Extended Stay Survival
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A few summers ago, there was an elderly man towing a cargo trailer from San Diego to Las Vegas. This was a trip he'd made many times over the years in his late 90's minivan and knew it had trouble making its way up and over Mountain Pass along I-15. Prior to this trip, he researched alternate routes and found a less steep, but longer, way around the mountain. He made it around the mountain just fine, but for whatever reason, he pulled off pavement and headed down a trail.
He kept going, looking for a place where he could turn his van and trailer. He was several miles down the trail before he could turn. Heading uphill in loose sand and gravel is tough on any vehicle. Factor in the trailer and summer temperatures and you're asking to overheat which is what happened. He shut it down and waited for his vehicle to cool before attempting to restart. After cooling, it wouldn't start and he was stranded.
His family knew where he was headed, but he didn't let anyone know he was attempting to go around Mountain Pass because he wasn't sure he'd attempt the detour until he knew how his van was feeling. He didn't have a communications radio and was in an area without cell coverage. As far as family knew, he didn't arrive to his destination and their search grid was only narrowed to somewhere between San Diego and Las Vegas.
On that day, we were wrapping up a day of surveying an area between Nipton and Ivanpah, but not close to either. This was mid-August in temperatures over 110 degrees. As often happens, we came across a trail not on our maps. Curiosity took over and we followed the trail only stopping because someone parked a van on the trail.
We're out several times a week, but mostly during the week when nobody else is. We rarely see other vehicles in these remote places mid-week and when we do, we keep our distance as a courtesy and safety. Meeting another vehicle face to face, miles from pavement, mid-week, on an unmapped trail, was unusual for us.
It took a moment to notice the driver and I was annoyed that someone chose the middle of a trail to park and take a nap. I knocked on his hood and surprised him awake. It was obvious the man was in distress and dehydrated and helped him to our vehicle. With food, water, and air conditioning, he began to quickly recover. As he recovered, we got a better idea of his situation.
He left San Diego just after sunrise Monday morning. It was around 5:30 PM on Tuesday afternoon when we found him. Overnight in the desert doesn't sound too bad, but he'd already spent two days in a hot vehicle and was preparing to spend another night. He only packed enough food and water for a 4-5 hour drive and that was gone by noon the previous day. Over 30 hours in the summer desert without food and water is a long time for a healthy person and could have easily been fatal for an elderly man.
Most who know this story have wondered why he didn't just hike out the first day he was stranded. I don't know the answer. Hiking a desert in the summer may have held greater risks for him. In his situation, he may have felt his greatest chance of survival was taking shelter and waiting.
While he was resting, I used the opportunity to have a look at his vehicle. I tried the key and it didn't fire, but the dash lights did randomly flicker. Considering the symptoms and the age of the vehicle, I focused on the ignition switch. I've had similar experiences with ignition switches and knew the part would need to be replaced, but you could sometimes get a few more starts by removing and cleaning the part.
I gathered some tools and went to work. While removing the steering wheel column cover, I noticed an envelope on the front seat with hand writing that began with an apology. It was a personal note he was writing to his wife. He truly felt he was going to die there and was leaving her his last words. If a tremendous amount of luck were not on his side, they would have been.
We limit ourselves to day trips when we head into the mountains and desert, but in these hotter months, we carry at least four days of food and water rations. These are supplies in addition to our day trip supplies and emergency kit.
Just before we reach sustained 90 degree weather, we fill up a 10 gallon water container and leave it in our vehicle until the weather begins to cool months later. Bacteria growth in a sealed container is of no concern because our local tap water is chlorinated and because of the prolonged high temperatures in the vehicle. Each day this container sits in the hot vehicle, the water is pasteurized.
Storing food rations in a hot vehicle all summer requires a little thought since most foods aren't storable in prolonged heat. MRE's (Meals Ready To Eat) are supposed to be stored in a cool, dry place. They won't last more than a few days when left in a hot vehicle. When your MRE bags swell, it's not from heat expansion. It's bacteria growth.
For long term emergency food storage in a vehicle, we've found that the emergency food ration bars made by "SOS", "Datrex" and "Mayday" work well. They don't seem to be well-known around here, but are common in coastal boating communities. They may be sold at the larger boating supply stores. If not, you can get them on Amazon or Ebay. It's like eating a compressed bar of sweetened sawdust, but they are loaded with calories you'll need if you need to hike out.
You also don't want to have something that you like just sitting in your vehicle waiting for an emergency. When you're sitting in your vehicle waiting for your wife, skipping lunch feels like an emergency. Then when you're in a real emergency situation, you'll have to explain to your wife that you're going to die because you ate all the beef jerky.