Survival Skills

Part Mark Verber's The Great Outdoors

Remember the 3s: You need air in 3 minutes (and to stop severe bleeding), to get warmth in 3 hours, water in 3 days, and food in 3 weeks.  The Wisdom of Abo Dude touches on most of the survival principles I learned growing up. Cody also has a book called 98.6: The Art of Keeping Your Ass Alive! which covers similar material but is greatly expanded. Check out General Backcountry Safety  by the Mountain Rescue Association. AirCav hosts a good  Survival Manual. There are a few gems on

Common Sense: Before you leave on a trip make sure that someone responsible knows where you are going (ideally your detailed route) and when you should be back. Make sure they know you are counting on them to call for a search and rescue if you don't contact them within a specified time period. If something goes wrong don't react without thinking. Except in the case of the 3 minute threats, you are most likely going to get a better outcome by pausing, and reflecting on all your options.

First Aid: You should be well versed in basic first aid.  If someone is injured, you need to stabilize them.

Signaling: From a pure safety perspective, it is always best to travel with someone else.  That way, if one person is hurt, someone can go for help. Always bring a whistle like the Fox 40.  The sound carries a lot further than your voice, and it is a lot easier on your vocal cords. Remember, three short blasts is the US standard for distress, 6 long blasts is the international signal for distress. You should know how to sustain a signal fire and carry (and know how to use) a signal mirror. It also wouldn't hurt to know the standard ground signals which can be made from tarps or items on the ground. You should not expect your cell phone to work in the backcountry.  Just look at cell phone tower locations near your destination (and remember that if there is a ridge between you and the tower you are SOL). You could also check out user reports which indicate cell coverage in national parks is spotty. If you are traveling alone, especially in an area which doesn't get a lot of traffic, you might want to consider bring some sort of hi-tech signaling device.  There is a fairly lengthly series at BPL about Satellite based comunications which you may find useful. My personal assessment from a couple of years ago, in order of there likelihood to quickly get you assistance:

  1. Personal Locator Beacons (as light as 9oz) which you should get tested. This is the most reliable way to get rescued if you are in a bad situation. McMurdo and ACR were the first companies to make PLBs. If I was going to buy a unit today it would be the ACR ResQLink 375. There are several companies that are starting to make PLBa. Several of the ACR products now support a subscription service through which allows you to send  non emergency "I'm ok" message. This has less features than the SPOT product, but has more reliable message delivery. It used to be mail order was the only way to purchase these units, but many stores including REI now carry these units. These units weight between 4.6-9oz depending on features and are typically good for 5 years. After 5 years you should expect to replace the battery.
  2. Satellite Phone (lightest depending on provider are between 8-17oz). A good way to call for help. You should expect some called to drop and with some services, an annoy round-trip lag. You will also have to direct people to where you are since location detection isn't built in like the PLB. More versatile than a PLB because you can coordinate with others. I know some people who turn their phone one briefly in the evening to send/recieve SMS messages because it it cheaper than talking. Note: GlobalStar has been having serious reliability issues. Iridium is the only sat phone I would trust today (2011).
  3. Iridium based trackers. There are a variety of devices that are combining GPS with Iridium two-way communications as a platform for basic messaging. They are not cheap, but likely more reliable that SPOT.
  4. Delorme inreach two way satellite communication should be fairly reliable, but I know of no one with experience with this product yet.
  5. SPOT Personal Satellite Beacon is similar to the PLB. Advantages over the PLB is that it's cheaper and can be used to update people on your progress in addition to signaling an emergency. The downside is that the SPOT is currently significantly less reliable due to it's lower broadcast power... minimal sky cover (like trees) can interfere with it's reports, and that the system is down a few satellites until ???? still not good in 2011. Check out spot review if you have a BPL membership, or the equipped SPOT preview if you don't.  The most recent BPL review of the spot2 suggests that reliability has gotten much better.
  6. Amateur QRP, ideally using CW (morse code) because it will provide the best reach using the least power and equipment. For example, a AT Sprint III + AT paddle or tiptapper + 9V lithium battery + wire antenna would weight less than 7oz (down to something like 3.5oz for an ultralight ATS3). If I was taking a QRP rig, I would want to use it for more than just emergencies, so I would be inclined to go with a heavier and more feature rich Elecraft KX1 with the optional integrated antenna tuner. I also like the QRP kits are made by Wilderness Radio, and Small Wonder Labs.  For a list of QRP units check out eham's QRP reviews. Typically 20 meters is good during the daytime, 30+ meters is good at night. 10 meters can be good depending on the sunspot cycle. You should check to see if there are particularly active nets in the areas you will be traveling and record the frequency / times they are active.
  7. Amateur Radio FM/Repeaters.  Amateur VHF/UHF is line of sight. So hills will significantly limit your range if you are running simplex. Repeaters can greatly extend your range provided you have line of sight to the repeater.  But even when there is a repeater on a local peak doesn't mean that you will have coverage because ridges and other obstacles could be between you and the repeater tower.  Don't just expect you will find repeaters that you can use, check for what coverage you can expect. Often you will find some has compiled useful information such as the PCT Repeater Guide.

Fire: Knowing how to build and maintain a fire is one of the most important skills you can learn.  Fire can provide warmth, provide a means to make water safe to drink, makes food more palatable, and can be an effective signal device. A number of items you carry for other purposes can be turned into fire starters. Cotton fabric which is frayed, alcohol based hand gels, fuel for your stove, etc. I recommend bringing at least two devices which lets you start a fire. At least one of them should work even when wet such as fire-steel, UST Sparkie, Exotac nanoSTRIKER or spark-a-lite. I also typically bring some of the "windproof / waterproof" matches which are neither, but light in most conditions and can also function as a first stage fire starter.   I commonly start my fires with a  cheap mini-BIC lighter. 95% of the time I use a mini-BIC . Old fashion Zippo lighters while not the lightest option tend to be very reliable. You could also bring chemical based system such as Potassium Permanganate and  Glycerin such as ChemFire capsules. I also typically recommend bring some firestarters. Many firestarters use some combination of cotton or wood base which has been embedded with with a petroleum, natural oil, or wax fuel. You should also learn techniques for starting a fire without pre-make firestarters and easy to pick up tinder is wet. Note: having a knife that is larger than the Swiss Army "Classic" makes this a lot easier. My experience is that the "high end" lighters are not the most reliable. The electric spark has really issues… especially when over 7k feet and they often seem to take two "clicks" to start up.  A more complete write up is an  firestarters page. There are some good notes on building a fire at firespot.

Warmth & Dry:  If you have a shelter (tent, tarp, etc) set it up to provide a dry location where you can warm up. When you aren't carrying a shelter and a sleeping bag in a waterproof bag carry an emergency blanket and fire starters for warmth and read Ranger Digest's anti-frostbite-hypo kit for how to use them.  Don't let the cold get you. Exposure is the number one killer in the backcountry. Check out the interview with Murray Hamlet about How to Stay Warm, - Antifreeze For Your Body, and Hal Wiess' book Secrets of Warmth.  You should understand wind chill and know that you lose heat 25 times faster when you are in the water as when you are in still air (e.g. don't get soaked, if you are soaked, get dry).  It is possible to get hypothermia in 50F weather if you are wet and the wind is blowing a bit.  See my staying warm on my winter page for more information. The HeatSheet emergency blankets seem to be the best "standard" emergency blankets. Lifesystems Blizzard Survival Blanket or Bivy are a double layered emergency system not only reflect but have a small air pocket for enhanced insulation... making them significantly warmer (but also more bulky) than traditional emergency blankets. There was a good article about avoiding and treating hypothermia which I think was quite good.

Water: Water is life. Don't get dehydrated and make sure you are drinking clean water.  Always carry an adequate water supply with tools to get more water. I list possible water treatment gear elsewhere. If you are active in very hot weather check out Desert Survivor's Do/Don't.  My typical water use while backpacking or hiking is 1L for every 7-8 miles when it's 30-60F, around 1L for every 5 miles when it's 60-80F, and 1L for every <=3 miles when it's more than 80F. The best place to take water is from the top 1/2 inch of a lake. Constant exposure to UV light from the sun tends to purify the top layer of a fixed body of water.

Food:  Except in rare cases, you won't need to forage for food unless you are seriously off the beaten path, nor do you need to take a lot of extra food. A "normal" healthy person with average levels of body fat can go for over four weeks without food with no long-term negative consequences (assume low activity). So for most people there is not threat to starving to death if you are without food for a few days. The primary risk issue is that it's slower for the body to convert you fat tissue to fuel... so you are more likely to get fatigued. This means that your physical performance will be down, you might not be as mentally sharp which can lead to mistakes, and it will be harder to stay warm.  Focus on other skills unless you are highly motivated to learn to forage.

Weather: Being able to anticipate and understand likely weather and environmental conditions can help to be prepared.

Navigation: You should be able to find your way. Sgt Rock has a good intro to using map and compass

Classes:  There are a variety of classes which team survive skills.  Those which are specifically about medical treatments can be found on my first aid page.


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