February 24, 2024

In this article, I will relate some key lessons for preppers that I have learned as a Search And Rescue (SAR) worker and volunteer.  I tell people that we live in a wonderful and fun place, as long as you never forget that the wilderness is always trying to kill you. They think I’m being funny. But s a member of both a county sheriff’s SAR Team and a Mountain Rescue Association-affiliated team, I can tell you that I am being completely serious.

Any prepper should approach life very similarly to how they would approach a backcountry hiking trip. The wild country doesn’t care about why you’re there, and it will kill a prepper as easily as it kills a newbie  recreator. Brendan Leonard wrote a great poem in 2021 called “The Avalanche Doesn’t Care”, which describes the complete indifference of the wintertime backcountry threat, but in terms of the indifference of nature, the poem’s lessons are applicable year-round.

In search and rescue, we try to educate the recreating public about what they need to do to avoid becoming one of our “subjects”. We have a list that we call the “Ten Essentials”, which are what people need to have with them when they go out hiking in the backcountry or a state park or any other place where there are no services and motorized access is very limited. Here’s the Ten Essentials list:

  • A planned route, left with a responsible person, including a planned return time.
  • Map and compass, and/or GPS with two sets of spare batteries.
  • Water (about 2 liters), and a means to purify water in the field.
  • Extra clothing (including a pair of socks) to keep you warm and dry.
  • Snacks or food to last at least 24 hours.
  • Appropriate first aid supplies, including 24 hours’ worth of regular medications.
  • A LED flashlight or headlamp.
  • Fire building supplies (waterproof matches or flint and steel, quick starting tinder).
  • Poncho or tarp and other materials to make a shelter.
  • Hand-held radio or satellite communication device.

Very often, we’re met with incredulity or outright scorn when we present this list to recreators. We hear everything from “I can’t carry all that stuff!” to “But I’m only going out for 30 minutes!”

To answer the first objection, “all that stuff” can be very compact and lightweight, except for the water. (Face it, water is heavy, and takes up lots of space, but you can’t afford to be without it for long.) A day pack with a capacity of 20 liters can hold all of these items plus some more, and the weight can be kept at 20 pounds or less. A route plan that is communicated to another person doesn’t add an extra ounce to your daypack, but it can tell rescuers where to look for you, which means that if you’re lying down beside the trail with an excruciating tib-fib fracture or a blown-out knee, they’ll get to you a lot more quickly. Please believe me when I tell you that you’ll appreciate that.

It’s amazing how many times we’ve been called out to look for people who were “only going out for 30 minutes”. None of them ever stopped to think that they might be going out their doors for the last time ever. If they did, they probably never would leave their homes. Search and rescue workers see a lot of these people, and in many cases, unfortunately, they are deceased when we find them. The reason is simple: These people don’t prepare for anything untoward because they don’t plan to be gone very long. However, nature has a way of changing your plans in ways that you may not be able to foresee.

People rarely die in the backcountry because of one terrible mistake (although sometimes, that does happen). Usually, they die as a result of a series of small mistakes, the results of which turn into a lethal cascade. Very often, the first mistake is that they don’t tell someone where they’re going and when they expect to be back. In itself, it isn’t a lethal mistake. A lot of people have gone on hikes without telling anyone where they were going or when they expected to be back, and usually, nothing went wrong for them. But suppose Katie, a typical recreational hiker, heads out on a 30-minute hike without telling anyone where she’s going, and she compounds that mistake by not including a first aid kit (with her prescribed EpiPen) in her pack. When she steps on a yellow jacket nest, gets stung multiple times, and her airway starts to close in the anaphylactic response, she pulls out her cell phone to text for help, only to discover that she has no service. This is what a fatality on a 30-minute hike looks like. Variations on this theme include a broken ankle and nighttime temperatures that plummeted 30 degrees lower than the daytime temperatures, and a sudden cold rain squall that caused hypothermia and disorientation.

Katie might have survived her short hike had she done a few things differently. Suppose she texted her friend Ryan and told him where she was going, and when she planned to be back. Suppose she threw her EpiPen into her backpack, along with a first aid kit containing Benedryl. Suppose she took along her Garmin InReach Mini satellite communication device. If all she did was tell Ryan, that likely wouldn’t change the outcome. If she told Ryan and brought the first aid kit with the EpiPen, her chances are a lot better, because the only thing working against her is time, and maybe she would be located quickly enough by the rescuers that Ryan notified. But with the plan, the first aid kit, and the InReach, the odds are much better that Katie will have a great story to tell at Ryan’s next backyard barbecue. Some other precautions might make it even more certain that she survives, like going on her hike with her buddy Jen, who has taken a basic first aid and CPR course.

As a prepper or remote homesteader, hopefully you’re more in tune with things that can happen quickly and unexpectedly, with great potential to ruin your day, if not end your life. You are living in an austere environment, or preparing for an austere environment, where there is no search and rescue team to call, no air ambulance helicopter to take you to a hospital quickly, and probably no hospital or higher level of care. Far more than a typical recreator, it’s in your interest to do what it takes to not be a “subject” or a “patient”. So, with that in mind, let’s modify that list of Ten Essentials to fit you.

Work, hunt, or forage with a buddy/partner/a reasonably mature kid. Inform another buddy/partner/reasonably mature kid where you’re going and how long you expect to be gone. Use descriptive landmarks, like “where Rabbit Creek joins Willow Creek”.

I have some advice to expand on the standard Ten Essentials list:

Carry a compass, and know how to use it. If you have a map, carry that, too.
Carry at least 2 liters of water per person, and a means to purify water in the field. In cold weather, carry something in which you can melt snow or ice. If you have a source of electrolytes, carry some, or choose foods or snacks to replenish them.
Carry extra clothing, including a pair of extra socks, preferably in a waterproof bag.
Sun protection, even in winter. On snow, this means sunglasses.
Snacks or food to last 24+ hours (between 1,600 and 3,000 calories, depending on weather, activity levels, and your age, gender, and physical condition), and some means of obtaining more food, such as a fishing line, or wire to make a snare.
Appropriate first aid supplies for the activity. For example, if you’re cutting wood, a couple of sanitary napkins and either a pre-made tourniquet or materials to make one would be a good idea. A SAM splint is always a good choice.
Signaling is crucial. Even if you have an InReach device, also carry a signal whistle. Whistles are louder than your voice, and will still work, even if your voice gives out. A signal mirror (a mirror flash can be seen over 15 miles away on a sunny day.)
A versatile utility tool, such as a Leatherman or a Gerber multiplier.
Fire tinder materials and matches in a waterproof container, or better yet a ferro rod.
Shelter building supplies. That could be a tarp or poncho and paracord, or it could be paracord and a folding saw with which to cut branches.
Pest repellant, ranging from insect repellant to a firearm with which you have practiced. Pests vary a lot in size, and you need to be able to respond appropriately. Shooting a cloud of mosquitoes with a 12 gauge shotgun may be gratifying, but it’s neither effective nor safe.

One very important supply weighs nothing: Knowledge. Take a first aid or wilderness first aid course, but be aware that most of the courses offered assume that you can get a patient to a higher level of care. If you don’t know already, learn which plants are edible in a pinch. Learn how to build different types of shelters, in different conditions. Learn about clouds, and how they can be used to predict weather.

Remember the Rule of Threes: A person can live three minutes without air, three hours without shelter or appropriate clothing, three days without water, three weeks without food — but only three seconds without hope.

I have learned a lot about what can happen in the backcountry, and how fast it can happen. I still get surprised, by how often that can happen.