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The Basics of Backcountry Survival

If you want to survive a wilderness bowhunt, then you'd best come prepared.

The Basics of Backcountry Survival

The wilderness will seem much less intimidating if you know what you're doing before you get there.

When I was a kid, I was enamored with trapping, survival, and anything to do with sustaining myself in the wild with next to nothing. I read books, talked to “experts,” and practiced everything I could in case living off the land was ever needed.

Fast-forward a few decades and several near-death experiences later, and my outlook on survival and the outdoors has changed dramatically. Now, there’s nothing wrong with having a skillset to survive with a pocketknife and a few feet of paracord, but in my opinion, if I’m to a point of building wicker baskets and gill nets to stay alive, then something has gone terribly wrong.

One of the first things that I’ve come to realize is the difference between survival, sustainment, and thriving. When I’m on an extended backpack hunt (10–14 days), my goal is to thrive while trying to put an animal on the ground. If something went wrong while I was there (major injury, altitude sickness, hypothermia, etc.), then that would be in the category of survival. If I had broken a major law, the Russians attacked with an EMP, etc., that would be sustainment with the hopes of potentially thriving.

So, let’s look at the reality of what you’ll be dealing with on a backpack hunt, and what you will need to know, as well as what gear will be needed to help you survive, but more importantly, thrive.


When you get to the meat and potatoes of living in the wilderness for a couple weeks, food and water are going to be dang important, considering a human can only survive a couple days without water and 2–3 weeks without food. Having said that, let’s cover what I consider to be the most important items first.


Water

I believe that the normal human should take in 80 to 120 oz. of water each day, and that shouldn’t change when you’re in the wilderness. So how and what do I use to consume that much water in a day? It’s somewhat anticlimactic when you look at all the options for purification and filtration systems.

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No element is more important than clean water. Use a Steripen (upper left), tablets or drops (lower left), or a filter pump to sanitize your water. Drinking unfiltered water is risky.

The Steripen Classic has stood above everything else I’ve tested for my day-to-day purification system. It’s lightweight, simple, and very effective in almost every situation. It doesn’t have filtration, so you’ll need some type of filter if you find water with a lot of debris, but that’s an easy fix if you think ahead (coffee filters or a bandana work great). The Steripen is basically a small wand device that emits ultraviolet light that kills everything from Hepatitis to Giardia.

Anytime I find a water source throughout the day, I just fill up my Nalgene bottle, hit a button on the Steripen, and swirl the wand around for the proper amount of time (90 seconds for 32 oz.) and it’s ready to drink. The Classic operates on 4 AA batteries, but I’ve never had an issue with this.

The water-purification systems that are my primary go-to for large amounts of water (3–6 liters) are Aqua Tabs or Aqua Mira. These two options are even simpler than the Steripen, and I strongly suggest you have one of these products with you at all times. The Aqua Tabs are small pills that weigh next to nothing, and Aqua Mira is a two-part system that looks like a small bottle of eyedrops. One Aqua Tab will purify 32 oz. of water in about 30 minutes. Seven drops from each container of Aqua Mira will do the same.





Other options include pump filters and gravity filtering systems. Both work fine but are heavier and bulkier than the options mentioned above. Most importantly, do not drink unfiltered water, or you will likely regret it.

Food

I could write a book on food for the wilderness, but to keep it short and simple, make sure whatever food items that go into your pack offer a minimum of 100 calories for every ounce of weight. If the package weighs 4 oz., it should have at least 400 calories. This is just a general rule, as you’ll want to get the biggest bang for your buck when packing food on your back.

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Put in the effort and research to develop a food system that will keep you thriving on a backcountry hunt, or save your life in a survival situation. My approach has served me well.

After that, you want to make sure that you’ll actually enjoy eating what goes into your pack. This seems obvious, but you’d be surprised at how many people don’t try the food they’re taking ahead of time. They have no idea how many calories per day they need, and basically end up stuffing a bunch of food into a bag with no real plan.

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Here’s what I do to keep from over or under eating each day.

For each day of the trip, I pack a 1-gallon Ziplock bag. If I’m going on a 10-day trip, I’ll have 10 bags — each containing between 3,200–3,500 calories and weighing around 2 lbs. (100 calories per ounce minimum). On the days I’m really getting after it physically, I’ll eat everything in the bag; on easier days, I’ll save a little in case I need to extend my trip or need a little extra for a real butt-kicker of a day.

Following these guidelines does take a bit of effort to dial in, but once you know what you like to eat and how many calories you actually need, you will have a much lighter pack and a lot more energy each day.

Communication Devices

Having a good communication device will not only save your life but potentially save your marriage and job as well. I’ve been lucky enough to use just about every option on the market, and there are a couple that stand out above the rest for reliability, weight, and ease of use.

The ZOLEO and Garmin inReach are two different devices that work as a hotspot with your smartphone and connect to satellites anywhere in the world. So not only can you text message anywhere in the world, but you can also use them as a GPS, SAR beacon, and much more. You will need to download an app to your phone to use them, and there’s a monthly/yearly charge for each. These devices will keep you in touch with the outside world should you find yourself in a bad spot. The only thing I would add to this is to learn the ins and outs of both devices BEFORE heading into the wilderness, and make sure everything is connected and working properly! There’s a ton of info online, and a quick search will give you lots of information on whichever device you decide on.

Fire

Building a fire with a hand drill, bow drill, or fire plough may seem cool, but if I find myself in a situation where I’m forced to build a fire with these methods, something has gone terribly wrong. This is not to say you shouldn’t learn how to use these methods, but I prefer a more practical fire-starter system when I’m backpack hunting.

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Fire can be a critical element for keeping you alive, or at the least, comfortable. Make sure you always carry a primary and a back-up method for creating fire.

Now, when I say, “fire starter,” I don’t just mean something that makes a spark; I mean something that will light and burn at a good temperature for a decent period of time.

My main goal is to be able to start a fire in any condition as fast as possible, and with the least amount of weight in my pack. I also want one or even two backup systems in case my primary one goes down. Most people’s primary system isn’t the most durable, so a secondary is a must-have either way. Just remember that fire is life, and a few extra ounces isn’t much to bear if things go sideways.

  • Primary: Bic lighter/Trioxane tablets.
  • Secondary: Wolf and Grizzly Ferro rod and striker/Pyro Putty
  • Alternate: Waterproof matches/cotton balls in Vaseline

GPS/Navigation

As mentioned above, communication devices can be used as a GPS, but having a wristwatch with GPS, a compass, a map — and the knowledge to use them — will not only keep you safe but also make you a more effective hunter. The wristwatch options are very convenient and quick. While they don’t have the frills of an actual handheld GPS, they offer far more than you will need when used correctly.

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There are many options for bringing technology into your efforts to navigate the wild. The important thing is to choose a device and then become intimately familiar with how it works before you go into the field.

As much as I’d like to do a full-on dissertation on land navigation, I don’t have enough space in this article. I do, however, have enough room to tell you what options and tools would be needed to get started. After that, it’s on you to do the research and become proficient with whatever product you choose to use.

Garmin Instinct Solar watches and the Garmin 601 have served me well and are both relatively simple to use. The 601 uses AAA batteries, and the Instinct is rechargeable. I don’t use the Instinct on extended trips because of the battery life issues, but either will work fine, depending on the situation. Both offer a lot of options, but learning how to read/understand an 8 or 10-digit UTM grid coordinate and how to plot it on a map will definitely help you get the full potential out of your watch when it comes to navigation.

When it comes to compasses, my personal favorite for the way I navigate is a Suunto M9 wrist compass. This little gadget has saved me lots of miles on several occasions but is also invaluable for stalking animals. Like anything I’ve talked about in this article, you will need to learn how to use it and how it pertains to the GPS, UTM grid coordinates, and how to implement them when reading a map.

Maps are a little more complex, with way too much info to go over in a quick paragraph, but maps are vital in navigation and at times can be far better than the smartphone apps for a variety of reasons.

While the navigation apps available today are state of the art and super handy, a smartphone screen is very small and difficult to read when compared to an actual map. Maps also don’t have batteries, can be put on a wall, are easily duplicated, and when used correctly with the tools listed above will never be wrong.

The maps from Nat Geo Maps, which you can find in just about any outdoor store or online, have been my go-to for several years. They are waterproof, offer UTM grid lines, and are the scale I prefer for navigation. Just be sure to learn how to read a map (scale, declination diagram, contour interval, etc.) before you go too crazy with purchasing them.

First Aid

I’m not the best person to go into depth with first aid, but I do know what’s worked best for me and has kept me put- together and alive. My kit is extremely small and lightweight for backpack hunting, so some of you may choose to add a few things to your own personal system.

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Using the necessary survival skills, ranging from staying nourished to reading maps, will help you safely reach your goal of completing a successful hunt.

I wish I’d known about Leuko Tape years ago, because it would have saved me and my feet from a lot of pain and suffering. It can be used on anything, but putting it overtop of potential hotspots and blister areas ahead of time will do wonders for your feet. I also pair it with large bandages after getting a blister (Leuko on top of the Band-Aid). As you can imagine, I’ve also used it for gear repair, cuts, and anything else you could think of.

I’m not a doctor, and I definitely don’t want to impersonate Rambo, so stitching myself up isn’t a real option. Surgical glue like Dermabond, on the other hand, is pretty much idiotproof, and with a little common sense can be used on most cuts — even large ones. Just be sure to clean the cut before pouring glue on top, and do a little research ahead of time.

When QuikClot Gauze first came out, it wasn’t something I recommended because it basically caused chemical burns to the skin. Lucky for us, technology is amazing, and the new QuikClot Gauze works wonders without the chemical burns of old. As you can imagine, with all the surgical blades out on the market today, having this is a must — and it fits in your front pocket.

In summary, the most important things you can carry with you into the wilderness are hard work, physical fitness, common sense, and knowledge/wisdom. All the high-tech gear in the world won’t save you if you haven’t prepared or educated yourself. And most importantly, discipline yourself to make conscious, reasonable decisions when the situation demands it.

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