Pushing the SOS Button!

July 13, 2023
Categories: Adventure
Tags: Safety

Pushing the SOS Button

5:15: (41 minutes to sunset)  The 4Runner topped a small rise in the dirt road as I drove west into the setting sun on the 7th day of a planned 3-week solo mapping trip in remote areas of southeast Utah.  The driver-side front tire dropped into a washout that angled across the road into a small seasonal wash.  Ahead a couple of meters, the road narrowed from two vehicle widths to one and rose up to accommodate the wash’s culvert.  The passenger side rose up as the driver side got drug down off the road.  And then we rolled, ending up on the driver's side and nosed down into the wash.  “You idiot!  You just crashed your truck.”

Laying on my left side, feet above my head.  Disoriented.  Quick check, no obvious injuries.  Well maybe.  Not sure.  The airbag isn’t where I thought it would be.  It’s on my side, not in front of me.  (Forward airbag did not deploy since this was a low-speed event with little fore/aft acceleration.  Side airbags deployed over all four windows.  Didn’t know the 4Runner had side airbags.)

5:17: The Zoleo had left its mount on the windshield and was lying next to me.  Time to get someone headed this way.  Flip the cover and press the SOS button.  Beeps and lights.  OK, that will get things started.  

I do not want to be in this truck.  Unsure how stable it is.  Could roll over.  Is there fuel leaking from the main or aux tank?  Fire?  My hand goes down, well actually, up.  The fire extinguisher is still in place under the driver's seat.  The seatbelt won’t release.  My weight is against the latch.  Wedge myself around and get it to release, but happy that I had a sharp knife in my pocket and another larger blade in the center console just in case.  The driver’s side door and window are against the ground.  Not going out that way.  The windshield is cracked, and a few hard blows tell me it isn’t going to give way.  Damn.

5:19: Phone beeps.  Amazingly it is still in its Ram mount on the windshield.  Zoleo app.  “GEOS.  This is the IERCC.  What is your emergency?”

“Wrecked my car.  Trapped inside.  Can not get out.  Minor injuries but completely trapped.”  That will get them moving.

The only way out is up, through the passenger door.  Stand and wriggle up.  The door is heavy, and I am lifting it straight up.  It won’t stay open.  The camera tripod was on the passenger side floor.  Now it's on the dash.  Ram it under the door hinge.  That works.   OK, might not be able to get back inside.  Night’s coming.  The sweatshirt lying there, toss it out.  Water bottles in the door cubbies.  Toss them out.  Headlamp on the headrest.  Toss it out.  Zoleo and phone into my pockets.  Go!  Go!


5:20:  OK, STOP.  (Stop, Think, Observe, Plan).  Drink water.  Breathe deep.  Get rid of the adrenaline.  Control the shock.  

5:27: Type into the Zoleo app, “I did get out of the vehicle.  I do have limited cell phone signal.”  Got to keep the IERCC informed.  (Later found out that this is the only small area within many miles that has any signal.)


5:28: (13 minutes after the accident)  Phone rings.  Sheriff’s office.  “The rescue helicopter crew is starting engines to come to you.”  After a brief discussion, we opt to go with a ground response since I am not seriously hurt and out of the vehicle.  ETA of three hours for a ground response.

I go back into the truck to grab my camp chair.  May as well relax.  Tried to retrieve my survival backpack with water, a warm jacket, a skull cap, gloves, a tarp, a firestarter kit, 30 feet of paracord, a knife, a small medical kit, a signal mirror, a battery pack for recharging the phone/Zoleo, and water purification tablets.  No luck.  Buried on the downside of the truck somewhere.  

While there, I hit the horn with three blasts and repeat several times just in case anyone is nearby.  No response.

5:32:  Phone rings, a call from Mary Jo, my wife.  Just concerned that I haven’t done the nightly Zoleo check-in.  I update her on the situation.  Proof that overwatch works.  I routinely send a Zoleo check-in message as soon as I am in camp every night.  

5:38: Phone rings.  It’s Todd (Trails Offroad™ Founder).  I’d listed Mary Jo and Todd as emergency contacts on my Zoleo account.  They had called Todd.  He gives me a rundown of his conversations with IERCC.  Wants to drive to me, 4 hours away.  I ask him to stand by.

5:56: (41 minutes after the accident and at sunset) Headlights to the southeast.  I flash my headlamp 3 times at the vehicle and then repeat several more sequences.  A deputy sheriff from the neighboring county heard the radio traffic and realized he was close.  Just came over to lend a hand.  He’s very calm.  Asks me what had happened and what I wanted to do.  I just want a place to stay the night.  Calls his dispatch and reserves a motel room in Ticaboo.  Suggests we try to get any valuables out and lock the truck.  We manage to pull out a storage box of clothes, camera gear, electronics, and my firearm.  The 4Runner locks with the key fob.  That seems sad and out of place to me.  Leaving the truck like that, on its side, nosed down into a wash, feels like a betrayal.  For the first time, emotions other than the initial angry self-condemnation begin to flood in.

6:57: (1 hour and 42 minutes after the accident) Arrive in Ticaboo for the night.  

Over that night and the next five days, friends and strangers reached out to provide all kinds of support.

Todd arrived the next morning, bringing moral support and transportation to Hanksville. 


Offroad Portal organized a 9-person volunteer team to come and recover the truck if I couldn’t find local help.  

Blake, the on-the-ball deputy sheriff, steered me toward the Kiteleys, who excel at offroad recoveries.  Before noon the 4Runner was back on its wheels and transported to Hanksville.  Over the next few days, Mr. and Mrs. Kiteley loaned me tools to salvage what I could and deftly steered me through dealing with my insurance company.  

Kailee, the manager of Duke’s RV Park, jumped in to find lodging for me.  It was high season in Hanksville, so that was no easy task.  

A very kind waiter at Duke’s Slick Rock Grill loaned me, a total stranger, his truck while he was at work so I could move back and forth between accommodations and visit the 4Runner to prepare it for shipment to Salt Lake City.  Thanks, Ryan.

Zoleo reached out to offer support and asked for feedback.  

As word spread, countless other friends from around the globe offered much-needed support and encouragement.

Mary Jo drove our Ram 1500 up from home.  We packed the gear from the 4Runner and said an emotional goodbye to a broken member of our family.  


Lessons Learned:

  1. Knowledge is power.  Skills are tools that can’t be taken away from you.  Get good training. 
  2. Know the survival basics -- STOP, Rule of 3s.  Know how to get through a cold night.  
  3. Plan for failure to achieve success.  I’d never had a vehicle accident.  Can’t say the same thing for airplanes.  But I’ve carried a SPOT, InReach, and now Zoleo since they came out.  I’ve rehearsed a lot of scenarios in my head, step by step.  My gear reflects being able to work my way through an emergency situation.  What are you wearing?  What’s in your pockets?  It might be all you have. 
  4. Stay in control and in the present.  There will be plenty of time later for recrimination and emotion.  You will be in shock.  Control it.  You need to be rational, deliberate, and in the moment.
  5. Keep your cargo secured.  Almost nothing in the back of the 4Runner moved.  I had recently switched to Front Runner’s Wolf Packs secured with Stratchits.  My camera gear in a Pelican knockoff was seatbelted into the passenger seat.  A computer in a similar case was secured in the back.  None of those went flying, potentially hitting me or blocking my exit.
  6. Overwatch is critical.  Always have someone aware of your plans and checking on you.  Have a detailed discussion and plan with your overwatch and emergency contacts about what to expect and what they should and should not do.  Had I been incapacitated, the lack of check-in would have eventually triggered a search and rescue response. 


  • Move away from any current danger like fire, exposure to a fall, or bad people.  Then:
  • S - Stop.  Expect an instinctive fight-or-flight response.  Your body will pump adrenaline and reroute blood to major muscles and out of your brain.  Stop reacting instinctively and transition to rational analysis and decision-making.  Sit and drink a bit of water if you have it.  Take deep breaths.  Control the panic and the shock.
  • T = Think.  Evaluate yourself and your present situation.  How did you get into the situation?  Who might be aware of your situation?  Where you are relative to help?  What challenges do you face?  Not about things or resources just yet.  
  • O = Observe.  Inventory your resources.  What do you have with you?  Look at your surroundings and the resources available.  How long until night falls?  Daylight is a resource.
  • P = Plan.  Guided by the Rule of 3s, plan your actions.
  • Repeat the STOP process anytime your situation changes, such as an accomplishment or a new challenge.  

Rule of 3s - The Rule of 3s is a mnemonic for establishing survival priorities.  A human can typically live a certain time without :

Oxygen 3 Minutes Drown.  Fire.  Bleed out.  Massive trauma stops the lungs, heart or brain.
Core Body Temperature 3 Hours Extreme exposure leading to hyper to hypothermia
Water 3 Days Can't continue basic bodily and brain functions if severely dehydrated
Food 3 Weeks No fuel to sustain life.  The body will begin to eat itself. 



May 3, 2016 - October 8, 2022



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Wade May
After 43 years as a pilot, split evenly between flying fighters for the Air Force and Boeing 737s for the airlines, Wade's feet are now firmly planted on the ground. Most of Wade's exploration is solo in his silver 4Runner named Bullit ranging over all the southwest exploring remote places and trying to get as much dirt under the wheels as possible. You can find Wade sharing his experiences as a member of the Trails Offroad crew, instructing at Overland Expo, and hosting the Gaia GPS Offroad podcast.

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