How to not get lost in the outdoors



It was the last day of hunting season, and the foursome in our pickup was hoping for some last-day luck to fill our tags.

While driving through the Elk Creek area west of Kalispell, we noticed in the fresh snow a set of big-game tracks crossing the road. The tracks led up a steep embankment to a small ridge. We parked the truck, grabbed our rifles and split up on the tracks. Thinking that this was a short jaunt up the ridge to check out some tracks, I left my hunting pack in the vehicle and grabbed only a butt-pack that carried some extra cartridges, my hunting license and a knife.

Once atop the ridge, my partners and I met up and discussed strategy.

Meanwhile, a thick fog blew in, throwing a dark grey curtain over the valley below. We dropped off the wrong side of the ridge - not the Elk Creek side - and ended up about 15 miles from our pickup. We made it back in one piece, about midnight. But the incident showed us that no matter how short of a hunting trip you take, it's important to always be prepared to spend the night outdoors.

With big-game hunting season opening Sunday, it's time to review some of the things that hunters should know before they head into the field. From first aid to food, here are some helpful hints to take with you into the field.

ONE OF the worst things that can happen to a hunter is the unexpected night in the field, says Dave McEvoy, a paramedic and director of the Aerie School for Backcountry Medicine in Missoula. "You should realize that the line between being OK and being out for an extra night is pretty thin," McEvoy said. "It just takes chasing an elk over the ridge and twisting your ankle, and suddenly you're there for the night. That unexpected night out is not that far off."

The decision to spend the night in the field must be judged on a case by case basis. Only you know the terrain, weather and your outdoor abilities. Here are some suggestions to help you through that night - just in case it happens.


Don't fill your hunting pack with foods loaded with simple sugars, such as candy bars or Halloween candy. Instead, pack complex carbohydrates like bread, oatmeal and grains, and include proteins such as meat and cheese. These foods are not quickly burned and provide longer-lasting energy than the quick spurt of energy of a candy bar. "They're not going to get you through the crisis right now but it'll help you three hours from now," McEvoy said. Bring enough to last you through the night.

Carry plenty of water and stay hydrated. Regardless of whether you are cold, drink water. Your urine should be clear. "If you're dehydrated you make bad decisions too," McEvoy said. "Being cold on top of that, those two compound each other and are really dangerous."

The night before hunting is important, too. Avoid drinking large quantities of alcohol, and eat a good meal. Don't do that, McEvoy said, and "you could be in for the fight of your life and you're not exactly ready for it."


Panic - it's of the first things that's going to happen when you finally realize you're lost or injured and are going to spend the night outdoors.

This psychological mind game can, however, be used to your benefit.

"But if you don't control it, it can send you charging down into that draw, blind," McEvoy said. "Recognize you are going to be panicked. Channel that energy from the fear."

At this point, the best thing to do is just hunker down, or as some outdoors people say, "hug a tree."

This depends on where you are, your skills and whether you left note telling where you are hunting. You should always tell someone where you are going, when you expect to return, and what kind of equipment you are carrying. This means leaving a note on your car or telling a friend. Informing someone what kind of gear you have with you will help rescuers know the parameters of your situation, McEvoy said.


You're settled in for a long night. How are you going to stay warm? Be sure to bring a warm hat, even if it's 50 degrees when you leave your truck. If you're forced to spend a night outdoors, a hat will help preserve precious body heat.

Also, do you have a method to build a fire? Anyone can build a fire in their fireplace or woodstove at home, but can you do it "when the rain is falling horizontally and it's 40 degrees outside?" McEvoy asks. "It's worth putting some thought into that."

Whether it's a tarp, bivouac sack or tent, a shelter of some sort will help you preserve body heat. If you are forced to "hunker down" in the outdoors, preserve your body heat by preventing heat loss into the ground, whether by sitting on a pad or on pine bows. "Conduction heat loss is tremendous," McEvoy said.


Do you have a method of alerting searchers to your whereabouts? A simple whistle, signal mirror or cell phone will help you in an emergency, but don't count on the cell phone to get you out of trouble.

"When the wind is howling it's hard to hear yourself, let alone somebody who is trying to find you," McEvoy said.


A basic first aid kit is a must for any hunter's pack. If you cut yourself with a dirty knife while field-dressing an animal, infection could follow. "You want to clean that out pretty darn fast," he said.

McEvoy says your kit should include:

1. Something to stop bleeding, such as gauze and wrap. A "Kling" or "conform" bandage is best, and include some 4-inch by 4-inch gauze pads and an elastic bandage for wrapping sprains.

2. A small syringe and diluted iodine to help clean a deep cut. "Two days from then you might have a really nasty infection. This will help prevent that."

In case of a bad cut, McEvoy recommends diluting iodine, rather than putting concentrated iodine on a cut, as the concentrated iodine can damage the wound.

3. Pain medicine, such as ibuprofen or Tylenol.

What to do:

The basic treatment of a bleeding wound is to apply pressure and elevate the wound. Also, stay calm; increased agitation or activity will only increase blood flow. If you are bleeding profusely, such as if you hit an artery, McEvoy recommends you should take care of the bleeding over risk of infection. "You just stop the bleeding at all costs."

Whether it's you or your hunting partner who's hurt, the injured person should be kept lying down, kept warm and their feet should be kept up; this will help keep blood flow to vital organs.


This is where prevention is going to come in handy, McEvoy said.

If you've brought along food, water and shelter, you should be alright. Most people who are cold are going to be burning a lot of calories, usually by shivering. Shivering also deprives your body of precious energy. However, if you find yourself or another person hypothermic, here are some tips.

If your clothes are wet, dry them by a fire. Also, "feed your internal fire," McEvoy said. A warm drink or a candy bar will help get you some quick energy.

The early signs of hypothermia are loss of coordination, such as the inability to zip up a coat or build a fire. "Those are dangerous things to have happen, because you can't take care of yourself," McEvoy said.

As you get colder, your ability to reason fades. "When you get hypothermic you make really bad decisions," he said. "You're very close to being in a life-threatening situation. Now it's time to hunker down, get out of the wind and feed yourself."

Also, when you're hypothermic, you're much more liable to injure yourself by making poor decisions.

Look for the "umbles." These are the mumbles and stumbles, McEvoy said.

If you find someone with these symptoms, you need to be very careful with them, McEvoy said. "Finding a guy after 12 hours … he looks like he's really drunk … internally he's pretty stressed. Be aware that the heart gets very irritable when get cold. If they're not shivering but you know they're cold, don't be rubbing them, getting them active. That's a big warning that their heart is very unstable. That's the end game you don't want to be at."


Before you head out into the woods with that new GPS unit you bought, learn how to use it. "A lot of people think they can pull out a GPS and find yourself out of the woods," McEvoy said. "You need to know how to use it in all different situations. It's an aid - it's not something you can count on to get you of every situation."

Carry a backup compass and topographic map, and know how to use those. A flashlight is a crucial component of your hunting pack, too.

With these tips in mind, it might help you last through an unexpected night in the woods. "There's nothing in a first aid kit that's going to get you out of the woods," McEvoy said. "You need to spend some time outdoors and develop a set of skills."

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