Tuesday, January 29, 2008


"You've driven out to the canyon for a day hike, gotten lost, and now you can't find your car. Decide what to do."

I do love the shows like Survivorman on television where the host shows how to make it in tough situations and places. The scenery is impressive, the hosts are likable, the situations are interesting and the information is useful - just hopefully not soon. Yet, these guys are trying to make an interesting television show more than merely survive.

One of the things they do that you really shouldn't is move around a lot. I remember a particular incident where Les Stroud on Survivorman tried to hike into the Costa Rica jungle to find a road, which was disastrous and incredibly dangerous. He didn't do it to demonstrate smart survival, he did it to make the show more interesting. He could have spent the whole week on the beach, but it would have been awfully similar to other shows and the jungle presented interesting challenges.

At Popular Mechanics, Jeff Wise went on a wilderness survival camp where the participants are dropped into an area with, well almost nothing. They are told that most people are rescued if they can survive 72 hours, so they try to. The problem is, almost none of them had any particular skill in survival, so it was rougher than it had to be:
Hmm. We have no water, no flashlights, no food, no shelter, no way to make fire and few extra clothes. And now it's pitch dark. Reluctantly, we realize that the only thing to do is lie down where we're standing and try to sleep. The ground is hard; the August night air is cold. I shut my eyes, then open them. It's getting colder. My stomach twists in hunger. From out of the blackness comes a voice of reason in the wilderness. It says, "This sucks."
Making a fire with a bow or twisting a stick is damn hard, I've tried it. It takes a lot of practice and experience to be reliable, and it uses up a lot of your energy. If you aren't good at it, it's just going to make matters worse in most cases. Their instructors were there to demonstrate survival options and keep an eye on their students, but gave no direct assistance beyond mylar blankets the second night. Readers had their own suggestions:
Years ago my father took Air Force survival training in Washington State before going to Viet Nam; his stories are hilarious. He was an Eagle Scout and in his early 40s at the time. His group, dumped into the Cascade wilds, had to survive, evade, resist and escape – nobody was successful at it, of course. But, he told of going up a mountain with all these much younger guys who moaned and complained. Meanwhile, he was picking berries and dribbling water off of plant leaves into his canteen. They bitched, he fished. After getting caught by the enemy, they whined, he fell asleep in the little cage (he breathed in deep when they tried to put him into one that would fit, so they put him into a slightly larger one.) Attitude, folks, attitude. And porcupine IS delightful, he says!

Many years ago I was told by an old survival expert that among the items he carried in his survival kit when in the wild was a miniature deck of cards. If lost, his first planned action was to play a game of solitaire - to calm his nerves, avoid panic, and give him time to consider his situation and the best plan for survival and rescue.

This fall, a friend survived 3 nights and 2 days lost in Yosemite National Park. He had a small bottle of water, a jacket and a hat. Hats are nice in situations like this. He warns that one should not be misled in mountain areas by sounds of supposed rescue vehicles. The sound may not be coming from the direction you think it is, and may not be as close as you think. Best to stay close to where you got lost, especially if you have water. Rather than trying to find dry boughs to sleep on, how about a second Mylar blanket? Four ounces isn't much to carry, and staying dry can be important during cold nights. These blankets also make decent reflective devices. Consider carrying a pocketknife , a whistle and a short length of string or rope to help make a lean-to.

Good idea on the whistle, but don't use metal. Some places can get cold, and think of "A Christmas Story"

This reminds me of the week long survival trek we took as Cadets at the USAF Academy years ago up in the wilds of Sayler Park,Colorado...all we had was a knife,a parachute and one canteen of water to make due for the entire week...we learned how to make back packs and canteen belts from the parachute harness,how to unravel the shroud lines to make game snares and to weave into fish nets,how to make shelter haves and sleeping bags from the silk parachute panels(all of which were remarkably effective)before we set off on our trek,having to hit a series of checkpoints along the way....I was amazed at how delicious barbecued porcupine could taste after 3 days of next to nothing...at the end of the week,we were bussed back to the Academy area and went to Mitchell Hall to pig out on as much food as we could hold....needless to say,after a week of shrinking stomachs,we did just that...and 30 minutes later we all puked our guts out....that was one course I was glad to take..and even gladder to be done with.

I would also carry a "credit-card" size 'metallic mirror" in order to flash at planes or choppers. Instead of matches, I would carry one of these magnesium-alloy fire-lighters.
The number one rule is this: stay put. That doesn't mean be immobile, it means don't move around more than you must and don't wander around looking for civilization unless you are able to see it and are in good shape.

The first thing you need is water. Without water you'll be useless in a matter of days and dead by a week to ten days. Water is your first target. Then you need shelter, that means someplace to stay warm and out of the weather. If you can't find any, build some. You can make a decent structure using branches and foliage like a thatched roof. Some areas will lend this better than others. The third thing depends on your situation. If you're in a fairly warm area you can wait on fire. If you're in an area that gets cold (and in the desert that means every night, no matter how hot it is in the day) then fire is next. Without fire you'll die that night if it's really cold. You'll be hard pressed to even go find food after a few hours of near freezing or below temperatures.

Then you want food. Food is low on the list not because you don't need it - you'll want energy to move around and you need to eat to survive, but it's the thing you can do the most without on this list. You can go several weeks with absolutely no food, although after a few days you'll start having a hard time thinking straight or seeing what's really out there. Most of us in western culture can afford to do without a few meals in any case. Food means anything edible, no matter how repellant. Roots, grubs, a rat you baked, whatever. Yes, it's nasty, but you need food and after a day or two eating nothing that scorpion doesn't look all that bad after all.

If you're in a really, really desperate situation where there's no hope of rescue and you're stranded somewhere completely unfamiliar, you're going to have to move. It will be slow going because you'll have to spend at least half to three quarters of the day just surviving, but move you must. Almost all civilization is on water, so find a water source and move along it. This will provide you fresh water and even food in many cases, and the more you move down a water source the more likely you are to find civilization in some form.

If you're going anywhere you might be stranded or lost, pack a simple kit of survival stuff (basic first aid supplies, mylar blankets, a whistle, something to do like cards, a water bottle, a knife, etc). Chances are if you end up needing to be rescued, you'll need first aid and may be crippled in some way. Be ready to treat that if you can.

You can use your cell phone as a beacon, but you'll need to have it on all the time to do so. Rescue teams can use that cell phone to find you - but it will run out of power after a while. Chances are you won't be where there's any service if you're really lost, but it can be useful anyway. Just telling people where you're going and for how long is a huge help, nobody will look for you if they don't know you're gone.

The best trick is to not get lost, of course. Always be very careful and know where you are if you can. Learn landmarks as you move so you can return to a spot or recognize it. Just having a map can be a big help, especially if you study it while you are in a spot you know about. A compass is of limited use in the mountains, those huge hunks of iron are going to make it go haywire. Survival is exciting to watch but not much fun to go through, but when you make it out, you'll have a heck of story and a nice feeling of accomplishment, at least.
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