The Survival Kit

By David Armstrong

Jackson enjoyed the warm sun and the brilliant blue sky above the snow-capped peaks of the Uinta mountains. The early spring air carried the scent of a million wildflowers and budding trees.

His hiking buddies continued up the trail as Jackson stopped to examine a tiny purple flower growing next to the trail. A honey bee nudged its way into the open petals as it searched for nectar. Either full or frustrated, the bee eventually backed out of the flower and flew away.

It was then that Jackson noticed for the first time that he could no longer hear the chatter of his friends or the crunching of their boots on the gravelly trail. He hurried up the path to catch up until he arrived at a fork in the trail. No sign indicated which way was the main trail, nor could he tell which path his buddies had taken. He yelled to them but got no response.

Jackson picked the path to the right and trotted forward. The trail became steep, however, and he soon had to slow to a more moderate pace. Eventually, he had to stop to catch his breath.

White clouds began to creep over the peaks, and the sun lowered in the afternoon sky. While he waited for his heart rate to slow and the sweat on his face to dry, he considered his situation. It seemed obvious that he had chosen the wrong branch of the fork. As fast as he was hiking, he should have caught up to the group.

He had three alternatives: one, hike back down to the trailhead where they had parked the car and wait for the others to return; two, hike down to the fork and take the left branch to try to catch his friends; or three, cut horizontally across the face of the mountain in hopes of intersecting the other path.

The first option was boring and even a little embarrassing that he couldn’t keep up with the group. The second option would take a lot of time, and he would likely fall too far behind to ever catch his friends. The third option was risky because it meant he would have to leave the marked trail and bushwhack his way through rugged terrain, but it seemed like the most acceptable option.

With determined enthusiasm, Jackson pushed through the shrubs lining the clearing where he had stopped to rest and angled away from the trail. He climbed over boulders, stepped over fallen logs, zigzagged through thickets of aspen trees, and leaped over several small creeks. After an hour of scrambling, he had not yet encountered the other trail. The clouds overhead had grown heavier, the sun had dipped behind the tall peak above him, and the air had become decidedly chillier. He pulled the water bottle from his pack to take a drink and realized it was almost empty.

Jackson was lost. The trail he sought could be five minutes away or five hours away. He had no way of knowing. He could try going back the way he had come in hopes of finding the trail he had left behind. Or he could simply bushwhack his way downhill and hopefully find the road that ran through the valley. No matter which option he chose, he knew he had hours of hiking ahead of him, and he was short on water. He knew better than to try to drink the water in the streams he had crossed. They were likely contaminated with Giardia.

He dropped his pack on the ground and began rummaging through to see what supplies he had. He found a flashlight with dead batteries, a compass, a tube of sunscreen, a bottle of insect repellent, a metal cup, a pair of gloves, and a rain poncho. What he did not find was anything to eat or drink and no matches to make a fire. The poncho might help keep him dry, but it provided little warmth against the chilly breeze that swept down from the snowy peak.

As survival kits go, Jackson’s pack was useless. He was totally unprepared for a long, cold hike down the mountain. The shade from the peak grew deeper, and the clouds stretched across the sky. He figured it was unlikely he would get off the mountain before dark. His best hope was that his friends had realized he was missing and were searching the trails for him. They would not likely leave the trails, however, to hunt for him in the bush.

If he could make a fire, perhaps they would see the smoke. Once it got dark, if he had a working flashlight, he could wave it around and hope they would see his light. Alas, he had neither of those things.

Jackson was hungry and thirsty as he decided to turn back and retrace his steps to the trail he knew. But as it grew darker, he struggled to recognize any landmarks he had passed earlier. His legs grew tired, and they didn’t want to cooperate. He tripped several times and landed on his elbows. The bushes tore at his pantlegs and scratched his skin. The first spatters of rain pelted his face. He stopped to throw on the poncho. The sprinkle became a steady rain. Darkness enveloped him. He was cold, wet, hungry, thirsty, and thoroughly miserable, not to mention more than a little frightened.

If he ever got out of this mess, he promised himself he would never again go for a hike without the essentials in his backpack: water, food, tools to make a fire, and materials for a shelter.

Photo by James Wheeler on

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