Being prepared for a survival situation is an important part of bowhunting, a fact no one knows better than Fred Eichler. A veteran guide and traditional bowhunter who has taken game across North America, Fred always carries a complete survival kit as part of his hunting gear.
A simple survival kit attached to your belt is a constant companion that will provide you with crucial tools for surviving an unexpected incident afield.
Did he ever think his life would de-pend on it? "Certainly," he told me. "But I never thought about being separated from it."
Just that happened during a grizzly bear hunt in Alaska. Fred, his guide, and his cameraman were floating a river when the boat swamped, dumping the three men into the frigid water (see "Truck Money," Big Game Special 2006). When the boat capsized, the strong current carried away Fred's fannypack, which contained his survival gear. Fred struggled to avoid drowning and was soon in the early stages of hypothermia. Cool heads prevailed (no pun intended), and using a lighter the cameraman carried in his pocket, they got a fire going and survived the night.
The experience gave Fred a sobering perspective on survival preparation. Here are some lifesaving tips he's accumulated over the past 15 years of hunting and professional guiding:
1. Be prepared, always. Carry emergency equipment, even on simple day trips. Your survival kit doesn't have to be extensive, but always have the basics for building a fire and sustaining life. Little things can make a big difference. Fred's advice reminded me of a man I ran into in New Mexico's Gila Wilderness. The man's 14-year-old son was lost, and the man was frantic. "It was just a quick hike to see what was over the hill," he said. The boy took no extra clothes, food, or survival gear. The temperature would dip to about 10 degrees during the night. Luckily, we found the boy before dark, but the outcome could have been disastrous.
2. Know where you are. Be aware of your surroundings, keep track of where the nearest road is, know the major landmarks, and remain aware of how far away help might be. As Fred and I talked about this, I realized how incessantly I pull my map out. I want to know the position of every peak and valley and my relation to it. If an unexpected event leaves me stranded or injured, the last thing I want is the added stress of wondering where I might be.
3. Make sure someone else knows where you are. Even when hunting with an outfitter, you must make a plan and stick with it. Someone you trust needs to know where you are hunting and when to start worrying. If you deviate from your plan without telling someone, searchers could waste time looking in the wrong places.
4. Consider carrying a satellite phone. Sat phone prices range from $1,000 to $1,500. Expensive? Maybe not if you do a lot of remote hunting. With a sat phone, you can communicate with anyone from anywhere. If you don't want to buy one, consider renting one. Fred's personal favorite is the Iridium. Not owning a sat phone, I carry a cell phone in a waterproof container on all outings. One call can sometimes end a survival situation in hours instead of days.
A hunter in the Alaskan bush faces major risk, of course, but a hunter taking a day hike near home should be just as well prepared. Consider this story a fellow Hunter Education Instructor shared with me.
He had spent the morning elk hunting and was tired when he got to his truck at lunch. Sweaty and hungry, he stripped off some layers of clothing. As he ate a sandwich, a bull bugled in a valley next to the road. Quickly, he grabbed his bow.
"I was dehydrated but felt comfortable being so close to the truck. I glanced at my pack on the front seat of my truck and remember saying to myself, 'I know I shouldn't do this, because I always teach being prepared.' Still, I left the pack there."
Several hours later, at dark, he was cold, exhausted, without a survival kit -- and two canyons away from his truck. He panicked. "At first I was mad and felt foolish. Then I realized I was in trouble. All I could think about was my students and friends reading about me in the paper and saying, 'What the heck was he thinking?'"
Thankfully, he made it back to his truck, but it took most of the night and he could hardly stand once he got there. He shares this story, as Fred Eichler does his, as stark reminders that these things can happen to anyone. Even you.