The 0ld Boy Scouts motto “Be Prepared” epitomises survival and all that encompasses it. Failing to be prepared has devastating consequences. Every year many travellers go missing in the Australian bush, some never to return alive. The main causes are often being unprepared and a lack of commonsense. People take unnecessary risks that get them killed.
Many of these people don’t have the skills or knowledge to get them out of trouble in a wilderness survival situation.
There are others who have been more fortunate, used commonsense and basic skills to help them get out alive.
Survival is really all about prioritisation of personal needs based on an assessment of various factors such as…
- hazards (rugged dangerous terrain, wild animals)
- the gear and supplies you have on hand
- any injuries you might have
- how much daylight you have left
- weather conditions (intense heat, rain, floods etc)
Most Search and Rescue situations last for anywhere between 24-48 hrs. You should be prepared to survive for anywhere from 72 hrs upwards.
So here’s the breakdown of what I call the “10 Keys to Wilderness Survival”.
Shelter offers protection from the elements: the hot sun, wind, rain and dust. If you don’t have shelter from the elements your core body temprature can rise or fall to deadly levels. As a result you can die of heat exhaustion from excessive exposure to heat or hypothermia from prolonged exposure to low temperatures.
Always look for natural shelters in the environment if possible. Look for large shady trees, caves, rock overhangs and natural depressions in rocks. If natural shelter is available, take advantage of it instead of wasting energy on constructing one. If you are unable to find a natural shelter, a simple lean-to shelter can be constructed with tree branches in the configuration depicted in the diagram to the right. If no natural shelters exist, a survival tarp/rain poncho can be setup between two trees using 550 parachute cord to provide some protection from the elements. Additionally a space blanket and a SOL Emergency Bivvy can provide warmth and something comfortable to sleep in.
If you don’t have a space blanket or sleeping bag to sleep in, or a warm jacket, leaves and branches on top of bark can be used to make a mattress and you can insulate you body by stuffing dry grass inside your clothing. Sure, it will be uncomfortable, but it will save your life.
Our bodies are 70% water. Losing just one percent of body fluids affects the thermoregulation system – dehydration then sets in which can lead to death in as little as 3 days. But what do you do when you’ve run out of water? Knowing where to find water is the first step. Water can be collected from drainages, streams, creeks, waterholes and various other water sources including tree branches (to do this tie a bag around a tree branch that is in direct sunlight, wait 4 hrs and you should get at least a cup of potable drinking water). All water collected must first be sterilised using any of the following methods:
- Boiling – for 2 minutes as any more than that is a waste of water (because it evaporates when heated) and fuel.
- Chemicals – potassium permanganate and glucose 50/50 combination; bleach; puritabs
- Filtration – survival straw such as the LifeStraw, Survivor Filter or Sawyer Mini
- Distilling – using a solar still
- UV light – SteriPen
Drinking your urine is something that you shouldn’t do. Uric acid isn’t really that great for your body. Bear Grylls might do it on TV, but you’ve got to remember that his shows are purely for entertainment and not for educational purposes. Having said that, people have stayed alive in the outback by drinking their own urine. This should only be done in extreme circumstances and as a last resort. It is better to not even get to the point of running out of water and extreme dehydration in the first place.
The best way to check whether you’re dehydrated is to look at the colour of your urine. If it is pale yellow, then that means your good to go, if it is darker (amber) then you should be getting fluids back into your body ASAP.
Fire is the jack of all survival skills and has so many wonderful uses. It’s a core survival skill that you should learn, practice and perfect. These uses include but are not limited to:
- Boiling water
- Cooking or heating up food
- Signalling for rescue (3 smoky fires in a triangle is universally recognised as a signal of distress)
- Providing light and cheer – a crackling fire is an effective morale booster
- Keeping predators and insects at bay
Fire can be started using a variety of different methods (both modern and primitive): matches, butane lighters, flint/steel, ferrocerium rods, bow drill, fire plough, battery and steel wool. The rule for tinder is that it should be bone dry and able to burn well. A handful of ideas are dryer lint, PET balls (petroleum jelly smeared on cotton balls), wood shavings, WetFire and UST’s TinderQuik (both artificial, ready-to-use tinder).
Keeping oriented and knowing cardinal directions is very important for knowing your exact position so that you can navigate your way out of the wilderness. A map and a good compass is a great start but knowing how to use these two tools really well is even better.
If you see an aircraft or helicopter flying overhead, use a signalling mirror from your survival kit, any shiny object or a car mirror to flash the sun’s reflection at the aircraft. Remember that 3 whistle blasts, flashes of light, flares and smoky fires in a triangle are all universally recognised distress signals. Don’t waste your energy screaming for help! Setup a tinsel tripod (using brightly coloured, reflective bits and pieces), draw/write directional arrows or ground-to-air messages (using sticks and rocks or create the letters with your hands in the dirt or sand) to attract attention from people both on land and in the air.
Food isn’t as high a priority as the rest. One can go without food for 72 hrs quite easily although it wouldn’t be pleasant. A hot meal does boost morale that’s for sure and can help you think better in a survival situation. It is also a good idea to learn what plants are edible in the area you intend to trek through so that you have viable food sources.
I’ve noticed that this one is often overlooked as people don’t seem to focus on this skill. Knowing how to perform CPR, treat burns, control bleeding, patch up cuts, set broken limbs, manage snake bites and heaps more are crucial to preserving life in the wilderness. Even a small and what may be perceived as insignificant cut can lead to death if left untreated.
8. Survival Gear
Sure, a lot of tasks can be done primitively as seen on many popular survival TV shows but having the right gear makes surviving a lot easier. See my article on how to build a Mini Survival Kit.
A positive mental attitude is what will get you through any tough situation. Have the will to live. As unpleasant as the situation might be, tell yourself “I’m going to get through this situation and come out alive”.
Strong faith in God can be your greatest ally in the toughest of times. I also carry a little pocket testament in my emergency kit for morale boosting purposes.
Bonus Survival Tips
- Drink, don’t sip your water – Sipping water must be one of the single biggest killers in the outdoors
- Keep calm, don’t panic – In a survival situation, it is crucial that you maintain a level head at all times. If you lose your cool and panic, then you end up making bad decisions which could ultimately get you and anyone else with you, killed. Learning to control your emotions can be a great asset in an emergency. Fear of the unknown often causes people to behave irrationally and make poor decisions. Even if you have the knowledge of what to do in a survival situation, fear can override commonsense severely impairing your judgment.
- If possible, stay with your resources and vehicle (even if it’s broken down). Don’t forget to put the vehicle’s bonnet up. This is a sign that you are stranded and need assistance.
- Never leave home without a survival kit, detailed/up-to-date maps, adequate water and appropriate clothing. Be prepared for inclement weather.