Solo hunters have garnered headlines because of untimely deaths and injuries last fall in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.
A hunter in Idaho snapped both bones in his lower leg when he slipped while stepping between downed trees and spent two days crawling through the woods for miles before he was found.
A Montana archery hunter was found dead in the Big Hole Valley a week after he was reported missing.
An 84-year-old Wyoming hunter was found dead after a six-day search.
Hunting, hiking or backpacking alone is not asking for trouble, said Wayde Cooperider, who oversees Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks hunter safety programs, which includes instruction on basic survival tactics and hunt planning as part of the course required of all new hunters.
But solo adventurers need to take precautions, he said.
Cooperider said he’s always prepared for the worst when he goes hunting.
“I have never had to spend an unexpected night out, but I could do it if I had to,” he said. “I may not be comfortable, but I could do it.”
The most basic advice hunters can follow, especially solo hunters, is to tell friends or family where they are hunting and when they expect to return, and then make contact if plans change.
“The thing most people don’t take into account is the impact on others,” Cooperider said.
Not only do family and friends suffer the emotional distress, but search and rescue members may face peril in trying to find folks in rugged backcountry areas in often less-than-optimum weather conditions.
With a variety of survival, location and communication gear available these days – everything from GPS locators to cellphones – there are plenty of gear options available to hunters as well as others who venture off the beaten path.
“The technology piece is so easy to do now, and it’s affordable,” said Jon Trapp, a member of the Carbon County Search and Rescue and a Red Lodge Fire Department captain. “Most hunters pay more for the scope on their rifle.”
Trapp was referring to beacon devices, such as the SPOT beacon, and satellite communicators that allow people outdoors to send text messages if they are fine, or send an SOS if they are injured. The messages include the location of the device, providing rescuers with a very narrow area to search.
For those who don’t want to spend the hundreds of dollars and service fees for the beacons, there are several basic items that can be packed along.
Key among them are at least two ways to start a fire: waterproof matches, a lighter and a steel striker are options. Fires not only provide life-saving heat to ward off hypothermia but can also be used to signal rescuers.
“Keep a big pile of green boughs right next to the fire,” Trapp said. “Throw them on top of the fire and it will create a bunch of smoke. Otherwise, it can be incredibly difficult to see someone from the air.”
A no-cost piece of advice is to stop moving.
“A lot of lost hunters think if they keep going they’ll find their way out,” Trapp said, but that’s not always the case.
The old advice given to lost children was to hug a tree, Cooperider said.
“The bottom line is, if you think you’re lost, stop, build a fire – as long as it’s not a danger – and wait,” he added.
Other low-cost devices that are good to add to a day pack include a whistle, signal mirror, flashlight or rescue strobe light.
“The strobes make a super-bright pulse that really stands out with night vision technology, or even a couple of miles away with the naked eye,” Trapp said.
Cooperider said he probably carries more gear than he needs to survive a night or three out in the woods awaiting a rescue, but he takes solace in the knowledge that he’s prepared for most eventualities.
“I encourage people to be prepared for various things that could happen and to test the equipment that their life may depend on,” he said.