The Total outdoorsman Skills & tools survial


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THE WORST IT CAN GET I’ll tell you how bad it got. The last time I saw my son, Jack, he lay gasping by the trailside, face ashen and fearful, his head cradled in the arms of my wife. Two other hikers kneeled beside them. One had a different brand of rescue inhaler than the one we typically carry, and thank God for that. Our albuterol wasn’t working. Maybe the terbutaline would. That was four, maybe four-and-a-half minutes ago, and when I left them, I could not tell you if Jack would be alive when I saw him again. Now my daughter, Markie, has vanished around a bend in the trail. I tried to keep up, but she is a cross-country runner and my knees are wrenched. When I told her to run, run like she’d never run before, she vaulted through the forests below Wyoming’s Teton crest with the winged feet of Mercury. Now I sank to one knee and prayed. That was the best I could do. My son clinging to life in my wife’s arms, my daughter running for her brother’s life. That’s how bad it got.

Few of us appreciate how quickly life afield can turn south. When we’re headed out for elk camps and high-country lakes, swamp rivers, and salt marshes, we plan and pack for rough weather, rough roads, high water, poor fishing, flat tires, blown zippers, ripped tents, broken rods, and all the other evil contingencies that threaten to derail a blissful fishing or hunting trip. But when it comes to planning for situations where life or limb lie literally in the balance— and not just the fate of a wet sleeping bag— too many of us give it short shrift.

A bottle of ibuprofen, a wad of old Band-Aids, maybe a tube of antiseptic cream, and we are out the door. It can get bad in the blink of an eye. I’ve been carted off a dove field unconscious, dragged to the truck by my pal Scott Wood, who thankfully didn’t wait for the ambulance to show up. I hazily recall a mid-highway ambulance transfer, injections, the world fading in and out of pure black and fuzzy light.

The culprit: the sting of a single ground wasp. I’ve been on the other side of the examination table, too, field-treating all manner of ills. I’ve closed up gashes with superglue, carved away portions of infected toenail and flesh and disinfected the remains with whiskey, closed wounds with butterfly closures snipped from duct tape, removed treble hooks buried to the bend, forced food into companions stooped over in a hypoglycemic bonk. None of this stuff is rocket science. Read, think, prepare. Once, in the midst of a horrific climbing accident, I rolled my brother over on his back so he wouldn’t drown in a pool of his own blood. I compressed the gashes in his forehead and rib cage to stem the bleeding as he coughed bits of lung in my face. We immobilized his back as best we could and raced for help. Our simple, straightforward, right-out-of-the-books first aid probably saved his life.


As Markie dashed down the trail, I turned to pick my way back toward Jack and Julie. Already my mind was sifting the details, trying to figure out where this went wrong. Thanks to a late, wet spring in the Grand Tetons that year, the pollen load was epic. Bump a pine tree on the trail and yellow sheets fell. Every breeze sent paisleys of whirling pollen wafting through the woods. Jack suffers from the occasional allergy attack, so we always carry an inhaler.

But he’s a strong hiker, and we didn’t think twice before setting out to retrace a favorite 14-mile loop. My mistake. A big mistake. On the far side of Jenny Lake, miles from help, the asthma attack was instant, and instantly life-threatening. Within minutes, fleet-footed Markie made it to a floating dock that served a park boat for tourists who didn’t want to hike all the way around the lake. Fortunately, a seasonal ranger was there, and radioed to park headquarters. In no time flat, a rescue boat was in the water.

Meanwhile, Markie and I made our way back up the trail to Jack. I hobbled up the final rise, heart in my throat, with no clue as to what I would find. As I rounded the trail, I saw Jack sitting upright— the other hiker’s rescue inhaler worked. Jack still struggled for every breath, but there was color in his face, and he gave me a weak wave. Julie shook her head in relief. The evacuation team arrived, hooked Jack up to oxygen, lashed him to a backboard, and headed down the trail.

Five hours later we were out of the clinic and back at camp, knees still weak from having dodged the bullet. I may not know how to set a compound femur fracture— although I do think I could perform an emergency field tracheotomy if pressed— but this much I do know: There’s space in every tackle pack for a wilderness first aid kit. They don’t make a duffel bag that can’t swallow one more fist-sized lump— Benadryl, an EpiPen, an emergency survival blanket, another bundle of firestarter. This is the time to take the time to read up, bone up, and be prepared. Fishing and hiking and camping and hunting aren’t any more dangerous than a high school football game. But guess what’s on every sideline of those Friday night lights? An ambulance with the engine running. It’s up to us. You and me. And I can tell you just how bad it can get out there.



Thankfully, the digital age hasn’t rendered the USGS topographic map obsolete. In fact, it’s now more important than ever to know how to decipher cartographic symbols, because topo maps are now accessible by desktop, laptop, tablet, and smartphone. Here’s how to read the lay of the land … literally.

GENERAL MAP DESCRIPTORS Along the top and bottom of most maps are helpful blocks of information. The map series relates to how much land area is covered by the map. The most detailed paper maps are 7.5 series maps, which cover 7.5 minutes of latitude and 7.5 minutes of longitude. Converted to miles, that covers a land area of about 9 by 16 miles. The 7.5 series was completed in 1992 and was recently replaced by the digital National Map.

Declination is the difference between true north and magnetic north, in degrees. The farther north your location, the greater the declination— and the greater the need to adjust when navigating by map and magnetic compass. Scale is marked at the bottom of the map.

COLORS Background colors typically relate to vegetative cover.

• Green: Woods, forests, and scrublands.

• White: Open or semi-open lands, such as grasslands, agricultural lands, and deserts. Could include rock outcroppings.

• Gray: On maps with large blocks of public lands such as national forests and national parks, gray will indicate private inholdings within public boundaries.

CONTOUR LINES These are imaginary lines that trace elevation above sea level. Contour lines that are close together indicate steep land, and the closer the contours, the steeper the terrain. Cliffs can look like nearly solid blocks of merged contour lines. Contour lines that are farther apart indicate flatter lands. There are three types of contour lines. Indexed contours will typically be marked with numerals that indicate elevation.

Often, each fifth contour line is an indexed contour. Between the heavier indexed contour lines are lighter intermediate contours. These are not marked with elevation, but help express the general steepness of the terrain. In very flat areas, maps might be marked with supplementary contours, which appear as broken dashes. They indicate an elevation change of half of the total between the contour lines on either side.

Ridges will appear as a series of Us and Vs that point towards lower elevations. The highest elevation contour on a ridge, hill, or mountain will be marked by a closed circle of contour lines. Sometimes the very peak will be marked with the elevation and an X. A gap, pass, or saddle appears as an hourglass, where the contour lines from opposing ridges nearly touch. WATER FEATURES All water is marked in blue. Small streams are marked with a single blue line. Intermittent streams are marked with a blue line broken by three dots. Swamps and marsh are indicated by a blue pattern that looks like tiny cattails.

MAN-MADE FEATURES Most man-made features are marked in black. Buildings and smaller structures are marked with squares of varying sizes.

ROADS AND TRAILS Large interstate and divided highways are marked in red. Other roads are marked in black. Secondary gravel and dirt roads are indicated with parallel lines. Broken parallel lines mark unimproved or 4WD roads. Foot and horse trails are marked by dotted lines.


The liquid that’s found inside most compass housings is a specialized mineral oil. Its two main purposes are to dampen excessive needle movement and prevent static electricity from throwing off the bearing. Bubbles can form in two ways: At high altitude or in extremely cold temperatures, the liquid can contract, leaving a bubble. Or liquid can leak out of the seal or a tiny crack in the housing.

Compass air bubbles are very common and won’t affect the compass unless they are so large—say, a quarter-inch in diameter—that the movement of the direction arrow is impeded. If your compass develops a small bubble, place it in direct sun. The heated liquid in the housing will then expand to its original volume. If the bubble continues to grow, it’s likely that there’s a tiny leak in the housing. If this is the case, you should simply replace the compass.


Snake bites require prompt attention, so don’t hesitate to begin moving towards medical facilities ASAP.

STEP 1 Remove jewelry and clothing such as boots and socks immediately. Once the bitten area swells, they can constrict tissues and hold venom in place.

STEP 2 Clean the wound lightly. Do not flush with water and do not apply ice.

STEP 3 Affix a wide, flat constriction band a few inches above the bite. Two fingers should slide easily under the band.

STEP 4 If a pump suction device is available, use it with the first 5 minutes after the bite.

STEP 5 Immobilize the bitten area with a loose splint and keep it lower than heart level.

STEP 6 Get to help. If the victim can be carried, do so. If the victim must walk out, first sit calmy for 20 to 30 minutes as the venom localizes at the bite site. Stay calm and walk out. Try to avoid unnecessary exertion.


A small flashlight or chemical light stick is a pretty good signaling device, but you can supersize the effect with a small length of paracord. Simply tie an 18-inch length of cord to the light, and whirl it in a circle. Now you will have created a pulsing light source some 40 inches in diameter. Do the same during the daylight with aluminum foil or other shiny objects.


One of the most useful features on a modern GPS is the ability to save the track or trail you have traveled. This will allow you to easily return to your starting point, or to duplicate the route of travel at a future date. Track logs are, basically, electronic bread crumbs that the GPS drops at various intervals of time and location. They are fabulous tools, provided you know how to operate the function on your GPS unit. Look for a menu heading that reads “track log,” “track recording,” or something similar. Turn the function on.

Now the GPS will record a track point at predetermined intervals. The default settings are likely something along the lines of one point for every 25 meters traveled or whenever there’s a significant change in your speed or direction. For most of the applications this works well, but there may be times when you want to drop more or fewer bread crumbs. If your route needs a finer scale—say you are trying to stay in a narrow creek channel on a flooded lake —then you should set your GPS unit to record more frequent track points. Another setting to consider is “record” mode.

Choose “wrap” to keep the display on and the track log will keep continually operating, even if it fills up and needs to overwrite your starting data. Choose “fill” if you do not want the starting data to be overwritten. The unit should sound an alarm to let you know when it’s reaching its storage capacity. Once set, let the track log function keep you on track. When you arrive at your destination, don’t forget to save the track if you want to keep it for future use.


I’m a fan of the half-serrated blade. They cut like a small saw, and I use mine to saw off small branches when clearing shooting lanes, shear handfuls of cattails for duck blinds, cut a length of cordage, and more. You can’t sharpen serrations with a flat stone, however. The serrated blade will still do a decent job even when dull, so many folks don’t bother to sharpen them at all. But you should, and here’s how. Get a progressively tapered diamond hone made specifically for serrated blades. They’re cheap and very effective.

Think of the hone as being cone-shaped. Match the diameter of the cone to the scalloped portion of the serration —this is called the “gullet” (A). A tapered sharpener will easily match a wide variety of blade gullet sizes. Essentially, you are sharpening teeth, one at a time. Holding the hone at the original angle of the serration’s edge bevel, place the small end of your tapered hone into the gullet, and then push the hone down until the entire width of the serration is nearly filled with the hone (B). That’s the stroke you’ll want; Repeat until you can feel a fine burr on the flat back side of the blade. Move down the blade, sharpening both sides of each serration. When you are finished, flip the knife over and grind off the burr with a ceramic rod or fine sharpening steel (C).


So-called superglues were first used in Vietnam to close wounds and stem bleeding. The medical formulation, called Dermabond, is a slightly different composition that minimizes skin irritation, but as many an outdoorsman will attest, plain old superglue holds a cut together better than a strip bandage, and instances of irritation are rare. Always use an unopened tube of glue. Clean the cut and pinch it shut. Dab a drop or two of superglue directly on the incision, then spread it along the length of the cut with something clean. The watertight result seals out infecting agents.


To check sharpness, turn the knife edge so the very edge of the blade is facing you. Hold it under a strong light and look carefully at only the thin edge if the blade. A sharp edge will look like a thin black line. Any reflection spells trouble. Dull spots will shine. Minute nicks or burrs will be Visible as tiny glistening points of light. If you see them, head back to the stone.

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