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Survival Tactics


Robert “Papa Bear” Whitmore wrote the book on survival—literally. A legendary expert in the field, the Coloradan instructed over 18,000 people before passing away in 2003, leaving behind his book The Art of Survival—adapted for the majority of Colorado Parks and Wildlife survival information—and his school, the Wilderness Survival Institute in Loveland. Whitmore’s purpose was to prepare those who go afield alone no matter how cocksure they were. As he once wrote: “Graveyards are full of people who said, ‘It could never happen to me.’ ”


Today, Don Davis leads the Wilderness Survival Institute. A pupil of Whitmore’s since 1981, Davis gets an average of 75 search and rescue calls a year. The victims range from the aloof to the prepared because, as he puts it: “Mother Nature is just waiting to drop the ax.” But if people have the right knowledge, he says, trouble shouldn’t find them in the first place. That said, Davis remembers when he first got lost in the woods.

In the 1970s, while in the military, he took his 7-year-old brother for a “quick hike” in Allegheny National Forest in Pennsylvania. The two pitched their backpacking tent, leaving a map, wristwatch and compass in the car, and by morning set out to explore. However, the low cloud ceiling prevented Davis from seeing even the treetops. At one point, he stopped mid-hike, did a 360-degree scan, and the sense of vertigo choked his body, heart racing—he had no idea where he was.

Fortunately, instinct kicked in and he sat down and relaxed. (“Think, observe and plan.”) After doing an about-face, he left the direction he came and veering ever so slightly, and ran into the orange rain fly of his tent. “A successful hike,” Davis says, “is a lucky hike.” That day, he came out unscathed. No bear or snake attack. But when that ax drops or panic overwhelms you, there’s some crucial steps needed to ensure survival.

Rule of thumb No. 1: Prepare for the worst weather your destination can dish out. Factor in the worst because if you get lost, chances are you’ll have to prep for shelter. Nights get cold at 8,000 feet, especially the ground. But if strayed from your tent, compact at least two feet of dry leaves and grass. This can be your bed mat. Next, cover yourself with three more feet of leaves. “You have to be creative when you’re lost.”

And survival kits have to be functional, not expensive. That said, here’s some cheap tools for your pockets: petroleum slathered cotton balls to burn slowly; matches; ACME whistle for signaling; fold-up saw (hatchets are heavy); and 100 feet of 4 millimeter-thick plastic with 50 feet of parachute chord—your new home. Time to get inventive. Because, as Papa Bear Whitmore put it, “There is no need to die in the wilderness.”

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