Seven hundred miles canoeing solo across the last great wilderness in the world, through the heart of Canada’s Yukon territory. Wracked by fever, I managed to erect my shelter on an island where some passing trapper or miner might spot me. Illness is only one danger that surviving alone in the wilderness may amplify to the point of being a matter of life or death.
Surviving alone in the wilderness when the only person you can depend upon is yourself requires a special frame of mind that, like Robinson Crusoe, you may never know you possess until your ship cracks up on the shoals and you find yourself one against the wilderness.
There are certain preparations you can make in advance, however, to help even out the odds. Perhaps the most important first step you can take toward surviving alone in the wilderness is to become aware now of what it means to be alone and what that demands of you.
A man alone is more vulnerable, more susceptible to his inner fears. Being consciously aware of this can help you overcome them.
“Aren’t you afraid?” friends demanded as I prepared to depart for the Yukon.
“What if something happens to you when you’re by yourself miles and miles from help?”
“The fear of being alone,” I replied, “not being alone itself, is the fear you have to overcome.”
I have spent a lot of time in jungles, deserts, mountains, and on the sea. I have sailed the Gulf Stream in a 17-foot Sunfish, trekked wartime jungles in Central America, trudged across deserts, climbed mountains, floated rivers.
Being alone in the wilderness so much like this has provided me with special insights and skills for surviving, to compensate for lack of companionship and subsequently increased risks, your senses sharpen to the prospect of danger.
Animal instincts you may rarely have used before suddenly come into play. You become more cautious, more prudent, more aware. You begin to see, hear, smell, and feel things as though they were fresh and new. Nature, if you let it, will prepare your mind for solo survival.
You can help nature. The best way to do this is to practice being alone. Go fishing to isolated streams, walk in the forest, camp overnight with only the darkness and the wild animals for company.
“Other people do not actually exist for me now, and I rejoice in being at this moment the most alone man of the billions on earth,” wrote Webb Chiles in Storm Passage, his chronicle of sailing alone around Cape Horn.
While you may never reach this state of nirvana, practicing aloneness will give you the self-confidence and self-dependency to survive alone if it should ever become necessary.
Rules and Principles for surviving alone in the wilderness
Once you have mastered yourself and your fears, solo survival depends on a simple system of rules and principles.
The first of these principles is that to survive in the outdoors, you must master at least some of the more important skills of living in the outdoors. These skills include shooting a gun, using a knife, knowing the habits of fish and wildlife, distinguishing between certain kinds of plants.
For a couch potato or tenderfoot, to have undertaken a solo canoe crossing of the Yukon after a few Sundays paddling around a quiet neighborhood stream might have been tantamount to suicide.
I was chased off an island by a cow moose, encountered a bear, shot rapids, and camped so alone that at times I was perhaps 200 miles from the next human being. Quite obviously, my safety depended heavily upon the outdoor skills I had used and perfected over the years. Such skills are like a life insurance policy that you can cash in should you ever need it.
A couple of essential rules can be added to this principle to strengthen it.
The first rule is to always let someone know where you are going to be, if possible, and when you will return. A friend of mine in White Horse, Yukon Territory, operates an adventurer outfitting company. Before I left on my journey, I traced for him on a map my proposed journey from Quiet Lake high in the snowcapped Big Salmon Range to Dawson City, not far from the Alaskan border.
“If I don’t hear from you in three weeks,” he said, “I’ll come looking.”
The second rule states that you should know, in advance, as much about where you are going as you can in case something should happen. No matter where you’re going or what you’re doing that involves wilderness — if it’s taking a bush plane or going fishing or hunting in a group — find out everything you can about your destination and your route of travel.
The possibility always exists that you could find yourself stranded or wrecked. That is when the knowledge you acquire beforehand can save your life, as it did a friend of mine named Jack. Jack’s plane crashed in the Wrangell Mountains of Alaska.
Because he knew the country and had studied it prior to setting out, he was able to survive for two weeks on blueberries and raw Dall sheep meat — and to escape alive.
Before I undertake any of my adventures, I read everything I can find about the country I’ll be operating in. I pore over maps, brief myself on the flora and fauna, and as a final touch question locals who know the terrain.
“The log jams here coming out of Quiet Lake can be treacherous,” a local informed me, pointing on the map. “Keep to the far right of the rapids at Five Fingers. People get killed trying to shoot the left side.”
As I rounded a bend in the Yukon River and faced the boiling white water thundering between rock skyscrapers, the left passage at Five Fingers did, in fact, appear to be the easier route. Had I not spoken to the locals about it, I might have tried the far more hazardous left passage. I might not have made it.
The second principle of surviving alone in the wilderness has its own set of rules to reinforce it. The principle is simple: Be prepared.
When Big Salmon River tumbles out of the north end of Quiet Lake, it is like looking down a liquid ski slope. It takes your breath. With a last push of the paddle, I was riding a roller coaster of white water, darting through passageways narrowed and angered by log jams.
Getting caught sideways might have ripped my 17-foot fiber-glass Ottawa in half. Certain risks, I believe, are inherent in a life lived well and truly. The only way to avoid them is to lock yourself inside your house — and even then, a tornado or a runaway 18-wheeler might get you.
The trick is not to avoid risks, but instead, be prepared to face them.
Preparation for surviving alone in the wilderness need not be elaborate nor involve bulky hard-to-carry supplies. It should be well thought out in advance, however, and it should be planned for the environment and the activity. You never know when a fishing trip to the Sawtooths might turn bad.
For the canoeing, as an example, I packed all foodstuffs, clothing, and sleeping gear inside my pack and then rolled that inside a poncho to make a “poncho raft” that would float and keep my gear dry should I capsize. (If you’re buying a poncho, select one of the old-style latex ones; the modern nylon ones won’t even shed rain).
I then attached the poncho raft to the canoe with a lanyard so that all my supplies would remain together should an accident separate me from the canoe. The canoe had flotation blown underneath the seats that would keep it afloat, whether it was intact or in pieces.
A rule I always follow in my wilderness preparations is to carry on my person, not in my pack, a few survival items should my pack fall off a cliff, sink in rapids, or whatever.
On my belt, I carry two knives — a wide-bladed bush knife that weighs about eight pounds, and a sharp skinning knife, and I also carry a small .22 pistol whenever I can.
The bush knife has dozens of uses. It serves as a hatchet, hammer, or shovel, for example. The skinning knife takes care of everything else from cleaning a rabbit to whittling a trigger peg for an animal snare.
I also carry on my belt a canteen and a pocket-sized survival kit. Included in the kit are matches, first aid supplies, salt, a map of the area, fishing line, and fish hooks. The smaller the hooks, the better. You can make animal snares and traps from fishing lines and hooks as well as fishing with them. You can even catch birds by baiting a hook on a line for a bird to swallow.
Just this bit of preparation could give you that extra edge you may someday need.
Important as all these principles and rules are to surviving alone in the wilderness, there is one that is more vital than all the rest and around which the others revolve. I think it came from Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac, but my grand-mother appropriated it as her own: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
I find it better, for example, to prevent hypothermia than to try to treat it. Whenever it rained on the river, I beached the canoe and crept underneath my poncho. If I got my boots and jeans wet in rapids, I went ashore and dried them over a fire. I especially follow this rule when camping in bear country.
Although Canadian law permits you to carry a shotgun for protection (I had a 12-gauge with slugs), it’s much better to prevent a bear attack than cope with one. I often discovered bear signs around my camp.
To prevent an unwanted encounter with any of the bruins, I stored my food in a water-proof and almost scent-proof bag in a tree at some distance from camp. I never ate inside my tent, not even so much as a candy bar, since most bear attacks are prompted by the animals smelling and attempting to get to food.
I practice a variety of other prevention techniques whenever I travel alone. An instance of having to walk in the desert in sneakers taught me the value of bringing hiking boots where ever I venture into the wilderness. Hiking boots can also prevent snake bite.
Little prevention items like a sail patching kit or an extra PFD or a regimen of inoculations before you travel in a foreign wilderness can turn the day for you in an emergency.
A few minutes of considering what could happen and then doing everything you reasonably can to prevent it from happening is often enough to reduce your chances of confronting total catastrophe. Still, no matter how you try, you cannot possibly prepare for every eventuality or prevent all mishaps.
“There is no adventure when everything goes exactly as planned,” said one outdoorsman in giving his definition of adventure. “Adventure begins where all best-laid plans start falling apart.”
It is generally when plans fall apart that you face the need to survive. In an age of gadgets and trinkets, we often forget that the best survival tools of all are our own bodies and minds. Preparation for survival should begin there.
“Survival is two things,” an Army Green Beret sergeant told us during Special Forces training. “It’s attitude and it’s physical conditioning. You can have all the fancy survival equipment in the world, but if you don’t have the right outlook and if you’re not at least in reasonably good physical shape, then you’re probably not going to make it”.
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Shooting rapids and paddling mile after mile across the Yukon, first down the entire length of the Big Salmon and then down the Yukon River, required stamina. Muscle and stamina in the outdoors are worth more ultimately than anything you can carry in a survival kit.
You don’t get in good physical shape and stay there by couch potatoing in front of Football Night. It takes effort and a regular physical exercise program.
I figure I owe myself good physical conditioning — not only to survive if it should become necessary but also because it makes each day so much richer and rewarding.
The other one of these essential survival tools is the mind. A healthy mind lives inside a healthy body. A healthy mind is more than merely being aware of aloneness and accepting isolation. A healthy survival mindset has to do with a general attitude toward life, with seeing yourself as confident, strong, capable. That is the attitude of a winner. It takes a winner to increase your chances of surviving alone in the wilderness.
I once watched a packrat cornered in an old barn by a cat. The rat’s options seemed limited. It could either succumb or run for its life, either of which meant its end. But the rat didn’t see it that way. The brave little rodent suddenly stood up on its hind legs, making itself appear as large as possible, and actually growled at the stalking cat. The cat was so taken aback by the rat’s defiance that it hesitated, giving the rat the opportunity to find a loose board and escape.
The rat was a winner.
Studies of crime victims reveal that those who are most often assaulted or mugged on city streets are those who look like victims. They look like victims because they feel like victims. Because they feel that way, they actually invite themselves to become victims.
Felled with fever in the Yukon, I realized that the greatest threats to my wellbeing were my feelings of aloneness and isolation — feelings of being a victim. I couldn’t permit myself such luxury. While hoping that I might be found, I made myself face the reality that all I could really depend upon was myself.
During periods of awareness, I concentrated step by step upon what was necessary to survive this hour, this day. I deliberately shut out all thoughts of the future or of what might happen. I refused to think of home or of anything other than surviving this moment. I refused, in other words, to become a victim of either the circumstances or of my own thoughts. I stood up on my hind legs and growled back at the cat.
Three days later, I was shoving off down the river again.
A last word on surviving alone in the wilderness
Surviving alone in the wilderness, then, is a combination of basic skills, principles, and rules coupled with a healthy awareness and with the desire to be prepared for it mentally and physically. Should you ever find yourself having to survive solo, you may discover the experience has left you with a new spiritual awareness of your own inner world and of your place in the universe.
That was what Webb Chiles meant, too, when he said, “I rejoice in being.. . the most alone man of the billions on earth.”