Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Survival of the Prepared - a Lesson From a Rimfire

It's January, when the conceit of winter come on days of  false warmth that lure us outside, only to smite the unwary as we have seen time and time again.  I wonder, when people set out on their snowboard, in their truck for that "shortcut", for that trek into the deep forest, do they not sense the shape of disaster that they can not yet see and will not speak of, simply because they think it CAN'T happen, or is it a mindset that it can't happen to THEM?

It's easy to judge all such events in hindsight as armchair warriors are wont to do.  But there's not one of us here that has not ignored that bit of unease.  Taken that risk. Yet we managed to come home safely through simply chance or excess airspeed, having reached that place where the locomotion of a disinterested world accelerates just before that terminal precipice, only to quietly turn away from the edge.

If we are lucky, we learn.  

That is why I'm always always surprised when I go to the outdoor range during the winter months and it's totally deserted.

Certainly, I don't want to go with 30 knot gusting winds and a snow squall. But there are a lot of fairly clear days in the winter, where there may be some snow on the ground but the visibility is decent and the wind is manageable. You will have to dress for it, but then again, I rarely get hot brass down the front of my Nanook of the North Arctic Weight parka.

Perhaps it's just the way I look at things. Shooting as not just recreation, a sport to hone the skills of hand and mind, or to hunt, but as a survival tool.

There are always excuses as to why not train to proficiency. Money, time, family, weather. Some are valid, many are not. You don't have to necessarily practice with the heavy iron. I regularly shoot with a favorite little Ruger rimfire pistol to improve my skills, stance and sight picture. I could shoot a whole ammo can of .22 for the cost of two or three boxes of .good quality 45.

I love the Ruger .22. It's easy to load and use. After I'd fired a few boxes through it,  it didn't misfeed. I can shoot it all day for the cost of an hour with something else. Yet it's often overlooked in the great mall ninja discussions of 9 mm, .40 and .45 loads, relegated to the kiddie table in the kitchen at gatherings of gunnies. Don't think that way.

Is it what I carry for self defense.  No.  But .22 is more than a way to gently introduce someone to shooting, and it's a great way to keep your own defense skills honed when, due to ammo cost or availability, you might otherwise let them slide. Think .22 rimfire will be too easy? Try setting out some targets at 30-50 yards with a crosswind, and your hands freezing cold (no gloves). See how well you do. See how much you learn about ballistics and windage. Not everyone who wants to harm you you is going to stand still, 15 feet away wearing a T shirt with a circle on it, waiting until your warm hand can pull the trigger.

Certainly you want to be familiar with the operation and controls of any firearm you carry for self defense but it's not necessarily about the weapon, it's about YOU, and how you react to threat. It's what you can do, and how fast you can do it, when danger stirs, not yet more than a whisper in the air, a rumor, like thunder in a late afternoon, striking before you expect it.

One of my favorite books is called Deep Survival by author Laurence Gonzales, which is a scientific look at the human factors of survival. Why does someone with just a certain mindset walk out of a situation, where someone else, better equipped and more physical fit, sits down to wait, and dies. I read through it like I'd been waiting for it for years, and it explained much of what I've seen in my life and work. It tells stories anyone would understand and I've given copies of it to friends and family. It not only educated me, but it confirmed the way I looked at the world.

I grew up in the mountains, learning early on that the wilderness is ill suited for the unprepared. Especially at the higher altitudes. At noon you may see just a few white puffs of cloud, smoke signals to those down below that says, come on up and visit. But they hide in that sweet invite to the unwary, unprovoked bursts of violence. For afternoon storms can suddenly build and sweep, fierce air masses that rise and fall in thundering downdrafts, winds forming into sinews of air, thunderstorms looming in shadow, like the spires of an old hall of Justice. You don't' want to be out in the open when one of those hits.

Moving at night is even more treacherous. Even though the moon may light your path, there in the vast darkness fly great birds in the forms of evening storms and winds that deceive. Night predators looking for the small, the weak, ebony wings beating the air, their cry a clap of thunder as they sought their prey, the careless. One misstep as the wind causes you to close your eyes for just a moment, and you may be sent home on a stretcher, or in a box.

Yet the wilderness will always continue its siren call for those that have learned that in traversing its peaks you will pass beyond the borders of the real world into a realm so quietly elemental that it seems otherworldly. There is nothing quite like setting up a small base camp in the mountains, sitting in the dark with a mug of tea while points of lightning struck in the distance, cleaving the atmosphere, separating water and air, pointing out this life of separateness I lead. A journey of shadow and dew, of dreams of light that sparks more than the night, but something within us. It beckons to both the experienced and the naive, as we head outdoors and up, abandoning the drudgery of the cities, repudiating civilizations reaching fingers, as we ascend into a lovers smile of radiant light, flirting with nature.

It's hard to resist. The nights quiet freedom around a campfire, the day's flaws hidden in the ebony of velvet night. Waking up to a new day of exploration. The high mountain air was a substance whose ethereal beauty so entranced me that on those long hikes alone, I had to remind myself to check my bearings and the time, as I knew that getting lost out there might be deadly.

For when your soul is entranced it is easy to go down a path you otherwise would not have, sometimes with consequences you never foresee. It doesn't have to be the woods or the desert, it can be a job, it can be the desire for a possession, it can be a relationship, those directions we take with the best of intentions that lead to a path overgrown with dark roots, sunk deep, that grab at your ankles as you try and decide which way to go to save yourself, with nothing to guide you but the unrelenting earth, discomposing and harsh.

It can happen to the most experienced of people. The trail disappears, the sky goes dark with a sudden turn in the weather, clouding familiar landmarks. You set out with the best of intentions when the small frayed tether between you and civilization is broken. Even in familiar territory, it can happen. The Boy Scouts say "be prepared" for a reason. If you can't take some minor preparations to provide for and protect yourself if something unexpected happens, you need to stay home. Being "lost" may not kill you, but being without shelter, food, and needed medical attention will.

Prepare for change, especially the weather. The weather now may not be the weather in 8 hours. Look at the forecast. In the wilderness, trust the weather forecast in the summer like you would  a politician.  Trust the weather forecast in the winter like that "looking for the love of my life" guy on Match.com with the wedding ring, hook for a right hand and eye patch.

Wear clothing in layers, peel them off as the temperature dictates, but you'll have them if you need them. The wild notwithstanding, don't travel with a light or no jacket in the winter just because you're going from your sheltered parking garage to directly into your garage at home.  A few years back a few motorists in Colorado died for that very reason.

Carry a compass, they're small and take little space. Always have matches and a lighter. Keep them dry. I took a course in survival where we were given a scenario that we'd been in a helicopter crash (bad weather, mountains) and had only a dozen items available from the crash scene. We had to rank them in order of their use. The match/lighter was my first pick. If you get hypothermia, the map, aspirin, Spam and string won't help, but they'll have their uses.

Shelter, warmth, water. You can get by for a surprisingly long time with just those. Always bring more water than you think you will drink and drink what you need to stay hydrated. Refill the bottle(s) if able. Don't consume snow, it takes away body heat and may cause internal cold injuries. Take a small metal cup or tin to melt snow for drinking by your fire. When ice is available, melt it before snow. A cup of ice yields more water than a cup of snow.

Keep to a trail. Without tools or experience, straying from a trail far away from civilization is about as smart as getting the Quiki Mart sushi. Just as you can drown in an inch of water, the novice can get lost in only 5 minutes of off trail "exploration" when they suddenly find mother nature is not as cuddly as they expected

If you don't want to post your schedule at a ranger station, tell a neighbor, family or a friend where you are going and when you will be back. A simple phone call you can keep a short outing from being permanent.

Carry a whistle, the sound will carry if someone is looking for you. But remember, it won't work on a rapist in the woods any better than it will work on one in a  deserted parking lot at 2 a.m. Pack a small flashlight or take  a headlamp and always extra bulbs/batteries for light or a signal. A knife is a must, no matter how short of a trip, even a small one or Swiss Army style.

If signaling for help, select a site close to your shelter such as a clearing, shoreline or hilltop, where visibility is good. A search will probably start from your last known location and sweep over your proposed route. During the day, you could also use a signal mirror, your belt buckle, any shiny device can work. If you are using a fire to signal, and not just for warmth, build three fires in a triangle or in a straight line about 100 feet apart. Three fires is a recognized distress signal. Stay put if you know others will be aware you are missing and in what general area. Have a bright piece of clothing to wear or use as a signal, bright colors show up well against the snow.

As for shelter, you'd be surprised what you can do with just a poncho and a few bungee cords. Lacking that, there is a whole forest full of building material provided you start before dark.  Sticks, logs, stones, leaves and even moss. Build against another object, like a felled tree, rock face, etc., creating a sturdy base with movable stones or logs. Insulate all but one peephole with moss, leaves, mud or snow to retain and hold in the heat from your own body.

If dark is fast approaching, look for natural shelters, such as the large spreading roots of a tree, the hollow on the leeward side of a log or fallen boughs that are sturdy or can be lashed together to reinforce them. Branches can form a lean-to or extra cover, leaves on top can help shed rain. If you have no time for even this, seek shelter in a ditch or behind something, out of the wind. bedding down on dry materials to keep the ground from sapping your heat (aren't you glad you brought your coat and hat? ) 

Few people think about survival, beyond having money for cable. They don't think about a peek at the updated weather when they're only driving 40 miles. They don't think "I should have gone to the range more" until they hear the crack of wood as the front door of their home is broken down. Look at the victims of violence who, by force or choice, remained defenseless, or stand on the side of the mountain and gaze at a young couple dead, not from the accident, which was survivable, but from simply not having warm clothing or survival gear because it was just a day trip. Both scenes will equally haunt your sleep.

I don't spend my day in fear's blind crush, that breath-stealing conviction that things are always going to be worse. But I am prepared for the transgressions against my safety for which the only penance may be the discharge of lead. For I'm well aware that on any given day, there is no guarantee that when we breathe out we're going to breathe back in again.

I like to lay the odds in my favor, which is why, in addition to knowing basic outdoor survival, I know the basics of survival in small country town or big city.

I carry a firearm. I also carry the mindset that I can use it, and I will use it, without hesitation or fear, if necessary to protect my life.

Mindset is everything. Anxiousness can be replaced by calm, and even when a challenging situation occurs, often fluid as nature, there's usually a way around it, if you keep your head. If you can keep calm, you have more options, ones that can keep you safe and renew your faith. Not a blind faith that all will be well, that feeling has been the death of more than one intrepid weekend warrior, but the faith that gives us the courage to venture onward, to fight back. You will have the blessed understanding that although nothing is fixed, as long as you are breathing and have a few basic tools that you know how to use, you can survive more than you know.

Whether I am in the woods or walking alone across a dark parking lot, my gun is beside me, tangible and honest and real. Like all the tools I use, if I care for it and treat it right, it will not fail me; it's an affirmation of trust in a web of iron and wood. The slap of my gun against my hip as I stride deeper away into the trees or across fields of pavement is a constant, like the sound of a beating heart to a baby, comfort in the dark.

Some say we are safe in our nation's parks, just as they say we should be safe in small town America. Despite the country setting, and red white and blue speckled mailboxes, there is no truly safe place anymore, especially for a woman. Though there are certainly more crimes where more people live or where the the law-abiding are disarmed, the heart of evil roams equally at will through asphalt and country roads. Predators are among us, watching from a line at the corner market, waiting in the darkness of a rural parking lot or that untraveled, unbeaten path. Waiting for that sign, that manner, that tells them that you are un-toothed and un-fanged, a soft and vulnerable target.

When the day is done, I stop and set up camp for the night; with darkness coming down, I know it's not safe to continue. I might be in a tent in the wilderness. I might be alone in a small home, readying a fire to keep me warm. I ready my safety, and set my fire, looking down at the cord of muscle in my hands, strong yet delicate, holding the match, precious source of warmth, buried deep in my jacket. That one inch piece of sulfur tipped wood will last longer than memory or grief, its flame, so tiny, one bright flash in the darkness, is fiercer than bravery or regret. I have my tools. I have courage and will. I have found my own means of deep survival. It is within me, where it was all along.


Keads said...

Ah, a Ruger 22/45. I've been looking for one recently. An excellent training pistol. I knew I needed one when I shot Old NFO's.

Great timely advise. I just got a range report from one of my favorite students today. I was pleased and posted about it.

Bob said...

I carry a few survival essentials in a tin box (Altoids boxes work well): whistle, Swiss Army Knife, lighter and button compass; these go into a fine belt pouch I found at Atlanta Cutlery. Very unobtrusive.

mikelaforge said...

Just reading about a father and 2 kids who died on the Ozark trail.
I leave cause of death to the experts, we always called it exposure. Stay ready.

Brigid said...

Keads - it's a fine little firearm.

Bob - Altoids - an excellent idea.

Thanks for the link on the belt pouch.

Mike - I thought of that when posting, not to judge as to any cause,or pick out that particular tragedy. For no one knows the true circumstances of such events and judging does not lessen the tragedy for those involved. But people need to be reminded that this time of year, this winter especially, things change and mother nature lies. If one person reads this and makes a different decision next time they take a long drive in a storm or set out in their own woods just to clear trees, and are safer for it, then I'm glad I included the information.

Pink said...


The Rugers are nice. I have one myself. If you want the best .22 practice, go with a .22 conversion.

I have some for my Glocks and my 1911s. They are the ultimate in .22 training. They usually consist of just a slide/barrel and magazines. You use the Glock or 1911 frame and just swap out the slide/barrel units and use the conversion magazines. Huge benefit of using the same grip with the same trigger pull, same safeties, holsters, etc.

.22 conversions for the AR15 are excellent too for the same reasons. With those, all you swap out is the bolt and, of course, use .22 magazines.

On a serious training day I'll go through two of the 550 round boxes of either Federal or Remington .22s and only spend $40.

Well Seasoned Fool said...

At around age 14, was taking a group of "campers" to a lake in the Colorado Mt. Zerkel Wilderness area. Seeing a thunderstorm developing,took them into some heavy green timber. Much complaining and questioning from the group, all who were older than me, until the hail hit. Big hail, some with clear ice edges. My father had taught me well. The dudes hadn't a clue.

George said...

Your comment about going off the trail are most apt. My olde daughter was in Belize. She is intelligent, aware of her surroundings and not prone to rash decisions. She and a guide were walking a jungle trail. they came upon a large tree ... not unusual in Belize's jungles. He went one way, around the tree; she went the other ... and was immediately lost. This was not five minutes or fifty feet. This was seconds.

We don't have many jungles here in North America ... but your point is still valid.

Fortunately, she stopped and waited for him to come back for her.

Great essay ... as your work always is.


Wolfman said...

Any more, when I hike, I leave a clearly marked map with my contact, and strict instructions to call S&R if I miss contact by more than a margin of error. At the least, they can run down the trail and establish whether I am lost or simply disabled on the trail. And I don't leave the house without a few supplies to get me back to it again.

Alison said...

Some of my friends think I am odd, some understand, but I always carry some supplies and gear with me everyday. Some on my keyring (whistle, flashlight, firestarter, multitool, P-38, etc) or in my pockets, and some in my daypack. (When travelling that definitely gets ramped up) Was a real treat to get as a holiday gift from my little sister, a "Nanostriker" fire starter for my key ring, which means that the bigger heavier one can get moved to the travel pack

When I lived in Idaho, I always carried supplies, as well as a shovel and sand and food in the vehicle, and found it baffling that my fellow workers did not...

immagikman said...

Most of my great .22 memories are of a Remington Nylon rifle my dad got at a barber shop/gun store (how great was it that you could buy guns at a barbershop) for $90. I would take this and half a brick of ammo out into the woods and find things to shoot....but the best target practice was taking spent brass from the .22 and sliding them on bare twigs on small trees and backing up to shoot them off :)

Old NFO said...

Great post, and range time in good AND bad weather does contribute mightily to proficiency... And who survives? That is always an interesting question... And the answer is NOT always whom one thinks.

Ed Skinner said...

It won't be sunny with blue skies and 72 degrees when you need to defend yourself. It will be a dark day. Look to the horizon - what do you see?
Red sky at morning, sailor take warning!

Cond0011 said...

Reading this essay reminds me of the essay of Joack London, "To Build a Fire"


The wilds - both countryside and urban environments, can be very unforgiving if support from the law abiding is absent.

It can lay low even the best due to circumstance or otherwise.

Patrick Kelly said...

My favorite weather for shooting is chilly, overcast, with a mist in the air. Usually not very busy at the range under those conditions, and the RO's are a bit more lenient with the rules, allowing me to rapid fire a few double or triple taps.

With a rifle the numbing cold seems to help me tune out everything except the shot. Things slow down to almost slow motion, and I am hyper aware of my breath, trigger control, and sight picture.

Doom said...

I certainly wish more people wrote this, and this well, and that more people read this type of literature. Not the government, your family, or even always yourself can be depended upon, completely or surely. A little training, a little prep, and the right attitude, though, sure are the keys to upping your odds. Listening to "Die with Your Boots On" (If you are going to die, die. If you are going to cry, just move along), reminds me that, even so. If it's your time. While I don't mind dying, I don't want to just throw my life away either.

I remember, recently, a man speaking about luck. While he believed he was lucky, he was living in his mother's basement, growing fat, and getting nowhere. It wasn't until he finally realized that he was the unluckiest man in the world that he changed his whole life. He couldn't wait for opportunities, he made them. He didn't just "get rich", he worked his butt off for his money. He didn't luck into a good woman and wife, he hunted, pecked, and then fawned as needed. I think it fits here, on this topic, well.

Odd, too, how political leanings often roughly track with preparedness...

jocostello said...

As usual, your writing is stellar and the message is important. Thanks for all. I'm adding Gonzales' book to my wish list.

All the best,

John Costello A.K.A. Dr. Roxx

Benjamin said...

I just shake my head whenever someone asks, "does anyone have a knife?"

There is always some form of knife in my pants pocket along with a Zippo. And the coat pockets reveal some tinder, a compass, and a cheap plastic poncho. And the ruck that rides in the car will see me through a few days in reasonable comfort.



Ad absurdum per aspera said...

Since it appeared the same day I read this post. I found this picture rather thought-provoking, as it shows how easily even the prepared can find themselves in a survival situation:

It looks as though he did some smart things under very unpleasant circumstances (e.g., spreading his weight out as best he could) that helped him survive long enough to be rescued. He was also properly dressed for the affair, always a good start. But as for the scene itself... maybe I'm mis- or over-interpreting the photo, but it looks like rotten ice with open water not far beyond.

I'm sure everybody here admires, endorses, and practices the hunting ethic of tracking, humanely finishing off if necessary, and making use of what you shoot. The question for the floor: are there enough Jon-E Body Warmers in the world to get you to go out on ice like that for a dead goose? And if so, how would you do it more safely?

maddmedic said...

I like my .22s
Always looking to add..
Have had my Mk II Ruger for mumblemumblemumble Years..
Is my favorite...
Going to the range tomorrow...