The older couple at the Swampy Lakes trailhead, a few miles outside Bend, Oregon, didn’t have any maps or survival gear at all, were unsure how to put on their snowshoes and were reluctant to take the firestarter and matches I offered them. From their inadequate clothing and lack of preparation, it was obvious they were tourists visiting Central Oregon and had no clue of the potential danger.
In 2006, less than six miles from where they stood, a veteran snowmobiler had died when an unexpected blizzard had blown in.
“We’re not going to do any of that survival stuff,” the woman said. “We’re only going out for a little while.” – Leon
by Peter Kummerfeldt
Many things get people in trouble when they venture into the outdoors, including lack of preparedness, not paying attention to the weather, accidents etc. More commonly, it is the attitude toward our safety that is the precursor to a life threatening event occurring.
How many times have you said to yourself or have heard others say, I am just, as in I am just going to walk up the ridge and see if I can see a deer, or I am just going to be out for fifteen minutes,” or perhaps “I am just going to run down to the store.”
I believe these three little words I am just get more people into trouble than any other three little words I can think of!
Most commonly you don’t verbalize these words out loud, but say them to yourself, silently ─ which is even more dangerous. Many times you are not even conscious of your decision to leave your gear behind. Unconsciously you already have made the decision to leave it because I am just… When spoken out loud there always is the chance that someone, upon hearing you say, I am just will step in and remind you of the importance of always taking your emergency clothing and equipment with you ─ even though the possibility of having to spend an unplanned night out is remote.
It is easy to convince yourself that nothing life threatening will happen ─ after all you are “just…” When you use the word “just,” you are convincing yourself that the weather will remain pleasant, that no accident will happen, that you will not get lost, or that you will be able to get back before dark!
You are saying to yourself that you don’t need to carry your daypack with your emergency gear and warm clothing because you won’t need it ─ you are “just…”
It also is easy to rationalize away the need to always carry your backup clothing and emergency equipment. As the years ago by, one hunting season follows another, and you have yet to spend that unplanned night out, the temptation to reduce the weight of the daypack you are carrying by leaving your survival kit at home, can be very attractive.
As you look to the mountains in anticipation of having to ascend on foot and hunt at higher altitudes, it is natural to want to lighten your load and leave behind those pieces of equipment that you have seldom, if ever, used. Sometimes it is “space” or the lack of it, which causes you to decide to leave items behind that you should take.
Most often, it’s the short trips that get you in trouble! After all, I was just… You get complacent. Nothing life threatening ever has happened in the past and so it is easy to convince yourself that it won’t happen in the future and if it does you can handle it ─ whatever “it” is! Ignoring the possibility of finding yourself in a survival situation is like playing Russian roulette. Falling victim to the I am just… syndrome is like playing Russian roulette with five out of six chambers loaded!
History is replete with examples of those finding themselves in trouble who, after being rescued from some horrendous situation, said I was just…
Several years ago in Oregon an older man left his camp one evening ─ he was just going to walk down to the end of the ridge and see if he could spot an elk. The following morning was the opening day of elk season. He never returned and despite an extensive search he was not found alive.
Ten days later his body, partially buried under snow, was discovered by other hunters. His emergency gear consisted of a .357 Magnum pistol and thirty seven rounds of ammunition, which he had used to try to signal his hunting partners.
Thirty-six of the thirty-seven cartridges had been fired, but were never heard by either his partners or those that searched for him. He had tried to shelter himself by drawing two log ends together and laying slabs of bark on top of the logs to provide a crude roof. His clothing, a mixture of cotton and wool, failed to provide the protection he needed from the environmental conditions he encountered.
Physiologically he died from hypothermia, but it also could be said that he died because he had rationalized away the need to carry any additional emergency gear.
Equipment that might have prevented the situation from developing in the first place – a map, compass or a GPS Receiver. Equipment that he could have used to increase his protection from cold temperatures, precipitation and wind-chill. Equipment that he could have used to attract the attention of the rescuers that were looking for him – a mirror, whistle, survival radio or 406 MHz emergency beacon.
He was “just going to walk to the end of the ridge, look for an elk and then return to camp!
The words “I am just” when spoken out loud or silently should be considered a red flag warning!
When you say them yourself or hear others say them ─ STOP! The trap is being set! Continuing on only will spring the trap and once you are in it, there may be no escape. Without adequate clothing, without basic survival equipment (reliable fire starting devices, waterproof, windproof sheltering materials, a signal mirror and whistle), without the ability to build a fire or signal to others, survival depends on an individuals tenacity to live, their ability to improvise what they need and luck – sometimes that’s not enough!
As you contemplate what you should have with you as you begin a trip – even a short one, don’t use the words I am just…
Peter Kummerfeldt has walked the talk in the wilderness survival field for decades. Peter grew up in Kenya, East Africa and came to America in 1965 and joined the U.S. Air Force. He is a graduate of the Air Force Survival Instructor Training School and has served as an instructor at the Basic Survival School, Spokane, Washington; the Arctic SurvivalPeter Kummerfeldt has taught wilderness survival for more than 40 years, all over the world in different environments.
School, Fairbanks, Alaska, and the Jungle Survival School, Republic of the Philippines.
For twelve years, Peter was the Survival Training Director at the United States Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colorado. He retired from the Air Force in 1995 after 30 years of service.
In 1992, concerned with the number of accidents that were occurring in the outdoors annually and the number of tourists traveling overseas who were involved in unpleasant and sometimes life-threatening incidents Peter created OutdoorSafe.com
He is the author of Surviving a Wilderness Emergency and has addressed over 20,000 people as the featured speaker at numerous seminars, conferences and national conventions.
Check out Peter’s blog at: OutdoorSafe.blogspot.com