Experts break down challenges of surviving in Utah’s wilderness

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UTAH (ABC4) – Surviving in the Utah wilderness, whether by choice or not, can require a combination of time-tested techniques, knowledge, and awareness as well as a powerful determination to endure, say some of Utah’s leading experts.

In other words, a person not only needs to know what they’re doing to survive in the outdoors, but they also need to conquer intense emotional and mental challenges if they find themselves outside of civilization.

When it comes to the actual physical needs of surviving in the wilderness, Jacob Paul, who teaches a 30-day survival trek at Brigham Young University and owns Wild Jake’s Survival, a wilderness training company, tells ABC4 that there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Humans have been learning how to cope with a variety of harsh outdoor climates since before the wheel was invented.

“Everyone’s ancestors at one point in time used the same skill. They had to have fire by friction, they had to know how to make primitive weapons like bows and atlatl, build shelter, fire, and knowing different plants and how to track food, what was medicine and what was poisonous. All of those are things that every society and every culture around the world had to master for us to even be here today. So, those skills are inherently everyone’s heritage,” Paul explains.

While many of those skills, such as lithic work, or using stones as tools for hunting or fire-building, may seem primitive, and perhaps savage to some, Paul explains that there are thousands of years of science that goes into striking stones to spark a flame. Animal tracking is also just as scientific.

“Tracking is like a master’s or doctoral degree in outdoor observation. These people who could track could tell you what type of animal they were tracking, they could tell you if the animal was hungry, pregnant, they could tell you the sex of the animal. They could tell you if the animal was injured, just by reading its tracks,” Paul says. “And so knowing all of those skills, which they had to know to be able to do effectively, sustain life. Those, those skills, although they’re primitive, are no less valuable than the skills that we learned today.”

Surviving in the wilderness in a physical sense comes down to making sure that the basic needs are made. Paul likes to use a term called the “Rule of 3,” when teaching what is required for survival. The rule states that a person can’t go three weeks without food, three days without water, last more than three hours in the elements, be without air for three minutes, or without blood for three seconds.

The part that can be even more challenging than filling all those physical needs, is dealing with the psychological adversity of being alone in the wilderness.

“Being alone is one of the things that is a major game-changer for people,” Paul says. “Most people have a hard time being alone.”

Keeping your mind busy, fighting off depression, and sustaining a will to live can make the difference between life and death for those in a survival situation. Those who can master the psychological strain can find themselves thriving in the wilderness, in a state called bushcraft. There are a growing collection of people who are choosing to escape into the wilderness, get off the grid and pursue bushcraft, according to Scott Hammond, a survival expert who works as a professor of management at Utah State University, in addition to a history of search and rescue work.

“If you come up in the woods, there are people everywhere that didn’t use to be here particularly last year, that are trying to get away from the stress of COVID,” Hammond says. “And I just think, yeah, there are a lot of a lot more people out here than there used to be.”

Like Paul, Hammond echoed the idea that mental toughness and a will to live can make or break a person’s chances in the wilderness. Remarking on Monday’s discovery of a woman who survived five months in Diamond Fork Canyon who told authorities she survived by foraging for moss and grass, Hammond guesses she had an incredible desire to endure the winter months in isolation.

“That probably made the difference for her, when people are lost or out like that, a lot of it is the internal fortitude that they bring,” Hammond says. “And it’s a lot more about internal fortitude than it is about wilderness skills, or, you know, all into how to build a fire or any of that. It’s more about what goes on inside and that will to live, that will to just survive, that will to thrive.”

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