Ollin Magnetic Digiscoping System

Why I Always Carry Survival Gear


Well-known member
Mar 9, 2017
Central Montana
Ah, what we do for public land wapiti...In the old movie The Mountainmen, when Brian Keith’s character is asked if he’s ever been lost, he replies, “Naw. Fearsome confused for a month or two but I ain’t never been lost.” Same goes for me. I wasn’t lost per se, I just couldn’t make it back to the truck one night last week.

Having finally broken down and gotten a GPS (with OnX, of course) I had been able, by shooting an azimuth from my location, to determine that the elk I had been watching across a steep canyon-like draw were indeed on the right side of an unfenced USFS/private property section line. With a solid half hour of shooting light still remaining, I picked out the nice 6x6 bull and gave him a 180-grain Sierra GameKing from my .30-’06 right behind the shoulder. He disappeared behind a tree for a minute or so before emerging again, obviously hard hit, head down and hobbling bad on the front legs. I gave him another 180-grain soft point behind the opposite shoulder as he was quartering away. He went down in a hollow where all I could see were his antlers which, after a minute, slowly sank out of sight.

It took me at least twenty minutes just to cross the canyon and…no elk. With darkness upon me and a snowstorm starting to build fast in intensity, I had to break out the headlamp to follow the trail. The range had been long so that even though both bullets were well-placed, they didn’t exit and very little blood came out of the entrance wounds. The bull had managed to stagger along the ridge for almost 400 yards before diving off onto a north-facing slope into the darkest, thickest, nastiest blowdown timber on the mountain before expiring, on his back and pinned against the trunk of a Doug fir by the sheer steepness of the slope.

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I thought he was worth a night on the mountain.

By the time I was done field dressing the elk, it was pitch black and the snow squall had turned into a dandy blizzard. I was wet with perspiration in my inner layer and heavy, wet snow on the outer. Heading for the truck, the cold helped kill the brand-new batteries I had put in the GPS that morning. I went to dig out a spare set and found I only had Triple-As for the headlamp and no Double-As for the GPS.

I continued to head due south using my Silva compass, but it’s really hard to recognize any prominent landmarks at night in a blizzard. All you can see is a few of the nearest trees and the only other thing I could determine is which direction the apparently endless and quite steep slope I was on was running. When I hit the creek, I knew I had missed the brushed-in and poorly maintained Forest Service trail that roughly paralleled it. I could go back north and hunt for the trail but I had put on a lot of miles since I had started out at oh-dark-thirty that morning and was already fatigued enough that I was beginning to stumble in the rough terrain and a couple of times I slipped and went down on snow-covered rocks. Rather than keep blundering around in the dark, I decided it would be best to just bite the bullet and spend the night.

Fortunately, I’ve always had a healthy respect for the mountains and what Ma Nature can throw at you. For more than a quarter century of hunting Montana I have always saddled myself with a big heavy butt pack full of survival gear, just in case. This would make the second time I’ve actually had to make use of it but when you really need it you’re suddenly awful glad you’ve been schlepping all that extra weight around.

Several years ago a guy earning his 4[SUP]th[/SUP] DUI did so by hitting me head-on at highway speeds so due to the neck injuries I’m unable to wear a regular backpack. I wound up using the old Army surplus LBE (Load Bearing Equipment), a wide pistol belt-and-suspenders type of deal that allows me to carry the weight on my hips. It has a buttpack for survival gear in the rear, a canteen on each side, and the magazine pouches in front are handy for items I might need quickly; range-finder, camera, journal. Since I often hunt solo, I also have an emergency satellite transponder beacon, aka “The Panic Button”, in case I ever get in a real bind. With two quarts of water, the whole shebang comes to right about twenty pounds total.

In winter, one canteen is an insulated Arctic one for tea or hot chocolate. One is always the old school standard one quart metal USGI canteen (if you’ve ever tried to thaw one out over an open fire you know why I don’t use the plastic ones.) It also has its own nesting folding handle USGI canteen cup, which comes in handy for dipping from tiny water sources when filling water bottles, heating liquids or food, and, once, for boiling drinking water when my Katadyn Mini backpacker filter died on me on an 80-degree day in the middle of a very heavily used grazing allotment. On-line I found a metal cover designed to fit canteen cups and it greatly speeds up the heating or boiling process. During bow season, when it’s hotter, I switch out one of the smaller canteens for a plastic collapsible 2-quart job with a hydration straw system.

The first thing I did was find a nice thick stand of Doug fir that blocked a lot of the snowfall. Beneath one there was also a thick clump of juniper. I knocked all the snow off the branches, then cut out the lowest ones to make myself a little hollow. I roofed it over with the branches I’d removed and my brightly colored VS17 Signal Panel Marker. Then I cleared the ground below it down to bare dirt and moss.

After getting a good fire going in front of my cave, I went around gathering firewood and fir boughs. The latter I knocked the snow off of, then waved over the fire a bit to dry them before building a browse bed to insulate me from the ground. In addition to a skinning knife, I also carry a compact Gerber survival hatchet I use on an animal’s ribs and pelvis when field dressing. Of course it came in handy getting wood. Breaking off the bone-dry dead lower Doug fir limbs I gathered a good pile of wood where I could reach it from my “bed” and was lucky enough to find a couple of down logs I could move, ten or twelve feet long and eight or ten inches in diameter. I put them both in the fire right in the middle of their lengths and built the blaze back up over them. Once they burned through, I could just push the ends back into the fire.

Only when all that was done did I wiggle into my shelter. I stripped off my upper body clothing, an Under Armor long sleeve base layer and a white snow cammo parka, both soaked through from either snow or perspiration. On went the spare, dry base layer from the fanny pack. When I had first started perspiring while hiking, I had taken off my wool sweater, rolled it up tightly, and strapped it to the top of the fanny pack. I had only to give it a few good shakes before putting it back on. Over that went a fleece vest and a wind and waterproof lightweight Gore-Tex outer layer, as well as a balaclava to replace my hat. I also had an extra dry pair of wool liners for my trigger finger mittens.

With double-walled leather mountain troop boots that I had freshly Sno-Sealed worn with two pairs of socks and beneath knee-high wool gaiters, my feet were cold and damp simply from my own perspiration. I took off my gaiters, noticing a few minutes later that they were frozen flat and stiff like cardboard. My boots came off and were laid on their sides with the open mouths facing the fire, but not too close. Then I put on two fresh dry pairs of wool socks and tucked my feet into a trash bag. I huddled there cross-legged for awhile soaking in the heat of the fire, surrounded by sticks propped up at all angles to hang shirts and socks from. My legs stayed warm enough thanks to a thick pair of wool pants even though they too were damp enough to give off steam when I got close to the flames.

I had hot tea in a Thermos-like double-sided Arctic canteen, but after thirteen hours it was hardly lukewarm, so I poured my folding handle USGI canteen cup about half full and put it on the coals to heat up. The hot liquid really helped warm up my core. After the tea, I took water from my other canteen and fixed myself an instant soup packet in the canteen cup. I ate it with a metal spoon I’ve carried ever since the first time I spent a night in survival mode and found out just how easily a plastic spork breaks.

Due to the cold it seemed like I had to go pee every ten minutes, so I tried to leave my boots on. I tried putting them on as loosely as possible, just kind of wrapping the laces out of the way, but even with dry socks my feet got cold immediately.

Finally, I broke down, waddled down to the creek, and gathered a bunch of smaller smooth stones in the canteen cup and a sock. Back at “camp”, I’d get the rocks dry and piping hot in the fire in the canteen cup, then clumsily pour as many as I could into a sock, then insert the sock into a boot to let it steam. When it cooled, I’d pour the rocks back into the canteen cup, heat them up again, and have a go at the other boot. It took three treatments per boot before I could finally slip them on without my feet becoming instantly cold and clammy. I probably should have done it a couple more times as the boots weren’t completely dry inside, but it was good enough for the moment to at least try to get a little sleep.

When I tried to snooze, however, the emergency Mylar space blanket proved to be a big no-go. It was only about three feet wide. You could either lie on top of it or drape it over top of your body, but you couldn’t in any way wrap it around yourself, so there was always plenty of cold air leaking in at multiple points. It did me virtually no good. The next day when I got home I ordered a compact Mylar survival sleeping bag to carry in my pack instead.

It didn’t quite get down into the single digits that night, but it came pretty close I think and was certainly cold enough for me. Eventually the snow finally tapered off and somewhere around two or three the skies cleared completely and the stars came out. I didn’t miss the wet falling snow but with the clear sky I could actually feel the air temperature dropping even more.

I sure didn’t get much sleep that night. I’d build up the fire and curl up in a ball near it on my browse bed. Soon I’d be warm and comfortable enough to catch a short cat nap before the fire died down and I woke up shivering. Then I would repeat the whole process over again. Once I just couldn’t seem to warm back up even with the fire blazing so I heated up the other half of my quart of tea and that seemed to do the trick.

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Even with all this fine help getting the bull out turned into a 2-day ordeal.

All this, of course, was the easy part. I still had to get the elk three miles back to the truck. That required another two full and very long days even with the aid of a sled, an additional human, and four pack goats and is another story entirely. The point is I couldn’t have done it at all if I’d frozen to death or gotten frostbite that first night.


1. Where you shoot it ain’t necessarily where it’s gonna go down.
2. Always carry survival gear and have the means to easily build a fire in the mountains.
3. Always carry spare batteries. Correction, always carry the correct size of spare batteries.
4. Still carry a compass for back-up just in case.
5. Make sure your survival blanket is a blanket and not just a beach towel.
6. A little hot liquid and/or food goes a long way on a cold night.
7. Next year concentrate on shooting a fat dry cow really close to the road.
Wow, hell of a story. Your prep saved your ass and maybe sharing your story saves someone else's life as well.
Thanks for sharing your lessons. Whether new or reminded of what we already know, they should be heeded.
Great write up! Glad everything turned out ok and you are safe! There’s a lot of good information in this post and I appreciate your sharing it.
Good read and refresher. calm / focused mind when shit hits the fan.
Thanks for your write-up and nice elk! Grats!
How far from the trailhead? That's a tough pill to swallow. Been there, but not under the same circumstances. Being wet adds a whole nother layer of stress to the plan.
Good job being prepared and then being able to realize you were in trouble before it was too late.
Great reminder why I pack survival gear every time I leave the truck. Never know when you might need it, but if you do it could be the difference of living to tell the tale or not...
Great write up and thanks for sharing. Glad you were well prepared and everything worked out.
Thanks for sharing your story. Hopefully we all gain a little insight and knowledge on what goes into making thru a tough situation as you did. I'm certainly glad that you are safe and everything worked out...... and a big congrats on your success!
Great write up and thank you for taking the time to share!

Spent a night in the woods many moons ago after getting turned around and it was a great seed planted on how sideways things can go. That second you decide you have to do it vs risking death is humbling, yet greatly relieving. Have spent some long nights in the woods taking care critters before cell phones and gps's. A clear head and experience can not be substituted with anything that requires batteries.
This is one of the best right-ups in the site, way to stay calms and collected through the process.
You have modeled a great deal of good survival info instead of turning yourself into a statistic. Thanks for the cautionary tale, and congratulations on a successful hunt.
I like the part about heating up rocks and putting them in your boots. Wouldn't have thot of that.

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