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Survival Basics

By Russ Kolkman

Whether you are out on a short day hike, canoeing, riding your ATV, hunting white tail or making a short flight; survival situations happen, and they can happen quickly. In fact, most survival situations happen to folks who did not expect trouble and therefore, did not plan for it. They often find themselves thinking, “I’m only going to be gone a few hours“. They also fail to tell anyone where they are going. Finally, people more often than not, don’t bring anything with them that would help them out of the jam they find themselves in.

If you enjoy the outdoors, fly, or drive long stretches of isolated roadways, you need to be prepared for a survival situation. It can and does happen to anyone, at any time. So what do you do? How do you prepare for such an event? Well, there are just a few basic things you need to keep in mind and a few simple tasks to accomplish to keep yourself alive in a tough spot. This article is designed to bring you up to speed on the tasks that you need to complete and in what order.

Before setting out, even on a short hike, let someone know where you are going. If possible, let them know when you will be back, and call them when you return. If you take a Friday afternoon off to go hiking, then fall down and break your leg at the bottom of a ravine, you might not be missed until work Monday morning. You will have been incapacitated and exposed to the elements for 36 hours before anyone starts looking for you. In cold weather, that could prove deadly. So, let someone know. On your vehicle, leave a note, even on the dash. It should state who you are, what you are wearing, where you went, why, and when you expect to return. A park ranger will notice a car parked at a trail head for a day or more and check on it.

Okay, so you screwed up and now you are in a survival situation. What next? First of all, get yourself out of danger: sinking car, burning aircraft, swift water, falling rocks, attacking bear, etc. Stop the danger and then check yourself out. Render first aid immediately. Stop any bleeding first. You will need to keep as much blood inside you as possible. You can’t put it back in! Stabilize any fractures. Don’t move if you think you may have broken your back or pelvis. Many survival scenarios start as the result of an injury or medical emergency, so be prepared by having 1st aid supplies and some basic training on how to use them.

Once you are out of danger and have patched yourself up, sit down and think. Figure out where you are. Take an inventory of what you have with you that will help you survive. Do you have a knife, dry clothing, matches, a cell phone that works? Start making a plan. Unless you know you are right by a road, or people, it is best to stay put and let your rescuers come find you. Moving around will only make their job harder since they typically search by grids. You could potentially travel into a grid they already searched.

Prioritize. The single most important thing to maintain, in any situation, is your core body temperature. If it is cold, you really need to stay warm. If it is hot, you need to stay cool. After breathing and blood loss, this is more important than anything else. If you get too cold, you will make bad decisions and start a downward spiral to your demise. It really does happen this way and it is ugly. If you get too hot, you will slip into a coma and never wake up. Not a pretty way to go either. So protect yourself from the elements.

The next most important thing is shelter. If it is cold, make sure you have dry clothing and layers. Wet cotton kills. It wicks heat away from your body. Take it off. Wool, and polypro are good materials. Gore-Tex is awesome. If your clothing is wet, dry it in the wind or near your fire if you have one. Stuff leaves inside to insulate your clothing. Get off the ground. The ground robs you of heat through conduction. Build a pile of leaves, or other insulating material, to sit on. Build a lean-too shelter to block the wind or lay down behind a rock ledge or large tree. A shelter will help hold in heat, block the winds and keep you off the ground. If it is hot, it will shade you and keep you off the hot sand and rocks.

Next, if it is cold, make a fire. Always carry a method of starting a fire. Better yet, carry two ways. Fire will save your bacon. It will keep you warm, help signal rescuers and boost your morale. A small bic mini lighter and some matches are all you need. However, the really small fire rods (flint and magnesium w/striker) are awesome and will spark even when wet. A fire needs three things to start: heat (spark), air and fuel. Tinder can be dryer lint in your pockets or shredded dollar bills. Think outside the box.

After fire, you will need water. This is especially true in a hot dry environment. In the desert, I’d say water is more important than fire, even though it gets cold at night. It is best to carry water with you of course. If you did not bring any on this trip, you will need to go get some. Any container will do to carry it in, but make sure you treat your water before drinking. It may look pure and clean, but you don’t know how many raccoons and possums used your drinking water as a toilet. Hint: a lot! A filter is best, but boiling works too. A drop or two of iodine per quart will kill the bad stuff and so will a drop or two of chlorine bleach.

The Katadyn Micropur tablets are the best hands down because they kill bacteria and viruses. The Micropur MP1 tablets also kill cysts, which are often hard to kill. Another advantage is that they are easy to carry since each tablet is sealed in foil. Regarding solar stills; they are a worthless and foolish method of attempting to get water. You will expend more sweat making one than water you will gain. Making solar stills will quickly put you upside down in a desert environment.

A note on food. You probably don’t need any for a 72 hour survival situation. Yes, you will be hungry. Yes, your energy will decrease. But most of us in America have a reserve of body fat we can pull from if needed. However, food is helpful in the cold because it helps create heat during digestion. Bringing some food with you is great, but don’t put yourself at risk trying to spear trout in a fast moving rocky stream. Many people expend more calories in the pursuit of food than they get from the food once they catch it.

The last thing you need to consider is getting found. So you need to attract your rescuer’s attention. A whistle and a signal mirror are both great tools. Anybody can use a whistle and the sound carries much, much farther than your voice. Remember, three of anything is a distress signal: whistle blasts, gunshots, etc. A good signal plan would incorporate a ground to air signal: placed on the ground, stamped into snow, laid out with logs, etc. It would also include a signal mirror during the day (scanning the horizon and any passing aircraft), a strobe or flashing light at night and a whistle throughout the day. But have a plan. Of course a cell phone would be helpful, but it could have been broken in the initial emergency or you might not be able to get a signal where you are.

Below is a brief summary:

- Tell people where you are going and when you will return. Leave a note!
- When you do get in trouble, STOP! Get out of danger, patch yourself up, get your bearings, take an inventory of your gear and make a plan.
- Bring a few useful items with you all the time: a pocket knife, fire (a bic mini lighter, matches or other fire starter), a whistle and signal mirror, water tablets and a small rolled up zip lock bag to carry water.
- Make a shelter to preserve your core body temperature.
- Get water and stay hydrated.
- Get food at your own risk. Understand the cost versus payoff in calories.
- Start your signals plan: ground to air signal, mirror, whistle, strobe.
- Stay put until you are found.
That’s it. It is not rocket science but it takes a little pre-planning and the mindset to bring the basic gear that will help you survive. You also need to know how to use these items. An afternoon spent practicing the signal mirror with a friend, building a shelter and a couple fires would be time well spent. Proper prior planning will help prevent a search and rescue mission from becoming a body recovery mission.

Russ Kolkman
Wilderness Survival Instructor
Tactical Response

About the Author

Russ Kolkman learned the basic skills for living in the woods the way millions of American boys did: in the Boy Scouts of America's Summer Camp and day camp programs. He also attributes much of his knowledge to lessons from his father, grandfather and various other more experienced relatives. Russ is an avid outdoors-man and enjoys kayaking, mountain biking, cross country skiing, rock climbing and shooting sports. He regularly competes in adventure races, orienteering competitions and the occasional ultra marathon trail race.

Russ spends much of his time in the woods, year round. The time spent there is used to learn, study, practice and train survival skills. Much of that time is spent in cold weather, which is his area of specialty along with wilderness medicine and remote care. Always a student, Russ works to expand his knowledge of survival and bush craft daily. Currently, Russ serves as the sole Wilderness Survival Instructor for Tactical Response, a large Tactical and Firearms Training School located in Camden, Tennessee. Tactical Response specializes in training the military, civilians and private security contractors on how to fight and survive all over the world.

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