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The winter camper may be exposed to extreme cold, the mountaineer too little oxygen, but, come a Montana cold snap, even a highway drive can lead to an act of wilderness survival should black ice leave someone stranded in a ditch.

Despite traveling in the age of cell phones and GPS, the key to coming home safely is an understanding and practice of the psychology of wilderness survival.

Sometimes in survivors' tales, we hear how it was only by a display of woodsmanship or clever invention they returned alive. It's been said, "One person's survival situation is another's backyard."

Survival certainly can feel routine if we understand an environment well enough to reap its bounty while, say, a sudden storm sows certain disaster.

Additionally, as this column seeks to promote, is the role of wilderness medicine: the working knowledge of how to remain healthy and treat injury and illness in the backcountry. Such skills do provide a margin of safety and allow us to contribute to any expedition.

But the "tricks of the trade" and medical knowledge remain useless in a wilderness emergency without practicing, and having practiced, the mental wherewithal to survive. Too often is the case when someone, well-clothed, with adequate shelter and water still dies from being unable to withstand the psychologic stress.

At the Survival, Escape, Resistance, and Evasion (SERE) School at the United States Air Force Academy, panic is common among officers beginning their training. Those who were later shot down, however, have consistently said it was this instruction in keeping a cool head that ensured their return.

Pack the compass and extra clothing but head out, too, with the acceptance that in the wilderness accidents and the unexpected happen. This mental preparedness leads us to make specific preparations for emergencies and self-rescue. This, in turn, can save more lives than anything improvised once on the trail.

Check weather forecasts, strategize worst-case scenarios and leave notice of a projected route and the expected time of return.

Once on the trail, many a complication could be averted by asking what drives our decisions.

Why continue in conditions that would make a more prudent person stop or turn back? Do we feel the need to reach a nonessential goal on time so others will not worry? For the sense of accomplishment? These are the types of questions we must ask ourselves and our companions.

Should an emergency occur, research suggests only 10 to 15 percent of people without specific training will remain relatively calm. They can assess a situation, make a plan and act on that plan.

That leaves almost nine out of 10 of us having a difficult time thinking clearly. We may panic, divide the party or discard vital survival equipment. Others could become quiet, appear drowsy or withdraw. This apathy can be combated by including all group members in survival activities.

Recognize that seemingly small things can aggravate a situation. Perception becomes distorted in the dark and threats worsen. Hoods obscure vision and hearing, making conversation difficult. Talking behind a simple wind break can ease tension remarkably.

If we can use our heads, we can survive. The key is having anticipated and practiced a logical approach to staying alive before necessity demands that we invent it on the spot.

Remember the acronym STOP (Sit down, Think, Observe, Plan). If we get lost, hope begins with admitting we do not know where we are. Simply getting off our feet does wonders to control the urge to keep moving. Give it at least 30 minutes to regain control and take stock of the situation. Are there features in the landscape that provide clues to our location? How much daylight remains? Do clouds overhead predict weather? Planning should prioritize first aid, warmth and shelter.

We should take enjoyment in the thoroughness of our preparations for our next wilderness trip, including the prospect of having to survive. Take a course, read a book, talk to your hiking partner, stock your vehicle. With anticipation, prevention and practice, such events become tales of inconvenience instead of those of survival we might not live to tell.

Dr. Stephen Halvorson is a family medicine resident physician in the Montana Family Medicine Residency Program at the Yellowstone City-County Health Department and can be reached through the Deering Community Health Center at 247-3350.