Surviving the Unexpected: A Guide to Wilderness Survival
I took my 10 year old hiking several years ago along the old Natchez Trace in Mississippi. For a mile or so, parts of the old Trace, once the most traveled road in the Southeast, were still visible to us. But soon after, all that remained to be seen or explored, was wilderness. As we continued our journey toward the unknown, I asked my daughter what she would do if something happened to me and she had to find her way back to civilization. "I would just follow the trail back to the car," she replied. "But what if you can’t find the trail?" I asked. "Let’s just don’t get lost, mommy," she said in a less confident tone.
Unfortunately, many adults think the answer is as simple as my fourth grader did. And others mistakenly believe survival knowledge only applies to adventure seekers or week long hikers. But this knowledge pertains to anyone surprising a deadly snake on a simple camping trip. Hikers could suddenly find themselves facing an angry bear. It’s easy to unintentionally get lost in the woods. Criminals often take their victims to an obscure area in the woods. A natural disaster could force you out of your home. If you were forced to cross a swollen stream, how would you cross it? The fact is, aside from a kerosene lamp to light our way when the electricity goes out, most of us do little to prepare for the unexpected!
The best way to prepare for the unexpected is to prepare a survival kit. Dozens of books have been published on the subject of safe camping or wilderness survival. Manufacturer’s tout their respective kits which range from the sorely inadequate but overpriced to the deluxe, weight-heavy kits. Yet a little know-how and a quick trip to Wal-Mart is all you need to make your wilderness experience a relatively safe one.
At a minimum, a kit requires the following: an emergency blanket, compass, flashlight and back-up batteries, snake bite kit, signal mirror, whistle, first aid kit, fire starter and/or waterproof matches, small metal pan or cup, canteen and water purifying tablets, salt tablets, twenty feet of 550 cord, and a multi-purpose knife which includes a corkscrew, knife, can opener, scissors, and tweezers. (Vintage cigar and whiskey flask optional.)
The remainder of your safety will depend on your ability to use these tools effectively. Emergency blankets are made of plastic, yet they take up minimal space in a backpack or first-aid kit. Your compass should be the type with a compass housing which turns in the opposite direction of the main housing. A two-sided signal mirror is best, but even a one-sided mirror must have a hole in the center. A CD works perfect! Be sure your whistle emits a high-pitch which carries long distances. Purchase a waterproofed brand or package your flashlight, matches, whistle, and first aid kit so they remain impervious to water. And above all, be sure your water purifying and salt tablets are safe from forces which could dissolve them.
Prepare a survival kit no matter how irrelevant it seems to you at the time. And afterward, remember that it will not do you any good if it is not with you . These items will fit easily into a backpack and weigh very little. However, the backpack needs to be within your grasp for the survival tools to be readily available.
Knowledge is Power
Be sure to familiarize yourself with each element contained in the kit and how to use it. Read all instructions carefully. Water purifying tablets, for example, may not kill all of the germs which contaminate your water supply if you do not allow the tablets adequate time to do their job. The worst time to learn how to use a snake bite kit is at the scene of the accident – practice on someone if necessary. A compass will tell you where True & Magnetic North is, but it won’t tell you how to get back to your departure point unless you got your bearing and know how to reverse your azimuth. Books on how to use a compass can be found in any book store or on the internet. Equally important is having a topographical map of the terrain you intend to cover. Topo maps, which diagram terrain with contour lines and symbols, can be found on the internet. My favorite site is topozone.com. It allows you to enter virtually any location by name and state. Also, state and federal park services have topo maps of the territory they manage.
Lions, Tigers, and Bears, Oh My!
Wild animals are usually easy to avoid if you practice good housekeeping. When cooking in the wilderness, do so at least 300 yards away from your campsite. Never cook in clothes that you wear to bed or inside your tent. Place food or cooking clothes in your car or airtight packaging. NEVER wear clothing stained with blood or allow a wound to go untreated. Most importantly, NEVER travel or cook alone.
Lions, bears, and other animals have an extremely acute sense of smell. Bears prefer fish while lions prefer wounded prey and are attracted by the smell of blood. They are the predators you will most likely to have to contend with, but your responses to these two animals should be radically different. If you encounter a lion, make yourself appear as threatening as possible. Remain standing or stand, make eye contact, and scream or growl. A jogger in New Mexico’s Dark Canyon was surprised by a mountain lion and he avoided an uncertain fate simply by raising his arms above his head. Lions don't like to put up a fight against uncertain prey. Appear intimidating, not timid.
On the other hand, if you encounter a bear in the wild, do not make eye contact and do not scream. Back away as slowly as possible, and do not run. If the bear attacks anyway, fall to the ground, roll into a ball covering your neck with your hands, and play dead. If this fails, find something to strike the bear’s eyes and nose with, only then making as much noise as possible.
As far as other untamed animals are concerned, it is usually best to face them rather than run from them with few exceptions. Running makes your neck, back and ankles vulnerable. You stand a better chance picking up a stone or a stick and fending the animal off. You may scare the animal away or realize it didn’t really want to put up a fight.
I Don't Like Spiders & Snakes
Spiders plague us at home and in the wild, but a few important tips could save your life. The tarantula is poisonous but they only attack when teased. Stay away from them and you should be fine. The brown recluse, recognized by the fiddle shape on its back, poses more of a threat. Its painless sting will leave you in a world of hurt 2-8 hours later when swelling or ulcers occur which must be treated by antibiotics. Yet the black widow is the deadliest spider without antidotal treatment. The female has a red or yellow hourglass on her underbelly, but that won’t help you identify her when she’s on all eights. To dodge the widow or recluse, simply avoid dark places such as leaf piles, logs, hollow stumps or beneath stones.
Snakes have long been a concern to hikers and avid outdoorsmen. The most encountered snakes in the United States are the coral snake, water moccasin and rattlesnake. Rattle snakes are easily camouflaged and prefer the south side in the mountains or wilderness. They travel at night so it’s not wise to go for walks in the dark. When confronted by a rattler, back away very slowly but make sure you are not backing into another snake. Water moccasins are very aggressive and will even approach an intruder. They will attack on land AND in water, but favor logs, rocks or limbs near the water’s edge. Also called a cottonmouth, the moccasin sometimes lies with its head flung back and white mouth exposed in an open position making it easier to identify.
Coral snakes are indigenous to the western U.S. and are most likely to be slithering about after a summer rain. While the coral snake’s venom is twice as potent as a rattler, they are often smaller in size and therefore, usually not fatal. They are easy to mistake for other striped snakes, so just remember the old rhyme, "Red next to yellow will kill a fellow." If the snake’s bands aren’t yellow against red, then the snake isn’t poisonous. Knowing this alone, could prevent a heart attack!
If bitten by any poisonous snake, remain calm, get away from the area where bitten, and use your snake bite kit. The conventional boy scout cut and suck response isn’t popular any longer due to the risks involved with bleeding and its ineffectiveness if not done soon enough. So if you haven’t practiced the snake bite kit, learn to ahead of time. Otherwise, tie a tourniquet above the bite but below the heart and get help as soon as possible. The longer the travel time between the bite and definitive care, the less the chance of survival.
Incidentally, large desert centipedes are as deadly as a poisonous snake. Treat them like a snake bite.
Pestilence in the Wild
You may think insects are a simple threat in the midst of an emergency, but mosquitoes kill ! Wear a repellant containing DEET or permethrin, and don’t wear blue since mosquitoes prefer it. When repellant isn’t available, make yourself a thin mud paste to cover exposed areas, build a fire near you, or stay in the wind.
The easily provoked African Bee (killer bee) is now posing a threat in arid U.S. regions. Although they only attack to defend, stay away from swarms or nest made in trees or ground holes. If attacked, run for thick brush rather than water where they’ll simply wait for you to come out. Crouch as deep in a thicket as possible, as this obstructs their keen vision and confuses them. This applies to honey bees as well, which are attracted to floral prints. Be sure to wear solids (other than blue) when you camp or hike.
Facing the Elements
Does the hot sun have you aching to take a cool dip? Depending on where you are, drowning may be the least of your worries. It may be impossible to outswim or outrun an alligator which can run up to 30 mph on land, so never swim in a river known for the critters at dusk or after dark. If attacked, the best thing to do is gouge the gator in the snout and eyes. Try to avoid the reptile’s jaws by climbing on his back and clamping his jaws shut rather than allowing him to roll you under his belly.
Aside from the best techniques for wrestling a gator, you should know where to cross a river. The widest areas are usually the most shallow. Level stretches where the river breaks into channels are your best bet. Avoid swimming or crossing close to a deep channel or rapid waterfall. Also, rocky places usually break the current, but pose a threat of injury if you fall. When crossing a slow river, follow a course that takes you downstream at a 45 degree angle. When crossing fast streams, cross upward, against the flow. Also, you should never tie a rope intending to secure someone or pull him/her across with it. The current will simply take that person under. You can, however, tie it across the river above the water line and use it as a traverse line. When you do cross, use a trekking pole or stick to probe with first, placing it at a slant on the upstream side of you to help maintain your balance. Remove your pants and place them in your backpack. More weight balanced on your back means a better chance of a successful crossing.
Piping Hot or Freezing Cold
Dehydration and hypothermia are the most common threats. While your body is 75% water, it only has to lose 25% of it to cause death. Therefore, water will become more critical to your survival in an emergency than food. The body may survive up to thirty days without food, but cannot survive without water for more than three days. To avoid dehydration, eat infrequently and in small portions excluding fats and proteins which take more of your body’s water supply to digest. Since over half of your body’s water is used to digest salt water, you should never drink it. Breathe through your nose and avoid talking. Suck on a small pebble or a piece of grass. Look for areas containing runoff after a rain to collect water, or if necessary, dig a shallow hole next to a leafy bush or plant in order to catch condensation in a bag. Never drink water unless you treat it with iodine, boil it, or otherwise purify it. It is best not to drink urine, but if your survival depends on it, boil it where the vapor from the urine drops into a bag. Believe it or not, this condensation will be pure water!
Conserve water loss through sweat by avoiding the sun. Begin any walk at dawn, breaking from it during peak sun hours, then resume later, ending your walk just before dusk. Always wear loose layers of cotton.
Dehydration should not be taken lightly, but don’t mistake it for salt depletion. There are essentially no symptoms to dehydration other than a strong sense of thirst and overall weakness. A lack of salt, however, will give you many symptoms including cramps, fatigue, headache, and vomiting, but seldom does it make you feel thirsty.
Hypothermia, an unsafe drop in body temperature, is relatively easy to spot in others, but rarely self-diagnosed. The first sign of a dangerous reduction in body temperature is shivering. Once the shivering stops, you might think you’re okay, but slowly you begin to lose motor control and mental capacity. If you get the shivers, shake them off by jogging in place, putting on an extra pair of dry socks, or wrapping yourself in your emergency blanket. It only takes a minimal drop in body temperature for the potentially fatal hypothermia to set in and seize control of your senses. This might be long before frostbite ever shows its teeth.
Signaling for Help
Getting lost can be one the most frightening of wilderness experiences, largely because you have more time to think about your fate. It’s essential, therefore, to know how to send a distress signal. Distress signals come in units of three - three fires, three flares, three whistles, etc. Three fires in a triangle is the universal signal for help so be sure you know how to build a fire before your adventure begins. Build any distress fire in an open area and/or as high in elevation as possible. Make a fire ring out of stones to contain the fire, but build a trench fire during wind and very dry weather. A small fire burns wood slower, so several small fires give more warmth than one large one anyway.
A signal mirror is used by flashing reflected light across the horizon in front of or behind you, but of course, it can only be effectively used in full sun. The light then can be detected for miles away. However, it will do you little good if you use it incorrectly. Use the hole in the center to sight your target area and then make sure the hole in the center of the mirror forges a spot on your face. This assures you’ve hit your target and helps ensure your target can find you.
If you feel you need to keep moving, remember there is a natural tendency for us to travel in circles. The easiest way to avoid this is the use of a topo map and a compass. Alternatively, select two landmarks in a straight line before venturing out. Once you reach one, select two more and so on. In any event, mark your trail by breaking or marking branches in the direction of your travel. Travel slowly and deliberately. Elevation is critical to surveying your surroundings, so get as high as safety will permit before setting out. Don’t get too excited when you see that farm or church in the distance. You will still have an estimated 6 miles to travel and it takes least an hour to travel 2.5 miles in rugged terrain.
Putting Good Knowedge to Use
Now that you understand the basics of wilderness survival, you have increased your chances of surviving the unexpected. But you must also understand every situation is different. Knowing how to react to them comes only with experience.
Staying calm, using a level head, improvising the tools available to you, adapting to the unexpected, and overcoming the obstacles is crucial to survival in any situation. As they say in the military, "improvise, adapt and overcome." Understand that courage isn’t the absence of fear, but your ability to control it. Use the adrenaline boost your fear will give you to your advantage. Occupy your mind with progress toward safety and survival rather than your fear of the unknown. And don’t underestimate the power of endorphins – finding humor in the face of adversity can only help.
A survival kit and a moderate knowledge of survival techniques is a good start at giving yourself a fighting chance in the wilderness. Add physical fitness and mental determination to that, and you have the best possible survival equipment you can get!
Tawrell, Paul. Camping and Wilderness Survival: The Ultimate Outdoor Book. 1996. Eleventh Ed., 2001. Paul Tawrell, Shelburne, Vermont and Green Valley, Ontario.
Wiseman, John "Lofty". The SAS Survival Handbook. 1999. Harper Collins, Hammersmith, London W6 8JB.
Merrill, Bill. The Survival Handbook. 1972, Winchester Press, Tulsa Oklahoma
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