Seven Threats of Outdoor Survival

Common Sense for the Outdoors
Seven Threats of Outdoor Survival

Common Sense Survival For Outdoors Enthusiasts
by Bob Newman

A study of genuine survival situations shows that all survivors—the weekend backpacker, backcountry hunter, mountain bike rider, or what have you—face at least one of seven common threats or enemies to their continued existence. It matters not where they were at the time, how long before they were rescued, what level of training they had, or what gear they brought with them; they all faced one or more potentially dangerous or deadly threats. These are boredom and loneliness, pain, thirst, fatigue, temperature extremes, hunger, and fear.

(1) Boredom and Loneliness:

"How could someone be bored when fighting for his or her life?" you might ask.

Quite easily, actually. When boredom is experienced it is a sign that the survivor is not grasping the seriousness of the situation, and therefore is not going about the business of systematic survival. It can also be a sign of a lack of the most powerful survival tool—the will to live. People unfamiliar with nature tend to become bored faster than those who have a practical understanding of the environment they are in. Those who know the woods, swamp, mountains, or desert that they are "stranded" in tend to pick up on important, beneficial information faster than those who feel intimidated or otherwise uncomfortable in their surroundings.

Loneliness is very common. Man is by nature a social animal—we crave human companionship. When you feel lonely you may become forlorn, which can lead to a feeling of helplessness. Just because you are alone doesn't mean you must be lonely.

The key to dealing with both of these threats is useful activity. The busier you are, the less bored and lonely you will feel. When you think that nothing else can be done to increase the chances of your getting out alive, reevaluate and think again. There is always something practical to be done when trying to survive. Always.

(2) Pain:


We know that pain is your body telling your brain that something is amiss. Most would-be survivors that are in pain go wrong by ignoring or incorrectly assessing the gravity of the wound or ailment.

Every one of us has applied basic first-aid, like washing a shallow knife wound or applying a bag of ice to a twisted ankle. We think nothing of these injuries and deal with them almost without thinking—they are routine. But when stuck on an uninhabited island in the Gulf of Maine because your kayak and camping gear went out to sea without you when the tide came in, a cut or twisted ankle becomes more serious. Now that seemingly insignificant wound means reduced manual dexterity and/or restricted movement, making gathering material to make a fire, getting water, or erecting a shelter much more difficult.

Minor wounds and maladies have a way of quickly becoming serious in survival situations. You must never assume anything when it comes to medical problems, regardless of how little it hurts or how petty the problem appears at first.

(3) Thirst:

Many people fail to realize that our bodies use water as a coolant all the time, not just during warm weather. At the Navy Survival School where I used to teach wilderness survival techniques, dehydration was the most common malady experienced. It can creep up on you without you ever really knowing that it is there. Symptoms include a nasty headache, unusual fatigue, dark urine, irritability, and dizziness.

Even a seemingly minor fluid loss, say, 2 percent or so, results in pale, clammy skin, nausea, general discomfort, a lack of cooperation, a demonstrated lack of physical strength, elevated heart rate, sleepiness, and decreased appetite. The key to fluid replacement is quite simple: drink water, and plenty of it. Sports drinks such as Gatorade are fine for the replacement of electrolytes, but should be diluted to reduce the sugar level so that the body can easily absorb the water from the stomach—sugar slows down the absorption rate.

(4) Fatigue:

Fatigue is one of the most preventable threats to your survival. When not recognized and dealt with it can be fatal. A tired survivor swinging a hatchet to chop some firewood is more likely to injure himself than the survivor who is well rested. The exhausted survivor can not cope with the other six threats as readily as he who has been taking short "cat" naps and getting the right amount of sleep at night.

What is the right amount of sleep? Simply, the right amount of sleep is dictated by the body—when you awaken and feel rested, you have had the right amount of sleep. Even a couple of hours of missing sleep can adversely effect your work output and ability to make sound decisions when needed. To facilitate sleep you must tend to the chores that will make your survival episode more palatable. You just can't expect to get plenty of sleep if you are freezing because your fire and shelter-building skills were not up to speed. Everything in your survival plan is interrelated.

Your physical condition is very likely to be the best it is going to be as you enter your survival episode. In other words, as time drags on your physical (and mental) condition is likely to deteriorate because of your imperfect handling of one or more of these seven threats. A slip of the knife that makes a deep cut in your finger makes camp chores more difficult. You forgot or didn't bother to purify the water you drank in that stream, and now your insides are raising a ruckus. Your signal plan wasn't ready for that search plane when it went right over you, and now you are terribly depressed and feeling like all is lost and hopeless. You don't dare eat any of the dozens of edible plants you passed today because you didn't know which were edible and which weren't—now you haven't had any food in four days, you feel weak, and your strength is waning.

(5) Temperature Extremes:

Regardless of where you think humankind hails from, one fact remains undeniable: man is a tropical animal. This means that he can't survive naked year-round unless he is in the tropics.

Given this, the survivor must take temperature extremes very seriously. Not only the cold, mind you, but the heat as well. Add to that wind, humidity, and precipitation. In other words every facet of the weather has to be carefully considered in your survival plan. The part you forget will be the part that comes back to bite you.

Underestimating the weather will get you dead in a hurry. Even seemingly mild temperatures can and have become fatal for survivors who failed to take precautions. A moderate rain in 40-degree weather can quickly become life threatening to the man or woman who is soaked. Hypothermia (a sustained cooling of the body's core temperature) and heat illness (where the body's core temperature raises to and stays above 100 degrees Fahrenheit) are two of the most common problems experienced by survivors, and they are preventable in nearly all circumstances.

Symptoms of hypothermia include uncontrollable shivering, slowed reactions, weak motor skills, lethargy, reduced ability to make decisions, irritability, and speech that has become slurred and possibly incomprehensible.

Symptoms of heat illness are wide ranging, too, and depend on the degree of the illness. Heat exhaustion is recognized by dizziness, thirst, physical weakness, possible nausea, a nasty headache, and a body temperature between 102 and 104 degrees Fahrenheit. This can be seen prior to heat stroke, but not always. Heat stroke, which effects the brain, is more serious than heat exhaustion. The pulse and respiration increases, delirium is common, and the body temperature shoots to over 104 degrees Fahrenheit. The victim may even become comatose.

The answer to both of these heat-related problems is to quickly cool the body with water and fanning; give water if the patient is conscious; and once the body temperature is back down, keep it that way.

(6) Hunger:

It's no secret that the human body can go without food much longer than it can without water. Still, food is important to the five-day survivor insofar as work output, morale, and decision-making are concerned.

Your survival plan should not revolve around acquiring food. Rather, it should be focused on signals, water, shelter, fire, and if necessary, first aid. Food is too easy to come by to devote a great deal of time searching for and preparing.

The key to getting fed while surviving lies not in fashioning marvelously complex snares and traps to catch game, but in foraging for simply found and collected edibles such as plants, fish, and certain amphibians. These three types of food are the easiest things to come by and prepare for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. All the survivor has to do is have a basic understanding of what plants in the area are edible, where they are likely to be located, and what they look like; what fish live where and what they eat; and how to catch frogs and other amphibians.

Remember that the amount of energy you expend foraging for food must never exceed the number of calories and general value you will glean from that food. You have to get more than you give. If you use a thousand calories chasing leopard frogs all afternoon and only catch one, you are losing the battle.

It is much smarter to collect edible plants and slower frogs while gathering firewood for the evening and for your signal fires than it is chasing rabbits through the brush with a stick. And if you set out some limb lines before you go a-gathering, you will probably have some fish to eat when you get back to camp.

(7) Fear:

Although you have no doubt read of the dramatic rise in mountain lion attacks on man in southern California or of alligators eating people down South, the chances of becoming the victim of such an animal is extremely remote—almost too remote to even give a single thought to. You stand a much better chance of being stung by yellowjackets or poked with the sharp dorsal spine of a bluegill than being eaten or torn up by a bear, 'gator, or cougar. But survivors fear much more than wild animals.

Fear of the unknown—the future and whether or not you have one—is the primary fear experienced by survivors. You just don't know for sure if you are going to be rescued or if you are going to find a way out of the mess you have gotten yourself into. This fear, which is experienced to one degree or another by all survivors regardless of the level of training or life experiences they may have, can be just as much a healthy thing as a debilitating one. Fear has a way of forcing you to act, and action is what survival is all about. This action includes building a quick and worthy shelter, starting and maintaining a fire in the rain, finding and preparing plants and fish for supper, fixing yourself when you are injured or sick, getting water, and setting up a signal system. Then your fears will turn from the grim—ending up dead—to the vain worries about what clever quip you are going to whip on your rescuers when they finally show up—so that the newspaper articles and television reports about your little problem don't make you out for a complete fool.


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