Accidents and unforeseeable events can turn an afternoon hike through the woods into a survival situation that places your very existence into question. Fortunately, forests are full of resources, including water, wood and food, which can keep you alive for prolonged periods of time. However, because forests limit visibility, you should take steps to help rescuers find your location.
First Things First
The Boy Scouts of America recommend S.T.O.P. -- which stands for stop, think, observe and plan -- a mnemonic aid for survival situations. Understand what resources you need immediately, and which ones can wait. The most acute danger in a forest survival situation is exposure, followed by dehydration. Healthy humans can survive for up to three weeks without food, so ensure your clothing is suitable and start building a shelter and fire as soon as possible. Once these are in place, you can begin searching for water.
The Importance of Warmth: Shelter, Insulation and Fire
Rain and wind can make even 60-degree weather deadly, so a suitable shelter is your first priority. Make a shelter by leaning branches against a downed tree or boulder. Cover the branches with evergreen boughs and cover the floor of the shelter with soft debris, such as dead leaves or grass. If you are still cold, stuff grasses and vegetation into your clothing – avoid three-leaved plants, which may be poison ivy or poison oak. Start a fire by using a magnifying glass, shorting out a battery or using friction to create a spark for some tinder, which can then be used to light larger kindling. Dry wood is usually available in the lower portion of the tree canopy, in the form of dead or broken branches.
Where to Find Water
Water is necessary for survival, but drinking contaminated water significantly lowers your chances of leaving the forest alive. Find a river, stream or lake by walking downhill – water always seeks the path of least resistance, and flows toward the lowest ground. Whenever possible, boil collected water in a pot, shell or improvised container for several minutes before drinking it. If this is not possible, you can try to collect dew by soaking it up with a piece of cloth and then wringing it out into a container. Do not eat snow, but you can collect and melt it to provide some water.
If people know that you are in the woods, rescuers are likely to begin searching the area. Try to make yourself as conspicuous as possible -- they may search on foot, from the air or both, so plan accordingly. Tear a few strips of some brightly colored clothing and tie them to nearby tree branches in groups of threes – tripled signals are standard wilderness code for “distress.” Additionally, build three small, but distinct, fires on an exposed hillside. Once the fire is hot, throw some green vegetation on top to create thick smoke.
Flee the Forest
If no one is likely to notice your absence or know where to look for you, you must find your own way out of the forest. This is a risky proposition, as it is very easy to get lost in the forest without a compass or GPS to track your heading. However, you may have no other choice. Climb a tall hill or tree and look for signs of civilization; but if you cannot see anything, your best bet is to follow a creek or river downstream. This provides you with a landmark to follow, which keeps you from getting lost, and gives you a good chance of finding a road or human settlement.
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