Ten Tips for a Safe Hunt

Using your GPS in conjunction with a map will help you avoid problems, and, if necessary, find resources like water, signaling sites, and roads.

Apparently I was getting a little long-winded with my explanation on how to survive a night in the woods when my friend said, "Just tell me the im-portant stuff." So I did.

A month later, my friend got lost while hunting and used the "important stuff" to resolve his episode quickly and safely. The principles on this list worked for my friend, and they will work for you too.

1) Carry the Right Equipment
Survival starts before your hunt -- prepare your gear with the possibility of being stranded or injured. At a minimum, carry a knife, firestarting material (I recommend at least two forms of flame -- waterproof matches, windproof lighter, for example -- and enough tinder to start several fires), signal whistle and mirror, flashlight or headlamp with extra batteries, rope or parachute cord, a method to collect and purify water, basic energy foods, extra compass, shelter material (a small tarp, poncho, or even 5- mil painter's plastic), and first-aid kit.

2) Tell Someone Where You Are Going
This critical step is often overlooked. Write down where you are going (be specific, and include a map if you can), vehicle description and license plate number, where you intend to hunt and for how long, who you will be with, and a "no later than" time for returning. Also list your medical conditions. Make sure the person you give this to understands that if you are not back at said time, call for help immediately -- don't wait. List contact numbers for the Sheriff, State Police, and local Search and Rescue group.

3) Learn First-Aid Principles
Sign up for a first-aid course at www.redcross.org or another community or-ganization. Some might even offer a Wilderness First Responder course, and companies like Wilderness Medical Associates (www.wildmed.com) put on specialized training. However, a resource available to everyone is the local library, and Wilderness 911 by Eric Weiss is a great read for basic injury treatment. Prepare your first-aid kit with common problems in mind (splinters, blisters, stings or bites) as well as hunting-related hazards (cuts and punctures).

4) Dress Properly
Check the forecast prior to your outing to understand potential weather conditions. Wear layered clothing so you can control perspiration and adjust for exertion or sitting, warm or cold. Wet clothing (perspiration or precipitation) means a cold body; do everything possible to keep from getting damp. If possible, wear layers of polypropylene, synthetic fleece, or wool -- avoid cotton -- and carry rain protection. Sitka Gear (www.sitkagear.com) makes a great layering system built by bowhunters for bowhunters. In Montana, I hunted comfortably for a week wearing only Sitka's system on warm, sunny afternoons; snowy, wind-blown mornings; and hours of drizzling rain.

5) Use a Compass
Don't get me wrong -- a GPS is fine, as long as you use it. But remember, a GPS runs on batteries, which can die; and GPS depends on satellite signals, which can be spotty in deep canyons. With a small pocket compass, you can always maintain cardinal directions and stay on track in the thick stuff. Tether it to a belt loop or hang it around your neck to prevent losing it. With a base-plate compass you can navigate from point-to-point in conjunction with a topographic map. The book, Compass and Map Navigator, by Michael Hodgson, is an excellent learning tool.

6) Heed the Weather
Weather in the mountains can change hourly, and hunting in any dense timber can be challenging because you can't see rough weather coming. In both cases, at the first sign of precipitation, react positively. If you carry a rain shell, put it on. If you don't have one, find a thick evergreen and sit under the boughs or throw up a quick shelter. Because weather is unpredictable, you must provide shelter as soon as possible when you are in survival mode, regardless of the current conditions. In addition to protecting you from the elements, shelter ensures mental and physical comfort.

7) Drink, Drink, and Drink
Dehydration, which can occur in warm or cold weather, leads to fatigue, headache, nausea, and poor decision-making. I generally carry two quarts of water all the time, but I also carry a water filter that will make any water source potable. Water treatment, like the MSR MIOX or Katadyn Micropur tablets, will also give you a lot of options (www.cabelas.com). Drinking six to eight quarts of liquid a day is optimum. Warm days involving strenuous activity will require you to drink at the high end, while days of sedentary activity might require less.

8) Stifle Your Ego
Especially for guys, this might be the hardest part of it all. No one likes to admit to being lost (call it what you want) or hurt. However, wandering around without knowing where you are or where you are going will only get you more lost. And trying to push through an injury only gets you more hurt. When things aren't right, stop, come to grips with the situation, and take care of your needs. Also, never push yourself into unsafe situations, such as scaling cliffs in the dark or trying to carry too-heavy loads in steep terrain. These could create totally avoidable emergency situations.

9) Build a Fire
Practice is important for developing skills and testing your equipment. A cold, wet night in the wilderness is a bad time to discover the shortcomings of any firestarting items. Always adhere to the basics: Gather more fuel than you think you will need, scrape the site to bare soil, use a platform to buffer your tinder from the earth, divide your fuel from smallest to largest, use a brace next to your tinder, start with the tiniest pieces of fuel, and add them by the loose handful. Let the flames eat up through the fuel, and keep adding larger sizes.

10) Signal Rescuers
From experience on both ends of the Search and Rescue spectrum, I have learned that a whistle is the best signal method. Don't let "spooking game" separate you from hunting partners. Use your whistle. It is much louder and carries better than your voice. A signal mirror can send bright flashes miles to search aircraft or ground parties. For more adventuresome trips into the bush, carry a strobe light or a personal locator beacon (www.acrelectronics.com). Finally, you can construct ground-to-air signals out of any highly contrasting material (even branches in snow or overturned dirt in a meadow). Such signals should have straight lines and sharp angles to stand out best.

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