Monday, August 30, 2010


Ever since the Black Death swept Europe between 1348 and 1350 A.D., rodents have had a public relations problem. This was the most deadly pandemic in human history (so far), killing between 30% and 60% of Europe's population (roughly 100 million people). That catastrophe was caused by a bacterium carried by fleas that hitchhiked to Europe from Asia on rats aboard sailing vessels.

Today, rodents are carrying a different kind of illness. This time it's a virus that goes by the name Hantavirus. The virus is transmitted via droppings, urine, and saliva and it causes pulmonary problems in humans when they inhale aerosolized virus. In other words, if you are in an area where infected rodents are nesting, or where they have pooped or urinated, you are at risk of inhaling the virus that has gone airborne.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, "anyone who comes into contact with rodents that carry hantavirus is at risk of HPS (hantavirus pulmonary syndrome)." The virus remains viable for 2 to 3 days at room temperature, and cold weather extends the life of the virus.

One guy who recently learned a hard lesson about hantavirus is Brad Erdahl. Brad was RV camping in Washington State when he noticed that a rodent had broken into his bread supply inside his trailer. He swept out the mouse and cleaned up a few droppings, then wiped down everything. It wasn't until after he arrived home that he started to feel flu-like symptoms that led to muscle fatigue, aches all over his body, and fever that topped out at 103 degrees F.

It wasn't long before he was in the hospital, in shock, suffering kidney failure and pneumonia. He spent 13 days in the hospital; 10 of those days were in the intensive care unit. His recovery has been slow, after leaving the hospital, and he says it might take several months to get back to normal.

What does all this have to do with urban or wilderness survival? An illness like hantavirus can spread like wildfire whenever there is an active rodent population. During disasters of every type, rats and mice seem to explode in population, carrying with them the seeds of disease that can be debilitating or even deadly.

How can you prevent the spread of hantavirus?

  • Control the rodent population around your house, out buildings, campsite, RV, refugee camp, etc.
  • Wear latex gloves and a dust mask when cleaning rodent infestations.
  • Take care not to stir up dust by vacuuming or sweeping.
  • Thoroughly wet the contaminated area with a bleach solution or household disinfectant to settle the dust and deactivate the hantavirus. Mix 1.5 cups of bleach in 1 gallon of water to make this solution.
  • Be careful when taking up contaminated materials, using a damp towel to prevent the spread of dust. Then mop the area, using the bleach solution. 
  • Spray dead rodents with disinfectant, then double-bag for disposal by burying or burning. 
  • Disinfect the gloves before removing them from your hands. 
  • Wash your hands with soap and water or alcohol-based hand cleaner. 
If there are items you can't clean and disinfect with the bleach solution (books, for example), place them in direct sunlight for several hours. An alternative is to leave the area (after it has been rid of rodents) for at least a week. By the end of that time, the virus should have perished.

If you believe you have been exposed to hantavirus (particularly if you're feeling flu-like symptoms) see your doctor and inform him/her about your exposure to rodents or their nesting area. 

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Getting Out Alive

My friend Steve raced over the ridge toward a sky filled with smoke. When he topped the summit and headed into the valley, he stared in horror at a wall of flames consuming his town. It looked like a war zone after a bombing strike. Blackened skeletal remnants of houses stood amid smoke rising from piles of glowing ashes. Dead trees extended charred limbs as if issuing a mute cry for help. Somewhere in the chaos were Steve’s wife and children, and he had no way of knowing their fate.

That’s the essence of survival in an urban environment. The place is crowded with humanity running to and fro trying to escape the crisis, and some of them might belong to you. Turmoil surrounds them, and they are all terrified. You might not even know where they are, but the chaotic scene convinces your mind that they are all in serious trouble and need help. It can turn your heart upside-down in a split second, spawning a sense of despair and panic. With lives on the line, this is not a time to be unsure of what to do.
In many ways, trying to stay alive and keep your loved ones safe in an urban disaster can be more difficult than survival in an empty wilderness. There are extremely serious hazards that threaten our survival in “civilization” that are not a factor in the wilds, and understanding these challenges can make all the difference. 

One of the primary challenges in an urban survival situation is a direct result of the masses of unprepared population that are suddenly without the normal services they depend on — food, water, shelter, medical care, communication, transportation. 

When the system breaks down, some people become like a deer caught in headlights; they just stand there and stare, not knowing what to do, hoping for someone to come along and save them. Others face even greater danger, as panic sweeps through them like a shockwave, sending them running aimlessly toward exhaustion and despair, and often into injury and death. 

After the immediate and perhaps short-lived physical dynamics of the initial calamity — be it an earthquake, a hurricane, a flood, tornado, tsunami, etc. — have ended, the residual impact on the populace takes over and continues the carnage. It’s what follows the storm or the fire or the quake that is the real monster that swallows up huge populations in utter ruin. 

Unlike a wilderness survival incident in which one person or perhaps a small group of individuals is involved, an urban survival situation can affect millions of people and destroy everything for hundreds of square miles, resulting in billions of dollars of damage. But, believe it or not, the worst is yet to come. 

Even though the earth has stopped shaking, the floodwaters have subsided, the wind has stopped howling, the smoke has cleared, the sun is out and a gentle breeze is blowing, the wreckage left behind will last for a long time. Broken sewer pipes, contaminated water systems, downed power lines, crumbled buildings, homes flattened by trees, cars strewn about like broken toys, collapsed bridges, toxic waste flowing through the streets, disease, injury, and the dead and the dying and the homeless — that’s what is left behind for survivors to deal with. And it might be a long while before anyone comes to help you. 

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Although we can’t stop natural or manmade disasters from happening, we can reduce the prolonged human suffering if we take some proactive steps. If we’re willing to become educated about the nature of the challenges that follow urban catastrophes, and then follow up with individual planning, and preparation in our own homes, the panic can be averted, at least on the personal level. 

If we extend that effort to our neighborhoods and then to our communities, so much the better. By doing that, we take ourselves out of the category of being part of the problem that needs to be solved (part of a populace that needs to be rescued), and places us in a position to be part of the solution. 

There will always be those who fail to make preparations to be self-reliant during a crisis, but at least you can do something to make life more manageable for yourself and your family when the worst happens. 

Because you are reading this today, you are taking a positive stride forward in your personal education and preparation for keeping yourself and your family safe during tragic times of catastrophe.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

No More Water

A knock came at our front door this morning. It was a guy from the City. He said there was a problem with the water main and that we had 15 minutes before the water was going to be shut off for the next 4 to 6 hours.

So, what would you do if you knew that you had just 15 minutes until the water was going to be shut off for the next several hours?

What would you do if you turned on the tap and there was no water at all, and you were not given a 15-minute warning, and there was no telling how long the water would be gone?

That's how it happens in a real disaster. No warning. Suddenly the world collapses around you and the services you once took for granted are gone. No water. No electricity. No communication. No transportation. No police protection. No fire department. No hospital or ambulance service. No gasoline at the station. No food stores open. Maybe even no place to live.

Right at this very moment, in various places around the world, there are major catastrophes happening that are leaving hundreds of thousands of people without a place to live, without utilities, without food, without water — and sometimes without hope.

Why does it always seem to happen someplace else around the world? Will it always be that way? Or will we find ourselves in another Katrina situation one of these days?
  • Hurricane season is upon us and Danielle is building in the Atlantic. 
  • Scientists are saying California is way overdue for "the big one" to hit and tear everything down. 
  • More than one "enemy" nation is flexing nuclear muscles.
  • Stay tuned; the headlines are a constant rotation of similar news.
There is no time like the present to make preparations to handle whatever comes along to disrupt your normal life. Whether it's a knock at the front door announcing a temporary inconvenience, or the sound of sirens letting you know it's time to bug out, you need to be prepared. Being prepared isn't only for the Boy Scouts. 

Sunday, August 22, 2010

After The Crash

I have a friend who has been involved in a few airplane crashes. No, he's not a pilot, just an unlucky (or maybe he's lucky - I guess it depends on how you look at it) passenger on many, many small plane flights in Alaska.

Anyway, he told me about one group of people who all survived a crash landing in which one of the plane's wings was torn off the fuselage. The weather was blizzard conditions, and naturally all the survivors wanted to take shelter and get a fire going so they could stay warm until rescue arrived.

The wreckage of an airplane might be able to offer some opportunities for shelter material. In this particular case, the survivors decided to use the dismembered wing as part of their shelter, moving it into a position overhead and then hunkering down to stay out of the weather.

Then they built a fire beneath their newly-constructed lean-to. The problem was that the wing housed the fuel tank, and unnoticed by the survivors was the fact that the fuel was leaking. It didn't take long before the thing erupted in flame, killing everyone.

How ironic is it for everyone on the passenger list to survive the airplane wreck only to perish in a fire caused by their own ignorance?

 Had even one of the survivors been aware that…
  • the fuel tank was inside the wing
  • that in spite of the wreck there was still fuel in the tank
  • that it was leaking
  • that the fuel was highly flammable
  • and that they were all sitting in the puddling fuel
…they might not have died in the fire. 

The lesson here is that we always need to maintain situational awareness — an awareness of every aspect of the situation — and the ability to determine what the consequences of our actions might be.

Friday, August 20, 2010

On The Subject of Evacuation

Clearly, getting out alive sometimes necessitates evacuation. But sometimes it does not. The trick is to know the difference.

When to evacuate:
  • When there is an evacuation order by local, regional or federal authorities. 
  • When you personally determine that it is untenable to remain where you are, regardless of what the authorities are doing or saying. 
On the first point, the reason for adhering to an evacuation order is because the authorities probably know more about the situation than you do. They are coordinating with a variety of agencies that have eyes and ears scattered over a broad area, and a recommendation to get out of Dodge is based on a wide range of factors to which you might not have personal access. 

But as to the second point, it can be dangerous to leave your life in the hands of someone else by waiting to be ordered to evacuate. If you determine that the situation is getting sketchy and you would rather take yourself and your loved ones someplace else, go ahead and leave. In fact, if you leave ahead of the official evacuation order, you will probably have an easier time of it on the road. Once the order is issued, everybody will be trying to get out of the area at the same time, and that creates an instant traffic jam. 

When not to evacuate:
  • When there is no official evacuation order AND you personally determine that you'll be fine if you stay put. 
Some folks are walking around on "red alert" just waiting for the moment when they should run to the mountains and start living off the land. In fact, I was talking to a guy like that recently and he asked me, "if everything starts falling apart, are you going to head into the mountains?"

My answer to him was, "it all depends." 

That wasn't a very satisfactory answer, and we ended up talking for another 45 minutes in an attempt to solve the riddle of when to run and when to stay. "It all depends" means exactly that. Yes, there might be a situation when it would be appropriate to head for the hills — but there are many reasons why that would not be the right thing to do. 

When would I go?
  • When the threat of staying put becomes too great. And I don't need a government official to tell me when that is. 
When would I stay?
  • When the situation does not pose a threat to myself or my loved ones. Notice I didn't say that the situation would not pose an inconvenience — I used the word threat intentionally. Life in a disaster zone is automatically going to be inconvenient, but it doesn't necessarily pose a threat. It all depends on how well prepared, informed, and experienced you are. 
Why would I decide to stick it out where I am?
  • Sheltering in place (that's the official terminology for staying put) offers the advantage of having all my stuff — shelter, food, water, tools, medical supplies, building materials, clothing, blankets, a bed, etc. In other words, when you walk away you take what you can carry, but if you stay you have access to everything you own that has not been destroyed. 
  • You also have access to your community, and familiarity with your surroundings. 
Don't misunderstand — there are times when having access to the community is definitely a negative. In a major disaster (like Haiti), I would get out of town to stabilize my situation because there was nothing worth staying for, and the threat caused by masses of people (some of them criminals who broke out of the crumbled prison) all in dire need at the same moment poses a risk. 

But there are other situations in which having access to the community is beneficial. If you are well prepared, you can help care for others who are in worse shape. In my book, survival is about a lot more than just being the last man standing — it's about helping others who are less well equipped, informed, or experienced to stand with you. If you don't use your knowledge and experience (yes, and supplies) to help others, then you aren't real survival material.

Begin by helping your family, your neighbors and friends, and your personal social group such as your church. By lending a hand, you help take pressure off the rescue agencies as you help stabilize others around you. By doing that, you become part of the solution, not part of the problem. 

The key is to know when it's more prudent to get out of the area to save yourself and your loved ones, and when it's okay to stay and shelter in place. In order to make those determinations, you need to maintain constant situational awareness and assess the shifting conditions. And you need to be prepared to go or stay, as you deem appropriate. 

If you decide to go, you need to have methods of travel, routes of travel, and desired destinations figured out in advance. And you need to have contingency plans in place, in case your primary mode of travel, route, or destination become impossible. 

Evacuation is not an easy process, so start working on your plans now. 

And on a side note — your evacuation plans should include when and how you will exit a building or an arena that becomes involved in a disaster scenario. Know the exits, watch for the signs of trouble that would lead you to want to get out ahead of the catastrophe. Be prepared to act immediately. 

None of this means you should go through life on "red alert" but it does mean you should go through life  with a high level of awareness about what's going on around you, and be ready to take appropriate action to suit the situation. 

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Pocket Protection Against The Elements

Thanks to space-age materials, protection against the elements can fit right in your pocket. Since 1964, there have been various forms of lightweight, compact emergency blankets (sometimes called space blankets because they evolved from product development within the U.S. space program) that use a thin sheet of mylar coated with a silver or gold reflective surface capable of reflecting up to 97% of radiated heat. 

For outdoor enthusiasts, emergency personnel such as search and rescue teams, and paramedics, these blankets help save lives by reflecting an individual's body heat back toward himself, thus slowing the effects of hypothermia. And in a hot environment, the blanket can be spread as a shade shelter and the reflective surface can protect against the rays of the sun. 

The military uses "casualty blankets" that are based on the same principles but built to military spec to endure hard treatment in combat zones. 

A company named Adventure Medical Kits ( makes my favorite emergency blanket. It's called the Heetsheets Emergency blanket, and the reason it's my favorite is because  it's built tough enough to take a lot of abuse without falling apart, but is still lightweight and compact enough to carry in a pocket.  The blanket is orange on one side and silver on the other, so it serves dual purpose as a brightly colored panel to attract the attention of searchers, and provides the reflective benefits already mentioned. The reflective side can also act as a huge mirror surface (like a signal mirror on steroids) to attract attention to your position.

The blanket is impervious to moisture, so it makes a great rainwater catchment system or a method to pool water grabbed from a stream or lake so you can let the water settle before filtering. The uses of this item of equipment are many and varied, including use as a fire reflector (maintain sufficient distance from the flames), a windscreen, etc. 

But Adventure Medical Kits has taken the emergency blanket concept to the next level with their Heatsheets Emergency Bivvy. Basically, they wrapped the blanket into the shape of a sleeping bag and sealed the seams to keep water out. Now, instead of fighting to keep a flat blanket wrapped securely around your body, all you have to do is crawl inside the bivvy and you're totally protected against wind, rain and snow. Body heat is reflected back toward you, so you retain as much of your own warmth as possible. 

The bivvy protects against three kinds of heat loss — convective (air movement), reflective, and evaporative. But a thin sheet of plastic cannot provide real insulation, so there can still be conductive heat loss where you are in direct contact with anything colder than your body temperature. For that reason, you need to take steps to provide insulation beneath you (dry grasses, tender tips of evergreen, pine duff, whatever you can find). And it's also a good idea to pile insulative materials over the top of you as well. 

The bivvy can be slipped down into a sleeping bag to increase the bag's cold-weather rating. I keep one of these for myself and my wife in our vehicle, and also carry one on my mountain bike and in my gear pack when traveling afoot in the backcountry. 

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Good Comments

I received a good comment related to the previous post. Someone nicknamed BBC wrote to tell me about how he can sidestep the problem of a power outage shutting down his refrigerator and freezer. It's a great comment and brings up a point I failed to mention in the original post.

Many folks have some kind of Recreational Vehicle, be it a motorhome, conventional travel trailer, 5th wheel trailer, truck camper or even a tent trailer that is equipped with a 2-way (or sometimes a 3-way) refrigerator that can be operated on electricity or propane. While these units are small, they can be enormously valuable at keeping the most vulnerable foods at a safe cold temperature until the main power supply is restored for your residential refrigerator / freezer.

In addition to the RV solution, there is also the marine solution. Some boats are equipped with onboard refrigeration units that can serve the same purpose.

If you don't have an RV or a boat, you can always buy the same kind of refrigerator (popular models are made by Dometic and Norcold, available from an RV dealer) and set it up as a backup unit to be run on a 20-lb. propane tank. The propane solution totally isolates you from the grid, so you're independent during a power outage.

BBC also commented that ice is available at stores, but this is not always the case. Today, in fact, even with no emergency going on in our town, there is not a block of ice to be found. How do I know that? We had a Neighborhood Watch potluck meeting, and the host searched every source of ice in town and came up empty. What's happening that would reduce the ice supply to zero? Nothing more than it being a warm summer evening with lots of folks visiting from out of town. Now stack a power outage on top of that and try to find ice. Good luck.

It's better to make your own blocks of ice in 1-gallon water jugs and have them on hand when you need them.

I appreciate comments from readers. This blog is intended for normal folks, not exotic expeditioneers nor "colony" types who live on the fringe of everyday reality. The intent is to help spread information that is truly useful for the average guy and gal next door.

When The Power Goes Off

One of the things that will happen during a power outage is that the refrigerator and freezer will stop working. What you do then depends on a couple of factors — one being the duration of the power outage, another being the time of year and local climate, and the other being the physical shape of the fridge or freezer.

If the emergency situation last only several hours before the utility company gets the power back on, just leave the fridge and freezer shut and things will stay cold enough to prevent the food from spoiling. But if the emergency lasts more than a day (as happens in the aftermath of a hurricane, tornado, ice storm, earthquake, etc.) you're going to need to take some steps to save the food from spoilage.
  • If your problem is caused by an ice storm that has torn down the power lines, you can probably move the food outside or use the ambient temperature to keep the food cold enough for safe keeping in your garage. But during warm weather, you'll need to use other strategies.
  • Move perishable foods from the refrigerator to the freezer to prolong exposure to cold conditions. A chest freezer is far better than one with a door on the front, but use whatever you have. 
  • You can help preserve the cold in a freezer by having blocks of ice inside that will keep the interior cold even after the power has shut down. We use 1-gallon water containers, filled about 3/4-full (to allow for expansion during freezing) to make contained blocks of ice, and we keep these in our freezer all the time. 
A note about appliance type:
  • With an upright fridge or freezer, every time you open the door the cold air spills out as if it were water. So keep the door closed as much as possible. 
  • If you have a chest freezer, the cold air will stay inside when the lid is lifted, just like water would stay in a tub. But that doesn't give you license to be opening the freezer lid more than necessary. Some warm air will invade every time the lid is lifted. 
If you have an electric generator, use it intermittently to provide power for the fridge and freezer. During an emergency power outage, you don't need to make electricity to run a blow drier, etc., so a better use is to run it only enough to keep the fridge and freezer cold, thereby conserving fuel.

If you simply can't keep the fridge or freezer cold, you're going to have to find ways to preserve the food as it warms up.
  • Cook raw meats, poultry and fish and eat them.
  • Consume diary products. However, you can immerse hard cheese in olive oil as a preservative method.
  • Use "green bags" (they absorb the ethylene gas that promotes ripening) to keep raw fruits and vegetables fresh longer (
  • Boil eggs to preserve them for about a week. 
  • If you have an abundance of raw eggs, cover them with a thin coating of lard or shortening and bury them in a bed of salt. This will keep eggs for months. 
  • Alternate cool storage might be found in the crawl space beneath your house. 
  • An evaporative cooler box can be constructed by building a framework over which you can drape burlap or other material that you keep wet. The evaporation process lowers the temperature inside the enclosure, but it will not match the safe 40-degree F. temperature of a refrigerator. Evaporative cooling works best in a hot, dry climate. 
After you have consumed the perishable foods from your disabled refrigerator and freezer, prepare food only in sufficient quantity to be eaten in the next meal, so you won't have left-overs to worry about. 

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Snake Safety

Anyone who ventures into the outdoors needs to know the rules of survival in snake country. Venomous snakes are found in all but a few isolated places in North America, and chances are good that if you wander around the backcountry long enough, you'll encounter venomous snakes.

The good news is that rattlesnakes are not out to get you. You don't need to worry about a snake hunting you down. In fact, the opposite is true … generally, snakes try to avoid people unless molested, cornered or otherwise threatened. However, there are occasional accidents where man and snake encounter each other with unfortunate results. 

Rattlesnakes have a hard time with public relations. Their very appearance has a lot to do with this. A flickering forked tongue, intense yellow eyes with vertical slit pupils, a triangle-shaped head, pits on the face, fangs, raspy skin and rattles do nothing to endear these snakes to people … even those people who otherwise enjoy the company of animals. The whole package looks wicked, making rattlers fairly despised members of the wild kingdom. 

Actually, rattlesnakes are fascinating. The flickering tongue is a tool used to locate and identify food in the dark. Particles of scent are caught by the tongue, which is then drawn into the mouth and stuck into holes in the roof of the mouth where scent glands are located. Another mechanism employed by the snake for locating prey (or a possible enemy) are the heat-sensing pockets on the face, which tell the snake about the size, distance and direction to a heat-producing source such as an animal or man. These pockets are what give the pit viper its name. If you encounter a rattlesnake and it flicks its tongue in and out of its mouth while swinging its head back and forth in your direction, it is using both scent and heat-sensing mechanisms in an effort to identify you and determine the distance between itself and you. 

If you come across a rattlesnake, rule number one is to keep your distance and warn others in the group about the snake's presence. A rattlesnake does not have to coil before striking. It can strike from any position. The snake cannot "jump" or strike a greater distance than the length of its own body (unless it is striking downhill). But it is pure foolishness to underestimate the rattler's strike zone. The decision to strike or not to strike belongs to the snake, and one can never predict what that decision will be. 

When a snake sheds its skin (one to several times per year, depending upon food supply and rate of growth), the eyes temporarily glaze over, reducing the snake's vision, which is none too sharp anyway. During this period, the snake is especially nervous and more likely to strike. 

If the snake strikes, it determines how much (if any) venom to inject. Snakebite doesn't always involve injection of venom, for a couple of reasons. 
  • Perhaps the snake recently caught and killed some prey, and is low on venom. 
  • Perhaps the snake's venom glands don't produce very much. 
  • Perhaps the snake decides to reserve its venom supply for food and is striking only as a warning. 
Whatever the reason, you can't know in advance if a strike will occur, and if it does, you can't know in advance how much venom will be injected. 

While death by snakebite in the U.S. is fairly rare, the injury caused by snake venom can be devastating. You rarely hear about victims of snakebite who don't die. But those who are bitten, injected with venom, and manage to survive frequently suffer loss of a limb. Rattlesnake venom attacks the circulatory system and digests the flesh surrounding the wound. The result may be a severely deformed limb, or amputation. Even a bite by a so-called “harmless” snake can lead to dangerous infection or allergic reaction. 

According to the University of Florida, there are about 7,000 reported venomous snakebites in the United States each year. The University of Maryland Medical Center has the number pegged at roughly 8,000. Fatalities average 15 per year. The numbers indicate that people are not paying enough attention to what’s going on around them when they’re in snake country. Either that or they’re acting irresponsibly, a conclusion that's easy to reach, given that approximately 3,000 of the bites are classed as “illegitimate,” indicating that they occur when people are handling or harassing snakes, either trying to pick them up or kill them. 

University of Florida statistics say that 85% of venomous snakebites are below the knee, indicating that stepping on a snake is probably a common cause. Other bites occur when the person steps over a log or beside a boulder where a snake is hiding. Deep grass and brushy country are also prime snake habitats that contribute to the snakebite statistics. Bites above the knee happen when the victim is trying to handle or kill a snake, or they are bitten when picking up logs or rocks or placing hands in dangerous spots while climbing or scrambling along a slope. 

There are seasons when people are more likely to encounter venomous snakes — generally between late spring and early fall (March and October in most of the country). This varies with geography and local climate, so you should determine prime snake season for your own region. That doesn’t mean you can ignore the danger other than during that season, but it means that you should be especially vigilant when snakes are in season. 

A snake safety plan should include the following: 
  • If you come across a snake, point it out to others in your group and then give it wide berth and leave it alone. 
  • If you know that you will be camping and hiking in snake country during snake season, wear high leather boots or snake gaiters and remain on clearly visible trails as much as possible. 
  • Stay out of tall grass and dense brush. 
  • Be careful where you place feet and hands, especially when climbing on rocks, around ledges or logs. 
  • Carry a long stick so you can probe the area ahead as you travel. But don’t use the stick to tease the snake or try to kill it. 
The types of snakes of greatest concern in the United States include rattlesnakes, copperheads, cottonmouth water moccasins, and coral snakes. Each has its own kind of venom — some are hemotoxins that attack the circulatory system and everything it leads to, and some are neurotoxins that attack the central nervous system and everything connected to it. Either way, a bite can be extremely serious, even if death is not the result. 

The medical industry has developed antivenin to help counter the effects of the different types of venom, but knowing which type of snake inflicted the bite is critical to selecting the correct antivenin. Bring the dead remains of the snake to the hospital or give it to the medical response team that comes to your aid. But don’t get yourself bitten again or cause someone else to be injured trying to capture or kill the snake. After the snake is killed, remove the head and bury it or cremate it in a fire, because the fangs can still inflict a bite even if the snake is dead. 

The current doctrine regarding field first aid treatment of snakebite is: 
  • Calm the victim and have him relax as much as possible, to slow the transport of venom through the body. 
  • Immediately call for medical assistance. Time is of the essence. 
  • While waiting for help to arrive, remove rings, watches or anything else that may restrict circulation when the affected limb swells. 
  • Wash the wound with soap and water. Don’t worry about becoming poisoned yourself while treating someone else, because the toxin doesn’t transfer that way. 
  • Use a splint to immobilize the limb, but keep it loose enough that it does not restrict blood flow. Periodically check fingers or toes (depending on which limb is affected) to make sure they are still pink and warm, indicating good circulation.
  • Keep the affected limb lower than the heart. 
  • Monitor vital signs so you can tell the medical team what’s been happening. 
If it is going to be more than 30 minutes before the victim can be transported to a medical facility, do the following: 
  • Apply a wide constricting band around the limb 2 to 4 inches above the bite to help slow the spread of venom. This is not a tourniquet, and it should not restrict the flow of arterial or venous blood. It operates at the capillary level of blood flow. Keep the band loose enough that you can easily slip a finger or two under it. Keep this in place until the victim reaches the hospital. 
  • Within 5 minutes of the bite, apply a suction device over the fang marks and leave it in place for 30 minutes, but do not slit the skin to open the wound before applying suction. 
A little preparation, common sense and caution go a long way toward avoiding problems in snake country. 

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Best Outdoor Socks I've Ever Worn

Maybe you already knew that Merino sheep are reputed to produce the softest and finest wool of any breed. Maybe you already knew that the breed originated in Spain. But did you know that before the 18th century, the export of Merino sheep from Spain was a crime punishable by death? Valuable stuff, those sheep.

Today, Merino wool is highly prized for articles of outdoor clothing. Now that it’s no longer illegal to export the sheep, market competition helps those of us who like to wear clothing made of Merino wool.

Speaking of which, I want to tell you about my choice in Merino wool socks. They are made by Point6 (  The company makes socks for several applications: Outdoor, Active, Lifestyle, Cycling, Running, Skiing, and Snowboarding.

 I have socks from two of those categories: Lifestyle and Outdoor — Lifestyle Light Crew ($16.95), ideal for everyday wear; and from the Outdoor category I have Hiking Tech Medium Crew ($18.95); and Trekking Tech Heavy Crew ($18.95). The Outdoor socks feature 2-layer construction for increased cushion for serious backcountry footwork.

My Lifestyle socks work well with dress shoes, making life comfortable at the office, school, church…wherever. The Hiking Tech Medium Crew are ideal for wandering mountain trails while wearing lightweight trail shoes. And the Trekking Tech Heavy Crew socks protect my feet when I'm wearing my serious hiking boots.

I love these socks.  They are exceptionally comfortable. Points6 takes the inherent advantage of Merino wool’s natural fine fiber crimp and soft texture, and works it into an even greater advantage through their special yarn-spinning process that results in fine, compact, soft and durable yarn. The yarn is then knit together using fine-gauge needles that produce a dense count of stitches-per-inch to create increased durability and softness. The socks come in both men’s and women’s sizes ranging from small through medium, large and XL; covering sizes from US women’s size 4 to US men’s size 14.5. They can be machine washed and dried (on warm) without damage to the wool.

One of the natural characteristics of Merino wool is that it does not irritate the skin, causing an itchy sensation as other types of wool does. Merino fibers feature a complex moisture management system that wicks moisture away from the skin to keep feet comfortable, dry and blister-free.

Point6 named their company to reflect part of the human body temperature (98.6) for a reason that I came to understand as I tested these socks. In spite of the cold, rainy weather, my feet remained comfy. And oddly enough, even on warm days, these socks keep my feet at a comfortable temperature.

I am not exaggerating when I say that these are by far the most comfortable and durable outdoor socks I have ever put on my feet. They are more expensive than cheap cotton socks, but trust me, there is absolutely no comparison. And because my feet are my fundamental mode of transportation (especially in a survival situation), they deserve to be well cared for.

Monday, August 9, 2010

700 A Day Dying

People are dying at an unprecidented rate in Moscow, Russia from a combination of smog and high temperatures. An average of 700 per day are dying as the capital city is smothered by heat and poisonous smog that is coming from wildfires across western Russia.

While we might think this is some kind of exotic problem because it's happening a long way from home, let me assure you that this could happen right here in our own backyards. What is causing this situation is very simple to recreate anywhere, so we need to understand what's happening and consider what we would do if we were faced with the same threat.

The two main risk elements are high temperatures and severe air pollution. As to the first factor, daily high temperatures have been in the area of 100 degrees F., prompting Russia's head of weather service to say, "Our ancestors haven't observed or registered a heat like that within 1,000 years."

I'm not convinced that they have weather records that date back 1,000 years, but at least they seem to think this is an unusually hot summer. Diamrid Campbell-Lendrum, of the World Health Orgaization said that deaths could double with higher temperatures alone, and quoted the long-hot summer of 2003 in Europe as an  example. During that couple months of heatwave, there were nearly 15,000 deaths in France alone.

The second factor in Russia's current disaster is the extreme smog, caused by some 550 separate wildfire, filling the air with dangerous levels of pollution. Campbell-lendrum stated that it would be difficult to determine if the majority of deaths is due to the heat or the smog, but the combination is dangerous. In fact, the level of air pollution is measuring 7-times higher than what is considered to be the safe level.

Of course, the elderly, the very young, and the infirm are most at risk of heat-related and smog-related illness and death. It would be one thing if everyone could retreat to an air conditioned home and operate an air filtration system to clean the air. But that's not possible in Russia, and it's not even possible in all parts of the U.S.

Already in the U.S. there are times during the peak of summer temperatures when the electrical utility company cannot keep up with demand. There are "rolling brownouts" or full-blown blackouts just when you need the air conditioner most. Have you thought about what you will do when the power goes off in the middle of a real disaster? We're so used to flipping a switch to adjust the indoor environment, and some folks have forgotten how to live without the modern conveniences.

Unless you can manage to evacuate to someplace cooler and with cleaner air, you might have to take steps to minimize the suffering right where you are.

  • Dampen your skin to produce natural air conditioning through the process of evaporation. Moisten articles of clothing to prolong the cooling effect. 
  • Use a fan, rather than an air conditioner. Air bowing against your wet skin or clothing will feel almost as good as a real air conditioner. 
  • If the humidity level is low, drape wet cloth in front of the fan to produce cool air from evaporation. This is the same principle as used by the venerable "swamp cooler" type of air conditioner, but it only works when ambient humidity is low. 
  • Minimize your activity level, to avoid overheating.
  • Slow your pace.
  • Drink lots of water to replace body fluid lost to perspiration. 
  • Eat cold foods that don't require cooking, because cooking will introduce more heat into the house.
  • Switch to a mostly vegetarian diet. Eating meats raises the caloric level in the body and creates internal heat. 
  • Pull the curtains to block out direct sunlight.
  • If you are outdoors, wear light-colored  full-coverage clothing to prevent sunburn and to minimize dehydration.
  • When air pollution levels are high, don't go outside unless absolutely necessary. 
When the temperature is high and the smog is literally killing people, it's time to "go to ground" and lay low. Slow everything down. Stay in the shade. Don't move around a lot, and don't breathe any more than necessary. 

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Deadly Disease Outbreak

A deadly tropical disease has gotten loose in the U.S. After more than 75 years without any dengue fever cases in Florida, suddenly there is an outbreak in the Keys. And predictions are that it will spread to other areas.

Dengue fever is caused by a virus that belongs to the same family as hepatitis C, West Nile virus, and yellow fever. It is nicknamed "breakbone" of "bone-crusher" disease because those who fall victim report that they feel as if all their bones are broken — a very painful disease.

The virus cannot spread from human to human, so you can't catch it directly from another person who is infected. However, you can catch it indirectly from another person. In fact, that is probably how the disease came to the U.S. in recent days. Someone who became infected through a mosquito bite in another location travelled to Florida and was bitten by a local mosquito. That mosquito sucked up some of the virus-laden blood and then flew off to bite another person, transferring the virus in the process. The newly infected person, unaware that he is now a carrier, goes somewhere else and serves up his blood to yet another mosquito … and the cycle continues. This may sound slow and tedious, but the disease can spread like a wildfire under the right conditions.

Generally, symptoms don't start until about a week after the mosquito bite that delivers the virus. A headache is usually the first indicator, followed by fever, eye pain and bleeding from the eyes, dizziness, spontaneous bruising, oozing blood from skin pores, bleeding gums, vomiting, and bloody diarrhea. Vascular leakage can cause blood vessels to leak into spaces around the lungs and abdomen, resulting in dengue shock syndrome (weak, rapid pulse and cold, clammy skin) that has a high rate of mortality.

The bad news is that there is no vaccine to prevent dengue fever, and there is no treatment for victims of the disease. You just have to ride it out and treat each symptom. Blood loss is a major factor, so it is important to avoid aspirin and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs because those may worsen the bleeding. Patients need to be under a doctor's care in a hospital setting where IV fluids can be applied to replace fluid loss.

So, since you can't vaccinate against it, and you can't treat it, what can you do?

  • Avoid traveling to places known for dengue fever. 
  • Stay out of brushy areas or tall grass, because mosquitos like to hide in the foliage.
  • Use mosquito repellent on skin and clothing. Repellent containing DEET is recommended. Check with your doctor. 
  • When you're going to be outdoors, wear clothing that provides maximum skin coverage — long sleeves, long pants that are tucked into socks, a mosquito net head covering.
  • Use bug screens on windows and doors to keep the insects out of your house. 
  • Eliminate mosquito breeding sites around your property — these are anything where water can collect (buckets, old tires, hubcaps, etc). Drain puddle areas. Regularly change the water in birdbaths and pet dishes. 
  • If you become symptomatic, get to a doctor and report your travel history where you might have become infected.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Surviving In Water

Six teenagers, ranging in age from 13 to 18, died today while wading in a familiar spot of shallow water in a river in northwest Louisiana.

How can that happen?

Apparently, the victims were playing in the shallows and didn't know that there was a sudden drop-off that deepened to about 20 feet. They stepped off the ledge, sank and drowned. According to the report by Shreveport Assistant Fire Chief Fred Sanders, the teens were accompanied by some adults, but neither the kids nor the adults knew how to swim.

It might be too obvious, but I'm going to say it anyway — don't play in the water if you don't know how to swim. That's like saying, don't take a car out on the freeway if you don't know how to drive. Or don't try to fly an airplane if you don't know how. But, no matter how obvious it is, here we have the tragic loss of 6 young people who died because they didn't know how to keep themselves alive in deep water.

There is a water survival technique known as "drownproofing" that everyone should learn — even those who consider themselves to be competent swimmers. The reason is that, if you're suddenly tossed into the water a great distance from shore, you're probably not going to be able to swim to safety before becoming exhausted. By using the drownproofing technique, you extend your survival time. And for those who are non-swimmers, this is their only hope of getting out alive.

Rather than attempt to summarize the technique here, I'm going to give you a link to where you can study the method. If you want more detailed information about this water survival technique, buy the book at

If you are a non-swimmer, sign up for swimming lessons at your local Y or some other organization that teaches these things. But by all means, learn the drownproofing method.

If you already know how to swim, add drownproofing to your skills.

If you are a parent or grandparent, please encourage your children and grandchildren to learn to swim. Teach them the buddy system, and get involved yourself by being part of the buddy system for the youth when they're in the water. Use flotation devices, if necessary, and use caution about where wading and swimming take place. These are life-preserving skills, and you never know when you're going to absolutely need them — not just for fun and recreation, but for survival.

Nearly 100% Fatal

There is a disease that kills about 55,000 people each year worldwide. In all of history, once the disease became symptomatic (the patient displayed symptoms of the illness), only 6 are known to have survived. And only 1 person has ever survived when no treatment was administered. It's a disease that's about as close to being 100% fatal as you can possibly get.

What is it? Rabies — a viral infection that is very easily transmitted from rabid animals to humans. Worldwide, the most prevalent carrier of rabies is dogs, but in the United States, that honor goes to the raccoon in the mid-Atlantic and northeast states, and the skunk in the midwest. However, foxes, dogs, coyotes, wolves and bats are also popular transmitters of the disease. Rabies can be spread by domestic farm animals, groundhogs, weasels, bears, rodents, squirrels, and other animals. Elsewhere in the world, monkeys also transmit the virus. India has the highest rate of human rabies in the world, and the problem is caused by stray dogs.

The virus is normally transmitted through transfer of saliva during a bite incident, but it can also happen by other means. When the virus is introduced into a human, it enters the peripheral nervous system and travels by way of the nerves to the central nervous system. When it reaches the brain, it causes encephalitis. By the time the victim has symptoms, it's almost always too late for treatment. The only way to save a rabies victim is to inject vaccine soon after the bite has happened, and before symptoms show up.

Rabies infection in humans in the U.S. is fairly rare, due in part because of the active animal control and vaccination programs that battle against the disease in dogs and cats. But the incidence of human rabies in North America is now on the rise. And it would become much worse following a catastrophic disaster that causes a halt to the vaccination program and leaves animals roaming freely and interacting with infected wildlife. It is a scenario in which rabies could become a very real threat to the health of the human populace.

If you suspect that you have been exposed to the rabies virus, here's what to do:

  • Thoroughly wash the area of the wound for at least 5 minutes, using soap and water. This will help reduce the number of viral particles near the open wound. 
  • Apply a virucidal antiseptic such as providone-iodine, iodine tincture, aquaeous iodine solution or alcohol to the wound after washing with soap and water. 
  • Get to a doctor as quickly as possible and arrange for treatment with 1 dose of human rabies immunoglobulin and 4 doses of rabies vaccine each day for the next 14 days. 

Monday, August 2, 2010

Cougar Tales

Yesterday, a friend was telling me about a trip into the backcountry of Washington State. He and a buddy hiked 7 miles over a mountain into a remote canyon and made camp. The next morning, he heard a whistle off in the distance, so he whistled back, thinking it might be another hiker approaching their camp. A minute later, a cougar appeared at the edge of the clearing, and it stood there intently staring at my friend and his buddy.

The whistle was actually a natural call made by the cougar when trying to communicate with other members of their family group. By whistling back, my friend had inadvertently called the cougar right into their camp. Until he told me this story, I was not aware that cougars whistle. But a quick bit of research proved that was right. A cougar will make a variety of noises including a scream, a purr, a hiss, a meow, and a spitting sound. And it will also whistle.

The guys had no firearms with them, and not wanting to share the camp with a mountain lion, they decided to pack it up and get out of there. They quickly grabbed their gear and headed up the mountain trail away from the cougar. But when my friend looked back, he noticed that the cat was following them, keeping a distance of about 150 feet. Every time he looked, the cat was still there, and it stalked them for the full 7 miles back to their truck.

When my friend was telling me about this incident, he said he felt certain that if he had been alone the cougar would have taken him down. That's probably true. This cat seemed to have no fear of the men, and was willing to track them for a long distance up and over a mountain, possibly just waiting for an opportunity to take one of the men if they got separated too far from each other.

The normal pattern for a cougar is to single out one victim, but to hang back or avoid people who are in groups. However, it has been known for a mountain lion to attack a hiker or a mountain biker even when there are other people not far away. If there is any separation of the humans, the cat might make his move.

So the rule in cougar country is to never hike or bike alone, and stay close to each other in your group. A mountain lion is one of the few wild animals that will actually stalk a human with the intent to kill. Now that it's legal to carry firearms into National Parks, you might consider packing a defensive weapon.

And if you hear a whistle, you might want to wait a minute and figure out what's making the noise before returning the call. Who knew?