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Tim Smith runs the Jack Mountain Bushcraft School, in Ashland, Maine. He’s been a registered Master Maine Guide since 2002 and leads guide-training, outdoor-living, and survival courses in the remote north woods. He has also authored several books based on his backcountry experiences. In short, he’s a wilderness badass. Here, he answers your questions about roughing it and surviving in the wild. Share your questions in the comments below for a chance to see them answered in a future story.
You’re duck hunting in the swamp, it’s 30 to 40 degrees, and you flip your canoe and fall out of your boat. What should you do?
Cold-water immersion is no joke. A prudent hunter plans for the worst. You need to get warm and dry as fast as possible. It’s a good idea to carry extra warm clothing you can change into, and some warm fluids in a thermos to warm you from the inside. If you don’t have that, remember there are four ways to get warm: Insulate, exercise, consume calories, or have a heat source. In a worst-case scenario, find some dry land to build a fire, dry your clothes, and get warm.
Does the old bush trick of putting a needle on a leaf in a cup or pot of water to find magnetic north actually work?
You need to magnetize the needle first, and it’s a challenge to know when you’ve done so correctly. While this looks great in movies, it’s simpler to rely on the sun and the stars for bare-hand navigation. As a side note, I once wrote a letter to a compass manufacturer asking for advice on a malfunctioning moral compass. I never heard back.
In your opinion, what is the best personal-location beacon for the average North American outdoorsman?
Personal-locator beacons became much more useful when they went from one-way panic buttons to two-way communication devices. Of those that I’ve seen, the DeLorme Inreach is at the top of the field.
Which basic first-aid items should a solo hunter carry on public land?
A personal-injury attorney’s number on speed dial is near the top of the list. So are Steri-Strips and duct tape. A good rule of thumb is to carry the first-aid supplies specific to the activity. If you carry a knife, bring enough for a knife cut. If you carry an axe, bring enough for an axe cut. If you carry a chainsaw, bring an emergency-room surgeon. Cuts, scrapes, and hypothermia are the most common problems. Plan to solve them with what you carry.
What snacks do you recommend for a hunter on a freezing-cold treestand sit?
To minimize what you have to carry, go with calorically dense, high-fat snacks. I’m a fan of nuts, cheese, and pepperoni when snacking in the cold. Of course, there’s nothing that can compete with well-made pemmican (you can live on it for years), but the flavor is an acquired taste.
I know of one F&S user who eats snow in Montana. Is that safe and germ-free?
While it’s important to avoid the yellow snow, eating snow can help keep your temperature down when you’re exercising vigorously (think hauling a sled) and help you stay hydrated. The trick is to make small snowballs that not touch your lips to avoid chapping them. As far as safety, precipitation falling from the sky is condensed water that has been naturally distilled, but if there’s a lot of air pollution, it’s not a great idea. I eat a lot of snow on the winter trail.
If you had no electronics of any kind, including flashlights, what could you carry to help people locate you if you get lost?
Audible and visual signals. Audible signals such as a whistle can notify people a long way off. Use three quick blasts, for it’s a well-known distress signal. Visual signals, such as a space blanket that’s reflective on one side and orange on the other, that are tied up to flutter in the breeze will reflect a lot of light and look unlike anything natural on the landscape, thus drawing attention. I’m not a big believer in signal fires, owing to the many lightning-caused summer forest fires in the north, but in certain conditions they might be helpful. If nothing else, someone will come and tell you to put it out.
If an average hunter becomes lost, is it really necessary to try to acquire food? And which, based on your experience, is more critical to accomplish first: finding shelter or obtaining water?
When lost, do not worry about finding food. The average person can go longer than three weeks (probably much longer) without food. The average survival episode lasts a weekend or shorter. Focus on the survival equation to make it home alive: Body temperature + hydration (short term) + sleep (long term) = survival for 40 days. If it’s a warm fall day, focus on water first. If it’s a windy blizzard, focus on shelter first. And remember that shelter includes anything that helps to maintain body temperature, including clothing and fire.
In the film “The Edge,” Anthony Hopkins’s character says he can make fire from snow. How would he do that?
It’s a slippery slope to pretend that the fantasy world of movies and television is firmly planted in the real world. Not to say that it can’t be done, but I’ve never heard of any firelighting method using only snow. Clear lake ice (black ice, with minimal bubbles in it) can be shaped into a lens and used like a magnifying glass to refract the sun’s rays on a bright day. But unmelted snow—no idea. If any readers have successfully done this (ie. no “my buddy” stories), I’d love to hear about it.