Right decisions are key to survival

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Most hunters have enough experience in the backcountry to keep from getting lost. They know the basics, such as being familiar with an area before setting off on a big trip and keeping fresh on their orienteering skills.

But when the unexpected happens and a hunter can't find his or her way back to camp, there are steps they can take to increase their chances of being found and surviving in the outdoors.

Charley Shimanski, education director for the Mountain Rescue Association and author of the Mountain Rescue's General Backcountry Safety workbook said that those precautions begin even before a hunter leaves home.

One of the most important steps is to tell someone exactly where you are going and exactly when you expect to come back, Shimanski said. Also tell them what circumstances could change that timeline. For instance, light snow could mean better tracking and so an extended hunt.

Another key is to know how to orient yourself with the basics: a map and compass. New technology such as handheld GPS systems can be helpful, but if batteries die, those machines can quickly become worthless. Put simply, "a GPS is not a substitute for a map and compass," Shimanski said.

Most hunting injuries and deaths do not happen because of a hunter getting lost, but rather because of misfired weapons or heart attacks, he said. Hunters who are not used to the physical exertion the sport requires may find they push themselves beyond what they should, he said.

But even the most experienced outdoorsman can get lost, and Shimanski said it's critical to know what to do in that scenario.

The first step someone who is lost in the wilderness should take can be remembered by the acronym "STOP" -- Sit, Think, Observe, Plan.

"Most people who are lost make their most significant mistake in the first 30 minutes," Shimanski said. "You're best at that point to stop for a minute."

First, think back to the last time you realized you were not lost, and figure out what you remember -- for example, whether there was a stream, a lot of trees, or a prominent ridge. That could help determine what to do next.

If you have told someone where you are and when you expect to be back, it's usually best to sit still and wait to be found.

Give searchers some time to get to the area and begin looking, then do things to make yourself visible. Start a smoky fire with wet wood, and fire a rifle or blow a whistle in groups of three. If there's a trail nearby, you can write your name or leave a pile of branches, pieces of an orange peel or any other signal on the path.

"When we search for people, we're not looking for the people -- we're looking for clues because there are a lot more clues than there are people," Shimanski said.

If you start moving on the trail, you should write your name and draw an arrow signaling which direction you're headed on the trail.

If there aren't any trails around but you want to start moving, try what Shimanski calls the "wagon-wheel approach:" from a starting point, walk out 100 yards to see if you find anything familiar, turn around and head straight back to where you started if you don't see anything familiar, and then do the same thing at each 90-degree angle.

That way you can explore the area without getting too far away from the starting position.

Shimanski said that it's best to stay calm and to remember that an average person can survive three weeks without food and three days without water.

But if someone is skilled with a map and compass, or has the added benefit of a GPS system, he or she can hike to a high point and determine where to go through triangulation.

Carrying a map and compass, as well as the nine other items that are considered "essential" for survival in the backcountry, such as a flashlight, extra clothing, food and water, a pocket knife and a first aid kit, should help hunters make it through the worst-case scenarios that they could encounter this hunting season.

For more information on surviving in the backcountry, go to the Mountain Rescue Association's Web site at www.mra.org. n

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