To help dispel some of the more common survival myths, we spoke to Tony Nester, an expert on desert survival and head of Ancient Pathways Survival School, Tim Smith, an expert on backwoods survival and the founder of Jack Mountain Bushcraft School and other experts on the subject. Those intimately familiar with the outdoors helped shed some light on what you should do, what you shouldn’t do and what survival really means.
“One of the biggest survival myths is that you need to invest energy and take risks in order to immediately find food,” said Ras Jason Vaughan, a veteran thru-hiker, ultra-runner and adventurer who is better known as UltraPedestrian Ras. “Shows on television depict survivalists eating raw worms and chewing live snakes to bits within a few hours of being dropped off by a helicopter.” That’s just not how real life survival works.
“In reality, you can survive for weeks on just your body's fat stores, as long as you have water to drink. Conserving energy, avoiding injury, and sourcing a supply of water are key to surviving,” said Ras. “Hunting and trapping prey are hit and miss activities which often produce nothing and simply end up expending energy and risking injury or illness. It's extremely rare for someone to die of starvation in a survival situation. Injury, illness, poisoning and exposure are much [more] likely to result in death. By definition, ‘surviving’ a situation is short-term, and in the short term a person can be fueled by their fat reserves.”
“None of us would be here today if our ancestors hadn’t mastered the fine art of friction firemaking, but this is a skill to practice on camping trips and backyard outings,” said Tony Nester of Ancient Pathways Survival School. It’s a big mistake to rely solely on friction firemaking in a survival situation, especially when you could end up in a damp environment.
“Modern survival is about being prepared and carrying at least three firestarters (Stormproof matches, spark-rod, and lighter) with you at all times when in the backcountry,” said Nester. “I teach primitive firemaking skills to show my students how to perform the method but find that, even under the best of conditions, it is a challenge and not reliable for most people. This is not the method I want to use if I am lost, injured or stranded in the wilds with the sun going down.”
We’ve all seen shows like Survivor and Man vs. Wild and while they can be entertaining, you shouldn’t take their survival advice seriously.
“I've worked as a consultant on several reality shows and these shows are heavily-scripted,” said Nester. “On one program, there was a crew of 12 people accompanying us, including two staff whose sole job was to drag around coolers filled with double-shot espressos and sandwiches while filming scenes of the host living off the land. There's nothing romantic or fun about real survival—it's only adventure in retrospect.”
“Clinical field-trials done by researchers at the University of Arizona have proven that you do more damage to the immediate tissue of a snakebite victim by applying a suction device than if you had left the extremity alone,” said Nester. “Don’t apply ice, a tourniquet, a compression wrap, or attempt the Hollywood cut-and-suck method.”
“Your best remedy for snakebite is your car keys. Don’t waste time—time equals tissue,” said Nester. “Use good wound care by washing off the bite site, covering with a bandage, and getting the victim to the hospital. Statistically, out of the 6,500 rattlesnake bites in North America each year, there are only 5 or 6 fatalities. Also, 30% of rattlesnake bites are dry so you may not have [been poisoned].”
“Remember the golden rule of desert travel: don’t put your hands or feet where you can’t see and you will avoid most rattlesnake encounters. And a side note—a dead rattlesnake can still bite you long after it’s been squished on the highway. The bite reflex within the nervous system is still intact for several hours after the snake’s demise so don’t pick one up lusting after a cool snakeskin belt.”
It’s that persistent fear in bear country. “You’re coming through a willow thicket,” said 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, said 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.)
These fascinating giants of the sea are so interesting that they’ve earned a whole week of programing on the discovery channel and, unfortunately, more than their fair share of myths. Though being the victim of a shark attack is extremely unlikely, most people think “when attacked by a shark, [you should] punch it in the nose to stun it,” said Elena Manighetti a long-time outdoor enthusiast and blogger.
“Even though it's true that sharks get stunned if they get punched in the nose, not many people have enough strength to do this, especially underwater,” said Manighetti. Even if you could manage the strength to hit the nose hard enough, there’s a chance your hand could end up injured by shark teeth. “The best way to scare a shark away is to scratch its eyes or gills, it's impossible to overpower these fierce creatures in attack mode.”
“There have been many cases of desert survivors enduring without water for up to 48 hours because they holed up in the shade and were smart with their own sweat expenditure,” said Nester. “Conversely, there have been other hikers who have perished within four hours because they taxed their bodies to the limits trying to locate water during the heat of the afternoon.”
“You will last longer in the heat by holing up in the shade versus searching for nebulous water during the afternoon hours,” said Nester. “If you do run out of water, find a north-facing boulder and sit in the shade; keep covered like a cowboy to prevent evaporative sweat loss; stay off the hot ground by sitting on your pack or a pile of debris; and only move around during the cooler hours of the morning or evening.” If you didn’t tell anyone about your travel plans, though, rescue will likely take more than a few hours and you should search for water when the temperature drops.
Related: How to Survive—Finding Water in the Desert
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.”
“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."
Heading out for a day hike or a simple overnight may seem straightforward enough, so you don’t actually need to take survival precautions, right?
“The weather may deteriorate, you may get lost or become injured,” said Brice King an avid backpacker and Vice President at Roam Right. “You always want to have a few key items with you when you venture into the outdoors—snacks and water, extra layer of clothes, a map and compass, a flashlight and a medical kit. You also want to let someone know where you are going and when you plan to return.”
While people may think an air rescue will be available in an emergency, that’s not always true. “That’s not the case in [parts of] South America—in some places it is—but hikers have to understand that once they are on the trail [that’s it]. If an emergency arises, it must be handled by guides, porters (who don’t speak English) and hikers,” said Whitt. Contrary to scenes in action movies there are places helicopters can’t reach you, severe weather can make air rescue impossible and there’s still the matter of getting in touch with someone who could send the helicopter.
“It's a myth to assume that boiling water is water purification cure all,” said Justin Jackson, who goes by “Just In Case” Jack in the survival community. He is an expert survivalist with an engineering and military background and warns against relying solely on boiling water.
“While boiling water will kill off organisms and germs, it will not clean harmful particulates from the water. For instance, no matter how long you boil chemically contaminated water it won't be safe to drink,” said Jack. “This same principle applies to stagnant dirty water. When the water you are boiling has not been filtered, then you will end up drinking the dirt particles. If the water you are attempting to purify is visibly dirty or murky, you should filter the water before attempting to boil it. If you don't have a commercial water filter available, then you can either pour the dirty water through a clean fabric (towel or shirt) or leave the water to stand until the sediments sink to the bottom. Then just pour the clean water from the top...and then boil.”
Some people think because snow is just frozen water, they can rely on it to keep them hydrated, even in dire situations with freezing temperatures.
“While snow is technically water, it's also very cold. If you are in a survival situation and in need of water, it's best to melt it and warm before ingesting it,” said Jack. “Eating lots of snow will decrease your internal body temperature, which can exacerbate hypothermia. It also forces your body to warm the cold snow upon ingestion which will use up a lot of valuable body energy reserves. While casually eating snow typically causes no harm, doing so in a dire survival situation where you are already stuck in frigid outdoor conditions can be deadly.”
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,” said Tim Smith of Jack Mountain Bushcraft School. “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 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!”