Published September 06, 2013
13 survival myths that could kill you
13 survival myths that could kill you
Bad tips abound when it comes to staying alive in the wilderness.
MYTH: Finding food is your top priority
“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.
REALITY: Something else will get you first
“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.”
MYTH: Your field guide makes you an expert on wild plants and mushrooms
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.”
REALITY: False confidence can kill you
“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.”
MYTH: Shelter means having a roof over your head
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.”
REALITY: It’s the ground, stupid
“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.”
MYTH: You can spark a fire by friction if you’re persistent enough
“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.”
REALITY: Building a fire takes skill and the right materials
“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.”
MYTH: Lighting a fire using only friction is hard
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.
REALITY: Practice and the right tools can make anyone a friction fire whiz
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.
MYTH: You can suck the poison out of a snakebite
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.”
REALITY: If a snake bites you, get to a hospital
“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.”
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