Monday, April 30, 2012

Surviving The Unexpected — Again

Victoria Grover's plan was to take a short day hike in the southern Utah desert. It didn't work out that way.

Ironically, this incident took place not far from where Becky and I and our two young children spent a year living a survival lifestyle that included time in a couple different caves and a wikiup. And knowing what I do about that country, I can verify that what happened to Victoria could easily happen to anyone in this desert wilderness.

At the end of her day of hiking, she headed back along the trail toward her car. But it was farther than she anticipated, and her pace was slow enough that she didn't make it back to the car before night overtook her. She wisely decided to camp for the night and continue the journey in the morning.

Victoria is a veteran outdoor enthusiast, but this situation caught her off guard and unprepared to spend the night. The only equipment she had with her was a rain poncho, so she used that as a wrap to help stave off the cold and wind of the desert night.

In the morning, Victoria continued her trek toward her vehicle. But when she jumped down from a 4-foot ledge, she landed wrong, hit her leg on a rock and broke the bone.

Working against the pain of her broken leg, she used her walking stick to fashion a splint that allowed her to crawl to a nearby creek for water. Hiking was out of the question now, so he spent the next three nights wrapped in her poncho, curled up to conserve her body heat against the brutal cold night winds. "The worst thing is the cold," she said. "It never warmed up except for a few hours in the afternoon."

Without anything to eat, her energy level waned, leaving her vulnerable to hypothermia. "The hunger is something that comes in waves," she said. "You get hungry and want to eat everything and then it goes away."

The hardest night for her was the last night before she was rescued. With her body core drained of warmth, and no ability to restoke the inner fire, hypothermia took its toll. "I certainly could have died out there because I had hypothermia and I stopped shivering." 

Fortunately, the guest ranch where she was staying alerted authorities when Victoria failed to return from her hike. That was on Thursday. Police tracked down her car, but it wasn't until Sunday morning that they found her and took her to a hospital for treatment of the broken leg and hypothermia.

It was a happy ending that could have gone much worse, but being the rugged individual that she is, Victoria Grover says she has no plans to give up hiking. However, I'll bet this experience will change her approach to preparation for even a short day hike.

The lessons for us should be clear.
  • Expect the unexpected.
  • Prepare to survive unexpected nights alone in the wilderness, perhaps nursing an injury or enduring a sudden storm. 
  • Carry emergency shelter and first aid supplies, extra food, clothing, fire starting equipment and water.
  • Leave a hike plan with trusted individuals who can initiate a search if you fail to return on schedule.
  • Stick to your hike plan.
  • Be prepared to signal for help, using multiple methods.

Friday, April 27, 2012

How To Survive The Unexpected

When Bill Egger took off on a "day hike" during a 3-day trek in Big Bend National Park, he didn't anticipate what would happen to him. I'll let him tell the story in his own words.

"While climbing 5,249-foot Elephant Tusk, I got “cliffed out” on an interior ramp at 4,860 feet near the summit, and could not climb down.

"After spending four hours unsuccessfully attempting to locate an alternate descent route, I knew I was stuck and realized that it could be a long time before I saw anyone else in this desolate corner of the Chihuahuan desert. As the sun disappeared, I knew temperatures would soon drop around freezing. I concluded that my condition was grave, and my life was in imminent danger unless I received assistance. Thus, I decided I must activate my ACR AeroFix™ 406 GPS Interface/Onboard PLB.

"What I did not expect was that a 50 plus mph gale would blow in at 10 p.m. and continue until 4 a.m. When the gale hit, I used some cord to tie my PLB to a small bush on a ledge that opened to the sky because I was concerned that the winds would blow the PLB off of the ledge. Then, I wrapped up in my space blanket, and hunkered down for a bone-chilling night that seemed would never end. Temperatures dropped into the 20s.

"Later, I learned that within an hour after I activated my PLB, the U.S. Air Force Rescue Coordination Center (AFRCC) in Langley, Virginia, received notice of my satellite-detectable distress signal and communicated my location to the Big Bend park rangers.

"Upon receiving the call from the AFRCC, park rangers traveled almost two hours over backcountry roads to the Elephant Tusk area. Rangers found my vehicle registered with a solo hiker permit on Black Gap Road, and immediately commenced a ground search. They scoured the desert floor until 4:00 a.m. At sunrise the next morning, the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) joined the search with its search and rescue helicopter.

"Around 10:30 a.m., the aircrew spotted me waving my space blanket, up on the ramp near the Elephant Tusk summit. Then, two park rangers climbed up the peak, confirmed that I was fatigued, but uninjured and called in climbing gear from the DPS helicopter. By mid-afternoon they helped me rappel down from my perch. Six park rangers and I then trekked five miles arriving at Black Gap Road around sundown.

"Other than being exhausted by the night’s hypothermic conditions, I was assessed to be good condition. The PLB definitely helped save my life. I’m afraid that if I had to spend another night up there, I would not have made it. The next time I venture on a backcountry trek, I will try much harder to find a 'Buddy' to go with me. But either way, I can assure you I will be wearing my PLB. I’m all for these devices. They save lives and keep people from dying. My ACR PLB will always be on my body when I’m in the wilderness."

One of the lessons from this true incident is that it's always the unexpected that gets us in trouble. The unexpected difficulty of the trail. The unexpected storm. The unexpected injury (your own or someone else in your party). The unexpected delay in your return.

Since we can't predetermine the nature of the unexpected things that will happen to us in the backcountry, it's a good idea to have a backup plan that includes a method to call for help. A personal locator beacon (PLB) such as the one Bill Egger was carrying is a life-saving device that has been used to pull hundreds of folks out of distress situations. It's cheap insurance against the unexpected.

The web address for ACR is but you can buy or even rent these devices from outdoor retailers such as REI and others.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Water Pasteurization

Humans can't survive very long without drinking water. In some cases, dehydration can kill you in a matter of hours. So the ability to find, collect, or in some way produce water is very high on the survival priority list.

But just having water is not good enough — the water must be sufficiently pure to keep from making you sick. Illness caused by drinking impure water can speed up the dehydration process as a result of vomiting and diarrhea, killing you even faster.

We've talked about water purification before, focusing on the most common traditional methods — boiling, filtering, and chemical treatment. But now we're going to talk about a totally different technique that is faster, easier, cheaper, and more effective than the other methods. The technique is called pasteurization. Yup, the same thing that is done to milk to ensure its safety for consumers.

Pasteurization is a process involving heat. But it's a much lower temperature than boiling. In fact, you can pasteurize drinking water at a temperature less than 150º F.

When it comes to killing water-borne pathogens, pasteurization is relatively swift (6 minutes) and deadly. Worms, protozoa cysts (Giardia, Cryptosporidium, Entamoeba) are killed quickly at 131ºF (55ºC). Bacteria (E.coli, Salmonella, Shigella, Cholera) and Rotavirus are killed at at temperature of 140ºF (60ºC). And Hepatitus A virus is killed at a temperature of 149ºF (65ºC). This is relatively cool water when compared with boiling.

NOTE: Pasteurization of milk requires slightly higher temperature, but the numbers above are sufficient for purifying drinking water.

So why would anyone go to all the trouble to boil drinking water? Good question. There are two answers. First, boiling is an old technique that predates cheap and accurate thermometers. And the second answer is that if you have no means available to verify the temperature of pasteurization you can absolutely know you're going to have safe water if you bring it to an easily verifiably rolling boil. So boiling is still a valid technique for killing all water-borne pathogens.

But if you can in some way verify that the water temperature is at least 149ºF, and you can keep it at that temperature for 6 minutes, you can produce safe drinking water without boiling, filtering, or using chemical treatment. Fortunately, there are easy ways to verify the temperature.

One way is to use an inexpensive cooking thermometer. Stick the probe into the water and watch the dial indicator rise to the desired temperature.

Another way is to use a WAPI (water pasteurization indicator) — a cheap and reusable device made of a small polycarbonate tube in which a solid wax plug is contained. The plug melts at 149 ºF, so with the tube submerged in the warm water, the wax goes suddenly liquid when the temperature has been reached. This lets you know that pasteurization is complete. As the tube cools, the wax solidifies again, allowing repeated use of the WAPI.

The beauty of water pasteurization is that it can be accomplished by using a solar cooker that requires no fuel at all except the sun. We'll talk more about solar cookers in future posts, including plans for making your own.

But for now, add pasteurization to your slate of water purification techniques. It's quick, safe, and requires a lot less fuel than bringing water to a boil.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Living With A Power Outage

You never know how long a power outage is going to last, so it’s wise to pretend it’s going to be a long one. 

Take care of first things first:
  • Turn off or unplug all unnecessary or sensitive electric equipment (electric stove, computers, TV, sound systems) so they won’t be damaged by an electrical surge or spike when the power is restored. 
  • Leave one light switched on so you’ll know when the power comes back on. 
  • If it’s night, use flashlights and candles for illumination. 
  • If there’s no reason to stay up, go to bed and stay there until morning. 
  • If someone in your home is dependent on electric-powered life support equipment, provide a backup power supply in your emergency preparedness plan. 
  • Keep a non-cordless phone in your home, because it is likely to work even during a power outage. 
Food issues:
  • Perishable food in the fridge will be okay for a day if you don’t open it, and the freezer will be okay for 2 days unopened. 
  • Plan meals so you eat first those foods that will spoil without refrigeration, then start on what’s in the freezer. 
  • If it looks like the power outage is going to last multiple days (or weeks), use camp coolers and blocks of ice to keep perishable foods cold. 
  • Provide extra fresh air ventilation if you cook with a camp stove, but do not use it to provide space heat. 
  • Never use a BBQ, hibachi, or open fire in the house. 
  • Cook outdoors on an open fire, on a propane grill or using Dutch ovens and briquettes. 
  • If you have a fireplace insert with an iron top, you can cook on that. 
  • Discard unsafe foods that have a foul odor, color or texture. Fuzz growing on the food is a bad sign. 
Cold weather issues:
  • A power outage during extremely cold weather is the most serious kind, because houses quickly cool down when the furnace won’t operate. 
  • An emergency power generator (operate outdoors), and a long extension cord leading directly to a few small electric space heaters can keep a room warm as long as the fuel lasts. 
  • Use the fireplace if you have one, and put on warm clothes. 
  • Wrap up in blankets or sleeping bags. 
  • Mild exercise will help keep you warm, but don’t exercise to the point that you perspire. Keep your clothing dry at all cost. 
  • Do not use open flame appliances for space heating, due to the danger of carbon monoxide poisoning. 
  • If it looks like the outage is going to be prolonged, one alternative is to evacuate to an unaffected area. Monitor reports of the outage on a battery operated radio, so you’ll know where to go. 
Hot weather issues — Storms and accidents are responsible for most power outages. But in hot regions, a major power outage can be caused by the system being overtaxed due to excessive loads from things like air conditioners all being used at the same time. And a heat wave can be a deadly affair when the air conditioner doesn’t work. Remember the August 2003 heat wave in Europe that killed more than 40,000 people (15,000 in France alone)? The elderly, the very young, and the infirm are most at risk during heat-related power outages. 

To keep yourself cool: 
  • Open windows on the shaded side of the house, for cross ventilation. 
  • Use exterior shades to block sun from hitting windows on the sunny side of the house. 
  • Use a spray bottle of water to cool yourself with a veil of mist. 
  • Be a kid again; play in the sprinklers. 
  • Drink plenty of water, and slow your pace to reduce perspiration or overheating.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Ultimate Survival Manual

I just received an advance copy of my latest survival book, The Ultimate Survival Manual, and I have to say that Weldon Owen (the publishing house) did a fantastic job putting this book together. There was no surprise about the content, because I wrote it. But what surprised me was the quality of the package.

If you would like to take a peek inside to sample some of the content, click on this link

As you scroll down, you'll be able to read explanatory segments about the book, about the author, and then review some of the pages inside. The manual includes 333 survival techniques that cover wilderness, urban, and disaster scenarios that range from being lost in the desert, to escaping a hostage situation, to surviving a tsunami.

This book presents survival information as short blasts that are lavishly illustrated, rather than long chapters full of gray text. This enables readers to find what they're looking for quickly, digest the pertinent information, and put it to use.

The release date when The Ultimate Survival Manual will be in bookstores, and will be delivered by online sellers like Amazon or Barnes and Noble, is May 15th. While you're waiting for yours to arrive, click on the link above and go have fun with this preview of the book.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Snake Venom

Not all venomous snakes in North America are equal in the toxin department. Some are particularly venomous, while others are less lethal. That's not to say that they aren't all dangerous — they are. But the bite of some of America's venomous snakes is more deadly than others.

Consider the Eastern Diamondback rattlesnake, for example. The normal venom yield is 492 to 650 mg when the snake is milked. The lethal dose for this snake is considered to be about 100 mg of venom. That means an Eastern Diamondback bite has a very good chance of being lethal, because the snake can inject only a fraction of it's venom load into the victim in order to cause death.

Now compare that with the Sidewinder rattlesnake. The normal yield of venom ranges between 20 to 35 mg per milking, and the lethal dose is considered to be 40 mg. This snake can unload its entire venom capacity and still not hit the lethal threshold.

Again, I stress that this does not mean the Sidewinder is not a dangerous serpent. It is. In fact, note that it takes less than half the amount of a Sidewinder's venom than that of an Eastern Diamondback to be considered deadly to humans. So the venom is very potent. It's just that the snake doesn't normally produce enough to cause human death.

The rule for safety in snake country is to be very watchful to prevent an encounter. Avoid snake habitat such as old buildings, ledges, bushes, debris piles, etc. If you spot a snake, leave it alone. Most venomous snakebites to humans happen because the person messed with the snake on purpose. Fewer than 20% of snakebites occur purely by accident.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

How To Stop a Runaway Train

You've seen it in the movies — a runaway train filled with terrified passengers. But this isn't a scenario that happens only in the movies. It actually does happen in real life. And if you happen to be on a train when the crew is disabled for some reason, and it's up to you to stop the train from running away out of control, here is the procedure to follow.
  • Locate the emergency brake in your car. 

 What you're looking for is a lightweight rope that runs along the wall near the ceiling. 
  • Pull the cord and brace yourself for the jerking action when the brakes are actuated and the cars slam together at their couplings.
If the train does not begin to slow down, something might be amiss with the emergency brake system  in your car. If that's the case, you might be able to stop the train from the cab car. Ask a conductor or some other crew member if there is a cab car on your train. If so, go to it and look for the instructions about activating the brake system as if you were in the locomotive. If there is no cab car, proceed directly to the locomotive. 

  • As you move toward either the cab car or the locomotive, apply the hand brake in the vestibule between cars. This is done by either pumping a brake activation lever  or by turning a brake wheel. Do this for as many cars as possible. 
  • Once you arrive at either the cab car or the locomotive, search for a button marked E-Brake or Emergency Brake. Activate that button. 
If you can't locate the E-Brake or Emergency Brake button, find the throttle. It might be marked as Throttle, Power Throttle, or Combined Power Handle (color green). Move the throttle to the position that slows the engine. 
Look for a Dynamic Brake handle (color orange). Move it to the setup position, wait 5 seconds and then move the handle to the highest position. 
Search for the Air Brake control, sometimes labeled Brake or Automatic Brake (color Red). Move that control to 100%. 
  • Find the horn, a vertical handle or a button labeled Horn. Sound the horn continually, to serve as a warning to everyone ahead of the path of the train.
  • Use the train's radio to alert the dispatcher of the emergency situation.  Depress the button on the microphone and say something like this: "EMERGENCY, EMERGENCY, EMERGENCY. TRAIN NUMBER (announce your train number) IS A RUNAWAY. WE ARE HEADING (tell the direction of travel) AND ARE AT MILE POST (give the location of the train if you know it). CLEAR THE TRACKS. I AM A CIVILIAN, AND THE EMERGENCY BRAKE HAS BEEN ACTIVATED." After making your call, release the microphone button to allow the dispatcher to contact you. Don't worry if the dispatcher doesn't respond — the tracks may be cleared anyway. 
  • Even with all you have done to try to stop the train, prepare yourself for the possibility for a derailment. Position yourself where loose items won't fly in your direction if the train comes to a sudden stop. This is assuming you intend to stay aboard the train. If you decide to jump from a moving train, that's another subject for another time. I'll cover that technique in a future post. 

Monday, April 9, 2012

Water Rescue

Moving water is a powerful force that is almost impossible to withstand. When floodwaters rush into an area, they carry away houses and vehicles…and people. You can't rescue houses and vehicles, but sometimes it's possible to rescue the people who are trapped by the water. Many times, victims are able to crawl up into a tree, onto a boulder or some other stationary object while the rushing water swirls around them. This is where a water rescue is possible. 

Before attempting to rescue someone who is trapped in a river or the rising waters of a flood, make sure you aren’t going to end up in the water yourself. There is nothing to be gained by plunging into the water in an heroic effort to save the victim. If you wind up in the water, you make the whole situation worse. Now there are two victims instead of just one for other rescuers to deal with. Here's the proper procedure:
  • Put yourself in a stable position and secure yourself in a way that you won’t get pulled into the flow. You might do this by lashing yourself to an immovable object that is firmly anchored on dry ground — a tree, a vehicle, or to other rescuers who can serve as a backup human anchor system. 
  • Coil a rescue rope, securing the tail of the line (called the bitter end) to something solid so if it is pulled out of your hands you don't lose the whole thing. 
  • Stand on the upstream side of the rope, so it doesn't sweep into you as it is carried by the current.
  • Throw the coil of rope upstream of the victim, allowing the line to be carried by the current to the victim. You might have to retrieve the line, recoil it and try again and again before you figure out how to use the current to your advantage. 
  • When you successfully get the rope to the victim, take a wrap of the rescue rope around a tree or other solid object to anchor it firmly against the weight of the victim and the immense pressure of flowing water. 
  • Instruct the victim to tie the rope around the waist. If there’s a flotation ring or loop in the end of the rope, have the victim place it over his/her head and upper body and under the arms. 
  • When everything is secure, the victim can be pulled to safety. The rope will act as a pendulum to swing the victim toward the shore downstream of where you are standing.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Making Good Decisions

The difference between life and death sometimes comes down to the decisions you make. Consider the following story as an example. As you read this true survival story, see if you can identify some key decisions that made a difference.

A 76-year-old diabetic man named James Klemovich (who, by the way, also wears a pacemaker and has had triple-bypass surgery) and his 75-year-old friend Lazlo Szabo decided to drive a Lincoln Town Car out into a remote region of the Nevada desert to check out some abandoned mines. This is an area where there was no cell phone coverage, and the total population of the county (7000) is spread out over an area of 6000 square miles. Not exactly a crowded spot on the planet where one might expect to bump into other folks along the way.

At some point in the trip, the car became stuck on a snowy, muddy, lonely dirt trail. The two men went to work attempting to free the car, but were unsuccessful. They lit flares to try to attract attention — but apparently there was nobody around to see the flares. They started a fire, hoping someone would see the smoke during the day or the light at night. Nobody did.

Time passed, but nobody came to their rescue. They used an old towel to strain water from a ditch, and they melted snow for drinking. But with no food and only ditch water and snowmelt to drink, Szabo decided after 4 or 5 days to leave his friend and the site of the stranded vehicle and attempt to walk out to get help.

As luck would have it, after 10 days in the desert, with nothing to eat and only his melted snow to drink, James Klemovich was found by military personnel who were conducting training in that part of the desert.

Lazlo Szabo was found dead a mile and a half away.

When contacted about the discovery of her husband, Joanne Klemovich mentioned that she started to worry when several days had passed without receiving a phone call from James. "I figured maybe they'd had an accident and they were stranded. I thought maybe they were in a mine shaft. All kinds of things were going through my head."

While Klemovich sat in his stranded vehicle, waiting for his friend Szabo to return with help, he kept a journal. He noted how much water he drank and what he did each day. And  each day he wrote a letter for his wife of 48 years.

Here's a situation when two men got into trouble, and only one survived. Ironically, the survivor was the man who had the more serious health issues. What got them into this trouble, and what got them to their individual final outcomes?

Feel free to send me comments about the decisions you think were made that led to this survival incident — both the good decisions and the bad ones.

Please keep your comments appropriate to this audience, because I actively use the delete button for inappropriate language or comments.