Being lost and on unfamiliar ground can be frightening if you lose your cool. But take heart – a survival situation usually lasts less than 72 hours. If you’re prepared and remain calm and rational, you’re not in danger.

An important first step is to admit that you are lost. Stay calm, look and listen — you might spot a landmark, or hear traffic on a nearby road. If you can easily get to high ground, that can help – the farther you can see, the more likely it is you’ll see something familiar. But resist the urge to travel further seeking safety.

If you are lost, and accept that it might be some time before you’re found, it’s time to put your survival plan into effect.

First on the list is treating yourself for any injuries you might have received. A good first-aid handbook — few are better than the St. John Ambulance Official Wilderness First-Aid Guide by Kevin Merry — is a handy reference to have.

Since exposure is your worst enemy, the next step is to build a fire. Long, wooden “strike- anywhere” matches are the best for starting a fire. Keep them in a waterproof container, and dip them in paraffin wax. You’ll need two types of fuel to get your fire started — tinder and kindling. Dead, dry twigs, shredded layers of birch bark, dry leaves, and abandoned hornet’s nests all make excellent tinder. For kindling, choose dry, standing dead wood.

Choose the location of your fire pit carefully. Don’t build a fire under a tree — the tree could catch. If you’re building a fire on snow, make a platform of green logs or stones. If the ground is dry, scrape away all the grass to avoid starting a grass fire. Build your fire near a rock or log wall to reflect heat back to you.

Building a shelter is your next task. Cutting away some branches from the underside, and thatching them into a crude roof can quickly convert a fallen tree with some space between the trunk and the ground. A lean-to is an easy-to-make shelter. Build a snow cave only as a last resort — it’s impossible to build one without getting wet. The cave should be shallow enough, and the roof
thin enough, that you need only stand up to break through should it collapse.

Now it’s time to attract some attention to your predicament. Flares, if you’re carrying them, are great for alerting searching aircraft. A smoky fire by day is a good signal, as is a bright one at night. Mirror signals can be seen ten miles away on the ground, farther in the sky. Carry a shrill whistle as a signal. Unless you’re seriously injured, think hard before using a firearm to signal – you might need the ammunition to hunt game if your unplanned stay lasts longer than a few days. But, if you’re seriously injured, and you have a firearm, fire your gun in groups of three shots, with ten seconds between shots. Wait ten to fifteen minutes, and then fire off another group of three shots.

Finding water is the next item on the agenda. Filter dirty water through several layers of cloth, and boil it to purify it. Don’t melt ice or snow in your mouth — it costs more energy than it supplies. Finding food is the last task on the list and probably unnecessary since most people can live off body fat for up to a month. A field guide to plants comes in handy to help you avoid species like water hemlock and poisonous berries (as a rule of thumb, avoid berries growing in clusters). UNLESS YOU ARE AN EXPERT, AVOID MUSHROOMS. Many are poisonous, and difficult to identify. Snares for small animals and birds can be fashioned from tree branches and rope or wire. Set lines for fishing.

The person who plans well — and sticks to the plan — isn’t in any danger. He or she has left an itinerary with a responsible friend or relative, outlining travel plans and estimated times of return.

He or she has packed a small amount of emergency food and water and has a well-stocked emergency kit and first aid kit. Proper clothing, a map and compass, and knowledge of basic survival skills are all packed as well.

Reprinted courtesy of the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters

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