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With hunting season quickly approaching, we are all gearing up to fill the freezers and hopefully get a shot off at that once-in-a-lifetime trophy animal.
With the rising popularity of hunting and the vast area of uncharted territory in western Canada, more and more hunters are travelling deeper into the backcountry, looking for that elusive prize. And more hunters every year are finding themselves lost or going too far to return that night.
Although we are all competent hunters and outdoor enthusiasts, that it-can’t-happen-to-me attitude could cost Canadian Search And Rescue hundreds of thousands of dollars, each day, looking for you.
Being prepared and educated is the first step to ensuring your survival, if you ever find yourself in this unfortunate situation.
You’re lost and how to deal with it
The bush is neutral – it’s neither for you, nor against you. What happens to you in the bush depends entirely on you. What you put into it is what you get out of it.
There are two kinds of “lost” – the first is you’ve simply become disoriented or walked off your intended trail.
In this case, the first thing you must do is stop, sit down and try to relax. This may sound like an easy thing to do, but most people run, believing they’re just off steps off the trail. This can lead to death by exposure. People have been found dead within the first 36 hours of being lost, with dry matches in their pocket and all the gear necessary to make it through this episode.
The best way to remain calm is to spend time, prior to any adventure out in the bush, developing the skills needed for this type of situation and being prepared and practiced with all the tools you carry – this will help you to stay calm and survive, more so than having all the latest and greatest gear that you don’t know how to use.
To try and find your way out of the bush, a map and compass will be your best friend at this point. But if you don’t have these, then try and find the sun to establish what direction you’re going to be travelling in. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west.
Mark the position where you first became lost. Make sure all of your marks are at eye level and you can use wads of moss, handfuls of grass, broken branches or blazes. And then pick the direction you believe is right. As much as possible, put up a marker when the last two are still visible. Use three marks to indicate a sudden change in direction. Such a trail will also provide large targets for searchers.
If you were incorrect about which way is out, backtrack and make another trail at 90 degrees to the first. After trying all directions, there’s a good chance you will have found your bearing.
To keep track of your distances travelled in each direction, count your paces – approximately 625 paces is a kilometre, with a pace measured at two steps.
No way out
The second kind of lost is much more serious. In this situation, you don’t know where you are, how you got there or how you might get back.
If this is the case and you cannot find your way out using the above method, you will need to stay in one spot and wait to be rescued.
Learning how to build a fire, ignite it in numerous ways and fuel it and to keep it going under all conditions takes years of practice. The ability to build a fire in a hurry can be the difference between life and death.
Fire is important to humans in many ways: to stay warm, dry clothing, melt snow, purify water and as companionship or sectioning logs for shelter or firewood. A good, warming fire should force you to stay one step back.
You should never venture into the bush without three ways to light a fire. These ways could include a metal match – a single rod can strike over 10,000 fires before you need a new one, and this is a tool you should carry on every outing. Matches and/or a lighter, as well as cotton balls coated in petroleum jelly, sealed in a waterproof case, are also good back ups.
Creating a twig bundle is a must-learn technique for building a sustainable fire.
Gather a hug-sized bundle of twigs – these twigs should all be of similar length, generally the length from your fingertips to your elbow, with the thick end being about pencil size and the small end about the thickness of a matchstick. Bind the centre of the bundle with cord or whatever you have available, so the bundle holds together and controls the burn rate. If available, add dead pine needles or birch bark to the small end of the bundle for added combustibility.
Once ignited, this bundle will burn consistently and is difficult to extinguish.
There are many types of fire lays, but the king of fires in the boreal forest is known as the parallel fire lay. It’s king because of the amount of heat it can produce and how little it needs to be attended. It’s optimal for heating the full length of your body as you sleep.
To get your parallel fire going, you need to collect kindling of increasing size – a bundle of twigs about as thick as a matchstick, a bundle of twigs that are as thick as a pencil and then a bundle of twigs that are as thick as a finger.
A parallel fire is built with two or three large logs on the bottom. You can then light your twig bundle to get a fire going and continually add the kindling, going up in size as your fire burns, until you’re able to stack large logs on top. The wood is all laid parallel, running down the large, bottom logs.
This method works best when built parallel to the prevailing winds.
The importance of staying hydrated trumps the need for food by about 40 days and the chances of finding water in the boreal forests, with the amount of rivers, creeks, lakes, swamps and muskeg, are very high.
Within your first 24 hours of being lost, water is something you should spend the time and energy to find. It’s important to carry a metal cup or pot with you all the times, so you can sterilize the water for drinking. Drinking water as hot as possible will keep your body warm and the feeling of hunger at bay. It also doesn’t use your energy reserves to heat the water as it gets processed through your body.
Pay attention to sweating – the amount of water lost by sweating is dependent on one’s physical fitness and clothing, but that doesn’t mean that a fit person should disregard the dangers of dehydration. In -40 degrees Celsius, the body will lose more water by breathing, known as heat loss by respiration, than someone in the Sahara desert. Seeing your breath in cold temperature is moisture leaving the body in the form of condensation.
No matter what, in our environment you’ve got four days without water before irreversible damage is done to your body and brain. When you become dehydrated, your blood starts to thicken and it slows circulation and the transfer of warm blood to your fingers, toes and brain.
A few tell tale signs of being properly hydrated: your urine colour should be slightly yellow and you must be passing about one litre of fluid a day.
A properly dressed person could easily last five days without shelter or fire to dry their clothes, but chances are that most of us are lost because we are unprepared, which means it’s important to have some basic knowledge of shelter construction and the science that goes behind it. Remember this: it’s better to sleep warm and wet than it is to sleep dry and cold.
The need for shelter does several important things: it keeps us out of the elements, provides a place to rest and get eight hours of sleep, which can be lifesaving as it allows us to make the right choices in a high-stress situation, and it gives us a feeling of home and security.
In many hunting hotspots, there always seems to be an abundance of dead, standing trees, which are easily pushed over, and dead laying, which can be dragged.
During your first night, gather as much wood as humanly possible, without injuring yourself, and pile the wood up in a parallel pile. From that big pile of logs, you take one step forward and that’s where your fire will be. The idea is for you to sleep between your woodpile and your fire, using the woodpile as thermal mass collector of heat, which will re-emit the heat back to you. This set up works well if it’s not pouring rain. All of this can be done without an axe or saw, but carrying one with you in your pack would be worthwhile.
Now that you have quick sleeping arrangement, find a way to get yourself about four inches off the ground, either by piling up branches, grass, cattails or green boughs, anything that feels like a bed, to stop the heat from being drawn from your body by conduction. On day two you may want to upgrade your shelter to an open-face lean-to, which is efficient when fire is available. But if there is no fire, then build a debris type shelter. If you’re lucky enough and it’s -14 degrees Celsius or colder and there’s lots of snow, building a snow shelter is your answer. At this temperature, the snow is in the right condition for this type of shelter.
Clothing and signs of hypothermia
Clothing is single most important factor in your survival, above all else, and oddly it’s the most misunderstood and under emphasized of all topics. Clothing in the bush is just as important as a space suit is to an astronaut.
Clothing is something that must be tailored to each person – something that may be perfect for one person could be too cold or too hot for another. You most really study your clothes and know what works best for you.
One of the most fatal errors is the laziness behind layer up and layering down when walking or working. The goal is to maintain a comfortably cool temperature and make sure there is enough clothing available on you or in a pack to stay warm while standing still.
For temperatures around -20 degrees Celsius, there should be five layers of clothing available:
- The first layer is known as the wicking or sanitary layer. This important layer fits close to the body, with no gaps, and it allows the transfer of moisture and oils from your body to pass to the outer layers of clothing, staying dry and warm. Merino wool is best and poly pro is a close second.
- The next three layers should be a mix of thin, fast-drying materials and in cold temperatures a few thick, wool sweaters. Down or Thinsolate are also good alternatives for this layer.
- The last layer is known as the environmental layer. This layer takes the abuse of the woods, keeping all of your other layers clean and dry. Remember, dirty or wet clothes don’t perform like they should, so stay as clean and dry as you can.
The human body runs at an internal temperature of 37 degrees Celsius, fluctuating one or two degrees throughout the day.
For hunting season, hypothermia is our greatest enemy, as opposed to hyperthermia. Most cases of hypothermia are reported from -1 to +10 degrees Celsius, daytime temperature, because people go out underdressed to be able to handle the evening temperatures, which are dangerously different.
One good test to tell if your core temperature has dropped to a dangerous level is to try touching your pinkie finger to your thumb. If this is difficult, you must stop what you’re doing and start a fire immediately and get warm. When you have trouble touching your pinkie to your thumb, this means your fine motor skills are almost gone. At this point, lighting a match may be impossible, but the metal match uses gross motor skills. If fire isn’t an option, do your best to force yourself to exercise and bring up your core temperature – you’re entering a dangerous state at this point, so you must to do whatever is necessary.
Just like you wouldn’t learn to hunt or fish by simply reading an article, effective bushcraft and survival techniques need to be studied and practiced.
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