On keeping your cool in the backcountry.
Beautiful as it is, the wilderness is not your friend.
Megan Hine knows this as well as anyone.
The survival expert has been bitten by scorpions and snakes. She has ridden out violent windstorms. She has even outraced armed men guarding opium fields hidden in the woods.
And while Hine’s tough physical conditioning and deep knowledge of bushcraft have helped her time and again, she says her greatest asset is her outlook.
“The single thing that marks people out for survival is their attitude,” Hine writes in Mind of a Survivor (Coronet). “Those who remain determined in the face of adversity and are alert to possibility are the ones who do the best.”
What’s more, Hine adds, survivors don’t fit a stereotype. “Overtly macho guys” may wimp out under pressure, while seemingly timid stay-at-home moms may “find an inner strength and resourcefulness that surprises everyone, including themselves.”
Hine, 34, learned to love the woods as a child on England’s Malvern Hills, where skidding down a descent on an old bike “was the start of a new era of freedom.” She eventually became a backwoods guide, leading people on trips around the world, and has consulted on wilderness-themed TV shows, including work with Bear Grylls.
This background has given Hine a chance to observe a lot of people responding to adverse conditions—which makes her the person to ask about how to stay safe in the woods.
The biggest reason people get into trouble, Hine says, is “lack of preparation. When the sun shines, a hike can feel like a walk in the park. But when the weather dramatically changes—which in some places can be exceedingly quickly—do you have the skills or the right equipment to look after yourself and get yourself out?”
Part of your pre-trip prep should include something as simple as checking the weather forecast, which includes learning what the patterns have been over the previous few months.
Hine also advises finding a local guide who can give you more detailed information on your destination than can be gleaned from a map. “You cannot beat local knowledge,” she notes.
If it’s been a while since you’ve been active for prolonged periods, it doesn’t hurt to start an exercise program at least several weeks before you leave. Hine has found that she can tell the clients who are going to find a trek difficult just by the way they move when she meets them for the first time.
When it comes to gear, make sure anything new “is checked over and worn in,” says Hine. “There’s nothing worse than getting started on a hike and realizing that one boot is a half-size smaller than the other—true story from a client.”
What stuff should you bring with you? If potential help will be more than a day away, Hine suggests planning “for the worst-case scenario, within reason.” That includes finding uses for gear not normally associated with hiking trips: For instance, Hine says, “Did you know you could use a lipstick to waterproof small items such as matches? Or you could use it to write a message?”
Clothing is the most basic part of your overall kit; Hine always dresses in layers to manage temperature changes more easily. (She also offers this tip: Get into your sleeping bag “wearing as little as possible,” since modern bags are designed to readily absorb body heat.)
Food shouldn’t be your biggest concern, says Hine. Instead, you should concentrate on hydration. She notes that the American military uses “the rule of threes: The human body can last three minutes without air, three days without water and three weeks without food.”
Air probably won’t be a problem. But water might be, so find out if you need to carry it in or if you can refill along the way. Water from any outdoor source should never be consumed without being filtered and either heated or treated first. “There are now many types of water purification on the market and many have little to no taste,” Hine says.
If you run out of food in the bush, you’d be surprised at what’s edible—provided you’re willing to go beyond your comfort zone.
“Some unusual sources are insects, things like maggots, bamboo worms, ants. They are high in protein and actually taste pretty good once you get over the grossness factor,” Hine notes. When it comes to plants, “only ingest species you can positively ID; there are some which can make you very sick or worse.”
What can be as deadly in the woods as a poisonous plant? The fear that often sets in when things go wrong—and that can lead your brain to freeze up when you need it the most.
Hine believes testing yourself under increasingly challenging conditions, both in wildnerness settings and in everyday life, helps train the mind to not overreact in an emergency. “This is why I am an advocate for gaining a good foundation of skills which you can fall back on should you experience the unexpected,” she says.
One of the most common reasons people panic is they lose their way. It’s a reaction that can have dire consequences: Panic may explain why the remains of a woman who got lost hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2013 was found, two years later, only 2,100 feet (less than half a mile) from the pathway.
If you find yourself off course, Hine urges you to STOP: Stop, Think, Observe, Plan. She says people often “develop tunnel vision; your mind is in a state of panic so it can’t make good decisions. Stopping gives you the space for the logical side of your brain to kick back in and think about where things went wrong, looking for signs within the environment that can reorientate you.”
You can then decide on a plan of action, even if that means staying where you are and waiting for help (assuming you have told someone where you’re going, which is always a good idea). As Hine, who has had to find lost hikers herself, puts it, “It is so much easier to find someone who is closer to the path they lost than someone who has kept walking in the wrong direction.”
One obstacle many people need to overcome when setbacks arise is the need to blame someone (generally a fellow hiker) or something for their situation. Hine calls this “going into victim mode”—and she’ll have none of it: “If there’s a time when you don’t want to behave like a victim, it’s when your life is on the line.”
The best reaction, says Hine, is to simply accept what has happened—you took a wrong turn, you didn’t fill your water bottle at the last rest stop, the strap on your pack broke—and move on.
What Hine has found is that people who have dealt with adversity before are generally the ones who get past setbacks more readily. “It’s not a coincidence that the ones who have been through major life events, such as bereavement or illness, are often the ones who more easily accept that the expedition hasn’t gone to plan,” she remarks.
Resilience, the ability to adapt when challenges arise instead of becoming stuck in them, is one crucial asset for anyone who wants to wander the backcountry. Another, says Hine, is intuition.
What many people would call “a gut feeling” or “a hunch,” intuition is “your subconscious protecting you by using information you’ve stored from previous experiences,” Hine explains.
For example, on an expedition she co-led several years ago, Hine found herself checking and re-checking that there were no dead trees near the group’s campsite and that the knots on everyone’s hammock were securely tied. In the night, a strong wind ripped through the jungle. The next day, “there were fallen branches everywhere,” Hine recalls. “I was glad I’d make sure that everything was tied down. I think we might have lost people if I hadn’t.”
In the lives most of us lead, “our expectation is that if things go wrong someone will rescue us,” says Hine. That isn’t always the case in the woods, but Hine believes spending time on nature’s terms is a good idea despite the potential hazards.
“I often get emails from clients months, even years, after their expedition, telling me how their experience has empowered them to make changes in their lives,” Hine says. “In the wild, it all comes down to you. That’s such a valuable lesson to learn because that’s how you get the most out of life.”