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Survive! A Quick Course for Everyone

(Outdoor Emergency)

By Rich Van Winkle

Introduction: This is the first course in the “Survive!” series – a quick course for everyone. It focuses on outdoor emergencies only because that is the environment where most people think of survival skills as being critical. Since most people won’t feel the need or invest the time in learning a broader base of survival essential knowledge, this course “cuts to the quick”. Hopefully it proves complete enough to meet a need you’ll never have. Unfortunately, survival is an area of knowledge where once you need it, you can’t have enough of it.

If it accomplishes nothing else, I hope that this course persuades you to give more thought to preparedness for all emergencies and contingencies. I’m confident that the content included here will provide a good foundation – if you take it to heart.

The Nature of Outdoor Emergencies: There are three things that make outdoor emergencies different:

1.       They’re outdoors – exposing one to the elements

2.       They’re commonly away from civilization

3.       They’re often solo

Like all emergencies, outdoor emergencies share these common aspects:

1.       They often involve injuries

2.       They are new or rare experiences

3.       They are “unexpected”.

Yes, most of these are obvious – and yet each deserves some discussion. I’ll work back up the list.

To a large extent, an emergency is inherently unexpected simply because fully expected events that cause emergencies are avoidable. If you wear your seat belt, you have considered the possibility of an accident and taken a basic precaution. Nevertheless, when an accident occurs and you need your seat belt, it’s unexpected. In everyday life we confront a constant balance between simply living life and preparing for the unexpected. When the unexpected happens and we’re not prepared, we invariably think “why didn’t I plan better?” That you’re taking the time to read this reflects an awareness of the need to prepare and part of my task is to persuade you to invest more time in being prepared.

Fortunately, outdoor emergencies are rare. Unfortunately, that rarity leads many to enter the outdoors unprepared. The less prepared you are, the more likely you are to have an emergency. That’s not just one of “Murphy’s Laws”, it’s a simple cause-and–effect reality. Preparing for an emergency often makes what could be an emergency into a mere inconvenience. Because we rarely experience emergencies, most of us are unprepared for the shock and panic that emergencies can cause. We can’t prevent shock or panic, but we can be aware of them and prepare to minimize their effects.

We have professions that prepare people to deal with injuries to others and yet we hardly ever consider how we might deal with injuries to ourselves. Being in the outdoors usually means that we must be more self-sufficient and what might be a simple injury at home can be a major problem outdoors. Perhaps the most common example is a foot blister: which can painfully prevent one from reaching their vehicle before dark. The dark can be great fun when you’re prepared for it and a big hassle when you’re not.

The joy of being alone in the wild should not be missed. The anguish of being alone in the wild when you didn’t expect to be should be avoided. The feeling of being lost is rarely experienced by adults and it is not uncommon for them to act like children when it happens in the wild. Quite simply, lost people do crazy things. That so many outdoor emergencies involve solo injuries or lost people makes this a special issue for us.

OK, this is too obvious – outdoor emergencies commonly occur away from civilization. What isn’t obvious is just how much we rely upon civilized comforts and conveniences. At home, if we have an emergency that we’re not prepared for, we can simply call 911. Now, with everyone having a cell phone, people head out into the wild thinking they’re still in touch with civilization and can rely upon 911 help in an emergency. Duh!

And just when you thought I had stated the really obvious… now we’re back to outdoor emergencies happen in the outdoors. This is worthy of special mention because we easily forget just how wild things can get in the wild. If it’s not the damn weather, then some stupid animal runs off with all our food. We plan for a gorgeous day and it rains. We plan for rain and it snows. We plan for snow and it blizzards. We plan for a blizzard – and STAY HOME! Our biggest assumption here is that you might find yourself somewhere where you can’t simply go indoors.

The Nature of Emergencies: We can define an “emergency” as any unexpected perilous situation that demands an immediate and extraordinary response. While helpful, this definition doesn’t really describe the range and nature of emergencies. For “outdoor survival” discussions, we’re generally talking about “pee your pants” emergencies where YOUR life is at significant risk.

As a professional survival instructor, long-time outdoor leader, SAR instructor, forest fire-fighter and mountaineer I have been in and witnessed more than a few outdoor emergencies. A key observation from these experiences is that people respond in very unexpected ways when confronted by an emergency; not just differently than people in general respond, but differently than a particular individual would normally respond. Combining personal experiences with research I did while in the Air Force, I can say with confidence that the KEY aspect of any emergency is attitude.

Sure, the nature of the circumstance is important. But people die when the circumstances aren’t dire and at other times survive against all odds. The difference often comes down to “attitude” and within survival circles the ideas of “positive mental attitude” and “will to survive” are known to be as important as any other aspect. I would add another related aspect – self discipline.

The lack of self-discipline shows up in many ways…

                Not taking the time to prepare

                  Not planning ahead

                    Not telling the right people where you’re going and when you expect to return

                      Not taking along what you should (to save a few ounces)

                        Not admitting that you’re not up to it.

                          Not paying attention to essential details

                            Not using common sense, intuition, or good reasoning

                              Not taking recognized precautions 

                                  Not overcoming panic, fear, and discomfort

                                     Not creating a positive mental attitude in the face of adversity

We all suffer from a lack of self discipline in everyday life. In an outdoor emergency, the lack can be and often has been deadly.

So, this is not a self-discipline course and I will not be focusing upon this critical aspect of surviving outdoor emergencies. Please do not think that this indicates its relative significance; it is merely a recognition of the reality that it is neither the purpose of this work or within its potential. The “full” outdoor survival class spends considerable time on self-discipline.

“Be Prepared”: The Boy Scouts have that one right (it’s their “motto”). Being prepared is the best way to avoid outdoor emergencies. Being prepared for outdoor emergencies has three major parts:

1.       Learning & gathering

2.       Planning & notifying

3.       Visualizing & anticipating

Survival situations share several similarities such as “the rule of the seven Ps”: proper prior planning prevents piss poor performance. (5 Ss >7 Ps). The amount of discussion about survival kits would tend to make one think that having a good survival kit is the key to preparedness. I have always held that the most important survival “kit” is your brain and what’s in it. Survival knowledge is generally free, it weighs very little, takes little space, and is hard to leave behind. The objects that you put in a survival kit are for convenience. They are worthless without the knowledge of how to use them.

Your first survival knowledge must focus upon your circumstances. It begins with an assessment of likely needs in relation to what you already have. This is as true of knowledge as it is with “survival essentials”. This is part of the reason that making a list of “ten essentials” is rather silly – what is essential for one person in one circumstance may be meaningless to another. How useful is a map and compass if you don’t have any idea where you are? Matches in a life-raft? A signal mirror in the jungle?

In this course we won’t take the time to discuss all the things you might want to have in a survival kit or how to use them. What you should learn here is that you need to take the time to think about it. Figure out what you need to learn based upon what you already know, what outdoor experiences you anticipate, what else you’ll have with you, who’ll be with you, and what risks can you realistically and practically deal with.

Your planning for an outdoor experience is the foundation for surviving it. Your survival kit is everything you take and everything that will be available to you (perhaps in the nearby RV). The single most valuable thing you can have in preparing for any outdoor experience is – experience. Given the wide variety of popular outdoor activities and the diversity of environments, there are few general rules for planning outings. The best one is an obvious one: get experience. If you don’t have it, get it from others. Use books, classes, groups, and whatever other source you can find to learn from others who have “been there, done that.”

Of course, the planning for an outdoor experience is never complete without due consideration of the “what-ifs”. You shouldn’t (and can’t) consider every possible adverse scenario, but it is downright silly not to consider the likely ones. You can’t go prepared for the possibility of each and every bone getting broken (at the same time?), but you certainly have to consider what you’d do if you fell and broke your leg. You can’t prepare for every weather possibility, but at least you can prepare for the likely overnight weather – even if you’re only out for the day.

Perhaps the simplest and easiest preparation that is too often overlooked is notifying an appropriate person of your planning: where are you going, how have you prepared, who will you be with, and when do you plan to return. Leaving a note for your roommate who may or may not see it is less than a token effort. It’s also a good idea to notify this appropriate person when you “return” and decide to stay with a friend across town for a few nights (search and rescue folks do too many “bastard searches”).

“Visualizing and anticipating” are the unsung parts of survival planning and preparedness. They are inherent in planning, but the idea here transcends the ordinary and obvious. As much as anticipating your needs is essential to packing for a trip, anticipating an emergency is essential to surviving one. This is not to suggest that you could or should try to anticipate every emergency scenario, but that you visualize yourself in possible emergency scenarios and think through your reaction and responses. The goal and result of doing such is to minimize the likelihood of shock or panic if any similar emergency should happen.

I cannot overstate or overemphasize the detrimental role that shock and panic play in emergency situations. No amount of preparation, training, or visualization can prevent shock or panic, but any reduction is a very good thing. And I assure you that visualization techniques are effective in this regard. You don’t have to dwell on disaster or ruin your fun; just fill some of those mundane moments with “This is what I’d do if that happened” thoughts. Make the thought complete enough that you’ve worked through the incident, your reaction, and the response. This is akin to another old saying: train your brain to refrain from pain.

“Is Everything Still Working?” (The Emergency Begins):  Not all emergencies begin with accidents or injuries. Besides, the starting point is the same regardless: assess the situation fully. Obviously, if the first part of that assessment finds that you are in further danger, you must address that first. If there are injuries involved, stabilize the victim(s) first. If you’re in a crevasse, secure yourself. That kind of thing.

One part of your initial assessment should focus on panic – yours or anyone else’s. I’m not sure why we evolved our panic mechanism, but it is there and shouldn’t be ignored. It’s analogous to treating “shock” in first aid. Like shock, the person suffering from panic may not recognize they have it. If you’re alone, you may have to consciously work to recognize your panic. Hopefully you can, because if your panic is so bad that you can’t quell it, it can be as deadly as shock.

The idea is to get to a point where you can carefully and thoroughly assess your emergency and develop the best plan for dealing with it. You need to have a clear vision of your situation, a list of available options, and the good sense to work through them and choose the best one. The list of questions will probably include:

                Can I reasonably expect help? If so, how do I help the helpers?

                What resources do I have and what will my surroundings offer?

                Should I stay put or must I move?

                What are my immediate needs and how will I meet them?

Hopefully, before the emergency, you had already given thought to some of the key issues…

                Does anybody know where I am (including me)?

                How soon will others be looking for me?

                How likely is it that someone will find me here?

                Where is the nearest help?

Because this is a survival course, we skip ahead under the presumption that help is not readily available and that either some “self-rescue” is required, that you are forced to deal with a harsh environment, or both.

The First Step in Surviving: Please, PLEASE! Don’t ignore this first step or think it trite. It is absolutely critical. Stop all your other thoughts for a moment. Gather all your attention, intention, focus, and will and say to your self – “I will survive this.” Then say it again, louder. And then shout it: “I WILL SURVIVE THIS!” If, deep down, you have doubts, deal with them. Become absolutely positively convinced that you can and will survive – regardless of what it takes. Done? Good, now all we have to do is figure out what it’s going to take.

What It Takes To Live: The human body is an incredible machine. It can endure abuse, neglect, and stresses beyond your wildest imagination. A cursory review of survival literature reveals time and again that people can survive the “impossible”. The only common element in all the incredible stories is that the person chose to live and believed they could or would. Of course, we don’t know when the opposite happened or when someone had the right mindset but still couldn’t manage to keep the physical machine working. Thus, once we’ve completed the first step (right?), the focus turns to the body.

If you ask people to list what their bodies need to survive – in order of necessity – you get lots of wrong answers. That’s rather odd, but is explainable because our normal living doesn’t call the matter to attention. The basic list includes:

1.       Being sufficiently intact and lacking in trauma.

2.       Having available oxygen, water, and nutrients.

3.       Being at a workable temperature.

There’s no priority in this listing – failing to provide any of these means that you’re dead. The reason to consider “survival priorities” is that we have intrinsic flexibility in all of these items. Indeed, we carry around sufficient reserves of nutrients that food is generally to LOWEST survival priority. Not far behind is water. Except in the most extreme cases, water is not a survival issue for at least 24 hours. This means that food and water are NOT survival issues in most outdoor emergencies[1]. (We will discuss dehydration more later).

The urgency of body temperature varies greatly, but is only an immediate issue under the harshest of conditions. Besides, the body is equipped with its own mechanisms for regulating its temperature and with a little help, those mechanisms will keep one alive in most environments for prolonged periods. We will provide that help in our discussion of “shelter”.

By elimination, then, we find that the highest priority survival issue must be “repairs”. This is as true in outdoor emergencies as it is in all emergencies. In this light we can accurately say that “first aid” training is also “survival training”. I strongly advocate first aid training and think it should be a bigger part of the public school curriculum. However, we should understand that most first aid training is not directed towards outdoor emergencies. The differences center on likely types of injuries, retaining mobility, self-care, and improvisation.

Outdoor Emergency Aid: The traditional first aid triage list includes the four Bs: Bleeding, Breathing, Burns, and Bones. In the outdoors, we might add two more: Bites and Blisters.  Since there are plenty of resources for learning about wilderness first aid, we can limit this discussion to a few special notes.

First, in situations where you are helping others, remember that you must also take care of yourself. Don’t let yourself become another victim because you were so distracted helping someone else (e.g. when someone tries to save a “drowning person” and ends up being the only drowning victim).

Follow the physician’s creed: Do no harm! If you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re as likely to cause harm as do good. At least give it some thought – what will be the outcome if I do nothing?

Remember, the books and teachers didn’t have your situation to deal with. Adapt to the circumstances. Keep your wits about you and USE them.

An ounce of prevention may be worth a ton of cure.

The “Survival Stuff”: Here’s a typical outline for a wilderness survival course:

·         Shelter

·         Fire craft

·         Map & Compass

·         Signaling

·         Water

·         Foraging


If you were expecting this stuff as part of this course, I hate to disappoint you. You’ll have to settle for some thoughts about each…

Your primary “shelter” in the outdoors will be the clothes on your back. In some cases, these may be your only shelter. Give more thought to what you wear when you go out. For the most part, if you can stay dry, you’ll win the battle against the weather. A pair of large plastic (“leaf”) bags can make an excellent emergency shelter – they’re cheap, light, and simple. Unless you’re wearing or carrying something better, don’t enter the wild without them.

A fire is a wonderful thing in a survival situation and well worth the time it takes to learn how to build one. However, fires are a energy consuming hassle that may return less energy than the effort to assemble, start and maintain them. In a survival situation, you must turn your attention to energy: conserve it! The best reason to start a fire in an emergency may be as a means of signaling for help. Otherwise, if you want a fire, think “CANDLE”.

I love maps and compasses. They have virtually NOTHING to do with survival. Sure, you might avoid getting lost using a map and compass – or the map and compass may cause you to get lost! Either develop really good map & compass skills or leave them at home. In the vast majority of outdoor emergencies, the best idea is to stay put. If you’re not really sure where you are and where you’re going, why get MORE lost?

Over reliance upon phones and radios has created too many outdoor emergencies. People think they can easily call for help and therefore their cell phone is their “survival kit”. Why learn signaling techniques when rescuers can simply hone in on GPS coordinates? Maybe we’ll get there one of these days – but not yet. Cell phone batteries die quickly when no tower can be reached – as when you’re in the wilderness. As I hinted before, a fire is a great wilderness signal.

Dehydration is the great hidden danger in the wild. You’re not likely to die from dehydration directly; instead you’ll die because dehydration led to poor decision making or some type of accident. Since dehydration leads to so many outdoor emergencies, it is a problem at the start. If you’re alone in the wild and have become so dehydrated that you’ve caused an emergency, then you’re probably going to die. Your death certificate should not list dehydration as the cause of death – it should say “stupidity”.

For the most part, planning for water access and staying hydrated is the solution. If you’re in a group and someone becomes seriously dehydrated, you have an outdoor emergency. Nature provides plenty of water options, but they vary greatly from place to place. Know where you’ll find water or stay out of the wilderness.

If your survival situation requires foraging for food then you’ll wish you had taken a full survival course. Remember, people fast for days without ill effect (taking in plenty of liquids). Most of us carry considerable food reserves everywhere we go and your body will automatically start converting fat and other tissues into energy if “starved”. Spending energy to find food in the wild almost never returns as much energy as it takes. Stay hydrated, save your energy, and think about something other than food.

Your “Survival Kit”: Start with your “American Express card” – so you’ll be able to pay for your rescue.

As suggested before, a survival kit is a collection of objects intended to make survival easier. Its contents must vary with each person and for each situation. No one else can tell you what you need for your kit. There are a few general rules that I can offer:

1.       Don’t include things that can be easily found where you’re going or that can be readily improvised (gauze).

2.       Pick things that offer the greatest versatility (Swiss Army Knife).

3.       Pick things that are durable and reliable (Swiss Army Knife).

4.       Check it regularly and adjust it often. Start with core items and adjust from there.

5.       Put it in something that you will carry.

Needless to say, a survival kit left at home doesn’t offer much.

Review and Closing Thoughts: OK, I know you expected something else. If you’re really interested, stick around and we’ll build a fire without using a blow torch. I have some good books on edible plants you can browse. We can talk about the benefits of lean-tos versus tee-pees. I didn’t become a “survival expert” without paying my dues. But then, I wised up. Survival isn’t about wilderness skills, it’s about planning, preparation, and priorities.

The best way to survive is to AVOID emergencies. If you’re in the wild and have an accident or can’t avoid an emergency, the best “survival kit” you can have is in your head. If you want to make it easier for yourself then make sure you’ve brought along a few “essentials”.

“Survival !”



[1] It is important to note, however, that a great many outdoor emergencies seem to have dehydration as a contributing cause. Dehydration leads to poor decision making and poor decisions are a survival issue.









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