Friday, April 25, 2014

Core Essentials For Outdoor Survival

TentIt’s that time of year when people start abandoning their couch and TV and heading outside in search of adventure. It doesn’t matter whether your brand of adventure is hiking or camping or fishing or mountain biking or river kayaking.

No matter what you like to do when you leave civilization behind and head into the backcountry, you should stop and think — "What if something forces me to stay longer than planned? What do I 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.

It’s so easy for that to happen. All it takes is a simple injury, like a twisted ankle, on some remote trail. Or getting turned around and not knowing the way back to camp. Or a sudden storm that strands you a long way from your shelter.

If a trip suddenly becomes a survival situation, there are some basic things to consider. These are core essentials to survival in the outdoors. So here we go. The number one thing to consider is that:

• Exposure to the elements poses a threat to human existence. In a survival situation, maintaining proper body temperature is critical. Shelter from the elements — rain, wind, heat, and cold is vital. Your clothing is the first line of defense when it comes to shelter. Clothing with long sleeves and long pant legs is important in both hot and cold weather, because it helps control body temperature and dehydration. Long clothing also helps prevent sunburn, scrapes, bug bites, and other minor injuries. Every person should have windproof and water resistant clothing (an inexpensive pocket poncho works), as well as insulating layers to help maintain the proper body core temperature.

• Food is important. Even though a healthy individual can survive for a prolonged period of time without eating, the problem with going too long without food is that you literally run out of fuel and can't function efficiently. It might take several weeks to actually die of starvation, but in the meantime you will be operating at a progressively lower level mentally and physically. No matter how long your trip is planned for, take along enough compact, high-calorie emergency food to last a few extra days. It's good insurance.

• Water is absolutely essential to survival. Each person should have a couple quarts of drinkable water every day — and more if there is much exertion or if the ambient temperature is high. Take three-times as much water as you think you need for the outing. For greatest safety, a portable water purification system should be included in your equipment inventory. Filters are available in backpacking stores or from outdoor equipment mail order catalogs. Get one that removes dangerous waterborne microorganisms, such as giardia.

• And finally, Fire — take redundant methods of starting a fire, so you can have one in your jacket, and your pants, and your pack. You don’t want to be without a means of starting a fire, even if you happened to leave your jacket or pack in camp, then wandered away and got lost. Fire can be used as a signaling method, or for cooking food, purifying water, for warming you up and drying wet clothing, and for cheering up a gloomy night.

• Before leaving on your trip, file a flight plan with trusted individuals back home. These are your family members and friends or co-workers. Tell them where you're going, when you'll be back, and any side-trips you have in mind. Include information about who you’re traveling with, what vehicles are being used, and what type of equipment you’re carrying. That way, if you don't show up back home in a reasonable time, a search can be initiated. Don’t alter the plan, unless you call and notify the people back home that you are doing so. This might seem like a lot of trouble, but it is nothing compared to being stranded for several days on your own because the search teams are looking for you in the wrong location.

• Once you’re in camp, don’t just wander away without letting someone know where you’re going and when you expect to return. Discuss your plans with a responsible adult who can organize a search if you don't return at the appointed time.

• Talk with everyone in the group about the rules of conduct in camp. If there are children along, make sure they understand that everyone needs to know where each person is all the time. If someone turns up missing, conduct an immediate search, looking for footprints and calling out to the missing person. If your efforts don’t result in finding the missing person quickly, don't waste any more time before calling for reinforcements. While you’re waiting for the search and rescue team to arrive, continue to search actively. But make sure every person in your party remains in contact with each other. You don’t want searchers getting lost and making the situation worse.

• Prepare each person with knowledge and basic equipment for survival alone in the wilderness. Each person should have an age-appropriate kit that could include some of the following items: a pocket full of emergency rations, a bottle of water, a small first aid kit, a whistle and a signal mirror, a means of starting a fire, an emergency shelter, a knife, and a small flashlight. That might sound like a lot of stuff, but believe it or not, all this can be carried in a small fanny pack or in the pockets of cargo pants.

• Youngsters of responsible age should be taught how to prepare an emergency survival camp, signal for help, use a pocket poncho for shelter, and make their position obvious to searchers through audible and visual signals.

• Get some first aid training, and carry a good kit that you have assembled yourself, so you know what’s in there and what to do with it. The most common injuries are cuts, scrapes, burns, sprains and fractures. You should know how to handle those kinds of medical emergencies. If someone in your group is sensitive to bee stings, you need to know that and be prepared to handle that kind of situation. If someone is diabetic, you need to know that and understand how to handle insulin shock or diabetic coma. Contact your local fire department and ask where you can get emergency medical training. They’ll point you in the right direction.

If everyone in your group is prepared like this, there’s a better chance of a positive outcome if something does go wrong and you end up in a survival situation.

Search & Rescue

Emergency vehiclesRecently, there was a devastating landslide in Washington State that wiped out an entire community.

So far, the search and rescue teams have discovered 41 victims who died. There are still members of the community who are missing. Even though a month has passed since the landslide, the search and recovery effort continues. And it will continue for a long time to come.

When something like this happens, lots of people want to jump in and help in some way. That’s understandable, and it’s admirable that so many folks want to volunteer to lend a hand to relieve the suffering of people who have gone through a disaster.

But timing is everything.

At the moment of the disaster, if you’re a survivor and you can help other people get out alive, that’s great. But when the search and rescue teams arrive, or when the situation evolves into a search and recovery effort, that’s when things change insofar as your ability to help.

And this is what I want to talk about today. What is actually helpful, and what just gets in the way of the search teams?

One of the local officials went on the radio recently to talk about how people who are not part of the official search and recovery effort can help. And while he was thankful for all the volunteers, he also mentioned some things that people do that are not helpful.

Let’s go there first.

An event like this one, a natural disaster that wipes out a large area, is going to take a long time to recover from. Not only was the town wiped out, but the slide closed off a mile of state highway under mud and rocks and trees to a depth of up to 25 feet. The reason they can’t just bulldoze the rubble off the highway is because there might still be victims who are missing buried in that rubble. Clearing the area is going to take time. And until every missing person is found or the search is terminated, and the highway is cleared, the area will remain cordoned off so search teams can do their work.

This tragedy has been all over the news, and there are people who just want to drive up and look at it in person. The local official I mentioned earlier made a plea for people to stay away and let the workers do their jobs. “This isn’t a tourist spot,” he said.

For those who want to volunteer to help out in the wake of a disaster (not only this one, but any disaster), the best advice is to call the Red Cross or the local disaster relief organization and tell them you would like to volunteer to help. They’ll put your name on a list, and they’ll call you when the scene has been secured enough to allow volunteers to come in and help.

It’s nice of people to want to send things to help comfort survivors, but even that can become overwhelming for the relief agencies. The best thing to donate or contribute is money. Give it to the Red Cross or to your church, if they’re organizing a humanitarian relief effort.

Doing things in an organized way helps avoid more chaos in an already chaotic situation.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Giardia, Cryptosporidium & Other Bad Stuff

water faucet
Giardia and Cryptosporidium are waterborne organisms that make the water unsafe to drink.

Some people think that giardia and cryptosporidium are only found in rivers and lakes in the wilderness. But the bad news is that the worst outbreaks of these water contaminants in the U.S. happen right in our city water supplies.

One of the most memorable outbreaks was in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1993. Over the span of two weeks, more than 400,000 residents became sick, and 104 people died from a cryptosporidium outbreak caused by a malfunctioning city water treatment plant.

When the public water supply is contaminated, and the contamination is discovered, a boil order is usually issued by the community health department. A boil order is an advisory 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 it could be the result of equipment failure in the water treatment or delivery systems.

A boil order usually advises to boil drinking water for one 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 aspect of food preparation such as diluting soups or juice concentrates, rehydrating mashed potatoes, mixing gravy, even making ice cubes. This is 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. To help minimize the amount of dish washing that needs to be done, it’s a good idea to have a few days’ supply of paper plates, plastic utensils and cups in your emergency storage. You can use large zip baggies to serve as mixing bowls and storage containers for leftovers. Throw this stuff away after use, conserving your purified water supply for consumption rather than sanitation.

An alternate method to boiling is to bring the water temperature up to more than 165 degrees F and hold it there for six minutes, effectively pasteurizing the water. Use a cooking thermometer to verify that the water temperature is high enough. Pasteurization is a process that you can even do in a solar cooker on a sunny day.

A good filtration system is an excellent way to remove pathogens from the water. A filter rated at .10 microns will stop giardia, cryptosporidium, and bacteria. For versatility and effectiveness, I recommend the Sawyer 3 Water Filter ( that has a million-gallon guarantee.

Another alternative is to treat water chemically. You can do this 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. But not all organisms will be killed by chlorine, giardia being one example. Iodine is better at inactivating giardia, but iodine causes health problems for some people. Effectiveness of chemical treatment is affected by 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 purified 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.

In any survival situation, pure water is a top priority. So make sure you have enough on hand in your emergency supplies to last a couple weeks, and have the ability to purify more water when your supply runs low.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Top Ten Emergency Items

You never know when you’re going to find yourself in a sticky situation, so it’s a good idea to always have some basic emergency equipment close at hand.

There have been many incidents in which people became stranded with their vehicles, so I’ve put together a Top Ten list of things you should carry in your car. These are in no particular order — I recommend you have all of them.

1. Cell phone and charger — Your ability to call for help is what will get you out of your situation faster than anything else. Make sure to carry a cell phone charger that can keep the phone powered up through the vehicle’s battery. You don’t want your cell phone battery to die just when you need to call for help.

2. Emergency blanket — In fact, you might want two blankets of different types. One can be a nice fluffy car blanket that rolls up in a tight little sausage shape, and the other is a pocket-sized Mylar emergency blanket that is reflective on one side and takes up almost no space.

3. Water — Carry a gallon for each person in the vehicle. If you end up stranded for a couple days, you’ll appreciate having this.

4. Food — Have granola bars or other high-calorie snack foods tucked away in the vehicle. The nice thing about trail bars is that they’re compact, they last a long time and they’re not messy. Rotate food items out of the vehicle and into your pantry every six months, and replace with fresh.

5. Fire starting stuff — A fire can be useful for signaling, purifying water, cooking, drying your clothing, keeping you warm, and just keeping you company at night. Have a few methods of fire starting in the vehicle.

6. Medications — If you’re taking medications, carry an emergency supply of them in the vehicle. Some medications, like insulin, might require refrigeration. If so, carry a small ice chest that will preserve the meds for a few days, in case you get stranded. When you go on a trip, bring medications fresh from your house, perhaps in a small duffle bag, so they don’t sit around in the vehicle and get old.

7. Sanitation items — This includes hand sanitizer, toilet paper, perhaps baby wipes, and feminine products that might be needed.

8. First aid kit — Assemble the kit yourself, so you know exactly what’s in there. It wouldn’t hurt to get some basic emergency medical training. Contact your local fire department to find out about available training.

9. Extra clothing — Toss a coat into the vehicle, even if it’s summer and you’re not expecting to stay out late at night. You never know what might happen, and having a jacket, some gloves, a cap, maybe an extra pair of socks will come in handy. For sure have some 5-mile shoes in the vehicle, in case you need to walk to find help.

10. Tools — You want to be able to take care of minor breakdowns. Have a jack, lug wrench, spare tire, and the knowledge of how to use these items. Carry road flares (they make great fire starters, and they also warn other motorists that you’re having a problem). Carry a powerful flashlight and extra batteries. And carry a tarp, in case you need to work on wet or muddy ground.

So there’s my Top Ten emergency items to carry in your vehicle. Feel free to add to the list.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Wild Mushrooms

The toxic Fly Agaric mushroom
The toxic Fly Agaric mushroom
This is the season when wild mushrooms start to poke up out of the ground, and that prompts many people to go hunting for wild edible mushrooms. I enjoy hunting wild edibles, including mushrooms. That might sound like fun, but there’s some significant danger involved in eating wild mushrooms. When I say significant danger, I mean illness or death by poisoning. If you happen to eat a poisonous mushroom, the risk is high because it doesn’t take very much of a bite for the toxins to take effect.

Of course, not every poisonous mushroom is deadly. Some of them just cause a great deal of misery such as gastrointestinal upset, nausea, diarrhea and vomiting, heart palpitations, or neurological problems. But the truly deadly ones cause liver damage, respiratory failure, kidney failure, destruction of blood cells, and even the loss of limbs prior to death. Serious symptoms don’t always show up immediately after eating a toxic mushroom. Often the problems don’t emerge until the poison has had a chance to attack the kidneys or liver, which might be days or even weeks later. So this is nothing to play around with.

I want to warn you that there are folklore rules for mushroom hunting that are wrong, and can lead you into danger. For example the erroneous rule that poisonous mushrooms are brightly colored, or that if you put a bit of toxic mushroom on a silver spoon it will turn the silver black. You cannot believe such old wives’ tales, because they are not true.

Another bit of bad advice is that by watching the animals and insects you can tell which mushrooms are safe to eat, because animals and insects won’t touch poisonous mushrooms. Well, that’s not true either. Fungi that are harmless to animals and insects might still be toxic to humans. In fact, the Death Cap mushroom is frequently infested by insect larvae.

There is no taste test for detecting a toxic mushroom. The old myth that poisonous mushrooms taste bad is false. Some of the deadliest mushrooms taste quite good — as reported by lucky survivors who didn’t die after eating them.

Or, how about this myth — poisonous mushrooms have pointed caps, while edible ones have round or flat caps. Totally wrong. The shape has nothing to do with toxins.

And just being able to identify a general species of mushroom is no guarantee, either. There can be both edible and toxic members of some mushroom species. And while cooking may eliminate the toxin from some mushrooms, that doesn’t work for all of them.

So how do you know which mushrooms are safe and which are poisonous? The only safe way to deal with wild mushrooms is to make absolute positive identification. This is one area of wild food gathering in which it is extremely important to know what you’re doing.

There are some good books about mushroom identification. I depend on a book called Mushrooms of North America by Orson K. Miller Jr. It’s filled with color photos and precise descriptions that help determine which mushroom I’ve found.

Books are good, but I also recommend that you link up with a class on mushroom identification. Or you might find a local mushroom hunters club. The study of mushrooms is called mycology, so you might do a search by that name to find a club or group of avid mushroom hunters in your area.

Going into the field with experienced experts is the best way to learn how to enjoy and survive the hunt for wild mushrooms.