Thursday, February 27, 2014

Survival Story

Part of our year-long survival research project involved living in a cave. As it turned out, finding the right cave became a survival incident for us. Here's what happened.

In the middle of winter, Becky and I drove into the exotic slickrock desert to find the cave we were going to live in. Before actually moving into the cave, we wanted to recon the area. Caves are generally not indicated on topographic maps, unless they are important caves like Carlsbad Caverns. Our cave was not one of those, so we needed to put our boots on the ground and go search for it.

On a frosty morning, we headed down the canyon where we had been told there was a suitable cave. Figuring that we would be back at the car by mid-afternoon, we left all of our camping gear in the trunk and headed out wearing only our regular outdoor clothes — mid-weight jackets, blue jeans, and lightweight hiking boots.

I’ll pause here just long enough to say that this is exactly how many real survival incidents begin. People think they’re just going for a short day hike, so they take no survival equipment with them, intending to be back in camp before nightfall. Then something happens and they don’t make it back. That’s what happened to us.

We knew that the cave we wanted to recon was about five miles down the canyon. Unfortunately, Becky was wearing new boots, and by about mile-4 her feet were starting to blister. By the time we reached the cave, she felt like she was walking on hot coals. Our hike had been slow, and that pretty well ate up the day. Winter at that latitude means short days and long nights, and as Becky took her last painful steps toward the cave, we had about an hour of sunlight left. It was clear that she was not going to be able to hike back to the car that day.

The good news was that the cave was high enough up the slope from the streambed that it was out of the coldest zone at the bottom of the canyon. The bad news was that no matter how far up the slope the cave was, the night was going to be sub-freezing and we had nothing but our clothes to keep us warm. No tent, no sleeping bag, nothing.

As the last daylight left the canyon floor, ice was already starting to form along the edges of the stream. Before morning, the entire stream would be frozen over.

I could almost imagine the headlines; “Would-be survival instructor and his wife found dead of hypothermia.” This was not the way I wanted to start my career. There was only one thing to do — I had to use the last few minutes of sunlight to get a fire going and turn the cave into a suitable survival shelter. In cold weather, a cave can be like an icebox, so I decided to make a hot rock bed that would keep us warm all night.

While Becky scooped sand out of an area of the cave floor measuring about 6 feet long by 4 feet wide, I collected firewood. Then I gathered up a bunch of stones and placed them in the hollowed depression that Becky had finished. The firewood went in next, and as night fell pitch black outside, our blaze was lighting up the interior of the cave. We let it burn for about an hour, to heat up the stones, then I scraped the sand back over the bed of hot rocks. The heat rose up through the sand, and we slept on that warm spot of ground and it kept us comfortable all night. Well, maybe comfortable is too nice a word, but even though we had to roll over constantly during the night to stay toasty on all sides, at least we were warm, which beats the heck out of making the headlines.

The lesson in all this is that you need to be prepared to stay longer than anticipated. It can happen to anyone. And knowing some special survival techniques can help keep you alive when your plans run amok.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Altitude Sickness

I don’t know about you, but I’m an air breather.

My favorite air has plenty of oxygen in it, because that’s what feeds every cell in my body. As much as I like oxygen-rich air, I also like to go way up high in the mountains, where the air is thin. That’s okay, as long as I do it the right way, but if I mess up I can fall victim to altitude sickness.

Under the right conditions, everybody is vulnerable to altitude sickness. It isn’t a matter of how old you are (except that young children tend to be at increased risk). It doesn’t matter how many muscles you have. It doesn’t matter that you have been up high in the mountains in the past and never had a problem. It doesn’t matter that you’re an excellent hiker. Actually, it’s even possible for altitude sickness to strike a person riding in a vehicle.

This condition we call altitude sickness is the way the body responds when it is suddenly subjected to a low-oxygen environment. It’s the “suddenly” part that’s most important. Acclimatization to high altitude is a slow process. The problem is that most of us don’t take the time to do it right. We want to be at the top of the mountain right now, so off we go. And that’s when problems strike.

In a nutshell, altitude sickness results from going too high too fast. Approximately 20% of those ascending from sea level to 8000 feet in less than one day develop some form of altitude sickness. The laws of physiology dictate that the higher the elevation, the longer it takes to reach full acclimatization. Above 10,000 feet, about 75% of people feel some symptoms. Those who have suffered altitude sickness in the past are slightly more at risk of recurrence.

But if you gain altitude slowly, gradually acclimatizing over a period of time, you may never experience an altitude-related medical problem. Ascending beyond 8000 feet should be done at a rate of no more than 1500 feet per day. And here’s a rule that will assist the body to acclimatize — after reaching altitude, avoid strenuous exertion for a period of 24 to 36 hours.

But here’s another problem — At high altitude, the air is not only thin and oxygen-poor, it is also very dry. This makes it especially important to drink more water that you are accustomed to at lower elevation. As you exert yourself at high altitude the tendency is to over-breathe the exceptionally dry air, and this accelerates dehydration. As dehydration increases, blood volume is reduced, and that intensifies altitude sickness. So it’s kind of a wicked spiral, one thing feeding off of the other.

So if you have any plans to go to the mountains, make sure you take it easy until you become acclimatized. It’s just one of the rules of survival for us air breathers.

Survival For Children

One of the most serious situations that can arise is when a member of the family wanders away from camp and becomes lost. This is especially terrifying when the lost person is a child.

Every year, many children get lost while the family is camping or even just on a picnic. It happens in a heartbeat, you turn your back for a minute, and a child can wander away. It happens all the time. Sometimes, the child is found alive, but sometimes they are never found at all.

And I’m not just talking about little kids. Take the case of Garrett Bardsley — a Boy Scout who was camping with his troop and with his father when he became lost and was never found, in spite of intensive searching.

As responsible adults, we need to take steps to help keep children safe. And that begins with teaching them how to stay safe, and giving them the tools they need to do that.

Some adults think children can’t learn outdoor survival concepts, but that’s just not true. When our family lived for a year in the wilderness, our 3-year-old daughter went with me every day to set primitive traps and hunt wild edible plants. Even at that young age, she was able to learn the Latin and common names of the plants, and what they were good for. So I refuse to believe that you can’t teach youngsters about survival.

Each child should be taught that wandering away from camp is not allowed. It is helpful to take a family hike through the entire campground, taking the time to point out landmarks and how they relate to the location of the family's camp. If the children are permitted to hike around and explore, teach them to turn around and look back at your campsite every now and then, just to make sure they haven't wandered out of sight of the main camp.

Each member of the group should be outfitted with both audible and visual signal devices. A lightweight but powerful whistle such as the Storm Safety Whistle sold by outdoor equipment retailers is claimed to be many times louder than U.S. military whistles. If someone becomes separated from camp and can't find the way back, the whistle is used to call for help. The nice thing about audible signaling devices is that they can be used day or night. For visual signaling during daylight hours, it's hard to beat a small, unbreakable signal mirror. These are available at sporting goods outlets for less than $10. The flash from a mirror in bright sunlight can signal the location of a lost individual across many miles — much farther than an audible signal carries.

These small, inexpensive and lightweight devices are a tremendous help in locating a lost individual. But it is necessary that those who have these items of equipment know how to use them. A fun family outing could be built around a simulated survival incident in which each person must actually use the audible and visual signal devices to get "rescued." This is on the same order as running fire drills at home, so each person knows how to react in an emergency.

By the way, a signal whistle can help save a child who is lost or abducted from a shopping mall or other public area. Just think about that for a minute.

Whenever you head into the backcountry, ask yourself — "What if we have to stay longer than planned? What do we need to survive?" This is a key concept, because you never know when you will unexpectedly end up in an emergency situation that turns into a survival incident

Hope it never happens, but prepare for the worst.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Military vs. Civilian Survival

I’m sometimes asked about the difference between the kind of survival techniques that are taught in the military and the survival techniques that are taught to civilians.

Is there any crossover?

Does anything that is taught in the military apply in a civilian survival situation?

If you’re not in the military, is there anything useful to be gained by studying military survival manuals?

My training as a Special Forces soldier naturally included the concepts of survival in a combat zone. And my life since getting out of the military has been immersed primarily in civilian survival issues. So I feel qualified to speak about both sides of the story.

As might be expected, there are some huge differences between military and civilian survival issues. The very core concepts are, in some respects, 180-degrees apart. We'll take a look at those in a minute.

But there is also some crossover. Fundamental issues of shelter, food, water, and fire are quite similar. But that's where it stops. There's a lot more to military survival training that has virtually no application in a non-combat situation.

Let’s take a brief look at the core concepts of military survival training.

In military survival training, there is an assumption that you are probably either behind enemy lines or at least within close proximity to the enemy. You need to execute what is known as a survival, escape and evasion plan, so the enemy doesn’t capture you or kill you.

In a combat zone, you might hide during the day and move during the night when you are least likely to be detected. You avoid high-traffic trails, roads, and gathering places. If you must come out into the open, you disguise your appearance and behavior to blend in with the local population.

You exercise noise and light discipline. That means you're as silent as possible, you avoid using a flashlight, and you avoid building a fire and creating smoke or light that will call attention to your position.

You might be forced into a situation where you have to kill someone to keep from being discovered or taken by the enemy.

There’s also an assumption that you are in what we might consider an “exotic” location. That could be jungle, mountain, desert, arctic, or maybe at sea or along a coastline. But the presumption is that you’re not close to home in familiar surroundings, so you might have to deal with exotic wildlife that can be a danger to you, and you also need to know how to use or avoid unfamiliar vegetation that grows in the area.

There's a lot more to it than what can be covered here, but this is enough to illustrate the point.

Okay, so let’s take a look at civilian survival training.

In a non-military survival situation, the assumption is that you are either lost or injured or stranded without the means to protect yourself against the elements — rain, snow, wind, heat or cold.

You’re greatest needs are for shelter, water, food, fire, signaling, and perhaps medical attention. You need to be able to figure out which of these needs is the highest priority, depending upon what’s going on around you.

After you satisfy your basic survival needs, your greatest desire is to let someone know where you are and that you’re in trouble and need them to come and rescue you.

You don't move at night. You establish a camp as close to a trail or clearing as possible, where you can be seen by rescuers. You stay put and make constant improvements to the camp. You do everything during daylight hours, and hunker down at night to avoid getting lost or causing injury to yourself.

You live noisy and bright. Use smoke by day and light by night to call attention to your position, so search teams can find you. Use bright, shiny items to attract attention, bang things together to make noise, whistle, sing, shout. You get the picture.

You don’t need to hide from an enemy — you need to hide from the harmful elements. You don’t need to worry about killing anybody, you only need to worry about keeping yourself alive.

Can you see the difference?

Still, there are some fundamental crossover techniques from military to civilian survival.
  • How to improvise shelter, using natural resources.
  • How to purify drinking water.
  • How to handle medical emergencies.
  • How to set improvised traps to capture food.
  • How to signal for help.

So, to answer the question about the value of studying military survival manuals, I would say “Yes” those can be important sources of information. But you have to sort through all the rest of the stuff that doesn’t apply to you because you don’t happen to be deep in the jungles of some foreign land.

Here’s what I advise — learn from every possible source. Practice techniques until they become second nature. Apply whatever fits your situation.

The more you know, the less you fear.