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My ankle felt like it was on fire. I was on my back. Points of pain competed for attention across my entire body. Through the clearing dust, I could see the spot where the screaming originated. The screams came from her. I looked up at my girlfriend's face, normally beautiful, now twisted into a red and unfamiliar mask of fear and surprise. I had fallen. And I was hurt. Then the full scope of the situation dawned on me. We were in a remote and unforgiving area. We were also lost. Lost, hurt, alone, and darkness would be upon us soon. The nauseating dread that was growing in my belly was the complete opposite of the excitement I had felt just hours before driving to the trail head to “test our skills.” Playtime's over, kids, I thought to myself grimly; this just went from pretend to real.
The latest edition of “What If?” poses this question: What do you do if your easy, daylong hike has turned into a life-threatening survival situation after you've gotten lost on the trail? While this scenario might not seem as thrilling as a kidnapping (see OFFGRID's Summer 2014 issue), it's certainly far more likely and just as fatal. So, for answers, OFFGRID asked me and two other outdoor enthusiasts for our approach to handling the aforementioned scenario.
With us is our “average Joe,” Ryan Lee Price, a freelance journalist and self-taught survivalist who has contributed to the “SHTF” column in our sister publication, RECOIL. Next is our military vet, Len Waldron, a former U.S. Army infantry officer who grew up hunting in the hills and fishing along the Mississippi River. He has a wealth of hard-earned outdoor experience. As for myself, I have been a survival instructor for the past 18 years and am the author of a new book on survival and emergency preparedness, Prepare for Anything. Read on to find out how each of us would handle this “What if?” situation.
Lost in the backcountry
Mount San Antonio Loop Trail, California
4,000 feet to the summit, which is at 10,000-plus feet
Partly sunny, highs in the mid 60s F and lows in the 30s F
You're a fit 30-something who enjoys living in Los Angeles. But, you realize the need to be prepared for any emergency, be it natural or manmade. You understand the concept of “bugging out” and want to practice by loading up a one-day bug-out bag and going on a hike. You enlist your longtime girlfriend to do the same. Though she's of only average athletic ability and not a prepper, she's willing and able.
Things go well as you ascend Mount San Antonio Loop Trail, known locally as Mount Baldy, until you reach the Devil's Backbone, the final portion before the summit; it tests your endurance and athleticism. You chug more water than expected, going through two-thirds of your water supply already. Your girlfriend has downed half of her water supply. After four hours, you finally reach the summit, and it's an amazing view. You're literally above the clouds.
After resting, taking photos, and eating sandwiches, you descend. About an hour into it, you noticed the trail looking less and less traveled. Another hour goes by and you see no clear paths, zero signage, or any clues to the base of the trail. Suddenly, you roll your ankle on some loose gravel. The momentum of being on the steep decline sends you tumbling down in a violent heap 10 yards below. Once the screaming and shock subside, your girlfriend helps you assess the damage: you've suffered many bruises, several cuts, a banged-up knee, a sore wrist, and a severely sprained ankle.
You know you can't continue the descent on one leg, but your girlfriend can't carry you down either. Nor does she have the experience to go on solo to call for help. With the sun getting closer to the horizon, the alternative frightens you: being lost and stranded on the mountain overnight. It can be extremely dangerous, especially with the temperatures dipping close to freezing. So, what do you do?
Now I had done it. I was pretty banged up after slipping on that rock, but nothing too serious that would require a trip to the hospital. The rolled ankle was the worst of it, though. But there's no way I was walking out of here on my own, and Kelly isn't strong enough to carry me. We were stuck, at least for a while. We talked a little about her heading down alone to get help, but she was hesitant to do so. There was no longer a trail to be seen. It just vanished into the brush. No question about it: We were lost. And with the sun dipping toward the horizon, it was about to not only get dark, but also get really cold quick.
We weighed our options: Make a splint for my ankle and hobble back up toward where we think the trail is, or stay here, build a fire, and endure the night. Since it would be nearly impossible to find the trail again in the dark, even with flashlights, we decided on the latter. Plus, maybe by morning, my ankle might improve enough to walk on it.
Hiking in the mountains during autumn is like a double-edged sword. On one hand, it's beautiful, but on the other, it's very dry. All of the creek beds we had passed that day were dry as a bone. With just a little water left between us, we have a significantly short deadline to either be rescued or hike out. There was no finding water, no hunting for food, and no crafting of intricate survival shelters.
What was especially unnerving as we said farewell to the sun, however, was that we could see the city lights in the distance, knowing that the ski lift parking lot at the base of the trail had to be only some miles away…
I left my boot on my rolled ankle to help contain the swelling; plus, if I took it off, I would never be able to put it back on again if I had to. Kelly gathered some loose twigs, leaves, and small branches, and clearing a space at the base of a large boulder nearby. I broke out the mag rod fire-starter, and the dry kindling ignited after only a few slashes. The fire felt good, and the light reflecting off of the boulder kept up our spirits — especially considering we were starving. The sandwiches we ate for lunch were our only real meals. Not thinking that we'd actually be in a life-and-death situation, we had only energy bars left in our go-bags. We felt it was best to save those for morning, when we would need them most. For now, I was hoping the smoke from the fire would alert someone — brushfires in Southern California are always a serious concern, so there are people whose jobs it is to watch for fire. Perhaps they're watching.
Darkness settled around us quickly and the cold soon followed. We had long pants and jackets, which staved off some of the chill. But as my watch clicked past midnight, we decided to stoke the fire with another armful of sticks Kelly gathered, put on the ponchos to keep off any morning moisture, and get as close together as possible, conserving body heat until morning.
Neither of us slept much, what with the sounds of nature crashing around us and the possible impending doom looming on the horizon. The fire was warm, but we must have slept just long enough for it to die out about an hour before the sun came up. Man, it was cold! Fortunately, neither of us succumbed to hypothermia.
My ankle wasn't any better, though, but we couldn't sit around any longer waiting for someone to come along. Let's face it, we had to get back to the main trail, and I had to do it on my own power, as much as possible. And that meant splinting my ankle with two long sticks, both of our belts, and my jacket as padding. The point was to transfer the weight from my foot to the base of my knee, and with the help of a longer branch to act as a crutch (padded with Kelly's jacket), I was able to move, albeit slowly and excruciatingly.
We ate the energy bars and began the long, arduous hike back up the hill toward where we thought the trail should be, or at least in that direction. The plan was to walk northwest toward the summit again, where we'd hope to find the Baldy Bowl trail or run into another hiker, whichever came first. The sun was warmer than the previous day, and we drank what was left of our water sparingly. Kelly was a big help, guiding me over some of the more difficult terrain, but the largest hurdle to overcome was the lack of water. We drank so freely coming up the mountain that we didn't leave much if trouble found us. Kelly had about two or three sips left and I was down to nothing. The fear of dehydration crept into my mind. Was the headache creeping across my braincase brought on by sleeping awkwardly on a pile of rocks or from not enough water (which could lead to debilitating side effects and, eventually, death)? I decided to keep that question to myself. No need to worry Kelly while she was focusing her strength on helping me down the trail.
We kept our eyes open for the Sierra Club Ski Hut. It was built in the 1930s and has water piped right into it from a local spring. Odds would be good that someone would be there, but it isn't directly on the trail. As we came out of a stand of pine, we were overlooking the Baldy Bowl itself, about a mile from the summit. We had at least found our bearings, as just below us was the trail, We were elated to see several small colored dots, hats, and backpacks of fellow hikers.
Overall, it was a close call. Had the weather turned for the worse or if I had severely broken a bone or was knocked unconscious, we would have been in a terrible fix. We were prepared for what came at us, but we could have done a better job of packing more useful items. Luckily, we stayed calm, treated the situation as just a problem that needed patience, clear headedness, and a solution, and found the way down by going up. The hikers we met had some water for us and a phone with a signal. A couple hours later, I was helped down to the trailhead by forest personnel.
Kelly broke up with me soon thereafter. Oh well, I'll survive that too, I guess.
After this weekend, I may have to put a ring on it. Sophie, my girlfriend of six years, saved both our lives. The Mount Baldy/San Antonio trails broke my body, but strengthened our relationship. Nothing like immobility, uncontrollable swelling, and potential hypothermia to tease intimacy out of man.
Sophie is a soft-hearted hard-body who is prone to bringing random foster kittens and incontinent Chihuahuas to stay at our house for weeks at a time. In her day job, she's a graphic design artist for an advertising firm in L.A. When she's not trail-running or finding yet another stray to rehabilitate, she works on keeping me from reverting to my Teutonic, linear self. She's a good balance for me, but our differences sometimes blow things up, just like any good couple.
Both embarrassed at my fall and the situation it put us in, I was in no mood for Sophie the two-legged gazelle to ask me “why” I fell, but I just marked it down to her female need to understand. I was more concerned about the setting sun and dropping temperatures. Absent the radiant heat of the sun, the altitude and arid atmosphere will suck the heat right out of a moist body. My lack of mobility made a slow hike down the darkening mountain out of the question. Sophie and I quickly reached the conclusion that we were in hunker-down mode.
The first consideration was finding a location that gave us some protection from the prevailing winds that were ripping across the rock faces. We had very little water — but hypothermia would kill us before dehydration, so shelter and a fire was the priority. If it provided visibility from the air or the ground, so much the better, but we were in real danger from the falling temperature. I managed to fall on one of the steeper sections of the hike, so there was nothing useful I could just hop over to.
Sophie used the ace bandage in our first-aid kit to wrap my ankle. I had already re-tightened my 3/4-length boot for added support, but it did little to help. It was a severe sprain, and my foot was useless. I stealthily broke into the snivel packs of ibuprofen in the first-aid kit after Sophie walked down the slope to scout for a shelter site. I managed to scratch around on the ground for dried grass, pine needles, pine cones, and small sticks to start a fire. I was about as mobile as a sea lion on a yacht dock, but managed to stuff a plastic grocery bag I brought with me full of tinder and a few sticks of kindling. I also managed to whittle a spruce limb to use as a walking stick. It would have been smarter to have started out with one of those.
Sophie returned smiling and appraised my bag full of scrapings.
“I found a village,” she said.
“I'm sorry. What?”
“I found a village. It's right down there. I think we should stay there tonight.”
“Are there people in this village?”
“No, they've been gone for awhile, but there is still some stuff there.”
I was in no position to argue, so we loaded up our packs, and with a walking stick in my right hand and Sophie under my left arm, I hopped and dragged my sorry ass down to the “village.”
Sophie's village was actually an old mining camp and what we would later learn was the ruins of the Gold Dollar Mine. Rusted mining detritus lay strewn about, but there were two key features, an old iron stove and a wind break built into a cut in the rocks. What seemed like a good idea at first proved to be less useful. The stove would be a great way to create and control heat, but it was atop a flat platform made from old lumber slabs and rough cut planks exposed to the wind. We opted for getting a fire started within the windbreak.
Though I had brought a magnesium fire-starter, I used the “matches” from the bandage box. Cardboard containers make great fire-starting material along with collected tinder. (Note: Save toilet paper for its intended purpose. You may be tempted to burn it, but there are more substitutes for tinder than for TP, so choose wisely.) Sophie scouted around for larger pieces of wood we could use to fuel our fire. I encouraged her to get much more than we would need. This of course involved a debate about what constituted good firewood and how much was enough, but we managed to find a workable supply.
As the sun descended, so did the temperature and our sweat-soaked clothing was getting cold. Sophie wandered off, collecting firewood as I worked up the fire. After several runs to collect large hunks of wood, she returned with two armfuls of long, thin limbs.
“Sophie, we don't need those anymore; the fire is going,” I told her. “We need bigger fuel logs.”
“These aren't for the fire,” she remarked.
“Ok, I'll play, my dear, what are they for.”
In the fading light of day, Sophie used her belt to lash together a makeshift tripod, stripped down naked except for her hiking boots, and proceeded to dry her clothes over the fire. So here I was with a bum ankle, yucca cuts, swelling bruises, and no water — but a girlfriend who despite of our circumstances found a way to behave like a resourceful pagan wildling. Things were looking up.
Staying close to the flames, she twirled around, keeping her parts warm while her clothes dried out. She then peeled my shirt and pants off as well. After our clothes dried, we bundled back up in our clothes and wrapped up together in the poncho, using our shared body heat to augment the fire. I ate the “ham slice in natural juices” MRE that I couldn't bring myself to open earlier during lunch. Sophie ate one of the two power bars we still carried.
The night was very cold and uncomfortable. The increased pain and swelling kept me awake, but it also prevented me from letting the fire get too low. We found some rusted steel scraps that we placed opposite us next to the fire, to help direct the heat toward us. Though Sophie was completely inside the poncho, I kept my head and one arm out so I could tend the fire. She slept most of the night and only kicked my ankle a few times.
The morning arrived, and we had decisions to make. We only had enough water to keep our mouths wet, and that was worrisome. We debated various courses of action, but thankfully shuttered the plans when a California Search and Rescue pair appeared. My OCD habits had helped us after all. Before departing, I had taped a 3×5-inch notecard with our names and route to the National Park Activity Pass hanging from the rear view mirror of my Land Cruiser. Sophie's sister had called the Park Service when she didn't return, and our navigation issues were pathetically predictable. More water and a functioning GPS would have been nice, but ultimately, a decisive decision to get heat and shelter along with communicating our travel plans saved us.
I was charged with a misdemeanor and fined $1,000 for having an unauthorized campfire in the park during the dry time of the year. Evidently nudity in the park is also against the law and carries the same fine…but that's our little secret.
Ask and ye shall receive, I thought to myself. I didn't want to actually say it in front of my frightened girlfriend and make things worse by saying something stupid. But I also couldn't ignore the irony of our predicament: We had gone out to test our gear and self-reliance skills, and now we have no choice but to rely upon them. We could die up here without them. Or maybe even with them.
As my ankle, wrist, and knee ached, I sat there realizing that this was the most basic emergency situation that outdoor enthusiasts encounter. We were lost, I was hurt, and evening was falling — this was survival 101. We had to avoid panic and get to work if we were going to make it through the night.
I told my girlfriend in a matter-of-fact way about the priorities of survival, and that these priorities are like a checklist, helping us to handle the worst problem first. Shelter was top priority then came water. We also needed a fire, which could warm us and act as a signal for help. Food was a low priority, but I was relieved to remember that we had packed some. We laid out our gear and took inventory. The ponchos and our jackets were the only shelter that we brought with us. I couldn't walk or crawl to help her build any kind of shelter, and there wasn't much to work with anyway. Dirt, sand, rocks, and a few bushes were all we had for company out there.
The first big hole in our bug-out plan was now obvious. We should have had sleeping bags, space blankets, or some other source of warmth. Ponchos would keep the rain off, but they would do little to keep us warm.
The next (and almost laughable) weak point was the lack of water. We each had two empty bottles in that dry climate. There should have been factory-filled bottles of water in those BOBs. They would have lasted for months and still been safe to drink. It was very demoralizing to find these mistakes the hard way. But there was no time or reason to dwell on it. We needed warmth quickly. I knew that hypothermia could kill within hours, and we both knew that we were in a place that became very cold at night.
With our signal-less and virtually useless phones, there was no way to call for help. We even tried texting, but the messages wouldn't go through. There was no way to reach out to the world, except perhaps for a signal fire. We did have fire-starting gear in our bags, and right then, it seemed like the most valuable commodity we had.
With the sun touching the horizon, we started to work on our fire. My girlfriend began gathering sticks, dead grass, and bigger pieces of wood from the rocky and desolate landscape, while I used my knife to shave magnesium off the fire-starter block. As I worked, I found myself wishing for a lighter. There was no real benefit to the magnesium block, and at that moment, I would have traded anything for a simple butane lighter. In the light of the setting sun, I tried several times to get the magnesium shavings lit. In my haste, with my throbbing wrist and the stress of the situation, I kept knocking the magnesium shavings out of the tinder. Finally, I tried throwing sparks directly into the grass tinder. Once a spark hit the fluffy seed down at the top of a grass stalk, the fire erupted. The grass burned so fast that I was afraid it would be consumed before the small sticks began to light. Thankfully, the dry conditions worked in our favor and the twigs began to burn. The fire was soon established. Our makeshift campsite on the mountainside had good visibility, and I hoped that if we could see out, then others could see us.
The fire was a game-changer. We both knew that much. And naturally, we hunkered close to it. But as soon as the sun disappeared, the air temperature started to drop. We got out our flashlights. Mine wasn't working. Frustrated, I hurled my torch as hard as I could into the darkness. “It's OK,” my girlfriend said, trying to console me. “We have one that works.”
This cooled my blood and set me thinking again. I knew how dangerous panic could be in an emergency, but I never realized how valuable morale was. And it hit me: nothing boosts morale like food. Normally, we would have eaten dinner hours ago. I knew that we'd need all of our strength to make it through the night, so I suggested we share one of our two energy bars even though they were our only food rations left.
As we had a “picnic” of peanut and chocolate, the reality of the situation was settling. Our fake bug-out simulation was now a real life-or-death survival scenario. We finished the bar and drained the last of the water. My girlfriend milled around in the dwindling twilight to find a few more dead sticks from the sparse brush of the surroundings, and then we snuggled in by the fire. Tomorrow, we would improvise a crutch to get me moving again and use the compass to find our way out of there. If we could just hold on until morning.
The hours passed and the stars brightened over our heads. Our breath was steaming and we were both shivering, despite sitting next to a fire and being wrapped in our ponchos. Our firewood pile ran low, and night hadn't reached its coldest point yet. We periodically used the flashlight as a beacon, my girlfriend standing and rotating it slowly like the beam of a lighthouse. From our high vantage point, we could see the lights of distant scattered homes or buildings, but they were all very far away. We huddled together and prayed that someone could see us.
My head was nodding, which scared me. I couldn't tell if it was the late hour or the hypothermia that was making me want to go to sleep so badly. Maybe it was both. I knew that hypothermia made you sleepy…toward the end. And as my head sank again, it seemed like a vivid dream was taking hold. I heard someone yell “Hey!” It was a man's voice, a stranger's voice. “Hey!” the voice called again. I looked up and saw the beam of a flashlight bobbing up and down, coming toward us. “You're not supposed to have fires up here,” the man said.
I tried to stand, but the pain from my injuries shot through my joints. “Are you two alright?” the man asked. I could see him better now, a man in a tan uniform — a park ranger! “Thank God,” I replied.
The ranger told us that his truck was just 50 yards away on a fire road, and he left it running with the heat on. We walked slowly, huddled together. I leaned hard on the ranger's shoulder, not caring if he minded. It was the only way I could walk. Soon we saw the headlights of the truck. The bumpy ride back to the station seemed like a strange dream, but a good one. I had thought we were going to die, but we didn't. We were not as prepared or as invulnerable as we thought. But through a little good luck scattered among the bad, our signal fire in a high place, and a fortuitous ranger patrol, we had made it.
This scenario was a tricky one to navigate, especially with minimal supplies. In bleak environments, survival is tough, even for the pros. Beginners would need every advantage possible when entering these types of terrain. You shouldn't ever expect to find what you need out there, especially things like shelter and water. You need to bring it with you.
Our characters could have easily died in the first night of this proposed scenario, without bringing more substantial shelter. From a bug-out standpoint, the gear was painfully inadequate, and this test was an epic failure. Just because you label a backpack with the term “BOB” doesn't mean that it can save you. To build a decent BOB, you'll want to mirror the supplies you'd need for a backpacking trip, and then adjust them to fit the climate. Add more water for arid conditions. Add more items for warmth in cold climates. You need a self-contained and self-reliant system to be able to bug out effectively, even for a short period of time.
Hopefully, this story will serve as a cautionary tale for those who are overconfident and underprepared. You need to have the right tools for any job. And when that job is survival, you'd better have plenty of those tools and know exactly how to use them.