Survival 101: What Will Kill You First?

Jun 25th, 2015No Comments

I am fascinated by the wilderness and as I child I loved reading stories about explorers and frontiersmen who left the comforts of civilization behind to journey into the wild lands.  I bought my first survival book, The Complete Book of Outdoor Lore, from my grade school library.  Originally published in 1964, it is now a bit outdated, however the basic skills, such as making fires, tracking, and building shelters, date back thousands of years and are still very much valid.  What we now call survival skills were once common knowledge, taught to every child at an early age, however we live in a time when fresh water is never more than a few feet away and an actual fire has become somewhat of a novelty.  Today, even seasoned outdoorsmen don’t practice these basic skills.  Why build a fire by friction if you carry a disposable lighter in your pocket?  Personally, I enjoy practicing these skills and I have found that the more I know about survival the less gear I need to carry.  I feel closer to the land, in a way, when I look to nature to supply at least some of my needs.  In a more practical sense, however, emergencies and survival situations happen everyday in the form of accidents and natural disasters, and these basic skills apply whether a person is lost in the wilderness or sitting at home when the power and water go out.  In the end, survival is nothing more than a specialized form of crisis management and problem solving.  The same techniques apply regardless of the type of crisis and it starts with learning how to identify and manage priorities.  The fundamental priorities of survival are quite simple, and whether you’re interest lies in disaster preparedness, prepping, or wilderness survival, the basics are the same.  In this series we will look at these primarily in the context of wilderness survival skills, however the principles apply to disasters and prepping.  Rather than create another list of “ultimate survival tips”, I will share the survival techniques and problem solving methods that I learned through my military career and a lifetime spent playing in and studying the wilderness.  Before we look at particular survival skills and techniques, it is important to set a foundation and understand a few basic concepts.  Let’s get started, shall we?

[Links on this page are to the gear that I use and prefer!]

Survival Tip #1: Deal with what will kill you first!

I believe in keeping things simple.  Life is complicated enough already and the simpler we can keep things the more likely we are to succeed.  It may sound silly, but survival is all about staying alive.  Right?  So naturally, the first thing we want to deal with is whatever will kill us first, and an easy way to remember that is The Rule of Threes.  According to this rule, we can live for three minutes without air or blood, three hours without protection from the elements (think hypothermia or hyperthermia), three days without water, and three weeks without food.  These numbers aren’t exact, but they are close enough, and the Rule of Threes is a good way to remember our basic survival priorities.  A fire isn’t important if you are bleeding out from a gash on your leg, and finding water takes a back seat if you are freezing to death.  Always deal with what will kill you first!

Another way to look at the Rule of Threes is as the Survival Hierarchy.  All other things being equal, we should start at the bottom of the survival triangle and work our way up.  Take care of survival shelter needs first, then water, and then food.  Along the sides of the survival hierarchy are what I call the asymmetric factors, health and morale.  These become more or less important depending upon the situation.  Obviously, a serious injury, such as that gash on your leg, is the first thing you need to take care of, while a minor injury can wait until you take care of your basic shelter needs.  Early on during a survival event, hygiene may not be a high priority, however it becomes important as time passes in order to prevent more serious health issues.  Likewise, morale may be a minor or major issue.  If one person in a group is panicking then that could lead to more serious problems and may very well be the first thing that we need to manage.

I will talk about shelter in detail in future articles, however it is an important topic and deserves a little special attention here.  The simplest way to think of shelter is that it is anything that helps you:

  • Manage core body temperature, or
  • Protect your skin

Normally, we think of shelter as physical items such as our clothes, tents, and sleeping kit.  However, by expanding on the definition above, shelter may also include non-traditional items like a fire, lip balm and sunscreen.  By far, the most important shelter item is our clothing.  It is the one thing we will always have with us and is our first line of defense against the elements and injuries.  Choose your outdoor clothing carefully for its durability and insulating value, and, when possible, carry several thinner layers, rather than one thick layer, so that you can manage your body temperature by adding or removing layers.  Also, dress for the worst possible conditions you might encounter.  When I hit the trails, even for a day hike, I always assume that I’ll be spending the night outside!

Survival Tip #2: Practice, Practice, Practice

I read a lot of books on survival and have watched my fair share of YouTube videos, and one thing of the big things I have learned is that there is a huge difference between book knowledge and dirt knowledge.  Knowing something does not mean you will be able to actually do it in a real world survival situation.  Plus, what works in one environment may not work in another.  Survival is a test of your ability to improvise, adapt, and overcome whatever obstacles you encounter.  Practical real world experience in a wide variety of conditions is invaluable, so practice your survival skills at every opportunity!  How many ways have you actually made a fire?  I always carry a lighter, but whenever I am in the wilderness I use my fire steel or a bow and drill for my fires because, like you, I need the practice.  Building debris shelters, trapping animals, finding edible plants, and a thousand other survival skills are simple in theory and seem easy enough when we read them in a book, but to do them well when our life hangs in the balance requires lots and lots of practice.

Survival Tip #3: Test Your Gear 
Redneck shoe repair on the trail.

Redneck shoe repair on the trail.

Never trust your life to gear that you haven’t tested in the field.  I can’t tell you how many things I’ve bought over the years that just didn’t measure up in the real world.  I’m still looking for the perfect water container for my pocket survival kit.  I’ve tried everything from ziplock bags to Platypus bottles, but sooner or later they all spring a leak.  Likewise, I’ve tried dozens of knives, most of which broke, bent, wouldn’t hold an edge, or were too hard to sharpen, before settling on the inexpensive Mora knives that now travel with me everywhere.  The truth is that advertisers can make anything seem perfect and everything looks good in the sporting goods store, but the wilderness has a way of finding and exploiting the flaws in our gear.  Much of the stuff I’ve bought over the years just didn’t work as well as expected.  Space blankets are a perfect example.  Have you ever spent a cold night with nothing but a mylar emergency blanket to keep you warm?  I have and it sucks.  Space blankets help but aren’t enough when the temperatures plummet and as a result of my experience I spent time learning how to make beds and shelters from local materials.  Recently, one of my students had the soles fall off of her boots during a desert survival class.  Fortunately, for her, I was carrying duct tape and we were only a couple of miles from the truck, but in a real survival situation this gear failure would have been catastrophic.  Put your gear to the test in the worst conditions possible.  Some of it will work and some of it won’t.  Either way, it’s better to find out before your life is on the line!

Survival Tip #4: One Man’s Trash is Another Man’s Treasure
Blanket roll backpack.

Blanket roll backpack.

A good survivor is an opportunist.  He learns how to improvise and looks at things differently than most people.  An empty soda can found along the trail is not just trash to a survivor.  It is a cup for drinking and a pot for purifying water; it is a container for collecting food; and, its metal may be shaped into a variety of tools such as fish hooks or tallow lanterns.  My students are not allowed to bring backpacks to my survival classes.  Instead, they learn how to use their blanket as a backpack.  I do this to teach them how to look at normal, everyday items differently.  A simple, wool blanket is so much more than a blanket.  It is a backpack, a stretcher, a coat, a sunshade, bandaging, a lantern wick, and, if worst comes to worst, can be used to make clothing.  Everything has multiple uses and I encourage you to experiment with your gear because the more we practice the art of improvising the better we become at recognizing novel uses for whatever is at hand.

Survival Tip #5:  Knowledge Weighs Nothing and is Always With You

It is impossible to buy and carry enough gear for every possible situation, however our knowledge and experience go with us everywhere.  Learning to improvise, adapt, and overcome is a matter of learning as much as you can about a wide variety of subjects, because what you learn in one subject can often be applied in a completely different field.  Problem solving techniques from your job will work just as well in the field.  Learning how to fish with a rod and reel will help you feed yourself with an improvised fishing kit made from items you carry or find.  Understanding the principles of heat transfer are invaluable when it comes to building improvised survival shelters.  Knowledge is never wasted, so keep reading, keep practicing, and keep learning!

There are no experts in outdoor survival.  There are only students.

We can’t just take a class or read a book on survival and call ourselves good.  Certainly, these will add new tools to our tool box, however, survival is a lifelong study.  Even after you have mastered the skills, going into a new environment changes everything.  Here in Arizona, for instance, starting a fire is embarrassingly easy because everything is baked year round in the hot, dry air.  In wetter climates it is a whole new story.  Likewise, when I hiked the Appalachia Mountains as a kid, I never gave a second thought to finding water because it was everywhere, but in the desert finding water is the first skill we must learn.  Every situation will be different.  That’s why it is so important to create a solid foundation of knowledge, skills, and mindset.  Survival requires a very fluid mindset — an improvise, adapt, and overcome mindset.  Part of that comes from knowledge and part of it from experience.  Most importantly, however, is the determination that, no matter how bad things look, you will never quit!

Share your thoughts and comments below.  In future articles, we will talk more about mindset and will look at some of the specific skills that are important for students of survival.  Until next time…

© 2015, mjshozda. All rights reserved.

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