Wednesday, October 31, 2012

You Can't Do Without It!

550 cord, paraline, paracord,  parachute line, call it what you will, 150 feet of mil-spec parachute line should be a part of your gear.

As I think back over nearly 46 years of teaching survival skills and about the same amount of time beating about the bush, I don't think I have ever been without some parachute cord.  I have used to to build shelters, catch fish, weave nets, make stronger rope, for emergency dental floss, as sewing thread, to retrieve water when I was cliff-bound and yes, parachute line has lowered me to the ground when I jumped out of an airplane while I was in the Air Force. Simply put it can truly be a life saver!

What is parachute line?  Parachute line is made up of a tubular case containing seven pieces of thinner, nylon threads each of which can be further separated into three even finer threads.

The tensile strength of a piece of line is 550 lbs.  The tensile strength of one piece of the inner thread is about 35 lbs.

  I don't know what the tensile strength of the very smallest fibers is - probably around 8 or 9 lbs.  At this point the material is useful as a dental floss substitute, sewing thread, fishing line and even suture material.

You can buy parachute line in just about any color from many internet vendors or sporting goods stores.  Or you can go to your local military surplus store where the predominant colors are white or OD green.  I recommend buying white cord and then dying it bright red or orange so that you can find it if you drop the line on the ground or worse still, on snow.  RIT fabric dye works well.  Make a concentrated solution and then drop your parachute line into it and leave it there until you are happy with the color.  Before you remove it from the dye pour in a cup of vinegar to set the dye and let it sit some more - a couple of days.  If you don't do this, since nylon doesn't take up dye very well,  the dye will come off in your hands.

Stronger rope can be made from parachute line by either twisting two ropes together or by braiding three or more pieces together.

As I said in the beginning, 150 feet in 25 foot lengths, should be included in your gear.  There's no way to improvise a line from natural resources that comes close to the strength, utility and usefulness of parachute line.  Check out


Thursday, October 18, 2012

Battery Problems

I had the occasion recently to need a flashlight.  The one that was most available was the Maglite that I keep under my bed where I can easily reach it if it's needed in a hurry.  Retrieving the flashlight I pushed the on/off switch and nothing happened!  Removing the end cap I peered into the battery chamber and was disgusted to see a large accumulation of corrosion.  It was so bad that I couldn't even get the batteries out!  The Maglite was ruined.  Well, this got me started on a search for all of my other lights to check them out before I ruined any more.  By the time I was done I found two others that were in bad shape.

And then I got thinking about all of the other electronic equipment that I own that is powered by one sort of battery or another - cameras, GPS receivers, compasses and headlamps for example.  What kind of condition were they in?  What started as a need for a light turned into an all-day campaigned to checkout all of my gear.  Like a lot of people I suspect, I had fallen out of the habit of removing the batteries from my electronic equipment when I wasn't going to be using it for a while.  In the end I ended up damaging three flashlights, one point-and-shoot camera that I hadn't used in a couple of years and a calculator!

Looking into the "leaky battery" syndrome a bit further I found out that it's not a good idea to mix brands of batteries.  It doesn't appear that one brand is any less likely to leak than another.  Leave them in a flashlight long enough and eventually they all leak.  Following that thread a bit further the manufactures recommend not mixing batteries with unknown charges remaining in them.  Despite spending several hours rummaging around on the internet I could not find any practical way to clean the battery compartment well enough to completely eliminate the corrosion problem.  This is especially true of most flashlights - it is impossible to clean the bulb end of the battery tube.


Monday, September 17, 2012

The Questions I Get Asked

Every week I receive emails from people asking my advice on a particular subject.  Questions that relate most commonly to equipment or procedures that the writer come across and are unsure of.  

Here's a sampling of this past week's questions:

Question.  I have a compass but I have been in situations where a compass is not dependable (high magnetite deposit areas and the like). I wondered if can find where north is on a cloudy day and had no compass? I do know of the moss thing but that is not always dependable for the north east in this age of acid rains. 

 Answer. I know of no improvised, reliable ways of determining north under the conditions you describe.  On a sunny day find a thin 18" stick and drive one end into the ground while pointing the other end directly at the sun. Position the stick in such a manner that there is no shadow.  Wait for 30 minutes and then you will find a shadow leading away from the base of the stick.  This shadow always points east.
Question.   I wondered about the water issue. what is the best way to clean water? 

Answer. The most effective way to disinfect water is to boil it but boiling requires a container and a heat source.  The most practical way to disinfect water is to add chlorine dioxide tablets NOT iodine tablets or drops to water.  Check out Katadyn MP-1 tablets  Should you decide to boil water all you have to do is bring it to a boil, regardless of altitude, and you have killed all of the harmful pathogens you are likely to find in the water.  Boiling it further wastes fuel and evaporates the water!

Question.  What's the quick way to get rescued?

Answer. Always leave a trip plan and having left a trip plan stick to it.  Even with a trip plan it may take hours for people to find you.  You can die in hours so a trip plan is a good start but you need more.  In this day and age you should carry either a SPOT personal messenger, a Delorme In Reach beacon or a 406MHz Personal Locator beacon.  There's no excuse not to carry one of these devices and in the event that you do need help in a hurry all you have to do is activate the device and an emergency signal, with your latitude and  longitude. embedded, is being transmitted to the authorities.  You still have to survive until they get there but getting rescued is going to be a lot quicker because they know exactly where you are.

Question.  I never seen (other than in a dictionary) the word "survival" defined - what is your definition? 

Answer.  At the most fundamental level survival means being able to defend your body temperature - i.e. maintaining 98.6 degrees F. for as long as possible!  That means having a shelter of some sort with you - something you can crawl into or under to protect yourself from the wind and precipitation.  I recommend a heavy duty blue, 55 gallon, 4 mil thick trash bag.  I categorically DO NOT recommend Space Blankets or Bags or anything that looks like them!  I also recommend a silicone impregnated tarp as long as you take the time to seam-seal the tie-off tabs where they are attached to the fabric.  If you don't they may leak.  A tarp can be erected in many ways and an 8'x10' tarp will provide a lot of protection.

Question.  Well what about fire?  Isn't a fire necessary for survival?

Answer.  It depends on the situation.  In some some scenarios (cold, wet and windy) it could be crucial.  Surviving also means being able to get a fire going.  To that end I carry a metal match (also known as a fire steel or ferro cerium rod) and two match cases filled with cotton balls that you have saturated with Vaseline.  A maxi sized cotton ball that is heavily soaked in Vaseline will burn for about ten minutes in very wet, very wind conditions.  I don't know of a better tinder.   To study further on the art and science of building a fire I recommend going to my website  http://outdoorsafe.comand ordering my book "Surviving a WIlderness Emergency"  and while you're also there consider ordering my eBook A Better Way to Build a Fire.  These two sources will help you a lot.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Emergency Shelters

There may come a time when you have to spend a night out that you hadn’t planned on.  It may be because of weather, darkness, injury or more commonly, getting lost!  Regardless of the cause you are now faced with nine or ten hours of discomfort at best and, at worst, the loss of your life because of your lack of preparedness for the event.

No one wants to spend a cold, wet, hungry, lonely night out away from family and friends - but it happens!   And it happens all to frequently.  It happens to both to the experienced and the novice – none are immune from the possibility of having to survive cold temperatures, high winds and precipitation sitting out under a tree somewhere waiting for the sun to come up the next morning.  It is more likely that the experienced person will be better equipped and ready for a night out.  It is also true that more experienced people, based on their know-how and past successes are prone to over-estimating their skills and abilities to spend a night out and tend to underestimate the impact of the environment and the weather on their ability to survive.  On the other hand, novices, ignorant of the hazards they might face, venture of into the wilderness blissfully ignorant of the dangers that they are exposing themselves to.  And, when confronted with the setting sun and the realization of a long, cold night ahead, are terrified by both real and imagined dangers.

Protection from the environment begins with the choices you make at home before you depart.  The selection of both the clothing you will wear and have available and the selection of the equipment you will have with you.  Your clothing must keep you dry and warm when you are inactive!  The equipment you carry must include a means to shelters yourself from the weather conditions and other environmental hazards (insects) that could threaten your life.

For those of you that believe that you will be able to find a cave or other protected nook to take refuge in or that you can build some form of improvised shelter from natural materials that will keep you warm and dry you had better think again!  Let me set the record straight.  Survival experiences often begin at the end of the day, as the sun is setting.  The need for additional shelter only becomes apparent when it is already snowing or raining.   It takes time, skill and natural resources to build a shelter using whatever natural materials are available.  It also takes a fully ambulatory person to be able to erect the kinds of survival shelters that are advocated in most survival books and articles.   These are criteria that are hard, if not impossible to meet and it is because of these criteria that I encourage all outdoor people to carry with them waterproof, wind proof sheltering material that they can either crawl into for protection or crawl under. To read more click here

Friday, April 27, 2012

Spring Has Sprung - are you ready

Spring has sprung – are you ready?

Spring is here and summer is right around the corner.  The snowline here in Colorado is retreating up the mountainsides and things are beginning to green-up.  I’m hearing rumbles about it being time to head for the outdoors to hike, fish, photograph or whatever else takes you out there.  Spring fever is upon us!

That being the case it might be time to drag out all of your gear and give it good once-over.  Don’t assume that just because it was working fine when you stashed it in a basement closet last fall that it’s ready to go today.  

Get your daypack, fanny pack or whatever it is that you carry your equipment in, and dump the contents out onto the floor.  Check the condition of the pack carefully.  Do the zippers work?  Are there any holes in the fabric that need to be repaired?  Do all of the plastic buckles still work properly? Check for any “residents” that might have converted your daypack to a winter home! 

If you need some serious sewing done or a zipper replaced find out who repairs luggage for the airlines in your town?  Compare the cost of repairs against the cost of a new daypack –maybe buying a new daypack is a better choice.

Check the condition and function of each piece of equipment you carry.   Make sure that everything is there that should be there – sometimes a piece of equipment is borrowed from your emergency kit and doesn’t get put back!  Now is a good time to repair or replace the equipment that you might depend on for protection if you had to spend the night out.  Now is also a good time to refresh your memory.  Do you remember how each piece of equipment works?  Check out your cutting tools – knives, saws and shears.   Sharpen your knives and take your saws and shears to a professional sharpener.  There’s nothing like a good edge to make a cutting tool work better – and it’s safer to!

Like most skills, survival skills are perishable.  You get rusty.  Take a day in the field to practice.  Build a fire.  Build a fire while limiting yourself to the use of one arm – your non-dominant arm.  Practice putting up a tarp shelter - quickly.   Don’t wait for good weather - practice in your backyard when the weather is really nasty.  Practice using a signal mirror to attract attention.  Do you remember how your GPS receiver works or perhaps your emergency beacon?  Have you replaced the batteries in them recently? Test yourself and your gear.  It is better to find out that something doesn’t work in your backyard than it would be in the mountains when your life’s on the line!

Practice, practice and then practice some more – then maybe you’ll be ready!

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Book Review - Show Me How To Survive

I’m a sucker for a new how-to-survive book and can’t resist the urge to buy it when I see one that isn’t already in my library.  So when I came across “Show Me How to Survive” by Joseph Pred and the editors of OutdoorLife magazine I ordered it in hopes that maybe, just maybe, there might be something worthwhile in it.  My hopes were dashed yesterday when the book arrived in the mail.

The first thing I am always interested in when I pick up a new survival book is the author’s credentials.  As printed on the back cover of the book Mr. Pred is a trained EMT, firefighter, and disaster-management specialist whose expertise also encompasses public health, outdoor survival, and fire arms safety.  He is the head of all public safety and emergency services for the annual Burning Man festival, and lives in San Francisco.  I didn’t know what the “Burning Man” festival is so Googled it and found out that “Once a year, tens of thousands of participants gather in Nevada's Black Rock Desert to create Black Rock City, dedicated to community, art, self-expression, and self-reliance.”   Sounded like “Woodstock West” to me!   I’m not sure how this qualifies Mr. Pred to provide recommendations on how to survive a backcountry emergency?

With these credentials Mr. Pred has written a 175-page book that is broken into three categories – Protect, Help and Prevail.   I will leave it to others more knowledgeable than I to comment on the advice given in the Protect and Help sections but will share a few thoughts on Mr. Pred’s recommendations on how to “Prevail” in the outdoors.

Recommendation #121 – light a fire with chocolate.   Unwrap a chocolate bar.  Rub onto soda can bottom.  Focus sunlight onto tinder.  Use tinder to light fire.   So let’s think about this for a minute.  You are being asked to polish the concave bottom of a soda can into a highly reflective mini-parabolic reflector using chocolate as a grinding compound.  And then use the reflector to focus sunlight into a point sharp enough to ignite tinder with which to light larger fuel.  It takes hours of polishing to brighten the surface enough to reflect sunlight.  And even then it is not bright enough, except under ideal conditions, a hot sunny July day for exam, and a lots of luck, to light tinder.  You don’t need a fire on a hot sunny day!  You need one in November when, at the end of the day, you find yourself faced with a night out.  You better have something with you better than a soda can and a chocolate bar to get your fire going!

Recommendations #122 and #123  - fire drill and a fire plank.   Put these in the “too hard to do” category for the average untrained, unpracticed person.   Any of the fire-by-friction techniques of fire building require years of practice for you to become reasonably proficient.  Those people who can routinely produce the needed coal to start a fire are people who have spent a life-time practicing - people who carry the components for a fire-drill in their day-packs much as you or I would carry a cigarette lighter or better still a metal-match in our emergency gear.

Recommendation  #127 – get water in the desert.  Commonly referred to as a “solar still” this process does not work except in those rare conditions when the desert soil is saturated with water – after a thunderstorm for example.  In order for this process to work there must be moisture in the soil.   Typically, desert soil contains no water regardless of how deep you dig.  The work involved with digging the hole in the hard packed desert soil, covering that hole with plastic, weighting down the edges of the plastic with rocks and more soil, is not repaid in water!  It is most likely that you will loose more water sweating while digging the hole than you will recover from the apparatus! 

Recommendation #146 – impale an elkDig an elk-sized pit and add thick pointed sticks to the bottom.  Cover the pit’s mouth with branches and leaves.  Presumably the elk is dumb enough to step on the materials covering the pit and fall into the hole skewering itself on the pointed sticks!  I don’t think so!  How much earth has to be excavated to produce a hole deep enough and wide enough to contain a six hundred to a one thousand pound elk?  What is the survivor going to dig this hole with?

Recommendation #152 – remove a botfly with bacon.   In a jungle survival situation, Note botfly larva (infestation site). Wrap area in bacon. After three days the botfly will burrow out.  Remove bacon.   OK.  I give up.  Where is the bacon going to come from?

I could go on but I won’t.  This book is going back to the publishers on Monday.  It is one more in a long line of similar books that are full of totally inappropriate, impractical advice.   Most of the recommendations are based on the skills that aboriginal people develop over a lifetime - skills that a survivor would not be able to develop just by reading this book!  As with most how-to-survive books the assumption is made that the survivor is able-bodied.  Surviving is tough enough when you are fully functional but becomes very much more difficult when you are injured.  Show Me How To Survive, like so many other books, makes the assumption that the survivor is not going to have any tools to work with and therefore must live-of-the-land and improvise the equipment that is needed.  Wouldn’t it be better to have the equipment you need and then spend an inconvenient night out rather than a life threatening one because you couldn’t get a fire going by rubbing sticks together or because your debris hut leaked?

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Eight Steps to Surviving a Wilderness Emergency

Number One.  You have to accept the fact that, as good an outdoors-man or women as you may be, sometimes things happen that precipitate you into a crisis when you least expect it and you’d better be ready to cope with, what will be one of the most difficult challenges to your life that you have ever faced.
Number Two.  Never say “I am just……”  Saying “I am just going to….” (You fill in the blank) is a denial of the possibility that anything will go wrong and a denial of the need to carry an emergency kit or protective clothing with you.  After all “what could possibility go wrong?”   A lot can go wrong, it can go wrong quickly and you can die!
Number Three.  Always carry the means to shelter yourself, to start a fire and to attract the attention of people who are looking for you and, perhaps more importantly, people who are not looking for you but might be in your vicinity.  To that end your emergency gear should include a waterproof, windproof shelter that you can crawl into or crawl under.  If you expect to be able to construct a shelter from natural materials as advocated by many outdoor writers you will be sadly disappointed. To build such a shelters take skill, time, resources and an able-bodied person.  Save yourself the trouble – carry a large orange or royal blue plastic bag to crawl into when you need protection.
Carry a metal match and a supply of cotton balls saturated with Vaseline.  This mixture is the most reliable combination of fire starting aids available to you.   Practice building a fire
Carry a whistle and purposefully made glass signal mirror.  You can blow a whistle as long as you can breath.  With a mirror, given that you have sunlight, you can bounce a beam of sunlight to a passing airplane, boat or person on a distant hillside many miles away.
Number Four.  Prepare for the five scenarios that commonly result in a person having to spend a night out:
1. Becoming lost
2. Not making it back to camp or vehicle before the sun sets.
3. Becoming stranded when the vehicle that took you into the back country malfunctions.
4.  Becoming ill or injured to the point that you are unable to make your own way out.
5. When weather makes it dangerous to continue traveling.
In each situation finding the safest campsite possible and then using your emergency equipment and survival skills to defend your body temperature is your best course of action.
Number Five.   Don’t let the concerns of others and what they might be thinking affect your decision-making.  Don’t let the promises or the commitments  you made to others drive you to continue trying to make it back in the face of darkness, rough terrain or inclement weather.  Do what is in your best interest and survive.
Number Six.  Always tell someone where you’re going and when you plan to be back.  Better still leave a trip plan with two people who you have briefed on what to do in the event you do not return.  Remember that having left a trip plan you are obligated to stick to the plan.  If you fail to leave a trip plan, or don’t update the plan, days may pass before an active search begins in your location.
Number Seven.  Be ready to deal with fear and the panic that usually results when you are confronted with a crisis.  It is ludicrous to say “don’t panic!” Everybody is going to panic.  Even the most experienced outdoorsman or woman will experience a momentary twinge of discomfort when faced with a potentially life threatening situation.  But, unlike the novice, an experienced person will recognize the discomfort for what it is  – a warning that things aren’t right!  A warning to back away and reconsider the situation.  Remember the “get-off-your-feet, have drink of water, stay put for at least thirty minutes” routine described earlier.
Number Eight.  Keep faith.  In yourself and your ability to survive based on your preparations.  Keep faith in the search and rescue system and the ability of the searchers to find you.  Keep faith in your family.  The strongest catalyst you have to keep you going, when everything appears to be against you, is your desire to be reunited with your family and friends.  Carry something to reinforce that desire – a photograph works.

The time is sure to come when you will have spend an unplanned night out. When that times comes it’s not important “what I would do” but what is important is “what you will do!”  Your life depends on it!

Friday, March 9, 2012

Water Bottles - the good, the bad and the ugly!

It wasn't until recently that I gave much thought to the containers that I carried my water in when I'm out and about in the outdoors.  Over the years I have used British and US military water bottles, bottles made from aluminum, plastic and now stainless steel.  Does it make a difference?  You bet it does!  My first awareness that there might be a problem occurred a couple of years ago when I walked into REI ( to replace a water bottle that I had lost. (Hate it when that happens!)  As I wandered through the isles I paused in front of a rack of Nalgene water bottles and noticed a sign that stated "BPA Free!"  What I wondered was "BPA?"  Come to find out BPA is a health endangering chemical that interferes with the body's endocrine system.  BPA leaches from your plastic water bottle into the water you consume - especially if you put hot water into your  water bottle.  This problem has been largely resolved with the production of BPA free plastic but what is not clear is how many other harmful chemicals contained in the plastic remain to be identified!  If you are going to use a plastic water bottle at least make sure it is certified BPA free.

Aluminum water bottles, both lined and unlined, are also available but once again you run into potential health problems.  Aluminum, in minute amounts, is released into the water you drink and has been linked to the early onset of Alzheimer's disease.  The water bottle manufactures have attempted to fix this problem by lining the interiors of the bottles with plastic or resin but once again you have plastics of unknown quality in contact with the water you are drinking.  Resins have been known to crack and are damaged if heat is applied to the bottle.

Which brings me to water bottles made from stainless steel.  Such bottles are widely available on the internet and from some of the better outdoor retailers.  I recommend them.  I particularly like the Klean Kanteen brand.  ( Bottles made from 18/8 food grade stainless steel should be apart of your gear. 18/8 grade stainless steel is completely inert and is easy to clean. Unlike plastic, a stainless steel water bottle can be used to melt snow and ice or heat water if the need arises.  Granted they are a bit heavier but in my opinion this disadvantage is far outweighed by the peace of mind I get knowing that I am not slowly poisoning myself.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Building Fires in the Rain

There's no better time or place to test your fire building skills than in Oregon's Coast Range, in February, in the rain!  These were the conditions that eighteen Search and Rescue team members experienced recently.  The SAR team-members and I gathered one wet Friday afternoon to brush up their survival skills and to test the effectiveness of their clothing and the equipment they carried. 
Intuitively I think we understand the difference between building a fire on a hot July day and building one in February when it's bucketing rain, you're cold and wet, your fingers have lost their dexterity and their strength, you need a fire to help protect the victim of an accident and you need it now!  But sometimes we need a reminder on just how difficult building a fire can be.  Friday afternoon was just such a reminder!

For those of you who have yet to try to find yourself in similar situation here are some of the lessons they re-learned that afternoon:

If it's coming down hard the first thing you must do is erect a rain-fly over the area where you hope to build your fire.  Lacking a tarp find some natural protection from the precipitation by selecting a fire site that is under the over-hanging branches of a tree - preferably an evergreen.   Regardless of how good your tinder is or how skilled you are at fire building, if it is pouring down your chances of success are not very good. 

Under wet conditions you must have good tinder.  By my definition "a good tinder" is one that you have brought with you – one that works under all conditions. Good tinder should be easy to ignite under difficult conditions.  It should be long burning in wet, windy weather and ideally should also be waterproof. It is very unlikely that you will be able to find such tinder on-site. 

Of all of the commercially available products nothing beats a cotton ball saturated with Vaseline (petroleum jelly) for starting a fire under difficult conditions.  Having said that, several of the students had trouble using this usually effective fire starting aid.  The difficulties they experienced were a direct result of the amount of Vaseline they had used to saturate the cotton ball.  More is not necessarily better!  Too much Vaseline saturates the cotton to the point that, when the cotton ball is “fluffed-up,” no fine fibers are created.  It is these exposed fibers that catch the spark from a metal match  (or other heat source) and are ignited and then, in turn, provide a wick to burn the Vaseline.  Coating just the outside of a cotton ball with Vaseline is also not good enough.   While this produces a lot of fiber to light, the limited amount of Vaseline shortens the burn time – there’s not enough fuel!   A cotton ball with just the outside surface coated in Vaseline is also not waterproof.  Liquefying a container of Vaseline by heating it in a microwave and then dunking cotton balls in the melted petroleum jelly is also not a good idea.  This procedure supersaturates the cotton again making it difficult to light.

So how much is enough?  There’s no precise answer to the question but here’s how I make mine.

Start with the largest cotton ball you can buy.  I like “Johnson & Johnson maxi size.”  Tease the cotton fiber into the largest thinnest disc you can without tearing into pieces.  Coat the fiber with Vaseline until there is no dry cotton left but without adding so much Vaseline that the fibers collapse into a soggy, gooey mess.  This is the part that takes a bit of experience.  You have it just right when, after adding the Vaseline, long fibers are created when the cotton ball is pulled into two pieces.  
 After being stored, don’t forget to pull the cotton ball into two pieces once again and then place the compacted lower halves together retaining all of the “feathers” that are created.  It is these feathers that will catch the spark and cause the Vaseline to burn.

Here’s another tip that comes to mind regarding the storage and use of the cotton ball-Vaseline mixture.  If you work or recreate outdoors in cold weather keep your cotton ball container warm or warm it before you try to remove the fire starter.  A frozen, saturated cotton ball can be very difficult to remove from the container and will also be difficult to light.

Locating fuel for the first stages of your fire is also a very important step.  Even in wet weather, it is usually possible to find thin, dry twigs (match stick thick up to pencil thickness) under the overhanging branches of larger trees – especially evergreen trees such as fir and spruce.   When small, dry fuel is not available collect what you can and then scrape off every scrap of wet bark and moss from the wood.  With larger dimension wood split it into thinner and thinner pieces until you end up with a pile of wood splinters that are long and thin.

And finally, your fire building success will depend on not only the reliability of your heat source, the quality of your tinder, the process you use to build the fire but also the time you take to get everything ready before you apply the heat source to your tinder.   If you take short-cuts you are doomed to fail!

For more information on building a fire check out the DVD "Skills of a Survivor" and the downloadable eBook "A Better Way to Build a Fire"

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Preparedness and the Will-to-Survive

From my very earliest involvement in survival training nearly forty-five years ago "the will-to-survive" has been promoted as the key to living through some catastrophic event.  But is it really?   The more I speak with people who have found themselves in trouble the more I have come to believe that a person's tenacity to live becomes important in varying degrees depending on their level of preparedness for a life threatening event.  In other words the more prepared you are the less you will have to call on your will-to-survive!  Conversely, those people who have never consider the possibility of finding themselves in a life threatening event, and are now faced with dying in the outdoors, (or anywhere else for that matter), have only their tenacity to live, their will-to-survive, their determination to make it through a tough situation to facilitate their survival.  Sometimes their will-to-survive is enough and sometimes it isn't!  Sometimes you can have all the will-to-survive in the world but Mother Nature still overwhelms you! It is also true that being skilled and well equipped is not a guarantee that you will live to tell the tale - but it is a good start! 

Survival is both a psychological and a physiological test. Psychologically you must accept the possibility that at some point in the future you may find yourself in a crisis where, weather you live or die, depends on your level of readiness for the event.  Denying that such an event will ever occur or believing that there will always be someone nearby to provide you the help you need sets you up for failure and in this case "failure" could very well mean you die!  Accepting the possibility that you might find yourself in trouble is the first step in getting ready for a situation which you hope will never occur but might happen the next time you leave your home for work, start up the mountain on foot or board a plane.  Or any one of a thousand other scenarios that result in people being precipitated into a crisis unexpectedly.

Physiologically, to survive you must be able to defend your body temperature.  When you strip away all of the smoke and mirrors survival is nothing more than being able to maintain your body temperature within three or four degrees of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit for as long as possible.  Doing so requires both skill and having the tools you need to survive.   Those who believe that they will be able to manufacture the tools needed to live-off-the-land and then survive for long periods of time are deluding themselves.

"Don't let your ability to survive be affected by your lack of preparedness.  Those who are prepared may never have their will-to-survive called into question!"

Monday, January 23, 2012

Near Misses

There have been many times in my life, and I suspect in yours, that something has happened where your life was placed in danger but you managed to avoid a catastrophe by sheer luck.  Perhaps, just in the nick of time, you realized what was about to happen and you stepped back from the brink of disaster.  Or, more commonly, someone else recognized what was about to happened and intervened.  These are the “near-misses” in our lives that we all experience from time-to-time.  When an accident happens, especially a serious accident where people are injured and sometimes killed, an investigation usually follows.  An accident investigation board is convened. Witnesses are called.  Experts testify as to how the accident happened and how it could have been prevented.  Then recommendations are published hoping that a similar situation can be avoided in the future.  Seldom does the same train of events take place following a “near-miss!”  But it should!  Read more

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Finding North to Help You Stay Found

It is easy to find yourself a bit disoriented and, lacking a compass or other navigational equipment, being unable to figure out which way to travel to go home!   One of the fundamental skills that an experienced outdoors man or women relies on is the ability to determine the cardinal directions (North, East, West and South) from the sun or from Polaris - the North Star.  Blake Miller of Outdoor Quest has done a great job of showing you how to use Polaris to determine North and then based on knowing where North is,  determine East, West and South.  Check out his blog   But what about during the daytime when you can't see Polaris?  What can be done then to help you determine your way back to your truck?

It easy assuming you have a clear sky and can see the sun.  Cut yourself a thin stick, 1/4 inch works well, 15 inches in length and sharpen one end to a point.  Find an area in the sun and clear away any debris from a circle about 18 inches in diameter.  Drive the stick into the ground while pointing the opposite end of the stick directly at the sun in such a way that the stick casts no shadow.

Let twenty - thirty minutes go by and then observe the shadow that the stick now casts.   Regardless of latitude, the time of day or the hemisphere you happen to be in, the shadow that is cast points East.  Depending on the time of year it may not point exactly east but it is accurate enough to give you a general easterly heading and again, knowing where east is you can determine the other cardinal directions.

So how does this help you.  For the sake of argument let's say you parked your truck on a generally North-South road and walked away from the truck to the west to spend the day hunting.   Let's say  that you didn't pay as much attention as you should have and you find yourself "a little disoriented" when it was time to return to your truck.  Lacking any landmarks to guide your way you have no idea which direction to go but you do know that you are west of the road. If you just had a way to figure out which way east was you could at the very least get back to the road on which you left your truck.

Find a sunny spot, cut the twig, drive one end into the ground and wait for the shadow to develop.  Since it is difficult, lacking a compass,  to maintain a straight line when walking through the woods it may be necessary to repeat this process several times before you reach the road.  You probably haven't navigated right back to your vehicle but you are at least on the road where you parked it!

So you now have two tools to use to help yourself "stay found" when next you become, as Danial Boone is supposed to have experienced "a mite befuddled!"

Sunday, January 1, 2012

My Top Twenty Favorite Survival Books

Winter is a good time to do some reading and if you are interested in expanding your knowledge of survival and surviving here's a list of some of my favorite books.  These are books that I go back to time and time again. They are my references for much of what I teach in my seminars.  Some are of the "been there, done that" variety.  Some are of the "here's what you need to be able to do in a survival situation" genre and others are scientific studies of the psychology and physiology of humans in extreme conditions - survival conditions.

In previous times the survival literature was based on the anecdotal accounts of those unfortunate souls who had been in a survival event and returned to tell about it.  "They survived therefore what they did must be correct!"  Not necessarily so!  Some people survived in spite of what they did!  Fortunately, scholars, many in the medical community, have in recent years studied why some people survive and yet others, under similar conditions die, and have written some very good books on the subject.  Read widely.  Compare the advice given.  Test the recommendations and find out what works for you.

Survival Psychology - John Leach
Deep Survival - Laurence Gonzales 
Everyday Survival - Laurence Gonzales
Life at the Extremes - Frances Ashcroft
Surviving Extremes - Kenneth Kamler
The Survivors Club - Ben Sherwood
Alone - Richard Logan
Last Breath - Peter Stark
The Unthinkable - Amanda Ripley
102 Minutes - Dwyer & Flynn
The Essentials of Sea Survival - Golden & Tipton
Desert Survival Skills - David Alloway
Out of Captivity - Gonsalves, Stansell & Howes
Touching the Void - Joe Simpson
Survive - Peter Deleo
Wilderness Medicine 6th Edition - Paul Auerbach et al
Endurance:Shackleton's Incredible Voyage  - Alfred Lansing
Northern Bushcraft - Mors Kochanski
Staying Found - June Flemming
Angels in the Wilderness - Amy Racina

Humbly, I might add my own book "Surviving a Wilderness Emergency" to the above list.

Notice there aren't any books on this list that are titled "The Complete Book of.........." because they never are!  Nor are there any books titled "The Encyclopedia of.............." because once again they never are!  The other titles that are noticeably missing are books based on military survival training, both the American and the British military.  Skills taught to the military, regardless of nationality, do not necessarily cross over into the civilian world.  I measure the value of a potential survival reference book by whether or not the book recommends the use of space blankets, a bow and drill for fire starting, solar stills and living-off-the-land!  If they do I conclude that the author has not done his homework!  Remember, when reading, there's a big difference between the skills needed to survive an inconvenient night out and bush craft skills needed to live in the back-country for prolonged periods of time.  Granted there is some cross-over but more typically you need to know how to survive a night or two out until you are found.