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: 

MIDWEST OUTDOORS18-RESCUE PMA PHOTO-1KNOW 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.

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?

ILLUST-SURVIVAL INVENTORYIt’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.

ILLUST-SHELTER TYPES-1Anything 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

Wiping dew droplets that have formed on leaves, tarps and gear can be wiped off with a cloth and rung into a container for drinking 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.


 How To Make A Signal Fire

(Published online at Sportsmansguide.com)

Creating signals is a basic step in emergency situations. Fire and smoke are two effective visuals used to draw attention to your location. Sometimes circumstances may force you to create hastily built fires for immediate use. When time permits (and as a way to put your mind at ease) constructing more intricate and perhaps effective fire/smoke signals may ultimately make your rescue come that much sooner.

A group of three visuals, purposefully placed, is usually recognized internationally as a signal for help. Hunters know, too, that three quick, but sequenced gunshots is the audio equivalent of three bright fires or dense columns of smoke, as an emergency sign. For backwoods emergencies, creating three signal fires is an early step in working towards your rescue.

Obviously, these fires need to be burning in an area where they can be seen from above and from distances on the ground. Higher is usually better, as is being positioned in openings with long lines of sight and clear views of the sky in all directions. Once that location is found, it’s important to clear away an area on the ground in which the three fires will be built.

Equally critical to starting the fire, is fuel to keep it going. Piling up various sizes of fuel (from kindling to branches) assures you that your fire won’t just quickly flash, and then die. It is important, however, that the fuel is of appropriate size and dryness to be able to ignite quickly.

By day you want to produce volumes of thick, quick-rising smoke that stands out starkly against the background (white smoke against the dark greens of a coniferous forest, for example; black smoke against a snowy backdrop). You are not trying to build up a nice set of coals for dinner, you are hoping for either bright, radiant tongues of fire that quickly reaches skyward, or bellowing clouds of high-visible smoke – both of which bombard the sky with: “HERE I AM!”

SPRTSMNSGDE17-SIGNAL TOWER-1A good style of signal fire is a Tripod Tower structure that enables you to build a fire up off the ground and create a framework that allows for a taller, if not bigger fire. It’s perhaps most effective for creating smoke. Foliage can be draped over the frame, onto which a platform within the support poles has been built. Your starter fire is built upon this platform. The overhanging foliage helps keep the fire material dry as well as keeping rain/snow out. It’s then there to serve as a good smoke-producing fuel.

If you’ve ever seen those home fire safety videos that show a Christmas tree flash fire, you can appreciate the effectiveness of using bone dry and brittle evergreens as a signal fire fuel source. Dead, but full shaped and densely branched evergreen species can be cut and propped up as single, upright flame-producing signals.

SPRTSMNSGDE17-SIGNAL TOWER-2Larger branches or a cluster of more spindly-shaped dead conifers can be stacked like corn stalks to produce a similar effect. Even a well-constructed pile of smaller branches will create that almost instant flash of leaping light for your signal fire. With any of these options, placing a quick-ignite tinder pile at the base of the dead limbs gives you a head start in igniting the structure from the bottom.

Besides the practical emergency necessity of a good signal fire arrangement comes the psychological benefit of keeping your positive mental attitude focused on building these essential survival signals.


Kayaker’s Emergency Signal Pyrotechnics

By general definition, a visual distress signal can be anything that draws attention to your location in an emergency. To be most effective, it obviously has to be highly visible for a reasonable amount of time, and from an observable distance, most typically from searchers from above. In the case of paddlers, it needs to be seen across expanses of water as well.Basically such signaling devices are of two types: 1) pyrotechnical; and 2) everything else!


Pyro(“fire”)technics, by common definition are – fireworks! In the context of emergency signaling, pyrotechnics are represented by three categories of devices: aerial/meteor flares, ground flares and smoke. 

Both the U.S. Coast Guard and the International Maritime Organization (IMO) have pyrotechnic standards for luminosity and have regulations based upon their own rating system. The IMO regs are more commonly known as Safety of Life at Sea – or SOLAS.  Typically the USCG-approved devices are much cheaper (and often less effective and dependable) and probably more commonly used by recreational boaters.

All pyrotechnics are designed to enable you to complete two vital tasks: 1) signal that you are in distress, an emergency situation; and 2) visually lead responders to your location. A practical rule for using pyrotechnics is to not initiate them until you can actually see the approaching rescuers. There are exceptions to this rule, but the intent is to use them only when there’s the most likelihood they’ll be seen!

Flares have different burning times, altitude ranges and intensities (measured in “candela”units, a term that replaces “candlepower” – one candela is roughly equal to the amount of light produced by one candle).

Here’s an overview of each type:

Aerial/Meteor Flares – Think 4th of July bottle rockets or a bright, blossoming burst of light overhead. Many paddlers may use the popular “pocket flare” kits that provide short/low range, hand-launched aerial flares that can be kept handy in one’s PFD/Life Jacket. There are also larger versions including higher altitude-attaining parachute flares. Aerial projecting flares come in a variety of sizes and are all considered “hand-held”. Height, intensity and burn time are the three critical factors for an effective aerial flare and should be clearly noted on the label. SOLAS parachute flares are designed to reach a height of 1,000’, burning 30,000 candela for at least 40 seconds.


Historically, the less expensive, smaller pocket flares had a poor ignition rate; it was common for at least one flare in a new 3-pac to be a dud! In fact, an early kayak rescue video of the day included an on-water demonstration of a capsized paddler clinging to his boat and attempting to use the flares he had in his life jacket pocket. The first flare failed to ignite!

Hand-Held Flares – These are the type you see being held like a torch at arm’s length or tossed onto the beach. They are designed to burn with an intense red flame. They provide limited visibility from the ground or shoreline level. These typically burn at an intensity of 15,000 candela for approximately 50 seconds.

There are a few cautionary measures to take when using any hand-held pyrotechnic device. These things are messy! They burn, drip, sputter, smoke and sometimes explode! Not the kind of thing you want happening anywhere near your body or coming into contact with your canoe or kayak.  Some projectile type devices also have a strong recoil – handle all pyrotechnics as you would a loaded firearm!


Jim Vermillion, signal demonstration at the Alaska Sea Kayak Symposiium

Prompted by their popularity, the USBOAT Foundation conducted tests on varieties of “approved” pyrotechnical devices – and despite their conforming to regulations, several cautionary discrepancies were revealed during on-water testing:

  • lowest rated flares were “virtually” invisible; highest rated “only slightly more visible”;
  • aerial flares were not very “attention-getting” in daytime (parachute flares were more visible);

Wind, vessel motion and launch angle all affected the height of the aerial flare.It’s also important to heed expiration dates – chemical components can deteriorate over time; moisture can affect performance. Old pyro’ may fail to ignite, or function at a much lower performance level when it comes to burn time, intensity, achievable heights and all the other characteristics of optimum capability. Expired pyro’ can still be kept for additional use, but not in lieu of required, current-dated devices as required.Handhelds offer a longer duration of attention-getting visibility, while aerial flares can be seen at a greater distance. Knowing how/when to utilize different types of signals plays a significant role in the search-phase of SAR missions.


While visual contact is the priority initiator of a signaling device, hearing an approaching aircraft (or water craft) might suggest firing the highest, longest visible signal possible. Searchers scanning a series of islands or a shoreline indented with myriad cuts and coves can be drawn closer to your location by using a high-altitude parachute flare. As the plane draws closer to a prticular section of the search area, another, perhaps lower-climbing flare can direct the search party even more precisely to a particular island or shore front.


The last step in this sequence, once you actually have the craft in sight ( and hopefully approaching you and not veering away), is to fire either a hand-held flare (day/night) or smoke canister (day) that lets rescuers zero in on you exact location. 

If you paddle on coastal waters, the Great Lakes and it’s connecting waters, you must carry flares and distress signals in waters up to two miles wide. If your craft is under sixteen feet in length, you only need to carry such signaling devices between sunset and sunrise. Those devices can be either an electric light or three combination day-night red flares.

Having multiple pyro’ devices assures you of more options in such scenarios. Due to variations in performances, reliability and types of signals for day/night use, carrying at least twice the minimum amount makes sense. Cheaper units are less reliable, so weigh your options carefully.

One big limitation on knowing what pyrotechnics to use is that it is illegal to fire flares off outside an emergency situation and thereby not being able to judge their performance characteristics. The best way to observe this is through a controlled on-water demonstration. Check with a local or regional kayak expo’ or symposium to see if one can be arranged. You can also learn more about specs and other information on regulations and such through USCG and SOLAS websites.

Electronic devices, make-shift ground-to-air signals should compliment your skill inventory, and above all: Be safe, have fun out there!



Emergency Snow Shelter