A mother’s ill-fated Christmas week run-in with the desert wilderness has been the survival story heard around the Internet for the past week. Dozens of stories have been published praising Karen Klein, a marathon-running mother of two who teaches biology at Northhampton Community College in Pennsylvania, for her ability to stay alive after being stranded for more than 24 hours in the backcountry outskirts of Grand Canyon National Park. But just because she survived doesn’t mean she’s a savvy survivalist. Let’s recap.
Things went awry on a road trip from Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah to Grand Canyon National Park last week when Klein; her husband, Eric; and their 10-year-old son’s rental car slid off the road and became stuck in a ditch. With no one in sight and the road in bad condition, Klein elected herself to walk in snow more than three feet deep back toward Route 67 in search of help. She was dressed in a parka, knit beanie, and hiking boots (not waterproof). Due to the deep snow, Klein pulled a muscle in her groin and lost a shoe. Twenty-six miles later, when she arrived to the highway, it was closed. Klein was forced to spend the night outdoors, too afraid of hypothermia to fall asleep (temperatures have been dipping down into the low 20s and teens at night in Grand Canyon National Park recently), and opted to sustain her energy by eating Aspen and Spruce twigs and drinking her own urine.
The next day, she stumbled upon a guard's cabin at Grand Canyon Cabins — which is closed for the season. She broke a window, crawled in and collapsed, after walking for approximately 36 hours. Meanwhile, her husband hiked to higher ground nearby the car, found cell service, and called 911. Rescuers immediately came to the site of where the car was, and eventually found Klein, passed out in the bed of the cabin. Since, the family has been reunited, and Klein has been hospitalized due to exhaustion and frostbite she sustained to her left foot — the one that went shoeless for the better part of her ordeal in the wilderness.
In the grand scheme of things, a healthy family reunited after a dangerous accident is a happy ending, even if a few toes are lost at the expense of frostbite. And while this is technically a success story of survival, Klein’s is not the example you would want to follow if you found yourself in a similar situation.
First of all, avoid having to make serious survival choices by doing due diligence in researching before an excursion. Check weather forecasts, road conditions, National Park Service updates, and take screenshots of maps and necessary other info before you lose service. If Klein and her family had checked the Grand Canyon National Park site, they would have realized that the road they were attempting to drive on when they got stuck in a ditch was closed and unmaintained for the season.
Second, never drink your own pee. I repeat, never drink your own pee. It’s a rule that’s even in the Army Field Manual — which states that the sodium content of urine will accelerate dehydration. If that’s not reason enough, let’s be scientific about it: Urine is a nitrogen-rich liquid byproduct that acts as the primary means of expelling water-soluble chemicals generated through the metabolic process of waste disposal. Urine is full of things that your body is expelling. Don’t put an expulsion back into your body — it came out for a reason.
Always bring extra food with you when you take off into the backcountry. It’s also imperative to have survival and first-aid kits on with you while traveling and going into the wilderness. That means being equipped with signaling devices such as flares, a metal water container (that you can melt snow and ice in to drink), a knife, an emergency blanket, fire starters, extra clothing layers, a compass, a flashlight, and other small items that can mean the difference between life and death. Consider carrying your most important safety items, such as matches, flashlight, and navigation materials (a map, GPS, and compass) on your person, not in a car or backpack.
Above all, know what to do when things first go wrong so you can do the right thing and avoid walking nearly 30 miles, getting frostbite, and nearly dying. The Department of Environmental Conservation says to avoid making rash decisions by remembering to “STOP” as soon as a situation goes awry.
S is for Sit Down: This is the first and most important step in staying calm.
T is for Think: Ask yourself the most important questions, such as "How did I get here?" "How much time is left before it gets dark?"
O is for Observe: Try to identify landmarks, such as mountains that can help you figure out your position. Listen for sounds, like traffic, running water, or even gunshots, which can help you find your way back to safety if you need to move.
P is for Plan: Decide if you should try to make it out of the woods or stay put until morning.
In the Kleins case, staying put would have been the wisest choice. The car acted as a shelter, their phones were still traceable for rescue attempts, and after thinking through everything carefully, Eric Klein made the correct decision to make a short walk to higher ground to receive cell service and make a successful 911 call. Had his wife been there as well, she’d have a few more toes and a couple less headlines to her name.