The Laws of Survival

On a freezing November day, we sent our survival expert into the Rocky Mountain wilderness with no tent, no sleeping bag, and barely any food. Here's what he learned.

Field & Stream Online Editors

It's a freezing November night in the Rockies, and our expert is huddled under a tree trying to stay warm. He has no food, no sleeping bag, and no tent. Over the years he's written often about rules that lost hunters should follow in order to survive. He's about to find out if they really work.

It happened the way it does for so many hunters who get lost. I had been following an elk track in the wilderness of Montana's Gallatin range since dawn, and all along I thought I knew where I was, or at least in which direction I had to turn to find a trail that would take me to the truck. But the compass pinned to my jacket didn't agree, and now I was miles too far in to find my way out in the dark. For the first time since taking the track I experienced that trickling dread humans feel when the outlines of pine trees begin to blur. I was going to have to spend the night up here.

Sleeping in the wilderness is nothing new for me, but before there has always been a sleeping bag for warmth and a tent to call home. On this night, I'd be fortunate to find a dry bed of spruce needles. I was at 8,500 feet, and the zipper-pull thermometer on my jacket read 28 degrees. To survive I would need to rely on the advice I had been giving readers of this magazine for years. The question was, would it work?

It was day one of the most masochistic challenge I'd ever accepted. My editors had hatched this scheme, and their assignment had been clear. I was to head into the wilderness and hunt elk, bringing with me only the gear that I normally take on a solo day hunt in the Rockies-no sleeping bag, no tent, no extra food. After trying to become deliberately lost, I was to seek shelter when darkness fell. The second day would be for testing survival skills: making camp, signaling for help, foraging, and starting fire. After a second night under the stars I was permitted to find my way home-if I could.

[BRACKET "Law No. 1"]
Be Able to Live Without Fire
Before leaving home, I'd assigned myself a list of survival skills. The one I dreaded most was enduring the first night without fire. I've often written that a hunter should be resourceful enough to see through a winter night without one, because in wet conditions he might have to. Over the years I've interviewed men who had survived this situation by walking in circles and, most memorably, shooting a horse and crawling inside the steaming carcass. I devoutly hoped my night would prove to be neither as sleepless nor dramatic as theirs had been.

The basin I found myself in when the moon rose was crusted with old snow and studded with enormous ponderosa pines, none of which offered cover. Much better was a belt of spruce that skirted the headwall where a creek crooked into the basin. Spruce trees, with their dense mats of overhanging branches, are one of nature's best shelters.

An old forest monarch with a spongy carpet of needle litter and nutshells scattered by generations of red squirrels was an obvious choice. I crawled under the limbs on hands and knees and scooped handfuls of duff onto this "mattress" until it resembled a rusty coffin emerging from the earth. Had it been colder, I would have spent an hour adding boughs to create a debris shelter to burrow into, in the manner of a hibernating bear. But herringbone clouds were riding the moon and it looked like snow, which would keep the temperature from falling too far. Or so I hoped.

Using my headlamp, I rummaged through the meager contents of my pack: emergency kit with fire-starting materials and medicines, water bottle, snare wire, folding saw, orange marking tape, cord, garbage bags, a 20-ounce tarp, a 20-inch square of closed-cell pad. I worked the pad under my butt, then removed the waxed paper from the last half of a peanut butter sandwich. I made it last, taking tiny bites and sipping water. When it was gone I rewrapped the crumbs for breakft and shone the light on my thermometer. Twenty-five degrees. I took off my blaze vest and wrapped it around my thighs. Five-fifteen. This late in November, it would be 14 hours until dawn.

What I'd give, I thought, for a copy of Moby Dick.

[NEXT "Story Continued"] By 8 p.m. I was ready to send Christmas cookies laced with arsenic to the editorial offices at 2 Park Avenue. Every half hour I'd been doing push-ups to stave off shivering, but there was a limit to the strain my muscles could take. What I needed was a space blanket or a vapor barrier bag to trap body warmth. I carry a tarp on my hunts instead, because of its greater versatility. Maybe I could use it to perform the same function. Spreading it flat on the pine needles, I lay down and tucked the end up over my boots, and then rolled over, double-wrapping myself like a roast of venison for the freezer. With the pack under my shoulders and the pad under my hips, I was insulated well enough from the ground. Within minutes I began to warm up, and slowly the murderous thoughts were replaced by self-congratulatory praise. I felt myself drifting off. Maybe I'd even get some sleep.

When I woke my hip was aching. I had rolled off the pack and was lying on the ground, still trussed in my plastic cocoon. I had to pee, but the only way out of the tarp was to roll back the other way-uphill. Rolling and kicking until I was free, I finally got to my knees. I was too cramped up to step away from camp to do my business like a civilized being. It wasn't until I had rewrapped myself and settled back onto the pad that I realized there was a wet spot on an inner layer of the tarp, just below my left shoulder. Too tired and too cold to care, I just lay there, inhaling a slightly acrid odor. I'd shared a bed in the back of a station wagon with a gutted deer before, but sleeping in my own urine? This was a new low.

By midnight I was sitting against the tree trunk with my knees tucked up to my chest. At 2 a.m. it was push-ups again. Sticking my hands up under my coat, I felt a crinkling in my shirt pocket. It was a scrap of newspaper I'd brought as kindling, the classified section. I switched on my headlamp. Anything to take my mind off the cold. The pet shop was offering free white rats to good homes. Also free, a "special needs" ferret and a female red heeler. In the next column there was an AKC-registered Siberian pup that cost nearly as much as my rifle, a trade I'd gladly have made right then for the fur and body heat.

At 5 a.m. I gave up. Stumbling a hundred feet down the hillside, I found a sheltered bit of flat ground under a copse of spruce trees, tucked a cotton ball drizzled with candle wax into a bird's nest of twigs, then struck the steel I carried on a thong around my neck.

Curled in a fetal position while sparks from the fire burned holes in my jacket, I finally managed an hour of dreamless sleep.

[NEXT "Story Continued"] [BRACKET "Law No. 2"]
Stay Where You Are
If you are lost, you should usually wait for rescuers to find you instead of trying to find your own way out. Wandering aimlessly will only move you farther from the searchers' grid. Not following this advice is the most common reason that lost sportsmen wind up dead, as was the case with two young elk hunters discovered in an adjoining mountain range a few years back. I had no intention of joining their choir, so when I woke at dawn (stiff, dirty, and a little ripe, especially in the area of my left shoulder) I set about the next two tasks on my list: constructing shelter and signaling for help.

Ideally, a survival camp should be protected from wind, have a clean water source and good fuel supply, and be close to a large opening where you can construct signaling devices. An hour of exploration turned up no place better than the one I had left, which had the advantages of the creek and the open basin down the hill. Retracing my footprints in the snow, I unfolded my tarp and pitched it as a lean-to with the open front facing the ashes of my morning fire (see sidebar at left). Had I not brought the tarp, I could have built a shelter in the same shape from a framework of logs and branches, using pine boughs and leaf litter to fill in the gaps and then compressing them into waterproof shingles by overlaying more logs. That would have taken a few hours to construct but would have provided a sturdier shelter.

Dragging rotted logs and big pieces of stumps, I built a fire wall, 4 feet tall. Next I spent a solid hour breaking up downed branches and sawing both dry and green logs for fuel. One thing I wasn't going to be on my second night was cold. I heaped up pine-needle duff into a mattress, then crisscrossed pine and fir boughs over the top to a depth of a foot, needle tufts toward the middle. I wasn't about to lie on hard ground again, either.

To attract the attention of a search party, I dragged 10-foot lengths of windfall into the basin to form an SOS of block letters against the snow, hung my mesh blaze vest on a Charlie Brown Christmas tree and climbed up onto a low rise to survey the work. With the addition of a smudge fire-a hot blaze stoked with green branches to produce smoke-it would be pretty hard for a search plane to miss all the signals. I dismantled the SOS-after all, I didn't need real rescuing from anything but my hunger.

[NEXT "Story Continued"] [BRACKET "Law No. 3"]
Learn to Trap
Although my belly was aching, I knew that in a survival situation, water outweighs the importance of food. Breaking through creek ice to reach water was easy enough, but then it wasn't so simple: The flow was too thin to submerge my bottle. I had to make do by filling the lid a few dozen times and transferring the contents. Melting some snow back at camp would be a better solution. Now it was time to collect dinner. A squirrel that had been giving me hell all morning from the camp spruces seemed the obvious target for a meal. But he was the only companion I had, and after forming half a dozen snares from my roll of wire, I found that I didn't have the heart to set them for him. Instead, I moved a few hundred feet away, listening intently for the chirring of his neighbors.

The beauty of trapping is its efficiency. Compared to the hours of energy you expend while hunting for food, it takes little time to build and set traps. They also work as you rest. I had never snared squirrels before, but I knew the tricks would be the same ones I had learned with regard to other animals. You needed to find their trails, direct their line of travel with brush or strategically placed sticks, and scale the size of the snare to the animal's head. Besides that, you needed to set a lot of traps-this is one pursuit where nuasin down the hill. Retracing my footprints in the snow, I unfolded my tarp and pitched it as a lean-to with the open front facing the ashes of my morning fire (see sidebar at left). Had I not brought the tarp, I could have built a shelter in the same shape from a framework of logs and branches, using pine boughs and leaf litter to fill in the gaps and then compressing them into waterproof shingles by overlaying more logs. That would have taken a few hours to construct but would have provided a sturdier shelter.

Dragging rotted logs and big pieces of stumps, I built a fire wall, 4 feet tall. Next I spent a solid hour breaking up downed branches and sawing both dry and green logs for fuel. One thing I wasn't going to be on my second night was cold. I heaped up pine-needle duff into a mattress, then crisscrossed pine and fir boughs over the top to a depth of a foot, needle tufts toward the middle. I wasn't about to lie on hard ground again, either.

To attract the attention of a search party, I dragged 10-foot lengths of windfall into the basin to form an SOS of block letters against the snow, hung my mesh blaze vest on a Charlie Brown Christmas tree and climbed up onto a low rise to survey the work. With the addition of a smudge fire-a hot blaze stoked with green branches to produce smoke-it would be pretty hard for a search plane to miss all the signals. I dismantled the SOS-after all, I didn't need real rescuing from anything but my hunger.

[NEXT "Story Continued"] [BRACKET "Law No. 3"]
Learn to Trap
Although my belly was aching, I knew that in a survival situation, water outweighs the importance of food. Breaking through creek ice to reach water was easy enough, but then it wasn't so simple: The flow was too thin to submerge my bottle. I had to make do by filling the lid a few dozen times and transferring the contents. Melting some snow back at camp would be a better solution. Now it was time to collect dinner. A squirrel that had been giving me hell all morning from the camp spruces seemed the obvious target for a meal. But he was the only companion I had, and after forming half a dozen snares from my roll of wire, I found that I didn't have the heart to set them for him. Instead, I moved a few hundred feet away, listening intently for the chirring of his neighbors.

The beauty of trapping is its efficiency. Compared to the hours of energy you expend while hunting for food, it takes little time to build and set traps. They also work as you rest. I had never snared squirrels before, but I knew the tricks would be the same ones I had learned with regard to other animals. You needed to find their trails, direct their line of travel with brush or strategically placed sticks, and scale the size of the snare to the animal's head. Besides that, you needed to set a lot of traps-this is one pursuit where nu