Wildfire had burned over 100 acres of the Camp Constantin Boy Scout reservation near Graford, Texas, so Troop 734 from Farmer’s Branch (DFW) was on a weekend campout to help plant new trees in the burned area.
The temperature was in the low 50s, with a strong sharp wind accompanied by off and on rain showers. The Scouts were ready for the weather. Good boots, heavy jackets, and rain ponchos.
Each Scout had his E-tool (folding shovel) and a 5-gallon bucket full of seedling pine trees. They found their grid assignment and spread out. Each Scout was twenty yards from the Scout to either side, and the instructions were to walk ten paces, chop a hole in the ground, plant a tree, and repeat until the bucket was empty.
The task was pretty simple, and the Scouts were moving through head-high grass that had moved in after the burn. The line of Scouts started to straggle, as each boy bent to plant the next tree. When he stood again, he could barely see the other Scouts to either side.
A “slough” (sloo) is a water channel. Natural sloughs are often part of a swamp or bayou. Man-made sloughs are channels created to control flooding. The Scout did not know what kind of slough he stepped into. All he knew was one second he was pushing through the grass, and the next he was submerged in icy water. Jettisoning his E-tool and bucket, he fought his way through the tangle and crawled back on shore completely soaked to the skin.
That was the first time this child wandered down the path to hypothermia. (The lowering of core body temperature to a point where life cannot be sustained.)
After I got out of the water, I realized:
My troop was either no longer in the area, or I had wandered out of our assigned area.
My troop had failed to do a body count before heading back to camp, so nobody knew I was missing.
In the time it took me to find a road, and get back to where I was supposed to be, I had gone through uncomfortable, to goose bumps, painful shivers, and I had finally reached a point where the shivering stopped. I was feeling nice and warm. All I wanted to do was to lie down on that nice soft soaking wet ground under one of those trees and take a little nap. No long, just a minute or two…
The priorities of survival are:
Shelter is the first priority because extreme changes in body temperature can kill very quickly if the condition is not recognized, and immediate steps taken to correct the situation.
The following news stories describe different outcomes:
The best defense against cold is proper clothing composed of layers and wool.
Layered clothing allows you to adjust your personal insulation to suit the situation and your activity level. The worst thing you can do in cold conditions is get wet, and that includes perspiration. Chopping wood? Take a couple of layers off and keep working. If your body starts to feel a bit damp, you have waited too long. Stop and remove a layer or two. Cool down and dry out.
Repeat after me, “Wool is my friend.”
Wool has a unique property that can keep you alive. Wool insulates even when wet. Cotton is worthless as an insulator when it is damp. Gore-Tex is good. Wool is better. Wear it head to toe.
If you feel the goosebumps start, or you pick up a shiver, and you are exposed outdoors, it is time to take steps to get warm, and walking around can help with that. Just do not over do a good thing.
The second best defense is your crash kit. These kits are called by hundreds of names. The most common is probably “BOB” (aka Bug-Out-Bag) or Get Home Bag. I will not go into a list of must –haves because every person needs to build their bag to meet their most likely crisis scenario.
Long ago my Mom lived in Taos, New Mexico, and I would drive up and spend Christmas and New Years with her, so I worked out my Crash kit based on my most likely scenarios on that journey. One year I was really glad to have it when my car decided to give me trouble way out in the middle of the Texas panhandle, and the weather was moving in. Fortunately, I managed to nurse my cripple into Dalhart and get a motel room before things got nasty, but had I been stuck, I would have been OK.
I was wearing a combination of wool and cotton layers in the form of thermal underwear, wool socks, wool sweater, a parka, and a wool felt cowboy hat.
My kit list is pretty short:
Wool watch cap
Rain poncho in rip-stop nylon (Get an insulated poncho liner to help keep warm)
Leather work gloves
1lb. peanut butter (Best source of emergency calories I know)
Fire striker and cylinder of lifeboat matches
1 Tomahawk (My hawk has a rounded eye, so I can whittle down a tree branch to replace a broken handle)
1 Pocket compass with scale ruler for map reading.
1 pair slip-joint pliers
Canteen with aluminum cup and cover. (I can boil water in the cup to purify and/or make tea for warmth.)
1 Roll of toilet paper
In addition to the kit I had:
1 dome tent
1 sleeping bag
Other stuff I carried regardless of the weather:
.44 Magnum Ruger Super Blackhawk in shoulder holster
50 rounds of ammo (12 in pocket, 38 in my kit)
4” folding knife
Some folks are going to question the need for the revolver, so I should explain that road trips in Texas and New Mexico can easily lead the unwary driver into close encounters with roaming livestock and large wildlife in the form of deer and feral hogs. In New Mexico, black bear and antelope are often seen as roadkill.
Assuming the driver survives the initial accident, they are often faced with a crippled animal thrashing around on the road. Being a humane and responsible person, I want to have the means to quickly end the animal’s suffering without having to resort to my tomahawk, E-tool, or a rock I find beside the road.
In addition, a .44 Magnum makes on hell of a signaling device in the event you need to attract the attention of rescuers. You can also hunt with it if you have really screwed up and gotten lost.
For those living in restrictive states, a 12 or 20-gauge shotgun loaded with slugs will do the job nicely. It’s just a lot more trouble to carry around.
With the kit above, and properly layered clothing, I was prepared in the event I was stuck on my own for a few days.
Another thing to include are topographical and county road maps. Most of these are free for the printing on the Internet. In addition to paper not requiring a charged mobile device and cell service, they are often far more accurate than Google Maps and GPS. A good map might have saved those folks from PA some serious misery.
Give some thought to your route of travel and the expected weather before you hit the road. Dress appropriately, and have your Crash Kit stocked based on your family’s needs. Example: If you have small children some crayons and coloring books can help pass the time.
Stay warm and stay safe.