Outback survival and the hunter

Experienced Army veteran and Environmental Scientist Scott Heiman shares some pointers that may just save your life

There’s an old phrase that Australia rides on the sheep’s back. It’s a saying that recalls the colonial era when Europeans began to clear land to generate the pastures on which sheep flourished, wool was shorn, mutton was eaten and money was made.

Indeed, the sheep trade predominated the Australian economy all the way up to the ‘wool boom’ in the early 1950s due to the American demand for wool generated by the Korean War.

Throughout this period, it’s safe to say that the Australian psyche was well attuned to our connection to, and reliance on, the land around us. But this situation has radically changed in more recent years. While in the early 1930s, nearly 37.5 per cent of the Australian population lived in rural areas, by 1976 less than 14 per cent was classified as rural. Today, more than 90 per cent of the population lives within 100km of the eastern seaboard ‑ from Melbourne to Rockhampton. Moreover, more than 65 per cent of Australians reside in our capital cities’ greater metropolitan areas. In these circumstances, it’s inevitable that the majority of our population is losing (or has lost) its connection to the land. The bad news for hunters is that we’re not immune from this collective separation from our bush heritage.

It’s true that many of us regard ourselves as independent outdoorsmen and women. However, our ‘woodsman’, our ‘she’ll be right’ and our ‘it won’t happen to me’ mindsets merge to make us more vulnerable in the scrub than we may care to admit. The combined effects of infrequent exposure, knowledge loss and reliance on technology can put us in trouble.

Just take a look at the national news headlines. Often one or more of our police jurisdictions are on the lookout for a lost soul in the bush. While many of these people are tourists, some are also hunters. Indeed, throughout the Western world, hunters have a tendency to become ‘geographically challenged’ so we’re one of the 11 internationally recognised categories of missing persons.

And our classification as known ‘missing persons’ is based just on those instances when we come to the attention of search and rescue assets. It doesn’t include the multitude of near misses and unreported accounts of individuals who go missing but are recovered by their hunting party. These stories linger on in campfire camaraderie rather than in the news bulletins.

When the shoe fits

When search and rescue agencies are tasked to locate missing persons, there are certain Lost Person Behaviour (LPB) profiles that are used to assist the effort.

So what’s the LPB for hunters worldwide? While some individual behaviour will inevitably fall ‘outside the box’, several common traits of lost hunters are revealed by the studies. These are:

  • Game focused, which tends to contribute to being lost.
  • Will not acknowledge when actually lost.
  • Following targets leads to deadfall areas, boulder fields, underbrush or dense forest.
  • Will go to great lengths to self-help.
  • Will sometimes avoid searchers for fear of embarrassment.
  • Rely on GPS, radios and mobile phones.
  • Usually mobile and responsive.
  • Tend to travel at night and will follow linear features.
  • Will take easy routes, ridge lines, cross-country.
  • Will make shelter and fire where possible.

Stats and facts

These behavioural characteristics of lost hunters are quite telling. Many of them reveal a sound understanding of basic survival principles. For example, we tend to seek shelter and make a fire. Which is great as these measures will contribute to a number of survival priorities. Further, the fact that we can light fire will assist in search and rescue efforts. Whether it’s the obvious smoke that’s seen by a rescue team, or the fire’s heat being detected by a rescue helicopter fitted with Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) cameras.

The statistics also show that the majority of us (52 per cent) are found next to a road. This indicates that we have the state of mind and foresight to stop near a man-made structure, thereby increasing our chances of being saved. Similarly, 9 per cent of us will be near a building of sorts. However, only 17 per cent of us will be located near a water source and this is discouraging, because water is life. That leaves 22 per cent of us simply stranded in the middle of nowhere without water and a reduced probability of being discovered.

Another questionable habit is our tendency to walk… a long way. Studies indicate that 25 per cent of us will be found about 0.96km from our last known position (LKP). The next 25 per cent will be located, on average, 2.09km from our LKP. The next subdivision of us will be located 4.82km of our LKP. However, the final 25 per cent of us will be a staggering 17.2km from our LKP. And they are just the averages. Imagine what the high end of the stats looks like.

Among the dicey behaviours hunters demonstrate, riskiest of all is our inclination to make a bad situation worse by refusing to accept we’re lost in the first place. The associated tendency to avoid search and rescue services for fear of embarrassment beggars belief.

Setting ourselves up for success

When lost and facing a survival or emergency situation, our likelihood of living to tell the story improves significantly if we follow the Priorities of Survival. These principles are known via the mnemonic ‘Please Remember What’s First’, simplified as PRWF. This stands for Protection, Rescue, Water, Food.

Protection starts with removing yourself from danger, risk of infection or bleeding-out from an injury. It then moves on to protection from the elements and the environment around you. It means that you need to have the knowledge and equipment on you to conduct first aid, erect a shelter and start a fire. It doesn’t mean you have to carry the ginormous first-aid kit from the car or erect a shelter that’s fit for a Pharaoh. That said, it does mean having a commitment to not putting your life (and that of your hunting party) at risk through reliance on minimalism and cheap trinkets.

Rescue means you need to place yourself in the best possible position to be located and evacuated. You need to stop walking in the first place, unless it materially increases your chance of being detected or finding water and shelter. The next thing to do is to place out passive rescue aids.

These are bright shiny things – like blaze orange survey tape or aluminium (even an empty chip packet turned inside out). Hanging off a tree swaying in the wind, the ‘tinsel tree’ you make from these items will draw the attention of ground-based searchers. Consider too the needs of aerial searchers. If you have a purpose-designed lightweight survival blanket, its orange side will act as a ground-to-air signal blanket – visible for miles.

Water: You need to be carrying some in the first place. Then remember that the more you move the more you are going to need. It’s invaluable to have knowledge of how to find water within the environment you’re hunting, including how to purify it.

Carrying something to boil it in is the next major plus. With the invention of backpack bladders, people these days seldom carry a cups canteen or other vessel in which to boil water (the tin your survival kit is in perhaps). Drinking contaminated water can make you vomit and give you a bad case of diarrhoea, which will deplete your body of water.

Food: There’s the old adage that you can last three days without water and three weeks without food. So finding food is a lower priority than other survival responses. Yes, you’re a hunter. But hunting takes energy – and energy, like water, is one thing you don’t want to be losing. Always carry snacks for your day hunt, even if you don’t use them they’re there for an emergency. Consider adding a couple of multi-vitamins, a tea bag or a packet of Sustagen to your survival kit. Then work on your bush tucker identification.

Gadgets and doodads

Don’t be the guy with ‘all the gear and no idea’. Actually think through what you need to carry on a hunt; be it an afternoon of bunny busting or an overnight backcountry sambar slog.

On a hunt, your basic everyday carry (EDC) belt gear should, at minimum, include a water bottle with cup, your skinner, a multi-tool, torch, survival kit, survival blanket, a snake bite/stab wound first-aid kit, whistle and a back-up way of making fire. Around your wrist, a parachute cord bracelet should be included.

With the whistle, its sound will travel further than your own voice. Just think of being able to hear the referee’s whistle over a roaring crowd. So try to find a whistle that emits an ear-piercing 100-decibel signal or louder – that’s a noise level higher than a nightclub. When you’re in trouble, give three blasts with a second’s pause between. This is one of the internationally recognised distress signals.

Power banks with a torch and solar recharger are good technology to have out scrub.

*Power up

These days we’re spoilt for choice when it comes to technology. But there are several issues that should give you pause for thought.

Over-reliance on technology makes us forget the ‘old ways’. For instance, electricity and water are not good bedfellows. And batteries go flat.

Now think of your torch, handheld CB, GPS, phone etc. How do you plan to cope if they fail? Do you have the skills and resilience to be out of trouble when your fancy bits of technology are drowned, lost, broken or out of juice?

And when you’re planning to carry equipment needing power, consider how you can extract the best performance from them. For example, where possible, try to ensure that all of your gadgets use the same type of batteries. That way you can switch batteries around to your priority device in your time of need. Then research how to start a fire with a simple AA battery.

Alternatively, choose items that all recharge from a USB and then carry a power pack that incorporates solar recharging and a torch. This way you’ll reduce your load and increase your capacity to generate power on the go. Consider too that some CBs incorporate GPS – a handy feature when you’re heading scrub.

Then remember that everything you carry into the bush should have two or more uses.

All News