Survival Skills

By Chandra Orr

February 6, 2009 5 min read


Do you know what to do in a worst-case scenario?

Chandra Orr

Creators News Service

You've seen the professional survivalists of the television shows "Man vs. Wild" and "Survivorman" catch live fish with their bare hands and build sea-worthy rafts from beach flotsam. They make it look easy. But how prepared are you for a worst-case scenario in the wilderness?

"You can't call AAA in the woods. Many times, you're far removed from modern amenities so if you get into a pickle, you need to have the knowledge on how to get yourself out," said Jeff Alt, seasoned hiker and author of "A Walk For Sunshine: A 2,160 Mile Expedition for Charity on the Appalachian Trail" ($16, Dreams Shared Publications), which chronicles his 147-day backpacking adventure.

As the saying goes, sometimes the best defense is a good offense, and surviving in a crisis situation comes down to proper planning.

"The Boy Scouts have it right in their motto: Be prepared. Prepare for the worst conditions because it's too late to figure out what to do when you are in the middle of a bad situation," said David Shockey, an ex-Army Special Forces officer and graduate of the Army's Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape, or SERE training, who now hones his skills as a Boy Scout leader in Madison, Ala.


Be mindful of a little bug called Giardia. Drinking unclean, unfiltered water from lakes and streams puts you at risk of ingesting this nasty parasite, which attacks the small intestine causing diarrhea and abdominal pain.

In an emergency situation, iodine tablets are the best bet for treating unfiltered water. They come in a small bottle, so they're compact and don't take up a lot of room in your backpack. They may leave a nasty aftertaste and aren't recommended for prolonged use, but you'll be glad you have them in a pinch, Alt said.

"I always pack several items to treat water," Alt said. "I carry a pump water filter which pumps water from creeks, lakes, rivers and even mud puddles. The water runs through a filter, which removes any Giardia parasites, and is ready to drink." Boiling water for several minutes will also kill the Giardia bacteria.

"You can go about three days without water in a normal situation. If you can't purify water at that point, consider drinking the best you can find. Being sick from bad water is better than being dead from no water," Shockey said.


"Always leave your itinerary with someone. Include the approximate date of return, what trail you're taking and as many logistical details as possible," Alt said.

Always hike with a partner and hit the trials prepared. Pack a detailed map of the area. Topographic maps that show the terrain and maps depicting local trails are especially useful. Take a compass or GPS system -- and know how to use them. Also, stash a whistle and a brightly colored poncho and jacket in your bag.

"If you get lost, stay put and make yourself visible," Shockey said. "That poncho and jacket in your backpack should be orange -- spread them out on the ground for planes to see."

Make a shelter, start a campfire, write SOS in a clearing and blow your emergency whistle frequently. Anything you can do to make yourself more visible increases your chances of rescue.

And, though cell phones are notoriously unreliable in the deep woods, it never hurts to try for a signal if you have your phone with you.


Prevention is the best medicine. Before tackling any excursion, take a wilderness first aid course to learn how to treat broken bones on the fly and make splints using your gear and tree branches.

Figure out what you need to do for routine medical emergencies as well.

"Emergency situations that are common in the home take on a whole new dimension outdoors where help is far away and communications are spotty or nonexistent," Shockey said. "Be prepared for heart attacks, allergic reactions [and] asthma attacks if they are a possibility for people in your group."

Be sure you are physically up to the hike. For longer, more extreme adventures, it helps to train just as you would for a marathon, Alt said. For example, if you plan to hike 10 miles a day on your weeklong adventure, practice your trek ahead of time. Take a 10-mile walk through your local park with your gear.

Should you find yourself sick or injured in the woods, make a shelter, get comfortable, stay warm and send for help.

Like it? Share it!

  • 0