wilderness

Being alone in the wilderness can be an exhilarating experience — but before you go, equip yourself with basic knowledge and survival skills. Photo: Shutterstock

As an independent and active young woman, I spend a lot of time alone in the wilderness. Whether I’m mountain biking, riding a horse, trail running, fishing or simply camping in the backcountry with no cell service, I have my concerns about going it alone.

I’ve taken my NOLS Wilderness First Responder course, but to be honest it didn’t prepare me for things that happen on typical weekends. And while sometimes I invite a friend along on my adventures, they aren’t always better equipped with the knowledge it takes to outsmart the outdoors.

A couple summers ago, I fell victim to my first set of stitches from an entirely mundane mountain bike crash. I had to bike miles back to my car with an open elbow — completely unequipped to take care of myself on the way to the ER. Minor, sure, but the incident left me wondering about how prepared I actually am.

To find out and answer some burning outdoor-safety questions, I caught up with Adventure Out survival expert Jack Harrison.

What should we always have on us, even for a day hike? I’m thinking snacks, safety kit, extra water, etc.

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Even if you are venturing into the wilderness alone on a simple day-hike, you should be prepared with some basic tools and supplies. Photo: Courtney Baird

First and foremost, it’s good to understand what we as humans need to stay alive — things like oxygen, shelter, water, fire and food. Those are our most basic biological survival needs.

And our best tool we have is our brain and our ability to learn about the place we are going, including the hazards that come with that particular place. When it comes down to the gear itself, I always have water, food, knife, compass and a first-aid kit. We should always have water and an understanding of basic first aid. It blows my mind that people go backpacking without this.

Is there anything you’d recommend specifically for women adventuring alone?
Male or female, you should always be prepared for whatever nature could throw at you. I look at men and woman as equally capable survivalists, so this question is geared more towards physical harm from another human rather than an animal encounter.

[For] a female, I might say carry some additional self defense. If a gun makes you more comfortable and present, then carry a gun; if it’s mace, then carry mace. Take whatever will put your mind at ease so that you can better enjoy your time outside.

Say I’m tubing a river in a cotton T-shirt at 10,000 feet (it’s happened). When I fall in the icy water and manage to drag myself out, do I take it off or keep it on for warmth?

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If you are tubing in an icy river with a cotton T-shirt and then fall in, should you take the shirt off? Photo: Courtney Baird

Typical mid-20s male answer would be the right one: Take it off! We have a saying: "Cotton kills." It’s a poor insulator and loses all warmth value when wet. If you must, try to dry it off, then put it back on.

I personally wear wool. There are many people out there who argue that wool retains 70 percent of its insulating value when wet, and others who disagree. In my survival experience — my first survival trip was at age 12, and I’m [in my late 20s] now — cotton has little or no value as an insulator, dry or wet. Wool is amazing in wet weather, and if you’re in dry weather, then down is king.

Say I’ve fallen off my mountain bike into a cactus (it’s also happened). Do I leave the spikes in or take them out myself?
The answer to that is completely situational. This question is hard because every cactus is different; some have hair-like spines that would require tweezers, and others have large spines that can cause serious damage.

If the spike is in your eye or your jugular, then I would say leave it in for the doctors to remove (and get there as fast as you can). If it’s just a flesh wound, then pull them out and dress anything that could become infected.

Please tell us we don’t have to pee on ourselves when a snake bites us.

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Despite what you may have heard, if you are alone in the wilderness and get bitten by a snake, pee is not the answer. Photo: Shutterstock

No, that will not help your situation at all. Your best bet is to keep your heart rate as low as possible to minimize the venom circulation through your body, and get to a hospital to receive anti-venom.

If it makes you feel better to pee on yourself after a snake bites you, then do it! But I think you are confused with stepping on urchin spines, a tropical hazard for surfers who are walking on reef, in which urine actually does relieve pain and prevents infection — to an extent.

What phone numbers should we actually have in our phones in case we need help?
Never depend on a cell phone, and always have backup plans if things go wrong. 911 is the universal number to call in an emergency, regardless of where you are in the country.

What do you do if you’ve hiked too far or become lost and night is coming?
Take a deep breath, stay put, build a shelter and/or a fire and signal for rescue. Panic is often our first instinctual response, but if we let panic take over, there is a good chance we will get more lost, injure ourselves or somehow worsen our situation.

Our biggest tool as humans is our mind, so think positive and take care of your biological survival needs.

If you are lost, do you stay where you are and wait for help or try to get out on your own?

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Jack Harrison suggests that women who are alone in the wilderness carry something for self defense, such as mace. Photo: Robyn Goldblatt

Before you go anywhere, tell someone your plans; you can even send them a picture of your route drawn on a map. Knowing that someone knows where you are will keep your morale much higher if you get lost versus being lost and knowing nobody is looking for you.

Stay put and signal for rescue. Survival entertainment shows teach you otherwise, but that’s why it’s entertainment! Never do anything you see on TV. Some shows are more informative and valid than others, but please stay put.

I know personal-locator devices are pricey and come with subscriptions. Do you recommend one anyway?
To be honest, I don’t use them and know very little about them. My school of thought is tell at least three people where you are going and when you will check in or return. Tell them if they don’t hear from you by such-and-such date to call search and rescue.

It also seems very logical to carry a map and compass when you’re headed way deep into the mountains, right? And if you’re going to carry a map and compass, it’s good to learn how to use them. I like to break mine out while I am taking a break from hiking and orient myself, so that my chances of getting lost go down. It’s an amazingly cool skill to have once you learn it.

I carry when I camp alone in the woods, but in all honesty, what is the best deterrent for wild animals? Guns, bear spray, mace?

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There are specific techniques to avoiding this mama and her cub in the wilderness. Photo: Shutterstock

Smart conduct will keep you safer than a gun or bear spray. The only animals that I would consider dangerous to adult humans would be bears — specifically the bears that have become comfortable living around humans. I am all about being smart in the woods, learning about the animals and then using your knowledge to stay safe and avoid them.

Simple tips on reducing your chances of a bear encounter while camping:

  • Don’t go to the bathroom within 50 yards of where you’re camped. Store toothpaste, deodorant and food up in a tree, away from your tent.
  • If you’re hiking in bear country, make noise while you walk, wear a bell, carry an air horn and use it every once in a while. Make sure the bear knows you’re coming.
  • Respect them: Know when they have their cubs, when they are most active and what types of habitat they like to hang out in. The more you know about the animal, the more likely [it is that] you won’t run into one.

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