Survival for the Modern Hunter The moan of the old two-stroke was suddenly replaced by the sound of lapping waves against the tiny wooden hull. Broken from my trance, I looked back, hoping to see my friend switching out fuel cans, but instead, saw a look of panic on his face. We were about a mile offshore of Kodiak Island, in the Gulf of Alaska, late into a cold November day. We couldn’t have lost power at a worse time. The wind and tides could easily push us through a very dangerous and narrow passage full of whirlpools, rocky shoals, and strong currents. If we survived that maritime obstacle course, we’d then be sucked out into the very remote Shelikof Strait and much bigger issues. My two friends and I were headed back to the dock after a successful late-season hunt for Sitka Blacktail deer. Dry bags full of rifles, packs, and quartered deer were stuffed all around us. Room was scarce in my friend’s very old, small, and underpowered skiff. We had no running lights or radar to navigate at night or in other low-vis conditions. This hunt occurred before the prevalence of cell phones, but we did have a VHF radio with marine band frequencies and a somewhat reliable SAT phone. The coxswain checked the fuel lines and spark plugs and tilted the engine to inspect the prop while my other friend and I checked the navigation chart and speculated where we could possibly make land. As dusk settled and the temperature dropped, a whale surfaced and cleared its spout 50 yards off our starboard, reminding us of our remote location. Well away from the lights of town, we’d lose our bearings quickly in the deepening darkness and needed to figure something out quickly. Switching on the VHF radio, my friend attempted to hail any nearby Coast Guard or fishing boats. But in Alaska, we got the next best thing as a low-flying float plane checked in and said he’d relay our predicament back to town and the proper authorities. Luckily, as we sorted out our situation, the winds and currents sent us back into the narrow bay we’d been hunting. Scraping against the rocky bottom and using the two oars to avoid large rocks, we ground to a halt in the darkness. Unloading the boat, we dragged it above the high tide line and secured it to a tree. After this mad scramble, we were all over-heated but kept on our waders and Gore-Tex jackets as we knew we’d cool off quickly. Getting under the low branches of a Spruce tree provided some overhead cover and protection from the wind while sitting on our life vests, insulated us from the ground. I started a fire, boosting morale, and we settled in for a long Alaskan night. Eating venison backstrap over the glimmering coals was comforting, but our unsure future provided for restless sleep. The following morning, we hailed a passing seiner transporting deer hunters to the West side of the island, who agreed to pick us up that afternoon for a nominal price, to which we readily agreed. The tides were not in our favor as we rendezvoused with the fishing vessel near dark. Our extract required us to carry our boat and gear several hundred yards through tidal flats and then row the boat to deeper water for the rendevous. This story is revered as a cool adventure, but I realize in hindsight how many mistakes we made and how lucky we got. No one but myself had any kind of Possibles Pouch or medical kit. We’d only packed for a day trip with all the confidence of inexperienced fools and had not planned for the possibility of spending an unplanned night or two in the field. Ultimately, the gear we had on our backs kept us warm and dry, but with severe weather or days adrift at sea, this story could have ended much differently. It’s our responsibility as outdoorsmen to be prepared and self-sufficient when heading afield, especially when going remote. Modern technology and access to information have improved our margin of safety, but things still can and do go sideways. When they do, it’s incumbent on the individual and the group to be prepared to manage the contingency. Luckily, life-and-death scenarios are rare. Most unplanned events involve minor issues like cuts, sprains, and even breaks. But the number one reason people get into trouble and fear for their lives outdoors is from exposure to the elements. They get cold and wet and can’t dry out or attain adequate shelter. They begin losing cognitive functions, risk Hypothermia and begin to make bad decisions, which can lead to many more and sometimes to a fatal conclusion. The good news is this is almost completely preventable with proper clothing, equipment, and the knowledge to use it, but you have to have it with you, or it does you no good. You are your first and best chance at surviving an incident. It’s irresponsible to rely solely on even your hunting partner, let alone a professional SAR asset, to assist in your situation. The dynamic environment of the mountains demands that you’re prepared and have the proper tools and knowledge to use them. The more remote you go, the thinner the margin of safety and the more self-sufficient you need to be. Decades ago, when heavy wool garments and canvas tarps were cutting-edge, I’d argue the margins of safety were thinner than today. Getting wet was a much bigger deal and involved hours, maybe days, to dry out. Bad weather had bigger consequences, and the need to light a fire for safety was crucial and life-saving. Game populations were also denser, and competition from hunters was less so time in the field maybe wasn’t as critical as it is today. For me, the more time I can spend in the field, the more opportunities and the greater my success. Modern Survival is the ability to use today’s technology to increase your margin of safety. To carry less and leverage it more. To spend time in the field when others less prepared are not able or willing and take advantage of the few opportunities presented each season. And if and when difficult situations arise, you’re prepared and competent to manage them efficiently. Today, with all the great kit available, you don’t need to carry a lot of extra gear to be safe and capable. Knowledge Weighs Nothing. With knowledge, a few pieces of the proper gear, and a small Possibles Pouch, you’ll increase your capability and safety margin without weighing yourself down. Mindset Your primary survival tool is your mind. Not a knife or snare. You need to stay calm and not overreact during an unplanned contingency like getting lost or spraining your knee. Often, in these situations, there’s an urge to react immediately, but sometimes, sitting down and sorting out the situation before you take any action is best. Not having confidence in your skills could make you feel desperate and force you to climb down through a cliff band in the dark, tired, and with a Mule deer on your back instead of sitting down and waiting for daylight. Feelings of embarrassment are common, and the fear of what your friends or social media may say are powerful emotions that can negatively impact your actions. The best way to strengthen your mind is through realistic training. Training in inclement weather or in the dark will build confidence and competency. Difficult training should expose any weakness in both you and your kit. Training with partners builds shared skills, and trust is the ultimate force multiplier, making the team stronger and more capable than each individual on their own. In high-stress situations, you don’t rise to the occasion as much as you fall back on your training. A solid foundation of training is a good investment and will get you through tough times in the backcountry. Survival Priorities It’s imperative to understand your Survival Priorities. You can remember them as the Rule of 3’s. Three hours without shelter, three days without water, and three weeks without food. Now, don’t take this literally, but it does provide a framework to inform your priorities. You and your partners must be aligned on these priorities and train them. In a crisis, you don’t need to be arguing about starting a fire in a snowstorm without proper shelter or thinking about food before establishing a water source. Managing Body Heat Understanding how your body loses heat allows you to leverage those processes to your advantage to stay either warm in cold weather or cool in hot weather. As mentioned earlier, exposure to the elements is the primary reason people get into trouble outdoors. The good news is that most times, this is preventable. Efficiently managing your body heat goes a long way in helping you stay alive and comfortable in the field. Heat naturally radiates away from our bodies as we burn calories to sustain life. The clothing we wear manages the pace at which this heat escapes to manage your comfort. Feel cold? Put on a sweater or puffy jacket to trap your body heat and slow its loss. Too warm? Remove a layer of clothing to allow for a quicker path for your body heat to escape into the atmosphere. This process is easy when your skin is dry, and you’re in a shelter not exposed to the wind. When your skin is damp, however, say after a hard, steep climb to a ridge, you can lose heat many times quicker through evaporative cooling if you don’t manage that moisture on your skin. Dry skin in cold temperatures helps keep you warm. Conversely, damp skin in hot temperatures accelerates heat loss. This is why a baselayer is so foundational to a clothing system to manage the moisture that builds up against your skin. When you get to the top of the ridge with damp skin and baselayer, it’s critical to protect yourself from the wind, especially in cold weather. Even a slight breeze against your damp skin will accelerate body heat loss through convective cooling. This key point is often overlooked by people who’ll stand around and shiver as a cold wind blows against them. Conversely, in a hot environment, seeking a breeze, however slight, will help cool you down. This is why a light wind layer is so crucial in a clothing system. Our bodies are generally around 98.6* F. When it comes into contact with colder objects, the body heat will transfer its heat to the colder object. That’s why it’s imperative to insulate yourself when stopped. Sitting on a cold rock or log to glass, standing on a metal tree stand, or laying down to sleep with an inadequate ground pad will all exacerbate your body heat loss through conductive cooling. Conductive cooling is sometimes overlooked but is quite important to comfort and your survivability. Possibles Pouch It’s important that you carry some items into the field to manage unplanned contingencies. I prefer this term over survival situations because, as mentioned, most of us will not be in a true survival situation. But if you spend enough time in the backcountry, you will experience unexpected difficulties and challenging scenarios. A Possibles Pouch is a toolbox that you work from in the field to manage the myriad of contingencies that will arise when outdoors, not just the most dire situations. A Possibles Pouch should have Seven key capabilities. Create a shelter Make a fire Signal both day and night to the air and ground Produce potable drinking water Treat and manage common medical issues Have some dense and high-calorie food items Make common repairs to clothing and kit The biggest mistake I see people making is simply not carrying a Possibles Pouch. They get the term Survival Kit in their mind, don’t think it will ever happen to them, and dismiss its intent and importance. I use a Possibles Pouch quite often on trips into the backcountry for repairs, campfires, making shelters at glassing points, and treating minor medical issues. The intent of a Possibles Pouch is to manage realistic occurrences, not the one-in-a-million incident. Another mistake I see is making the Possibles Pouch too big and heavy. If it is, you’ll make excuses, and it will be the first thing you leave behind when loading your pack. Remember, What If Weighs A Lot. The weight of my current Possibles Pouch is 2.25 pounds and is approximately 9”x 6”x 4” carried in a fanny pack. The Possibles Pouch will morph over time as your experience increases. What I carried a decade ago is not what I carry today. My kit has gone through quite a progression over the years. A Possibles Pouch should be personalized to each person and be with them at all times. If you’re allergic to bee stings or poison ivy, and I’m not, then I can’t treat you if you don’t have your kit on you. This example brings up my last point, which is to use the contents of the Possibles Pouch for yourself and not your partners. If I use all my pain meds or Leuko tape on my partner, then I leave nothing for myself. It’s not selfish; it’s prudent to maintain your individual capabilities as long as you can in the field in case of separation. Train with the contents of your kit and know your capabilities. Replenish the kit as needed, keeping knives sharp, medications up to date, and fire tinder stocked. Make it a habit to take it with you on trips and when separating from your main pack to stay competent and manage your safety. Here’s some bags I’ve used for Possibles Pouches over the last few years. Hyperlite Mountain Gear Versa Fanny Pack www.hyperlitemountaingear.com Kifaru Possibles Pullout www.kifaru.net Hill People Original Kit Bag www.hillpeoplegear.com Shelter Shelter is your number one survival priority. Depending on the environment, you may be seeking shelter from the wind, rain, snow, or sun. Either way, if you find yourself in an unplanned situation that’s keeping you outdoors and away from your camp, possibly wounded, you need to figure out your shelter options first. Clothing is your armor from the elements and primary shelter. Without clothing, humans would not be able to live and survive in most regions of the world. A puffy jacket and rain gear are vital pieces of kit to trap body heat, block wind, and keep you dry. My only rule with a technical clothing system is No Cotton! Cotton absorbs moisture and doesn’t dry quickly. Tents and tarps are obvious choices for backcountry shelters as long as you have them in your pack. If you hunt out of a base camp with a light day pack, you may not always have a commercial shelter with you. I often carry a tarp and a few bungee cords with me during dynamic weather to mitigate the risk and have something for cover, even if it’s just at a glassing knob. Scalpel knives are great, but they are a one-trick pony. Because of this, I always carry at least one, small fixed-blade knife to accompany it and a sharpening rod. With a fixed-blade knife, I can baton wood to various sizes for the fire. A small folding saw is also great not only for processing a large animal but creating a shelter and cutting wood that may not otherwise be an option. These are two brands that produce exceptional knives for the backcountry. MKC Blackfoot & Super Cub knives www.montanaknifecompany.com Frontiersman Gear Mountain Series Puma & Unica knives www.frontiersmengear.ca Here’s a couple of saws I like. Gerber Exchange-A Blade Folding Saw www.gerbergear.com Wicked Tough Hand Saw www.feradyne.com This is currently my go-to fire tinder Blackbeard Fire Starter www.blackbearfire.com Course Backcountry Mission Planning Backcountry Mission Planning has 16 chapters and draws on my 30+ years of experience hunting the wilderness. It focuses on preparing you for the upcoming big game seasons and all other backcountry travel, making you a more knowledgeable Student of the Game. Use code BARKLOW to get 20% off an annual Outdoor Class membership and unlock all the knowledge on the platform. www.outdoorclass.com Signaling & Communication Today, we all have cell phones, and most have some type of satellite communicator like a Garmin inReach or Zoleo. But electronic devices run out of power and can break from a fall or get dropped into a river. Having the ability to signal partners or rescue assets is a crucial capability for the backcountry traveler. A simple, blaze-orange signal panel allows you to identify your location for both ground and air rescue and for partners while on stalks. I often carry a small signal panel in my optics harness for stalks and a larger panel in my Possibles Pouch. Another way to signal is by reflecting the sun off a mirror on a compass, but of course, this only works on sunny days. A whistle is also a great signal device but may not be usable if you have broken ribs. A small pen flare works well, and of course, a smoky fire will attract a lot of attention. E-Lams Ultralight Mini Stuff Signal Panel www.teameasties.com Medical A medical kit should be small and built to your capabilities. No need to carry sutures or airways if you’re not competent to use them. Build your medical kit to manage the common issues often encountered outdoors, like allergies and pain, blisters, cuts, sprains, and even broken bones. Although rare, you may consider learning how to treat arterial bleeds with a tourniquet and possibly chest wounds with airtight seals, depending on your interest. Ensure any medications you carry are not expired, including tourniquets, and replace and update the contents of the med kit as time and your experience dictate. Here’s a good med kit to build from for the backcountry Uncharted Supply Co. Triage Med Kit www.unchartedsupplyco.com Repairs Having some basic items to make minor repairs can go a long way in keeping you comfortable, focused, and in the field. A leaky ground pad, a boot sole coming off, or a broken trekking pole are all common occurrences. Duct tape, Leuko tape, super glue, Aqua Seal, baling wire, and electrical ties, along with a bit of ingenuity, go a long way with in-field repairs. Training & Preparation The time you spend training and preparing for your hunt or backcountry trip is an investment in your future success. It’s also fun and the time to test new gear, food, partners, and environments. Hunting seasons are short and leave a ton of time in the off-season to build skills and evolve as an outdoorsman. The time to learn is not when you have a premium tag in your pocket with a finite amount of time to get it done. Here’s a link to my Backcountry Mission Planning course, where I get into much more depth on all these issues. www.outdoorclass.com Having the ability to manage difficult and unplanned situations in the backcountry is learned by spending time training in the field. Remember, It’s Easy to be Hard but Hard to Be Smart. The more capable you are, the more confident you become, with more hunting success the desired outcome. The clothing, equipment, and knowledge available today can cut the steepness of the learning curve, but it still requires time and effort. Modern Survival leverages all these facets to create true capability and self-reliance, improving your margin of safety in the wilderness.