Thursday, November 29, 2012

Survive a Rip Current

Ocean waves and currents can trap you, dragging you out to sea. Three family members died as they attempted to save their dog that was swept out to sea while chasing a stick playfully tossed into the surf. 

The 16-year-old boy was the first to race into the ocean to try to save his dog from the high surf. The father, seeing the danger his son was in as he fought through 8 to 10-foot waves, went in after him. The boy managed to struggle back to the beach, but when he realized that his dad was still out in the surf looking for him, both he and his mother went into the water to try to save the man.

The waves and currents were too strong for them. Rescuers were able to retrive the mother's body, but it was too late. Eventually, the father's body washed up on shore. As I write this, the Coast Guard is still searching for the teenager.

Ironically, the dog managed to get back to shore on his own.

There is something to be learned from all this. Water on the move is powerful. It doesn't take much current to overpower a swimmer. Even a very powerful swimmer cannot fight a current very long. Eventually, exhaustion sets in, and then you're at the whim of the ocean, and you're too weak to save yourself.

Rip currents are caused by the water that has rushed ashore as waves, turning around and heading back out to sea. The worst rip currents happen when an offshore sandbar is breached, leaving a funnel for the receding water to channel through. When that happens, the outgoing current becomes extremely strong, sweeping anyone caught in it straight out to sea, away from the shoreline.

If you're ever caught in a rip current, the best way to survive is to simply relax and allow the current to carry you out. This sounds counterintuitive, because the farther you get from the beach, the more you start to fear that you're going to be carried to the middle of the ocean. The natural tendency is to start swimming as hard as possible against the current, trying to make it back to shore.


All that will get you is exhausted. You won't be able to make headway against the current. You'll end up drowning, after you've worn yourself out and can't swim anymore.

Allow the current to carry you. Eventually it will weaken, as it gets farther from shore, and you'll stop drifting out. That's when it's time to start swimming. But rather than trying to swim directly back to shore, where you'll just meet the outrushing rip current again, swim parallel to the shoreline until you reach a spot where the rip current is no longer present. Then turn toward shore. Try to pick a spot where the waves aren't going to dash you onto rocks as you make your approach.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Survive a Solar Storm

It sounds like science fiction, but it's actually science fact. A solar storm is predicted to wipe out society as we know it. 

Tom Bogdan, director of NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center, and American physicist (and co-founder of the string theory) Dr. Michio Kaku are both very concerned about the impact of a solar storm on civilization. 

If their prediction comes true, life will change dramatically as the power grid goes offline, taking communication and transportation with it.

For more information about this predicted event, link to

Thursday, November 22, 2012


For those who believe Mother Nature is warm and fuzzy, I have some troubling news to share. She’s a killer.

Well, maybe that’s a little harsh. But nature plays by some very strict rules, with severe consequences for violators. Play by the rules, and everything’s fine. But keep in mind that the real outdoors is no soft and cuddly Disney movie.

Every season has its challenges, but the cold-weather months are among the most daunting and dangerous. The trouble is that human beings are warm-blooded, and we have to take measures to protect our soft, warm flesh from the chilly elements. To neglect this is to sacrifice our flesh to frostbite.


Flesh exposed to extreme cold will freeze, and the result is frostbite. Depending upon conditions, this can sometimes happen very quickly — like in a matter of minutes. For example, you grasp a frozen bit of metal with a bare hand, or worse yet, you splash some intensely cold gasoline (which won’t freeze until far below zero) on your hands or feet while refueling a vehicle — instant severe frostbite injury.

Slower frostbite sneaks up on you over a span of time during which your raw skin is exposed to the cold elements, or circulation is restricted to your hands and feet due to boots and gloves that are too tight.

Under normal slow-frostbite conditions, the initial process isn’t particularly painful. Other than mild tingling, you might not even notice, because the flesh becomes numb as it freezes. And because you can’t feel it happening to yourself, it's important to be vigilant to guard against the onset of frostbite. If you're with friends, watch each other for signs of freezing tissue. If you're alone, use a signal mirror or other reflective surface to do the best you can to detect the telltale signs of frostbite. Check hands and feet to make sure they still have warmth and feeling.

So what does frostbite look like and feel like?

As skin freezes, the affected spot loses sensation and turns gray/white or yellow/white in color. The flesh becomes stiff, resilient, crispy to the touch. Mildly frostbitten flesh still yields under moderate pressure, but as the freezing deepens, the flesh becomes solid and wooden feeling.

Frostbite is most likely to happen to exposed flesh where the wind and cold have direct access to the skin (cheeks, nose, chin, forehead, ears, etc.). Also vulnerable are hands and feet, where circulation is restricted by tight clothing and is relatively distant from the warmth of the body core.

How Serious Is It?

Mild frostbite, if caught and treated early, does not pose a serious health threat. But it can be painful during recover. If the freezing is allowed to deepen, the flesh may be terminally damaged, resulting in eventual loss. Gangrene in injured flesh, leading to eventual amputation, is not uncommon among expedition climbers who suffer extreme frostbite and can’t get treatment soon enough. But you don’t have to be an expedition mountaineer to fall victim. All you have to do is fail to prevent frostbite, then neglect immediate treatment.


The first line of defense is your clothing, protecting the flesh from exposure to the cold and wind. Dress in layers, with a breathable wind/waterproof shell covering effective insulation layers. A neoprene face mask, full coverage headgear to protect the neck and ears, adequate footgear and mittens will go a long way toward fending off the surface damage caused by bitter cold. Keep boots and socks dry and loose enough to permit the free flow of blood circulating to your toes. Mittens are more effective than gloves because they don’t isolate fingers and they’re roomy enough to not restrict blood flow.

Next, eat high energy foods and warm drinks often during the times of peak exposure. Stay away from alcohol, because it not only numbs the brain and results in poor judgement, but it also causes the circulatory system to dilate, which can speed you on your way to an even bigger problem — hypothermia.

Check your skin often, inspecting for telltale spots. Check your buddy. Check fingers and toes.

To increase circulation, wriggle your face, move fingers and toes, mildly exercise those areas most vulnerable. Periodically, hold a warm hand over cheeks, nose, ears, etc., to share the warmth. If your hands are affected, pull off your gloves and insert hands under bare armpits. If your buddy has cold feet, you may have to take shelter, pull off his boots and hold his chilled feet against your warm stomach. This is where you learn who your true friends are.

Get out of the cold as soon as possible. Then get out of cold clothing and into something warmer. Frozen boots are like an icebox, and feet will just get colder if you leave them inside. Start working on creating a warmer environment.


When it comes to treatment of deeply frozen flesh, you should get to a medical facility as quickly as possible. If a seriously frozen area is thawed and then allowed to freeze again, extreme damage will result. Treatment of profound frostbite is best left to professionals. In cases of solidly frozen feet or hands, do not attempt to remove boots or gloves. Just transport the victim to an emergency medical facility as fast and safely as you can.

But if the injury is only mild and you can’t get real medical help in a reasonable amount of time, the recommended procedure is to immerse the frostbitten area in warm (not hot) water. A temperature between 102 and 105 is generally safe. Expect some excruciating pain, as the flesh thaws. After thawing, take all precautions to ensure against re-freezing that part of the body. It will be vulnerable, so you must be careful.


• Do — Periodically check yourself and your buddy for frostbite

• Do — Eat and drink hot stuff

• Do — Stay dry

• Do — Use gentle warming techniques to thaw mild frostbite

• Do — Prevent re-freezing of the injured area


• Don’t — Rub the injured area with snow (very dangerous)

• Don’t — Drink alcohol

• Don’t — Smoke

• Don’t — Attempt to thaw a deeply frozen injury. Transport the victim as quickly as safely possible to a medical facility.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Day Hike Syndrome Strikes Again

mountains, lost, day hike syndrome
The outdoors is big and hostile when you're out there overnight but didn't plan to be.
Two men out for a day of snowboarding on the slopes of Mount Rainier didn't make it back.

At least they didn't make it back when they intended. Derek Tyndall and Thomas Dale (20 and 21 years old respectively) became disoriented (aka lost) in a snowstorm while descending from Camp Muir. Unable to find their way, they used their cell phones to called for help.

The search began, and more than two dozen people hit the snow-covered mountain to assist in the rescue operation. Eventually, the rescue crew was able to make visual contact from about a half mile away, but were unable to reach the stranded men before nightfall. Then the weather got worse, forcing rescue crews off the mountain.

Tyndall and Dale reported via cell phone that they were cold but otherwise unhurt. As night approached, they dug a snow cave for shelter, but reportedly had no overnight gear with them.

There is so much to learn from an incident such as this one. The surprising thing to me is how often it is repeated. This whole scenario falls into what I call Day Hike Syndrome — which, in my opinion, is one of the greatest dangers when you trek off into the outdoors.

Day Hike Syndrome is that misaligned mental attitude in which people think nothing can go wrong because:
  • I'm only going for a short hike (ski, snowmobile ride, canoe ride, hunt, day of fishing, mountain bike ride, afternoon of snowboarding…you name it), and I'll be back before nightfall. 
  • I've done this before and nothing bad happened. 
  • I'll be with friends who are experienced 
  • yadda-yadda-yadda…plug in any excuse you can think of 
These are nothing more than lame attempts at rationalization about why you fail to carry overnight gear. It all stems from the misbegotten belief that you will surely be able to make it back home (or to your vehicle) without getting trapped outdoors overnight.

The problem is that you can't see the future. You can guess at it and place your bet, but trust me, the future can outguess you and deal you a losing hand. It can be even a slight injury that slows you down enough that you can't make it out before dark. It can be the sudden onset of unexpected weather. It can be that you simply take the wrong fork of a trail and lose your way.

Regardless of what causes it, you end up staying longer in the outdoors than you planned. All because you failed to plan for the eventuality that you would be spending the night (maybe several) out there. And then you end up in a survival situation with search and rescue teams risking their own lives to come and save yours.

So, what's the solution? Every time you take off for a "one day" trip into the outdoors, for whatever reason, take the kind of equipment that would be appropriate for an overnight stay in the wilds in your location and season.
  • Emergency shelter 
  • Fire starting equipment 
  • Water purification system 
  • Extra high-energy food 
  • Overnight clothing (I'm not talking about pajamas here) 
  • Flashlight 
  • Signaling devices (cell phone, mirror, whistle, PLB, SPOT) 

Never take anything for granted in the outdoors. It only takes a minor mistake to end up staying longer out there than planned.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Death By Mushroom

It happens every year — people kill themselves by eating toxic wild mushrooms.

The news this morning is about two people dying and four others getting sick after eating some soup made with wild mushrooms. There was no foul play suspected in this case (like trying to poison your rich uncle to speed your access to his will), because one of those who became sick was the one who prepared the soup, and ate it as well.

These folks were in north/central California, but this can be a problem anywhere mushrooms grow. There's something about those capped fungi that seems to attract a culinary interest.

I have to admit that I also like to gather some select wild edible mushrooms in their season and add them to the dinner table. BUT (and this is a huge BUT) I never bring home a mushroom I don't know for certain is edible. And some deadly varieties counterfeit themselves as tame, so utmost care is required.

It's the same story for any wild edible plant. There are more than 100,000 edible varieties in the world. Seems like a lot to choose from. But then consider that there are more than 300,000 total varieties and it becomes clear that the ratio of edible vs non-edible (sometimes toxic) is not in your favor if you like to graze indiscriminately.

So I issue this caution — before putting any wild plant or fungus in your mouth, know what you're eating. Know it absolutely, not just with a hunch that it is edible. There are some very close cousins in the plant world where a deadly poisonous one is almost identical to a perfectly edible one. You have to know how to read the labels. Study books on the subject, but even more important is to go into the field with experienced people who can teach you how to identify plants the right way.

It's like going to the grocery story to pick up a can of soup. Imagine if all the labels had been removed from every can in the store — or that they were all written in Chinese characters that you don't know how to read. You might be lucky enough to actually find the soup…but you have a greater chance of finding something else. Just because it comes in a can doesn't make it edible.

In the plant world, it's the same concept. Just because it's green, or just because it produces a pretty berry, or just because it grows alongside perfectly edible plants is no guarantee. You must know how to read the labels of plant identification. That is a technical aspect of outdoor survival, but one that is fascinating and fun to pursue.

While you're at it, learn about wild medicinal plants and "otherwise useful" plants that produce resources that can be used for making cordage or tools. Study the ethnobotany of indigenous peoples who lived (or perhaps still live) in your region.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Fighting To Survive

Long after the storm has passed, the fight for survival goes on. 

This is the nature of urban survival after a natural disaster. It doesn't matter whether it was a hurricane, a tornado, an earthquake, a flood, a wildfire … the aftermath is always worse than the event that caused the human suffering. The ground only shakes for a few minutes, but the chaos that follows goes on and on.

The East Coast is feeling that now. Weeks after the big storm passed through, leaving millions without power, without homes, without normal lives, the struggle continues. Residents live in cold, dark apartments or homes. Neighborhoods no longer have operational grocery stores or gas stations or laundramats or pharmacies. Some residents are afraid to leave their apartments or home after dark, so they feel trapped.

Many of the people are not prepared to take care of themselves, so they wait for the government and for utility crews and for the rebuilding of their communities. In the meanwhile, they sit and suffer the loss of services they have become accustomed to having around them, easily within reach.

One resident on Coney Island said, "It's very hard. There are no stores here anymore. There's nothing. We can't even come out of our apartments at night. We need a curfew on Coney Island."

A woman who set up a relief center to help neighbors said, "A lot of us are fighting for our lives. A lot of people are desperate. They don't know where they are getting their next meal. We are fighting among ourselves here because we are tired, and we are frustrated."

Out of all this suffering and desperation come some lessons for us. The problem is that we tend to think disasters happen only to other people, so we get complacent and fail to prepare for the day when our own world runs amok. We need to stop thinking that way, and start taking steps right now to prepare.
  • The first three letters of the word PREPARE are PRE — that means "ahead of time." We must prepare before the need arrives. When chaos strikes, the opportunity to prepare is past. 
  • Those people who don't know where their next meal is coming from were not prepared to live without an active grocery store nearby. We need to stock up on essentials like food, medications, toiletries and other things we use on a daily basis, so we could comfortably live a month or more without going to the store. 
  • The same goes for water. Store bottles and jugs of drinking water under the bed or in a closet so you don't have to suffer dehydration when suddenly the water supply is either cut off or contaminated. 
  • Have a backup cooking method available. This can be a simple camp stove and fuel canisters sufficient to keep you going for a month or more. 
  • Have backup illumination methods — candles, lanterns, flashlights. 
  • Make sure your medications are up to date and you have enough on hand that you can do without the pharmacy for a month or more. 
  • Toilet paper — what are you going to do after you unfurl the last square off the roll? Take the hint — stock up. 
  • Soap, toothpaste and toothbrushes, all the things you consume daily — stock up on these items. 
  • Have a manual can opener so you can get into the food supply even if the power is out. 

The point is that we need to examine the way we live, decide what we need on a daily basis, and stock up on those items. If you are prepared, you can rest a little easier knowing that even if a disaster hits you can survive comfortably on the supplies you have set aside for just such an event.

It's the old story of the ant and the grasshopper. The grasshopper didn't concern himself with preparation, because he just refused to believe winter would come. 

But winter does come, and it's only a matter of time before it comes calling on us.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Dealing With a Boil Order

Somewhere around the country, nearly every day, there's a boil order issued by health departments in communities that are having problems with the water supply.

Right now, many municipalities that were affected by the flooding associated with Hurricane Sandy are under boil order. In New Jersey alone, 12 communities have issued advisories.

So, what's a boil order? It's an advisory that is announced, usually over local radio or TV stations, telling residents that they need to boil their drinking water to prevent illness.

The illness may be caused by any number of bacteria, virus, or other living organisms that find their way into the public water supply. The causes of contamination can be a natural disaster such as flood, earthquake, landslide, etc. Or it can result from such things as a broken water line, broken sewage lines that permit intermingling of sewage with the community water supply, or equipment failure in the water delivery system.

Advice accompanying a boil order usually says to boil all drinking water for 1 minute. The word boil mean maintaining the water at a rolling boil, with vigorous bubbling for the entire minute. And this should be done to all water that will be use in any part of food preparation — diluting soups, juice concentrates, rehydrating mashed potatoes, mixing gravy, making ice cubes etc., not just for the water you drink.

Another consideration is that the water you use to wash dishes needs to be clean, or else you risk contaminating the dishes. Rather than boiling the dishwashing water, you can treat it chemically by using a mixture of one tablespoon of chlorine bleach per 5 gallons of water. Let it stand for at least 30 minutes before using, to give it time to kill the organisms. Be aware that not all organisms will be killed by chlorine, giardia being one example. Iodine is better at inactivating giardia cysts than chlorine, but iodine causes health problems for some people. Effectiveness of chemicals at disinfecting water is heavily dependent on water temperature, pH level, and clarity. The colder and cloudier the water, the longer it takes for the chemicals to be effective.

Water used for bathing doesn't usually need to be boiled first, but the water used for washing and rinsing hands and face should be sanitized before use. And be careful not to allow contaminated water near open wounds or rashes.

To survive a boil order with the least amount of hassle or risk, place in your emergency storage a few days' supply of paper plates, plastic utensils and cups, and at least a week's worth of bottled drinking water. Use large zip baggies to serve as mixing bowls and storage containers for leftovers. That minimizes the amount of dish washing that needs to be done.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Post Crisis Stress Syndrome

The storm is gone — the crisis continues.

This is nothing surprising. It happens after every disaster. Survivors who are grateful to be alive in the immediate aftermath of the disaster become frustrated and self-centered as the abnormal situation is prolonged.

An example is what's happening right now in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. In New Jersey, more than 80% of gas stations are unable to sell gasoline because they are either out of fuel or there is no electricity to operate the pumps. Customers are lined up, shouting at each other and at the business owner. State troopers are deployed to quell the situation. It happens every time. No one should be surprised.

As the power outages persist throughout the entire Northeast, with 20 stated affected, people can't get the supplies they want or need. Transportation is difficult at best, and nonexistent in some places. Communication systems have failed, with cell towers disabled and landlines out of service. There's no power to operate residential furnaces, and the weather is cold and wet.

People who have home generators are out of fuel, and the gas stations (as noted above) are out of action. Barry Levin of Cliffside Park, standing in line at an Exxon station, said, "I'll wait here all night. I need this for my family."

Kevin Beyer, president of the Long Island Gasoline Retailers Association said, "I have gas in the ground but no power. For many others they're facing the opposite problem, with power but no gasoline." He estimated it could take until the end of next week to have all the stations up and running again.

Part of the problem is the government. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie took steps to waive regulations that make it hard for stations to buy fuel from out-of-state suppliers. "When shortages threaten after natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy, fuel buyers need to venture farther from state borders to ensure that their customers get the gasoline and diesel they need," state treasurer Andres Sidamon-Eristoff said.

All I have to add to that is, "duh!" Regulations strangle business, and one of the best time to see that clearly is in the aftermath of a disaster.

And it isn't only gasoline. Commodities that help people through a disaster are in short supply, and people are frustrated because they can't find what they need. A manager at a Lowe's store in Orange, New York said, "You see the worst in people at a time like this. We're trying to be there for them, but they get angry when they can't get batteries or flashlights."

Utility crews are also being abused by residents who are frustrated by how long it's taking to restore power. Angry calls are flooding the utility offices, and there are occasional confrontations on the street where crews are working.

The lesson for us — prepare ahead of time. When a disaster hits, expect to do without some services and commodities. Suck it up and tough it out and quit whining.