Back to Adventure Alan's Ultralight Backpacking Home Page: This contains a wealth of information on backpacking with gear lists, trip reports, backpacking techniques for various weather and environments (cold rainy weather, alipine hiking, desert hiking), etc. While focused on lightweight backpacking, much of the content applies to all styles of backpacking.

Wilderness Survival

Do You Need Wilderness Survival Skills?

In my 40+ years backpacking and climbing I have never encountered a situation where I needed traditional Wilderness Survival skills. In fact, I don’t know any experienced backpacker that has had occasion to rely on finding wild food, or starting a campfire from scratch, etc. for their survival.

But I have nothing against Wilderness Survival skills as long as you also practice Leave No Trace. If that’s your thing, more power to you. They certainly can’t hurt or make you a worse backpacker.

Observation from Search and Rescue Personnel

When you interview Search and Rescue (SAR) Personnel, you find that most people who get into serious difficulty in the backcountry (need rescue, incur a serious injury or die) usually had all the food and equipment they need with them. What caused the problem was using the gear improperly, or not using it at all. But more important, it was usually a poor decision(s) that got them into trouble in the first place. Survival skills would not have improved their situation.

Focus on Good Backcountry Skills and Good Judgement!

What has been critically important in difficult situations are excellent backcountry travel skills and good judgment:

So hone those basic backcountry travel skills if you want to stay safe!

Examples

The following are two examples of where I encountered unexpected and very difficult situations in the back country. In both cases, traditional wilderness survival skills were not required.

Example 1 - Three Day Blizard in the Wind Rivers


A Sudden Three Day Blizard in the Wind Rivers: Waiting out a 15 degree night under a tarp in a hoodless one pound sleeping bag with no insulation on the bottom.

I took less than 7 pounds of gear (base pack weight) for this late season trip. Mesh trail runing shoes and thin wool socks were my only footwear.
Good tarp camping and experience in cold conditions with minimal gear were critical to the trip’s success.
But these are nothing beyond good execution of Basic Hiking and Camping Sills—not Wilderness Survival.

Example 2 - Failed Summit Attempt on the Middle Teton


Summit Attmept on the Middle Teton: Survival Skills would not have helped here. What did help was making good decisions (keep moving to stay warm vs. staying put high on the mountain), creative climbing technique, and to keep going for a long time without food or sleep.

Ryan and I attempted a late season, single-push (no tent, no sleeping gear, no stopping, limited food and climbing gear), on the Middle Teton via the Middle Teton Glacier.

Extremely rotten ice on the glacier slowed us down. When we finally reached the saddle late in the day we discovered the summit block was covered in verglas (a thin sheet of ice) from melted snow of a recent storm. We made an attempt at the summit block with limited success due to the treacherous verglas. To make matters worse, a new storm came in with snow, and high winds. We had no choice but to abandon the summit and rappel back to the saddle.

At this point it was dark and we were out of food and water. We had been moving without sleep or rest for 24 hours. We had and no sleeping bag, no bivy or tent, and inadequate climbing gear (a very short 7mm rope and little hardware/protection). In the snow and cold wind, and with a light synthetic jacket our only warm clothing, we were already heading into the hypothermic range. If we stayed on the saddle for the night we would likely freeze to death...