Frequently Asked Questions
Outdoor Hiking and Wilderness Survival Information
Outdoor Hiking and Wilderness Survival Information, including information regarding children
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Q: What are the most important items to bring on a hike?
A: The Top 10 + 1 are...
Map and Compass
Flashlight (with extra bulb & batteries)
Matches or Lighter & Firestarter
First Aid Kit
Plastic Trowel & Toilet Paper
Mobile Phone (borrow or rent one if necessary)
Q: How long can I survive if I'm lost or stranded?
A: Without shelter: As little as a few hours, depending on the weather.
Without water: 1-5 days
Without food: 3-4 weeks
With food, shelter, and water: A very long time
Q: What can I use for an emergency shelter?
A: If you are in a car or plane, staying inside isn't necessarily the best choice for shelter. The interior is good protection from the rain but not from the cold. The large interior is difficult for you body to heat. A well-built natural shelter may be much better, especially if you can build a fire nearby. If you do stay in the car or plane, put as much clothing on as possible, cover yourself with blankets, and pull you feet up onto the seat since the floor is the coldest area. If you are looking for protection from the heat, sitting outside in the shade is probably your best choice.
In the snow, find a large tree with branches hanging to the ground. Dig out an area large enough to sit with your back against the tree. If you can not find a well suited tree, try a large snowdrift. In either case, dig the opening lower than the sitting area. This will trap the warm air inside. Place dry leaves or other material where you are going to sit for insulation. Poke a ventilation hole in the roof. There is a very real risk of suffocation without this hole. Light a candle if you have one.
If you are in an area without snow, build a teepee large enough to sit in. The smaller it is, the easier it is to build and heat with your body. Tie three sticks together to form a tripod. Use a shoe string if you did not bring rope or chord (cut the other shoe string in half and use on both shoes). Lay more sticks onto the tripod. Cover with a large pile of leaves, pine needles, or shrubs. Build a fire near the opening if you can do so safely.
If there are no sticks for building a teepee, build a large pile of leaves or pine needles then burrow into it.
Q: How do I find water?
A: If you do not know where the sources of water are in your area, following animal trails downhill might bring you to water since grazing animals, like deer, need to drink twice a day. If you are lucky enough to find dew in the morning, soak it up with a rag, then ring it out into your mouth.
If you can not find a source of water, you can make a solar still. This requires a large plastic sheet and a container to collect the water. Find or dig a hole, fill it with green vegetation or other things containing moisture. Place the container in the center of the hole. Cover the hole with the plastic sheet. Use rocks or dirt to weight down the outside. Place a rock in the center of the plastic over the container. During the hot day, the moisture will evaporate, condense on the plastic, run down to the center, and fall into the container.
Another kind of still is a tree still. Tie a large clear plastic trash bag around one tree limb. Wrap string around the mouth of the bag so it is nearly air tight around the branch. The moisture in the leaves will evaporate and the water will collect near the bottom of the bag. This works best if the branch is nearly horizontal.
Q: What can I eat?
A: If you do not know what is edible or poisonous, there are a few rules you can apply. All fury animals, common birds, and fish are edible. Lizards and snakes can be eaten after the skin and entrails are removed. If you can't catch the fury animals, watch what they eat. Fury animals know what is edible, unless they have been placed in a new environment and you can eat everything that they eat. However, know that some foods have very little nutritional value to humans, such as grasses.
Warning: This is only a reference list. Do not use this page as your sole source of information. Plants listed here may be difficult to recognize based on the pictures provided. Do research on each and every plant and take appropriate classes before decided to ingest any wild plants. Many plants have poisonous look alikes. Some plants are edible only when properly prepared. Some plants have both edible and poisonous parts. All the plants listed on this pdf are found in Riverside County.
Q: How do I start a fire?
A: If there is snow on the ground, build a platform with rocks or logs. Start with a pile of tinder. Tinder is small, dry, and easy to ignite such as grass, leaves, pine needles, or cloth. Light the tinder with a match or lighter. The sparks from a lighter can be used even if there is no butane and the tinder is easy to light such as dry grass. If there is no dry tinder, you may forcefully start a fire with a flare (I always carry a flare on search and rescue missions to quickly start fires for hypothermia patients). After the tinder is started, add tiny sticks. As the flame grows, add larger and larger pieces of wood.
If you do not have matches or a lighter, you can try to rub two sticks together. This is extremely difficult and takes practice. There are two ways to do this. One involves the use of a bow to rapidly spin a stick. The other involves rubbing a spiked stick down the groove carved into another stick. Both require a knife.
One thing to consider: If you are doing it properly, you will work up a large sweat. If you are unable to start the fire, your sweat will make you much colder later on. You should be fairly confident in you ability to start the fire if you are doing this in an emergency situation.
The bow method: Find a stick that can be bent into a bow. Tie a string (possibly a shoestring) to each end to make a bow. Carve a sharp point on each end of another stick.
Twist the stick into the string of the bow. Place a piece of wood in your hand and another on the ground. Place one sharp point of the stick against the wood in your hand and the other point against the wood in the ground. Move the bow slowly back and forth causing the stick to spin and drill a small hole into the pieces of wood. When you have good holes in the wood, start to vigorously spin the stick with the bow. When you see smoke, place the kindling near the smoke and blow.
Be careful not to injure yourself with the pointed stick near your hand. You can also use a straight stick and pull to maintain tension on the string.
The groove method (I think that's a song), also called a fire-plow: Carve a point on a stick of hard wood. Lay another larger sick of soft wood on the ground. Cut a groove down the length of the stick about 6 inches long. Place the point of the first stick into the groove of the second. Start to slowly move back and forth until the groove is well formed. Then start vigorously rubbing until you see smoke. Place the kindling near the smoke and blow. If you can't start a fire, you'll at least be warm from the effort.
There are other methods of starting fires such as flint & steel or steel-wool & a battery. These methods require that you have brought these items with you in anticipation of needing fire. However, most people would have simply brought a lighter if there was any forethought involved.
Q: How can I avoid becoming lost?
A: 1) Stay on an established trail until you are very practiced in cross country navigation. Some people say, "You can't really be lost if you're still on the trail." This is not completely true. However, the vast majority of people that do become lost have either accidentally left the trail or have decided to hike cross-country.
2) If possible, hike with someone who is familiar with the area until you are also familiarized.
3) Learn how to use a map, compass, altimeter and GPS. And, don't forget to use them!
4) Don't be overly confident about your position. Stop often to find where you are on the map.
5) Be prepared for the possibility of becoming lost. Before you hike, tell someone where you are going and when you will be back. Ask them to call the Sheriff's Department or 911 if you are overdue. Bring a whistle, signal mirror, cell phone, matches and flashlight.
Q: Should I stay where I am if I become lost?
A: The answer is: It depends...children should stay where they are but adults have a few options.
Please read: "What should I do if I am lost?" and "What should children know before going into the outdoors?"
Q: What should I do if I am lost?
A: Visualize yourself doing each of the following.
It will help you remember and may save your life.
1) Stop where you are.
2) Admit that you are lost. Say it out loud.
Special note: Don't hike with someone who says, "I never get lost." What they are really sating is "I won't admit when I'm lost" and "I'm not very experienced." Experienced hikers know that everyone becomes disoriented once in a while. It's how they handle disorientation that shows that they are experienced.
Hint: It's easier to say, "I'm a little disoriented" than saying, "I'm lost."
3) Continue only when you can determine where you are and where you need to go. Don't start hiking until you have a plan. If that plan is unsuccessful, stop again.
Many people do find their way. However, many people don't. A natural tendency is to try to head for the city that they can see in a distance. This is usually the most dangerous option. Many searches have turned into rescues or body recoveries because of this natural tendency. There are only a few safe routes off many mountains, especially ours, and the few safe routes are usually blocked by dense brush which is un-passable unless you are on the trail. Remember: If you can see the city, then you are probably too high on the mountain to hike down safely without a trail.
If you decide to stay where you are: Use your whistle and signal mirror to attract attention*. If you don't have a whistle, begin yelling, "Help!" Continually listen for searchers who will be yelling your name. Start a fire if you can do so safely. It will keep you warm and will brighten your spirits. Most importantly, it will help searchers find you.
If you decide to continue hiking: (The vast majority choose this option) Pause every once in awhile to use your whistle and signal mirror to attract attention*. If you don't have a whistle, begin yelling, "Help!" As you walk, drag a stick in the dirt behind you. Push hard to make a good mark. Once in a while, draw an arrow in the dirt to show which direction you are traveling so searchers don't follow the line in the opposite direction. If you are in an area where this is not possible, draw arrows with rocks or sticks. Do this until you are sure that you are no longer lost. All of these actions will help searchers find you in a fraction of the time.
*Note: Most people don't use a whistle or yell for help when they are lost, usually out of embarrassment. This is very unfortunate because there are many people in the wilderness, usually closer than you realize, who can help someone who is lost, not just searchers.
Please read related FAQ: "How can I avoid becoming lost?"
Q: How often does RMRU find the persons they are searching for?
A: 79% - Found alive during search
10% - Found deceased during search
4% - False alarms
3% - Search called off but later found deceased
5% - Never Found
Q: What are the most common situations that result in a search or rescue?
A: Here is a list of the top 8 reasons why RMRU is called for 79% of our search or rescue missions.
The activity took more time than planned
Hiking off an established trail (cross country)
Hiking alone or becoming separated from the group
The terrain was too steep or difficult
A child wandered off
A medical condition
The group accidentally left the trail and could not re-locate it
Unprepared for bad weather
We are not suggesting that hiking alone, cross country, or over difficult terrain is always a bad idea. All outdoor activities include some level of risk. However, please keep in mind that there is increased risk in these activities.
Q: What should I know about wilderness first-aid?
A: Wilderness first-aid is different from traditional first-aid because it emphasizes on self-reliance. Traditional first-aid is taught with the understanding that trained professionals are minutes away and can be easily accessed by dialing 911. In the wilderness, help is further away and may not be accessible for several hours or days.
You can't learn to ride a bike from a book (or a web site). First-aid is a skill, much the same as bicycling. It needs to be taught in a hands on environment. The best way to learn about wilderness first-aid is to take a course, such as WFR or WAFA.
If you can not attend a wilderness first-aid course or are looking for a more traditional first-aid course, try contacting the American Red Cross, your local hospital, or your local community college for a training class near you.
Q: How can I learn about search and rescue?
A: Long story short: The best way to learn about search and rescue (SAR) is to join your local search and rescue team. If you live in Riverside County, California, visit Join RMRU for information on joining our team. If you live outside of Riverside County, try our Links page to find a team near you.
If you are looking to gain SAR training without joining a team, it may be difficult to find because SAR courses are not as readily available as, let's say, EMT training. However, most SAR teams have their own training program and will teach you everything you need to know.
Some teams do not have a thorough training program and rely on outside courses to train their team members. Those teams usually require that you complete a course before you can join or shortly thereafter. One organization the provides these courses is NASAR.
Safety Issues Regarding Children
Q: What should children know before going into the outdoors?
A: Please print this colorful pdf for your child and take it with you hiking.
Below is the same information in detail without pictures for parents to share with their children.
Hug a tree. Hug a tree when you think you are lost. Talk to your tree.
Wear a trash bag to stay warm. Always carry a trash bag and whistle on a picnic, hike, or camping trip.
When you are lost, make a hole in the side of the bag for your face. To stay warm, put the bag over you and put your face through the hole. Blow the whistle as loud as you can.
Make yourself big. Stand up and wave your hands when you see a plane or helicopter.
There are no animals that want to hurt you. If you hear a noise, yell at it or blow your whistle. If it is an animal, it will run and hide. If it is a searcher, you will be found. If you hear a noise, yell at it or blow your whistle.
Don't be afraid of strangers when you are lost. Your parents won't be angry with you for getting lost. There will be many people helping your parents search for you. Don't be afraid of strangers when you are lost.
Q: What should adults know before bringing children into the outdoors?
A: Parents should review our FAQ: What should children know before going into the outdoors? with their children before taking them into the outdoors. It is based on the Hug-A-Tree and Survive Program developed by the San Diego Search and Rescue Team in response to the Search for Jimmy Beveridge who was found too late. Jimmy was so panicked when he discovered he was lost that he actually lost his shoe. By the time Jimmy was found, he had died of hypothermia. See Mission 1981-006.
Here are some points to keep in mind when reviewing the program with your child.
One of the greatest fears a person of any age can have is of being alone. Hugging a tree or other stationary object and even talking to it calms the child down, and prevents panic. By staying in once place, the child is found far more quickly, and can't be injured in a fall.
Give your child a trash bag and whistle to carry on a picnic, hike, or camping trip. By making a hole  in the side of the bag for the face, and putting it over the head, it will keep the child dry and warm. The whistle is louder than the child's voice and takes less energy to use.
 Without this hole, there is danger of suffocation.
Time and again children have avoided searchers because they were ashamed of getting lost, and afraid of punishment. Anyone can get lost, adult or child. If they know a happy reunion filled with love is waiting, they will be less frightened, less prone to panic, and work hard to be found.
Help your child be more visible. From helicopters, people are hard to see. Your child should wear bright clothing for outdoor activities. Tell them to waive their arms when planes or helicopters are flying around.
Fears of the dark and lions and tigers and bears are a big factor in panicking children into running. They need strong reassurance to stay put and be safe. Let them know that there are no animals that want to hurt them.
Many children don't realize that many people are looking for them. They are looking for their friends and family. Some are afraid of strangers and people in uniform, and don't respond to yells. Many have actually hidden from searchers they knew were looking for them.
Teach your child to stay on the trails and to always keep an adult within sight.
Be prepared for the possibility that your child may become lost. Know exactly what your child is wearing, especially which shoes they are wearing. Have the child step on a piece of aluminum foil that is on a towel or carpet. With this print, trackers can separate your child's track from the hundreds of others in the area, and quickly determine the direction of travel.
Call the Sheriff quickly if your child becomes lost. It's okay to do a quick search of the area but this should only last a few minutes. Don't be concerned about the possibility of creating a false alarm, there is really no such thing in situations like this. Searchers enjoy what they do and don't mind being called for "possible false alarms". The biggest problem confronting searchers today is simply getting people to call immediately after discovering that a child is missing. The area that needs to be searched expands rapidly as time progresses.
Be available for interviewing. Clues which lead to finding the child in good shape usually come from family and friends who remain on the scene and talk openly and accurately with the search leader or his representative.