Eugene Weekly : Coverstory : 1.31.08

How not to die in western Oregon

EDITOR’S NOTE: James Johnston writes an outdoor column for Eugene Weekly. The tragic losses in the woods of Daming Xu in November and James Kim the year before make Johnston’s survival essay especially relevant.

The great outdoors of western Oregon is remarkably safe. It rarely gets dangerously hot or cold. There’s plenty of water and plenty of material for shelter. Yet almost every year, someone disappears into the forests and mountains of western Oregon and doesn’t come back.

I grew up in the boonies, and my childhood friends and I all prayed for a genuine survival situation. None of us wanted to suffer the ignominy of “getting lost,” but we relished the idea of “a tight spot,” some unforseen circumstances (avalanche, dangerous animals, etc.) that would transform an otherwise boring expedition into a test of our outdoor abilities, to say nothing of our growing narrative powers. “Yeeeee-ep,” I’d tell the kids on the school bus “Jeff ‘n’ me, we got ourselves into a pretty tight spot last night.”

Young Jeff and I had snuck out of the house in the middle of the night, jammed ourselves into a crude lean-to and spent the next 10 hours lighting approximately 20,000 kitchen matches.

The search party consisted of my father, an expert tracker, who stuck his head out the door at 7 am and yelled, “I AM FEEDING YOUR GODDAMNED BREAKFASTS TO THE DOG.”

There’s been a library of books written about surviving in the wilderness. A lot of people read them and get bogged down thinking about stuff you don’t really need to know, like: Do I play dead if a brown bear attacks and fight back against a black bear, or is it the other way around? What side of the tree does moss grow on? Can they find me with the GPS unit in my cell phone?

The tips you’ll read below comprise some of the most basic information that will help you cope with noninjury, getting-lost -type situations in our region. I have never been lost, of course. But I have encountered many unforeseen circumstances ranging from the prosaic (falling into the North Santiam River in winter or getting stranded by fog and falling rock on Mt. Jefferson) to the truly dangerous (taking tequila shots with fire crews or hiking with R-G reporters in certain controversial salvage sales closed to the public pursuant to 36 CFR § 261.53).

The bare essentials for day hiking are (in order of importance): Map, water, warm clothes (including change of socks), rain slicker, tinder and waterproof lighter or matches, emergency blanket, water purification tablets, knife and snacks. Carry all of these.

And here are the tips:

Get a map! A map is your most important survival tool. It will keep you from getting lost in the first place and help you get back to your vehicle if you take a wrong turn. You don’t need a compass; you simply need to note trail junctions, stream crossings, roads and other geographic features and locate these features on your map to orient yourself. It is difficult to get lost or stay lost if you have a good map. The maps in guidebooks don’t count. Get a good topographic map from the Forest Service or at REI for the area you’re planning to hike in.

Stay on the trail! Leaving the trail is hands-down the worst decision you can make while lost in western Oregon. Search and rescue personnel will always search the local trail and road system first, which could take days. If you’re not on the trail, it’s difficult to be seen from the air. The fancy infrared equipment carried by National Guard and sheriff’s department helicopters is ineffective in heavy forest cover and deep canyons. Frequent rain washes away tracks and scent. Following a creek downstream will rarely take you back to civilization; as often as not it will take you into a treacherous canyon far from help. Stay on the trail no matter what.

Stay together. If you are traveling with a friend(s), unless one of you is seriously injured and the other is positive he or she can reach help quickly, stay together. With a friend around, you’ll stay warmer, maintain a better mental attitude and make better decisions.

Secure safe water. You should always bring water along when hiking, even on a short hike. It is critical to stay hydrated if you’re lost. Water is necessary for metabolism and good circulation, which you need to stay warm. Most water sources in western Oregon, even in wilderness areas, are contaminated and will make you sick. Everyone should hike with water purification tablets to add to their canteens along with water from a stream.

Carry clothes that will keep you dry and warm. Aside from serious injury, being wet in cold weather is the worst thing that can happen to you in western Oregon. The combination of cold and wet will burn your energy reserves far faster than cold alone, weakening you, interfering with your higher brain functioning and eventually killing you. It is essential that you carry a sweater or jacket and water-repellent outer garment at a bare minimum.

No matter what the weather conditions, I always carry a Mont-Bell Ultra-Light Down jacket (a spendy little item that’s incredibly warm and light), a cheap, lightweight plastic rain slicker and an even cheaper and lighter emergency blanket. All three items together weigh about the same as a pair of heavy wool socks but make freezing temperatures, wind and rain survivable, if not comfortable.

Build a fire and shelter. If you are lost and get wet, if you don’t have dry clothes, if you don’t expect immediate rescue and if temperatures drop below 40 degrees, you are in serious trouble.

Building a fire when it’s wet is not easy. To cope with this eventuality, I pack a small amount of newspaper and bone-dry oak shavings (cooked in my oven for 15 minutes at 150 degrees) and a Colibri Extreme II wind resistant lighter. With this outfit and under shelter, it is possible to get a fire going even in wet conditions. How? The only real answer is practice. Put together a kit like mine and try it sometime. You will learn which fuel and methods work best. (Hints: Dig a little to find dry fuel, use a knife to shave off bark and outer wood, dry large amounts of fine fuels with an improvised grill and add those first, and blow on the son of a gun like it’s Dick Cheney and you’ve got a nasty flu virus.)

If you are cold and wet, you are not going to have the time or energy to build an elaborate shelter. Make use of existing nooks and crannies in boulders or large logs. Scrape out wet material. Lean large branches against the cavity you’ll rest in and roof the structure with fir boughs. Overbuild the structure — the excess material will be dried by your fire and added to it.

The key to building a shelter in western Oregon is fir boughs. They are a good insulator and rain repellent. Shake them vigorously to get water off them. You will need a lot of fir boughs, the more the better. After you construct a roof, lay large amounts of fir boughs on the ground as a mattress — most of your heat loss will come from contact with the ground. Cover yourself with even more fir boughs. If worse comes to worst and you can’t get a fire going, remove wet clothing and wrap yourself up in huge numbers of fir boughs inside your shelter.

Control your breathing and sing to yourself. This sounds flaky, but it’s good advice. The biggest obstacle to survival in a tight spot is panic, which leads to poor decision making and a cascade of physiological reactions which will further drain your energy reserves. To ameliorate these symptoms, clench the muscles in your arms and legs while inhaling deeply; hold this breath briefly and exhale slowly while relaxing your muscles. This exercise stimulates an autonomic nervous system response that will signal your brain stem — the ancient, reptilian lower back part of your brain that controls panic reactions —to chill out. Singing and chanting to yo urself also helps. Seriously.

Deal with it. The most important survival skill is good decision making. Poor decision making, as with most self-destructive human behavior, is a result of how people frame the problem they face. If you are alone in a deep forest at night, cold, with no idea where you are or how to get out, a common reaction is to frame the situation in your mind as desperate, which will lead to desperate (and usually wrong) decision-making. You need better perspective on your situation. The facts are, if you stay on the trail, someone will be along for you, and the fir boughs and the shelter will keep you warm enough to survive until then. Sing yourself a song and breathe deeply. Try and think of a clever line to use when help arrives (“D-D-D-Dr. Livingston, I presume?”).

Stay on the trail.

To set the record straight:
1) Fight back aggressively with your hands, feet, rocks and sticks if attacked by a black bear or cougar; use a .30-06 for brown bears.
2) Moss grows everywhere; it is not a navigational tool.
3) Cell phone GPS signals won’t work in steep canyons or dense forest cover, or when they’re wet.



Some people wonder if they should eat bugs or what not if they’re lost, cold and hungry. Do you know how much energy you’ll burn rustling up enough bugs to make a meal? A better bet is one of those big banana slugs. Chop off the tail and eat it raw. Banana slugs are edible and a good fatty source of energy.

Write to me care of the Weekly and let me know how that goes. I almost talked myself into trying a slug tail once because I don’t like to recommend stuff that I haven’t tried myself. About eight years ago I was camped in a makeshift shelter on the south side of Mt. June and decided I’d eat a slug for breakfast and see what the day’s hiking was like. I spent a fair amount of time selecting a victim, which was a mistake, because after twenty minutes or so of poking at slugs, I got worried that I’d throw up if I ate one. Vomiting is very bad in a survival situation. You lose a lot of fluid and risk dehydration. I had been living on gin and huckleberries for several days and couldn’t risk further dehydration.