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.