“The single biggest myth that you see is that classic scenario on reality shows and in movies: someone’s lost somewhere and the first thing people do is start looking for food,” says Tim Smith of Jack Mountain Bushcraft School. Thanks to shows like Survivor and Man vs. Wild, many people think “survival” means foraging for dinner and eating grubs.
“People on TV always try to hunt and fish and snare food, but human physiology simply does not require it,” says Smith. “You can live for a long time without eating anything—up to six weeks. The average episode where people are lost is between two days and four days. In a short-term situation, the things that’ll kill you will be getting too cold—hypothermia—not drinking water and not getting enough rest to stay rational. If you take care of these things, you should be okay for 40 days.”
Food may not be your top priority, but you’re still hungry. Maybe that field guide on edible plants and mushrooms will come in handy, you think. Think again, says Smith. “What stupid people do is get a book on edible plants and make the plant in front of them fit the description in the book.” This is just wishful thinking, though: “People die every year doing that with mushrooms.”
“If you aren’t objectively identifying what’s in front of you, unless somebody knows what something is, don’t eat it!” says Smith. “In any short-term situation, it’s not not going to keep you alive if you don’t eat it, but it might kill you if you do.”
If food isn’t your top priority, then maybe you should be gathering wood to build that lean-to shelter you’ve seen people build on TV, right? Wrong. “The average person’s idea of shelter is about having a roof over your head,” says Smith. “That’s completely erroneous.”
“It’s better to have a bed and no roof than a roof and no bed,” Smith says. “An inexperienced person spends 10 hours building a roof and freezing to death on the cold ground. A smart person spends their time building a bed to insulate them from the cold ground, and getting to the roof if they have time.”
“This [is] a specific reference to making fire by friction (such as the bow drill), but it is applicable to any fire making technique in bad weather,” says Smith. “In the movies, the star doesn't get the fire... at first, but through dogged persistence and the refusal to give up, he eventually triumphs and gets the fire going.”
“In the real world, it doesn't work that way,” says Smith. “You have to have good or near perfect materials, and everything has to be dry. In the real world people work and work and work and then they die. There’s an old saying among woodsmen: ‘When the weather’s nice, a toddler can light a fire.’ But when the weather’s been miserable, it takes a lot of experience to pull it off.”
The image of our movie hero sweating away while rubbing those sticks together cuts the other way, too: lighting a fire by friction looks like an incredibly difficult skill that’s hard to master. And it is hard—if you don’t have the skills or materials handy. That’s part of the fascination viewers have with TV survivalists who can get a fire going with so-called primitive methods.
Shane Hobel, the founder of Mountain Scout Survival School in upstate New York, chafes at this presentation. “If the kit is made, you’re good to go,” he says. “It can take 15 to 20 seconds. Maybe a minute if there’s a little extra moisture.” The key is learning the skills and practicing. There are tricks of the trade to make the process easier, too, like carrying a tin of cotton balls soaked in vaseline as emergency firestarters.
Survival expert Tony Nester of Arizona’s Ancient Pathways school weighs in: “The problem with the ‘John Wayne cut-and-suck’ method is that you’ve already got a wound. If you weren’t envenomated, and you have somebody sucking on your wound, then they’re adding bacteria and all the nastiness from their mouth into the wound, risking infection. Also, when snakes bite, they do inject venom into the wound. But they also, in extracting their fangs, get venom on the surface of your skin. If you suck the venom into your mouth, it’ll burn up your trachea and your windpipe, and could even damage your stomach. Now you have that to contend with, in addition to the original bite wound.”
“If you are bitten, you’ve got about a one- to two-hour window to get to the hospital before you start feeling a large-scale, systemic impact,” says Nester. “The best thing to do is just rinse off the wound, stay calm and slowly walk back to your vehicle or call for help to get to the hospital. Once there, you’ll probably be given some doses of antivenom, they’ll monitor you and take it from there.”
It’s that persistent fear in bear country. “You’re coming through a willow thicket,” says Nester, “and you can’t see what’s on the other side, and [the bear] can’t smell or see you, and you clear the brush and—boom—there’s one six feet away from you.” If the bear doesn’t run away first, your own flight instinct is likely to kick in. But be warned...
Running away from a bear is a lost cause: Usain Bolt himself couldn’t beat one in a footrace, let alone on uneven terrain. The best thing to do depends on the species. If you encounter a black bear, says Nester, “Hold your ground and make yourself look big—open your coat up, throw your arms up above your head—and shout and scream and, a lot of times, they’re as spooked as you are, and will take off.” Take the opposite approach with a grizzly: “Avoid eye contact, which a bear will perceive to be a challenge. If the bear's not approaching, back away slowly. If it charges, simply stand your ground. If you have pepper spray, be ready to use it… and pronto. If it makes physical contact with you, cover your vitals and play dead.” (Click here for more details.)
“In movies, you see a cowboy lop off the top of a barrel cactus—a big, beach ball-shaped cactus—dip his ladle in and get a drink of water,” says Nester. “That’s not water, though. It’s a noxious fluid that’s very high in alkalis.”
“You don't get 'water' from cactus; you get a stomachache and vomiting,” says Nester. “When you’re heat-stressed, when you have heat exhaustion and you add some of that stuff to your body, you’re going to further tax your kidneys and plunge yourself deeper into trouble, possibly even into heat stroke. Basically, you’re ingesting a substance that your body has to process, which is not recommended. You can drink from a barrel cactus, but only one of five varieties—the fishhook barrel—isn’t toxic."
“The solar still thing is one of those myths that gets perpetuated in the literature and on reality shows,” says Nester. To build a solar still, you dig a hole in the ground, place a container in the middle, cover the hole with clear plastic and weight the plastic in the middle so that condensation drips into the container. “It’s a sexy idea,” he says. “That’ll work if you’re in a place like Maine or Florida or Costa Rica or Seattle where there’s water in the ground. That won’t work in the desert.”
Nester likes to demonstrate to his students at Ancient Pathways just how useless a solar still is in the desert. “We set these up in our classes in a wash or in a canyon where there’s been rain in recent weeks,” he says. They dig a hole that’s three feet deep, fill it with succulents and other non-toxic plants that will respirate and speed up condensation, and cover it. “After the whole process of digging it and setting it up—you have to wait 24 hours, by the way—you may have half a liter of water if you’re lucky. But if you think back to the day before, you burned three gallons of sweat building it. It’s called the desert for a reason.” (For good advice on finding water in the desert, click here.)
Gandhi did it. Bear Grylls does it. It sounds logical enough: When there is no water to be found, you can drink your own pee. Your body will just re-filter the bad stuff and extract the usable water, or so the logic goes. After all, when would resorting to this otherwise verboten act be more necessary than in the desert when you’re dying of thirst?
You shouldn’t try to quench your thirst with urine for the same reason you’re dehydrated: heat. Nester explains: “The problem with drinking urine—we hear about it with border crossers—there becomes a tipping point with your body’s ability to thermoregulate. You’re on the cusp of heat exhaustion or heat stroke and you just added one more thing to a body already taxed by the heat. Your kidneys now have to process something, and it taxes your body’s cooling mechanism.” If you really want to make your urine useful, though, Nester has some advice: “You can pee on a bandana and wear it for evaporative cooling.”
Seems obvious: you’re lost in the desert and all that remains of the water you brought in is half a water bottle’s worth. “This needs to last the next three days,” you think.
When your body’s on the edge of heat exhaustion, it doesn’t care how thirsty you’ll be tomorrow. You’re dangerously thirsty now, says Nester. “Get it in you. When you’re peeing clear, then you can taper back if necessary.” Don’t have any water left? You still have a shot if you follow Nester’s advice: “Think like a cowboy,” he says. Find some shade, wait till dark to move around and if you must look for water, read this. “People have survived up to 48 hours without any water in triple digit heat in the Grand Canyon and Death Valley, versus a guy—this happened recently—who ration[ed] his water and die[d] of heat exhaustion three hours later” because he exerted himself.
“The biggest problem I see today is the sense that if I’m in trouble, I’ll get on my phone and someone will get me out of it,” says Smith. “People think they’re always one quick phone call away from being rescued, and because of that they take unnecessary risks.”
Batteries die; reception is spotty; your phone isn’t invincible. Having a cell phone or satellite beacon is no substitute for “being both appropriately prepared with the right clothing and letting people know where you’re going,” says Smith. The best way to ensure rescue is to tell someone where you’re headed and when you’ll be back so that person can trigger a search and rescue operation if you don’t return. Tony Nester agrees: “My wife and I have a two-hour window, where, if I go out and I’m not back by 6 p.m., she waits till 8 to call for help. She’s my safety net.”
This myth is the survival fantasy itself: You might suddenly find yourself in a situation—getting lost in the woods, running out of gas on a remote desert road, getting cut off from the world by a sudden event—where you’ll have to jump into survival mode and depend on arcane skills like fire by friction and building shelter.
Smith has a dose of reality for you: “Survival is very romanticized. It’s not about being the toughest or most experienced; it’s about keeping out of those situations. Survival is a very limited skill set in reality. To me survival is only when you’ve made so many bad decisions that, if you don’t take immediate action, you might die. It’s having an ego that gets you into trouble, and not being flexible. If i’m in the middle of a lake and the fishing’s good, and a thundercloud appears, I get off the lake!”