Staying Alive While Hunting the Wide Open West
I grew up hunting in the Midwest where a half-hour hike from the road was considered remote and wilderness was any 500-acre section with a single farm house. Getting lost was never a concern, even in an era before cell phones and GPS units.
In more than two decades my worst mishap was getting mired in mud off the side of a rural road during a Sunday snow squall. I was stuck for nearly 30 minutes before a farmer hunting for coyotes drove past and pulled me back onto the road.
When I was 29 I moved my family to the West. Big game hunting suddenly became a much more serious pursuit, not because I became a more avid hunter, but because I realized that a mistake in the Rocky Mountains or the Western deserts could prove fatal.
Hunters in Western United States often spend time isolated in remote areas. Every year hunters get lost, stranded, injured, etc. Some of them never make it home. Being properly prepared can literally mean the difference between life and death when unforeseen events arise.
Prepare for the weather
The West is generally free from the tornadoes and severe thunderstorms that regularly pound other parts of the country. As a result, visiting hunters can be lulled into complacency by deep blue skies and mild fall days.
Fast moving cold fronts pose a deadly threat in any month of the year. In my home state of Utah, big game hunts get underway in mid-August. Archery hunters chasing deer or elk in 90-degree heat usually aren't thinking about snow. But mountain storms can drop temperatures to freezing within a couple of hours and the fronts are usually accompanied by high winds that can pull tent pegs right out of hard soil.
One year a friend and I set up camp the evening before the opener of the rifle deer hunt. The night was so warm and clear that we didn't bother setting up a tent. We woke in the morning to grey skies and heavy snowflakes. We threw our camping gear under a tarp and headed out to spot for deer.
An hour later the snow was coming down hard and we could not have seen a deer or an elephant for that matter, within 40 yards. We headed back to the truck and quickly loaded our gear. We were at 10,000 feet and this was the third week of October. A storm like we were experiencing could dump two or three feet of snow in a few hours. Waiting it out was not an option. We knew we needed to head down.
Below 7,000 feet the snow disappeared. By the time we reached the valley floor an hour later it was sunny and 50 degrees. But the mountain was still covered with clouds and the storm ended up dumping several feet of snow. A few hunters who thought they could tough it out had to be rescued and it was a couple of weeks later before their vehicles could be retrieved.
The mountains and the deserts are both areas of weather extremes. Preparation for any condition is not just a key to survival, it is also necessary to ensure that one has an enjoyable, comfortable, and hopefully successful hunting experience.
Carry a personal emergency kit
For many years as a volunteer Boy Scout leader I've taught young men that they need to carry a small personal survival kit any time they step foot in remote Western country, even if they are only taking a short hike.
I teach them that the kit needs to contain at least three separate methods for starting a fire. In either deserts or mountains, hypothermia kills far more people than hunger or thirst. A fire gives them a fighting chance to stay warm and it makes an easily visible signal.
Speaking of signals, the most foolproof fire starter for any condition is a road flare. They are a little bulky to carry, but I always make certain to have at least one. They burn long and hot and I've been able to make fires in heavy downpours when no other method would work.
I consider a hatchet essential. It is a wonderful aid in dressing large animals like elk or moose, but it is also great to have if you need to build a shelter or fire. If I could only carry two items with me they would be a hatchet and a windproof lighter.
I keep survival essentials in a small plastic box. I throw it in my daypack or fanny pack anytime I go off pavement. Here are some things I include:
- Windproof lighter
- Survival blanket (space blanket)
- Water and a water purifier
- Medicines: ibuprofen for pain or inflammation; Imodium for diarrhea; Benadryl for allergic reactions, sunburn, insect bites, etc.
- Energy bars
I added the rope about 10 years ago after my neighbor was swept to her death in a flash flood in a desert canyon. Others in her group were just feet away but had nothing she could grab on to.
Prepare your vehicle
On rugged back roads slide offs, getting stuck, or breakdowns are common. Many dirt roads throughout the West consist of clay that becomes as slippery as ice when wet. Often with the right equipment you can get yourself back on the road. In unusual circumstances, you need to be prepared to stay with your vehicle for several days. If you get lost you are more likely to be found and the vehicle makes pretty good shelter.
This past winter a Utah couple photographing wild horses survived 12 days stranded in heavy snow amid severe winter storms. They spent most of that time in their truck and hiked to find help when the weather finally broke.
Some of the things I always carry in my truck include:
- High-lift jack
- Heavy chain
- Power pack (jump starter)
- Air compressor
- Tool kit
- Extra coat, jacket, etc.
- Oil, transmission fluid, brake fluid, etc.
Over the past two decades, I have used every one of these items at some point in the backcountry.
Have a survival mentality
The person who can think clearly in an extreme emergency is the one who will survive. Last year a 76-year-old woman survived for two weeks after getting lost during an elk hunt in eastern Oregon. She carried no food, water or survival gear and was lightly dressed. The search was called off after a week and family members had planned a memorial service before she was found by two police officers searching on their own.
Many people in such circumstances simply give up and die after just one or two days. In most cases an uninjured person should be able to survive a week or two with little effort.
Don't go looking for trouble
When in remote and rugged areas, it is critical to avoid unnecessary risks and to understand your limitations. A few years ago a friend on military leave was visiting my son. This young man had served in most of the world's trouble spots, including Central America, Afghanistan and Iraq. The two of them went fishing in a stream up the canyon just a couple of miles behind my home.
At some point in their pursuit of trout, they split up. Less than an hour later, my son could not locate his friend. After searching up and downstream for some time, he heard a faint cry for help. He spotted his friend clinging to a handful of brush on a cliff more than a hundred feet straight up.
My son ran back to his truck to retrieve a long rope. He was also able to wave down a passing motorist and ask him to contact search and rescue personnel. Because of the precarious situation, my son did not think he could wait for help. Using the rope to keep himself secure, he was able to eventually reach his friend. The two of them made it to safe ground just after rescuers arrived.
Apparently the young Marine decided to scale a steep hillside above the stream for a better view of the valley below. Unfortunately the hill consisted of loose soil and unstable rocks. On a section above the cliff, his footing gave way and he found himself literally one brush from death.
Even a record book animal is not worth risking your life. If a shale slide is too steep to safely cross, don't do it! If it is starting to snow and you are not properly prepared for such weather, get out! If you find that a climb is much harder than you imagined and your heart is pounding and you can't breathe, stop!
Hunting in the rugged western wilderness is an amazing adventure that offers spectacular scenery and unique experiences. But there are risks each time someone ventures into these areas. By being properly prepared, you can reduce the chance that a minor mishap will turn into a life-threatening incident.
Flint Stephens pays his mortgage by writing about investment markets, but his real passions are fishing and hunting. Stephens grew up pursuing fish and wildlife in Ohio, but while attending college in Utah, he fell in love with the mountains, deserts and a girl from Moab. After several years as a journalist in Illinois, the draw of mountain adventures brought them back to central Utah in 1986. Stephens enjoys horses, freelance writing and photography. He spends his spare time making certain his children and grandchildren are completely addicted to outdoor pursuits.