Think you don’t have to be prepared to survive just because you’re hunting with a guide? That can be a dangerous assumption. When the wind picked up late in the day and snow began falling heavily in Montana’s Gallatin Mountains, my friend Chris wasn’t worried. Not at first, anyway. His hunting guide said, “We’d better head back to camp. This storm could get hairy.”
An hour later the snow was blowing sideways and visibility was dose to nil. Chris countered his growing nervousness with a reassuring thought: He’s the guide, he knows the country. He knows the way back.
A few minutes later the guide stopped and huddled near. “What do you think? Should we go this way or that way?”
Stunned, Chris felt his stomach drop. “You mean you don’t know?”
The guide looked sheepish. “This storm’s got me a bit turned around.”
For a moment, Chris wondered if this was some kind of mountain humor, one of those tease-the-greenhorn things, like giving you a horse named Sidewinder or Killer. But the uncertainty and embarrassment in the guide’s eyes were too real. It was no joke. The guide was lost. They were lost.
The guide suggested finding a place to make camp for the night, somewhere out of the wind and driving snow. “Maybe that’ll blow over by morning,” he said, without conviction.
Chris received another shock when the guide admitted he carried no survival equipment, no extra food, no compass, and nothing to use for a shelter. What did he have, then? A Bic lighter, and his hunting knife.
There’s no need to recount the grim details of that long, shivering night. They huddled around a smoky fire and hugged themselves against the core-chilling cold. Chris tried to suppress a growing fear that they might not survive.
Then they caught a lucky break. By dawn, the storm had moved on, and with the morning light and renewed visibility they were able to fumble their way back to the main camp, haggard, nearly hypothermic, and exhausted.
When he returned home, Chris–an experienced, world-traveling hunter–got in touch to tell me about his ordeal, and “the huge lesson” he had learned.
“I never felt so helpless in my life,” he said. “Trusting the guide, I didn’t pay attention to directions or navigation. I took it for granted that he knew his way around the mountains. I didn’t bring any survival equipment either. I figured if something went wrong, the guide would have everything we’d need to handle it. I’ll never make those mistakes again.”
Like many hunters on guided adventures, Chris operated on the unexamined, half-unconscious assumption that he would be safe because he had a guide. The guide would keep him out of trouble and take care of any problems that arose. Ironically, that assumption made him all the more vulnerable to danger.
Bad Things can Happen Even on a Well-guided Hunt
And ultimately we’re all responsible for our own safety.
As Chris learned, one of the primary ways to maintain personal responsibility on a guided hunt is to equip yourself with some basic survival paraphernalia. At a minimum, this should include a sturdy knife and multitool; fire-making aids; a water-purifying device and water bottle or canteen; some means of signaling or calling for help; and a small first-aid kit. (See previous columns for details on assembling a worthy survival/ first aid kit for various conditions.) This might sound like a lot of stuff to haul, but it really isn’t, thanks to modern technology. A water-purifying straw or ultraviolet rod weighs little and can fit easily into a pack or pocket. Ditto for waterproof matches and a spark-and-tinder striking stick. A survival whistle and an unbreakable signaling mirror take up little space. The same for a pocket-size flashlight and/or headlamp that helps you function in the dark.
Remember that “necessary survival gear” can be situation-specific. It might include a malaria detection card if you’re hunting in parts of Africa, or it might mean a holstered, ready-to-fire can of bear spray on your hip in grizzly country. I think of the elk hunter who was separated from his guide a few years ago near Yellowstone Park. Suddenly he saw a grizzly running straight for him. He could not get his scoped rifle aimed and fired in crime, and he was not carrying bear spray. The
The Griz slammed in and mauled him severely. The guide was not around to help stave off the attack.
In my opinion, all big-game hunters should carry that own navigational equipment, even when hunting with a guide. Guides can get confused, lost, hurt, killed, or for one reason or another, just separated from their clients. None of these things are likely, of course, but survival planning has to be based on the “it-could-happen” mode of foresight. From this perspective it’s wise, and easy enough, to carry your own compass. A UPS unit is great, assuming you know how to use it and actually take the time to put it into play. (However, even if you use GPS, carry a backup compass just in case the UPS unit breaks or fails to function for whatever reason.) If at all possible, try to obtain a map of the hunting area, the more detailed the better. If you can’t buy a map but feel you are in.
(However, even if you use GPS, carry a backup compass just in case the UPS unit breaks or fails to function for whatever reason.) If at all possible, try to obtain a map of the hunting area, the more detailed the better. If you can’t buy a map but feel you are in country where getting lost or turned around is a real possibility, you can draw a rough map of your own as you go, noting directions, landmarks, roads, turns, waterways, and so on.
As much as possible, try to know where you are at all times while maintaining a sense of “how to get back” (to safety) if that proves necessary. Many hunting camps post a map of the region for client viewing, and it’s smart to peruse that map until you have a decent mental picture of the lay of the land. Don’t be shy about asking your guide to show you on the map where you’re going and where you are. I’ve never had a guide balk at such questions, and whenever I’ve explained my interest by saying, “I like to know where I am,” gotten only positive responses–as though to acknowledge that any real hunter or out-doorsman does not want to be led around blindly like some pay-and-play greenhorn.
Whether you draw a map or not, stay aware of the landscape and directions as you travel and hunt. Again, note prominent landmarks such as peaks, rock formations, buttes, singularly shaped trees, and so on. Be aware of which branch you take at forks in the road or trail. Always make note of any “baselines” you encounter. A baseline is anything that runs more or less consistently along a north-south or east-west line. This can be a road, trail, ridge, river, shoreline, or mountain range. Try to use these lines to mentally organize and perhaps frame the sprawl of unknown country.
For example, if your hunting camp is located on River X, and River X is the only large river in the vicinity, you have a simple and excellent baseline to use for finding your way back to camp. If you can locate another baseline–let’s say a ridgeline west of camp that runs approximately north-south, perpendicular to River X–you have an excellent navigational fix on the landscape. If you were hunting southwest of camp and had to find your way back on your own, you would only need to follow the ridge baseline north until you hit the river, then follow the river east until you get to camp.
Staying Safe on a Guided Hunt
Aside from equipment and navigation, another important aspect of staying safe on a guided hunt involves your personal sense of intelligent risk and safe procedure. A true case history illustrates what I mean. A woman hunting Cape buffalo in Zimbabwe was urged by her PH to shoot at a prime bull. She didn’t feel she had a clean shot. The PH, glassing the animal, told her to aim at a particular twig and leaf, behind which the bull was standing. She did as told, placed the shot exactly as instructed, but because her vantage point was lower and to the side of the tall PH, the bull was only wounded. When, much later, they tried to dose in on the wounded animal, it charged, goring and trampling the hunter so severely she had to be evacuated out for emergency intensive care and surgery. Her initial sense of not having a killing shot had been accurate, and she should not have let herself be talked into firing.
A few times over the decades I’ve had guides who urged me to take shots I didn’t like (or ethically approve of, in terms of making a clean kill). I learned early on to simply say, “I’m not comfortable with that shot,” and if pressed further, to look the guide in the eye and say, “I’m not taking the shot, period.” No apologies, no long explanations. Invariably, the guide gets the message and moves on with the hunt.
Be aware that taking responsibility for your personal safety does not always entail grand and dramatic things like a charging Cape buffalo. It extends to seemingly benign parts of a hunt as well.Sports Afield editor Diana Rupp experienced this firsthand a couple of years ago while elk hunting in British Columbia. Normally on wilderness hunts she is careful to treat her drinking water with a UV-pu-rifying device. This time, she listened to the guides, who drank straight from the streams. They assured her, “We do it all the time!” Shortly after returning home from the hunt, Diana was hit with a nasty case of giardiasis.
“Those guys must have cast-iron guts,” she said later.
Most likely they had either developed an immunity to the giardia cysts over time, or they were among the percentage of humans (roughly half) who can carry the parasites without negative symptoms.
Over the years I’ve learned to do what I feel is safe and smart on a hunt, and if a guide smirks a little while I purify my drinking water or take a compass bearing or smear on more sunscreen, so be it. It’s my body, my life, and my well-being, for which I take full and final responsibility.