That Which Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger (Part 1)

It all began in a musty-smelling storage room of the Clemson University Outdoor Club’s equipment storage room.  I was told to “pick out what you need to borrow”.  What did I need to borrow to camp in the woods? I thought about it for a minute, but with limited camping experience, I came up empty.  

So, with some help from the more seasoned club members, I picked out a sleeping bag, tent, and sleeping pad.  This was in the 1980s, so the equipment was not high-tech and not the best quality. It was January and we were going on an overnight camping trip to the Pisgah National Forest.   

Just around the corner.

We arrived somewhere near the Pisgah Fish Hatchery in group camping area that was covered in about 6 inches of snow.  I learned how to set up the tent and do basic camp set up duties by the more seasoned Outdoor Club members.  

Then we set out for a short 3-mile loop hike with a group of about 20.  It was a colder, crisp, bluebird sky type of afternoon with a nice warming sun.  My hiking apparel consisted of blue jeans, hiking boots, and a cut off short sleeve thermal underwear shirt.  

After an hour of hiking the leader of the group pulled out the paper map (this was WAY before GPS, phones, or the internet) and stated that we must have taken a wrong turn.  He then advised the group that we needed to turn around. So the group leader and 14 others decided to backtrack back to camp. The remaining five of us studied the map before giving the map back to the departing group leader.  Then without the use of even a compass we 5 decided we knew where we were and which way to proceed going forward rather than backtracking to get back to camp.

After another 30 minutes of hiking 3 others decided to turn around.    And then there were 2, me and an older graduate student.  After another 30 minutes of hiking the “trail” appeared to completely disappear.  The older, wiser graduate student then stopped and said we needed to turn around.  Turn around and back track? NO WAY.  The camp has to be just around the corner, and I know where we are and how to get back.  Yeah right.  


Now I’m Lost?

So, my decision was to go forward alone. The grad student asked what he should tell the others if I didn’t make it back by dark. “Tell them I got eaten by a bear” I stated confidently.  Turns out bears would be the least of my problems.

After an additional period of hiking alone in the woods I realized I may have only an hour of daylight left.  Turning around at this point would not get me back to camp as I was at least 2 hours out.  And without any source of light, I would lose my tracks in the snowy woods and surely be lost.  

Having just come to the Southeast from outside a major Northeast City, my prior “lost in the woods” experience told me that if I kept walking in the woods, I would eventually come to a Wawa convenience store, an office complex, or at least a major highway.   But damn these were REAL woods.  All trees and for real outdoors stuff and the trees go on forever it seemed.  

Panic is your greatest enemy.

Panic? No that would not work.  I thought about it and remembered the fish hatchery was on a major river.  So logically if I followed the drainage topo and creeks downstream, I would eventually come to the river and hence find my way back to the camp?

As the sun started to move towards the horizon, a chill replaced the warm sun.   I quickly realized this could not end well so I picked up my pace downhill.  Suddenly I was at a juncture in my freshly minted survival logic.  Fresh boot prints in the snow.   

Do I follow those boot prints or follow my logic to get to the river?  Boot prints it was, so I quickened my pace and within a short time came to a 3-sided shelter deep in the woods.  

The 2 occupants of the shelter where a bit shocked to see me.  They said they had hiked 4-5 hours to get to this shelter. While they obviously had a nice warm sleep setup, there was no way they could accommodate me to survive the night.  They handed me an apple and some gorp (“good old raisins and peanuts” usually with some m&ms too) and we studied the paper map.  I saw where the trail they were on would lead me to a forest road that would take me to the group camp.

With fading daylight, I took off at a running pace following their boot prints in the snow.  Right before it got fully dark, I popped out of the woods onto a well-traveled USFS gravel forest road.  At that point I knew exactly where I was and quickened my pace to arrive at the camp in the first hour of dark night.  The group was so relieved to see me as they were just about to get professional rescue help.


The first of many wilderness lessons.

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was supposedly the one that coined the phrase “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”  What lessons did I learn from my first brush with death while traveling in the wilderness?  

1:  Always know where you are in the woods and wilderness.  Not following this lesson can kill you.  In our modern times our phones act as our compass and paper maps.  We have GPS, FarOut, Strava, on and on.  However, these devices can crap out due to lack of signal or dead battery and a paper map and knowing how to read a paper map can be a lifesaving skill.  

Lesson #2 was that very night so come back for part 2.   


Picture Credits:  

“20876 Grand Canyon Matthes Survey of 1902: Winter Camp” by Grand Canyon NPS is licensed under CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit 

“Crum Woods in the snow” by robanhk is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit 

“Snowy rocks and cascades of Emigrant Creek” by YellowstoneNPS is marked with Public Domain Mark 1.0. To view the terms, visit

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Comments 3

  • thetentman : Nov 29th

    You again!

    Welcome back.

    It was snowing here yesterday.


  • JDS : Nov 30th

    A major NE city, where you’ll eventually come out to a Wawa. I wonder where that might be? 😆


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