Welcome to Friday Fiction Facts: sciency things that fiction writers need to know.
My daughter was 4 years old the first time her dad and I took her backbacking. We carried the bulk of her equipment (and ours), but we gave her her own small pack and equipped it with her sierra cup, spoon, granola bars and snacks, water, extra clothes, jacket, hat, a space blanket, a few small toys, and a whistle.
In addition, while there was almost no chance we would lose sight of her, we gave her some important instructions on what to do if something happened to us or if she became separated and lost in the woods. Since she was only little, those instructions were simple:
#1 – Stop walking, sit down, and blow your whistle as loud as you can. Three blasts. (We practiced this at home, to the chagrin of our neighbors.) Then wait. The blow again. Keep going until someone finds you.
#2—In the wilderness it is definitely OK to talk to strangers! Tell the first person you see who you are and that you are lost. Grownups will handle it from there.
#3 – Meanwhile, stay where you are, stay warm and dry, eat your snacks and play with your toys. Someone will find you.
As she got older, we added more and more safety rules and survival skills and it wasn’t long before she was an accomplished backpacker herself.
So this week’s Friday Fiction Facts will address some sciency things that might help save a person who is lost in the woods. These are not going to be Bear Grylls “drink water squeezed from elephant dung” techniques or MacGyver-esque “how to build a radio out of wet string and a potato” tricks. They are just regular things about the environment that your main character may intentionally or even unknowingly take advantage of.
Town: A river runs to it. If lost in hilly or mountainous country, a safe bet is to follow water downstream. Creeks turn into rivers. Rivers often have trails along them and eventually open into lakes. Towns, roadways, farms, cottages, and hunting camps are usually located on lakes and in valleys.
Disease: And speaking of river and lake water – a large portion of North American lakes and rivers contain giardia, so normally hikers are warned to boil or purify drinking water. However, a person can’t go for more than 3 days without water, so if your characters have no other choice, let them drink from the river. Giardiasis takes at least 10 days to kick in, so just get your characters out of the woods before that.
Direction: That thing about moss growing on the north side of the tree? No! That’s not a fact. Ignore the moss. But with a little bit of smarts, your characters can quickly figure out compass directions using the sun. The simplest way is the stick method:
In a sunny spot, stick a 2 or 3 foot stick vertically in the ground. Make a dot (or put a pebble) on the ground where the far tip of the shadow is. Mark that as WEST. Now wait 15-20 minutes and then mark the tip of the shadow again. Mark that as EAST. Draw a line between the 2 marks. Now, stand with east to your right and west to your left (like you are looking at a map), and you will be facing north. This works everywhere in the world.
Signaling: Smoke makes a better signal than flame. Your characters don’t need a raging fire to attract search planes, they need a smoky fire. Start a fire in a clearing using “punky wood” and kindling. Once it gets going, add green evergreen boughs to create lots of smoke.
Animals: — As a rule, animals in the woods will not bother your lost character. The idea that packs of wolves will trail someone for miles or that a bear will come roaring into a campsite is the stuff of pure fiction. In my experience, the most dangerous animals to hikers are red squirrels, raccoons, skunks, and campground black bears – all of whom waste no time trying to break into backpacks to steal the peanut butter.
That said, your character should be aware that surprising a large dangerous animal could result in an attack. The best way to prevent this is to “Walk loudly and carry a big stick.” Do not tiptoe through the forest. Crash through it. Make noise. Sing. Bang a marching rhythm on a tin cup. All of this will serve to warn animals that you’re coming and I promise you, they’ll clear out quickly.
Food – simple rules: Your characters should NOT eat berries or nuts they don’t recognize, mushrooms of any sort, caterpillars, bright-colored insects, or dead animals they find.
They can eat berries and nuts they do recognize, animals they catch, insects like grasshoppers (which are best eaten cooked and with legs and wings removed) and termites (excellent protein!), earthworms, and fish.
So now, on that tasty note, go ahead and drop your characters into the forest. Keep them mostly warm and dry, feed ’em up on grasshoppers, follow the river, and they’ll be fine!