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Two rules to being a survivor in the outdoors:

1)  Positive Mental Attitude is your best survival tool;

2)  Always remember rule number 1!

I don’t like to use the term “survival” when describing skills and techniques for dealing with emergencies in the outdoors. Everything we do has it’s roots in surviving the situation, but how we accomplish that goal is based upon how self-reliant we are in surviving.

My definition of being truly self-reliant is knowing not only what to do, but why it should be done. What is the ultimate goal of a particular task? Is it to keep warm? Indeed, that’s very important. But why? Because hypothermia is one of the leading causes of death in an outdoor environment. We used to call it “exposure”, it was – exposure due to hypothermia. If we know why we need to keep warm, knowing what to do might come earlier in the process and might inspire us to use our brains to come up with innovative ways to create that needed warmth.

Knowing skills and how/when/why to prioritize them is a fundamental part of this process. Case in point:

You become lost and are forced to overnight in the woods. It’s about a hour before dark on a cloudless night so you decide to try to build a fire. You find barely enough dry wood only to discover your lighter won’t work and are forced to use the flint-steel kit you recently bought (but have never actually used to start a fire). 

After several attempts, and no fire, it starts to drizzle, a downpour is eminent. You have no fire nor do you have a shelter? Now you are cold…and wet! Hello onset of hypothermia. Perhaps if you would have built a quick shelter first, and then concentrated on a fire (or had someone else working on a shelter while you were fire building),  you’d all have a place to come in out of the rain and minimize the hypothermia threat. 

Making a shelter first and building a fire second are both key factors in preventing hypothermia, but only when done in a prioritized order.

7 Steps to Survival –

Survival Sense for the outdoors.

(Originally appearing in “Guidelines” , at paddling.com, a paddling website for canoers and kayakers. These seven steps to survival should be applied to any outdoor emergency situation where your self reliant skills will help optimize your survival and ultimate rescue…)

One day, it’s bound to happen: your attempted beach landing in the surf fails and your boat is swept away while the waves dump you onto a beach; or that incoming tide was a bit higher – and faster – than you thought and now you are stranded on a remote beach without any gear. Whatever the scenario, survival situations create a great deal of anxiety in victims. For paddlers, prone to explore beyond the nearby headland or back along out-of-the-way beachheads, the reality of being put into a survival situation should be a real concern.

Most prudent paddlers are prepared do take recovery actions after an unexpected capsize, but as a paddler – seasoned or novice – how prepared are you to deal with the situation if you lose your boat? How competent are you to survive a night in the maritime environment without a tent, sleeping bag or even food and water? Could you survive the elements? Would you know what to do and when or how to perform the right tasks to survive such an ordeal?

Members of the U.S. Coast Guard and Alaska’s commercial fishing fleet share in these concerns on a much greater scale. In response, the Alaska Maritime Safety Institute developed the Seven Steps to Survival for those whose livelihood is the marine environment. Taking those seven steps – a sequential checklist of what do in a survival situation – and modifying them for use in the paddling community, I expanded these seven steps into “survival sense” tips that can be used by anyone in an emergency situation in the outdoors.

Like a pilot’s checklist, the seven steps on the survival sense list are meant to be followed in the sequence presented. They are meant to minimize the already anxious environment of a survivor situation and provide a routine to follow to offer everyone the best chances at being rescued. ( You want your emergency to end in a rescue, NOT a recovery!)

The Seven Steps to Being a Survivor: 

KNOW and accept the fact that you are in a critical situation; realize the need to activate the seven steps. This may seem obvious – your boat is lost, you’re sitting on the beach like drenched rats. It’s OK to yell, cry, kick sand in the air, but get over it soon and start thinking positive, start acting like a survivor. Know you need to take command of the situation, realize you are in trouble and start the processes for being a survivor. You may be called upon to be in a position of leadership, these seven steps will help you help everyone in your party. Many call this the “Oh Shit!” stage of realization.

INVENTORY injuries to yourself and others around you. Assess any cuts, scrapes, bruises or other types of injuries that might be hidden from immediate view (some tight-fitting outer clothing can prevent bleeding from being obvious at first inspection). Once this initial inventory of self and associates is taken – and injuries are dealt with – it’s time to assess the surroundings. Will you have an adequate location to build a shelter? Are their any natural hazards or potentially dangerous situations present or upcoming (tides, unstable overhangs, etc.) that could create problems down the line? What resources are around you that can be used to collect water or build a shelter? It’s important to make a mental note of resources available, don’t dismiss anything during inventory. The shiny side of a broken pail can be used for digging or wetted and used for reflecting sunlight for signaling. Think like a survivor! A thick/short section of woven rope can be unraveled into workable strands that can then be tied together to use for lashing, fishing line, etc.

SHELTER is perhaps the second most vital concern next to serious or life-threatening injuries. Hypothermia is the leading killer in such incidents. Headlines used to read “Died from Exposure” – death caused by a fatal lowering of body warmth.

Anything that protects you from the elements and helps your body regulate those warming/cooling mechanisms is a shelter. It could be as simple as an outer piece of clothing or as elaborate as a small cave, or rough timbered lean-to.

SIGNALING for help is an eventual task you’ll want to perform. Some argue that there is no need to signal right away because no one will know you are in peril. I argue that in some areas, routine or scheduled movement by air commuters or other commercial modes may be passing by and could respond to a signal that would stand out from the routine. Knowing that an intra-island ferry, for example, always passed by at a certain time, would encourage me to have signals ready.

The most important thing to remember about signals is that you want to create contrast, a visual (and sometimes audible) disturbance – some visual affect that stands out in contrast to its background. Know, too, that it’s very difficult to see signals from the air. To be effective, a ground sign must be at least three feet wide and 15 feet long. Three fires in a triangle (bright flame by night, dense smoke by day), or three gunshots fired in succession are recognized international distress signals. Any bright piece of fabric works as a signaling device. Think of that the next time you are deciding upon which color of raincoat or stuff sack you want to buy.

WATER is essential. Life’s critical three’s: you can live 3 minutes without air; 3 days without water and at least 3 weeks without food. If you do have food but no water, cut back on your eating. Your body needs water to perform its metabolic processes and foods containing protein require more water to digest than do other foods.

Water sources can be free-standing or flowing as found in lakes and streams or by collecting rainwater, either as it falls or by retrieving it from natural depressions. Water can even be collected by wiping the dew off of plant leaves, grasses, even that which forms on your gear – and then ringing that saturated cloth into a container and repeating the process. I collected over 250 ml (a cup) of morning dew in less than five minutes using just a bandana in a small patch of grass.

Most water will need to be purified before drinking. It is also important to drink lots of water – drink it if you have it (don’t ration) and then go out and find more! It will pay off to learn basic water collecting skills and then practice them before you need to rely on those skills in a survival situation.

EAT/FOOD – Our bodies do need fuel. There are two things to remember about survival eating: Rule #1: If you don’t know what it is, don’t eat it! Rule #2 : Just because something is listed as “edible”, doesn’t mean it’s going to taste good! Most of the Coast Guard personnel I know carry a bottle of Tabasco Sauce™ in their survival kit for this very reason.

There are several plants that offer satisfyingly edible, and good-tasting, parts. Most insects offer some food value. Coastal residents have a saying that if the tide is out, the table is set. It’s a tribute to all the edible sea critters to be eaten. This is another skill that should be learned and practiced before being called upon in the field.

PLAY – The very best survival tool a person has is right between one’s ears! You will hear that keeping a Positive Mental Attitude (PMA) is the most important, critical survival tactic. Organizing games (who can collect the most edible plants, or find the most firewood). The idea behind this last step is to keep everyone as positive as possible, keep spirits up and many of the emotions that challenge any survival situation can be kept under control.

Here’s a handy acronym to help remember these seven steps: KISSWEP

Know you are in trouble so you can start the seven steps process mentally and physically.

Inventory assessment of injuries to self, others and inventory anything that might be useful for completing later steps.

Shelter – protect yourself from the cold – or heat – to ward off hypothermia. IMPORTANT – shelter before fires! Get a warm, dry shelter first, then if it starts to rain while you are trying to light wood…you are warm and dry!

Signal preparation means lots of contrast, bright colors, fire/smoke in sets. Anything out of the ordinary to catch someone’s eye. Signal mirrors are very handy in daylight – no batteries! Have several forms of signals ready at all times.

Water – to the point. It’s critical; always have a means of collecting and purifying it.

Eat – you’ll want some food but you can go several weeks without it.

Play – keep that PMA going!

Developing a self-reliant survival sense will help prepare you for many conditions that could threaten your life. Learn skills and practice them ahead of time. Be prepared by anticipating situations and have the proper equipment (think multiple purpose for each item). Also, this list can be referred to over and over again as circumstances may change. Be safe, be a self-reliant survivor.