Too often bushwalkers and remote area hikers get lost, stranded, injured and even end up dead whilst exploring the great Aussie bush. Sadly this has been happening too often. Don’t become the next statistic! So, before you head off the beaten track next, remember being prepared and having the right knowledge to survive in the bush will help you get out alive. Here are some practical, commonsense tips that you should follow before setting off on a bush walk or hike… even if its “only a couple of hours” trip. A couple of hours is all that it takes for something to go completely wrong.
- Bring adequate water. Our bodies are 70% water and thus water is an absolute necessity to survive. A body fluid reduction of just one percent can seriously impair our body’s thermoregulation system allowing dehydration to kick in. Hence, we require a minimum of 1 litre per 25 kg of body weight per day for optimal function. You might intend to be only doing a 2 hr hike but if things go seriously pear shaped then you will be needing extra water get you through until Search & Rescue (SAR) teams either find you or you walk out yourself. Even if you don’t experience any mishaps on your trip, you will need a lot more water than you think so don’t go bringing a 500 mL water bottle on a hot day into the bush – that’s just plain stupid and a recipe for disaster.
- Pack a survival kit, know its contents and how to use them. I strongly recommend the Bob Cooper Survival Kit (check out my review of it here). It is designed for Australian conditions and has been tested out in one of the remotest parts of the Australian outback: the Pilbara region of Western Australia. It is in use by Australian Defence force personnel, mining companies, government agencies and prepared individuals. This survival kit takes care of the 5 priorities of survival: Shelter, Water, Warmth, Signals and Food. Food is at the bottom of the list – as it isn’t a high priority at all. Not eating for say 48 or 72 hrs won’t kill you, heck nobody’s ever died by going without food for a couple of days. Sure, your stomach’s going to be growling no doubt but there’s more pressing priorities that must be attended to first, namely getting sheltered from the elements, preventing dehydration, keeping yourself warm and signalling/calling for help.
- Don’t forget the first aid kit. The kit should include an emergency blanket and 3 compression bandages for treating snake bites.
- Take along an EPIRB. If you intend to trek through an area that doesn’t have mobile phone coverage then a registered EPIRB is your friend.
- Wear weather appropriate clothing and prepare for inclement weather. Wear light coloured (i.e. khaki) long sleeved shirt and pants, broad-brimmed hat, UV resistant sunglasses and UPF 50+ sunscreen. Don’t forget to bring along a fleece, light rain jacket and a rain poncho (which can also be used as an improvised tarp shelter in an emergency). Don’t discard or remove any of your clothing either – they are your only protection from the sun.
- Let someone know where you’re going! This could be a friend, family member(s), local police and national park authorities. National parks in Australia require you to fill in a trip intentions form before setting off on a trip to a remote area of a park. This form will ask you to fill in comprehensive information such as the route you intend to take, your itinerary, any activities you intend to do, what supplies you have with you, how many people are in your group, whether you’re using vehicles, vehicle details, contact persons, contact numbers, radio frequencies and the date/time you expect to be out by etc, etc. If you aren’t out by the time stated on the form, search and rescue teams will be activated. When telling friends or family members your trip intentions don’t just tell them where you’re going but also discuss with them what actions they should take if you fail to show up after the expected time.
- Take detailed, up-to-date maps with you and know how to use them. Out of date maps can get you killed. For example old maps may not show that a reliable water source (such as a waterhole) is 250 m from your current location and this could be serious if you desperately need water.
- Mental preparation is key if lost. How would you cope if you ever got lost in the wilderness? It’s a good idea to think about what you would do beforehand. Lack of knowledge has killed many people. Even those who have knowledge, emotions can get in the way and cloud otherwise normally good judgment and override commonsense (which survival is really all about). Strategies to handle and control those emotions can be a lifesaver.
- Leave your house or accommodation with a belly full of water. Sure, finding a place to relieve yourself later could be a bit of a challenge but having water in your stomach is a lot more useful to your body than inside a bottle. If you drank a standard cup before you left then thats 250 mL of extra water that you’re carrying.
- Bring some energy bars. I did say before that food isn’t your top priority but loss of energy can seriously affect your motivation to perform tasks necessary to survive. It is a good idea to brink along a couple of high energy bars when you hit the trail both for topping up your energy whilst hiking and also to keep you going if you end up lost.
What to do if lost/stranded:
Stop, Sit Down & Make A Plan
If you find that you’re lost, stop what you’re doing immediately, find a place to sit down, assess the situation and make a plan to get out in one piece. Planning is the key to survival. If you “fail to plan, you plan to fail” – its as simple as that. Follow Bob Cooper’s 5 priorities of survival: Shelter, Water, Warmth, Signals and Food.
Keep Calm, Don’t Panic
Cool it! Panicking can cause you to be impulsive which can result in you making bad decisions that could cost you your life. Bob Cooper recommends that you make yourself a cuppa and has included tea and coffee in his survival kit for that purpose. Having a cuppa does two things: 1) it gives you something to do and 2) boosts morale.
Drink, Don’t Sip Your Water!
Many bushwalkers have died of dehydration with water still in there bottles. Why? Because when they were nearly out of water, they began sipping on their dwindling supply. It is a common misconception that sipping rehydrates your body. The first sip goes to your digestion, then whatever is left goes to the liver and kidneys leaving absolutely nothing for your brain to absorb and use to function properly resulting in what is known as “dehydration dementia”. This is a serious condition where your body is so severely dehydrated that you are unable to think rationally and make good decisions. This could well and truly be your ultimate demise.
Drink whenever you feel the need to. Don’t think that you’re conserving your water somehow by leaving it in the bottle. Thirst and the colour of your urine (pale means that you’re adequately hydrated) are both indicators of when you need to increase your water intake.
Conserve Your Energy
Don’t go walking in the heat of the day. Your body requires a lot more fluids when its hot. Instead find some shade or construct a makeshift shelter to protect you from the sun. If you have to move (i.e. to go to a nearby waterhole), then do so at night.
Stay With Your Vehicle
I can’t stress this enough. Don’t abandon your vehicle if you drove in with one. Your vehicle can offer you some shelter and protection from the elements. It also makes it easier for SAR teams to find you. The aircon of the vehicle can be used to cool you down and you can also drain the water from it as well. One of the three mirrors can be used for signalling aircraft. The tyres can be set up in a triangle and set alight as a universal distress signal. Three honks of the air horn can be used to notify anyone who happens to be in the area that someone is in need of help. Lastly, don’t forget to put the vehicle’s bonnet up! Doing that shows anyone who might come across your vehicle that you need immediate assistance.
Call For Help
If you have a mobile phone with you, check if it has reception and dial 000, the Australian national emergency number and ask for police. They are the coordinating agency for search and rescue operations.
If you do not have a mobile phone or do not have coverage and instead brought a Sat Phone call RFDS using the emergency number for your state. If you have a UHF CB radio then try the designated emergency channel 5, the road channel 40 or the caravan/4×4 channel 18. Your best option is to scan through all the channels as locals may use other channels.
Signal for Help
If you see a plane or helicopter flying overhead, use the signalling mirror from your survival kit or a car mirror to flash the sun’s reflection at the aircraft. Remember that 3 whistle blasts, flashes of light, flares and smoky fires in a triangle are all universally recognised distress signals. Don’t waste your energy on screaming for help! Setup a tinsel tripod (using brightly coloured, reflective bits and pieces), draw/write directional arrows or messages (using sticks and rocks or create the letters with your hands in the dirt or sand).
Prepare yourself mentally for any changes to your plan that are out of control. Most importantly have the will to survive. Don’t give up, don’t despair. Tell yourself “I am going to come out alive!” Determination and fortitude are both excellent qualities to have as a person and they can be your greatest allies in a survival situation.