The Mule Deer Hunter's Survival Guide

Before taking off for the backcountry or wilderness to hunt this fall, use these tips to help you stay found, stay safe and, most importantly, get home.

Photo By George Barnett

Mike Burditt had hunted in the mountains of Mono County for 23 years. He knew the terrain, knew the wildlife and knew where to hunt. But on one mule deer hunt last October, all of his outdoor knowledge told him one thing only: If he didn't find shelter soon, he was going to die.

He'd done his homework before setting out alone. Severe weather wasn't supposed to arrive until late Sunday, long after he'd planned to be home. But as rain turned to snow Saturday night, dropping the temperature and obliterating the trail, Burditt knew he was in trouble. He was prepared to spend the night in the wilderness, but not in a blizzard.

His experience illustrates what can happen to even the most experienced hunters when they venture into mule deer country. The deer's habitat ranges from sagebrush desert high-elevation wilderness, meaning hunters need to be prepared for every kind of weather, every kind of terrain, and every kind of problem.

Burditt's decisions, before the hunt and during his ordeal, are a case study on what can go wrong and what every hunter should do in a survival situation.


Having a plan and itinerary in advance, and sharing that plan with someone else (see sidebar) is a necessity before any hunt. Your plan must factor in a worst-case scenario.

"You have to go into the wilderness thinking that you won't come home that night," says Tod Schimelpfineg, mule deer hunter, search and rescue volunteer and curriculum director at the Wilderness Medicine Institute at the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). "It doesn't matter how often you've hunted an area. That was yesterday."

Planning starts with knowing the terrain. Study your maps, not just for good places for game, but also for alternate escape routes, sources of cover or shelter and likely water sources.


"One of the biggest mistakes people make is overestimating their abilities," says Jeff Holmquist, president of the Mono County Sheriff's Search and Rescue Team. "They get in over their heads, they get tired, they get lost, and they make bad decisions. That's where trouble starts."

Overestimating abilities applies to physical stamina as well as basic outdoor skills, like being able to use a map and compass. If orienteering terms such as "natural handrails," "declination" and "intentional offset" mean nothing to you, you probably don't know as much as you should. A book on outdoor navigation is a worthwhile investment.

Finally, know the weather reports but expect them to be wrong, because that's how trouble can sneak up on you, as Mike Burditt discovered. He'd done everything else right, but he'd assumed Mother Nature would abide by the weather report. He wasn't the only one. The surprise storm that stranded him had put more than 40 other people on the overdue list by Sunday afternoon.


Mule deer country is a place -- whether it's mountains, rolling hills or flat desert -- where everything can start to look the same if you get disoriented, even in broad daylight. Add darkness and snowfall, and familiar country might as well be the moon.

Should you find yourself lost or disoriented, the most important thing to do is stop and think.

"We teach people 'STOP,' which stands for Sit down, Think, Observe and Plan," says Don Del Grande, hunter education instructor for the California Department of Fish and Game.

Other rescue experts agree on this. Stop and take a mental inventory of what you know. Start with everything you're carrying and expand into your surroundings. Think about streams you've crossed, terrain features, weather conditions and remaining daylight. From there you can decide what to do next.

That said, unless you're positive you can navigate back out, your best bet is to stay put, stay alive and let rescuers find you; a moving target is much more difficult to find. Your priorities at that point are shelter, warmth, water and signaling rescuers.

Mike Burditt wasn't lost, but he was seven miles from the trailhead. The trail was buried in the snow, however, and visibility was down to 200 yards. He would lose the trail, find it, and lose it again. By 3 p.m. Sunday, he'd only covered three miles and was starting to shiver uncontrollably. That's when he made a decision that probably saved his life.

Rather than keep trudging in the cold and dark, risking hypothermia or injury, he started looking for a place to hole up. Miraculously, he found a small rock outcropping with a gap under it and a blanket of pine needles. There was just enough room to climb into his sleeping bag and start a small fire.

"Parking your ego, having the strength of character to realize you need help, and staying put is just good hunters' practice," Schimelpfenig says.


In the wilderness there are only two kinds of injuries; immobilizing and not. Dealing with either starts with knowing how to render first aid to yourself or a buddy. Most importantly, know the signs of shock, which can turn a mild injury into a life-threatening injury.

Here again, carefully assess your situation. Is crawling out an option? If it's difficult terrain or getting dark, it might be better to hunker down, find shelter, stay warm, and wait for rescue.

Holmquist says the most common backcountry injuries involve people's legs. It's important to stabilize the injury because, as he says, pain is a deterrent to clear thought. The best thing to do with a leg injury is to apply a splint.

"Find something solid and long enough to immobilize the joints above and below the injury," Holmquist says. "Even knotted together clothing is better than nothing. If possible, elevate the leg and apply snow or cold water for brief intervals to prevent swelling."

There's also a dilemma that comes with a broken ankle. Keeping your boot on provides compression that can prevent swelling, but after a couple hours fluids can collect inside the muscles and require surgery. If you're several hours away from rescue, lose the boot.

Importantly, dealing with an injury is much easier if you're with a buddy. That's one reason rescue experts unanimously advise hunters t

o not go out alone.

With the exception of clothing, these items are easily carried in a fanny pack. Prepare your survival kit in advance and keep it with you in the field.

  • 1. Map and compass. Know how to use both together, Trails and landmarks are hard to see in bad weather or darkness. (read about electronics below.)

  • 2. High-energy food, such as Power Bars.

  • 3. Water purification system. A jar of iodine tablets fits in any pocket and makes almost any water safe to drink without boiling.

  • 4. Extra clothing. Don't pack for walking at 2 p.m. Pack for sitting still in bad weather at 3 a.m.

  • 5. Headlamp or flashlight, with new batteries plus extras.

  • 6. First aid kit.

  • 7. A good sharp knife. If it's part of a multi-tool set, all the better.

  • 8. Fire-making materials. Bring a lighter and matches; matches are a backup. Slather two cotton balls with petroleum jelly and carry them in a film canister. They light quickly and burn long enough to get tinder going.

  • Large plastic trash bags or plastic sheeting. Pick a bright color and they double as a signal tool.

  • Whistle and pocket mirror for signal.

  • Parachute cord or duct tape. You will find a need for them.
    Rescue experts recommend carrying a cell phone and handheld GPS unit. However, don't rely on electronics; batteries go dead and wireless service disappear outside urban areas. If you cell phone works, conserve battery power by composing a message before you call, covering where you are, what you need and what your planning to do. -- Bill Romanelli

    "When we get a call about someone being overdue and we find out they're alone, that's when we start to worry." says Sheriff's Sergeant Randy Nixon, Search and Rescue coordinator for Inyo County.

    Holmquist puts a finer point on it. "I'd say 95 percent of our backcountry fatalities were people out by themselves."


    When tracking mule deer in mountain settings, chances are finding water won't be a problem. Run out of water in the desert, however, and it's a different story.

    "You can go three days without water, but after a few hours you really feel it," Del Grande says. "Bring as much water as you can carry, certainly more than you think you'll need."

    If finding water is a need, the terrain can suggest sources. Look for negative topography, shady areas, signs of animal traffic, and vegetation. Trees or shrubs growing in a line may indicate a stream. In some places, such as a dry streambed, a little digging may reveal water just below the surface.

    If you're going to be in one place for a while, you can also build a solar still. Holmquist offers the following instructions for building one:

    "Find an area as damp as possible, such as a creek bed, dig a pit and put a cup in the bottom," he says. "Cut some vegetation or anything that might have moisture in it and throw it in the pit. Take some flexible plastic sheeting, place it over the top and weigh down the edges. Put a rock in the center of the plastic to make an inverted cone, with the point just over your cup. Water vapor will rise from the pit, condense on the plastic and drip into the cup."

    When it comes to finding food in a survival situation, the experts' advice is surprising. Don't worry about it. You can go weeks without eating if you need to, and hopefully you'll be rescued long before the lack of food becomes an issue.

    "You can spend lots of time and energy getting very little nourishment," Schimelpfineg says. "Unless you're really savvy at making snares or know what kind of plants are edible, you're better off just staying warm and dry."


    Three of anything is internationally recognized as a distress signal. It can be three whistle blasts or rifle shots if you want someone to hear you (just be sure to listen for a response) or three fires, evenly spaced in a triangle if you want someone to see you.

    Search teams will be looking for you from the ground and the air, so it's critical to create some kind of visual signal that lets them know you're there. The guidelines are simple: Use anything that will catch the eye, and think big.

    Geometric patterns, unnatural shapes or colors and columns of smoke are all good. Make your signals bigger than you think you need to, "10 times bigger" Holmquist says, because everything looks much smaller from a helicopter.

    A signal mirror is a must to take into the wild, as a flash from a mirror can be seen for more than a mile. The key is making sure the mirror flash hits the search vehicle.

    "You need to sight it," Holmquist says. "Hold the mirror in one hand, close to your face and hold your other hand out, toward what you're trying to signal and use your thumb like a gun sight. Place your thumb directly over the target. Say it's a helicopter: If you can hit your thumb with the mirror flash, and your thumb is directly over the helicopter, then the flash is hitting the helicopter."

    One more piece of advice: If you hear a helicopter or plane and want to be visible, don't stand up and wave your arms. Lie on the ground and do jumping jacks. It gives searchers much more to see.


    The sidebar provides some recommendations for survival gear, but understand that with even the most basic equipment -- knife, fire-starters, food, water, compass, maps and the right clothing -- your chances of survival are much greater than if you neglect to take those items along.

    Mike Burditt credits his safety to the handful of plastic garbage bags he carried, which he used to keep all his gear, including his sleeping bag, completely dry. Had his sleeping bag gotten wet, he doesn't know whether he'd have survived that first night.

    One more suggestion; someone once wrote: "Every survival kit must include a sense of humor." That makes a very important point. Survival can depend in large part on attitude. "My attitude played a thousand percent role in this," Burditt says. "I just decided I was going to see this through."

    You though the most important survival tool is your brain, but that's only half right. Survival also requires getting rescued, and getting rescued requires that you plan your hunt and, before you leave, share that plan with someone who can tell rescuers where to look for you. Then you must stick to your plan.

    How Important is that? It can be the difference between life and death.

    "In the wild a

    simple injury can become fatal because no one knows where you are," ays Sgt. Randy Nixon, Search and Rescue coordinator for the Inyo County Sheriff's Office.

    Leaving a note on your vehicle at a trailhead isn't enough. You should leave detailed information with a friend or spouse, including copies of maps and an itinerary and make sure they understand what you tell them and when you should return. -- Bill Romanelli

    Burditt spent three days alone in the wilderness before Mono County's Search and Rescue Team found him. His decision to survive teaches a great lesson and puts his story in league with other tales of survival from around the world. Each experience is different, but a decision to survive is common to all.


    If, despite all the admonitions here, you break all the rules and self-rescue is your only option, here's what rescuers suggest:

  • Get to high ground, if possible. You'll be more visible and might see something recognizable.

  • Streams and rivers may lead toward help. Just know there's a risk you could be plunging farther into the wilderness.

  • Try to figure out north, south, east and west. If you know which direction you were headed when you started out, heading the opposite direction may lead to rescue. Without a compass you need to depend on the sun or stars for this, but if the sky is overcast, you could be in trouble. Carry a compass and know how to use it.

  • At night, the warmest place will be about a third of the way down from the top of a crest. Cold air settles into the lower areas at night, and higher up could be exposed to wind.


    Recommended Reading

    Anyone headed into the wild, in pursuit of game or simple pleasures, can suddenly find themselves in a fight for their lives. For more ways to hone your outdoor skills and learn from the experiences of others, try the following books:

  • "Staying Found" by June Fleming

  • "The Complete Book of Outdoor Survival" by J. Wayne Fears

  • "How to Stay Alive in the Woods" by Bradford Angier

  • "Standard First Aid" published by the American Red Cross

  • "NOLS Wilderness First Aid" by Tod Schimelpfenig and Linda Lindsey

  • "Edible Wild Plants: A North American Field Guide" by Thomas S. Elias and Peter A. Dykeman

  • "Wilderness First Aid" by Howard Backer

    Survival stories:

  • "Danger Stalks the Land" by Larry Kaniut

  • "Between a Rock and a Hard Place" by Aron Ralston

  • "Into Thin Air" by Jon Krakauer

  • "The Survivor Personality" by Al Siebert

  • "Deep Survival" by Lawrence Gonzales.

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