Art of Staying Alive:
The Forest Edition
By David Daly
Forest ecosystems cover more than 30% of the global land area. These lush environments are teeming with all sorts of flora and fauna. Forests offer some of the most biodiverse ecosystems for us to explore and enjoy. Surprisingly, forests are among the most manageable environments to survive in, yet numerous people die each year in the woods. Many forests dramatically experience all four seasons. Depending on the time of year, a person or group of people in a survival situation could face anything from extreme heat to cold while trying to make it out alive.
Here are eight ways to die in the forest and tips on how to avoid them:
Cover your mouth to prevent cold air from reaching the lungs.
Anyone who has ever hiked in the forest knows that staying on the path is crucial. Walking just a few feet to the left or right of the trail can quickly cause someone to lose sight of a route and get lost. The abundant amount of plant growth makes it difficult to see prominent navigation features such as hills or mountain peaks. Trees can start to look the same, and before you know it, you become disoriented and are officially lost. Avoiding this fate is all about proper planning. Unless you are very experienced, it is always a good idea to never go into the forest on your own. Even skilled survivalists can get lost. Having someone else or a group of people to keep track of where you are is very helpful.
Carry a map with you at all times. A 'map' can be a paper map or a handheld GPS. If you are using a GPS, make sure you understand how to use it properly and carry extra batteries at all times. Whether you are going into the forest alone or with others, it is always best practice to let someone know where you are going and when you will return. I often venture into the wilderness on my own. But, I never go without emailing someone the route I am taking and providing a 'drop-dead time' for my return. If the person does not hear from me by the appointed time, they have instructions to call for help. As long as I didn't stray too far from the route, first responders will be able to find me. It's never a bad idea to carry a whistle. If you are lost and people are looking for you, a whistle can get rescuers' attention from many miles away.
While there are many things in the wilderness and forests that can harm you, perhaps nothing will kill you faster than panic. A panic-stricken person can succumb to many dangers when in a survival situation. Common panic symptoms are sweating, trembling, shaking, rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, chills, and a sense of impending doom or death.
Panic can quickly lead to death. In survival situations, the mind is the best tool you have at your disposal. Stop in a safe spot at close your eyes. Take deep breathes in and out for a minute or two. As you feel your heart rate slowing down, remind yourself that you can handle whatever the forest throws at you. Open your eyes slowly and decide what to do next.
There are several plants in the woods that are poisonous to humans. Some, like poison ivy or poison oak, will cause skin irritations. Other plants, such as the water hemlock, can kill you. Learning to recognize these plants takes time and practice. Some deadly plants purposefully look like safe plants. Water hemlock, for example, can be mistaken for parsley, chervil, and wild carrot. When initially handling any plant, wear gloves and avoid all skin contact. Break the plant up into its various parts, such as stems, leaves, roots, and flowers. Test each part of the plant separately. Some plants have toxic and innoxious features, so it is crucial to try each component independently.
Use the smell test. Carefully bring each piece a few inches from your nose. Remember not to let the plant touch your nose when you smell it. As a rule of thumb, if any part of the plant has a strong or unpleasant odor, it's probably best to forgo it. If it passed the smell test, move on to the first touch test. Now take a small piece of each piece of the plant and test it against your skin. A good spot is on the inner elbow or wrist. Keep the portion of the plant pressed against your skin for a few minutes. If your skin itches, burns, becomes numb or breaks out in a rash, it is not safe. If you see signs of skin irritation later, stay clear of the plant.
The remaining tests are only necessary if you plan to eat the plant. Boil each of the remaining parts. Once the plant cools, touch it to your lips and wait to see if there is any itching or burning. If there is no reaction after 15 minutes, take a small bite and chew on it for another 15 minutes. Do not swallow it yet. If it starts to taste like soap or is bitter, spit it out immediately. If there is still no reaction, swallow a small piece and wait a few hours. The plant is probably safe to eat if there are no side effects after several hours pass. Make sure to do this for each piece of the plant. Following this series of tests will help identify dangerous plants and maybe even offer a source of food.
Wolves, Coyotes, and Mountain Lions, oh my. The woods have an abundance of animal life. Animals, in general, will keep their distance from humans. However, an animal attack is not unheard of, and often, these attacks result from humans making avoidable mistakes while exploring or trying to survive in the woods. If you are looking to make it out of the forest alive, you can take a few basic steps to help avoid dangerous animals.
Keep your distance from any creatures you encounter. Many are territorial and believe you to be a threat. If you see an animal in the distance, particularly a large animal, it is best to steer clear of the area. Next, make sure when you eat and rest that your food source is in a safe place.
Easily accessible food will attract animals, so store food off the ground. Hanging a bag of food from a tree branch by a rope is a clever method to keep furry friends out of your food. It's also a good idea to make noise as you move through the woods as many animals will stay clear of unfamiliar noise.
It is possible to survive several days without food, but a person can only live a few days without water. Besides trying to get rescued, water is perhaps the most significant concern. Dehydration is a genuine threat. Be mindful of dehydration signs, which include muscle fatigue, dizziness, thirst, confusion, and dry mouth. Thankfully, the forest is one of the most accessible places to find water.
The first thing to remember is that clear water doesn't mean clean water. Treat every source of water as if it has contaminants in it. Make sure to boil out any impurities or purify the water with iodine tablets before you drink it. Water that is moving is typically better for drinking than standing water.
The faster moving the water is, the better. Look for streams, rivers, and creeks. If there are fish in the rivers, eating them will provide some water to your body. Don't count on rainwater. It is hard to collect, and you can't stake your survival on how much rain will fall. Collect water in whatever containers you have.
Even though people can last several weeks without food, it is not a good idea to test your limits. Hunger will eventually kill you. Tragically, people die in the forest from a lack of food, and the reality is that an abundance of food surrounds them. The woods offer plants, fish, birds, small mammals, and larger animals to sustain a lost individual indefinitely. That's not to say finding and preparing these sources of food come without effort.
When it comes to eating plants, avoid anything with a bitter taste, discolored sap, milky sap, thorns, or that have a pattern of three-leaved growth. An excellent plant to look for is clovers. This plant tends to be just about everywhere and can be eaten raw or boiled. It has a slightly sour taste but will provide a lost and hungry person with life-saving food.
While many people avoid bugs in their daily life, insects and other creepy crawlers offer one of the most accessible food sources in forest environments. Look for ants, crickets, cicadas, termites, grubs, and worms hiding under rocks, rotting trees, and piles of leaves. While they may not be the most pleasant to eat, it is much easier to catch an ant than a rabbit, fish, or deer.
The elements as a whole can be dangerous and deadly in the woods. If you get lost, you will need shelter to protect yourself while waiting to be rescued. Don't let the weather, low temperatures, or an oppressing sun take a toll on your body and make you a casualty. Building a shelter can help mitigate many of the dangers you'll face in the forest from exposure.
One of the most basic and uncomplicated shelters to create in the woods is a simple lean-to shelter. Lean-to shelters can protect you from the sun and inclement weather from above and help keep you warm in the cold. Just like real estate, building a lean-to shelter starts with location, location, location. You want to look for a flat area that isn't likely to get flooded by water or pounded by excessive amounts of wind.
It is easier if you find a space between two trees roughly six feet apart or at least enough room for you and your gear. These trees will act as the strong sides of your shelter. Find or cut a long straight branch that is slightly longer than the distance between the two trees. Use a rope to tie each end of the tree branch to the trees. The branch should be parallel to the ground and roughly four and a half to five feet high.
Next, cut or find several branches to lean at an angle on top of the tree branch you tied to the two trees. You will then use leaves, smaller twigs, or moss to cover the structure, completing your shelter, protecting you from the elements, and helping trap heat.
As nighttime falls in the forest, temperatures drop, and so does our body temperature, which is especially true if you are wet or in an area with high winds. One of the best methods for staying warm is to build a fire. A few methods of starting fires are friction, sparks, matches, lighters, or focusing the sun's heat with a lens. No matter your choice of fire-starting methods, you will need to set up a few things before trying to get that first spark going.
All fires in the woods will need tinder, kindling, and wood. Tinder is the smallest material and easiest to light on fire. Examples include dry grasses, tiny twigs, or if you planned ahead, old pieces of clothing or dryer lint. Kindling is what the tinder will catch on fire. Larger dry sticks about the size of a pen or small ruler work best. Softwoods are better than hardwoods. Larger pieces of wood are the final ingredient and will take over for the kindling once they begin to burn.
Clear a circular section of the ground for your fire pit. Your circle should have a diameter of around two and a half to three feet. Dig a hole that encompasses the entire ring and make it around one foot deep. Line the edges of the hole with stones or something else that will keep the fire contained. Let's assume you aren't fortunate enough to have a lighter or matches. We'll use the spark method for this example.
You'll need a piece of steel, ideally high carbon steel and flint. Flint isn't the only type of rock that will work, but it is one of the best. Other stones include quartz, chert, obsidian, agate, and jasper. Place your kindling in the center of your fire pit and the wood that will burn later on the side. Next, take the tinder and place it on the ground with the flint or other stone holding it down. Now strike the flint with your steel. You will need to keep doing this until the sparks catch the tinder on fire. Once lit, carefully blow lightly on the tinder to increase the flame by giving it more oxygen.
As the flame starts to build, move the burning tinder into the fire pit to light the kindling. Once the kindling is burning well, you can start adding wood to the fire. The woods can be a fun and enjoyable place to explore and relax. Always remember to prepare ahead of time in case the unexpected happens. If you find yourself lost and unprepared, all is not lost. Don't panic and use the resources that nature is providing you to stay safe and stay alive.