Surviving in the Wild: To Move or Not to Move?

Many people -- particularly those who have attended survival classes -- have had it drummed into their heads by their instructors that they should stay put no matter what the circumstances. Unfortunately, this is not always the best advice.

You may find yourself in a spot that offers you ample food and water, protection from the elements, and even wood for a fire. But at the same time, you're in a remote location and nobody is going to come looking for you, so there's only one hope of seeing home again: You've got to make it out on your own.

Here are some crucial questions to ask yourself before moving on:

  • Do you know which way safety lies and how to get there?
  • If not, do you run the risk of getting even more lost?
  • How far will you have to travel to reach safety?
  • Are you or any of your travel partners injured, and do you have the physical strength to walk out?
  • Do you have enough supplies to make it to your destination?
  • Does anybody know where you are, and is there a chance they'll come looking for you?
  • If so, how long before they even start looking?
  • Are you on a well-used trail that might have other travelers and potential rescuers heading your way?
  • Which is more dangerous: where you are now, or where you have to travel?
  • Does the current location offer necessity-of-life benefits such as water, shelter, fire/fuel and food?
  • Are you now with a vehicle or other large object that may be seen easily from the air?

In many situations, staying in one place is the best thing you can do. After all, there's no guarantee that there's anyplace better just around the bend. As a general rule, if you don't have any idea where to go or how you will provide for yourself along the way, then staying put makes sense. Most studies show that people walk in circles when they are lost, due to unfamiliar terrain and land features in their way. As a result, they become even more lost and make it harder for searchers to find them.

Here are some reasons to stay:

  • You're injured and run the risk of getting more hurt while on the move.
  • Moving may take you into more dangerous territory.
  • You're with a large vehicle, which not only offers shelter but is a lot easier to spot (especially from the sky) than you would be walking alone through the bush.
  • You can build a better camp, create a signal fire, and maybe even start hunting and scavenging for food.
  • Some individuals (friends, family or official personnel) were informed of your route and destination. Chances are they'll begin searching for you shortly after you don't show up at your destination or return home. If you head off down a different path, you may miss them -- and rescue -- completely.

Your chances of being rescued are better if you left behind a trip or flight plan. Within the first 24 to 72 hours, there's a high probability of rescuers finding you alive. After five or six days, they are more likely to find bodies.

Yet as good an idea as staying put may seem, there are times when moving is the best occasion. On one occasion, I was searching for a place to teach a survival course in a swampy part of the Algonquin Provincial Park, a well-known Ontario park. I was at the peak of my teaching days and starting to to get overconfident. I headed out into the bush, off the established trails, without telling anyone where I was going. Even my wife was not expecting to hear back from me for at least three days.

After finding the perfect spot to teach -- in a swamp a few miles into the bush -- I started my hike back to my hidden and waiting canoe. Not more than 30 feet (9 meters) away, a beautiful cow moose was grazing in the setting sun. I decided to try out my moose call and see how she would respond. I cupped my hands in front of my mouth and made the sound of a female moose.

It was the rutting season, and during this "season of love," the bull moose may be the most dangerous animal on the continent. These creatures have been known to attack and destroy tractor-trailer trucks, so I didn't make a bull sound for fear of bringing an angry male around.

This gentle cow moose just looked up once and then went back to eating. So I made the call again. This time, no response at all. I shrugged and turned to continue on my merry way. That's when more than half a ton of angry bull moose, his truck-destroying antlers pointed at me, came charging out of the bush beside the female. Clearly, he was not amused.

I ran for all I was worth through the thick boreal forest. Several hundred yards later I spotted a partially fallen tree and scrambled up, out of the reach of the bull. He stayed below the tree grunting, snorting and stomping, all the while trampling down the small trees in the area.

I suddenly remembered (and this is the point of the story) that nobody knew where I was, and nobody was expecting me anytime soon. If I didn't do something quickly in the failing fall sunlight. I would be there for night -- or longer. I realized I had to move.

After several minutes, I climbed down and hit the ground running, and with the bull moose still giving chase, eventually wound my way back to the lakeshore, where I slipped quietly into the water (fully clothed) and swam as stealthily as possible back to my canoe. To this day, that experience remains the most frightening and dangerous situation I have ever faced in the wilderness.


Survive coverThis story is an excerpt from the book Survive! by survival expert Les Stroud, best known for his hit show "Survivorman" on the Discovery Channel.

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