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.

Other random tips he offered are to wrap utilitarian duct tape many times around your water bottle instead of bringing the entire roll; always bring a first-aid kit and quality snacks to keep your blood sugar up and to stay mentally sharp and remember to swap out seasonal supplies in the “go bag” you keep in your car.

For more tips, Yen recommends reading Tom Brown’s “Field Guide to Wilderness Survival” and the articles under the “Expert Advice” tab on Also, check the REI website for free online emergency preparedness classes Yen is teaching Oct. 19 and Oct. 26.

“The phrase I like to use in my wilderness survival class is, ‘I may die eventually, but it doesn’t have to be right this second and it doesn’t have to be right here. I’m going to use my energy to figure out what the solution is to my problem and work the solution,’” Yen offered as final advice.

Jamie Malone, two-time Appalachian Trail hiker, Earth Camp director, Analy High teacher and lifeguard

“Everyone prepares for the expected, but nobody wants to prepare for the unexpected, especially when backpacking because of the extra weight it adds,” said Malone, who first completed the Appalachian Trail at age 21. She did it again last summer, leading her family — husband Chris and four daughters Sabina, Josie, Harper and Maya (then ages 5, 8, 10 and 12) — along the 2,200-mile trek.

Malone’s trail mantra: “Be prepared, follow your instincts, know your capabilities and use your resources wisely.”

In her pack, Malone always carries the ultimate MacGyver tool: duct tape, wrapped around a pencil. It’s her favorite remedy for “hot spots” on weary feet before they turn into blisters. She’s trained her children to listen to their bodies so they take action before a blister forms.

Also, everybody needs a knife in the wild. She prefers a multi-purpose tool like a Leatherman, which she whipped out on the Appalachian Trail last summer, using the pliers to fix her tent pole. Taking a tip from the Pomo Indians, she recommends making four-pronged fishing spears from redwood branches carved and sharpened with a knife. You can even steep buckeye tree leaves in the water of a slow-moving pool to make fish drowsy before you spear them.

For times when you don’t have matches or lighter or even fuel, she recommends a bow drill fire kit to make fire from friction. Burning dry juniper bark wrapped in a nest with dry thistles is a great starter.

Malone always carries a water purification backup system, even if it’s a pack of iodine tablets to supplement if a filtration system breaks. If you need to forage for food, look for miner’s lettuce, sorrel (so tasty the Malones regularly use it to make pesto at home) and cattails. Willow is good for headaches.

And finally, don’t forget a “fix-it” kit, she said. Sometimes it’s simply a needle that’s already threaded, with the thread wrapped around a bottle in the first aid kit. On her first time on the Appalachian Trail in 1999, she used it to sew up the entire bottom of her tent after it ripped. On the trail last summer, she used her fix-it kit to help a fellow hiker with a hip belt that had torn apart.

Nate Buck, Bodega Bay Fire water rescue team, Marin County water rescue team, Tiburon firefighter and paramedic

A common dangerous scenario Buck often sees along the Sonoma County coastline is when people venture too far along narrow low-tide beaches or coastal rocks trying to find a secluded cove or better access to tidepools and a high tide comes in and leaves them stranded. If this happens to you and you can’t reach anyone for help, he said, simply wait for the tide to go out and don’t try to climb steep cliffs or swim your way out.

This is where a waterproof dry bag is essential. Buck carries one wherever he goes. It includes food for at least a day, water, dry layers of clothing, a first-aid kit including a tourniquet and clotting gel in case of a shark bite and a marine radio. On the coast, there’s often very limited cellphone reception, but with a marine radio (the Icom M25 handheld model floats and is submersible), you can call and get help on Channel 16, which is monitored by the U.S. Coast Guard and most watercraft in the area.

Always check local tide charts before you venture out. The NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration) website and app offers valuable information on local conditions. Buck recommends a buoy data app for real-time data on swell heights, swell periods and predictors of conditions to come.

If you do get stranded in a secluded cove, foraging seaweed and kelp is always a good option, he said. Mussels are widely available, but beware that shellfish can carry toxins during summer months.

If you are swept out in the water, the key is not to panic, he said. At beaches like Goat Rock and Wright’s Beach, the violent, turbulent surf is close to the shore and people will often get pounded over and over by waves until they drown. But, as counterintuitive as it may seem, if you’re able to swim out and away from shore, you can get past the turbulent surf zone. Take a deep breath and get your wits about you and you’ll be able to at least tread water without getting pounded by waves. Slow your breathing and yell and wave for help, he said.

Buck has been involved in rescues in which surfers or boogie boarders have abandoned their boards because they thought they could swim better on their own. Never abandon your flotation device, he said. Let the long-shore current take you north or south, parallel to shore, until you get out of the rip tide and can start to make headway back to shore. Look for a shoreline with heavy wave action that can push you to shore. Also, you don’t have to return to the same beach where you were swept away. Just making it back to land is the goal.

Jeremiah Kahmoson, wilderness expedition leader and founder of B-RAD Foundation

“The single most important piece is communication,” Kahmoson said. “You always need to tell someone where you’re going and when you expect to be back. So many people get themselves into situations where they’re disoriented, they mismanage their time, they don’t have the resources they need like water or food and very quickly they realize they’re going to be out longer than expected.”

So before embarking on any trip, always bring enough food and water to support you on a trip that would take twice as long, Kahmoson said. If you’re using a water filtration device, map out the water sources in the region before you go.

Two things he always takes wherever he hikes are a whistle and a LifeStraw water filtration device. “The reason for the whistle is if you’re disoriented and you don’t have cell service and you’re trying to use your voice to call in resources or support, you’re going to blow it out in a half-hour and be too hoarse for anyone to hear you.” It also helps to know the SOS short burst, long burst signal.

If you get lost, the most important thing is to stop, said Kahmoson, who leads students and youth groups on wilderness trips all over California. The likelihood that you will be found or figure out a way to backtrack once you stop is much higher than if you continue blindly in one direction.

The only exception is if you can safely reach nearby higher ground where you can look out and get your bearings. From a peak, you’re also more visible to rescuers than in a forest.

“My Wilderness 101 is you’re always leaving bread crumbs,” he said. “You’re leaving bread crumbs before you leave. You’re leaving breadcrumbs when you prepare and have a kit that can support you for an extended period of time. You’re also leaving breadcrumbs with your decisions.”

Joel Neuberg, retired SRJC wilderness skills instructor

Neuberg highly recommends the classic “10 essentials” list: map, compass, sunglasses and sunscreen, extra clothing, headlamp or flashlight, first-aid supplies, firestarter, matches, knife and extra food.

“Wherever you’re going, make sure that you’re actually allowed to build a fire in the first place,” said Neuberg, who started teaching wilderness survival classes at the college in 1973 and led students on backcountry trips in Yosemite and Lassen national parks over the years before retiring in 2014.

If you’re stranded and need to make a fire, you can use a spark from a D battery with a wire at both ends to short out the battery and produce sparks, Neuberg said. Mirrors reflecting the sun work well, too. If you build a fire, make it small, scrape and clear the ground around it, surround it with rocks and always have water nearby. “It’s all the stuff that Boy Scouts teach,” he said.

One of the best lessons he learned was on a long camping trip in Yosemite National Park with 14 students in the 1970s. Their food and supplies were packed in on mules. After several nights of all-hours patrolling, making noise and throwing pine cones to chase away bears, they built a ladder out of branches and “roped about 800 pounds of food up into pine trees at about 8,000 feet.”

For foraging, Neuberg recommends the guide “Common Edible and Useful Plants of the West.”

Also, he would add a signal device, like a whistle, to the essentials list. “But I always told my students to carry a harmonica because you could get the same noise out of it, but then when someone found you because you were blowing it, you could always say you weren’t actually lost, you were just practicing.”

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