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Surviving in the Wilderness: What to Do and Bring on Long Trips

     Before leaving on a long trip, like a pilot that flies flight plans before he takes off, it is prudent for travelers to file a travel or wilderness plan: Always let someone know where you are going and when you expect to arrive or return. If you fail to show up, we can come looking for you where you said you would be.

  • Always bring some form of communication, a VHF radio or cellphone. When talking with airplanes flying above you, make sure you set on low frequency (1 Watt) or else reception will be full of static.
  • Bring a map, GPS, or compass. Bring flares, a flashlight, or rescue laser for signals.
  • Bring matches, a lighter and firestarter sticks, or paste to make fire for heat, signaling, and making water and food.
  • Bring food and water, and one or two pots (metal coffee cans are great for this) to make hot water or food. Bringing a small one-burner stove is always a good idea.
  • Bring a knife, hatchet, or axe. You'll need them for cutting wood or branches for shelter and firewood.
  • Bring a tarp or tent. Bring rope or twine. Bring enough sleeping bag to cover each traveler when sleeping.

Winter Survival

     Travelers, if out of gas or break down far away from communities, are advised to stay close to their snowmachines. When you do not arrive at your destinations as planned, we will begin to search for you. Many times, we find snowmachines right away, but their owners have walked off and it takes longer - sometimes days longer - to find them.

     In winter, bring a shovel for getting a stuck snowmachine out of deep snow or for building a snow shelter if you get stuck in the wilderness. When a snow machine is stuck in deep snow, tamp down the snow below it and a good five to ten feet in front of the snowmachine so it has firm ground to take off from, When in deep snow and you get going, don't stop or slow down until you get back on firm ground.

     For shelter, if you can find a snow bank, dig out a hole into one side away from the wind, and hollow out a sleeping area. If there is any material nearby - branches, boughs, or grass - gather enough to make bedding. If you are going to cover your entrance with snow or tarp, make sure to leave or poke a small breathing hole above the entrance.

     Another way to make shelter, if the snow if firm, is to make a hole or rectangle (as long and wide as you) in the ground and make snowblocks to make a snow fort (tall enough for you to sit up) around the hold and cover with tarp. If there is no tarp, make an A-frame roof using long snowblocks. If there is any material for bedding, gather that and put it between you and snow floor.

     If snow is powdery, first pile enough snow to make a very large mound, then wait an hour or two for the snow to bind; then make a hole near the ground and dig out enough space in the mound to make a shelter. If it begins to crumble when you start, wait another hour for the snow to bind. Again, if you will cover your entrance hole, make sure you have a breathing hole. Use any available materials, especially spruce boughs, to put space between you and the snow floor.

     If you are stuck near spruce trees, if you need quick shelter, find one that has a hollowed out trunk area covered with boughs or branches. With a shovel, hollow our more space for enough shelter room. Cut more branches and boughs from nearby trees to make your shelter as tight as possible, as well as, a bedding area for sleeping. Use snow blocks for windbreaks as well.

     Another idea is when you bring a sled or toboggan, is to make a rectangular hole in the snow and turn the sled upside down over it to make a shelter. Make an entrance in the back of the sled to crawl into. Make sure you chink or cover all the holes around the sled except your entrance. When going to sleep, don't completely cover the entrance or you will run out of air.

Signaling for Help

     When shelter has been made, begin to get ready to draw attention to yourself and be seen for searchers. Many search teams will head home at night to rest, refuel, and resupply for more searching the next day. Gather and pile as much wood as possible for fire to make water or food. You can also make a fire to keep warm at night. If you can, get some rest.

     Be careful NOT TO PERSPIRE while gathering firewood. Stop to cool off if you get hot. Sweating and getting your clothes damp can lead to fast heat loss and lead to hypothermia.

     Pile this wood where you can start a large fire, such as under a tree (but not your shelter) when you hear searchers on the ground or in the air. (If you are near dead trees and you get cold at night, you can light up a dead tree for a nice hot fire.) Also gather green boughs for "smoking" or signaling during the day. Green boughs emit a darker smoke than dry wood. If necessary, cut out a good portion of your snowmachine seat for burning when signaling. A burning snowmachine seat emits very black smoke that can be seen for miles. You can always replace your snowmachine seat but you cannot be replaced so do what you can to attract attention.

     Make sure to light your signal fire when you hear searchers about. There is nothing like a big puff of smoke in the distance that leads searchers to you. It is also okay to light your signal fire at night if you think airplanes are looking for you. Sometimes, air searchers will do a night flight in case they might see a signal fire.

     Use flashlights and lasers to attract the attention of air searchers. Keep flashing until they see you.

Falling into Water

      In summer, if you fall out of your boat and you are alone, grab onto your boat and try to get in. If you cannot and your motor is not running but in the down position, move toward the back and use the motor's cavitation plate (the fin just above the prop) as a step and hoist yourself abroad. DO NOT ATTEMPT THIS IF YOUR MOTOR IS RUNNING!

     When in the boat, make for shore or the nearest shelter. If you have no shelter, wring out as much water as you can, then drive to shore and stuff your wet clothes thickly with grass (dry grass preferably). If home or shelter is far and you're able to make a fire with resources around you, then make a fire to dry your clothes and keep warm. If boats are visible, wave for help if you need help. If you are unable to travel but have a way to communicate, call for help.

     In winter, it is near impossible to wring your clothes as your wet clothes will begin freezing right away. You will have to work fast to ward off deadly hypothermia. As soon as you get out of water, get out of the wind by going immediately to a sheltered spot. If it is freezing, roll in the snow to draw moisture out. If it's not that freezing, wring moisture off your clothes or else begin gathering grass to stuff into your clothes. Stuff grass wherever wetness touches your skin. Pull your boots off to drain water out and wring your socks. If necessary, make an oval mat out of grass and insert into your boots to make an insole. If you are able to make a fire, make a fire to stay warm and dry off your clothes as much as possible. If you are able to walk or travel, make for the nearest village or shelter.

     Survivors of water plunges in winter have been seen arriving home (or to their destination) very fat looking, due to the all the grass stuffed into their clothes. The grass creates a pocket of air between the clothes that body warmth heats up and allows a person that has fallen in water to survive for a time. Survivors that are hypothermic have extremely slurred speech and have difficulty walking or keeping balance so warming up a hypothermic person is the first priority (make and provide heat, hot liquids, or food). Sometimes, a hypothermic person is mistaken for a person that has been drinking, except there is no odor of alcohol.

     Even if a person hasn't fallen in water but gets cold while out or stuck in the wilderness, dry grass can be used as temporary insulation. Just find some and stuff the front and back of your coat to the hilt and enjoy the warmth until you get home.

Winter Traveler's List of Survival Gear

Dress for Body (Five Layers)

  • Thermal or T-Shirt (or both)
  • Long Sleeve Shirt
  • Sweater or Hoodie
  • Light Coat
  • Parka or Heavy Coat with Hood
  • Thermal Pants
  • Loose Pants
  • Ski Pants
  • Full Cover Cap; Wool Cap for Sleeping
  • Face Mask; Neck Warmer/Scarf
  • Insulated Gloves or Mittens (Lightweight Gloves under Mitts)
  • Cotton and Wool Socks
  • Sub-Zero Arctic Boots
  • Rain/Wind Gear
  • Goggles


  • Tent and Axe
  • Sleeping Bag (synthetic; down gets and stays wet) and pad
  • HOT TIP: Bring a Pillow Case for Stuffing a Jacket for an Instant Pillow
  • Tarp and Rope
  • Headlamp/Flashlight
  • Towel, Soap (or Hand Sanitizer)


  • Shovel and Icepick
  • Water
  • Compass, Map, or GPS with Map
  • First Aid Kit
  • Leatherman/Multipurpose Tool
  • Fire Starter Kit (see below)
  • Whistle (can be heard from greater distances than a yell)
  • Mirror (can reflect the sun up to 20 miles)
  • VHF Radio
  • Personal Locator Beacon, like SPOT
  • Flares/Laser Signal
  • Fishing Line, Hooks, and Lures
  • Pocket Knife or Hunting Knife
  • Rabbit Snare Wire


  • Energy/Breakfast Bars, Oatmeal Packs
  • Coffee, Tea, Sugar, and Cream
  • Pots and Pans for Beverages and Cooking
  • Utensils, Cup, Bowl
  • Stove and Fuel
  • Sandwiches or Pilot Bread with Cheese
  • MREs or Other Instant Dinners
  • Butter and Jam
  • Dry Fish and Strips
  • Dried Meat


  • Birthday Candles (the "trick" ones)
  • Magnesium Bars (scrape off bits with knife)
  • Firestarter Sticks or Dry Tinder
  • Matches in Waterproof Container or Bic Lighter
  • Cotton Balls (include in your First Aid Kit. Soak cotton balls in Neosporin and use them as fire starters under your dry tinder)
  • HOT TIP: Things that will also Burn: Potato Chips, Fine Steel Wool, Thin Plastic Material, Small Strip of Oil or Gasoline-Soaked Material (be very careful), Piece of Snowmachine Seat Foam

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