Dealing With Nature – Part 3: Getting Equipped for an Adventure

OK, so far in this series we’ve talked about the allure of landscape photography and how mastery of it can inform virtually every other genre you might work in; but there are issues and dangers you need to consider before you just start out for the tall and the uncut (part 1).  And we’ve talked about getting prepared for a landscape trek both for yourself and your vehicle (we did NOT talk about photo prep in this series, that’s for elsewhere) in order to try to avoid emergency or even survival situations (part 2).

But now its time to talk about those times when even the best preparation has failed and you’ve been blindsided by a natural or man-created event and find yourself in the middle of a major emergency where you are not close to civilization and cannot extricate yourself and must spend at least a night in the middle of nowhere.  What are the tools and skills needed to survive such situations?  If you are interested we can add another segment or two on how to use those tools in an emergency situation.

But first, a (hopefully) calming introduction.  Remember, and this is important, we are NOT addressing skills needed to live off grid in a post apocalyptic world where the veneer of civilization itself has been pealed away with no grid remaining to even worry about for the rest of your life… or at least a very long time.  Barring that sort of nightmare scenario or prolonged natural catastrophe, most emergencies for nature photographers happen within a day’s hike to a road or other easy means of exit or help, and in the vast number of cases, happen when the photographer simply intended to hike out a few hundred yard or less and then things went seriously south in an instant.  For the most part, if – IF – you followed my instructions for leaving a plan with someone not going, and then sticking to it, rescue happens  in an average of three days (and usually less) and only rarely does the emergency actually last a full week.

It’s true that hyperbolic stories now and then hit the press about people surviving for weeks or months and those gather lots of coverage on all media fronts.  But those are extremely rare and usually are prolonged due primarily to human error or negligence, not the nature of the emergency itself.  For the typical nature photographer off on a typical photo trek, and other than a true survival hike or week long but planned-out journey, usually following established trails where you are carrying everything needed for that planned outing, your serious planning needs only to consider having an accident or losing your way and having to survive up to three days.  That is a VERY different issue than what to do in case of a civilization collapse or, something really likely like, oh, say, a zombie apocalypse.

If you recall the chart on what kills people at what rate, the things you will need to be concerned about for a 2-4 day sojourn are primarily maintaining core body temp and then water… in that order.

No, I didn’t forget about food.  For one thing you are not likely to starve to death in three days or even a week.  Oh, make no mistake, you’ll be REALLY uncomfortable and very hungry, but your survival will be dependent on other things than food.  And that means having to hunt or trap or fish for sustenance will not be a requirement.  And that is a good thing that already gives you a leg up.

Most survival kits contain fishing line and hooks but, movies and TV shows aside, throwing a line with a hook attached into the water, except perhaps during a salmon run, is likely to leave you frustrated, and worse, frustrated and REALLY hungry thinking about the fish you failed to catch.  Building a fish trap (assuming there was a good place for one) or hunting for small game is equally likely to fail and trapping is much harder than it is made to look in those great demos by some heir apparent to Davy Crockett.  And if you succeed in getting a fish or squirrel or rabbit, do you know how to clean it and prepare it for eating?  Can you recognize the signs of diseases on the meat of game, especially in rabbits so you would know what NOT to eat?  My advice is to bring plenty of energy bars and forget hunting or fishing for food.

While it is possible to live for a few days without water if you expend ZERO energy, in reality after a few hours, only 6-10 hours of any effort, you will start to dehydrate and feel the effects in an increasing failure to function properly. Dying from dehydration is really ugly.  I always have extra water in the vehicle and also have a water filter in the emergency kit.  But because here in southern California, and especially in the desert areas, water can be hard to find, the safest, easiest thing to do is simply carry extra with you and when you take off away from the vehicle, have a canteen with you.

To maintain body temp, which is the thing that will kill you the fastest, you will need some form of shelter from either the brutal rays of the sun or from cold and wetness.  If you are near your car and it is not wrecked or otherwise dangerous to be in or around, then it is the best existing shelter you can have because it is also far more easily spotted from the air by rescue personnel unless you’ve driven it off into heavy bush or into a deep lake or river.  If your car is simply stuck or stranded, stay with it.  If you have brought the suggested supplies (and you can carry enough in your car to several people for several days) you are ahead of the game and your main worry will be terminal boredom waiting for help.

But if your vehicle is not available, your primary needs for a 3-5 day stay, in terms of real survival, and assuming no medical emergencies mandating rescue or movement, will still be primarily shelter and maintaining body temperature. (We’ll talk about medical emergencies needing extraction later…) You face an immediate decision that is critical, i.e. Should you stay where you are or should you try to find your way out?

Many of us (mostly men I’m embarrassed to admit) assume we have some built in GPS system that will allow us to intuit our way across terra icognito to safety.   Listen carefully… YOU DO NOT.  To navigate in an environment that is not intimately familiar to you, requires two pieces of hard data: (1) where are you more or less exactly, and (2) where, precisely,  is the target destination and safety?  Study after study has shown that NO ONE can walk in a straight line for very long.  So what? Well… consider this:

If you are a mile away from your destination and know what is the precise bearing to get there, an error in your travel of one minute of angle (a 60th of a degree), equal to only one inch off in 100 yards, will have you missing your target by about 175 yards, nearly two football fields.  Not a problem if you are heading for a town, but if you are trying to get to a known spring, or your vehicle, or a cache, or a camp, especially in dense woods, you will walk by it and never understand how close you were as you march on to your death.

If you are not a very experienced outdoors person, highly skilled in land navigation, AND know those two basic bits of data, AND have a compass or GPS, you are almost certainly better off to find a close clearing or meadow where you can make yourself very visible to rescue aircraft and patrols.

Does your pack contain any high visibility sheets you can stake out to make your position more visible?  If not, add it now.  Old timers talk of building signal fires and would tell you that three fires belching smoke, located in a row, is a universally recognized symbol of distress.  And that is true.  But…  With the increase in droughts and extremely dry conditions, building large signal fires creates a huge danger of starting a wildfire and leaving nothing but your charred remains for later searchers to find, not to mention incredible danger to anything in the area from an out of control wildfire that YOU started.  So don’t do it.  There are better ways to attract attention.  One of the most devastating wild fires in this area was started by a lost hunter.

Most packets of high-visibility sheets also contains diagrams of how to arrange them for signaling your situation.  A large “V” means to pick you up there.  A large “X” means a medical emergency.

If the rescuers see you individually from the air, then you only need to know 2-3 of the body/hand rescue signals.  Once you know you’ve been spotted and the aircraft is circling to watch you or hovering, if you need rescue and to be picked up hold both arms straight up and steady.  If you need medical help but the situation is not life threatening, hold both arms straight out from your body parallel to the ground.  If you have a life-threatening medical emergency, as the pilot watches, lay down on your back, fully prone on the ground with arms overhead.

There is a whole language of body and hand signals for more specific communications, but when you are stuck in place, unable to proceed and need rescue, those are the ones you will need.  A normal plane will rock its wings to indicate it has understood you before it goes for help.  A helicopter will search to see if there is a close place to land and if not will circle then go for help.  Take a deep breath, it is almost over.

If it is dark enough to where your flashlight can be seen – you do have a flashlight with you??? – then an SOS will get the attention of anyone who can see it.  Three short flashes, three longer flashes, and three more short flashes, is the international “SOS” or “MayDay” signal.  If the sun is out, a signal mirror can send the same message for miles and miles if you have line of sight to an aircraft or where there is some sign of human activity.  Even the light from a cell phone, especially the flashlight function, can also be seen for miles.  Even if you do not have any signal for a call or text, the flashlight function will work. If anyone sees it, even a commercial aircraft, they will call it in.

There is some controversy that an SOS is meant for dire, life threatening emergencies only; but my feeling is that if your life is on the line, I’d worry about explaining and apologizing later after help arrived and you are safe.  If the SOS signal is received, the receiver would normally respond with an “R” (short, long, short) set of flashes, or two quick “Rs” together indicating they received your message.  But while almost anyone will recognize the emergency signal, not all that many people know enough Morse code and radio protocol to return the “R” signal. If they signal ANYthing back, it means they got your message.   If received by an airplane there may be no way to let you know they got the message other than, in the day time, when they know you can see them, rocking their wings.

So, OK, you’ve found a place to stop and stay, and you know it probably won’t be until the next day that search efforts get underway after your backup at home alerts the cavalry you did not return as scheduled.  Now it is time to think seriously about the upcoming evening.  Of course, you checked the weather forecast ahead of the trek and know whether it will be mild or cold once the sun goes down and dressed accordingly.  If rain is forecast then some form of shelter will be called for.  And for many people, rain or not, a shelter just feels less open to the scary dark and the real or imagined creatures that live there. A tarp would be wonderful but lacking that (they are heavy) a lean-to or A-Frame with sides made from tightly shingled boughs, can shed all but the most severe rain storms.

While fire may or may not be really necessary for heat,  a small containable campfire can do wonders for your morale; so it will be well worth your while to learn how to build one in such a way as to eliminate the likelihood of it getting out of control and setting the forest, and maybe you, on fire.  And if you are leading a small group here, your ability to get a campfire going will be almost magical in its ability to instill calm and confidence in you and reduce panic that can get someone killed.

Many folks, especially men, I hate to admit once again, seem to feel that buried in male DNA is the code to fire starting.  We expect ourselves, and are often expected by others, to simply kneel down, rub a couple of sticks together and poof, a beautiful campfire, ready for weenies or marshmallows, springs into existence.  Alas, there is not a shred of truth in that.

Making fire is a skill that must be learned and, once learned, needs to be practiced in a stress-free environment, so that when the adrenaline is running like Niagara and fine motor skills just left for a better party, and you are frightened, cold, and frustrated at the hand you have just been dealt by nature or your own actions, you can still start one easily.  When you know how, have the tools, and have practiced it, it actually IS easy although somewhat tedious.  But when you don’t know how, or think watching a few YouTube videos are all that is needed, you are going to be in for an ego shattering, incredibly frustrating, and perhaps very chilly evening.

Fire requires several things.  It requires fuel that will burn with a plasma flame such as most wood, it requires oxygen, and it requires ignition from some source.  The fuel itself is broken into three parts.  Once it is going well, fuel logs are fine.  Those are the larger, thicker chunks of wood, about arm or wrist thickness, that one normally associates with a wood fire.  But wood of that size does not ignite easily unless your tool kit contains gas and a portable blow torch.  Those are not items one normally carries in their pockets or emergency kits.  Even a storm-proof match or butane lighter is not going to get a log burning for your fire.  Fortunately there are other ways.  Before the fuel wood can be ignited, you need to start smaller.  Those intermediate steps are first the “tinder” and then the  “kindling.”

Tinder is fine, easily ignitable material, often dry grasses, pine needles, shredded bark, or man-made tinder such as fire cord, or even dryer lint.  Those are easy to ignite with the normal things such as matches and lighters.  But they also ignite with the more old-time approaches such as flint and steel (or the modern counterpart, a ferrocerium rod), a good magnifying glass, or even, if you are very skilled at it, a bow drill.  I can show you how to use the old-time approaches; but c’mon, get real.  Most of you are not interested in learning that stuff and in an emergency where you completely are blindsided by the need to make fire, the good news is that you are not going to have to make fires long after modern igniters run out.  You’ve only got to make one or, at the most, 5-6 fires.  So make it easy on yourself.  Toss in couple books of matches or a couple of butane lighters and relax.  For short term emergencies, where you will have enough emotional distraction to last a lifetime, we can accept that this is the 21st century not the 18th or 19th century.  This is not a test of your long term survivor skills, it is a short term life or death issue but the operative term is “short term.”

That means all you have to do is be able to get the tinder and kindling ready and perhaps split down some of the larger fuel woods for your fire, then “lay” a fire that allows the smaller tinder to ignite kindling and then fuel wood.  I know, I’ve met some… there are woodsy elitist who would have you believe there is only one proper way to lay a fire – most common are the “teepee” and “log cabin” lays.  But in an emergency, the proper lay is one that works.  Again we can cover this in detail if you want.

Meantime, let’s start with tinder since that is where you’ll have to start with your fire.  And, once again, you can either return to the days of ol’ Dan’l Boone, learn bush lore and what kinds of trees produce “fat” wood (resin infused wood), and how to properly scrape up a pile of it, crush wild grasses and twigs, etc., make “feather sticks” and char cloth (all of which is fascinating and worthwhile knowledge for any photographer spending time in the bush), or…  in the short term, you can take advantage of our modern world.

It turns out that modern conveniences produce excellent tinder as a by-product that ignites with far more consistency than grass (which has to be bone dry to work).  Your clothes dryer produces very efficient tinder in the form of “dryer lint,” especially when it is from cottons and wools (polyester lint is not very good).  The cotton that is used to stopper many supplement bottles is also very good tinder.  Instead of throwing it out, bag it and save it. You can make it into an incredible fire starter by combining it with some paraffin, bee’s wax, and/or magnesium shavings (very cheap on ebay). Put it in a baggie, toss it in your emergency pack and it will last essentially forever  When you are laying out the materials for your fire, in the tinder pile you can also include low hanging dead/dried twigs, shavings and chips from any wood chopping or sawing you had to do.  Then start collecting the kindling.

Kindling is small, up-to finger sized twigs and small branches (all DRY) or strips left over from splitting down larger logs into wrist and arm sized fuel logs.  The tinder will ignite the kindling and that will produce a large enough and long-lasting enough flame to ignite the actual fuel.

The reason things like feather sticks and shavings work is that thin, finer edges catch on fire far easier than the flat or rounded sides of larger pieces.  Once lit then they will continue to burn into the larger sides and edges.   Collect enough kindling to be equal in volume to one or two fuel logs.  Speaking of which, now it is time to collect the real fuel.

This fire starter tinder and even most kindling can be collected with your bare hands although it can be easier and a knife would be required for making a feather stick or shavings.  But to collect fuel wood, you will find it easier with some tools.  Yes, if you can find enough arm and wrist sized downed but dried wood branches, you can break it into campfire lengths by breaking them over a rock or against a tree.  But while often that might get you going, before long – and certainly a day later, you will run out of them and either have to forage wider and wider to find them (and remember you are lost because you were not all that good at navigating in the woods)  or you are going to need to be able to split and break down larger chunks of wood into reasonable pieces for your fire.  So, what tools will you need to have available?

To identify the tools we might need, let’s first identify the work you will need those tools to do.  You will need to cut down larger dead limbs and or use fallen dead trees and limbs that need to be “bucked” into firewood length pieces, some of which must then be split into firewood.  You might also need to be able to create wood shavings, and be able to shape some pieces into splitting wedges.

In an ideal world you would have several tools available: a good saw, an axe or at least a good sized hatchet or tomahawk, a larger knife for chopping and making intermediate tools, and a smaller knife for more precision cutting and slicing, and perhaps a pack mule to carry it.  Having all of that would make fast work of your fire-making chores.  But let’s face it, almost no photographer, and most especially one already whimpering about the weight of a DSLR, is likely to wander off for a shot with all that gear readily available in a pack or on their belt.

The fully loaded emergency pack that lives in my car when on the road includes all of that plus first aid and medical stuff, shelter pieces, fire making tools and supplies, water filter, canteen, lashing and rope, navigation equipment, it even has toilet paper on board… but it weighs in at about 40 pounds.  It really is designed to live in the vehicle and I almost never carry it when I think I’m just going down the trail over that little rise where I expect the wily image to be waiting.

So what do I carry on those short hikes where I only expect to find a shot, take it, and hike back to the vehicle in, at most, an hour or so?  I strap on a belt (often a surplus military web belt or law enforcement utility belt whose width helps spread the load) with a large knife, a Swiss Army knife in its own sheath, a small pouch with fire making stuff, simple first aid supplies, a canteen of water, and some lashing usually in the form of paracord.  And if, for some reason I had to pare that down to a one or two items, I would take the big knife and stuff some matches or a ferro rod in my shirt pocket.  If you wish, in a later post I can show how to use that stuff.

A critical warning however is that all the best survival gear you can find on the web will not save your life if you do not know how to use it.  Just like your camera, it is just a collection of tools waiting for the skills and knowledge to arrive to put it to good use.

But there is one potential issue we have not yet considered.  What if you, or someone in your party, are injured?  I don’t mean a minor cut or scrape that can be temporarily dealt with using a Bandaid® and maybe some antiseptic ointment, I mean something serious, like a broken bone and/or serious blunt force trauma from a fall or, worse, sharp force trauma from falling into a sharp broken tree branch?  Tripping over hidden roots or rocks, or making a misstep on a shelf or ledge trail, can, in an instant, turn a pleasant hike into a serious, life or death matter.  There are too many really easy ways to hurt yourself in the bush to ignore this possibility.

I once had a student walking through the timber, intently focused on a shot they thought they saw through the trees to the side, walk straight into a broken branch sticking our and peeled back a major flap of skin on their forehead.  It was not life-threatening, but it bled ferociously, looked horrible, and needed attention immediately to help keep it from getting infected.

What if you trip and break a leg or an arm?  With that injury and the agonizing pain, can you get back to your vehicle or somewhere where medical help is available? What if you reached over a rock to pull yourself up and got snake bit?  If by some miracle you had cell phone coverage, could you tell rescuers precisely where to find you?

I don’t want to scare you or make you afraid to go into the bush for photographs.  But the more you are aware of things that can negatively effect your trek, and the better prepared you are for them, the more enjoyable your photo trek will be and the more you’ll want to come back. And the more you return, the more beautiful photos you take, the more viewers will come to appreciate and want to take care of nature.  So add a comment if you’d like more details…

BTW, it looks like the Photo 245 Landscape Photography course will be allowed to run this Spring.  It is in the course schedule online but I do not know if you can yet register for it.  It lists my team teacher, Professor Melinda Holden as the instructor but that is the right course so if you are interested, sign up as soon as you can so it will not be cancelled.  I’ll have more details later.

Plus Steve Burns (PhotoShop guru extraordinaire), and I will be doing a workshop in Spring along the central coast dealing with using the concepts of the Zone System applied to the digital world to give you total control of your captured images and to better prepare them for advanced editing.


About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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2 Responses to Dealing With Nature – Part 3: Getting Equipped for an Adventure

  1. gene wild says:

    Good post…a lot of excellent information…not just for photographers.

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