California Hunter’s Survival Ordeal and Four Rules to Stay Alive

Gene Penaflor
On September 24, 72-year-old Gene Penaflor and a friend left their camp in the Mendocino National Forest to begin the day’s hunt. After the two men split up – agreeing to meet up later for lunch – Penaflor was not to be seen again for 18 days. The California hunter’s survival ordeal ended well, but staying alive in the wilderness is no simple matter. Here are four basic rules that will keep you alive:

Be prepared. There are, basically, three elements to survival in any situation: The will to live, knowledge and equipment – in that order of importance. The will to survive is the one factor that makes the difference, even if you have neither equipment nor survival skills. In remarks to the press, following Penalfor’s rescue Saturday, Andrew Porter, a detective with the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office, said of the hunter “He knew at some point he was going to die, but he figured he’d last as long as he could.” That attitude could have cost Penaflor his life, had he been lost for a more extended period of time. Accepting that one is going to die is not an option, when trying to survive in a remote and harsh environment. However, the San Francisco mean remained upbeat and, clearly, maintained a level of optimism which pulled him through.

Having adopted the firm belief and determination that you will live through anything, a little knowledge will go a long way; do you know how to construct a shelter and start a fire? Do you know which fruits and plants are safe to eat? Are you able to trap or hunt animals for food? Navigation skills are also important; are you able to determine your general location and figure out which direction you should move in? Some basic first aid knowledge can also prove vital.

Lastly, having some essential equipment with you will help. Your determination and survival skills will sustain you, but some basic supplies will make your ordeal easier and more comfortable. Always carry a good knife; something with a carbon or tungsten steel blade and a full tang (the tang is the part of the blade that extends down through the handle). Keep the knife clean and sharp. Carry some waterproof matches or a flint and striker. Penaflor was able to build at fire at night and this was essential. If at all possible, carry a firearm, a bow or at least some snares for trapping small animals. Take some rope if you can, but certainly have some strong cord with you, such as 550 cord – at least 20 feet. The list can become extensive, depending on how much you are willing and able to carry, but some other useful items include a first aid kit; a small tent, bivvi bag or a waterproof poncho that you can use to improvise a shelter; a map and compass, a signaling mirror and/or a whistle, some needles and thread and some water purification tablets. Have a container that you can eat out of and something to carry water in. Most of these items can be packed into a small tin or waterproof box that you can easily carry with you at all times. Ideally, you would also have water and at least a day’s emergency food with you.

Remember the essentials. The four things that you will always need, in order to stay alive in a remote area are water, food, shelter and fire. The human body can only survive for a matter of days without water and a matter of weeks without food. Hydration is vital. Conservation of energy and body fluids are important factors to consider. The California hunter survived his ordeal partly because he was wise enough not to squander what energy he had; having fallen down a hill, causing him to lose consciousness, he did not climb back up because he recognized the fact that he did not have the energy to do so. In extreme circumstances, moving, talking, breathing heavily and even chewing food will deplete the body’s fluids, nutrients, vitamins and essential salt-level.

Shelter is important in either cold or hot climates; maintaining optimal body temperature and staying dry are both biologically and psychologically important. Shelter from wind, rain, snow and sun will drastically increase your chances of making it through.

The ability to start a fire is also very important. A fire will provide optimism, a means of cooking or reheating food, warmth, protection from potential predators and, of course, a way for search parties to find you.

Know when to move and when to stay. There are a number of factors to consider, when making this decision and much depends on the circumstances that caused your predicament. If you have survived a plane crash, for example, it would be best to remain close to the wreckage, assuming it is physically safe to do so; pilots file flight-plans and stick to scheduled departures and arrivals, so it will not be long before someone is out searching for you along the route of your flight. If, however, you know that you were far off course or you find yourself in dense forest or jungle, where the wreckage of a small aircraft may not be easily visible, you may determine that it is best to move. Before making such a decision, you must take many factors into account; do you know your approximate location and can you determine direction? Is the terrain negotiable or will you exhaust yourself by attempting to move across it? How many are in your group of survivors and is anyone injured? If so, will moving aggravate their injuries and do they need to carried and pulled, somehow? Do you have more potential resources, food and water supplies where you are and are you going to be moving across an area that has none?

Penaflor determined to remain where he was, survive off of small animals and berries and await rescue. In this particular circumstance, he made the right choice; he could well have fatally exhausted or injured himself, had he decided to move.

Help to make your own rescue possible. The last of these four rules for staying alive is to do everything you can to make sure that anyone searching for you is, in fact, able to locate you. This elderly California hunter’s survival ordeal ended well mainly because he signaled his location by starting a fire and then putting damp leaves on the flames to create thick smoke. Carry with you any or all of the following items: A whistle, a mirror to use for signaling, a fluorescent marker panel or a brightly-colored item of clothing, a flashlight and even some rescue flares. If you survived an aircraft crash or vehicle breakdown and decide to move away from the wreckage or stationary vehicle, leave signs for your would-be rescuers, indicating which direction you are moving in and, if you know it, the date and time you set off. If you can do so safely and without expending dwindling energy, head for a clearing or a hilltop. Use your wits and whatever materials you have available to create noise and visible signals which will draw those searching for you to your position.

Gene Penaflor, 72 years old, is back with his family and in good spirits. His survival ordeal lasted 18 days and he came through by making the right decisions. The four basic rules discussed here are the foundations that will help you stay alive. The better physical condition you are in – coupled with the acquisition of survival skills and knowledge, the right equipment and an unwavering determination to remain alive – will enable you to deal with any emergency survival situation.


Graham J Noble