The key to wilderness survival is about overcoming fear. When you first realize you’re lost in the wild, panic is instantaneous. Even well trained survival experts are susceptible to the fear of the unknown.
In fact, it would worry me to hear that someone isn’t a little scared of getting lost in the wilderness, as this shows a lack of respect for the potential consequences.
Ideally, anyone going into the wilderness will have, at the very minimum, a basic survival kit. It very rarely happens that you have no plans to go into the wild, yet wind up in the middle of nowhere. (Though it does happen!)
Even if you’re hiking well-blazed trails in a national park on Memorial Day weekend surrounded by hundreds of other day hikers, you still should carry provisions for an emergency.
You can lose the trail easier than you’d think. Or a sudden storm
may force you to hunker down. Mount Washington in New Hampshire, for
example, is famous for its fickle weather. Temperatures on the summit
can dip below freezing in July. Over 130 people have died up there. And
Mount Washington hosts a bustling national park, dotted with hiking
trails and restaurants.
When venturing into the great outdoors, at minimum carry the basics:
Research the area you’ll be exploring. What are the weather patterns like? Can it still drop to freezing even in the summer? What kinds of poisonous plants and dangerous animals should you avoid? (Well, all of them of course, but being able to recognize them is very important.)
Study the terrain with a topographical map (shows changes in elevation and, often, man-made features like roads). Check for potential rescue spots along your route.
Use your compass. When lost, getting your bearings is another major psychological comfort, even if you discover you’re still miles from civilization. At least you know where you are!
And though you'll ideally have a basic survival kit, it is a good idea to get some training in primitive survival skills from schools like Primal-Knowledge. Learning flint knapping, bow making, hunting, fishing and fire starting techniques, without man-made tools, can save your life.
Make an itinerary and leave it with friends and family. If you fail to check in by a certain time, they should know where to look for you. Naturally, this only works if you plan on venturing into the wilderness.
For all the times that a plane crash leaves you stranded or you need to escape from a prison in French Guiana a la Papillon, you have two options:
Neither option is ideal. It all depends on your level of preparation. If you have a search party on call should you fail to reach your destination, the best option might be to find a clearing and start building distress signals.
Some widely-recognized examples of duress are:
The idea with any distress signal is to create visual signals, sounds and even smells that would not normally be found in nature.
If you choose to find help yourself, it is a good idea to stick to waterways and coastlines. Where there is water there are people. For instance, if you were camping on the Oregon coast, head west, on the Maine coast, east, etc.
But if you don’t know where the nearest body of water is, look for signs of water, like clouds, birds and denser foliage. When in doubt, head down. Not south necessarily, but literally down.
Since water runs downhill (stay with us, we’re getting pretty scientific here) you have a better chance of finding it as you descend. Again, this is where your pre-adventure homework comes in. Even a cursory study of the terrain prior to departure can mean the difference between a successful rescue and a loss of life and limb.
To sum up: Plan (and pack) for the worst, know the terrain and set an itinerary to give you the best chances in a wilderness survival situation.