Defeating Murphy's Law, conquering the outdoors

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Mark Murphy
  • 354th Maintenance Group deputy commander
A lot of people don't know this, but I was born with a genetic defect.

There is apparently a gene that runs through my family's bloodline that causes perverse bad luck and proves that God does in fact have a somewhat twisted sense of humor. This condition is so rampant in my family that science theory has coined a term for it: Murphy's Law.

I wish I had a dollar for every time a mechanic, technical support person or customer service agent scratched his head and said, "Wow ... that's never happened before."

When you're a Murphy, things don't simply go wrong: they go wrong in spectacularly bizarre ways that never happen to anyone else.

Nevertheless, I've managed to live with this condition. Believe it or not, I even spend a lot of time hunting and enjoying the outdoors, which for a Murphy is like a balloon floating through a needle factory.

The key to my survival is that I've learned to anticipate the way Murphy's Law moves through my life as The Force moves through Yoda. When I step into the Alaska outdoors, I follow a few simple rules:

1. Expect that any mechanical object you rely on will fail. Give the truck/ATV/camp stove/whatever a thorough check out ahead of time. It also means I take a spare if available. Murphy's Law says the more you need something, the more likely it'll fail. If you have a spare, then you can afford to lose the primary - which by Murphy's Law means it won't fail.

2. Expect to be mugged. Bear spray costs less than $50 and studies have shown it 90 percent effective at stopping bear encounters (guns are 60 percent effective). Furthermore, if you spray a bear, you can walk away. If you shoot one, you have to skin it out, turn in the hide and skull to Fish & Game, and do a lot of explaining. I've skinned a bear - and it's not something I'd ever want to do on my own with a pocket knife.

3. Expect that you'll get lost. Insurance in this area is cheap. Some global positioning system units cost less than $100. Not only will they get you back to within 10 feet of your truck in pitch dark or blinding fog, but they'll also get you back to your kill (if you hunt) as you pack it out. They'll even track your movements, so you always have a trail of bread crumbs to find your way back. They're great for mapping out hunting areas, too. Of course, Murphy's Law says your batteries will die or you'll drop the unit on a rock - so pack spare batteries and a compass.

4. Expect you'll spend the night. This can happen for lots of reasons, to include a freak fall that breaks a leg. Emergency shelter is cheap, too. Space blankets or bags cost a couple dollars and fit in a pocket. It's also amazing what you can rig up with a knife and a miniature saw.

5. Expect the weather to turn sour. There is decent rain gear out there that stuffs down to the size of a soda can. Make sure you have enough layers of wicking clothing along that you can still be warm if you're sitting still and the temperature drops 20 or 30 degrees. And don't be cheap - buy quality clothing because your life depends on it.

6. Expect you'll be cold. Fire can be a life saver, so carry multiple forms of starting one. A wind-proof lighter, matches, and a magnesium block combined weigh just a few ounces. Of course, if you follow Rule No. 5, you'll be ready to start a fire in the rain by packing fire sticks, paste, or gel that'll burn hot enough and long enough to get it going. Bear in mind that the colder you get, the tougher it is to use your fingers - so start the fire before you're shivering uncontrollably.

7. Expect to be hungry and thirsty. You may not die of starvation in a couple days, but food provides the fuel you'll need to move and stay warm. Calorie-dense foods like power bars or trail mix puts you ahead of the game with minimal space and weight. Also, dehydration makes everything worse - to include your judgment. Always take enough water to be out overnight. You can even buy water purification tablets or filter straws that only weigh a couple ounces and allow you to drink from streams or pools in an emergency.

8. Expect you'll need help. Again, insurance in this area is cheap. You can rent an Iridium satellite phone in Fairbanks for $10 a day and $1.25 a minute for air time. I've been in places where I couldn't even get an AM radio station, but thanks to Iridium, I could still make a phone call. Personal locator beacons work too, but if you turn one of those on, you'll get rescue helicopters. That's great if you need them, but a bit embarrassing if all you need is a set of truck keys. A satellite phone lets you call someone to bring you a set of keys, help pull your ATV out of the muck, or bring a can full of gas. You can also let people know you're OK if you get delayed. In short, satellite phones can get you help with a lot less explaining to do afterward - and that means you're more likely to ask for help, rather than making things worse out of pride. Of course, if you do get in trouble and need rescue, you can call 911 and (if you have a GPS) give them your coordinates to get help within 10 feet of you.

9. Expect that help won't see you. It's hard to spot a person on the ground from an aircraft - especially if that person is wearing camouflage. Take a small mirror and learn how to use it for signaling. Pack a big swatch of blaze orange fabric. A flare also works great for signaling aircraft that are trying to find you. Also, buy the loudest whistle you can find. If you're dehydrated or in rough shape, chances are you won't be able to yell loud enough to be heard.

This list isn't all-inclusive, but everything you need to survive Murphy's Law in the outdoors can easily fit in a day pack.

However, there is one item that's too big for the pack: a partner. Never put yourself in a situation where no one's available to get help. Don't venture out alone, and always make sure someone knows where you're going and when you'll be back.

If you think it won't happen to you, think again. I once knew a guy (not me) who nearly died because he stumbled and lost his glasses. One moment he was enjoying a solitary hike, and the next he was alone and legally blind on a mountainside, shivering as the sun went down and realizing he hadn't told anyone where he was going. He was rescued by sheer luck.

Take it from a Murphy - things will go wrong when you can least afford them to. It's better to buy an ounce of prevention than it is to pay for a pound of pain.