Evac, stat!

Surviving an ABR-ing trip gone bad is one thing, but how do you get you and your bike back to civilisation? Whether it’s medical or mechanical help you need, bearded bushcraft expert John Fenna has the skills to help you refit, re-supply, recover and recommence your adventure… or just get home in one piece!

If you’re unable to get yourself out of the situation you’re in, then you’ll be hoping to be rescued by others. Last issue we looked at the ‘location’ element of survival, that is, getting you noticed by any passing potential rescuers and search parties. It’s important to consider how well those looking for you will be able to see your position and that once you’ve been located, those looking for you don’t lose sight of you again.

Found

Once initial contact with your rescuers has been made, it’s vital you keep the SOS signals going until you’re able to actually talk to or touch your rescuers. First contact with rescuers often involves a spotter plane or similar craft which isn’t capable of landing or evacuating you, but which could help bring rescuers on the ground to your position.

It’s been known for survivors to signal for help and then to stop signalling after making first contact with rescuers. This leaves the rescuers unsure of the exact distance and direction to those needing help, which means they have to keep on searching and this can seriously slow down a rescue.

Once your rescuers are with you, you’ll need to explain your immediate needs, especially those of anyone injured or ill. If you don’t speak you rescuers’ language some sign language or charades skills can be very useful!

If your initial rescuers are professional search-and-rescue personnel, then there’s a good chance one of their number will be a medic. If you’ve attracted the help of ordinary citizens however, then you may find that moving a casualty is problematic and getting more professional help becomes a priority.

Help yourself?

Before making any attempt to self-evacuate, ask yourself if it’s really necessary. Most often your best option will be to stay put at your initial site with your bikes and await rescue. Many people have missed being rescued and gone off to die, while their vehicles have been found abandoned.

If you find that all your signalling is proving fruitless and time is running out for a rescue, self-evacuation may be the only option. As outlined in last issue’s bushcraft article, before moving away from the initial incident location you should leave a note detailing who you are, where you’re going, and the physical condition of yourself and those in your party. This will help inform rescuers of your whereabouts if they come across your initial position once you’ve left it.

Self-evacuation could be as simple as a long and hazardous walk through difficult terrain, to an almost-impossible crawl through impenetrable jungle with broken bones, depending on the original cause of you being in a survival situation. Both have been recorded in real-life situations.

The terrain you have to cross will determine what preparations you’ll need to make. If you’re in deep-snow conditions, for example, walking can prove almost impossible unless you can spread your weight to prevent you sinking to hip level with every step. Bundles of twigs strapped to feet can help here, as can flat ‘snow shoes’ made from panels cut from panniers, or you could – if you have trees or bushes available – make more traditional tennis-racquet type snow shoes.

Such weight-spreaders can also help if you need to cross boggy ground. Deserts can also prove hard to walk across as sand is notoriously hard work, and the heat of the day can be exhausting. Travelling at night and resting by day may be an option here.

Getting out

Forests offer severe navigational problems as visibility is limited, everything looks similar and walking on a compass bearing can be almost impossible when you come to thickets. One solution is to cut a long pole which you can push through a thicket, on the line of your compass bearing. You can then walk around the impenetrable thicket and pick up both the pole and bearing on the far side.

Mountainous and rocky terrain can throw up route-finding problems too, so finding a high point from which to scout out a route a can be advantageous.

Jungles present their own problems. It can often pay to stick to ridges where the going is usually drier and avoiding the low ground where swamps and rivers can make the going even harder.

In some circumstances you may have to cross or follow a water feature, such as a lake or river, and building some sort of raft or coracle may be your best option (more on this in future bushcraft articles), though water-courses can themselves provide more hazards such as rapids and gorges. And, of course, weather conditions, from mist and fog to storms can add navigational hazards to any environment, so always keep an eye on the sky.

Carry on ABR-ing

If you have a sick or injured person to carry, you will need to make some kind of carrying system – a piggy back ride will probably take them a few yards, but not much more!

I’ve used stretchers made from survival bags in real-life emergencies and although effective, they’re far from easy to carry, and far from comfortable to be carried in. Before you set off with your casualty, be sure to prepare any improvised carry device as well as you can.

In cold conditions any person being carried will need to be well insulated. You may be pouring with sweat from the effort of carrying them, but they’ll be lying immobile, probably freezing. Insulation below a casualty as well as above them is essential and keeping their head warm is very important. You’ll also need to check on their condition, so make sure they’re also accessible.

Carrying a stretcher is very hard work and, as well as hand holds, it’s advisable to have some sort of padded strapping to take the weight on your shoulders. Frequent rests will be needed – for both those carrying the stretcher and the one being carried – as exhaustion of all parties can cause more problems, from stumbles and twisted ankles, to the stretcher being dropped!

Naturally, crossing obstacles becomes a major problem, so if there are enough people in your party, rotate carriers so that everyone gets a rest. Those not actually carrying the stretcher can go forward, to find the easiest route ahead.

Get to the chopper!

If you’re lucky enough to be spotted from the air, a helicopter may come to rescue you, or to act as a delivery vehicle to land a rescue party. It may take a helicopter some time and a few passes to establish a landing spot or lower a winch. Remember, their priorities are firstly to keep the helicopter and crew safe, then to look after you.

Survivors looking to be rescued by chopper can help make things easier for the helicopter by preparing a landing area. This can include selecting an area as flat and clear of trees, rocks, bog, soft ground and other hazards as possible. Remove loose items that could be blown around by the helicopter’s downdraught and try to ensure that the helicopter’s approach is clear of obstructions.

Helicopters will usually approach into the wind, so try and give the pilot an indication of ground winds with an improvised windsock or a smudge fire with a visible amount of smoke.

Don’t approach the helicopter until the pilot or another crew member has clearly signalled or told you to move. A crew member will usually come to you first. Don’t approach a helicopter from uphill or from behind and always follow a path to the helicopter as indicated by the pilot or crew.

Survival priorities: a brief recap

The following are your top priorities in any survival situation:

  • First aid dealing with any injuries
  • Shelter getting yourself in a position where no more harm will come to you. You lose heat over 20 times faster to water than air, so getting dry is important
  • Fire useful for not only heat and light, but also for signalling, water purification, and cooking as well as keeping your spirits up
  • Water you can survive for three minutes without air, three days without water and three weeks without food. So water, especially in hot weather, is a top priority. However, dirty water is one of the world’s main sources of killer diseases, and a clean, safe supply of water is vitally important. Even going for short periods without adequate hydration can impair your thinking – potentially making a bad situation worse
  • Food naturally enough, being hungry affects your ability to work. It also reduces your resistance to the cold, to disease, and despair. Having said that, you can survive on your own body’s reserves for quite a while if you have to, but I wouldn’t recommend a survival situation as the ideal time or place to start your crash diet!
  • Location making where you are more apparent to any rescuers will help get you found sooner. Where you are will also affect your chances. There may be better resources and chances of being seen close by, so assessing and exploiting the best of your location will help you
  • Evacuation in the majority of disaster situations these days it’s better to plan on help finding you than struggling to make your own way out, but in some circumstances, when you know that no one will be actively looking for you or your position means that an extended stay will not be practical, then self evacuation may be the only option