Lost while hiking – part 1

In March of 2015, I spent an unplanned night at Brainard Lake in Colorado. I got lost while hiking at 10,000 feet altitude and in 12″ to 18″ of snow. You can read about it here: http://www.equipped.org/032015survive.htm.

I didn’t go on a three-day backpacking trip and get lost. That would have actually been better than what happened because I’d have been prepared with food, a tent, and other necessities. Instead, I did what many lost hikers do – I got lost on a short hike. I planned to be away from my car for a couple of hours, not 24 hours.

Since that incident, I’ve spent a lot of time looking at what I want to do differently. I don’t plan to go on short hikes with the ability to sustain myself in comfort for three days – it would make hiking so tedious that I would never want to do it. I want to be able to spend an unexpected night in the cold without danger of dying or frostbite. If you are carrying an arctic-rated sleeping bag and tent, with a selection of five MREs and an alcohol stove to cook them over, you probably don’t even need to think about additional shelter or a fire.

If you read through the article about my experience, the one thing that I had most difficulty with was keeping a fire going. So I have spent a lot of time experimenting with various things to make that easier. I want to start with that subject first.

Many of the articles that you read about this topic seem to gloss over things; you get the impression that the writers never actually try the things they recommend. I can’t count the number of times I’ve read that you should carry a fire starter that uses a magnesium bar and a Ferro cerium rod. I had one of those on my adventure, and I don’t plan to carry one in the future. I’ll go into that in more detail in a later post. But the important thing is that I’ll be recommending things that I have tried and that I know will work.

To start out this first post, I want to give you a slightly different view of keeping warm with a fire. You see a lot of Internet pseudo-knowledge that tells you to have three ways to make a fire or five ways to make a fire. If you look closely at what is really recommended, it isn’t anything I’d want to depend on in an emergency.  It isn’t a contest to see how many fire starting techniques you have in your pocket, it’s a contest against cold.

The thing about getting lost is that you usually realize you are going to be spending the night an hour or maybe two hours before nightfall. Until then, you are hoping you can find your way back. So any kind of shelter or fire-building method that is going to take you three hours is just not going to happen.

I decided that I was spending the night when the shadows started getting long and It started getting chilly enough that I put back on the fleece I had taken off. At that point, there isn’t time for snow caves or complicated wiki huts. You need simple and fast for the shelter and the fire. Remember, you are going to be collecting firewood and enough firewood to last all night is going to take a while.

Making a fire in the woods requires four basic components. You need an ignition source, tinder, kindling, and you need enough fuel to make the fire last all night. In some cases, the components might overlap; if you have a butane lighter, the ignition source and tinder could be considered self-contained in the lighter. The ignition source is the spark wheel and the tinder is the butane fuel. Similarly, if you can’t find larger wood for fuel, you might gather enough kindling to make a small fire last all night, so your kindling and all-night fuel are the same in that case.

The important thing about making a fire to keep yourself warm is not how many ways you have to theoretically start a fire. The important thing is whether you can start a fire on short notice (as dark is falling) under whatever conditions you may reasonably encounter on your hikes. If you routinely avoid hiking when the weather forecast is for blizzard conditions, you may not need to carry quite the same things as someone who hikes in any and every condition imaginable. But if you hike across streams, as I often do in the mountains, you probably want a way to start a fire if you fall into a stream. That snowmelt water is really cold in the spring.  But that means you need something waterproof.

To illustrate my point, the magnesium blocks with an attached ferro cerium rod do work, if you have the time to shave off a pile of magnesium from the block. But in windy conditions, keeping that pile of magnesium in one place so you can light it is problematic. You either need a good windbreak, or you need a different way to start the fire.

In my next post, I’ll look at ignition sources.  In the meantime, add whatever comments you think appropriate.  I’ll delete any comments that are deliberately provocative or insulting to other posters.  Keep it civil.

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