Survival and the Hunting Knife

The following information on survival and the hunting knife comes from Chapter 10 of How to Hunt Deer by Edward A. Freeman. How to Hunt Deer is also available to purchase in print.

There are times when even the best of woodsmen are forced to spend a night in the wilderness. A man might travel so far into the woods, after a deer, that it might be unsafe or impractical for him to try to find his way to the camp in the darkness. He might become lost as to direction, and prefer to camp out instead of risking the chance of becoming more confused by aimless traveling. If, for any reason, it is necessary to spend the night in the woods, a knowledge of some of the fundamentals of woodcraft will aid in the comfort and even the survival of the lost person.

People seldom become lost on a day when the sun is shining, so the chances are that cold, wet or stormy weather has to be dealt with. If a person becomes lost early in the day, it is all right to travel (unless he finds that he is traveling in circles) with the hope of stumbling onto some tote-road which could be followed to habitation. Otherwise it is best to try to make a camp somewhere in the vicinity and prepare to spend the night. Usually one night out is all that is necessary, unless the lost person is a lone hunter and no others know of his absence, or in the case of a continued storm of several days’ duration. In any case the camp should be made as comfortable as possible.

Fire is the most important item in the camp. The hearth is the symbol of the home and nothing does more to make a man feel at ease in the woods than a good fire. Build it against a fallen tree or a dead stub so that there will be a back-log to hold the heat. Gather as large a supply of dry limbs and down-wood as possible, because an open fire can use a surprising amount of fuel in a night and it is no fun to hunt for it in the dark. Gather anything which might burn and which can be dragged. Long pieces can be burned into shorter lengths and damp wood may be dried enough to be burned after the fire has had a chance to get a good start. Sometimes it is hard to find enough dry wood which can be used for kindling the fire, but the dead branches on the lower part of the softwood trees are nearly always dry enough to start with. Any of these branches that will break with a snap are satisfactory. Some of the mosses which hang from fir and spruce branches may be used for tinder if there is no birch bark nearby.

Sometimes a man will be caught with no dry matches or other conventional means of starting a fire. In such cases it is possible to borrow a page from the days of the flint-lock, when the hunter would use his gun as a fire starter. This modern adaptation should not be used except in an emergency, but it is usually effective.

Remove the bullet from a cartridge and empty about half of the powder onto a dry piece of bark. Cover this powder with crumbled, dry punk which is found in decayed stumps or in the interior of dead trees, or stubs where woodpeckers have been working. Be sure to keep this dry. Fill the bullet-end of the partly loaded cartridge with cotton cloth, or, lacking cotton, any cloth of vegetable origin. Place the cartridge in the gun and shoot it in a direction that will permit recovery of the cloth. This cloth will be smoldering from the heat of the explosion. Place this smoldering cloth in contact with the punk and powder, using sticks to handle the burning cloth and being careful to keep the hands and face away from the flash fire which is almost sure to result. Powder will not actually explode in the open air, but will burn very rapidly with an intense heat which will ignite the punk, leaving a mound of glowing coals that can be utilized to start a blazing fire.

The fire should be located with the thought of some sort of shelter in mind. A shelter is almost a must on a stormy night. A log at the back is better than nothing. A vertical ledge or rock is better and a small cave is probably the best of all natural shelters. Lacking a natural shelter, a brush lean-to can be made. These are far from perfect shelters, but can be made quite snug if the materials are handy and there is sufficient time for good construction. Fir boughs are the best thatch, but other softwood branches can be used. If fir is scarce, it might be better to use some other material for thatch and save the fir boughs for a bed. Some insulation between the body and the ground is almost a necessity on a cold and damp night.

Before a person retires for the night, the boots should be removed and the socks dried, if such a thing is possible. Usually the feet will be warmer if the boots are left off during the night. The arms should be removed from the coat sleeves and the coat buttoned with the arms and hands inside next to the body. Sleep should be possible as long as the fire continues to burn. Usually the increasing cold will awaken the sleeper before the fire is entirely out and replenishing the fuel will increase the heat enough so that additional sleep will be possible. The night may seem long and uncomfortable, but there is no real danger of any serious results from cold or exposure.

I would not care to minimize the danger of cold and exposure, but this difficulty is often exaggerated by many writers of stories of the out-of-doors. A man’s physical condition and the clothes which he is wearing, together with his regular living habits, have a great deal to do with his ability to resist cold and exposure. The city man who works in a heated office and lives in a heated home will experience greater danger when exposed to cold than will the man who works outdoors and who is conditioned to winter weather.

I have slept out many times without the benefit of a fire when the temperature was below freezing. On one occasion, I awoke at daybreak to find that I was covered with a four-inch layer of new snow. I suffered no ill effects from this experience.

Many people are afraid to sleep in the snow without a fire for fear of freezing while they are asleep. This fear will sometimes cause a person to continue to travel until he is exhausted and in such a case there is real danger if he should try to sleep or rest in the cold. If a man is in good health, properly dressed and conditioned to cold weather, and camps before he becomes too tired, it is possible for him to resist the effects of low temperature. I was caught out one night in the mountains of Colorado between the cities of Leadville and Grand Junction. I had started to hike over the Continental Divide in the later part of January. I do not recommend such a hike as a pleasure trip. Night overtook me where there were no human habitations and I had a strong wind to face. This combination of cold and wind, together with the altitude (over 10,000 feet) made it imperative that I find shelter of some sort. I was following the tracks of the now defunct Colorado Midland Railroad and I tried to camp in a snow shed which covered the tracks, but this shed acted as a wind tunnel and the temperature seemed to be lower there than in the open. Beyond the snow shed, I could see a few scattered trees a short distance from the tracks. I tried to reach them, but the snow was at least six feet deep and was not solid enough to walk on. I managed to flounder to the nearest of these trees, but there was no dry wood for a fire. I trampled a trench in the snow about three feet deep and six feet long, placed a few branches in this trench for a bed, and prepared to spend the night. This trench was considerably better than the open country, but too cold for comfort and I decided to imitate the partridge, who dives into the snow in order to survive during exceptionally cold weather. I burrowed into the snow at my back until I was completely into it and the bank had caved in so that I was covered. I was comfortable enough so that I alternately slept and dozed for several hours until excessive shivering, nature’s method of warming the surface of the body, forced me from the bed. A few minutes of exercise started my blood circulating and I was soon comfortable. It was nearly daylight and I resumed my hike instead of returning to the snow for more rest.

I suffered no ill effects from this night in the snow, but I would not advise anyone to camp in this manner except as a last resort. I was in good physical condition and adequately clothed and I had been working out of doors and sleeping in a tent for the past month, so that I was thoroughly accustomed to the weather conditions of the area. Since I was not completely exhausted when I went to sleep, shivering was sufficient to arouse me before any portion of my body could become frost bitten. The average deer hunter would have trouble in surviving such a night. He is usually clothed adequately for daytime temperature, but not for inaction during the colder nights. This is why a fire is almost a must.

After the lost hunter has spent the night in the woods, he should try to orient himself in the morning. This should not be hard to do if the sun is shining. He should not trust to instinct, but should reason things out. Even if the sun seems to be somewhere else, it must be in the east, so there is one sure direction. The other points of the compass should be easy to figure. This information is of no value unless the lost person knows the direction in which he left camp or the direction of the road which runs by the camp. If these things are not known, it is best to remain in the temporary camp and wait for aid, keeping plenty of damp wood on the fire as a signal to searchers. Any shots which are heard, should be answered by a single shot. If these shots are made by searchers, one shot is all that is necessary and more will be a waste of valuable ammunition.

If the sun is not shining and there is the prospect of stormy weather, the temporary camp is the place to stay in order to avoid becoming more thoroughly lost. In this case food becomes a problem.

It is not absolutely necessary for a man to eat at this time, but it is desirable to give the digestive juices something upon which to work. A man can live a long time without food, but prolonged hunger weakens not only the physical being but also the mental reactions, so that, even if a man is able to travel, he is often unable to think clearly enough to decide which direction to take. For this and other reasons, food is a very good thing to have and there is food to be had in almost any woods if we know where to look for it and what to look for.

Deer hunting time is a little late in the season for the lost hunter to find very many of the woodland fruits and vegetables. The ground is usually frozen too hard to dig for the roots of land plants, and vegetation which identifies the edible species of aquatic plants is gone. But if a man is near water and knows what to look for, there are several plant roots which may be used for food. Unless he knows these plants, it is better to leave them alone, for some of them require special treatment in order to prevent digestive disturbances. Most of the acorns come under this category.

Meat is the hunter’s food and meat is the easiest food to obtain in the woods. The man has a gun. To be sure, it is a rifle of large caliber and not intended for small game, but if the hunter knows his gun as he should, he can use it to kill small animals for food.

The first food animal which comes to mind is the porcupine, the traditional meat for the lost person. These pesky rodents are comparatively easy to corner and kill, if they can be found, but like the proverbial policeman, there is seldom one around when wanted. On numerous mornings, I have had to drive them from the warm bed of my evening fire so that I could start my breakfast fire. They would be reluctant to leave the warm ashes and would grumble as they ambled to the nearest tree, which they would climb and then sit and tell me their thoughts in their own peculiar language.

On other occasions I have looked for them without success, even in places where they have been feeding, and have often hunted for days, looking for other game, without spotting one of these animals.

They should be looked for in the hollows under stumps and rocks as well as in trees. Hemlock trees seem to be a favorite with these animals, but other species should not be overlooked. They are often seen on a high limb on some of the coldest days of winter. Cold doesn’t seem to bother them, but they are primarily a night feeder, so that they are more apt to be seen at dusk and dawn.

If the lost hunter should see one of these animals, he should kill, dress and cook it. In skinning a porky, split the skin from chin to tail on the belly side and work from there to avoid the quills. I hang the animal by the head and, reversing the usual skinning procedure, work from the head down to the tail.

I doubt that a man would be hungry enough to eat much of a porcupine on the first day he is lost, but the killing and cooking of one will give him something to do and will give him the assurance that he can take care of himself if it is necessary.

The best of the small animals, and the one which I would look for first, is the rabbit. Although hard to find on a stormy day, so is any other game. They may be found in sheltered places, under blow-downs or low softwood trees. While a man is looking for rabbits, other animals should not be overlooked, for almost anything which lives may be eaten, if he is hungry enough to try it.

If the lost man has any knowledge of the construction of snares and dead-falls, it might be well to utilize this knowledge in an effort to obtain food. Rabbits are comparatively easy to snare if there is a runway handy. Squirrels may be caught on a tree or sapling which leans toward another tree, thus giving the animals an easy inclined path to the larger tree.

Other animals are more difficult to snare, but a deadfall, set on a path used by porcupines, should be effective. The great advantage in using snares and deadfalls is that they work while the hunter sleeps.

Partridges (grouse), if they can be found, make a tasty and satisfying meal. In the deep woods they are not as wild as they are in settled country and they may often be shot with a rifle. Squirrels are good food. The big greys are best, but the little red ones are good if they can be shot in the head so that there is something left to eat.

Perhaps the porcupine which is shot from a tall tree turns out to be a ‘coon. All the better, or worse? A young raccoon is perhaps more palatable than an old porky, but an old dog ‘coon is something that only a seasoned stomach can handle. Mink and weasels are not edible except to a man who is so starved that he is insensible to the odor. I have seen foxes eaten, so they must be edible. But I don’t want to be hungry enough to relish one.

Frog legs are a possibility for the lost man. Frogs may be found buried in the mud of springs. These hibernating amphibians may not be anything like the delicacies from the southern states, but even the smaller ones are just as nourishing—frogs, not toads. If the hunter doesn’t know the difference, it is better to forget about the frog legs.

If there is a sluggish stream or marsh handy it might pay to look for muskrats. These animals are working hard during the deer hunting season, preparing for winter, and may often be seen in the daytime. If shot in the head, they will float. Retrieving may be a problem. If the wind is in the right direction, they will float near enough to shore so that they may be reached with a pole. When cleaning muskrats, remove all glands and fat from the carcass. After cooking the food it might be necessary to hold the nose while eating it. Muskrats may be prepared in a well-equipped kitchen so they are quite tasty, but it is a different proposition over an open fire and with little to work with.

Deer hunting time is a little late for ducks. The local birds have usually left for the south, but there is always the possibility of a late flight from the north. One of these will make a good meal if it can be bagged. It is a waste of ammunition to try for one of these on the wing. On the water, they are a better target, and, although they may be hard to retrieve, they are worth the effort.

If there is a beaver dam nearby, it is possible to make a break in the dam and to shoot the beaver which comes to repair the damage. This is illegal and might be the simplest way to get out of the woods. Kill a beaver and a warden may show you to the nearest judge. Beaver meat is good. It should be prepared in the same manner as muskrat.

Fall is the time that trout and salmon spawn and they may be found in some of the smaller streams and brooks. A rifle bullet does not need to make a direct hit in order to kill these fish if they are in shallow water. Concussion does the job. This practice is illegal, of course.

Having food and shelter, a man can wait out a two- or three-day storm without coming to any serious harm; however, his mental attitude about his situation has a large bearing on his well-being.

In the early years of my hunting career, I read a newspaper account of a lost hunter who was found on the third day, and who required hospitalization in order to recover from his ordeal. I determined to find out just what this ordeal was, and I entered the same area with the intention of staying for a full week. I started out as I would for a single day’s hunt. I did not own a rifle at the time so I carried a shotgun. The only extra equipment taken was a belt axe, a length of copper wire and a larger supply of ammunition than was usual for a single day’s hunt.

There was about four inches of snow on the ground and the temperature was such that this snow did not melt except for a short time during the middle of some of the days. It snowed one night and a portion of the following day. It did not rain during the week I was in the woods. This was fortunate, for a cold rain will cause more discomfort than snow and considerably colder weather.

I made no attempt to keep track of my wanderings and I never recognized any of the natural landmarks in the region or met any other hunter who could give me my location. On the sixth day, I made my way out of the woods at a point which was about four miles from the place where I had entered. I did not carry a compass on the trip and I never knew my exact location, although I was never lost in the sense that I did not know the general direction out of the woods.

I was able to kill plenty of meat, but I was not able to eat by the clock. One night I was forced to spend the night with an empty stomach. Most of the rabbits which I snared were caught only to feed foxes and owls. I was able to retrieve two for my own use and the rest of my food was procured by shooting. I lost five pounds during my “ordeal” and I am sure that this was caused by an unbalanced diet rather than from any lack of sufficient food. I missed coffee, fruit and vegetables and my intake of meat increased as the end of the week neared, so that if I had remained for a longer period of time, I might have had trouble in shooting enough game for my needs.

This experience gave me enough confidence in myself so that I have never had fear of the woods since that time. Possibly I lacked the intelligence to recognize any existing danger and I probably lacked the imagination that would cause me to fear any possible danger before it actually materialized. In any case, it showed me that there is a big difference between being in the woods voluntarily and in being lost. This difference is in a man’s mental attitude and if a lost man can overcome this fear of danger, the danger itself will disappear.

If a lost man can take care of himself until the sun comes out, he can usually find his way out of the woods by himself—if searchers have not yet found him. If others do not know that he is lost, and there is no search, it is necessary for him to depend on his own efforts.

Following streams out of the woods is one way to reach civilization. This is often difficult yet usually sure. I prefer to follow the ridges where the vegetation is less troublesome and the visibility is better. Most of these ridges follow the general course of the streams and may be followed without the trouble of wading swamps and crossing streams, something which the stream follower is sure to encounter.

Often the lost hunter will come to old logging or pulp cuttings and crosses them without realizing that he can follow a toteroad out of the woods, or he becomes more confused in trying to solve the maze of skid-roads which cover these choppings. All of such cuttings have a road where the wood was hauled out; or, if the wood was dumped into a stream and driven to market, where supplies were hauled to the camp. The best way to find this road is to circle the chopping until the main road is found. It should be a simple matter to follow this out of the woods. If the road should end at a stream, a man may return to the chopping and look for another road or he can sometimes follow the stream. Most streams that have been used for pulp or log driving have a trail which was used by the men during the drive; and, while this trail may be overgrown, it can quite often be followed.

I knew a man who was lost on a cold and stormy day, and just at nightfall he came to the shore of a pond where there were a few summer cottages. Inside there were stoves with plenty of fuel. There was also bedding and probably food of some sort, yet this man spent a cold and uncomfortable night on the porch of one of these cottages, risking the danger of pneumonia, rather than attempt to enter the camp unlawfully. I would not recommend illegal entry, but few cottage owners would prosecute a man in a case of this sort.

Many guides and trappers have camps in the woods. They are seldom locked and a lost man is welcome to use these if he is fortunate enough to run across one of them. These camps are usually one of the first places to be checked by a search party. If a lost person is fortunate enough to run across one, he should make himself at home and wait for aid.

When a man is lost, his mind works differently than it does under normal circumstances, and that is why it is so hard for searchers to predict what he will do and it makes the task of finding him all the more difficult. If you should ever become lost, remember this: “stay put” if you are not sufficiently woods-wise to be sure of your directions.

Nature provides a few compasses in the woods, such as moss on the north sides of tree trunks, and larger branches on the south side of the trees. Most of these are subject to error. The most dependable one I know of in the northern part of the country is the markings on exposed ledges made by glacial action during the ice age. These marks all run in the same general direction. The tips of the hemlock trees lean with the prevailing wind and this inclination is not affected by storms from other quarters. In the northeast part of the country these tips point roughly to the east. Mountains will sometimes divert the prevailing wind and thus affect the tops, but if these tips point at right angles to the glacial markings, which run roughly north and south, the lost man can usually depend on the two for his direction. This combination will give him four directions and, although they are not exact by the compass, they are exact enough to help him out of the woods.

Personally I have never been lost, but I have been turned around so often that I no longer try to keep track of my directions while hunting, but trust to my woodsmanship to get me out of the woods after I have bagged my deer or have abandoned the chase. It always has thus far.

Some emergency equipment should always be carried by any man who enters the woods. Besides a compass, there should be included an ample supply of matches in a waterproof container, a good heavy hunting knife or belt axe, and a lunch of some sort.

Years ago I was present when a guide dressed a deer. He had a beautiful hunting knife on his belt, but when he started to dress the deer, he reached in his pocket for a well-worn pocket knife. When I asked him why he carried a hunting knife and didn’t use it, he told me that he preferred the pocket knife for dressing game and carried the larger hunting knife to use in case of an emergency, more as a hand axe than a knife. He could use it to cut poles and brush for bed and shelter, to cut poles for a tent, to make splints in case of broken bones and to cut and split small wood for a fire. He also said that it makes a guide look more professional if he carries a good hunting knife.

I have a pocket knife with a three-inch blade which I have used to woods-dress perhaps twenty-five deer and I have often used this same knife to skin and cut them up after taking them home. I find that it is plenty large enough for this, and that it is much easier and safer to use, cutting by feel when I am removing the viscera of a deer. I like to have a hunting knife with me for emergency use.

I have started on a day’s hunt many times without taking a lunch, but find that something to eat at midday makes the afternoon hunting less tiring and more enjoyable. I usually carry a couple of sandwiches, but when I am in the big woods, I prefer something more lasting. Often I have carried a few bars of chocolate and/or a box of raisins. These are well known rations and there seems to be a surprising amount of energy in a handful of raisins or a bar of chocolate.

At one time I carried a homemade emergency ration, made of ground parched corn, whole-milk powder and grated chocolate. A half cup of this, with a handful of raisins and plenty of water, would see me through from one mealtime to the next. I could carry several days’ supply in a small waterproof sack and, while I never had any real need for this ration, it was a comforting thing to have.

I have never tried any of the rations used by the armed forces but there is a possibility that some of them might fit into the picture as a hunter’s ration, if they are not too heavy. The hunter’s gun becomes quite a burden as night nears, so weight should be considered when planning the kind and amount of food to be carried on a hunt.

Survival instructions issued to fliers by the Government could be of great benefit to a lost hunter. While these instructions are based on the possession of a survival kit, many of the suggestions may be adapted to the equipment which the hunter might have with him. Knowledge of this sort, even if never used, can do no harm to anyone who has any occasion to enter the woods.

One of the best and most useful things which a hunter can have is a large supply of ingenuity. The ability to improvise, the “know how” to “make do” is often invaluable in the case that any emergency should occur. Many people do not have any idea of what to do in case of an injury to a companion. Others might spend a night with a bare log for a wind break when a few poles, in the right position, covered with brush, would enlarge the shelter and provide a partial roof to add to their comfort. Others might find a pool full of trout in water so deep that the concussion from a rifle bullet would not kill them, and they would go hungry, not knowing that a sharpened stick, with the point hardened in the fire, could be used as a spear to kill and retrieve a fish for dinner. This ability to improvise often means the difference between downright misery and comparative comfort.

Prevention is the best cure for many things and getting lost is one of them, so before starting on a hunt, study a map of the area to be hunted. Note the direction which you take when leaving camp to hunt. Note the direction of any roads and streams near the camp. Be sure to carry an ample supply of matches with a reserve in a waterproof container. Matches embedded, or dipped, in paraffin wax are good and almost anyone can prepare them. The wax is an aid in starting a fire.

Carry a good hunting knife. Have one with a heavy blade that will stand hard usage.

Be sure that you know your gun. Sight it in before the hunt and find out where the bullets will hit at different ranges.

Take along something to eat for an emergency, even if it is no more than a sandwich.

Carry a compass and trust it without reservation.

If you do become confused in the woods, consider it in this manner: You are not lost, but others do not know where you are. The camp is lost but you can make another camp where you are. You do not need human companionship. You can take care of yourself without modern conveniences. Don’t worry about your situation. Let others do the worrying.

If you can do these things and if you have an elementary knowledge of woodcraft, you can do them. You may live to look back on what might have been a terrifying experience as an amusing and not too unpleasant incident.

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Survival and the Hunting Knife

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