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9 more tips to survive if lost, injured in the wilderness

By Scott Hammond, KSL.com Contributor  |  Posted Mar 19th, 2014 @ 11:00am


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SALT LAKE CITY — A person lost in the wilderness hoping to survive is in an unanticipated situation. He or she is disoriented, and for a period of time has no way of orienting to the new environment. This often leads to panic, shame, anger and self-pity. Rather than give way to negative emotions, we can problem-solve and follow these “lessons of the lost.”

Jared had been separated from his scout troop for 12 hours when he came face-to-face with a moose. At 10,000 feet, he also faced freezing temperatures with just a t-shirt and a broken fishing pole. He was already starting to shiver as the moon rose over the dense forest.

He sat down on a log and realized that it was still warm from the sun. Seeing the old bark, sticks and pine needles gave him an idea. Lying with his back to the warm log, he dug down and pulled the debris over his legs, lower body, and chest. He pulled his arms into his t-shirt and fell asleep. The temperature dropped to 32 degrees that night, but the next morning searchers found Jared unharmed.

When Victoria Grover broke her leg while trying to get to a stream in the Escalante desert of southern Utah, she was already a day overdue. Trapped at the base of an old waterfall and 40 yards from drinkable water, she was in a hole, and unable to move.

For hours, she thought about how to get to water without risking severing an artery in her broken leg. Then it came to her — instead of going forward she would go backwards. With her one good leg and her bottom, she scooted up and over the rock, collected burnable fire fuel in her poncho as she dragged her broken leg along the desert floor. At the stream, she built a fire then buried the hot coals in the sand. The coal bed helped keep her warm and the water kept her hydrated for three more days before searchers found her.

Jared’s and Victoria’s experiences show survival is a mental game. As a volunteer searcher with Rocky Mountain Rescue Dogs and a professor who studies survival behavior, I have learned that basic survival skills are not enough. Unless you have the “mind of a survivor,” you will not be able to apply your survival skills to the unique life-threatening problem you face.

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In the over 100 incidents I have studied or observed, survivors think differently, see differently, and act differently when faced with the unusual situation of being lost. Rather than give way to negative emotions, we can problem-solve and follow these “lessons of the lost.”

Lesson 1: Survival is insufficient.

Survival is what you do until you can find a way to thrive in your new environment. “Survival mode,” as some people call it, is a high stress time when you're spending mental and physical energy on just making it to the next problem. In this high-expenditure state, the time horizon is very limited. As you begin to thrive, there is less urgency.

Victoria was in survival mode while she wondered what to do about getting to water. She battled worry and fear while thinking through a problem she had never encountered. Once she locked in on a solution, and found that the solution was working, she relaxed. Her immediate needs were met and so her sense of urgency shifted, and she began thinking long term.

Lesson 2: Think differently to see differently. See differently to act differently.

Old solutions almost never work when you're really lost. If you have been in that situation before then it is not a survival situation. Lost people trying to survive are, by definition, facing a new and unique problem, thus it requires a new and unique solution. Experience helps, but creativity is essential.

Victoria pulled her poncho behind her as she dragged her broken body along the desert, collecting fuel for her fire. Jared pulled debris over his shivering body while he lay next to a log that had been warmed in the sun. Neither had ever done this before. Both came to these solutions by observation and creativity.

Lesson 3: See how others see you.

Don’t worry; you are not going crazy. Most solo survivors report having conversations with others who are not there. Their social network lives on in the mind. Victoria said she spoke to her son, her husband and her wilderness survival instructor from 40 years prior. The voices in her head helped her see differently and act differently. These productive fantasies give a realistic sense of self, a better understanding of what is possible and a stronger will to get through the pain.


Old solutions almost never work when you're really lost. If you have been in that situation before then it is not a survival situation. Lost people trying to survive are, by definition, facing a new and unique problem, thus it requires a new and unique solution. Experience helps, but creativity is essential.

When we give ourselves feedback, we often use the voice of others. One survivor reported hearing his grandmother’s voice that kept saying, “John, you were always so strong.”

Lesson 4: You are never lost alone.

If someone knows you're lost, someone will always come to help. It never ceases to amaze me when during a wilderness search for a person, in a small county that might have only a dozen search and rescue (SAR) volunteers, that the group grows every hour, sometimes by hundreds every day.

If you are lost and surviving, if people know that you are lost, they will come, and care and congratulate you on your survival when you are found.

When Jared was found 24 hours after going missing, 200 people from his small community had come to the command center hoping to help. When Jared was safe, they stayed and cheered the searchers as they returned. Everyone was a hero that day.

Lesson 5: Movement creates opportunity.

A survivor will constantly try to improve their situation. Victoria knew she needed to be near water, and did what it took to get there. Jared went from sitting down, to sensing warmth, to building a debris blanket. Each of them was economical in their moves as they learned about the environment and assessed the effectiveness of their solutions.

Lesson 6: Some small things matter, some big things do not.

There is a new economy at play in a survival situation. Victoria had credit cards and even cash in her pocket. But it was the .$10 matches and the $1 poncho that saved her life. Each survival situation is different and creates a different set of resource demands.

The ability to assess essential needs and anticipate resource demands separates the survivalist from the hoarder. Boy Scouts learn that the “10 essentials” pack is more valuable in the wilderness than a heavy backpack full of unneeded items.

Lesson 7: Fear itself can kill you.

Fear is a brick of toxic waste that can have fatal consequences. Jared reported having a “freak out” moment where he missed his mother and cried without restraint. Then he realized it was keeping him from realizing his plan.

Later, when he faced the moose, he did so with confidence knowing that the animal might sense his fear and become aggressive. His clear mind allowed him to circle the moose without confronting it. That also gave him confidence to solve the problem of freezing cold.

Lesson 8: No one is saved without hope.

Every lost person I have interviewed, and everyone I have studied reported a time during his or her ordeal of deep despair. Each survivor also reports developing a vision of the ideal future. One person said, “When I get out of this mess I’m going to eat as much chocolate cake as I want, all day, every day.”

It is this vision of the ideal that motivates people to overcome the pain of a broken leg, to get to water, to build shelter and to wait patiently until searchers come.

Lesson 9: When you are found, you are forever changed.

Survivors often envision the idealized “home” to motivate themselves through the difficulty. But you will never come home as the same person. Jared came home a hero to his fellow Scouts, and the shy boy was now famous in his little town. He appeared on national news programs. But the fame faded, and he was changed with greater confidence and strength.

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