Do you have what it takes?
While most of us like spending some time outside, but it is usually on our own terms. When you plan on participating in activities outside, typically, you try to bring everything that you might need. What happens if you find yourself stranded in a situation that you were unprepared for? What happens if you have to be outside overnight or for a few days until you are able to reach safety? Do you have the knowledge and skills to survive?
Why should you know outdoor survival skills?
While outdoor survival skills might seem like something that only people who are hikers or like to spend time in remote areas, far away from civilization should need know. There are important things that everyone should know in order to be prepared for any scenario, like your car crashing in the middle of nowhere, your injured and help isn’t available, you take a run down your favorite trail and hurt your leg making you unable to get back to your car or you’re on a fishing/hunting trip and something goes terribly wrong. These are just a few of the things that you don’t plan on happening but they easily can. This is why the more you do to be prepared, the better the chance you have to survive. One of the best ways to be prepared is to learn skills that you can apply to any situation.
There are six essential things that you need to know how to do that will increase your chance of survival: how to treat common injuries, how to build a shelter, how to build/maintain a fire, how to find water/make it safe to drink, how to find edible food and how to signal for help. The most important thing you need to do if you are caught stranded outdoors is prioritize:
1. Safety – Identify whatever the immediate threat is and get away from it
2. First Aid – Check and treat yourself for any injuries
3. Protection – Find a weapon (sharpened stick or rock) to fend off any type of predator
4. Physical Needs – Make a shelter and fire, find water and food and maintain good hygiene
First Aid. Even if you don’t have a first aid kit with you, you should know how to take care of the most common types of injuries. For cuts and scrapes, it is important to clean out the wound with fresh water and keep it clean while monitoring for signs of infection, such as pus, drainage, red lines coming from the wound up your body towards the center of your body, fever and/or chills. If the cut is small, this is all that you need to do. For large or deep cuts and if you can’t control the bleeding, you should use a tourniquet, but only as a last resort. An important thing to remember for tourniquets is that it should be at least one inch wide and tightened around the affected limb above the site of the injury until the bleeding stops. For a dislocate bone, you need to get it back into place. For broken bones, you need to make a splint out of the material that you have available, such as sticks and shoelaces. Burns should be treated by removing any clothing from the area and running lukewarm water over the burn. If you have honey, it can be used to coat the burn. Otherwise, loosely wrap the area in wet pieces of clothing. Keep the wound elevated as much as possible and if blisters appear, don’t open them.
Shelter. When you hear of someone dying of exposure after being outdoors for a period of time, it is usually because they didn’t have an appropriate shelter. The type of shelter you need depends on the environment that you are in. If you are a cold environment, you need one that will keep you warm, but if you are in a hot environment, you will need one that provides you shade. All shelters should protect you from the elements…meaning they should keep you dry. A shelter for cold weather should be small enough that it accommodates your body lying down and not much else because this helps to trap your body heat. The best way to do this is by creating a lean-to using fallen tree or resting a strong branch against a tree, propping up sticks on this close together to make sides and adding bark/leaves/pine needles/moss to the sides for insulation. It is also important to put similar insulation on the ground that is several inches thick. A shelter for hot weather should be made by digging slightly down (few inches) into the ground because the dirt here is noticeably cooler. After digging down, build a lean-to using sticks over the top of the area but be sure to leave some openings in order to allow of air movement. A significant thing to consider when building a shelter is the location. You want to make sure that it isn’t in a valley or area where water may flow towards you…remember, you want to be high and dry. It is key to stay away from insect nests and other possible dangers like falling rocks. If you are able to locate your shelter near running water and dry wood, you will be able to get the resources you need for drinking water and making a fire easier.
Fire. A fire is essential for a variety of things, such as warmth, protection (keeps away predators), signal device (for smoke signals) and purifier (used to boil water). In order to have a fire, you need to be able to light one. If you have lighter or waterproof matches, that is an advantage. If you have a magnesium fire starter or steel wool, those are helpful, too. Even a battery can make it easier to start a fire, but if you are truly stranded, you don’t have access to these. You can use eyeglasses or water bottle to direct sunlight and focus the rays through them to create a single point of heat and direct this towards your tinder. It may take a while, but it will eventually catch fire. Obviously, you need sunlight to use either of these methods, so if it isn’t available, you’ll need to try a different method. A good option is the old standby of starting a fire with sticks. The best way to do this is to rapidly roll a stick on a log using the friction to start a fire. In order to keep a fire going, you need several different materials. First, you need tinder, such as pine needles or dry leaves/grass. This can be anything small enough that will be easy to catch on fire. Next, you need kindling, like small, dry sticks, which is a little bit denser than tinder and will burn longer. Finally, you need bigger pieces of wood that will burn for an extended period of time. You need to make a tipi in which the tinder is surround by the kindling and the kindling is surrounded by the wood. Be sure to block the tinder from the wind and use long, steady breaths to help it ignite and spread the flame.
Water. The second most important thing that you need is water. Your body can only go a few days without water. The number one thing to consider is if it clean and uncontaminated. Two good sources of this are rain and snow. Rain just needs to be collected and stored. Snow should be melted first because the energy required by your body to absorb water from snow is high. If these aren’t options, you can dig for water (some plants indicate water is nearby and if you dig a hole near them, you just have to wait for it to fill with water) or think of places that water would be likely to collect, such as rock outcroppings. If you get water from either of these places, it definitely needs to be boiled. Another possibility is to collect water from plants. By using a piece of clothing to soak up, dew that forms on plants and grasses, you can squeeze it into a container. While it may seem time consuming, it is very effective. In addition to dew, plants sweat. If you have a plastic bag, tie it over a leafy branch and water will collect over time. Some tips to finding water is to follow animals. They usually head to water near dawn and dusk, so you can follow them to a water source. Flies and mosquitoes tend to stay within 400 feet of water, so if you see them, water is nearby. Remember, stagnant water is not suitable to drink even if you boil it.
Food. After water, your next priority would be to find food that is edible. There are several ways to do this. Make a spear from a strong enough stick so you can catch fish and other small game. The best way to make a spear is to find a straight stick and split the end to make two prongs. Keep the prongs separate by using a small piece of wood or a rock between them and tie it into place. Next, sharpen the ends of the prongs with a rock or knife. Besides hunting for food, you can find plants that are edible. It is a good idea to buy a book about the vegetation of the area you live or are traveling to and memorize the plants that are edible. Some easy to remember possibilities are acorns from oak trees, pine nuts/inner bark, cattail (the entire plant can be used for food) and grass (the base is edible). As far as berries go, it is helpful to keep in mind these tips: white or yellow will kill you, purple or blue are ok to eat and red could be ok or could kill you. If you are unsure, don’t eat it!
Signal. Having some sort of signaling device is essential in being able to communicate to your would-be rescuers. Some good options to bring with you if you know you are going to be outdoors are whistles or signal mirrors. Other options include high beam flashlights, radios, bright colored clothing or emergency beacon devices. If you’re stranded, using a fire as a signal device can come in handy since you should have everything that you need to make one at your disposal. The key to making a signal fire is having extremely dry wood that will light easily and quickly. Once the fire is going, putting green (freshly cut branches) on top will create smoke. Also, you can create a signal using rocks, trees, snow or dirt. Just remember it has to be large enough and in an open area for people in airplanes or helicopters to be able to see it.
Hygiene. If you find yourself stranded for a period of time, it is essential to maintain good hygiene to prevent the chance of developing infections that could easily get out of control and kill you. The most imperative hygiene concern should be preventing dental infections because they can be painful and dangerous. The best way to do this is to remove dental plaque from your teeth with a cloth. Some spots on your body are prone to bacteria and fungus growth because they like areas that are moist, dark and warm. You can prevent this by keeping areas where skin touches skin (armpits, under breasts, groin, between your toes, etc.) dry as much as possible. If you need to have a bowel movement, it is a good idea to squat, not sit (you’ll have less of an area to clean).
Other Important Tips
There are a few other things to keep in mind that will aid in your survival. The first, and most important, is navigation. If you find yourself stranded, it is a good idea to follow the Boy Scouts’ mnemonic: STOP (Stop, Think, Observe, Plan). Usually the best way to get rescued is to stay where you are and wait for help. This is where knowing how to make a shelter, build a fire and find food/water comes in handing. However, if help isn’t coming, then you need to know how to navigate your way to safety. If you are planning on being outdoors, you should bring at least two of the following: compass, map and/or GPS device. Whether or not you have these, you should know how to find north. A simple way to do this is to remember the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Another way to do this is using an analog watch. Hold the watch horizontal and point the hour hand at the sun. Now, imagine a line running at the halfway point between the hour hand and 12 o’clock (if you are in an area that is on Daylight Savings Time, imagine the line half way between the hour hand and one o’clock). This will be the north-south line. If it is nighttime, you should find the North Star, Polaris, to use as a guide. This is done by finding the Big Dipper and drawing a line between the two stars at the outer edge of the constellation’s dipper. Extend this line until you find the Little Dipper. Polaris is at the end of the Little Dipper’s handle. If you face Polaris, you are facing north. Once you find north, you need to figure out which direction to head. If you know the area, try to head towards the nearest road or town. If you don’t know the area, it is a good idea to follow a river downstream or head toward the nearest clearing to be able to signal for help. If you see a helicopter, signal them to land by use your arms to form the letter “Y”. If you hear people nearby, use a deep voice to call for help (most sounds in nature are higher pitched and a deep voice will stand out better).
An important skill to have is the ability to tie several types of knots. The one that will come in the handiest, therefore you should definitely learn, is a bowline knot. This knot is ideal for when your rope will be supporting a great deal of weight because the harder you pull, the tighter the knot gets. It is used often tying snares, lowering yourself/equipment over the side of cliff or building your shelter. An easy way to remember this is that the rabbit comes out of the hole, goes around the tree and back into the hole. This creates a loop that goes around the object and when you pull on the rope, it causes the loop to get smaller, or tighter, around the object. A second knot that can be helpful is a double half hitch knot. This is used to attach your rope to an object and can be used when making your shelter. In order to make this knot, you put your rope around a tree and bring the end under the standing part of the rope. Next, you bring the end up and pass it through the eye of the loop you just formed. You pull it tight to complete a half hitch and take the end of the rope under the standing part a second time, making another half hitch. Pull it tight as possible to make a double half hitch.
The type of clothing you’re wearing can affect your survival when stranded. If you are going to be outdoors, you should always dress at least one layer warmer than you need because you can always take things off, but you can’t put something on that you didn’t bring. Also, try to wear clothes that retain their warmth even after they become wet…this is not cotton. It is essential to having clothing that will protect you from the elements, which could be the sun, rain or cold. If you have a jacket and/or pants, bring them. It is key to remember that most cases of hypothermia occur in temperatures that are over 40°F.
You should be prepared for encounters with any large predatory animals, such as wolves, coyotes, cougars and bears. The best course of action is to get away from the animal slowly. As you move away from the animal, don’t turn your back to them. Do NOT play dead, run or move towards the animal. If you are trapped in the area, make yourself seem as big as possible by spreading your arms out and making noise. If you can, find something and throw it at the animal. If none of this works and the animal attacks, use your non-dominant arm to block its mouth and use your other hand to smash its snout with the heel of your hand or poke its eyes. If you can hinder the animal enough that they release you, get to the nearest tree and climb it before tending to any wounds.
What is the most vital thing to have if you are stranded? A positive attitude. If you are in a survival situation, you need to remain calm. You can do this by focusing on tasks that need to be done. This means developing a plan, inventory your resources and identify the critical tasks (building a shelter/fire and finding water/food). In the cases where people have survived being stranded, they’ve had the determination to do so and maintained a positive, proactive attitude. There may be points that you feel hopeless, but it is essential to remember that these are feelings, not facts. If you focus on what you need to do to survive, you most likely will!