Editor's Note: The following column is part of our new TacticaList series, a collection of expert columns and features on all things tactical — from fishing and hunting to camping and shooting. These columns are featured in our monthly TacticaList newsletter. Check out our most recent issue and let us know what you think! Click here to subscribe to the TacticaList.
By Sean Curtis
The TacticaList Contributor
I worked many years as a deputy sheriff and search and rescue coordinator in the mountains of southwest Colorado. Over those years I’ve seen people make many decisions that had a major effect on the outcomes of their emergency situations. The end results ranged from funny to fatal, and everything in between. In this article, I have attempted to distill that knowledge in the hope it may be of service to you.
1. Carry Survival Gear with You
This may seem like a given, but I cannot tell you how many people have gone into the mountains on a hunt without a compass, water, some food, signaling devices, and sources of fire. Depending on how you hunt, you can take a large pack with you to camp and leave it there, but always have a small survival kit with you.
Seek Outside’s ultralight backpacks and talons
Eartheasy LifeStraw water filter
Mil Tac M.U.L.E. by Camelbak
Casio Hunting Twin-Sensor watch (and compass)
DeLorme inReach SE Satellite Communicator
Rescue Essentials’ Biohazard 12’’ Zombie Axe and sheath
2. Wear Quality Clothing
Over the years, the availability of performance clothing has increased greatly. I have seen people hunting in Vietnam era camouflage, sweat pants, and worse yet, jeans (cotton kills). Understanding how to layer your clothing and using items that wick water away from the body is key to survival in the right climates. Wool is amazing because it keeps its loft and still insulates when wet. Outer waterproof shells go a long way toward keeping that water out in the first place. The benefit of good footwear and wool socks also cannot be overvalued.
3. Have a Plan, Share It, and Stick to it
If you are the type that hunts alone, at least tell a friend or someone at home what your hunt plan is. Make sure that plan has a “call 911 by” date and time if you have not shown up. This is crucial information in so many ways. When someone goes missing during a hunt, an investigation ensues along with the search-in-progress. Friends and family are contacted and information is gathered in order to narrow the search area. It’s a huge world in the mountains—thousands of square miles. It is not as easy as narrowing down whether you are in the fishing or archery section of your favorite outdoor store.
This information also comes in handy when someone needs to contact you with emergency information. In the areas I worked, cell phones didn’t. If I drove to spot number ten in the Cimmarona Campground and looked for the red Chevy with Texas plates, I would likely find you and deliver that message. However, I often heard from a frantic spouse, “He’s somewhere on Bear Mountain!” This creates a daunting, if not impossible task.
Things can go wrong, but make every effort to stick to your plan. This crucial piece of information is the trail of breadcrumbs rescuers will attempt to pick up on to get to you sooner. Deviation from this important detail can be the difference between life and death.
4. Remember Hunter Safety
This is another golden idea that gets violated every year. I have had hunters glass me with their rifle scopes (still attached to their rifle) as I flew over in a helicopter. I have seen horses shot out from under guides. Know your target, your likelihood of a fatal shot, and what is beyond your target.
I once investigated what appeared to be a drive-by-shooting at a gas station. A Californian tourist was shot in the zipper handle of his jeans! The shooter was a property owner, who fired his gun in the air to scare off some trespassers, over a mile away. The tourist was luckily okay and the shooter was charged criminally.
5. Give Yourself Time to Acclimate
I always marveled at the people that would come up from low elevations and commit to hiking all day, shooting a 1,000 pound elk, and lugging it out of the woods. Many did not make it. Give yourself a couple days to acclimate to the new elevation. Drink plenty of water, and consult your physician about your expected activity levels. I have seen people take ill and fall over dead before they even began to start their hunt. The elevation change and thinness of oxygen makes your body work harder to complete its normal processes. Listen to your body above all.
6. Know How to Signal for Help
If you get into a bad situation, make sure you have signaling gear, and know how to use it. Having a signal mirror is great, but it only works well when the sun is out.
People have a hard time knowing how to flash their light at aircraft. Make a “V” with your left hand and target the helicopter or plane in that V. Reflect the light from your mirror with your right hand and shine it on your hand. Flash the light up to the aircraft, then back on your hand. Keep the aircraft in your sights and continue this motion with the mirror; this creates a flashing reflection easily spotted by pilots and searchers.
Get out into the open. I have been looking for people for days that later admitted we had flown over them many times. They said they waived and hollered but we never came back. Keep in mind that through the canopy of trees you likely will not be seen, and certainly cannot be heard. Wave your hunter orange out in an open area like a meadow, or consider a signal fire. Searchers look for smoke and fire. Shooting works too, but keep in mind to shoot in a safe direction where you will not imperil someone else. Three shots in a row is considered the international distress signal and will likely garner attention.
7. Have Redundant Fire Sources
A crucial key to survival in the cold mountains is the ability to make fire. On our investigative checklist, we always asked if the missing person smoked. While this is counterintuitive to good health and exertion in the high mountains, it provides an almost certain answer to the question of whether a person could make fire. A cigarette lighter is handy, but may freeze up or break in extreme weather. Think about how far from help you are. Candles, matches, and lighters of all sorts are small, inexpensive, and light to carry. Take a few with you. I have served on missions above 11,000 feet and in up to 12 feet of snow. I carried all the above, but found road flares to be a sure answer to getting my fire going. You cannot cook over them as they are toxic, however, they can dry out small, green, fuel sources and get them to burn well.
8. Think Like a Rescuer
It’s easy to get locked in your head when you are lost or in a survival situation. However, if you try to think like a rescuer, you can increase your chances of survival. Coordinators get a call for an overdue hunter and usually send someone to the last known point. From there, they determine if they need to call in resources.
Be prepared. Most places do not deploy rescuers at night unless the need is dire (i.e. broken leg, over a cliff, etc). The coordinators will then try to limit the search area geographically based upon a number of likelihoods. They will assume you did not rappel down the 1,000 foot cliff into the river and use that as a boundary. They will assume you did not summit the 12,431 foot peak and mark that off the map. They then flood the area with resources (searchers, aircraft, search dogs) and attempt to develop a probability of detection. If they feel strongly about their chances of having found you in a certain area, they will move to another that seems likely to produce you, some sign of you, or your body. All the while they try to develop clues that will help find you. Anticipate this and help them out.
9. Thank Your Rescuer
This is not critical to survival but it bears mentioning. The brave people that are risking their necks looking for lost or injured hunters are usually volunteers! While there are typically a few paid people who work in Search and Rescue and coordinate efforts, the bulk of most organizations is filled up with people who donate their time to help. Often the only satisfaction they get is seeing a missing person returned to their families.