An interesting thing happened to me last week on a hike to one of my favorite and well-known places: I got lost. Really. I don’t have a clue how it happened, because I knew exactly where I was. I was within a couple of hundred yards of where I expected to camp.
The problem was three feet of snow blocking my way, so I decided to take a “shortcut” to the camping location. The next thing I knew, I was in steep terrain that looked totally unfamiliar to me. I guess I probably tramped around for 20 minutes or so, because, you know, that damn campsite is “just 100 yards from here!”
Mostly it was just extremely embarrassing. My son was with me. “Dad, the Rawah Ranger.” Lost. Sigh…
I suppose this is how everyone gets lost. But, I haven’t been lost for a long, long time. Fortunately, before I got totally lost I came to my senses and decided to sit down for a minute and try to think. This is actually harder than it sounds, because, well, lots of things that don’t really help are now going though your mind. Even Alzheimer’s comes up as a possible theory. I had a drink. Got a couple of cookies out and ate those.
“Well,” I said to my son, “better get the ol’ map and compass out and figure out where we are, I guess.” Believe it or not, I had actually thought about leaving the compass at home on this trip, since I knew exactly where I was going and had been there many, many times. I guess I’m dumb, but not stupid. I put the compass in the “survival kit” where it has lived, mostly unused, for nearly 40 years.
This wasn’t a terribly big deal. I got the compass out and used it to orient my map, so I could compare it to what was in front of me. Sure enough, I was walking in exactly the opposite direction to what I was intending. I put the map away, and we used the compass to walk an opposite bearing, and in 15 minutes I knew exactly where I was again. Apparently, in winding around snow drifts I had gotten myself turned around and walking in the wrong direction.
But, the place I wanted to camp in was still covered in snow, so we decided to cross the meadow to a snow-free location on the other side, in the trees. Of course, our feet got even wetter in the meadow than they already were (it had been raining, too), so by the time we had located a suitable camping location we were both cold and wet. With the drought of the past couple of years and fire restrictions, I have gotten out of the practice of making a fire while camping. But this seemed like a good time for one.
And, since I had already opened the bag containing my survival gear, I decided I would just use this as an opportunity to practice my survival skills and start a fire with what I had in my survival bag. I got the emergency fire starter out and tried to light it with sparks from the metal match I have in my pocket to start the stove. Nothing. Nada. Zilch.
Humm. OK, let’s go with plan B, then, and use the wind and water proof matches from the kit. We went though about a third of the pack before we could get one to light, and even then the fire starter wouldn’t catch. Whatever volatile components were in the fire starter has apparently evaporated away in the, what, 20 years since I had purchased them. The matches were about the same age.
So, did I have a plan C in the bag? Yes! I had a few cotton balls and a small container of petroleum jelly with me. This is my normal go-to fire starter and I was certain it could catch a spark and give me enough flame to get some of the damp wood going. I knew about damp wood in the Rawahs because a couple of years ago I went through just about an entire box of matches trying to get a fire started in my wood burning backpacking stove after a rain. It was after that little wake-up call that I started carrying cotton balls and the extremely flammable petroleum jelly, along with my metal match. I really didn’t want to worry about matches anymore.
In fact, I was so worried about my ability to start fires, I had purchased a new Ka-Bar neck knife this year to split wet wood, so I could get to the dry wood inside. It wasn’t exactly an ultralight purchase, but I figured that with it and the folding saw I always bring to cut trees off the trail, I would probably be able to start a fire. I had already sent my son off with the saw to cut a baton for splitting wood with the knife. I set about now to get some dry wood prepared, and, of course, somehow managed to put the knife (very sharp straight from the store!) into my hand, which was now bleeding a little too much for my taste onto the Vaseline-soaked cotton balls. Where in hell was my First Aid kit!
All this stuff, naturally, is in my pack somewhere, but it is a new pack and I’m still working on a packing system. Plus, did I mention my hand is bleeding? I eventually found the band-aids (nearly as old as the fire starter) and got the bleeding on my hand under control. Once that was solved, it was a reasonably easy job to get the fire going. I can only thank the mountain gods for holding off on the rain until we actually had it going pretty good.
I currently have my First-Aid and survival kits all torn apart, where I can inspect every element in both. I’m in the process of updating and replenishing nearly everything in them. If your survival gear doesn’t work, your chance of survival goes down considerably.
The next time I practice these skills (and I do plan to practice them again!), I promise, it is going to go better. In fact, I’ve learned that practicing survival skills, and having survival gear that works, is the only way to be sure you are going to survive when if and when it really counts.