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From the Townsend Letter
July 2008

Wilderness Survival
by Norene Wedam

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The fictitious scenario below is a mental exercise designed to help prepare a person survive under emergency conditions in deteriorating weather. Each survival situation is unique. No written lesson can adequately cover every possibility. The important thing is to accurately assess basic needs and make good use of available resources.

The Survival Scenario
You are returning from a late summer medical convention in Maui. Your small plane is blown off course and seriously damaged in a sudden forced landing. You have no communication. You are in the mountains in a wilderness area in Montana. You have consumed the protein beverages and food samples you brought from the convention and most of the airline food. After one week, you have not seen any signs of a Search and Rescue. You are traveling with warm-weather clothing. When you woke up this morning, there was heavy frost on the ground. Two passengers have been injured in the crash and need medical attention. Six other adults are uninjured. You can see an old territorial road over the next ridge about five miles distant as the crow flies. This will not be easy ground to transverse, with steep mountains and many streams to cross. The pilot tells you he observed that this road will eventually lead to a few scattered ranch houses about 30 miles down hill. You are one of the two individuals chosen to hike out to seek assistance.

Your assignment is to sort through items on the plane and decide which will be the most useful to take along. Which of these items will be a priority?

  • Wrench
  • Screwdriver
  • Paper clips
  • Duct tape
  • Pocketknife
  • Two plastic insulated coffee pots with spring-type lid
  • Two three-quarter-ounce packages of salted pretzels
  • Thick eyeglasses
  • 11 paper cups
  • Two-pound empty metal cookie can with lid
  • Toothbrush
  • Several full containers of waxed dental floss
  • Six medium-sized safety pins
  • In-flight safety videos
  • Six synthetic airline blankets
  • Five canvas tote bags
  • Tennis racket
  • Women's facial compact with mirror
  • Overhead replacement light bulbs
  • Paperback novels
  • Plastic dinner trays
  • Clothing: jeans, T-shirts, one heavy sweatshirt, lightweight jackets, socks, four handkerchiefs
  • Plastic bags: one box of heavy-duty trash bags
  • Two boxes of plastic gallon-sized airline bags (used for making improvised ice packs)
  • One can of snooze
  • Nail clippers
  • Compass
  • Indelible marker
  • Golf balls
  • Cell phone

Immediate priorities are to stay warm, dry, and hydrated. Given that, here are your best choices:

Even lightweight garments can provide insulation from the cold if dried leaves or pine needles are lofted between layers of clothing and double pairs of socks. Consider using insulating materials from the plane, such as foam cushions, too. (Survivors remaining with the plane can remove the fabric covering chair seats for use as blankets.) The condition of feet is especially important, so take extra dry socks. Airline blankets are useful as hoods or to dry feet after crossing a cold stream. They are lightweight and dry quickly. Bandanas or handkerchiefs can be worn about the neck or stuffed in a pocket. It may be necessary to cover the face to protect against dust or mosquitoes. (Covering exposed areas of skin with mud can also protect against mosquitoes.) Twisted handkerchiefs make a rope. Bandanas and shirtsleeves can be used to bind sprains and bandage injuries. Search the plane well for any gloves.

Plastic Bags
The large trash bags can be used as ponchos if it rains and will also help hold body heat. The smaller plastic bags can be worn over socks to keep feet dry when the ground is wet. Cover supplies to protect them from water when crossing streams.
Plastic bags can be used to condense safe drinking water, especially if there is no rain. Dig a hole and line it with a plastic bag. Set a piece of clean gravel in the center of the bag to weight it down and hold it against the cool soil. Secure the perimeter of the bag in place by setting rocks around the edges at ground level. Now, place another bag containing a pebble over the top of this bag, securing it in the same way. Allow a space between the two bags. The temperature differential between the warmer air above and the cooler soil below will cause condensation. Water will drip down from the upper bag and collect in the lower bag lining the hole. Several of these condensers may be necessary to get enough water for two people.

Thick Eyeglasses
It is unlikely there will be matches or a cigarette lighter on an airplane nowadays. Sunlight can be focused through the lenses of eyeglasses, or a magnifying glass, onto dry kindling to start a fire. (A mirror will also work.) Before leaving the plane, look for metal pieces such as the screwdriver. Strike metals against each other and rocks – especially flint, if you can find any – to discover which will throw sparks.

A signal fire at the crash site can be spotted from the air and seen at great distances. A fire should be kept burning so it does not go out. A fire produces heat and helps dry wet clothing. A large fire at night will help provide protection from predatory animals, especially where there is the scent of food. Dry vegetation for use as kindling can often be found around the base of trees or under layers of wet leaves. Bark may contain pitch. Learn how to build a proper fire. Collect an adequate supply of wood before building a fire. This prevents a fire from dying out or spreading while you are looking for more wood. Gather enough firewood to last through the night. Dry wet wood by placing it next to a warm fire. A woodpile also serves as a windbreak. Seek a sheltered location and avoid windy ridge tops. Building a fire against a stone wall will reflect heat.

Sundown is about one hour away for each adult hand width between the sun and the horizon. Darkness comes very early in the mountains. Always allow enough time to make camp! Coals from a previous fire can be wrapped inside damp moss and carried inside a metal can to start a new fire, especially if there is no sun. One way to replenish the coals and keep them from burning out is to stop at midday to boil water for a tea of foraged herbs.

Check to see whether the plane's first aid kit contains water purification drops. Otherwise, plan to boil water for three minutes. Use the empty cookie can, set on rocks above a fire, as a kettle. The plastic insulated coffee pots can be used as canteens. They will store hot water and keep water from freezing overnight.

Although, a person can survive more than one day without water, it is wise to make an effort to stay well hydrated. Lack of hydration is a factor to consider in hypothermia. Drinking warm water will heat a body, whereas eating snow or ice will accelerate heat loss.

The mirror is a signaling device, using flashes of light. (Any shiny objects will reflect light.)

Here are some easy Morse Code letters to remember:
"Take Morse Orders" (TMO): T (-), M (--), O (---)
"Elves In Santa's Hire" (EISH): E (.), I (..), S (…), H (….)
Thus, SOS is: … --- …

Dashes are three times as long as dits, with an interval between letters.

A knife is helpful for cleaning fish or game. It can also be used to shave kindling to start a fire or cut boughs to build a shelter. Layering large branches against a downed log or across the tops of adjacent logs can make a simple lean-to shelter. Multiple layers of boughs should be stacked one on top of another at a downhill angle. This "roof" will help shed rainwater and also help hold body heat inside the enclosure. A floor of boughs to sit or lie on provides insulation from the cold ground and protection from mud or moisture. Pile dry leaves, grass, or smaller hand-sized boughs around your body to keep warm. Consider the direction of the shelter and whether digging a trench might be prudent for rain run-off.

Waxed Dental Floss
Waxed floss is stronger than unwaxed floss. Containers are very compact and lightweight. Tie a makeshift shelter together. Run a snare. Repair clothing. String a clothesline for drying wet socks and blankets. Use dental floss as fishing line. Rewind and do not discard used floss. Dental floss has many uses.

Safety Pins
Make fishhooks. In a location with crawdads, it may be easy to catch hundreds of "baby lobsters" at a time. Hold them in the cookie can before cooking. Safety pins also allow quick repairs when hands are stiff from cold. Pinning them inside a pocket to prevent losing them is an easy way to carry pins.

Canvas Tote Bags
Take sturdy canvas bags as totes to carry every thing. A bag with a shoulder strap will be the most practical. A bag can be worn tied under the chin as a hat for protection from the sun, rain, or cold. An extra bag can also be filled with insulating materials and used at night to keep feet warm.

Before leaving the crash site, take bearings of where you are and where you must head. Take compass readings. Note the movement of the sun and stars the day before leaving. Be prepared to navigate by the sky. To locate the North Star, find the Big Dipper. Polaris (=North Star) is located in a straight line above the last two stars in the bowl of the Dipper (see illustration below). As you travel, notice any identifying landmarks en route.

Additional Items
It may boost morale to carry a small lightweight pocket item even if it is not essential. For example, a comb, hand cream, or a small container of lip balm may be a comfort item. An indelible marker may be useful for leaving a message, even if you must write on the inner bark stripped from a tree. A small digging or cutting tool may be improvised from scrap metal and duct tape. Leave paperback novels with the plane as toilet paper; hikers will have to "rough it." A cell phone may be useful if batteries are good. Even without a nearby tower, sometimes a signal will carry a long distance if you can get on top of a ridge. Evaluate whether a flotation device might be advantageous. Carefully consider the weight and potential usefulness of any item carried – and how long and far it will be necessary to carry it. Some items may be kept and reused.

Food is not an immediate necessity. The pretzels have no nutritional value, and salty foods induce thirst. Even the calorie count is minimal. Leave the pretzels behind. A reasonably healthy person can survive in good health for at least 20 days, or more, without food as long as they have water and avoid the risks of exposure.

Forested areas often provide edible berries and wild mushrooms to cook. (Do not eat anything you cannot positively identify!) Teas can be made from wild blackberry leaf or fir needles. Look for Miner's Lettuce and Sorrel. Slugs are a source of protein. Considering what it takes to survive, one option may be to cook culturally objectionable foods beyond recognition and/or wrap them in leaves.

Do not get discouraged by the distance. Five miles of very difficult terrain can easily take a whole day, or more, to transverse. For safety, it may be sensible to wait out bad weather. Travel will be faster after reaching an abandoned dirt road or even a path.

Take care of yourself! The welfare of the group depends on you!


Norene Wedam, MEPD, BA, RC, CH, HP, BFRP
4911 NE 46th Street
Vancouver, Washington 98661

Norene Wedam resides with her husband in Washington State. Together, they own a timber company and log land northwest of Mt. St. Helens. Norene spent a decade living in Montana. She graduated from Dominion Herbal College in Vancouver, British Columbia in 2002 with a Chartered Herbalist diploma. She enjoys big game hunting, gardening, and foraging.



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