NZ Bush Survival: 6 Lessons from a Lost Wellington Trail Runner

BUSH SURVIVAL-lessons from lost trail runner

What do breast milk, dirt and strong will have in common?

Answer: They all helped lost Wellington trail runner 29 year old Susan O’Brien survive the night in the Rimutaka Forest Park after she was lost during a trail race.

Her story certainly gathered plenty of media attention, making headlines as far away as Fox News in the USA  and on the BBC in the UK.

Most likely the “survived on breastmilk” part of the headline is a large part of why the story was so widely reported. Although she probably wasn’t desperately in need of it after being lost for just one day.


More important we think is what can we learn from this situation?

A quick bit of background… Ms O’Brien was competing in an XTERRA trail race in the bush north of Wellington where she somehow took a wrong turn and ended up off the race trail.


What did she do wrong?

1. Well obviously she got lost!

She herself said she spent too much time looking at the ground and not enough looking out for the race trail markers and got lost. She then followed the wrong markers when she found her way back to the track, and got wet in a river and cold as a result.


2. She wasn’t as prepared as she should have been.

She said in an interview that she didn’t have a thermal blanket with her.

“It was a cold night and she didn’t have a survival blanket to keep her warm.”

The race website recommends that all runners have the following equipment:

“XTERRA Wellington is an OutdoorsMark certified event and we take your fun and your safety very seriously. We encourage you all to be responsible track users so please plan to take the following with you:

Course Map, Hydration Pack/Belt, Safety Blanket (available from tramping shops), Spare long sleeve base layer (wool or polyprop), Rain proof jacket, Beanie, Gloves, Basic first aid kit, Whistle.”

While we don’t know exactly what gear she had, it does also sounds like she may not have had the spare long sleeve base layer they recommend either. Given how cold she said she was she doesn’t appear to have anything other than a jacket, and in the video interview this looks to be the case too.


So there were some things she could have done better.

However she survived a cold night and even without being picked up by the search and rescue helicopter the next morning, she had found her way back onto the right track and was on the way to walking out herself.

“After the cold night, she found her way back to the Orongorongo track and was already on her way out when she spotted rescuers.”


So what did she do right in terms of bush survival?

1. She kept calm.

While she was worried she wasn’t going to make it she didn’t let panic set in.


2. She made use of what nature provided.

She dug a hole and covered herself with dirt for insulation.


3. She was prepared to do what it takes to survive.

Like drinking her own breast milk.

“Drinking her own breast milk was one of the best things Ms O’Brien could have done to keep her energy up, a breast feeding experts [sic] says.” Source.

4. Perhaps most importantly she maintained a positive mental attitude.

She made use of her faith and prayed but also thought of her family and children to keep her going.

“For some reason I kept strong because I kept praying all the time.” The thought of her children also kept her going. “Nothing else mattered but my family. I felt God with me the whole time.”


What can we learn from her experience?

Even if you’re not a trail runner but just take the odd bushwalk there are lessons we can learn here.

1. Sounds obvious, but stick to the marked trails and tracks.

Most people that search and rescue are looking for have strayed for whatever reason from the marked trails.


2. Be over prepared and take more than you think you’ll need

Even if just a couple hours walk is planned, you never know when something can go wrong or if an injury could occur that slows or stops you walking back out. So have plenty of food and water and take extra warm clothing too.

Of course just what you need depends on how long you will be out. You can gather recommendations from the Department of Conservation website for various National Parks and scenic reserves throughout the country.

As always being prepared can save your life.



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