Discover more from 2% with Michael Easter
Don't Die—Wilderness Edition
Many of you will head into the mountains this summer. We spoke with a wilderness survival savant to help you stay safe.
Why it matters: These four simple guidelines will help you follow the 2% motto: Have fun, don’t die.
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Friday’s post—which is a new monthly series featuring a killer workout—will be our first for Members only.
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Thank you to all who have become Members so far. Now onto today’s topic …
The Three-Day Effect is one of the most fascinating ideas I learned while reporting The Comfort Crisis. It suggests that three days every year in the wilderness can be uniquely good for our mental health, focus, creativity, and productivity.
But we can get much less outdoor exposure and see a benefit. Just five hours in the wilderness each month seems to increase happiness and decrease depression, according to research from Finland.
Which is to say that a lot of good things happen when we head into the mountains.
But bad things can happen, too.
The wilderness is uncomfortable and unpredictable. You might think you’re going out for a few hours, but then a storm catches you off guard. Altitude drains you. You get lost. Also: bears.
With summer being the peak season for trips into high and remote places, we spoke to John Barklow. And he’s worth listening to. Barklow:
Developed methods the U.S. Special Operations Forces use to survive and thrive in austere mountain environments.
Created clothing and equipment systems for military missions in extreme conditions.
Has hunted, skied, and climbed in some of the most remote places worldwide.
Here’s a fun story to give you a sense of Barklow’s background.
In the late 1990s, the Navy sent Barklow to Kodiak Island, Alaska, as a one-man think tank. His task was to develop tactics and gear systems SEALs could use to survive in the harshest mountain environments. He dabbled up there alone and with a small budget for a few years, like a sort of mountain mad scientist.
Then 9/11 happened. The U.S. invaded Afghanistan and found itself fighting in austere mountain environments. Barklow became one of the Navy’s most important minds. They handed him a pile of money and told him to get us to the cutting edge of mountain survival and warfare.
Barklow’s wisdom directly impacted how the US conducted mountain warfare in Afghanistan and the gear systems our soldiers used. And he’s now sharing his wisdom with us and others.
Barklow just released a massive deep-dive course on Outdoor Class. It covers planning, staying safe, and surviving epic backcountry tasks, like mountain hunts. If you’re a serious wilderness person, I suggest you take it. (You can get 20% off with the code BARKLOW).
This post is mountain-specific. We’ll cover surviving in the desert next month.
1. Stay Dry and Warm
Always bring a rain jacket and a puffy jacket. They’re your first line of defense against the weather.
People worry too much about grizzly bears and not enough about the weather. Statistically, the weather’s what’ll kill you.
“The vast majority of search and rescue cases are from people who get in a predicament from exposure to the elements,” said Barklow. “People often forget that weather changes as the altitude and day changes.”
Even in summer, it can snow at high altitudes. Or, at least, get really cold, really fast. Add rain to the cold, and you have a recipe for hypothermia.
Staying dry is critical. Water is denser than air, so it conducts heat away from your body faster. When you’re wet, the water envelopes you and sticks to you, acting like a vacuum that sucks away your body heat and can drop your core temperature to dangerous levels.
“You can’t control the weather, but you can control being prepared should weather come in,” said Barklow.
Having shelter is the first rule of surviving in the wild. And clothing is your first line of shelter.
Always pack two things: A rain jacket and a puffy insulated jacket. The two work as a system.
The rain jacket keeps you from getting wet.
The puffy jacket traps your body heat.
In a cold and wet situation, put on the puffy jacket, then throw the rain jacket over that.
If you’re already wet, the puffy jacket will trap your body heat and pull moisture away from your body while the jacket keeps you from getting even more wet.
“Those two things don’t take up a lot of room, and they don’t cost a lot,” said Barklow.
“If an unplanned emergency happens, you’ll be able to ride out a two- or- three-hour storm and return with a good story as opposed to needing to call search and rescue, which is a giant financial burden,” said Barklow.
On 6/9 we’re dropping the first edition of a monthly series called Gear Not Stuff. We’ll cover the best rain and puffy jacket and a few other pieces mentioned in this post.
2. Be prepared to spend a night out
A bit of gear and mental preparation can help you survive a night outdoors.
Looking cool is easy. Just wear dark solids and not all the blinding neon colors most outdoor gear makers offer. Never getting lost is harder.
A map and compass never fail, but it also takes some knowledge. The easy button is a GPS unit or app that allows you to download maps to access them when you’re out of cell service. But also realize that the easy button’s battery can die.
So let’s say you do get lost, and the sun is going down. Or fog sets in, and you can’t see where you are. Or a storm hits, and the safest thing is to hunker down under a tree. Or you injure yourself and need to wait for a friend to come find you and help you down the mountain.
“You need to be prepared to spend 24 hours away from your vehicle,” Barklow said. “You need basic items to ride out the night.”
For example, the Pinedale, Wyoming Search and Rescue, which does all search and rescue for the Wind River mountains, says that most of their cases are from people who planned to be out for a day but had something go wrong. “People aren’t prepared to spend the night, and so they hit the SOS button on their GPS unit,” said Barklow. “And it’s entirely preventable.”
Barklow isn’t saying that every hike requires a full backpack with a sleeping bag and tent. “But having a few basic pieces of equipment and knowing how to use them can help you ride out the night,” he said.
For example, a simple backpacking tarp works as a shelter from storms. It takes up about the size of a soda can and weighs a pound. A water bottle that purifies water (or a few water purification tabs) will allow you to stay hydrated. A Bic lighter starts a fire in a pinch. A basic safety kit so you can take care of an injury means you won’t have to hustle down the mountain while injured in the dark to get treatment (leading you to get even more lost).
But you don’t just need gear. You also need to get into the right psychological headspace. People often make dumb decisions because they’re afraid of spending a night alone outdoors.
“It’s going to be super uncomfortable overnight,” said Barklow. “But it’s not going to be death-defying. And in the morning, when things clear, you can get up and get out, and you’ll have a hell of a great story to tell.”
3. Stay Zen
Remain calm and don’t make impulsive decisions when danger strikes.
The US Forest Service says, “Panic is the greatest enemy.”
The moment people realize they’re in a sketchy situation like a bad storm, their fight-or-flight lizard brain kicks in. People catastrophize and make rash decisions.
“The worst thing that can happen is to think, ‘I just gotta get back to the car.’ But the car might be four or five miles.” said Barklow. “What happens is you often compound the problem. Along the way to the car, you’ve become hypothermic. And if you happen to take a wrong turn through the storm because visibility is probably low, now you’re hypothermic and lost, which is a real problem. Or you roll an ankle or tweak a knee because the ground is slippery, and now you’re stuck and hypothermic.” Or you run off a cliff in the fog. This happens more often than you’d think.
When the stress rises, you need to become analytical. The Forest Service recommends what they call the STOP Protocol: Stop, Think, Observe, and Plan.
It tells us to stop moving, consider our situation and surroundings, and then devise a plan that takes the long view rather than just trying to escape an uncomfortable situation.
“It’s about trying to always improve your situation,” said Barklow. Most times, improvement comes from being willing to put yourself in the safest position and ride things out.
“In summer, most bad storms are very fleeting. They’re an hour or two,” said Barklow. “Stay calm. Hang out. You’ll be fine.” (Note that if you’re above the treeline and there isn’t shelter, you should get below the treeline for shelter.)
4. Don’t Bonk
Being exhausted gives you less room for error.
Psychological research going back decades has shown that people make worse decisions the more tired they are. Our reaction times go down, and our spatial awareness drops.
If you’re exercising outdoors, the “point” is to physically push yourself. But if you’re deep in the wilderness, you always want some gas left in the tank.
“You don’t want to become so physically depleted that if a problem happens, you’re so far into the metaphorical black hole that you don’t have the reserves to take yourself out,” Barklow said. “The more physically and nutritionally depleted you are, the closer you’re cutting your margin of safety if something were to happen.”
This isn’t just for us. Being fresh allows you to help others. “If the person you’re with gets injured or gets altitude sickness, you want to be ready enough to be able to help get them down the mountain,” said Barklow.
“And this advice isn’t just for people new to the outdoors. Even the best and fittest can get lost and run down,” said Barklow. “And that can become dangerous once the sun starts going down.”
Barklow told me a story about hunting with a group of the fittest and best navigators he knows. They’d had a successful mountain goat hunt that ran longer than they anticipated and were hammering in the dark to make it back to camp.
“These guys were really experienced, but they weren’t keeping up with nutrition and hydration. And my friend who’s the absolute best navigator I know—he’s like a savant—he’s looking at our map in the dark and he looks at me and says, ‘I have no idea where we are … I can’t think straight right now.’ Luckily I had an idea of where we were.”
If you plan to be out for a couple of hours, bring some calories just in case. Bring enough water and know where you can access water. Stop every hour or so.
“What’s better than hiking, say, six hours straight is stopping every hour and taking a ten-minute break,” Barklow explained. “Hydrate, eat something, study your map so you know where you are, put on a puffy jacket to dry your layers out, look at your surroundings and enjoy where you are.”
Have fun, and don’t die out there.
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