You look at your watch. You look at the setting sun. Your pulse quickens as the gravity of your situation sets in. You repeat this process over and over switching your focus from near to far and you try to make sense of what’s happening. You deny the inevitable facts and maybe you even start making deals with your future self but you must face it. You realize the plan to get back to your car, back home, and into a warm shower before bed, is not going to happen. For whatever reason that got you into this predicament, you can’t dwell on it and you must take a course correction now. You are going to have to spend an unexpected night out. This simple problem often transforms a minor emergency into a serious survival situation. It’s easy to give upu or panic but that shouldn’t be the option you select. With a little understanding and some simple preparation, you can survive the night.
How it Happens
There are many reasons you may be forced to spend an unexpected night out. You could have been injured on a hike limiting your mobility, you could have had a moment of distraction/divided attention, you could have followed a buck’s trail for too long and neglected to track your surroundings. We can’t tell you what will cause your unexpected night out but we can say you are not the first person to experience this. Other common reasons could include fear of something you’ve seen or felt or or even the problem many people have with their own ego and not believing they are lost. There have been people long before and there will be people long after you who have been thrust into this situation. Your story will be a story of success or there will be survival courses that use your emergency as a case study and teachable moment. Focus on the moment and deal with what you can in the moment. Ideally you prepared and this night out can be viewed as an unexpected camping trip rather than a life or death scenario.
What the Threat Is
The major threat with an unexpected night out is temperature loss. Your body runs at approximately 98.6 degrees and it is very fragile when it comes to change. A few degrees below that homeostasis will lead to hypothermia. Depending on where you are, the temperature swing of the ambient air from daytime to overnight can be many degrees. Desert conditions, for example, can be sweltering in the day and freezing at night. The cold is a killer and long before it changes your body temperature to the same as the environment you’re in, you will experience shakes, mumbled words, loss of dexterity, and delirium. Cold has a compounding effect and simple tasks become difficult and dangerous. Depending on the surroundings, you can also expect conduction cooling as the ground will do what it can to zap heat from your body. Additionally, the wind could be blowing and paired with any wet precipitation, convection cooling is serious. Luckily for you, there are many ways to address cold and it’s effects on you. Don’t worry about wild animals, the boogeyman, or the nagging husband/wife at home wondering where you are. Those are irrational fears and they shouldn’t be your concern, well, maybe your spouse should be. If you were prudent, you would focus on the logical threat and start working to improve your situation immediately.
How to Perceive It
If you are well-trained, a night out is just a camping trip. You get a few hours to yourself to reflect and make a good plan. Granted, you don’t have a dedicated sleeping bag, pad, or tent but you don’t need them. Of course, you can’t throw caution to the wind and you must respect your situation. While an enclosed heat shelter is the best option for survival in the great outdoors, it is not the only option and a strong roaring fire alone is a game changer. Fire does more than provid wheat and it also offers light, emotional support, and a true sense of support. Ideally, you’ve trained for fire starting before this experience and it should be one that is not as difficult as your training. This is especially so if you have trained fire skills an incalculable amount of times and deliberately added training modifiers like time constraints, gear limitations, or simulated injuries. There is an expression, “train hard and fight easy”. If you’ve done your part (even reading this is part of the solution), you will have more preparedness than the person who thinks they know it all. Perhaps you read about the value of carrying a lighter each day even if you don’t smoke and maybe you followed through by adding one to your shopping cart last time you were in the supermarket. In a perfect world, you’ve trained with minimal gear and how to be more resourceful than relying on resources. Keep a calm head and trust your training.
How to Address It
How you address the unexpected night out will be determined by your level of preparedness. As a baseline, you should not leave your house unless you are dressed in a manner in which you can sleep outside with nothing but your clothes on. Your shelter always boils down to what you can sleep inside of, on top of, and underneath. Think about this, if you dress appropriately, your shelter considerations are already ⅓ of the way met. It’s easy to pile evergreen boughs high enough to make an insulated seat form the cold. If you can’t find evergreen resources for a seat, you can sit on top of your backpack assuming you’re carrying one. Sit cross-legged and you will keep your feet from getting cold. Better yet, carry a small insulated seat pad and you save time and don’t have to rely on resources that may not be there. Add in an emergency blanket or better yet, a hooded heavy duty reflective blanket and now you have all of your I.O.U. bases covered.
Good clothing, an emergency blanket, and a seat pad are the minimal kit you should have with you. This will require you to carry a small daypack with the basics and the only thing you must do is be willing to adopt this change. Adding in fire-starting equipment is a logical decision and carrying it should be an EDC or Every Day Carry consideration. Plenty of outdoorsmen have spent the night out next to nothing more than warming fire. Keep in mind, it’s easy to start a fire with the right kit. Maintaining your fire will require collecting copious amounts of firewood. The question always comes up, “How much wood?” The answer is simple, “never enough” Depending on the time of year, your night can be short and warm or long and cold. You will need to adjust how much wood you collect and decide when you need to start that fire. You may discover the the simple but tedious act of preparing your fire will keep you alive. You hope you don’t find out how it feels when you run out of fire and watch the last flame peter out. Fire is a game-changer and even though you won’t have walls around you and a roof overhead, you can do the “human rotisserie” and keep yourself warm front then back.
If you plan on focusing your efforts on fire, you will be best served. You will physically move and stay warm collecting and processing wood. You should almost obsess about it and collect it as long as you can safely with the dwindling light. Furthermore, focusing on fire will help you occupy your mind with a singular task and worry less about the totality of your problem with the darkness keeps you from working out the rest of the solution. The unexpected night out will be one with very little sleep as you will have to constantly tend to the fire and stoke it when it gets low. Your mind may race but remember the sun will rise and so will the temps in the morning. This ordeal will be measured in hours, not days.
Pushing Through and Growing From It
The morning after the unexpected night out, you will need to consider the problem that caused the unexpected night out in the first place. If you became lost, reconsider the last known location you passed and perhaps retrace your steps. If you sprained and ankle, think about improvising a brace (soft or rigid) and a walking aid. If you chased that buk on the way in, continue your hunt on the way out. Put the unexpected night out behind you and think about the issue right in front of you. When you remedy the problem that kept you from going home yesterday, think about reflecting on it from a point of safety and journal the experience. Write down your thoughts and create a goal with an appropriate plan to prevent the problem from resurfacing in the future. Think about the ways you can make yourself more ready and grow from the experience.