For many, the idea of being caught in a true survival situation is a nightmare scenario far out of their reach. In the mind of the inexperienced, stories of an otherwise healthy rock climber choosing to amputate his own trapped arm to free himself or of a father freezing to death as he wanders out to find help for his family left behind in their stranded vehicle play out only in the pages of fiction novels or the nightly news. Yet every year millions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of personnel hours are dedicated to the search and rescue of ordinary folks and even trained professionals that find themselves in a high-stakes game of land or open water survival.
What’s to blame for these expensive and potentially tragic cases? Sometimes it’s just bad luck. But much more often than not, it’s due to ignorance as to the causes of survival events or a reckless approach to an outdoor adventure that turns a pleasant outing into a life or death struggle.
The strongest tool in combating this trend is education. More specifically, in gaining a functional understanding of the reasons why people end up in a critical survival situation in the hope that this knowledge will allow them to avoid one where possible, or at the very least leave them better prepared to recover from it if necessary.
10 Common Causes of a Survival Incident (In alphabetical order)
- Over-reliance on or unverified confidence in a “professional” guide service or key members of the group
- Becoming injured or having a member of the group sustain an injury
- Discovering an injured or otherwise distressed person
Lack of Preparation
- Failure to bring or be trained on proper equipment
- Failure to recognize the need for or possess the skills required to undertake an adventure
- Failure to sufficiently research the entire trip or make an adequate plan
- Undertaking an adventure that is beyond current health or fitness levels
- Failure to bring sufficient navigational resources (map, compass, GPS)
- Lack of training on or experience with basic and primitive navigation techniques
- Failure to recognize a navigational error has occurred
No Safety Net
- Lack of an Overdue Plan
- Going alone
- Inappropriate reliance on Single-Points of Failure
Overconfidence in Self or Equipment
- Failure to properly assess personal limitations in training, experience, or ability
- Failure to understand or operate within the limitations of equipment
- Inability to recognize or appreciate the differences between previous experiences and the adventure planned
Panic or Poor Decision-Making Process
- Failure to recognize the signs and symptoms of excessive stress or panic
- Lack of discipline to follow best practices or specific instructions
- Mechanical breakdown or component failure of critical item(s)
- Lack of resource availability
- Terrain that excessively challenges or exceeds personal capabilities or the capability of the equipment
- Failure to account for significant changes in elevation
- Failure to consider the effect of a multi-day adventure on physical performance
- Failure to thoroughly assess forecasted light and weather data for the entire duration of the adventure and a reasonable period of time beyond the estimated time of return
- Underestimating the impact of unfavorable weather on movement, navigation, terrain, or safety
- Unexpected weather that excessively challenges or exceeds the capability of the equipment
Regardless of whatever event triggers our need to begin survival activities or Search & Rescue efforts, generally every scenario is the result of or aggravated by the Error Chain – a series of smaller and potentially unrelated oversights, lapses in attention or judgment, mistakes, or failures which have a compounding adverse effect on a situation.
With the above in mind, we can take a quick look at the Error Chain in action. For this scenario, we’ll assume Joe takes a trip in the early fall from his hometown in the panhandle of Florida to western Texas for business. He is an infrequent day hiker in his local Florida state parks, which are primarily woodlands very near sea level. His last meeting ends Friday in the late afternoon, but he still has a full weekend before his flight leaves. He learns of a challenging 10 mile loop day hike in the desert mountains and decides to go explore straight from work. Before starting the trail he changes into his lightweight gym clothes.
After several hours, Joe recognizes he can no longer confidently determine his location and spends the next 72 hours struggling to stay warm while wandering the area looking for anything recognizable. Eventually, he is located by SAR assets, extremely dehydrated and suffering from exposure and mild hypothermia.
Contributing Factor 1: Weather
Joe fails to confirm an earlier sunset than in his normal time zone, poor illumination due to moon phase, and forecasted unseasonably low temperatures occurring overnight. When the sun sets and he hasn’t completed the loop, he gets frustrated and then panic sets in due to the rapid decrease in temperature. Joe is losing discipline and the ability to think clearly. He is also unaware of a rain storm beginning around midnight that is forecasted to continue through Sunday evening. The low cloud cover and reduced visibility make it impossible to see key terrain features during the day, and any starlight or the lights from the nearby urban areas at night.
Contributing Factor 2: Underestimated Terrain
Joe assumes the trail will be well marked and that sufficient sunlight will remain during the time it would typically take to complete a flat, familiar, and groomed trail of similar distance. His progress is much slower due to the higher elevation, steep grade, and loose gravel surface.
Contributing Factor 3: Overconfidence in Self
Joe’s limited previous experience in a dissimilar wilderness area has resulted in a false impression of the difficulty of this environment and this specific trail. The higher elevation will require a greater amount of energy to overcome as well as punctuate the weather conditions. The loose gravel and steep terrain will slow movement and increase the likelihood of injury. Cold and wet weather also further reduce dexterity and make the rocky surface slicker and even harder to negotiate.
Contributing Factor 4: Lack of Preparation
All of the above have assisted in Joe’s systematic failure to bring basic necessities such as water, a light source, appropriate clothing, signaling devices, navigational aids, etc. Complacency causes him to neglect even a cursory study of the area by map to determine key terrain features or cardinal directions for potential self-recovery (i.e. which direction to walk if he gets lost to find an identifiable location, road, or waterway).
Contributing Factor 5: No Safety Net
Joe neglects to bring another hiker with him and also fails to create an Overdue Plan resulting in a delay in SAR activation. His friends, family, and coworkers in Florida don’t expect him to return home for a couple more days and don’t realize he’s “missing” until Monday afternoon. The poor weather conditions keep other hikers, a potential source of rescue, off the trail and Joe’s aimless wandering moves him far out of sight of anyone that would have been hiking anyway.
Sure it’s easy for us to see the high degree of risk involved with Joe’s trip, even though it appears simple and otherwise harmless. But the glaringly obvious details in this scenario are much more difficult for us to appreciate when we are actually taking part in a wilderness adventure because they often present subtly, we’re distracted or otherwise engaged, and they tend to be spaced much farther apart in the chronology of a critical event. Therefore, we must take a pro-active role in deliberately reviewing the pre-trip planning process before we depart as well as being cognizant of changes in our situation as they occur. Of course, if we genuinely believed our next adventure would result in a survival situation we’d either bring a lot more equipment with us and do our best to get physically and mentally prepared or more likely simply just not go. So the idea isn’t to overload a day hike with enough kit for an expedition. But if we refuse to acknowledge even the possibility of something derailing our trip then we fail to put ourselves in the best position to get back safely.