls. In winter, locals are more likely to be the lost ones.

Back country travelers should check their location by landmarks or navigation tools such as compasses and a maps.

"Take a compass reading before you step off the trail into the thickets. Look for landmarks as you walk so you can see when you backtrack on the right trail," Reifenstein said.

And remember that compasses can be decieving. In the Juneau area, the magnetic north deviation is 29.5 degrees east of true north.

The first step in good preparation is dressing right, Reifenstein said. He recommends synthetic materials that wick moisture away from the body and dry quickly.

"Cotton kills," he said. "You don't go out wearing cotton socks or sweat pants. They get heavy when they get wet. It robs heat from your body."

Reifenstein recommended layers of clothing with a waterproof outer shell. The layers not only trap air efficiently, but allow the wearer to adapt to changing temperatures.

He also recommends a good hat and sturdy waterproof boots with lots of ankle support.

Two months ago, Douglas snowboarder Jay Blair cursed himself for lack of preparation after he wandered in the wrong direction from Eaglecrest Ski Area.

He spent hours crawling through the snow before being rescued the next day. Blair said a survival kit, even a simple one with a space blanket, a couple of high-calorie energy pills and a fire-starting kit, would have been a big help.

"If I had it, I could have made fire. I would have been fine. It would have been a lot easier to make it through the night," he said. I'm lucky, I shouldn't have made it off that mountain."

Reifenstein also suggests a pack with a cell phone, a first aid kit, liquids, extra gloves, snacks, a space blanket or tarp, parachute cord, fire starters, a flashlight or headlamp and possibly a signal flare. Also, always remember to tell someone where you are going and when you expect to be back. Shrader even recommends giving someone a list of items you have in your pack.

If all else fails, stay calm. Note your surroundings and personal condition.

Try to put up some kind of indicator that you are lost and make a shelter to get out of the wind.

Next, think about heat, water and food. Try to get a fire started and gather material to keep it going. Give yourself chores to do like staying clean and dry. Stay put and stay positive. Keep your mind active.

Shrader, now a team leader with Juneau Mountain Rescue, agrees.

"I would say 90 percent of it is a choice, choosing not to die, choosing not to give up on yourself," he said

Blair put it this way: "Don't panic. Take one step at a time. When your body stops working and it's over, you're done. But until then, you have the power to keep going."

Survival gear

• cell phone

• first aid kit

• liquids

• extra gloves

• snacks

• space blanket or tarp

• parachute cord

• fire starters

• flashlight or headlamp

• signal flare

• GPS tracker

• map of the area you are traveling in

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