Monday, November 30, 2009

Trapped Under Rubble

An earthquake, tornado, hurricane, landslide, explosion, or a structural failure in an old building (or even a poorly built new building) can all result in your being trapped beneath a pile of rubble. If you are fortunate enough to survive the collapse of building materials, your next priority is to survive long enough to be rescued.

Self rescue might be possible — digging yourself out from beneath the pile. But there are risks involved in that strategy, and you need to weigh the options.

  • Are you in a place where a rescue effort is likely to begin soon, or are you in some remote place where nobody will even know that the collapse has taken place? 
  • Are you injured to the point that your self rescue attempt might make the injuries more serious?
  • Is the pile of material loose enough to crawl through?
  • Is the material unstable and likely to come crashing down even more if you disturb it?
You must analyze the situation and use your best judgement. But here are some things to keep in mind.
  • Don't light a match to see in the darkness. There might be a gas leak that could turn the place into your own crematorium.
  • Don't kick up a lot of dust, or you might end up inhaling toxic materials. Then, even if you survive, you might end up with lingering illness. 
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a handkerchief or other bit of cloth to help filter out some of the airborne debris. 
  • Signal for help, but try to find some other method besides shouting. Yelling for help causes you to inhale deeply when you are trying to keep from sucking up the dust. And hearing your own desperate cry for help can cause you to panic. The best way to signal for help is to use a signal whistle (a good reason to always have a small one hanging around your neck like a piece of cheap jewelry). Banging on pipes or making some other kind of racket is good, too, but those sounds might be lost in the ruckus being made by rescuers trying to dig though the rubble. The shrill pitch of a whistle, on the other hand, carries well and is totally unlike other sounds so it will be noticed. 
Being trapped requires patience on your part. Don't needlessly exhaust yourself and become dehydrated. Survivors are pulled from wreckage days after the collapse, so you want to conserve your energy so you can survive as long as possible. 

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Boat Survival

There was a deadly incident this past week in Indonesia involving the sinking of a passenger ferry. The latest official death toll is 28. That's pretty light for Indonesia, because last January a ferry went down and took 335 people with it. And in December 2006, a sinking ferry killed more than 500. Bad weather and overloading of the vessels is the common reason given for these accidents.

But you don't need to go to Indonesia to be at risk of drowning in a boating-related incident. Right here in the good old USA, we lose right around 700 lives per year on the water. As might be expected, the greatest cause of death is drowning, followed by trauma, followed by hypothermia. Let's compare a few statistics — When a life jacket is not being worn, drowning kills more than forty times more than hypothermia. When a life jacket is being worn, the number of deaths by drowning is only seven times greater than deaths by hypothermia. That should tell you something.

Cold water plays a huge role in drowning.  Sudden immersion in cold water creates such a shock to the body that you can actually suffer an immediate cardiac arrest. Hitting the cold water will also cause you to involuntarily inhale, and if your face happens to be under water you'll fill your lungs. If you live past that, you'll quickly lose your ability to grasp and hold onto things such as a flotation ring or a line that is tossed to you. Cold Shock Swimming Failure causes you to lose coordination as you flail your arms and legs in a vain attempt to swim. None of this has anything to do with hypothermia. In fact, if you fall overboard in cold water without wearing a life jacket you almost certainly won't live long enough to die from hypothermia, because you'll drown first.

 If you're wearing a proper life jacket, you'll float face up so you can breathe and won't have to worry about drowning right away. This is where you need to be concerned about dying of hypothermia. Doesn't take long in cold water.

Personally, I don't like the idea of the life jacket just keeping me afloat long enough to die of hypothermia and give the rescuers a dead body to find. That's why I equipped my life vest with two strobe lights, three flares, a signal mirror, a signal whistle, a waterproof VHF (marine band) radio, and a waterproof GPS. The plan is that if I go overboard, I immediately get on the radio with the Coast Guard or other boaters in the area, and give them my GPS coordinates. If it's night, I fire up the strobe light and/or use the flares. If it's daytime, I use the signal mirror. When a boat is nearby, I use the whistle.

There is no question that a life jacket significantly increases your chance of survival. But if you really want to improve the odds, equip the vest with signaling devices that will help bring rescuers quickly.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Lightweight Shelter

The problem with most shelter is that it weighs a lot or is big and cumbersome to carry. But when it comes to the raw basic need for protection against the elements, shelter is not something you can do without. One of the shelter-related items I carry weighs only 3.5 ounces and can be packed in a cargo pocket. It's called the Heatsheets Emergency Bivvy and is available for $16 from Adventure Medical Kits (

This bivvy is made of the same kind of material that is used in their Emergency Blanket, except that it's in the shape of a sleeping bag so you are totally protected once you're inside.  The bivvy is orange on the outside (good color contrast to attract attention of rescuers) and reflective silver on the inside. The shiny interior reflects 90% of your body heat back toward you, helping protect against body core temperature loss. The material is impervious to wind and precipitation.

If you're overtaken by nasty conditions and need a place to get out of the elements, crawl into the bivvy and pull it up over your head. It's nice if you can lie on some forest duff to provide insulation underneath, and tuck in under a bush to help deflect some of the wind and rain or snow.

Whether the survival situation is in the wilderness or an urban environment, you always need protection from the elements and a way to preserve your core temperature. This is a potentially lifesaving piece of gear that you really should not be without. Carry one in your car for each person you normally travel with, and have one in each 72-hour kit for family members.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Avoiding Doom and Gloom

Anxiety and panic are caused by a sense of being overwhelmed by conditions beyond our control. People who are trained or experienced at handling crisis situations, or at least knowledgeable about what to do to mitigate the risks, are less likely to slip into a mental state of shock when things go wrong.  Here are some steps you can take to help ward off the sense of doom and gloom in a crisis.

Take A Deep Breath
Unless you’re in immediate danger (surrounded by a raging fire — a grizzly has you in his lips — drowning), the first step is to sit down and take a deep breath. I’m not kidding. The most important thing you can do when panic starts to raise its ugly head is take a seat on the nearest log and try to relax your thoughts. The most dangerous urge is to run down the trail looking for salvation. That wastes energy (both water and food), might result in an injury, and will probably take you farther away from safety. So take a seat, inhale long and slow, then exhale the same way until your heart rate returns to normal. While you’re sitting there, take the next step.

Assess The Situation
Start with an analysis of immediate threats to your life. If you’re lost, night is coming on and you’re hungry, that is not necessarily an immediate threat to your life. It might be frightening and miserable, but it probably won’t kill you unless you lose your mind and so some foolish things. On the other hand, if a cold rain is falling, the wind is howling, you’re exhausted, and you are poorly equipped, that can kill you as surely as a grizzly bear (although more slowly). It’s imperative to understand which conditions are truly dangerous and which ones are merely a nuisance that you will easily survive.

Take Action
Now get busy. This step of taking action will do more than just get a variety of jobs done — it will also help calm your nerves as you feel like you’re taking control of the situation.

Make a mental list of the greatest needs and put them in order of priority. Then get up and start to knock off the biggest challenge first. Do one thing at time and don’t get distracted unless it’s to resolve an emergency. For example, find or build a shelter, then work on the fire, then get your signal system operating, then find water to drink, etc. until you reach the bottom of your priority list.

Don’t worry if you can’t get everything done as quickly as you want. By following this method, at least you know that you are taking care of the most important needs first, and that alone will help calm you. As you accomplish each task and your living conditions improve, anxiety will begin to diminish and your confidence will grow.

Make Camp
A powerful action to help calm the situation is to organize a secure camp. With a shelter over your head, everything feels more civilized and safer. Indeed, you will be safer from the most threatening aspect of the outdoors — the weather. With protection from the wind, cold and wet, your spirits will be higher, and you will recognize that you have accomplished a very important survival task. This, in turn, will elevate your confidence and turn away panic.

Make Fire
The warm glow of a fire works miracles to calm your mind and heart. Even aside from all the primary reasons for having a fire (purifying water, cooking food, drying your clothes, staying warm), the companionship alone is a powerful way to dispel anxiety. And if you arrange the fire to serve as a signaling device, you’ll feel good, knowing that you are assisting your own rescue.

Mental and physical exhaustion bring anxiety, depression and panic. Those conditions lead to poor judgment and bad decisions, which in turn increase risk. Even a few hours of sleep will restore the psychological strength you need to carry on.

When you get some food in your stomach, the situation seems like it’s not so bad. It isn’t so much about the calories (although they are important) as it is about the emotional comfort that comes from eating. It’s like your stomach says to your brain, “Hey, we’re not going to die after all.”

Whether you’re talking to yourself or with other survivors, exercise your sense of humor and find something to laugh about. Humor reduces stress through a number of physiological and hormonal mechanisms. In times of crisis, dark humor is often what saves the day. When I was a young paratrooper, we used to sing “Blood on the Risers” when the tension got high in the airplane we were about the jump out of. It gave us something to chuckle about, along with a sense of heroism in the dangerous situation we were facing.

Survival is 90-percent mental. If you keep your brains intact and your emotions under control, you will probably come out of the event with great stories to tell.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Terrorist Threat Level

I just checked the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Advisory System to see what the current threat level is. On this particular day the nation is at Yellow (Elevated — significant risk of terrorist attacks), and the airlines for all domestic and international flights are at Orange (High — high risk of terrorist attacks).

You can interpret that any way you want to, but take note that the word "terrorist" resides at the core of this advisory system. Terrorism is the key word. The way the government defines terrorism is "…the use of force or violence against persons or property in violation of the criminal laws of the United States for purposes of intimidation, coercion, or ransom."

Acts of terrorism include all types of mayhem ranging from individual assassinations to mass murder. And in between are such evil acts as kidnapping, hijacking, bomb scares and actual bombings, cyber attacks, and the use of chemical, biological  and nuclear or radiological weapons.

Even just voicing the threat of terrorism is consider an act of terrorism. In fact, the threat without the actual fulfillment of the act is one of the most efficient and effective ways to disrupt society through fear and intimidation. The U.S. is experiencing that type of ongoing terrorism right now, and has been ever since 9/11/01.

All it takes for terrorists to succeed is the creation of fear sufficient to force us to change our routines. Often, a single violent act, followed up by threats of more of the same, will cause us to change the rules of society, imposing new restrictions, enlarging government bureaucracy, disrupting the freedom that has made America the envy of the world — and the bad guys win without even lifting another finger.

For the record, terrorists don't always strap bombs around their waist or fly commercial airplanes into skyscrapers. Targets can be wide-ranging and include the food and water supply, places of public gathering (sporting events, amusement parks, concert halls, etc.), utilities, government services, transportation corridors, etc.

As citizens, we watch the threat level go up and then come down, never knowing for sure what caused that to happen. We can't see what's going on behind the scenes. After a while, it's easy for this routine to become a case of "the boy who cried wolf," and we become complacent. However, when the threat level goes up, we should never assume that there isn't an actual risk, just because nothing happened the last time the level was up. What we need to do is follow these safety guidelines:
  • Be vigilant and take notice of what's happening in your surroundings. 
  • Get out of the area if you feel uncomfortable or something doesn't seem right.
  • Take precautions when traveling — Be aware of conspicuous or unusual behavior. Never leave your luggage unattended, and report to security personnel any unusual behavior you witness, or any suspicious or unattended packages or strange devices that you see.
  • Always be aware of the location of emergency exits from buildings or arenas, and constantly run a scenario in your head about how you would get out in an emergency.
  • Be prepared to live without normal services such as electricity, water, natural gas, telephone, gasoline stations, cash registers, ATMs, internet, medical facilities, grocery stores, restaurants, public bathroom facilities, police, fire and ambulance services, transportation, television, radio. 
Make sure your emergency preparedness kit is fully stocked (see my post made on september 30th about 72-hour kits) and update your emergency response plan to suit any changes in life, such as a new job, new residence, different commute arrangements, etc.


Among the Native Americans and mountain men, there was a traditional method of preserving meat that was collected and processed during the hunting season, so it would still be available during the winter when meat was hard to come by. It was called pemmican. Think of it as the earliest known energy bar.

Originally, the recipe called for the use of melted suet (hard, crumbly fat that surrounds the internal organs of animals) as a binding agent to hold the ingredients together in a small ball. But for the sake of our modern taste buds, the recipe I'm presenting here replaces melted suet with peanut butter and honey. The use of cayenne is optional, depending upon individual taste.

  • 1 cup of jerky
  • 1 cup of dried berries
  • 1 cup of raw sunflower seeds or any type of crushed nuts
  • 2 teaspoons of honey
  • 1/4 cup of peanut butter
  • 1/2 teaspoon of cayenne [optional]
Grind or pound the dried meat until it is reduced to a mealy powder. Crush the dried berries, seeds and nuts and then mix the meat with the mashed dried berries, seeds and nuts. Warm up the honey and peanut butter until they are soft, then blend in cayenne to taste. Pour all the ingredients together and mix. Separate small portions into golfball size batches and allow to cool. After the pemmican has cooled, either freeze or store it in plastic bags in a cool, dry place until you're ready to use it. 

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Foot Survival

What you wear on your feet can either make or break you when a crisis happens. It doesn't matter whether you're at home, at the grocery store, at the office, or somewhere in between, when disaster strikes you need to be able to walk your way out of it. And if you are wearing unsuitable shoes, you're in trouble.

You know what unsuitable shoes are. In the business world, both men and women are, unfortunately, stuck with bad footwear for survival. They might look great with your business clothes, but they're horrible if you have to walk any distance.

I remember a few years ago when there was a massive power outage in the Northeast. An editor I work with was stuck in New York City as night fell and traffic lights failed, bringing traffic to a standstill, and subways stopped running. When the building security people where he worked cleared the building, sending people out into the dark and dangerous city, he ended up having to walk a long distance to get to an overnight shelter.

You never know when something is going to happen. It might be a flat tire, or you run out of gas, or something else about the vehicle breaks. If you're within reasonable distance to civilization, you might end up on foot going for help. You might be somewhere on vacation when a flood, earthquake, mudslide, tornado, or hurricane happens and you end up having to evacuate on foot.

Even if you're at home, a fire might cause you to have to flee immediately, an earthquake might shatter windows and mirrors and toss stuff off shelves onto the floor, creating a minefield to walk through.

No matter what the circumstances are, if you damage your feet, you cut your chances of survival by a huge margin. So the rule is, whenever you leave your home or your office, always wear good walking shoes. I'm talking about shoes you could easily walk 5 miles in without discomfort or blisters. If the constraints of your business wardrobe don't allow you to wear walking shoes, at least have a pair tucked under your desk. If it were me, I'd leave the dress shoes under the desk every night, and wear the walking shoes to and from the office. And around the house, be able to immediately put on protective footwear in an emergency.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Rescue Tool

On November 4th, I posted information about how to survive a submerged vehicle incident. Today I found a new product that is ideal for helping to survive that kind of situation. It's the SL6 Rescue, made by Tool Logic (

The SL6 Rescue is a multi-function folding knife with a razor sharp 3-inch 50/50 blade (half serrated and half regular) with a seatbelt cutting hook, all of which can be opened and operated single-handedly with either hand. So if the seatbelt won't release, due to the accident, this will swiftly cut the webbing and free the victim. The unit also features a waterproof LED flashlight designed to shine directly on whatever is being cut by the knife. Also part of the system is an emergency window punch that will break the glass so you can escape from the submerged vehicle. Integral to the knife handle is a loud signal whistle. A stainless steel belt clip and a lanyard hole are built into the knife handle. All this comes in a package that weighs only 3 ounces and retails for $39.95 making this a very affordable and functional survival tool that is ideal for carrying in your vehicle.

The Perfect Campfire

When the gloom of night begins to close in around you, swallowing the world in blackness, there is nothing nicer than the warmth and glow of a campfire. But the fire itself is a multi-faceted servant that, if put together right, can perform many more tasks than just being the cheerful centerpiece of camp. The ideal campfire should be able to keep us warm, illuminate the immediate area, dry our clothes, cook our meals, purify the drinking water, and signal for help. But each of these chores requires a unique arrangement, and it is necessary to configure the campfire in different ways to suit each of those jobs.

The Pit

You might conclude that you need more than one fire in camp, in order to enjoy all the benefits of every different type of fire. However, one firepit can serve many functions, if it is laid out in the shape of a large keyhole — with a big, round section to hold the primary fire and a narrow, elongated arm where the cooking will be done on hot coals that are raked into the area from the main fire. This arrangement is what I consider to be the perfect campfire.

Surrounding the fire area with stones is not just for aesthetics and safety — it’s also to help concentrate the heat and keep ground-level breezes from blowing the heat away. This is especially important in the cooking wing of the firepit. A few small stones can be placed among the coals to serve as a trivet to stabilize a pot while cooking. And you can also cover the floor of the firepit with stones, if the ground is wet. 

Arranging The Fire

A warming fire is most efficient if it employs some type of vertical surface that can reflect the heat toward the campers. A wall of green logs, a large boulder, the face of a cliff — all of these can serve as reflectors to bounce the heat. If the fire is built several feet from the reflector, the campers can position themselves between the blaze and the reflector so they can get toasted on both sides at once. Naturally, the gap between the fire and the reflector must be suitable to the size of the blaze, so the reflector will be effective but the space doesn’t get too hot.

For illumination, larger blazes and those with the most active flame will throw the most light. At night, lots of illumination is just what you need, if you are using the fire as a signaling method. In fact, it will be even more effective if you spread the fire out into three separate blazes, arranged in a triangle formation. This not only creates a broader area of light, but three fires are recognized as a distress signal. At the same time, you can position yourself inside the triangle and take advantage of heat from all sides.

Signaling during daylight hours requires something other than flaming illumination to get the job done. Smoke by day, flames by night — that is the rule. To create white smoke, make sure your fire is strong enough to survive the addition of some moist or green vegetation, then feed those items slowly into the blaze. Black smoke can be generated by burning rubber or oil. In either case, a strong, hot fire is necessary.

Cooking, on the other hand, requires a much smaller fire, and very little flame. Think of a cooking fire in the same manner as a barbecue — hot coals, not a towering inferno. The same goes for boiling water for purification; coals will do a better job than the lick of flames. One of the reasons for this is because, when you’re cooking, you’re working very close to the fire, reaching in to handle the food or the cooking utensils. You can’t do that if the fire is too vigorous.

The fuel

Birdnest-fine and dry as dust, it’s the tinder that will catch the flame instantly and help it grow to ignite the kindling. Tinder can be made of shredded bark of some trees and bushes, or from dry grasses that are twisted and wound together into a tight bundle. If you’re lucky enough to find an abandoned birdnest or packrat nest, you’re in business.

Kindling consists of long, thin splits of wood that range in size from the thickness of a wooden match to that of your little finger. The more dry, shattered and split the kindling, the more readily it will catch fire. Use a hatchet or a hefty survival knife to split larger wood into kindling. If those tools are not available, lay the wood on a boulder and smash it with a heavy rock until it shatters.

Pitchy wood (wood with lots of sap) gives you an advantage for starting the fire, but not for cooking. If you’re cooking over the open flames of sappy wood, the food might absorb a bitter flavor. It’s best to cook on hot coals of hardwood, if it’s available. Collect your fuel wood from somewhere above the ground, if possible. Wood that has been in contact with the ground is more likely to have absorbed moisture that will hamper its suitability a firewood.

If possible, stack a full night’s supply of firewood close enough to the firepit that it will dry out, but not so close that it will spontaneously ignite. If you have a tarp, cover the wood and an extra supply of tinder and kindling to protect it from wet weather; otherwise position the wood supply beneath overhanging branches of a tree. And if you’re in rain country, consider ways to erect some kind of protective shelter over the fire itself, but make sure the covering is high enough that it won’t ignite from the heat or sparks.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Survival Conditioning

In any kind of survival situation, whether it is urban survival or wilderness survival, life is vastly altered from "normal" times.  Additional stresses are imposed on the body that can result in serious medical issues if you are not conditioned to endure.

So, what can you do to be more physically fit to survive a crisis situation?
  • First of all, get a medical checkup to discover whether or not you have any life-threatening conditions that would preclude you from doing exercise. Your doctor might suggest that you begin slowly and gently, building to more vigorous and lengthy exercise routines as your body become accustomed to the extra work load. 
  • Assuming that you get the "all clear" from your doctor, begin an exercise routine that engages you every day except one per week. For me, I take the Sabbath as a day of rest from exercise. That's a matter of spiritual fitness, but also benefits the body by giving it a break from the workouts. You need the breaks so your body can rebuild; and in the rebuilding process you become stronger than you were before. 
  • Start slow. Even though you feel great on the first day of exercise, the next day might be a painful surprise. So don't overdo it in the beginning or you will end up having to discontinue while you recover, and that is just a big setback. This goes of all aspects of conditioning — whether it is aerobic or strength training. 
  • Condition your heart and lungs by engaging in aerobic exercise that lasts from twenty to forty minutes per session. As your conditioning improves, you might decide to do two short sessions per day, rather than one long one. This exercise can be any combination of vigorous walking, jogging, cycling, working on a treadmill, Nordic Trak, elliptical trainer, stair climber, or some such apparatus. 

  • Strength training is important to condition your individual muscles to be strong enough to perform survival tasks. You don't need to become a body builder or look like and American Gladiator. Begin by just toning up the muscles you already have, and later on you can start adding muscle mass and greater strength. I work on a Total Gym (that's the machine Christy Brinkley and Chuck Norris advertise on TV) because in 20 minutes I can work all the muscle groups efficiently. I've had the machine for three years and it has held up well and I still love working out on it. 

  • Flexibility training is important to condition your muscles and ligaments so they don't suffer pulls and tears when they are pushed beyond their normal work load. Stretching should be done gently and in a static manner, not bouncing to force a larger range of stretch. Warm up before stretching. Contrary to popular belief, stretching is not a warm up exercise — it is an exercise method unto itself, and warming up must be done ahead of time to prevent injury. 

  • Vary the workouts. One of the reasons I love triathlon is because it involves three totally different types of activity — swimming, cycling and running. By doing different types of exercise, you not only avoid boredom, but you also avoid sport-specific injuries. Do a different type of exercise from one day to the next, to give your body and mind a break from the same-old same-old. 
When the time comes to work through a survival situation in real life, if you are physically conditioned you will have a much better chance of coming out alive. Not only that, but you will also be capable of reaching out and helping those around you who are in trouble. You can be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Laundry in Survival Conditions

I recently saw a commercial by Tide, the laundry soap people. Apparently, the company operates an 18-wheeler that goes around the country to disaster sites. The trailer is loaded with clothes washers and driers, offering free laundry service to survivors. A nice thing to do, to restore a bit of decent living conditions when the world has been turned upside-down. People like to be clean, and this certainly helps.

There is another option, in case you happen to be an a region where the Tide truck doesn't show up, or you don't want to sit around waiting and hoping it will come. The option is to have your own emergency laundry system.

Wonder Wash ($42.95 from is a compact, lightweight, portable laundry unit that requires no electricity and is capable of washing 5 pounds of laundry with very little manual labor. The process is easy. 

  • Depending on the size of the load, you need from 1.5 to 6 quarts of hot (not boiling) water and from 1 to 4 tablespoons of laundry detergent. 
  • Put the water and detergent into the drum first and then add clothing. 
  • Total wash time ranges from 1 minute to 2 minutes, during which you rotate a handle at a rate of 1 revolution per second to turn the washer drum. 
  • After the wash cycle, drain the wash water. 
  • Pour in cold rinse water and rotate the handle again for about 30 seconds. 
  • Drain the water.
  • Wring out the clothes and hang them to dry.

In theory the Wonder Wash operates a little bit like a pressure cooker. After putting the water, detergent and clothes inside, you screw on a pressure-sealing lid. As the hot water expands the air inside the drum, the pressure forces the water and detergent into and through the fabric. After the wash cycle, let the machine to cool down before removing the pressure lid, to allow the pressure to equalize, just like with a pressure cooker.

I tested the Wonder Wash by laundering a load consisting of a pair of pants, several pairs of socks and a shirt. Calculating it to be a full load, I poured in 6 quarts of hot water and 4 tablespoons of low-suds liquid laundry detergent. Then I went to cranking. Rotating the drum was easy, even with a full load of clothes and water inside. Two minutes later, I attached the drain tube at the bottom of the drum and released the wash water. Then I removed the tube and added the cold rinse water. I cranked for 30 seconds, then reattached the tube and drained the drum.

The results? Clean clothes. Was I impressed? Actually, I was more than impressed — I was surprised. The clothes smelled clean, they looked clean, and I had spent only a couple minutes doing the load. Naturally, there was a learning curve. For my first load, I used water that was too hot, and it over-pressurized the system and a little water spewed out around the lid seal as I turned the drum. I also concluded that it’s better to rinse twice, to eliminate all the soap.

But I had no washboard knuckles from scrubbing by hand. Yes, I did have to wring the sodden clothes by hand, but in general washing the clothes was cheap and easy. In a disaster situation, this unit is a viable option so you don't have to live in dirty clothes. 

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Tools For The 72-Hour Kit

Aside from food, water, clothing, and other personal stuff to make life bearable in an emergency situation, there are some tools that should be included in your Grab-n-Go kit. Here's my list of favorites
  • Two knives: A strong folding knife for your pocket, and a stout sheath knife for your belt. You'll probably use the folder for most tasks, but the hefty blade of the sheath knife is irreplaceable when it comes to splitting wood and taking care of serious cutting duties. Make sure the sheath knife has a heavy spine, so you can safely whack it with a chunk of wood when splitting kindling. 

  • Multitool: I carry a Leatherman Surge that I've had for several years. Yes, it's heavier than some of the others, but that's one of the reasons I chose it. Other great choices are the Gerber Diesel, the SOG Powerlock, and my wife prefers the Victorinox Swiss Tool Spirit for its superior finish and lighter weight. These tools are so handy, I hate to be without one. Before buying, study all the tool functions. Some multitools are more suited to a jobsite than a survival situation. 

  • Flashlight: A headlamp style is especially useful, as it allows you to free up your hands for tasks other than carrying the light. In addition to a headlamp, I always carry my SureFire Outdoorsman and spare batteries for both. 
  • Fire starters: Never leave home without at least two or three. But the real key to success at getting a fire lies in the preparation of the tinder and kindling. Practice, practice, practice. I carry a Swedish FireSteel striker, a Brunton Stormproof lighter, and a cheap Bic. 

  • Heavy leather gloves: Absolutely required if you want to prevent injury to your hands when fighting your way through a survival situation. Something as seemingly minor as a splinter or a cut can become infected and lead to serious illness and death when medical care is not available. 
  • Can opener: This might be part of the multitool, but I always carry a military P38-type can opener that folds down to nearly nothing but opens a can like a wizard. I never want to have to play machoman and drive the blade of my knife through a can to open it. Too much chance of either slipping and hurting myself or damaging the blade. 

Friday, November 13, 2009

Reflections on Cave Dwelling

The following is an excerpt from my journal when our family was living in a cave in southern Utah. The photo is of this exact cave (we stayed in more than one), and shows my son Eric on a return visit many years later. When this journal entry was made, Eric was only one year old. Our daughter Sharlene was three years old at the time of this journal entry. We had no sleeping bags, tents, stoves, lanterns or any other camping gear. Only a wool blanket each, and the clothes we were wearing (nothing special). However, Becky and I each had a knife. 

Our cave was a small rock overhang about 150 feet above stream level. The shelter provided no more than 90 square feet of space and was low; no more than 4 feet high in any one place.

Some of the problems with this cave were:

  • The steep climb from stream level to cave level was through loose sand, and not many trips were required to wear you out.
  • The shelter was northwest-facing and received no sunlight until just prior to sundown. Therefore, although it was fairly warm and protective, a south-facing cave would have proven much more suitable.
  • The cave floor and outside area consisted of loose sand that blew around unceasingly. We partially rectified this problem by building up rock walls and placing slabs of flat stone on the entrance floor of the cave.
  • The ventilation of the shelter was not proper to induce the smoke from our fire to exit all the time. Therefore, we suffered the malady of campfire people … smoke.
Despite these problems, we managed to convert this tiny cave into a nice place to live. After determining the direction of the prevailing night wind, we erected windbreaks and rock walls to keep the majority of the wind out. We were able to close off approximately 60% of the opening. We then constructed a good reflector fire pit that proved to be successful beyond our expectations. So despite the occasional smoke, we managed to stay warm.

We spread our wool  Army blankets carefully to cover the sandy floor and made comfortable beds for the four of us.

We built up an outside fire pit for cooking during fair weather. This fire pit was built against a large rock which acted as a reflector. The only problem we had with this fire pit was that the wind kept blowing away the ashes and we could never build up a suitable amount of ashes to make ash cakes.

During our stay in this cave the only bad weather was cloudiness and a high wind, both of which were continual. Even with its deficiencies, the cave was an exceptional shelter and I am certain that under truly adverse weather conditions it would perform well as a long-term shelter.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Lucky To Be Alive

Mark Shaver and his seven children are lucky to be alive today. Leaving his wife home so she could enjoy some alone time, Mark volunteered to take the kids (ages 3 to 14) camping a few hours from their home in southern Oregon. He checked the weather, and conditions looked favorable, so off they went in the family minivan.

Then the storm hit, dumping snow and trapping the family. In an attempt to escape, Mark drove a ways down the road, pushing snow ahead of the van. But the farther he went, the deeper the snow got, until they were finally unable to go any farther. There they sat overnight while another 24 inches of snow buried the van. For the next two days, they were stranded, living on a little bit of peanut butter.

Unfortunately, Mark had not brought a cell phone nor any other means of communications. Fortunately, he stuck to his prearranged plan and actually went where he said he was going. That made it easier when, after they became overdue, authorities were notified. Knowing where to look made all the difference and resulted in a speedy rescue, as a searcher on a snowmobile located the van.

The lesson from all this? Never trust your life (and especially not the lives of your children) to a single weather report. This time of year it's necessary to maintain a constant vigil on the weather by listening to NOAA Weather Radio stations and by personally observing changing conditions of cloud cover, wind, precipitation, and temperature. This is called maintaining situational awareness — not letting things sneak up on you without your awareness.

A second lesson — prepare your vehicle as if you knew you were going to have to spend several days trapped by the weather. Have more than a jar of peanut butter onboard. Think what you would need in the very worst possible conditions, and prepare for that. Sleeping bags, tents, fire starting materials, signal devices, extra clothing, extra food and water, a medical kit … the list goes on. Failure to do that is nothing short of negligence. It might be innocent negligence, but the grim reaper doesn't weigh your ignorance when he comes calling.

Another lesson is to always carry a communication system or two — cell phone, CB radio, handheld HAM radio, personal locator beacon (PLB), or the personal satellite messaging system known as SPOT ( A PLB or a SPOT is particularly useful because, with the push of a button, it sends via satellite your GPS coordinates so rescuers know exactly where to come and find you.

In a television interview with the Shaver family after everyone was home safe, Mr. Shaver took a very casual attitude about the whole incident, claiming that he was okay with what happened because he had grown up in the woods when his father worked for the Forest Service. I hate to be critical, but he needs to understand that he dodged a huge and deadly bullet this time. And the bullet wasn't just aimed at him, it was aimed at seven children. The newspaper morgues are full of stories about people caught in nearly identical situations who didn't make it.

Mr. Shaver, I'm happy to be able to say this — you and your kids are lucky to be alive.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Too Much Water

Hurricane Ida is taking aim at the Gulf Coast as I write this. As hurricanes go, this one is not particularly strong, being ranked as a Category 1 and expected to dwindle to a mere tropical storm before making landfall. I say "mere" but there is nothing benign about tropical storms. They still pack powerful winds, but even worst than that is the rain.

The fact that Ida is forecast to weaken may actually result in unnecessary tragedy. When people get it in their heads that this storm isn't going to be much of anything, they are likely to sit on their complacency and wait to see what happens. I don't know how many different ways I can say this, but it isn't the weather or the earthquake or any other kind of "event" that causes a crisis — it's the people who get caught in the "event" that turns it into a crisis. If there were no people in the path, there would be no disaster.

One of the problems is that when most folks hear the word hurricane, they think wind. And, to be sure, there's plenty of wind. So folks think, "well, I'll just hunker down and stay out of the wind, and everything will be hunky dory." But statistically, it isn't the wind that creates most survival situations on land (at sea we can argue about the wind being a large component of the overall threat because of the wind-generated waves that wreak havoc against boats). It's the water. It's the rain — too much of it, falling too quickly.

Or, in low-lying coastal areas, it's the water in the form of storm surge that roars ashore almost like a liquid freight train, destroying everything for miles inland.

Sure, the wind will tear up some homes, push trees over on them, lift off roofs, blow away carports, knock down billboards, and break windows. And the wind sends debris flying like shrapnel, injuring those who get hit. But look at the numbers, and you'll see that it's the water that causes the lion's share of the death and destruction.

A recent example is this very hurricane that we're watching now. Ida swept El Salvador, killing (as of the latest count) 124 and displacing thousands. What caused these deaths? Too much water. Heavy rains in the wake of Ida triggered flooding and landslides. One mudslide wiped out the town of Verapaz in the pre-dawn hours on a Sunday morning, while many residents were still asleep.

And this morning, Ida is zeroing in on the U.S. Gulf Coast, and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials are warning residents in some areas to evacuate because of the impending threat of high winds, flooding and storm surge that could bring water ashore two to three feet deep.

Anybody with a memory of past storm disasters should already be loading their 72-hour kits in their car and heading away from the storm.

If you choose to ignore the warnings and evacuation orders, I don't want to hear any whining by those who stayed behind and got thumped.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Emergency Food Supply

In an urban crisis situation, you might not be able to obtain food on a daily basis from grocery stores, restaurants, or fast food outlets. All of those places might be closed or the food supply interrupted by a shut down of the transportation system. When that happens, having your own supply of food and other daily-use items (like toilet paper, soap, toothpaste, etc.) stored away at home is the best solution. But what should you store?

There are at least a couple schools of thought regarding home food storage. One option is to buy pre-packed emergency rations that are designed to have a shelf life of 20 years or so. The upside of this strategy is that you don't have to think about it — just buy it and you're done. Put it away and it'll be there when you need it. The downside is that it's expensive and you are spending a substantial amount of money all at once. Another downside is that you really have no idea what's in those canisters unless you open some of them and experiment with the food. What if you discover that nobody in the family will eat that stuff?

Another option is to prepare a place to store additional cans or packages of regular food that you already use on a daily basis. Then you simply buy an extra couple of cans each time you go shopping and, before you know it, your storage shelves are full. The upside is that it costs very little extra every week as you go shopping and you are build your emergency food supply at the same time. Another plus is that you already know you like those food items and you're already familiar with recipes. The downside is that this food doesn't have a 20-year shelf life, so you'll need to use it before it expires. But, the good thing about that is you can simply cycle these storage items into your regular daily diet and nobody will notice that they're eating out of the "emergency food supply." When you go shopping, buy replacements, mark the can or package with the date and put it at the back of the shelf, so you're always using the oldest stuff first. Nothing ever reaches the expiration date, and you build up your food storage system almost invisibly from a financial standpoint.

Yes, this system does require that you take inventory once in a while to see what you're running out of. It is most economical if you buy cases-lots of replacement food, rather than one can at a time. And always buy when the items are on sale. I recommend that you buy normal-sized cans and packages rather than the enormous commercial package sizes that you can find at places like Costco, even though the larger quantities are less expensive. The reason is that once you open one of those huge cans, you're pretty committed to eating more than you might really need, or suffer spoilage and waste. With smaller cans you have the option of using small quantities, and open more cans if you need more of the same ingredient.

Mark the date on every can or package. Rotate. Build your supply until you could survive without going to the store for a month, if necessary.

Don't forget the toiletries and toilet paper.

The final option I want to talk about is a hybrid of the two already mentioned. Load up on regular food, but also have some of the 20-year stuff available, in case the crisis lasts a truly long time. Don't wait until all the regular food has run out before learning to use the long-term storage items. Experiment in advance, so you'll know what you're doing when the time comes.

There is much more to this topic, and we'll discuss it again in the future.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Stay or Go — Part 2

Let's take up where we left off yesterday.

You're stranded in the backcountry. Your vehicle has run out of gas or something broke, leaving you unable to drive. The type of vehicle doesn't matter, except that larger vehicles can carry more survival supplies. But what matters now is that you're way back in the hinterlands, miles from civilization, and the vehicle that got you there is out of action. You're stuck.

It's decision time.  Do you stay or go? Do you stick with the failed vehicle or do you attempt to hike back to civilization?

I've been in search helicopters looking for folks in exactly this situation, and I can tell you from personal experience that if you decide to leave your vehicle and try to hoof it out, rescue teams in the air and on the ground will have more difficulty finding you.  They may find the truck, but entirely miss seeing you.  This is especially true if you were to hike crosscountry rather than following the road or trail.

In favor of staying with the vehicle and awaiting rescue are the following:
  • The vehicle is a ready-made shelter.
  • All your supplies are at the vehicle site.
  • By staying, you conserve energy, meaning you need less food and water.
  • The vehicle is more visible than a lone hiker to search and rescuers teams.
  • The vehicle serves as a psychological attachment to civilization, helping ward off feelings of panic.
  • By staying, the entire party (if there are others in your group) can work together to improve the camp, maintain signal fires, gather firewood, water and food as well as bolstering each other's spirit.
  • Sticking to camp is less risky from an injury standpoint than hiking crosscountry.
  • Staying with the vehicle allows you to exploit all the resources of the locale, whereas a hiker can never take full advantage of the natural resources for survival because he is constantly moving.
If you decide to stay and make camp at the vehicle site, exert every effort to make the place visible to aircraft and people on the ground.
  • If removing the hood of the truck and placing it in a clearing will make it more visible, do it.  
  • Have signal fires ready to ignite (smoke by day, flames by night).  
  • Clear brush away from the vehicle.  
  • Arrange brightly colored items on the ground to attract attention.  
  • Remove sideview mirrors and use them for signaling.
The decision to leave the vehicle and attempt to hike out for help should be made only if every item in the following list can honestly be met:
  • You are absolutely certain that nobody is going to come looking for you at this location.
  • Your health and fitness level (and that of your party) will permit the rigorous journey.
  • You are positive of the direction and distance to reach help, and know you can overcome every terrain obstacle along the route.
  • After taking inventory of your supplies, you determine that you have everything necessary to successfully make the hike.
If you decide to leave the vehicle, it is important to leave a note in a highly visible place notifying rescuers of the following:
  • Your name, address, phone number, next of kin — and the same for every member of the party.
  • Your age, state of health and condition of fitness — same for everyone else.
  • A detailed description of your clothing and equipment.
  • A detailed hike plan including the time and date you left the vehicle, your intended destination, direction of travel, and intended campsites along the way.
The decision to leave a disabled vehicle and hike out is a difficult one.  The wrong decision can sometimes mean the difference between simply an unexpected stay in the wilderness and a true survival situation.
Unless there are compelling reasons to abandon the camp, the safest policy is to stay with the vehicle until help arrives.  In the end, the cursed vehicle that broke down in the first place may well be the very thing that attracts the attention of search teams.  All things considered, even a disabled vehicle can be a blessing in the backcountry.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Surviving a Submerged Vehicle

Three young women died last night when they apparently drove their Jeep Cherokee into a pond on a North Dakota farm during a stargazing expedition. According to reports, two separate phone calls were received from the occupants of the Jeep after it began to submerge, as the girls were trying to call for help. Two friends received the calls from cell phones, but the calls quickly went dead.

The unfortunate thing is that these girls could probably have survived if they had known how to safely get out of a vehicle that has gone underwater. It takes some quick planning and a cool head to do the right things at the right time, but it is possible. The important thing is to try to remain calm. I know that sounds almost impossible, but it is absolutely essential. If you panic, you probably won't survive.

As soon as you realize that the vehicle is in deep water and is going to sink, get your seatbelt off and try to open the door and get out. For this to succeed, you must open the door before the water level gets higher than a few inches on the outside of the door. Otherwise, the pressure of the water against the door will not allow you to open it. If you try to shove the door open, but cannot, don't waste your energy on that avenue of escape.

The next best thing is to open the window before the water level reaches the glass, and climb out. If you cannot open the window, perhaps because the power window mechanism is no longer operating, break the window and crawl out.

The window glass will shatter into small fragments, so you don't need to worry about impaling yourself on a sharp blade of glass. You cannot break the glass by pounding on it with your fists. You can try kicking it, but that also might not work. The best way to shatter the window is to use a heavy piece of metal (hammer, hefty wrench, etc.) or a special spring-loaded glass-breaking punch. The punch takes almost no effort to break the window and you can find them available online for about $10.

If you are unable to escape before water reaches the level of the windows and begins to pour inside, you'll have to wait. Don't panic. You must allow the flow of water coming in through the windows to fill the interior enough to slow the flow and let you escape. The interior of the vehicle will need to be almost completely filled with water before you can get out. This is the most difficult time to remain calm, but it is vital that you do so. If other people are in the vehicle, do your best to calm everyone else and tell them what to do.

  • get seatbelts off
  • work to get windows or doors open
  • wait until the vehicle fills with water
  • talk about who will go first, second, third, etc.
  • follow the air pocket and breathe

Take deep breaths of air as the vehicle fills, pressing your face up against the headliner to get the last of the air before escaping. The vehicle will probably sink nose-down because of the weight of the engine, and that might produce an air pocket in the back where you can breathe while you work out your survival plan with others who are in the car.

By the time the vehicle is full of water, you might be able to shove the doors open because the pressure will be equal on both sides of the door. Depending on the physical size of the occupants, that might be the only way out. If you can get the doors open while you're still breathing from the air pocket, so much the better.

When you're ready to go, take a last deep breath and hold it. Keep your eyes open so you can see your escape route. Then go.

Stay or Go — Part 1

Worst case scenario: You have driven so far back in the mountains that civilization is only a vague memory.  Without warning, your vehicle breathes its last, leaving you stranded.  This is the stuff of which headlines in tomorrow's newspaper are made.

Regardless of the kind of vehicle we use for mobility in the backcountry, it can be both a blessing and a curse.  On the benefit side, our wheels make it possible to cover a lot more ground in less time, be rested when we arrive at our destination, haul supplies and take passengers along for the ride.

But at the same time, the ability to cover a lot of ground means that we can get ourselves deeper into trouble, faster, than if we were left to foot travel alone.  Not only that, but most of us become almost totally dependent upon the vehicle, complacently expecting it to always work perfectly.  When the vehicle breaks down, it can become an ugly situation if the driver and passengers aren't prepared to face the possibility of either a long-term stay in the wilderness awaiting rescue, or a long hike home.  Preparation is the key to survival in the wilderness, but when it relates to a vehicle breakdown there are a lot of things that need to be considered before any final decisions are made about hiking out for help.

If you have prepared well for the trip, somebody knows exactly where you are and when you are expected to be back home.  If you have failed to notify friends, relatives and local authorities about where you're going and when you expect to be back, shame on you.  Of, if you have violated your "flight plan," double shame.

But we all do, don't we?  Something unexpected comes up and attracts us off in another direction, and Murphy's Law demands that if a breakdown is to occur it must occur in the most unlikely, inaccessible spot, miles from where we're supposed to be.

So, you have things to do and decisions to make.  In our worst case scenario, you are stranded and you aren't going to be able to get the vehicle back in running condition.         

Step One: Take a deep breath, relax and evaluate the situation.  It probably isn't as bad as you think.  Is anyone in your party dead?  Is there an immediate threat to anyone's life? (I'm talking immediate, as in the jaws of a famished grizzly snapped firmly on the tail pockets of your companion who is scrambling up the nearest tree).  In all likelihood, none of these conditions exist, and you should count this as a major blessing.

Step Two: Realize a couple of facts.  The fact that you drove there means that other people can also drive there, and you may end up being accidentally rescued by another passerby.  Also, your vehicle is much more visible than you are.

What this means is that if your decide to leave your vehicle and try to hoof it out, rescue teams in the air and on the ground will have more difficulty finding you.  They may find the truck, but miss seeing you.  This is especially true if you were to hike crosscountry rather than following the road.
Now it's decision time.  Do you stay or go? 

We'll explore the ramifications to answering that question tomorrow.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Teach The Children #2

A Guide for Parents
Keep Children Safe Among Strangers
There is no doubt that children are vulnerable. They are innocent, and trusting. By nature they don’t expect adults to do bad things, and this can leave them exposed to risk. Their innocence is one of the most delightful characteristics of children, and we don’t want to disengage them from that wonderful aspect of their life. But at the same time, in order to protect them, they must be taught how to remain safe when approached by strangers.

Hardly a day goes by in this country that there are not reports of children being abducted by strangers. Amber Alerts were developed to help catch the perpetrators after a child has been taken, but it is far better to prevent the abduction in the first place.
  • Teach children that they should never go anywhere alone and they should never become separated from their friends while playing, because this leaves them in the most vulnerable position possible. Child predators always try to separate their victims from the company of friends or other children that are playing together in a group.
  • Instruct your child that if a stranger approaches and tries to engage in conversation, the child is to run away as fast as possible before the stranger can get close.
  • Teach your children to not be enticed by strangers who are trying to show them a puppy, offering them treats, or saying that the stranger is supposed to drive the child home. Tell your children that if anyone ever tries any of these tricks, they are to report the incident immediately to a teacher or some other trusted adult.
  • Make a game of teaching your children to escape and evade by playing “keep away.” Train your child to take advantage of whatever obstacles are available that will slow a pursuer — such as running through a jungle gym or other playground equipment.
  • Teach your child to run toward other people who are known to be safe, such as a teacher or a group of friends.
  • Teach that the child should scream and yell for help while running away from the stranger. This will often turn the situation around and cause the perpetrator to leave the scene before he can be caught.
  • Encourage your child to be very observant of details — color of clothing, height, skin color, hair color, color and type of vehicle, license plate numbers, etc. so a good description can be given to authorities. Make a game with your child of learning to quickly pick out details. Go to a park and observe people, asking your child to identify several specific details. Do the same with vehicles in a parking lot.
With all this training about avoiding strangers, there are situations in which children actually DO need to seek the help of strangers, and your children must understand how to recognize those conditions and what to do.
  • If the child is lost, and people are searching for him or her, the searchers will be calling the child’s name. That indicates they the searchers are safe.
  • But just because someone knows a child’s name does not mean they are a safe stranger — a schoolyard predator might learn a child’s name by simply asking another child.
  • In an urban or suburban situation, a lost child (perhaps at the mall) will not hear search teams calling his/her name. When the child realizes he/she is lost, the proper thing to do is to find someone who is wearing a name badge or someone who is working behind a counter (store employee) and ask for help finding the parents. The child should not approach random adults.