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Don’t Be The Next Tragedy

A recent tragedy on the Ozark trail has really touched me and gotten me thinking. A thirty-six-year-old father who was an Air Force veteran and his two sons, ages ten and eight, died of exposure after getting turned around on their way back to the lodge where they were staying.

The weather had started out warm, and they were ill-prepared for a temperature drop into the twenties along with a hard heavy rain. Searchers had to turn back for the night when flash flooding made the search in the dark too dangerous to continue. They were found dead the next morning, soaked to the skin, along with their pet dog who survived.

Stories like this really get me because I have two sons that are very near that age. I can’t help running over and over in my mind what happened, and asking myself “What would you have done?”

I feel the best way we can honor them is to learn from their experience and pass on these lessons to others who someday may face a similar situation. After some troubling reflection on the specifics that were reported, I can offer the following observations and advice.

Even Trained People Make Mistakes

As an Air Force veteran, the father has had some survival training. The story says he knew the area but missed the trail back to the lodge in the dark. Many times we grow complacent when we are in familiar surroundings.

Once, while hunting in Colorado, I shot a nice buck about two miles from my truck. Not wanting to hike back up over the hill between me and the truck, I decided to follow a drainage ditch downhill and hit the road I was parked on and hike it back up to the truck.

Another mile or so down I realized the path I was following wasn’t going to connect with the road I was parked on. I ended up continuing down to the highway and catching a ride back up to my truck. It was ten miles from where I came out to where I was parked.

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Looking at my situation, if I had tried to take the downhill route because bad weather was coming in, or because there was some other emergency, my mistake could have turned deadly.

Cold, rain, and darkness will often cloud our judgment and will tend to make us not think as clearly as we should. We must keep this in mind no matter our situation. Human nature will tell us that if we go just a bit farther, we will be okay. Usually this only makes things worse.

Years ago, there was a children’s program called “Hug a Tree.” It taught that when you realized you were lost, you should stop and stay where you were (hug a tree). Adults should do the same thing, especially if they are in a dangerous situation. Find what shelter you can, even if it is a leeward side of a tree, and stay put until the danger has passed or until you are rescued.

The Situation Can Change Quickly

According to the report, the day’s temperatures started out in the 60s, but it dropped into the 20s as the day went on, with heavy rain starting in. The survival rule of threes states that it only takes three minutes without air, three hours without shelter, three days without water, and three weeks without food before you die. If you are breathing, the next most important thing to worry about is shelter. Shelter is meant to keep you warm, so in that sense, fire and clothing can count as shelter.

I was caught in an August snow/sleet/rain storm above timberline one summer while archery hunting. All I had on was light camo clothing and an old pair of worn-out tennis shoes on my feet (another mistake on my part). Luckily for me, it was straight downhill to the road where I was parked, and after some slipping and sliding, I made it to the shelter of my truck and drove home.

Another time I was heading up into the hills after work for a quick hunt before dark, when I hit a bump in the road and my truck battery bounced out of the tray and onto the fan blade. I ended up spending the night in the middle of nowhere without a running truck. We need to learn to expect that things might go wrong and be ready to face changes in our situations as they happen.

Seal out the elements while high-visibility orange makes it easy for rescuers to spot

Even A Basic “Kit” Can Make A Difference

I can’t tell you the number of times I have been out in the wilds with nothing more than what was in my pockets. True, I always have a knife and a lighter, but I wouldn’t want to face the situation in this story with just that.

Having a survival kit, go bag, bug out bag, or some other collection of survival paraphernalia handy can save your life if things go south on you. The best kit is always the one you have with you. If it is so bulky and uncomfortable that you leave it at home, it won’t do you much good if you are caught out in the rain, cold, and darkness.

A small kit packaged in an Altoids tin is very popular. An internet search will turn up many variations of this kit. These small kits are great in that you have something instead of nothing, but in the Ozark situation, trying to start a fire in the dark during a cold downpour is a losing proposition.

To cover more bases, you should add some sort of shelter to your kit. A Mylar emergency blanket can save your life. If nothing else, add a garbage bag that can be worn as a rain poncho (to prevent suffocation, never wear it as your head cover). Again, remember the rule of threes—only three hours without shelter in extreme weather and you can be done for.

I am not the person to assign any kind of blame for this tragedy, especially since I have pointed out potentially deadly mistakes I have made myself. I can only hope we learn from this that anyone, no matter how experienced, can and sometimes will make mistakes. We can try to be aware that normal everyday situations can get out of control quickly, and if they do, hopefully we will have prepared ahead of time to try and get through them with as little trauma as possible.

My prayers go out to this family and those affected by these deaths.

©2013 Off the Grid News

© Copyright Off The Grid News


  1. A box of water / wind proof matches and some fire starter is a life saver. Anyone who has worked on construction can tell you that the weather can and will change at the drop of a hat. A chocolate bar or a hand full of candies can make a difference, a blast of energy when you are feeling down. And get the hell out of the wind. That is probably the easiest way to survive and stay warm. The wind will carry away any heat you may generate. To see this just walk in any field in high winds and feel the difference when you find a wind break. You suddenly find the temp bearable.


  3. This is an all-too common scenario with people these days, maybe even always. As a living history reenactor and trekker, I learned long ago never to enter the forest without my haversack. NEVER! Yup, I get some looks, and my wife gave up commenting way back, but I carry the same acessories carried by the woodsmen in colonial times. I’m no “survival expert”, but I do know what I need to survive, and very frequently take these items and test them in a variety of situations in the woods. I remember a film with Anthony Hopkins in which he, sand Alec Baldwin and some other guy were forced into a survival situation in upper Canada. He said “most people who die in the woods, die of shame”. He’s right People must realize that the natural world doesn’t give a rat’s butt who you think you are, if you’re not prepared, it will kill you. Be prepared, or stay the hell out of there!

  4. The last time I snuck out of school, I thought I would take a short cut through the woods. Of course it was fifty degrees out, and of course the creek was flooded, and obviously I took a wrong turn. Naturally enough, I thought I could cut across this huge muddy puddle with an innocently smooth surface only to find out it wasn’t a puddle, but the flooded creek. The bank was a straight seven foot drop and the water was moving fast under the surface with a slight undertow. Fortunatly I found the bottom and kicked off. The first thought I had after breaking the surface was, I am stupid. In my favor, the current didn’t carry me to the middle or immediately back under and I was able to grab a root and pull myself out. I began trudging back to the only trail I was certain would have a bridge and was thinking what the headlines would say, “Unidentifiable teenager found dead in Scott Wood, skipping class” or, “Death by stupidity, teenage girl earns Darwin Award first class”. After a few minutes I decided these thoughts wouldn’t help me. I found the trail, got out of the woods and went home cold, wet, and just a touch wiser.

  5. Boone and Lynch [above] are absolutely right. There are two “biggies” that can quickly be life-threatening: hypothermia and bleedout from a serious wound. All too frequently a person dies from unpreparedness.
    I’d add that in a true wilderness situation–even a short day hike– that a person take a means of making a shelter [a few yards of strong twine] a knife and a handgun in addition to what Boone and Lynch have suggested. Ignorance kills!

  6. You need to be careful making ‘assumptions’ about anyone’s background training as it turns into ‘ass u me’. Depending on one’s job in the military, one doesn’t have much survival training, especially Air Force but many in the Army and Navy also have limited training. The Marines have the most. Many have extensive training. There is no excuse for not checking the weather but you can’t fix stupid and make people have common sense. Give that guy the Darwin Award for Stupidity and Lack of Common Sense. It may sound harsh but those genes are not needed in the gene pool. The population is not short bodies.

  7. I spend much time in the woods, and know how quick things can change. Even a rolled ankle only a few miles away from camp now becomes a real situation in the right time of day or year. I am more of a thrill seeker while my wife is on the other side of the spectrum. She hikes out our back with small back pack, a note of where she is going, water, snacks, gun, extra coat, hat, small survival etc. I laugh at her, but having spent time in Special Forces in military, I know she is right, as I once learned; An ounce pf prevention is worth a pound of cure. And when you have someone else who’s life is in your hands, don’t be macho. Be responsible. Their lives and the hearts of their loved ones is in your hands.
    In survival training a man learns how to survive in the worst conditions, and it is never easy, and training is something you always need to stay up on. If you don’t or can’t, then be smart. Even survivalist are smart enough to bring along necessities that make survival easier. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

  8. Just a comment. I learned from a survival book: Don’t panic and start running, screaming, hollering, If you are sure you are lost and it is getting late in the day, find some shelter, make a fire, and stay put/. This is assuming that somebody else knows where you were going, or there is another friend somewhere in the same woods. Do not just walk off without telling someone where you are going and when you plan to be back. And do not EVER go into the woods without a sharp knife, a lighter, something to build a fire with and sufficient clothing.

  9. My husband and I built a log cabin in the Alaskan bush. We lived through many a cold rainy day and snow before finishing our cabin. To build a fire in rain, peel off bark from birch trees (if available,) the oils will cause the bark to ignite easily and then use the small, dry branches at the bottom of pine or spruce trees for kindling. Once you get your fire going well, place logs nearby to dry. Staying dry is key. I wouldn’t head out without a space blanket and rain poncho, matches and fire starter. Not to mention GPS device these days!!

  10. I take it, this loss of life was in December or January.? The weather was 50 degrees. any fool knows
    that the weather changes quickly in fall winter and spring. You go prepared. If each person had
    carried a paint cloth of thin plastic it might have kept them dry. And a knife and matches to gather the
    makings of a fire is essential. You never know when you will break a leg or the weather will
    change. People die every year just by not thinking . I tell my sons that they go out on the diving
    board, jump off and look down and then notice there is no water. Plan for the worse and you will
    probably enjoy the best, but at any rate you will make it back.

  11. As an avid outdoorsman, and hunter, I’ve made it a part of my life to always be as prepared as possible by carrying a hunter’s day pack with survival gear. On an Elk hunting trip to Oregon I was dropped off at a spot my guide said was a good place to ambush an Elk. He said to hunt down the road to a gate and he would pick me up around 7P.M. He failed to tell me that the road forked and, naturally, I took the wrong fork. When he finally showed up it was after midnight. Since I had my gear, I just dug a hole in the pine needles under a big tree and hunkered down for the night. I knew I could find my way back to camp in the moning. The peace of mind in knowing I could fend for myself was a great comfort and re-affirmed my preparedness. I could easily have spent three days, or more with the gear I had in my pack. My friends have laughed at me for carrying this stuff, but I’m glad I never listened to them.

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