Thursday, September 9, 2010

Watch Your Step!

In the course of working on my new book, I keep uncovering more and more incredible stories of survival against seemingly impossible odds.  Most of these survival ordeals began because those involved put themselves in a dangerous environment, either purposefully seeking adventure or in the course of their work which required it.  Although some of these people ended up in a life-or-death struggle because of plain foolhardiness, lack of experience or ignorance of the dangers they faced, just as many made a simple mistake or two that any of us could make that led to unpleasant results.  Not surprisingly, in many cases the difference between getting out alive and not making it was determined by whether the person involved was alone or with one or more companions who could either assist or go for help. Without a doubt, it is unquestionably more dangerous to travel alone in an unpopulated environment, no matter whether in forest, desert, mountains, river, swamp or sea. 

The simple truth is that the smallest accident or slightest misjudgment can do you in if you are alone.  As I type this I'm sitting at the computer with my left leg elevated to keep the weight off of a broken foot.  Several days ago while working in the tight confines of the shed where I'm building my 26-foot catamaran, I stumbled over a Shop Vac hose that I had carelessly left in the pathway between the starboard hull and the end of the building.  Attempting to compensate with my hands full of tools, I twisted the other foot severely and took a nasty fall that sprained my ankle and fractured a couple of metatarsals.  It took awhile before I could get to my feet, but when I eventually did, it didn't seem too big a deal and later that day I was walking on it without realizing how bad it was hurt.  After enough time, however, the swelling began and it became nearly impossible to walk, although it is gradually feeling better after a couple days of keeping completely off of it. 

I mention this to make the point that when traveling in the wilderness, it only takes a single misstep to become incapacitated and unable to continue - especially if you are alone. I could have just as easily suffered this kind of injury from stepping on a loose stone, into a hole or onto some algae-covered river rock while hiking days away from a road, which of course could become a serious predicament, depending on the particular environment. But despite thousands of miles traveled solo in remote places by canoe, sea kayak and hiking with a backpack, I have never had a debilitating accident.  Certainly a big part of the reason is that when alone in a wild place, it's natural to have a heightened sense of awareness and to avoid taking chances that can result in accidents.  Two simple rules that I have always lived by in the wild are to never jump and never run (unless being chased!)  Jumping across streams, ditches and other obstacles is a good way to end up breaking a leg or something, as is running.  Instead, when far out in the wilds, it's best to move deliberately and to stop and think about the best way to get over or around obstacles.  Taking unnecessary risks is for adrenalin junkies, not survivalists.

Of course many would say that it's simply not prudent to travel alone at all, and there's truth to that, but limiting yourself to only doing things when you can find companions to accompany you will greatly decrease the number of good experiences you will have as well.  None of my long kayak journeys or many of my shorter trips would have been possible if I had refused go on alone.  And, the truth is, I love solo travel for the experience it provides that you can't get with a companion and the distractions of conversation and someone else's input on pace, when and where to stop for the night, etc.  I think it is the lack of these distractions that contributes to situational awareness when alone; I've noticed over the years that I've made more mistakes in the wild and on board boats when I was with others than when I was alone.  This doesn't imply that I think solo travel is safer, as it certainly isn't.  If you do get into a jam while alone, getting out will be much harder.  I just want to point out that traveling alone can be a good experience, and though it may make you nervous at first, it becomes more comfortable over time as you put your fears to rest while still remaining cautious and careful. 

Putting all this in the context of the blog, it's important to consider that if you ever find yourself in a situation that requires bugging out, you may be on your own and if you've never hiked alone or spent a night in the woods alone prior to the experience, this will greatly add to your overall anxiety.  I suggest starting small and trying a bit of solo camping to see how you like it. Just keep your guard up at all times, avoid jumping and running - and most of all - watch your step!  If you do this, you'll probably be safer than you would be at home, where statistics say that most accidents happen, just like the one I had earlier this week.


  1. Good post. Yeah, when traveling alone, you do have to make some extra efforts on safety. My boss sometimes does solo camping trips and his wife convinced him to buy a SPOT locater - just in case. He carries it just to keep her happy, but does admit, it is more peace of mind.

  2. Good advice. I have two sets of "train tracks" on my right ankle to remind me not to jump off of or over things. Didn't walk away from my little "oopsie-daisy", but did get to have 2 surgeries and spend 4 months on crutches! Take care and get well.

  3. Good advice!!

    Wouldn't be a bad idea to add an extra foot or hand to your supplies either :)

    Get well soon!!


  4. Scott good advice!Hope you get over it soon! What sort of first aid- med-supplies do you pack on your long kayak trips?


  5. Great post and something very real to think about. About five years ago I was hiking in the 100 Mile Wilderness in Maine and broke my ankle about 40 miles from Monson. I was hiking with someone and she was able to go for help, but I spent a good bit of that time by myself. Cell phones didn't work up there so it was just me. One of the things that helped in that situation is that I have spent a LOT of my time in the woods alone and didn't even come close to freaking out. It hurt like hell, but I knew I could handle the situation (I made my own splint, crutches, etc.) Like the reader above I have a nice set of scars on either side of my ankle. Also had 8 screws, 2 pins, and a plate in there as well, but had them removed a couple of years ago.

  6. Sound advice. Living in the mountains most of my life I have gone solo the majority of trips. The only advice I would convey is "DON'T PANIC". Yes written in large friendly letters on the cover. The blogger is trying to convey to be carefull. Don't take foolish chances by yourself. He is so right. Be wise and go slower and watch your step. Its hard to get that into the head of a young man however. You will have a mishap or emergency happens. As anyone who has been there knows, the first thing that comes to mind is panic. Let that pass and settle yourself. The panic comes from BEING ALONE, be it in the wilderness or a mile out of town fishing beside the creek. Then proceed to take care of things in logical order. Always think "I WILL BE OK". Man I could go on for pages telling tales of adventures from years past. Every survivalist/outdoorsman/forest ranger/army ranger will tell you the same thing...its all in your head. Your attitude is it man. Endeavor to persevere and you will. Good day!

  7. i can relate. i have another situation. be careful where you reach...i was cooking out on the back stoop of the house last october and reached down to pick up the tongs and was nailed by a small copperhead that had come out from under the oiltank to get some heat from the charcoal burner on my left thumb. needless to say my thumb swelled up three times its size and i had to take a trip to the emergency room , a 400 dollar dixie cup of ice and a tetanus shot.

  8. Great point about being careful where you reach. I found a big copperhead just the other day. They are incredibly hard to spot in thick leaf litter on the forest floor.


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