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  • Tim MacWelch

11 Common Survival Mistakes That Can Get You Killed

We all make mistakes. It’s only human. But what happens when our mistakes are combined with treacherous conditions in the outdoors? What happens when our blunders combine into a series of unfortunate events? Here we’ll look at the conditions and thought processes that get people into trouble, and the simple mistakes that could turn a small mishap into a life threatening situation.

1. Going Alone

Maybe no one was free on the afternoon you wanted to hike or scout that new hunting location. Maybe you just wanted some peace and quiet. There are numerous reasons that people go into the wilderness alone, but are these reasons worth your life? Each time you head out into the backcountry alone, you expose yourself to additional risk. Without a buddy, there’s no one to go for help if you become immobilized. Without a partner, predators will take more interest in you. Without a friend, you may not get a tourniquet on fast enough. Before you head out alone, take a moment to reconsider.

Prevention: Humans have instinctively relied upon strength in numbers for all of recorded history. Our ability to work as a team and problem solve as a group are some of our greatest assets. And even though it’s not always convenient to wrangle up some companionship in the wild, it’s still worth doing – every time.

2. Getting Lost

Even with the latest and greatest technology available, our national parks were the backdrop to more than 65,000 search and rescue (SAR) incidents between 1992 and 2007. Approximately 40 percent of these cases involved lost individuals or groups. That’s a lot of lost people, and there are a lot of different ways these folks got lost. Maybe their GPS batteries died. They may have misjudged the distance.

Perhaps the terrain or weather hindered their visibility. But the real blame falls squarely on those who were navigating. They didn’t bring the knowledge, gear, or backup that they needed to successfully find their way, and there really aren’t any good excuses for falling into this trap.

Prevention: The best way to prevent getting lost is to get more familiar with land navigation. It’s not enough to bring a map and compass with you into the wild. You’ll need to know how to shoot an azimuth and back azimuth, account for declination, and determine distances (among many other skills). You’ll also need to know that steel or iron objects can pull your compass needle away from magnetic north, so keep your rifle barrel away from your compass as you take bearings.

3. (Not-so) Edible Plants and Mushrooms

According to the NCBI, roughly 39 people per year are seriously harmed by ingesting the wrong mushrooms here in the United States (with an average of three fatalities per year). Plant poisonings are much harder numbers to average (yes, plants are different from mushrooms). With plant poisoning numbers being bolstered by little toddlers wolfing down mistletoe at Christmastime and teens trying to get high from random toxic wild plants, it’s very hard to estimate the true number of poisonings from outdoorspeople eating the wrong plant by mistake. The Centers for Poison Control lump everything together. Still, I’ve made mistakes in foraging (more so in my early years) and I know plenty of other people who’ve eaten the wrong thing too. Hunger can be a powerful persuader, but that doesn’t mean you should eat any plant or mushroom in your path.

Prevention: If you are in doubt of a plant or mushroom’s edibility – DO NOT eat it! Find something else to eat that you are 100 percent certain is safe. If you can’t find anything you’re certain about, don’t eat anything. Most SAR incidents (93 percent of them, in fact) are resolved within 24 hours. You won’t starve.

4. Failure To Light

It’s ironic but true. The times when we need a fire the most are the times when fire can be the hardest to produce. Cold, windy, rainy conditions are prime time for hypothermia (the dangerous lowering of your body’s core temperature), and these are the toughest conditions for building a fire. This is not revolutionary information. Every school child knows that water puts out fire, yet many outdoor enthusiasts venture into wet conditions without bringing the necessities for wet-weather fire making.

Prevention: Even if you don’t expect to encounter wet weather, it’s never a bad idea to carry multiple fire starting implements and fuel that will burn even in wet and windy conditions. Products like UST’s WetFire cubes have been my favorite for years, though Vaseline soaked cotton balls are a close second place. Either of these fuels will light from sparks or flame (though flame is your better choice, hence all the Bic lighters I carry). Prepare for the worst possible conditions and you’ll sail through the rest.

5. Cutting Corners

Your work ethic plays a serious role in your success as a survivor. If you do a crappy job building your shelter, you’ll pay for it when the hard rains come. If you don’t get enough firewood for the whole night, someone’s going to be stumbling around in the dark looking for sticks. You might learn the hard way (if you survive your initial lazy spell), but it’s better to learn from the suffering and experience of others. Work hard on the task at hand, do a good job, go above and beyond, and stay with your task until the job is done. This means building a bomb-proof survival shelter—the first time around. It means dragging in a giant firewood pile. Always try to do your best, plus a little extra for insurance.

Prevention: Even if you’re the biggest slacker in the world, your work ethic can be built up with practice and attention to detail. Work ethic is a skill, and it can be improved just like your other skills. And motivation in a survival scenario should be obvious: your life is on the line.

6. Mistaking Stubbornness for Tenacity

There’s a lot of wisdom in the old adage “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, again.” There’s also a problem with this line of thinking. It’s critical for a survivor to understand the difference between things that are worth continuing and the things that need to be abandoned. It’s tempting to think of stubbornness as a good thing, like being too stubborn to die, but stubbornness is essentially this: beating your head into a brick wall, convinced that you will eventually break the wall down. Stubbornness is a condition that can be self-destructive and ultimately defeating. So what’s the better way through the brick wall? Do you keep trying something that isn’t working? Or do you take a big step back, do some problem solving and find another way through the wall (over, under, or around it)? Don’t let pride or ego fuel your stubbornness. Don’t keep throwing your dwindling matches at a crappy wet fire lay, just because you think it should light. If something isn’t working, find another way. That stubborn mindset can get you killed, or kill someone you love.

Prevention: Realize the difference between stubborn and tenacious. The stubborn person holds onto ideas and actions that clearly aren’t working, while the tenacious person keeps trying—and keeps trying different approaches.

7. Not Passing the Dress Code

There are times when we all want to look our best, I get it. However, wilderness travel demands more attention to fabric warmth, weight and drying time than worrying about your shirt color complimenting your eyes or whether that plaid pattern is outdated. The clothing you choose will not only impact your comfort on the trail, but it can affect your very survival if things go south. Choose thick wool or synthetics for colder weather that may turn wet. Wear loose, lightweight, quick drying clothing when conditions are hot. Think about a few bright colored garments, for visibility and signaling for help. Functionality should always beat style when it comes to outdoor clothing.

Prevention: Dress in layers, bring extra clothes and pick the right fabrics for the situation.

8. Allowing Panic To Prevail

There are times when our own minds (and the fear they create) will be our own worst enemy. When stress and fear cause our bodies to release a cocktail of hormones and chemicals (preparing for a “fight or flight” situation), it’s not unusual for a person to feel the sensation of panic. If you’ve never really been at the mercy of panic before, it is an unthinking and unrestrained form of fear which can manifest in several ways. You may find (after you have calmed down) that you ran around frantically with no clear plan in mind. You may also “wake up” from being frozen in a catatonic state of fear. You may even have overwhelming emotional responses (like crying inconsolably or lashing out in rage). Any of these panic responses could be the wrong choice for your unique set of circumstances – causing you to be injured and making your problems a whole lot worse.

Prevention: When panic starts to build, find something (ANYTHING) that can shift your mental focus. Count your breaths, do a small productive task, or say a prayer. Do something to control your fear before it morphs into full-fledged panic.

9. Trusting The Weather Prediction

Once you’re out in the backcountry, it’s up to you to make intelligent predictions about the upcoming weather. The official prediction may suggest a magical stretch of weather – not too hot or too cold, just right with low humidity and clear skies. However, experienced outdoorspeople know better. Mountains can make their own weather systems, and these can take an unexpected turn at the drop of a hat. Fog can ruin your visibility and hide trail markers. Rain and wind can soak your “sunny day” wardrobe and steer you toward hypothermia with alarming speed.

Prevention: I’m not suggesting you ignore your local weather forecast completely, I’m just suggesting that you add your own observations to the mix. Keep your own watch on the weather, by scanning the horizon often and paying attention to wind and cloud patterns. This can give you early warning if there’s a change in the weather or an unexpected storm is approaching.

10. Ignoring Your Instincts

Ever had that feeling you just couldn’t shake? You thought you were being watched or you just weren’t comfortable. You knew something was wrong, but couldn’t explain what was wrong or how you knew it.

We don’t use them very much in modern life, but human beings do have a few instincts inherited from the ancestors. Compared to animals with instincts for navigation or anticipating the weather, our assorted instincts aren’t that sharp. We still can, however, sense things out of the ordinary from time to time. It may simply be your subconscious picking up on clues that your conscious mind has ignored – or it may be true instinct, pure and simple. This much is certain, that little voice in your head is there for a reason.

Prevention: Listen to that little small voice in the back of your head. It’s usually saying something like “Don’t do that!” Our species has made it this far on hardwired survival instincts. There’s no reason to ignore them now.

11. Underestimating The Risks

There are risks involved in enjoying the great outdoors. Every year, a handful of people run into real trouble in the wilderness – often because they didn’t understand the risks they were truly facing. Before you head into the backcountry, do your research to discover all the hazards you may encounter. Are there bears? If so, what species? How unpredictable is the weather? Are there rockslides or venomous animals? Choosing to do your homework doesn’t seem like a life or death decision, but it certainly can be.

Prevention: If you find yourself embroiled in a survival situation, determine the most pressing threat and deal with that one first. Once tackled, go to the next one, and keep surviving.


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