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Wilderness Safety and the TRUTH About Wilderness Survival

Forget what you see on television (there is NO "reality" in reality television!), forget what you see on YouTube, forget what you see in military survival manuals (for that matter, perhaps even forget what you see/hear from others who hold thenselves out as knowledgible or even "expert"), the FACT is, VERY few people understand the difference between survival and bushcraft, even among those who actuall have the nerve to call themselves "survivalists." Some (mostly sellers) even confuse survival with "prepping." This series of posts introduces (in THIS forum) what REAL wilderness survival actually entails and is really all about.

My trail name is "Survival Gal." I have been a wilderness enthusiast for almost 35 years (land and sea), and a wilderness survivalist for almost as long, and although I would never call myself an "expert", I'm comfortable saying I know more than most, and I like my odds in most situations. As someone once said, "There are no 'experts' in survival, only students." - Dave Gans. Also, "Everyone is a potential victim, NOT everyone is a potential survivor."- John Leach

The first truth is, you don't have to be in some exotic international locale to find yourself in a wilderness survival ordeal. You can be lost within eyesight of the city and you can die just as easily on a day hike, or in the frontcountry of your nearest countryside. In fact, of all the wilderness activities, HIKING is the number one activity that causes most Search And Rescue (SAR) missions. And among the four types of hiking (day hiking, distance hiking, wilderness hiking and bushwhacking), DAY HIKERS are responsible for the VAST majority of those SAR rescues!

The second truth is the notion of an "extended" wilderness ordeal is lagely a myth! About 92% of all victims are rescued within 10 to 24 hours (many much sooner) with most of the rest rescued within 72 hours. Only less than 1% take longer than a week to rescue. Of course that's of the REPORTED incidents or reported missing, but we'll get into that later, I'm sure. For now, here are just a few things to think about (and some possible topics for discussion).

1- Wilderness survival is really just an extension of wilderness safety, and wilderness safety is all about RISK MANAGEMENT.

2- The most important survival tool is your mind, the most important survival skill is self-control!

3- Wilderness survival, REAL wilderness survival, is NOT a game, is not "fun", and is not easy. It is a life threatening EMERGENCY situation that must be brought under control as quickly, as efficiently, as safely as possible.

4- The four cornerstones of wilderness survival are: 1) Knowlege, 2) Skill, 3) Experience, and 4) Common Sense.

5- The Five Essential Steps: 1) Planning, 2) Preparation, 3) Proficiency, 4) Backups, and 5) Basic Survival [concepts and strtegies], this is NOT the same as signaling, sheltering, firem, water and food, That's called The Five Basic Skills (akin to bushcraft).

14 Replies

You make some very good points, especially about discounting much of what you see on TV and YouTube.  Actually , a lot of the content of military manuals, discounting aspects that relate to escape and evasion, are fairly decent..  Just be mindful of the context....

Wilderness should be differentiated from "prepping/survivalist" routines, which are inordinately concerned with total societal collapse and the resulting chaos (mostly fantasized).  I am happy to deal with the occasional crisis that occurs out in the bush.

It is certainly true that most rescues and recoveries occur to those who are day hiking, but I have never seen studies which give percentages - most of those one encounters on the average trail are day hiking, not on an extended trip, and hence most likely to suffer a bad incident..  That has certainly been my experience in SAR.

Many authors have cited mental state, determination, etc. as the most important single aspect of survival.  This is undoubtedly true, and certainly not breaking news.

My involvement with wilderness has extended over sixty years, including a 40 plus year career with the NPS, and something like 470 SAR operations, mostly as a volunteer with Southern Arizona Rescue Association (long may they thrive!).  We hauled a lot of dinged up day hikers out of the hills, usually fairly quickly, as you describe above.  But there are exceptions.Some are still missing after 40+ years.

Looking forward to additional posts.  I hope you will define bushcaft, which seems to involve clever whittling with a knife, relegating computers an cell phones to the background.....


Superusers do not speak on behalf of REI and may have received
one or more gifts or other benefits from the co-op.


It's a shame, if true, that you have been involved in "470 SAR missions" and yet apparently never jotted-down data (or researched it) to develop a statistical profile. Most odd.

As to "military survival" (aka, S.E.R.E.) or manuals, you need to resign yourself to the fact that there IS a difference between military survival, and what is more accurately called "wilderness survival" (essentially, the civilian version of the study and practice of wilderness survival). I know full well what is involved in S.E.R.E. and it is COMPLETELY irrelevant to this discussion specifically and to the discussion of wilderness survival in general. Moving on...

On the question of the basic differences between wilderness survival, bushcraft and prepping; "Prepping" is basically "hoarding" (of food, water, and often arms and ammunition), typically with some imagined and unlikely scenario such as world economic collapse, governmental takeover, race wars and even SPACE-alien invasions! (seriously, "space-aliens"!). However, I do advocate a reasonable approach to "natural disaster prepping" based on the region and likelihood of certain types of disasters (i.e. hurricanes/flooding in the gulf states, earthquakes in California, etc.) Even then, it MUST be reasonable!!

The difference between bushcraft and wilderness survival couldn't be more stark! Succinctly, wilderness survival is about being safe and almost always includes rescue ("self-rescue" and so-called "sur-thrival") are nothing but reality-TV fantasies!) Also, the study and practice of bushcraft can involve ANY number of even slightly relevant subjects (typically involving arts and crafts). But with wilderness survival, there are 16 subjects in a REAL wilderness survival curriculum. No more, no less. But we'll do a deep-dive on that later.

True, "mental state", as you put it, is important. In fact, if you consider that wilderness survival psychology effects everything one does, and does not do, every mistake that is made and avoided, then the psychology accounts for about 75 to 90 percent of wilderness survival (wilderness survival psychology has been a particular area of study for me). But here's the problem, while ALL survival-celebs, books, videos AND military survival manuals all agree that the psychological aspect (and more to the point, "the will to survive") is most important, NONE have ever explained exactly what it is. HINT: It involves FAR more than saying it's "determination." Frankly, I consider such explanations nothing more than a dodge!!

More to come....


The 470 operations is firly conservative, and it is spread over more than 41 years, most activity from 1970-1985.  We were, strangely enough, concerned with rendering aid to folks in trouble, and not with garnering stats, especially with regard to the relative hazards of day hiking vs other modes.

The majority of the people we aided were inexperienced,often just venturing out on a fairly casual outing.  Then,  slip, a tumble, and some sort of disabling injury.  Another common factor was consumption, excessively, of alcohol.  Our victims were typically impaired to the extent that they could not legally drive.

While as far as I know,we didnot bother with stats on day vs multi-day excursions, we did conduct some, experiments, carefully designed by a coupleofour members who math Department faculty members at the University of Ariona, on the probability of detection from an overflying helicopter, of ictims using various strategies to bring themselves.

Not surprisingly, motion of any sort is more effective than standing still or lying under a tree.  people just aren't that easy to spot from the air.  A signal mirror is a pretty useful gadget, very hard to miss when in use.

BTW, I also believe a life outdoors is a life well-lived.  No harm in voicing that sentiment.




Superusers do not speak on behalf of REI and may have received
one or more gifts or other benefits from the co-op.

You appear to be missing my point, some 470 (+) SAR missions over a 40 (+) year period IS significant, which is exactly why it's such a shame you apparently never took the time to access that data! (I can't believe your 'higher ups' didn't look for patterns to more efficiently deploy resources, or better yet, prevent problems). Also, and I can't believe I even have to say this, NOBODY expects ANYBODY to collect stats during a mission, that's just silly. But are you saying you never attended a mission review/debrief AFTERWARDS? 

Regardless, for everyone's beefit (and your edification), not surprisingly, most SAR missions occur on weekends (slightly more on Saturdays) which jibes with the fact that most victims are "day hikers." As stated above, hiking accounts for the vast majority of SARs. But there are four types of hiking: day hiking, distance hiking, wilderness hiking, and bushwhacking. Although distance hiking rates as the safest (particularly in season) there are still the occasional deaths. Wilderness hiking and bushwhacking still rate safer than day hiking because these people typically take the activity (and their safety) much more seriously and are much more experienced. (content removed by moderator)!! 

Day hikers seem to think a walk in the wilderness is a walk in the park! THAT'S why you get 'city-ots' (as I call them) drinking and doing drugs, not to mention getting lost, running out of water (or having NO water), etc. I'm all for people enjoying the great outdoors, in whatever way they choose, but NOT if it puts other lives at risk.

When I can't get away for an extended period, I can be found in the San Gabriel Mountains (north of Los Angeles) and my own experience jibes those stats. I can't count how many times I have come across people who ask "Where am I?" or "Where is the drinking fountain?" and on and on! The only redeeming quality of day hikers is they tend to limit themselves to the frontcountry, the backcountry tends to be the wilderness hiker's domain. 

The "flyover" information/experiments you allude to is also nothing new, from the air, it can be virtually impossible to spot a victim, even on flat ground (i.e. the desert), at as little as 100 to 200 yards (even at 200 yards, you may spot a vehicle, but not the victim standing next to it). On the ground, in high brush or wooded areas, you may have to contend with a "sound shadow" effect. With a victim in the water, a rescue boat may have to be as close as FIVE FEET to ensure the victim is spotted. Experience is fine, but without information, you're working hard, not smart! 

Of the hundreds (perhaps thousands) of survival stories I've read and the dozens of survivors I've personally interviewed, not ONCE has any of them ever said "Oh, I KNEW I was going to be in a survival ordeal and I wanted to do it anyway." The more common [day hiker] response is, "I was only going to be out for a few hours." But here's the thing, while subjects like stats, lost person behavior, etc. are invaluable to the SERIOUS hiker and SAR team, (content removed by moderator).

REI is in a position to effect that change... If they chose to. 



I'm getting lost...what's the point you're trying so hard to make?  Just asking...

REI Member Since 1979

@SurvivalGal wilderness survival is certainly an interesting topic, one that other community members may want to discuss with you and with each other. With that said, we need to take a moment to revisit this community's User Guidelines, which ask that all users keep their tone positive, not use the community to publicly disparage others, and always use respectful language. As such, we have removed your comments about day hikers and will ask that all future posts follow all of our guidelines. There is clearly value in conversing about wilderness safety, but only if the dialogue stays welcoming and constructive.

At REI, we believe time outside is fundamental to a life well lived.

Unfortunate that this discussion has turned negative because it is an interesting and pertinent topic for most of us.

I am intrigued by SG's last comment "REI is in a position to effect that change... If they chose to. "  which to me implies that REI should do something to educate all those uninformed hikers out there.  In fact, if you peruse the Expert Advice section there is a lot of very sensible instruction which will serve the inexperienced.  And REI has a pretty decent record to donating some of the profits to supporting outdoor recreation and outdoor safety. 


Keep it up! 


Superusers do not speak on behalf of REI and may have received
one or more gifts or other benefits from the co-op.

I couldn't agree more @hikermor !

Superusers do not speak on behalf of REI and may have received
one or more gifts or other benefits from the co-op.

@hikermor(not sure if my response went through the first time, still getting used to this system/board)

By, "REI is in a position to effect that change... If they chose to.", I mean the people who are responsible for the VAST majority of [rather expensive] SAR missions are highly concentrated within a single group of hikers (day hikers). Moreover, the vast majority of those SAR missions are begun on Saturdays and Sundays, this makes finding these people fairly easy.

Next, with the closure of stores like Adventure 16, more of these people are likely to come to REI for day hiking gear (clothes, shoes, etc.), meaning they are even more likey than ever to literally walk through REI's front door at some point.

While acknowledging it is not possible to protect people from themselves, particularly those who do not exhibit much care or concern for their own safety, I'm guessing it may be too much to hope these same people will be proactive enough to seek-out the "Expert Advice" pages of a retailer's web site. Even one as preeminent as REI.

All that's left then, is to take the opportunity (both in store and at trailhead) to stuff their sweaty little palms with some helpful, reliable, advice and information to help them stay out of trouble!

And what form would that helpful, reliable, advice and information take? Perhaps not unlike the booklet I'm drafting based on my UPDATED "10 Essentials" and my Five Essential Steps, which I plan to have the Altadena Mountain Rescue (Sherriff's Office) and the Forestry Department endorse in time for a possible seminar before summer.

So I repeat your question.... Could REI? Should REI?