Survival Articles and Tips

Ocala National Forest

Bear Safety in the Ocala National Forest

THE AMERICAN BACKPACKER

October 2019

Practicing bear safety in the Ocala National Forest, (ONF), is important for all wilderness backpackers and hikers. Florida Black Bear encounters in the Ocala National Forest, (ONF), have been on a steady rise. The ONF is located in Central Florida, and it has one of the largest Black Bear populations in the state. 

This increased bear activity is not only occurring in the Ocala wilderness but also in rural cities surrounding Ocala.  The increased activity is due to our encroachment into the Black Bears habitat. 

Conservation efforts that began in the 1970’s are also contributing to these wilderness encounters.  In 1970, the Black Bear count in Florida was around 300 bears. Today there are over 4000 Black Bears in the state. 

Encountering a bear in the ONF can be very exciting and dangerous.  Educating yourself on what to do during an encounter and how to properly store your food are very important for your safety.  This article will discuss (5) topics on bear safety to make your stay in the ONF safer:

Alexander Springs Wilderness (Ocala National Forest)

Topics that will be discussed

  • Florida Black Bear Background and Information.
  • How to deter and mitigate contact with a Florida Black Bear.
  • How to defend yourself from a Florida Black Bear if attacked.
  • Basecamp Security in Ocala.
  • How to Properly Store your Food in Ocala.

Florida Black Bear Background

 The largest land mammal in Florida is the Black Bear.  The Florida Black Bear range in size from 200 to 400 pounds with the largest recorded Florida Black Bear being over 740 pounds.  The Florida Black Bear is considered a carnivore, (meat eater) but they are also classified as Omnivores, (meat and plant eater).  Their diet is mostly plants and berries.  They also consume and are not limited to , insects, rodents, wild hogs, and deer. 

At night and in the early morning hours is when they forage for food. They have a very keen sense of smell that allows them to smell food up to a mile away.  The Florida Black Bear semi hibernates during the winter months which means that they can stay active year round.  They hibernate in dens which are located in heavy vegetation, palmetto thickets, pine straw, and leaves.  Black Bears can climb trees and they can run up to speeds of  30 mph per hour so running from a Black Bear will not work. 

How to deter and mitigate contact with a Florida Black Bear

When you are traveling in one of the (4) wilderness areas in the ONF noise is your friend when it comes to deterring a Black Bear.  Most of the bears in Ocala will keep their distance from you if you are loud or making some type of noise.  Now for some this may be counterproductive.  I personally believe that using stealth and noise discipline is how I conduct operations in a wilderness area. 

Sometimes there needs to be a tradeoff when practicing bear safety in Ocala.  Being in a group and talking can be enough for a Black Bear to keep its distance from you. Below are some recommendations for you to follow as you travel along trails in the ONF.

Use noise to deter Black Bears

  • Talking with others in your group.
  • Attach gear such as Bear bells to your pack that will make noise as you walk.
  • Have a whistle with you if you to make audible sounds on occasion.
  • Have an electronic audible device with you if a curious Black Bear approaches you.
Audible Devices

Audible Devices I carry into the ONF

 Using noise will be the most effective way to lessen your chances of encountering a Florida Black Bear.  The purpose of the noise is to scare of these Bears before you see them.  If you do see a Black Bear leave it alone and do not approach it.  Slowly leave the area calmly and reroute your path. 

It is important to remember that you must stay vigilant while traveling through Ocala not just for Black Bear but all species of wildlife to include the Florida Panther, (a rare sighting) and Bobcats.  Scan your area (360), front sides and back.  Don’t forget to look up into trees as well.  Florida Black Bears have the ability to climb trees and they may be watching you as you walk by.

How to Defend Yourself from a Florida Black Bear

When you venture into the ONF there are some gear items that you should have.  These are the items I carry into Ocala to defend me from a bear if it decides to attack.

KNIFE:  Always carry a knife.  I use a fixed blade knife and your preference may vary on the type.  Knives in an attack would be for close quarter combat if a Black Bear is on you.   The neck and head area for a bear should be your strike areas.

HIKING POLES:  A hiking pole can be used as a spear in a close quarter situation if you are attacked.   

FIREARM:  I carry a firearm with me on all of my wilderness adventures.  A firearm in the hands of someone properly trained to use it can protect you with well-placed rounds at the vital areas of a bear.  A firearm can also be a false sense of security if it is underpowered, (small caliber), not quickly deployed, (practice), or if shots are not placed on target.  Practice firing and deploying the firearm you choose to carry.  Also adhere to state and local laws pertaining to the carrying and use of any firearm.   

BEAR SPRAY:  Bear Spray is my first line of defense if a bear is charging at me.  I know some will not agree, but statistically bear spray has been shown to be very effective in deterring a bear.  Take time to practice deploying bear spray and have it readily available.  I did an article on Bear Spray vs a Firearm where I go into detail on the pros and cons of bear,  click on this link, Bear Spray vs. a Firearm to read that article. 

Bear spray can be counterproductive in a close quarter situation.  So, if you are in a tent and a Bear comes into your tent deploying Bear spray may incapacitate you.  In situation like that I would use my firearm or a knife to defend myself.

IF YOU ARE ATTACKED:

Having the right gear with you is important if you are attacked and need to defend yourself.  Not everyone will carry a firearm but at the least have Bear spray and a knife with you. If you are attacked by a Black Bear fight back and do not play dead.  A Black Bear who encounters a victim that fights back is likely to retreat.  Focus on the vital areas of the bear which would be the head and neck area.

If you kill or injure a bear get out of the area and report the incident to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) or local law enforcement.

Basecamp Security

Once you have found your basecamp location make sure that you are far enough off the main trail.  I did an article on where to place your basecamp that you can review by clicking on this link, Where to place your Basecamp. 

Once you have found an area scan the perimeter and make sure that there are no game trails around your basecamp.  Game trails can bring in bears or animals a bear consumes. 

Check the perimeter for bear dens or signs of Black Bears.  These signs can be paw prints, and bear scat (feces).  I use a perimeter trip wire alarm system that I set up around my basecamp.  If you want to learn more about this trip wire alarm system click on this link, Perimeter trip wire alarm system.

I also use a thermal imager, (Flir TK Scout), which I have been using for over three years on all of my wilderness adventures.  Stay vigilant at your basecamp.    

Flir TK Scout and me preparing to set up my Tripwire perimeter alarm

How to Properly Store your Food in Ocala

 Storing food in Ocala is very important and overlooked by many.  In March of this year, (2019), a Florida Black Bear in the Juniper Prairie Wilderness, (one of 4 Wilderness areas in Ocala) was going into basecamps and taking food out of tents. 

This bear became acclimated to this behavior and it was posing a very serious threat to all backpackers.  This habit started with backpackers who were not properly storing their food or feeding this bear which is illegal. 

This bear began indulging on easy food that it was not eating in its habitat.  Sadly, it was trapped and euthanized by FWC (Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission).  The Juniper Prairie Wilderness was shut down for over a month until all bear activity subsided.  

For some the thought of not storing your food has led no consequences and it’s only a matter of time that this will change.  When you are in Ocala there are 2 ways to store your food if you are not vehicle camping which allows you to store your food in your vehicle. 

Credit to FWC and Orlando Sentinel

Taken from an article in the Orlando Sentinel Newspaper

HANG YOUR FOOD: 

Hanging your food in a tree is the most common way to store your food and personal hygiene products.  I include personal hygiene items such as toothpaste and hand wipes because they give off a scent that will attract these Bears.  Hanging your food in Ocala can be difficult due to the terrain and trees.  In Ocala you have a lot of pine trees.  Some of these pines are scrub pines that have many tightly spaced branches.   

Trying to get a rope into these dense branches can be difficult.  The rule of thumb is 10 feet high and 6 to 10 feet away from the trunk of the tree.  These branches can also be small and brittle.  It can be done, and I have used this method allot in Ocala.  If you use this method mark your bag with some reflective tape so you can easily spot it at night if you need to get to it.

Bear bag with reflective tape and bags hung in the Glacier Peak Wilderness

BEAR CANNISTER: 

A Bear cannister is easy to use and deploy.  The problem with these cannisters is that they can be bulky and heavy.  There are varying sizes you can purchase, and they can store not just food but other items you bring into a wilderness area.  Some areas in Ocala may not have the necessary trees to support you hanging your food and this may be the only way to store your food.  So, research the area where you plan on setting up your basecamp.

Both methods will work, and it comes down to your choice on how you will store your food.  There is another method that I have not used and that has been recommended. That is using a Ursack bear resistant sack.  This is a Kevlar bag that you put your food in and tie to a tree or a stationary object.  It is bear resistant and they say very easy to deploy. 

I can imagine that if a Bear gets to this sack that your food will be damaged/destroyed.  Some National Parks and wilderness areas have not approved the use of this sack.  Currently the Ocala National Forest requires food to be stored in (3) ways.  First is an approved bear resistant container.  Second, is a hard topped vehicle.  Third is to hang your food.  If you use the Ursack you will have to hang it. 

Bear Cannister’s (BV450 and 500)

Bear Cannister’s (BV 450 and 500) with reflective tape

CONCLUSION

Wilderness backpacking in the ONF offers a unique ecosystem different from many other wilderness areas you may have adventured in.  Ocala is a mystic place especially in the evening hours. Part of being in the wilderness is to see and possibly have encounters with the wildlife.  Some of the wildlife can be extremely dangerous and you need to research and understand their habitats and dispositions. 

Bringing food into the ONF provides you the sustenance to explore this unique and beautiful ecosystem.  It also allows wildlife like the Florida Black Bear a free meal if it is not properly stored.  When you are in the ONF make sure you take time to properly store your food and have the necessary gear with you to protect yourself if you are attacked by a bear.

Bear Safety Video

US Army Ranger School

US Army Ranger’s (S.U.R.V.I.V.A.L.)

THE AMERICAN BACKPACKER

My time spent in the military as a Army Ranger taught me a lot about what my strengths and weaknesses were. I took those weaknesses and made them strengths.  Being a Ranger required me to have a strong body but it equally required me to have a strong mind. My training in the Military prepared me for many things in life especially when it comes to wilderness backpacking in remote and rugged wilderness environments.  In my Ranger handbook there is a section labeled Survival.  In this section it breaks down the word SURVIVAL into an acronym that I want to share with you in this article.


US Army Ranger Class 12-86 ( I am on the top row 2nd from the R on right side)

S–Size up the situation by considering the individual, the country and the enemy.

UUndue haste makes waste.

  • Don’t be eager to move.
  • Don’t lose your temper.

R–Remember where you are.

V–Vanquish fear and panic.

  •   To fear is normal.
  •   When injured, it is difficult to control fear.
  •   Panic can be caused by loneliness.
  •   Planning an escape will keep the mind busy.

I–Improving

  •   The situation can be improved.
  •   Learn to put up with new and unpleasant conditions.

V–Value Living.

  •   Hope and planning reduces fear and makes the chances of survival better.
  •   Health and Strength must be conserved.
  •   Hunger, cold, and fatigue lower efficiency and stamina.
  •   Remember your goal, GET OUT ALIVE.

A–Act like the Natives.

LLearn Basic Skills.

COURTESY OF THE US ARMY RANGER HANDBOOK (SH21-76) Feb 1985

Army Ranger Handbook
My Ranger Handbook 

Conclusion

The above acronym is focused on your mindset and training your mind to adapt and overcome both physical and mental obstacles that you may encounter in the wilderness.  Positive thinking with a plan is important to overcome fear and panic especially if you find yourself lost. Being prepared is important before you head into a wilderness but you must also have those basic skills such as land navigation to make it through those trying times.  This type of thinking can also be applied to life in general when you are not on the trail bushwhacking.

Pemigewasset Wilderness (New Hampshire)

Signaling for Help in an Emergency

THE AMERICAN BACKPACKER

When an emergency arises in the wilderness how will you signal for help?   This article will discuss some methods you can use if an emergency arises.  In an emergency the first thing you need to do is to stay calm.  Staying in the right frame of mind will be crucial for you to clearly think and act. The realization that you are in trouble can be overwhelming and you need to accept what has happened and make a plan for rescue. Keeping your mind focused on getting help will keep out those doom and gloom thoughts that can make your situation worse.   

Next, you need to stay where you are unless your environment or situation will worsen if you stay.  If your emergency is that you are lost I have written an article on what to do if you get lost, Lost in the Wilderness.  Establish a makeshift basecamp in an open area with a clear view of the sky. Your physical condition will dictate how detailed your basecamp will be.  If you are injured a makeshift shelter can be as simple as using a poncho.  If you or someone else is injured make sure that you apply the necessary first aid to stabilize the injury.

Once you have done all of the above it is time to set up and deploy your signaling method for rescue. I have categorized these methods into (3) categories.  The first is using an Electronic Communicating Device, the second is using a Visual Signal and the third is using an Audible Device.

Electronic Communicating Devices

Electronic communicating devices are by far the quickest way to notify rescue personnel.  Technology has advanced tremendously in the last quarter century.  Electronic communicating devices are available to backpackers and they have reasonably priced subscription plans.  There are a variety of devices you can choose to take with you on your wilderness adventures.

Types of Electronic Communicating Devices

Cell Phone:  Most wilderness backpackers have cell phones.  It should be  charged and with you during your adventure. Cell phone coverage will vary in a wilderness area.   I have found that using them in high elevations such as Hill-tops work the best. There have been documented rescue stories where a backpacker used their cell phone to call for help.  Most cell phones have GPS capabilities and you should make yourself familiar on how to acquire them.  You can also download navigational apps to help you navigate and pinpoint your location.  

Cell Phone
 A Cell Phone should always be carried by Wilderness Backpackers

GPS Communicating Devices:  There are a variety of GPS communicating devices.  These devices include satellite communicators, (Garmin inReach Explorer Plus, Spot, etc.), PLB’s such as ACR or a Satellite phone.  A satellite communicator has its limitations.  The signal can be blocked if you are embedded deeply in a canyon or heavily covered forest.  GPS devices may also have some lag time in receiving and transmitting a signal based on the orbital position of the satellites.  Having one of these GPS communicators with you is by far the best way to call for help in an emergency.  I carry the Garmin inReach Explorer Plus, and my cell phone.

Garmin inReach Explorer Plus
GPS Satellite Communicator (Garmin inReach Explorer Plus)

If you bring an electronic device with you make sure you either have a solar panel or battery pack to charge it.

Visual Signals

A visual signal has the ability to be seen at great distances, depending on the type of signal.  It is especially useful for aircrafts that are searching for you, (Helicopters, Planes, Drones). One of the main benefits of using a visual signal is that it can be deployed for an extended or indefinite period of time.    Once it is deployed it will continue to be seen without you worrying about the battery running dead.  You also do not have to physically manipulate it like an audible device which can make you physically tired.  

Types of Visual Signals

Fire:  In a rescue situation fire is a very good visual signal.  Having a fire also gives you comfort during an emergency.  The best way to use fire is to set it up in a triangle configuration.  You should set up the fires in an open area.  This triangle configuration is known as a sign for international distress signal.  Managing (3) fires may be very difficult.   If you cannot do this use one fire.  Enhance the smoke on your single fire by putting green vegetation on the fire.  This will cause more smoke.

Flares:  Hand flares or parachute flares are limited in use.  They are effective when rescue personnel are nearby and can see the flare.  Hand flares do provide you another use which is to help you light a fire.

Mirrors:  Signaling mirrors are small and lightweight and can be easily carried in your pocket.  They can be used to signal aircraft or other people that you can visually see on the ground.  The mirror on a compass will work  as well.

Flash Light:  Use your flashlight, headlamp, or another device with a light, to signal others.  Some of these devices have a built in SOS feature.  My Petzl Reactik + headlamp has this feature which you can program with your cell phone via bluetooth.

Petzl Reactik + Headlamp
Petzl Reactik + Headlamp (With a built in SOS signal)

Other Visual Signaling Devices:  Items you have in your backpack can be used as a visual signaling device.  This can be your bright colored air mat or tent.  A foldable panel like the ones used on boats will work.  You can also use items in your environment such as rocks or deadwood to set up signs or signals on the ground that can be seen by aircraft.  If you use rocks or dead wood set it up in an X configuration.  The X configuration is also the sign for  medical assistance needed.

Bright colored Air mats can be used as a visual signaling device

Audible Signals

Audible signals utilize sound to get the attention of others who are nearby.  An audible signal has its limitations based on where you are and what signal you are using.  If you are in a densely packed wooded area the trees will dampen or reduce your signals ability to travel an extended distance. If you are on top of a mountain or hill that same audible signal will travel much farther reaching many more people.  Utilizing an audible signal is the most physically exerting signaling method.  You physical condition may limit your use of this method.

Types of Audible Signals

Voice:   Yelling, singing, talking may help rescuers that are nearby to spot you.

Whistle:  A whistle is the best audible signal you can use.  A whistle is

  • lightweight
  • easy to carry
  • Inexpensive
  • Can penetrate densely wooded wilderness areas
  • It is less exhausting then yelling

A whistle can be easily carried on a lanyard on the outside of your backpack.

Firearm:  If you carry a firearm you can discharge it to signal for help.  If you decide to use this method discharge your firearm safely so as not to hit rescue personnel or to have it ricochet back toward you.  A firearm has its limitations based on how much ammo you carry.  

Smith and Wesson
Smith and Wesson .44 Mag

Impact Noises:  Using audible signals are endless when you want t transmit an audible signal.  Banging your cookware together or taking a large stick and hitting the trunk of a tree will work.

Conclusion:

The best signaling method for emergencies is combining all three of the above methods based on your situation.  The GPS communicator is the best of the (3) methods.  The cost of having one with you is well worth your safety or that of others in your party.  Deploying all of the above methods will give you the best chance of being seen or heard.  The deployment of these methods will depend on the following:

1.  Your physical health and mental state of mind at the time of your emergency.  

You must overcome physically injuries and vanquish your fears.   

2.  Having the signaling gear with you or using what Mother Nature has provided around you.

Have the necessary emergency signaling gear with you on your adventures.  If you find yourself without the necessary signaling gear use what Mother Nature has provided.  Your imagination is endless.  It is also very important that you give family and friends pertinent information outlining your adventure, Pre-planning your Wilderness Adventure.  Giving this information to family and friend should include your starting and ending points, routes, and time of departure and return..

Your will to survive can overcome many obstacles.  My training in the military has taught me to always be prepared before heading into the field (Preplan your Wilderness Adventure).  My training has also taught me to improvise, adapt and overcome, difficult situations when an emergency arises.

Military Poncho

The Military Poncho and its Survival Uses

THE AMERICAN BACKPACKER

A military poncho is a multi-purpose piece of survival gear that all wilderness backpackers should have with them on their adventures. I started carrying a military poncho when I was in the Army, and I have carried one ever since.  A military poncho is lightweight and easy to pack. My poncho is 7 feet long by 4.4 feet wide.  I carry my poncho in my Go-Bag.

There are a variety of materials used in military ponchos.  They are made with Ripstop, Nylon, Canvas, and Rubberized fabric. Military Ponchos were designed as raincoats to protect soldiers and their gear from the elements.  Military Ponchos have evolved for many other invaluable uses.

Uses for a Military Poncho.

1.  Use it for what it was designed for and that is to keep you dry in wet weather. Ponchos are very roomy and they will cover and protect your backpack when you are wearing it during a rainstorm. Military ponchos are very easy to put on and take off especially when you are wearing your backpack.

2.  A Military Poncho can be used with other gear during cold weather to keep you warm.  A poncho can be filled with leaves or moss to act as an insulator to help retain your own body heat.

3. They can be used as ground cover for you to lay on or to put your gear on it for protection. It can also be used as a make shift cover to protect your gear if you want to keep it outside your tent.

Military Poncho
Ground cover using a military poncho

4.  They can be used to hold water temporarily depending on the material it is made from.  Rubberized type ponchos or those treated with a waterproof sealant work well for holding water.  Ponchos can assist you in retrieving water from sources difficult to access.  A Military Poncho can also capture drinking water during rainstorms.

Military Poncho holding water
Military Poncho holding water

5.  A Military Poncho can be used as a backpack in an emergency.  The poncho can be loaded with gear and cross slung around you.

6.  A Poncho can be used to carry and transport items in a wilderness area.  If you are gathering branches or wood for your fire a poncho can expedite and limit your trips, (just be careful on sharp points damaging the poncho).

7.  It can be used as a mattress to sleep on.  You can fill the poncho with leaves, moss, etc. and make a field mattress out of it.

8.  Military Poncho’s can be used as a shelter system.  There are various configurations you can use.  It can be set up in a Lean To, Canopy, or Tent style configuration.  Depending on the area you are in the best configuration is to string some 550 cord between (Two trees and drape your poncho over it.  You can also use your hiking poles (pictured below) to set up a shelter system if there are no trees around you.

Setting up a Poncho using your hiking poles:

  •  Tie off the 4 corners of your poncho with 550 cord and stake the 550 cord into the ground.  Use the grommets on your poncho to attach the 550 cord.  If you do not have grommets use a rock to tie off the 550 cord, (see picture below).  I am using some Nite Ize (cam Jams in the picture below).  You can also use a Tautline Hitch instead of the Nite Ize to keep tension on the poncho.
  • Use one of your hiking poles and put it in the center of the poncho.  Insert it into the head portion of your poncho and make sure you tie off the portion where you put your head tightly to prevent water from coming into the shelter.

9.  The Military Poncho can be used for medical emergencies.  If you sustain a broken arm you can use the poncho to make an improvised sling to put your arm in .

Conclusion

A Military Poncho has many uses and it easily adapts to different terrain and environments.  A poncho is lightweight and easy to pack.  In a survival situation a Military Poncho can save your life or sustain you until you reach safety.  There are various types to choose from and they also come in different configurations.  They are not expensive ranging in price from 10 to 40 dollars.  I highly recommend that any wilderness backpacker who heads into the wilderness have one.

Land Navigation using the Sun to Navigate

Using the Sun to Navigate

THE AMERICAN BACKPACKER

Land navigation is a skill based on the use of a compass and topographical map.  Navigating through a wilderness area requires that you have a basic skill set to do so.  What happens if for whatever reason you do not have a map, compass or even a GPS? How can you navigate?

There is a navigational tool that you will always have in a wilderness area and that is the sun.  The sun has been used navigate wilderness areas for thousands of years by adventures.  The sun will help you determine your cardinal directions of North, South, East and West. Knowing your cardinal direction can get you to safety or to water in a survival situation.

In this article, I will discuss a technique that I learned in the Army in helping me determine the cardinal directions.  Before I do so, everyone should know that the sun always the sun always rises in the east and it sets in the west no matter where you are on earth.  The sun rises in the east because the earth rotates on its axis to the east.  Knowing this will give you the information on determining where North, South, and West are.


The Sun Rising in the East

The problem you will encounter with this is determining where the sun was rising if it is noontime.  At noon the sun will be directly over you making it impossible to figure out where east is.  That is where this second method comes in. This method is called the Shadow Tip Method.  

Shadow Tip Method

This method uses a stick (3 feet in length) and (2) marking objects such as some small rocks.  In most wilderness areas you should be able to find these objects with no problem. 

  1.  Find an open area that allows you to visually see the sky.

Find an open area with a view of the sky.

2.  Take your stick and push it into the ground.


Land Navigation using the Sun
Place the stick in the ground.

3.  The sun will cast a shadow off the stick.  Place a marker on the tip of the shadow.  (I am using a rock).


Mark the first shadow tip. I have a blanket on the ground so you can visual see the tip of the shadow better. 

4.  Wait 15 minutes and then mark the second tip of the shadow with your second marker.  This becomes your east/west line.


Mark the second shadow tip (This is my east west line)

5. Take your left foot and place it behind the first marker you put down.  Then take your right foot and place it behind the second marker you put down.  You are now facing north.


You are facing North (If you are in the North Hemisphere)

Once you determine north than you will be able to get the other three cardinal directions.   The important thing that you must remember  when using this method is which hemisphere you are in.  If you are in the north hemisphere then you will be facing north when you have situated your feet (above).  If you are in the south hemisphere than you will be facing south when you have situated your feet (above).

The equator determines your north and south hemispheres.  The equator is an imaginary line that divides the earth in the center. Everything above it is in the north hemisphere and everything below it is in the south hemisphere.  The equator runs through the country of Ecuador that is located in South America.  Here in the United States we are in the North Hemisphere.

Conclusion

Using the sun can be an effective way to get you out of a bad situation when you do not have a compass, map or GPS.  If it is a cloudy or rainy day then this method will be difficult to use.  This technique is simple to set up given the materials needed and it is another is a survival tool you can add to your skill set.