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So, you are stuck out overnight: part 1 – The mental game

By Sean Mitchell

Come with me on select journeys of imagination. Mid-winter, deep snow, and a brilliant blue sky. Fifteen kilometres in the back-country, well above treeline, you are just about to turn back when you hear a strange grinding noise from under the snowmobile’s cowling… then see wisps of smoke coming out. The engine cuts out and the resulting silence is magnified after hours with the engine’s roar in your ears. You have two hours until sunset. Or perhaps early-summer and your leisurely solo canoe trip across the remote lake was lovely, but now the wind has picked up and switched directions – you are not getting back across today. Or maybe late afternoon of a beautiful autumn day hike, made all the more splendid by the solitude. You are fatigued and the pack on your back feels leaden. You jump down a small overhang and land poorly, pain spikes up your leg. You now have a sprained ankle and cannot walk out before dark.

It is very easy to get caught out; we leave full of energy and confidence, but then something happens and we are not returning home that night. Are you ready and prepared to spend a night out unexpectedly? Are you ready and prepared every time you go out? We are a society that thinks if we have enough ‘stuff’ we will be safe. We carry cell phones and GPS receivers; handheld radios and SPOT locators. These are useful to determine where we are and to let someone know if we need help, but if rescue cannot come until morning — at earliest… perhaps it will be days —those devices lose their value very quickly. Letting someone know you need help is important of course, but that is only the start of safety considerations. Can you spend a night by yourself outside, in the cold and rain, uncertain when anyone will help you? Can you make it through more than one night?

Having spent nights out unexpectedly — including at -30°C — I will tell you that your mental game is far more important than that SPOT receiver; how you face the boredom and fear of long night of solitude in freezing rain is of greater significance than your satellite phone. When you are alone with uncertain rescue or help, or maybe none at all, and the dark night drags on seemingly postponing sunrise, you will need to focus on remaining positive and keep the unbidden fears at bay. We are, generally, very poor at being alone with our thoughts, without distractions such as email, Facebook, and Twitter. When our overstimulated mind is left to its own devices in the cold and dark, fears will arise.

Being stuck out unexpectedly is a difficult situation. But recognizing the overwhelming importance of our mental state, we can ease the challenge somewhat. My suggestions to help you through the long dark night(s) are:

  • Be mentally prepared before you go in the field. Every trip has the potential for complications with some carrying higher risk than other. You can prepare mentally by doing all you can within your sphere of influence to ensure that if you do not come home, you can get through a night or more. Two fundamental activities within your sphere of influence you should always do: (1) Be sure someone you trust knows where you are going and when you will be back. And don’t change your plans unless you can update your safety contact. (2) Make your own survival kit appropriate for your area and carry it every time you go into the field. Every time. (this is to be the subject of part 2 of this series).
  • When things go sideways, recognize and accept the seriousness of the situation early. If you realize you are lost, do not keep wandering around until dusk. Stop moving an hour or two before sunset to ensure time to build a comfortable camp.
  • Build a fire. Flames provide heat; they also give comfort, light, and hope. Collect enough firewood to get you through the night. This fire is your companion and will be the balm against the night.
  • Build a shelter. Make it small, close to the fire, and insulate five times more than you think you need. On cold wet nights you will not be sleeping and so you need to make your nest – for that is what this is – as homey, warm, and protective as possible.
  • Stay busy. The night will be long and sleepless, with cat-naps if you are lucky. Keep busy adding to your shelter, building a fire reflector to direct heat into your shelter, carving a fish-spear… Anything to keep you mind and hands active.

If you have not yet had to spend a night out by yourself under arduous conditions I urge you to seek out training so you can experience these challenges in a controlled environment. There are organizations that will put you in the survival situation, under close supervision, so you can get a sense of how slowly time passes when you are alone in the dark. The fear may not be real — with safety nearby — but the boredom will be. You will learn more doing this for 24 hours than you will reading books and carrying the latest survival gear.

The intent here is not to frighten you, gentle reader, only to emphasize a key part of safety for those of us that work in the bush; a critical piece that is overlooked in our rush to embrace technological solutions. Most of us raised in cities and towns are entirely disconnected from lightless nights and enforced discomfort. It takes a tough mind to accept the reality of being lost or stranded, and from that acceptance to move forward productively to make a comfortable — and hopefully temporary —accommodation until help arrives. When we are mentally aware of what to expect, have a small bit of useful gear with us, know that people will be looking for us at first light tomorrow, and have done everything we can to make our bivouac as comfortable as possible… that is how we get through that long night.

Next Blog: So you are stuck out overnight: part 2. The survival kit