Outdoor experts’ advice for surviving in the wilderness
Maybe it’s the months of isolation or a renewed interest in the author Jack London, but during the COVID-19 pandemic, people are heeding the call of the wild more than ever before. State and national parks are booked solid for months. Hiking trails need traffic signals. And weekend warriors are depleting the shelves at outdoor shops.
But often beginners venture out for long hikes and overnight backpacking trips without basic survival skills. Even intermediate trekkers could use some brushing up during these turbulent times.
Simple mistakes can have dire consequences, and a few smart steps in planning and packing can mean survival, in the most extreme cases. With many in-person wilderness classes on hiatus, we rounded up a handful of local outdoor experts to talk about basic survival skills and offer a few easy pointers to make your journey more successful. Here’s what they had to say:
Lesley Pfeiffer and Alexis Puerto Holmes, Sonoma County Regional Parks
First, Pfeiffer and Puerto Holmes recommend, do your research ahead of time and find out about required permits.
“Don’t just rely on a website, especially if you find a website confusing or not up to date,” Pfeiffer said. Instead, “call a ranger station and talk to someone on the ground who actually knows what’s going on at that moment in the park.” She also uses the AllTrails app to download all relevant trails in advance of a hike so she can access them without cellphone service.
If you’re stranded and need to start a fire, use twigs, redwood bark (the fluffy part), dried moss and dried grasses as fuels. You also can use cotton balls coated with petroleum jelly, paper or even hand sanitizer drizzled over the starter. “My favorite option is to bring along some dryer lint. It catches crazy fast and doesn’t really weigh anything,” Pfeiffer said.
What if you need water? Look for green plants that might have an underground water source, willow trees, signs of wildlife like tracks or scat and insects like mosquitoes and dragonflies that congregate near water.
If you’re stranded without a water purification aid or a filter, the two women recommend using sphagnum moss or peat moss. Leave it in the water and use it as a filter before the water enters your mouth. The moss can absorb much of the toxins. Or, if you’ve made a fire, add rocks to the fire and pull those out carefully before adding them to a suitable container so the hot rocks can boil the water to purify it.
If you’re stranded and need to forage for food, most grasses and weeds are edible, Pfeiffer and Puerto Holmes said. Avoid plants with strong odors, plants that grow in threes and plants that have thorns. Seek out dandelions and clovers. If you are near the ocean, eat seaweed and kelp. Insects are a good option for protein: grasshoppers, ants, worms, June bugs, earwigs, slugs and snails are your best options. Avoid insects that emit a strong odor; they’re likely not safe to eat.
And never underestimate the warmth and protection a trash bag can give, Pfeiffer said. On a recent backpacking trip near Mammoth Lake, she and her dad were caught in unexpected rain. Her father pulled two lightweight trash bags from his pack and they turned out to be perfect ponchos.
David Yen, REI outdoor instructor
One of the most important survival guidelines for this local theater actor-turned-adventurer is the “rule of threes:” we can survive three minutes without air, three hours exposed in harsh environments, three days with no water and three weeks with no food, he said.
When newbies are bitten by the nature bug, Yen said, one of the first areas they want to learn about is water purification and storage options. But exposure to the elements is actually more important to consider first. He estimated that around three quarters of all hiking and outdoor injuries are related to harsh weather conditions. Make sure to pack multiple layers of clothing and prepare for temperature swings from the high 90s to lows in the 40s or 50s. Always check the weather forecast and know that conditions can change quickly.
On hot days, he recommends the Kool Tie, which wraps around the neck and cools you through evaporation. On really cold days, hand warmers and a cheap emergency blanket can be game-changers.
On the trail, whenever he stops for water, Yen turns 180 degrees and looks back in the direction he came from for “a visual snapshot” that will show him how to get back.
If you’re going on a long backpacking trip, leave a copy of your camping permit and a copy of your route tucked under the driver’s seat of your car. If a ranger sees your vehicle has been parked for too long, that’s one of the first places they look after they pry open the car door, Yen said.