Wilderness Course participants learn risk assessment and shelter options

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Alone contestants and survival experts Carleigh Fairchild (in red) and Megan Hanacek (in blue) demonstrate an emergency tarp shelter using a rock in place of a grommet, at the April Wilderness Skills course in Port McNeill. Photo by Trish Weatherall.

By Trish Weatherall

Published in the North Island Eagle newspaper May 12, 2017

Emergency Management BC reported more than 1500 Search and Rescue incidents in 2016.

The Wilderness Skills course in April, hosted by Megan Hanacek and Carleigh Fairchild, outdoor experts and contestants on Season 3 of the Alone reality survival show set in Patagonia, S.A, gave 15 people practical advice and hands-on practice for short-term survival circumstances.

The best prevention of these situations is preparation. Before venturing into new territory, Hanacek recommended that hikers and campers get local knowledge, both online and from local residents. “What are the weather patterns? Has there been recent animal activity? And always let someone know where you are going and when you will be back.”

But unexpected situations happen to even the most experienced outdoors people.

“The moment you realize you are lost, stop, and assess the situation,” said Hanacek. “Learn how to stop and re-centre yourself.”

“The most important thing is to keep a positive mental attitude,” said Fairchild. “Focus on what resources you DO have and what’s around you.”

Hanacek uses the acronym PLAN for risk assessment. Protection – find or make shelter; Location – is it an adequate place to set up camp, and will you be visible to rescuers?; Acquire – food and water; and Navigation – do you know where you are, or do you have time to get out? If not, stay put. And while a compass can be a great resource, Hanacek explained that many people aren’t aware that a compass points to the magnetic north pole, which is always shifting, and not to the geographic north pole. The difference between the two depends on your location on the earth. For true accuracy, a compass requires declination, which needs to be reset each year.

Fairchild told participants that if it’s safer to stay, priorities should be: Shelter, Water, Fire, and Food, however, “you kind of work on them all at the same time.” She says in some conditions you can only live for 3-5 hours without shelter, before hypothermia sets in. Fresh water is significant, but you can live for 3-5 days without it if necessary. Fire is important for heat and for boiling water. And while you can survive for 3-5 weeks without food, it will affect your energy, strength, focus, and brain function.

Hanacek and Fairchild shared their tips for shelter locations. Fairchild said she spent an hour looking for her initial shelter location, and a couple of days to find her permanent shelter location where she survived for 86 days in Patagonia. “Ideally you want it close to water, fishing, and firewood. Not next to the beach because of the moisture and its cooler. Higher elevations are also going to be cooler.”

Hanacek recommended flipping rocks and logs in the area to look for rodent and ant nests, and avoid dipped areas where water might settle. “Also look for wind direction, and make sure your opening isn’t facing the wind.”

Other camp location tips include looking up for ‘widowmakers’, (dead limbs on large trees that can fall at any time), and snags (fallen trees and branches caught on other trees). Seemingly solid cedar trees can be deceptive because they rot from the inside.

In an emergency situation, look for natural shelter options like fallen logs, caves, and thick brush.

Hanacek recommended carrying a Gore-Tex Bivy or Bivouac sack, a lightweight waterproof shell that slips over a sleeping bag, for a quick temporary shelter. “It’s like a mummy bag.”

Fairchild said when building a shelter, keep the space small, so there is less area to keep warm. A tarp should be kept tight and close to the ground – no higher than the length of your leg, and no longer than your height.

Hanacek and Fairchild described debris huts as the best way to keep warm with limited supplies. Use a branch as a ridge pole, or make a tripod, lay sticks close together like ribs against the frame, lay boughs or ferns over the ribs, and use bark or large leaves as shingles, then layer on as much debris (such as dried leaves and moss) as possible – as deep as arm’s length.

“You need enough debris that by the time the rain gets through the layers, it is down at the ground, not coming through the roof,” said Hanacek. “And it’s critical to have some kind of door. It could be cedar bark, woven ferns, or hang a coat or pack in the entrance.”

Course participants then had the opportunity to build a simple shelter using a tarp, rope, and tree limbs found in the bush. A tip that impressed many was using a rock in place of a grommet, by placing the rock on one side of the tarp, and wrapping rope around it on the opposite side. Hanacek also demonstrated stakes that can be made from a sturdy stick with a 45 degree branch.