You step off trail and get turned around. Dense vegetation blocks your view. Your heartbeat quickens. Your mind races. What should you do?
Getting lost in the Maine woods — or any wilderness area — can be a dangerous situation, but there are a few things that you can do to prepare yourself in the case that this happens to you.
To learn more, we reached out to Ron Fournier, a Registered Maine Guide and the camp director at the University of Maine 4-H Camp & Learning Center at Bryant Pond. A certified Wilderness First Responder, Fournier has taught workshops about outdoor survival at Bryant Pond. It’s also a topic he touches upon while leading courses in hunter safety, ATV safety and more.
Say a person is out hiking or hunting, and all the sudden they realize that they’re lost. Plus — their cell phone is dead. They have no way to communicate with anyone. What should they do?
Ron Fournier: If you don’t know where you are, you are lost, and you need to simply admit it to yourself and not panic. The acronym S.T.O.P. should be the first thing you think about. Stop, Think, Observe and Plan.
Stop as soon as you know your lost so you don’t wander further and add more distance to your location; a panicked person will usually travel faster and broaden the search area quickly. Think about the situation, where you are, what you have, the weather, etc. Observe: What looks familiar? Do you hear cars or other man made noises? What do you have around you to work with? Plan on next steps, whether that is making a fire, building a shelter or signaling.
Many people know the four basic needs for survival: shelter, water, fire and food. In a workshop that you led for the Becoming an Outdoors-Woman program at Bryant Pond, you spoke of a fifth “need” or element of survival: a good attitude or mindset. Could you explain why that’s key?
Fournier: In the order of survival, attitude should be the first in the order. Without a calm, clear head, bad decisions can overwhelm the situation. When you’re in a survival situation, it’s natural for your heart rate to increase, as well as your breathing, so you may have to simply sit down to regain composure. Think: “I can handle this, everything will be OK,” then think of what you need to do next. Break it down to one step at a time. Make sure that you are staying calm.
Whenever there is an example of someone in a dire situation, we tend to break it down to see where things went wrong and in almost every scenario, it’s when people started to panic or act irrationally.
What are a few small, inexpensive pieces of gear that could make all the difference in a survival situation?
Fournier: Having a whistle could be one of the most important pieces of equipment. If lost, three blasts of a whistle, repeatedly, is the international sign of distress. This is easily recognized by most outdoors folks and just might get the attention of someone quickly.
Also, a basic survival kit is easy to put together and can make or break a situation. My top priority would be a knife, a way to make fire, a handheld GPS unit, a map and compass and a basic foil survival blanket. All of this could fit in a Ziplock bag. Of course there’s more that could be added, but this small but important list gives you at the very least a way to make a fire, protect yourself from the elements and hopefully navigate successfully.
If you’re in a survival situation and it’s cold out, do you have any suggestions of ways to keep warm?
Fournier: Layering [your clothing when spending time outdoors] is key. Synthetics far exceed cotton and similar fabrics. The adage “stay dry or die” should be tucked somewhere in the back of your mind, harsh sounding but could be true. Sweating or getting wet increases your evaporation rate and cooling effect.
Also, eating high calorie/ high fat foods will get your motor running and provide some fuel to your internal furnace. For this, there are a lot of bar-type foods on the market, but [other foods such as] peanut butter crackers and granola will add energy and help keep you warm. Warm/hot liquids will also help.
In a scenario where you need to gather firewood or build a shelter, it’s better to remove most of your [clothing] layers and do the hard work without trapping in moisture, then put them back on. Also, staying off of the ground will help keep you warm. The snow or ground will cool you through conduction. [To rest or sleep,] you can add pine boughs and other materials beneath you. In a survival situation you need to do whatever it takes to stay warm and dry.
What are a few natural items in the Maine wilderness that might be useful to you if in survival situation? For instance, are there certain trees that are better for creating shelter or building a fire?
Fournier: In an area with spruce, hemlock, firs and pines, you should have a good supply of materials to work with for shelter and insulation. You may find a small pocket at the base of any of these trees, and by adding more limbs and debris, you have a quick wind block and shelter from the elements.
For firebuilding, birch bark can’t be beat for kindling, and small dry twigs from any softwoods would be a great start. When collecting firewood, collect as much as you think you’ll need, and then double that. This should provide enough to get through a night. By burning green evergreens, you’ll create a smoky fire that may provide as a signal for aircraft in a real survival situation. Fire will keep you focused, warm and tends to add calmness to the situation. It gives you a sense of purpose in the moment.
If people are looking to learn more about outdoor survival, do you have any suggestions?
Fournier: There are a lot of resources available online, as well as in books and magazines, but I think it’s much better to attend workshops and practice these skills prior to ever needing them. It’s easy to set out for a night with just the basics in a known location and practice. You may struggle at first, but you’ll gain more confidence and become more skilled and proficient in a short period of time.
The Becoming an Outdoors Woman program continues to provide a myriad of similar learning opportunities. Bryant Pond 4-H Camp and Learning Center will be offering a program for men and women this upcoming season that will focus on many of these skills. Dates will be posted shortly. I also highly recommend the Maine Outdoors Learning Center’s courses. They have several courses on navigation, survival and other topics.
This Q&A was edited for clarity.