Your Life Depends On It!
Should you find yourself in a dangerous situation, there are three things you need to immediately address:
Get Your Head On Straight: you will need not only every ounce of common sense you might muster… but you also need to have the right mental attitude. Think positively about your situation and that you will make it through.
Give Me Shelter: whether you’re in the woods or in the desert, you need protection from the elements. Too much sun or too much rain can lead to even more problems for you to deal with, so make sure you have a place to go where you can rest and will be comfortable and dry until it’s okay to travel again.
Find Water: this cannot be stressed strongly enough. We can live for about three days without water, dependent on where we are as well as how much we have to exert ourselves. This is why finding a reliable and ( hopefully ) freshwater supply is not an option: this is a true necessity of survival.
There are many different hazards we can run across whenever we are outdoors, but you can break down the necessities of life in the wilderness into four, possibly five, categories:
Shelter: a shelter is necessary for protection and at least some sort of a sense of security. It will protect you from the elements and the havoc they can wreak on one’s body. A shelter will also provide a place for you to sleep as restfully as possible, given your situation. A shelter can be a portable tent you have with you, or it can be as simple as using a plastic tarp to help you set up a lean-to. When you find a likely area, you will need to scout out the immediate vicinity. Make sure that you avoid setting up your temporary campsite near any animal caves or nests, or any other possible hazards that might only add more problems to your already precarious situation. Are you out of the direct wind, but facing in a southeast direction? Will you be dry/warm enough? If the weather gets cold or rainy or snowy, will you have enough protection to keep you as warm and as dry as possible? Are you away from any outcroppings of rock or anything else that might fall on top of you?
Here are some simple ways to provide you with at least a working knowledge to enable you to set up your shelter:
If you are in the mountains or woods, you can use the branches and dried leaves all around you to build what is known as a “debris shelter”. Not only is this easy to build: it can be a lot of fun as well. Make sure the area you are using is level. Look around for a hip-level stump or rock or forked branch in a tree that you can lean a long branch against. Now, lie down on the ground and measure out an area about six inches away from the top of your head as well as your feet; do the same on either side of your body.
Now you know how long and how wide your shelter must be. Find a branch or pole long enough to go from where you marked by your feet to where it will easily lean against that stump or forked tree branch you selected earlier. Find more branches and lean them against your support pole, taking care not to crisscross them at the top: doing so creates a channel for rainwater to enter your shelter. Also make sure these branches are at a forty-five-degree angle, to help protect you from snow or rain runoff.
Here’s where the fun begins: if you have a tarp, you can use that to start collecting leaves to cover your shelter; if not, then use your jacket or even just start grabbing armfuls of leaves. Pile them all over the top and sides of your shelter until the leaves are as high as your armpit. The leaves serve as both a water barrier to keep you dry as well as providing a great source of insulation to keep you warm.
You will need to add another layer of branches on top of the leaves to ensure they won’t blow away, but before you do that, go into your shelter, lie down and lookup. If you can see any skylight, you need to add more leaves to block that area. Also, take more leaves ( and anything else you can find that is soft enough to lie down on, like wild grass ) and use them to cover the ground inside your shelter. This material will compress as you lie down on it, so make sure you overstuff your shelter: once you have a compressed layer about three to four inches deep, you are almost done.
Once you’ve decided to settle in for the night, you need to “close the door” to your shelter. If you have a jacket or tarp, you can hang that in the opening or you can weave some branches together and add leaves to that device. Worst case scenario, you just pile more leaves in the opening to help protect you from the elements. All told, the debris shelter should take you about three to four hours to construct.
Another type of shelter we mentioned before is a lean-to: this is probably the simplest shelter to build. You still need to find some branches to lean against whatever support you choose, whether it’s a rock or another tree. Instead of leaves, you can use either fern or pine branches to cover your shelter. If you’re in an area where you simply cannot find any branches or leaves, you can always use that plastic tarp you packed to make the lean-to.
Water: In ordinary conditions, we need two to three liters of water per day. If challenged, we can actually easily survive without water for about three days. In extreme conditions, however, and this is an exception to the rule, people have been able to survive about two weeks without any water. Conserving your water doesn’t just mean that you need to be careful how much you are drinking; it also means watching how much you need to physically exert yourself. The less you move about, the less water you will need.
In very hot climates, it won’t take much to overexert yourself: do that and you run the risk of dehydration. If you feel lethargic, dizzy, confused, have bad headaches, or notice that your urine has become dark yellow or even brown, you need to find something to drink as soon as possible. Even mild dehydration can impair your judgment, which is something you need to avoid, as your life now depends on you thinking as clearly and as rationally as possible. Once you find water, you will need to make sure it is drinkable.
There could be unseen pollutants or pathogens, so you do need to be careful. Even if it’s from a mountain stream, there are usually bacteria or other microorganisms present in any natural water supply; filtering the water through charcoal will remove any dirt or debris, but you need to make sure you kill those microscopic pests by boiling any water you intend on drinking. If you’re near the ocean, although you can’t directly drink the salt water, if you go to the landward side of a sand dune, you can dig a hole down to where it starts filling up with water.
This water you can drink, although it will still taste salty; the sand acts as a filter and will remove enough of the salt from the seawater to allow you to drink it. If you can’t find a direct source of water, you can collect rainwater, morning dew, and evening condensation from the plant leaves or use a plastic bag to collect water through transpiration ( this even works in the desert! ). If you don’t have a container to collect the water, tie some extra clothing, like a t-shirt, around your legs and walk all around the grass or vegetation. You can then gather the water by wringing out the shirt. If you’re having trouble locating a water source, stop and look around you. Watch to see which direction any ants, bees, or birds are heading towards. That is usually a good indication of where you might find some water.
Fire: Next to water, or perhaps equal to in importance, finding the way to make a fire is at the top of your survival “to do” list. You need a fire to help you boil water to make it safe to drink; to cook any food, especially any wild fish, animals, or eggs you manage to snare; to help you stay warm, especially when the temperature drops at night; to keep dangerous animals away; to provide you with a sense of security and last but not least, to visibly signal any possible search and rescue teams as to your location.
Before you start, you want to make sure that the area you will use for your fire is away from any other dried leaves or underbrush that might ignite because they are so close to the fire. If you can find some large stones, it’s also good to build a fire ring to help prevent any larger pieces of the burning wood from possibly rolling out of the fire and onto you. You also want to gather what you will need to build your fire. Start by finding as much dry wood and branches as possible. Bring these back to your campsite.
Next, you need to have a pile of smaller branches, twigs, leaves and dried grass to use as tinder to start your fire. Once you have these supplies gathered, you can start. The best and easiest way to ensure you can build a fire is to make sure you packed some matches, or better yet, a lighter, in a waterproof container. If you didn’t, don’t panic; they may not be as quick or easy, but there are other ways to light a fire. There are battery-operated electric lighters you can buy and carry with you. You can also use either a concave mirror or magnifying glass to focus the sun’s rays on a pile of tinder ( small leaves and twigs ).
A flintstone can also be used: striking it against another stone will produce a spark that will help you get that fire started. There’s also the compression method: this uses a tool called a fire piston, which is usually constructed from wood horn and plastic. It’s similar to the method most Boy Scouts are taught to use, with the biggest difference being that the old scouting method relies on creating enough friction by rubbing one piece of wood against the other, to cause a spark to ignite the tinder. Using the fire piston, you slip the open end of a tube, that has a sealed end on the other, over a piston that is on the other piece of this equipment.
This piston is located in a depression you use to put tinder in. There is also a gasket set up as part of this tool: All you need to do is to start pushing the tube up and down, just like your engine piston works. This device uses compression to heat up the air within the tube, which in turn creates enough heat to spark and set fire to the tinder. Great, you’ve finally lit the tinder: you’re not done yet. You will need to gently blow on it and add more tinder, dried grass, even leaves, to encourage it to grow from glowing embers to small flames. Once you’ve done that, you need to add some dried sticks and small branches to build up your fire to the point where you can add larger branches, even pieces of log you might find. Building a fire is a gradual process that you cannot skip steps on.
If you don’t have enough of a flame or ember base before you add the larger pieces of wood, the only thing you will succeed in doing is killing your fire before it even gets started. Make sure that you have enough wood stockpiled each day so you can keep your fire going all night long, and keep checking the fire to make sure it does not go out on you: you worked too hard to start it to begin with!
Food: This is an important need, but not your most pressing matter in the event of a disaster. You can actually survive for several weeks without it. Long before you are in danger of dying from starvation, you will start noticing these symptoms, so you will still have time to find food:
- Irritability and low morale
- Confusion, disorientation, and poor judgment
- Weakened immune system
- Inability or difficulty in maintaining normal body temperature
As long as you know where to look, and what to look for, it’s fairly easy to find food no matter where you are. If you make sure you have a basic knowledge of hunting, fishing, and trapping animals, you should do fine. You should also know what plants ( lichens or fungi ) you can and cannot eat. A good basic edibility test before you try to eat something that may be unfamiliar is to make a minor fingernail scratch on your skin and then rub the plant over that area.
If you experience any kind of reaction, such as a rash or painful swelling, it’s a really good idea to not eat that particular type of plant. There is also another test known as the “universal edibility” test that has you start by ingesting a very small amount of the questionable food and then gradually eating more and more of it to see if there are any adverse reactions ( like severe gastrointestinal distress, vomiting and/or diarrhea ).
The only problem with this test is that there are some food sources that are extremely poisonous to humans, even in small amounts, so you’d be taking more of a chance using this method of edibility testing. Once you’ve ascertained what you can eat, do your best to eat as balanced a diet as possible, especially if you are going to need to survive for a long period of time.
Oxygen/Breathable Air: If you are in an avalanche or landslide or flood or subterranean cave, you need to find breathable air as quickly as possible. In these types of emergency situations, you will need to put your other survival needs on the back burner for a bit, because without air, you will not need any of the others. If your boat overturns, go up under it: it traps a pocket of air that should buy you enough time to find a way to escape to safety. If you’re in an avalanche or landslide, try to curl up as it hits: you create an air pocket underneath you by doing so. If you’re underground, try and find somewhere you either see light or feel a draft. That means that fresh air is not far away.