The first time Richard Johnson broached the idea of spending a year in the wilderness to his wife, Becky, she teared up, went down the hall and cried behind a closed door.
Nearly 35 years later, Richard Johnson can chuckle and smile about it all.
"It wasn't her dream," he says, "to go live in a cave."
But that year - all of winter, spring, summer and fall living in southern Utah's Slickrock region with two small children (Sharlene, 3, and Eric, 1) - taught the Johnson family a few things, not the least of which is that Becky Johnson is one trusting woman.
It also showed Richard, a former soldier in the U.S. Army Special Forces division, that he had to change his dream of being a survivalist guide for individuals and small groups.
Turns out, during that year of family bonding among the elements, Johnson determined never to leave his family for any long amount of time.
"You do that for a year, you come out a different person," he says now.
Instead of showing people the ways of the well-prepared wilderness survivor, Johnson details it all through words. The survival columnist for "Outdoor Life" - and author of a number of automotive repair books to boot - is touting his newest work: "Rich Johnson's Guide to Wilderness Survival: How to Avoid Trouble and How to Live Through the Trouble You Can't Avoid."
Far from a manual for the intrepid mountain man or woman, the 300 page-plus publication was written for a wide variety of folks who find themselves outdoors, from campers and day hikers to tourists traveling to parts unknown.
Day hikers, Johnson says, are often the most susceptible to getting into trouble in the wilderness for the exact reason they're on the trail: The area is familiar and they don't plan to be outdoors long, so they don't carry any emergency gear.
It's a recipe for trouble, Johnson says.
"You never know when you may get lost, or a storm comes in or a terrorist attack happens," Johnson says. "I wanted to write (the book) for everybody. The difference between the day hiker versus the expedition hiker is usually ... the quantity and quality of equipment. The challenges are often the same."
In his guide, Johnson details a number of survival strategies from building a fire and finding shelter to important safety tips in dealing with wildlife. He also lists and shows how to use essential products every hiker/day tripper should have (first aid kits, matches, knives), many of them small enough to carry around for any kind of outdoor adventure, like a small lighter or pocket-sized poncho.
"The best survival tool," Johnson explains, pointing at his head, "is right here."
As he notes in the book, the ability to survive often depends on one's state of mind.
"Of course, there are physical elements that come into play (the need for shelter, fire, water, food, etc.), but the ability to provide those things for yourself is severely hampered if you suffer a psychological breakdown."
A year in the wild
Johnson was born in northern Utah and moved to southern California where he met Becky. After serving on a church mission to South America, he joined the U.S. Army as a Green Beret.
"The concept to be drop-ped in some remote part of the world ... and survive was intriguing," he says.
Soon after, he got the idea of moving into the wilderness as background for opening his own survival school.
Becky finally bought into the idea of living in the wild for 12 months, telling Richard, "You're the breadwinner. Any way you want to win the bread is fine with me."
And off they went into the wilderness, armed with wool blankets, knives and the clothes on their backs. Their inventory included no tents, sleeping bags, camp stove, lantern, ax, saw or other gear. They simply made use of handmade traps, stone tools and other natural amenities, Johnson says.
The family did receive some help from understandably concerned local farmers, who supplied some food.
"We weren't there, after
all, to see if we could find enough food to survive, nor to prove our primitive prowess," he writes in the survival guide. "We were there to research all that the region offered ... it was a year of learning not only about outdoor survival but also about what's important and what isn't."
Johnson admits it was a little scary at first but the most terrifying thing was coming back into "real life."
Johnson and his wife raised four children and have lived in Sequim now for 10 years.
"This is about as a big a town as we can handle," Johnson says.
'Stay dry or you die'
While some may say the Olympic Peninsula is one bad storm - and one bad break to a certain floating bridge - away from being cut off from civilization, that thought only makes Johnson grin.
"If people will prepare and don't wait for (an emergency), that's the key," he says. "You can't ... say, 'Save me.' We have a social responsibility. We don't want to be a burden on the infrastructure."
With this new guide, Johnson wants people to know how to stay out of trouble even if they're not expecting it. One high profile, tragic case of being unprepared was in 2006 when the Kim family got lost in Oregon. James Kim, the father, wound up dying of hypothermia after he and his wife and two daughters were stranded on an Oregon logging road for a week with little food or water. In his dying moments, James Kim left a string of clothes that to some reporters looked as if he purposefully was leaving a trail so as to be found.
Johnson knew the effects of hypothermia immediately.
"You feel hot (with hypothermia) and your judgment is shot," Johnson says.
"We live in a great place for hypothermia," Johnson warns, adding, "Stay dry or you die."
On and off the trail
While he's not working his newest projects (an urban survival book and holiday-themed Christian book), writing his column for Outdoor Life, polishing a pair of unpublished novels (involving, not surprisingly, some wilderness survival themes) and getting some time in on his sailboat, Johnson does plenty of day and overnight hikes of his own. He picked the Seven Lakes Basin, Sol Duc Canyon and High Divide as some of his local favorites, but adds, "I haven't found a trail I don't like."
Reach Michael Dashiell at email@example.com.
"Rich Johnson's Guide to Wilderness Survival" (McGraw Hill)
Features: Survival strategies, how to survive the elements, starting (and keeping) fires safely, getting water and food, signaling, medical emergencies, navigation, equipment, staying safe from wildlife and handling all types of weather