Sequim Former Special Forces Soldier Publishes Wilderness Survival Book

Rich Johnson credits actor John Wayne with launching his career path and his wife, Becky, with keeping him there.

Johnson was a missionary overseas in the late 1960s when Wayne’s Vietnam War movie, The Green Berets, was released. Something about the theme song (Put silver wings on my son’s chest) touched Johnson. He joined the U.S. Army Special Forces when he returned to the United States. An essential part of his training was the ability to parachute from an airplane anytime, anywhere and survive with what he had with him.

It was tough, said Johnson of Sequim, Wash., author of the recently published, Rich Johnson’s Guide to Wilderness Survival. It took everything I had until they put the beret on my head. I’ve never been able to say I quit, and 24/7, they’re trying to get you to quit.

Johnson, 61, decided to open his own outdoor survival school when he left the military. But he realized survival in civilian life is much different than survival to a soldier. At war, the goal is to evade capture, but a lost hiker wants to be found. As a result, Johnson had a new batch of skills to learn.

He also wanted to be sure his knowledge was firsthand. That’s where Becky came in. Johnson convinced her to move their 3-year-old daughter and 18-month-old son to a remote area of his native Utah. For a year, their address was a cave. Husband and wife became a team. They foraged for food, learned to take care of each other and re-entered civilization with a greater sense of what it takes to stay alive.

Johnson also realized he bonded to his family like Super Glue. He could no longer see himself opening the outdoor survival school he planned if it meant being away from them for weeks at a time. So, he called a friend in publishing who suggested he become a freelance writer. His new book is an extension of his long career with popular magazines like Outdoor Life.

It’s been a great life that’s kept him young at heart, he said. Becky tells me of all the kids she raised, I was the toughest one. They left home. I never did, he chuckled.

Johnson laughs easily, but he knows survival is serious business. Over the years, he’s seen how a lack of knowledge of basic outdoor skills can turn a simple weekend outing into a life-threatening experience. Underestimating danger is the first step toward real danger, he said.

Generally, more people get into trouble on day hikes than on Mount Everest expeditions, Johnson said. Expeditions are well-trained and equipped. People who get in trouble take off down a familiar trail and something goes wrong. It can be something as simple as a twisted ankle that leaves them sidelined. They might have to spend a night or two out there they didn’t expect, and they aren’t prepared.

Safety tips: The essentials

Whether on a hike through Utah or kayaking on the Mackinaw River in Central Illinois, no one should venture out without a survival kit that carries the basic keys to survival: shelter, fire, water and food.

Take a space blanket that also can be used for signaling. Take an emergency bivvy, much like a space blanket but shaped like a sleeping bag.

Protect your body core temperature, said Johnson. Take some way to shield yourself from the elements.  And, you must stay dry, especially in cold. Shelter to me is a high priority.

Fire needs can be met with matches and lighters or something akin to a Light My Fire striker. Take at least three ways to light a fire and store them in separate places, so you’ll have back-ups if you lose one or one gets wet.

Water can be made safe to drink with tablets or a light-weight Aqua Mira Filter Straw that will purify up to 20 gallons.

Food can be as simple as high energy bars.

Cell phones can fail. Johnson carries a Spot, which is a commercial device with a GPS link-up to a satellite. In good times, it lets you send pre-programmed messages to let people know you’re all right. In bad times, you can call for help, and it will lead rescuers to you. A survival kit should have a mirror and whistle to pinpoint your location when rescuers are near.

Johnson’s kit has an old film canister with fishing line and hooks and a snare wire to catch game.

He lists overestimating ability level as the next major error. Try practicing making fires, setting up a shelter, finding drinking water and other outdoor skills in places where danger is minimal, like your backyard or a local park. Take a course on survival and outdoor first aid.

Whether on a fishing trip to a remote lake in Canada or a hike through a national park, make mental notes of good places to set up an emergency camp. When you realize you’re lost, stay put. Set up camp in the open so you can be spotted.

You can’t even find a jeep (from the air) in forested areas, Johnson said. Try to make life easy on those trying to save your life. Maintain a fire. Bring in enough fuel to keep it going.

Obviously, injuries heighten the danger. On your own, set up a shelter and start a fire for warmth, for signaling and to keep you company. If you’re with someone who is injured, weigh the factors on whether to go for help or stay put. The decision is easy if you’re lost: Moving on will just make you more lost. If you know where you are, you must have a high degree of confidence you can find help and the injured can survive alone in the meantime.

Stay positive.

If you start to break down mentally, you aren’t going to be able to do what you need to survive, Johnson said. If you’ve never been in an uncomfortable situation, you need to push your envelope so you know the tools and that you can do it.

But, he said, there’s no need to check into a cave for a year.

[Reprinted with permission, Pantagraph.com.]

Rich Johnson’s new book can be viewed and ordered on Amazon.com at:  Rich Johnson’s Guide to Wilderness Survival.

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