Do you have what it takes to Survive?
Gary L. Benton, 2003
In the mid 1960's three of my cousins walked to a nearby river to do a
little fishing. They didn't come home until three nights later. While they
were fishing a storm moved in on them and they decided quickly to go home. As
the wind blew, the clouds darkened, and the rain started to fall they made a
serious mistake. They chose a shortcut one of the boys said he knew. They
spent the next three days in the woods, lost. Now, you may think it happened
to them because they were just kids. But, I know the oldest was fifteen and
knew those woods like his back yard. Yet, when the rain hit and day became as
dark as night, they got turned around. They slept buried in leaves, ate
insects, and drank creek water. Nonetheless, they had the will to survive and
did so. Could you do the same? I believe I could do it and be somewhat
comfortable at the same time.
I know many of you have never seriously given the idea of being lost in
the woods a second thought. I mean, it is difficult to picture yourself
seriously lost and meandering around in the woods, huh? Seems like many
country roads lead to a farm or home. Well, it can happen and even to the best
of us. Imagine being in middle of the woods and then having bad weather
hitting. Instead of stopping for a while, you continue on. Soon the weather
turns worse and you become disoriented. I use the term disoriented because no
true Outdoorsman is ever lost. With the weather, your being disoriented, what
do you do next?
Your first step is to stop. Find temporary shelter if you can, sit on a
log, or just stand there. Stop. Look around you. Do you honestly know where
you are? Beyond any doubt? You must be totally honest with yourself at this
point, believe it or not, your life could depend on it. If the weather is wet
and cool, notice I did not say cold, you may even have the beginning symptoms
of hypothermia and not be aware of it. (If you are not aware of what
hypothermia is, you should not be in the woods. It is the lowering of the
bodies core temperature and can kill). Stop, take a look around and decide
then what needs to be done. If you are honestly lost, relax. All is not
hopeless nor may you even be in serious danger. But, plan as if your life
depends on it, because it may. As long as you keep your wits about you and
have planned in advance you should be all right.
Take a look around and find a place for a shelter. An ideal shelter would
be a cave. But in most cases you will have to construct a shelter. Now, in a
survival situation, a shelter is not hot and cold running water, a heat lamp,
or a set of bunk beds. Many nights I have slept under a shelter made with a
tarp or rain poncho. They are easy to construct, are some what water
resistant, and keep you safe. The key in constructing your shelter is its
location. Avoid making it under dead tree limbs, in dry stream beds, or too
close to running water. High winds, rain, or other weather conditions could
make them very dangerous. Two trees, eight feet of cord or line, a poncho and
you are set for the night. Mearly tie the cord to the trees, drape the poncho
over the line, and secure the bottom of the poncho so it does not blow around.
I usually tie the end of a piece of line to the poncho grommets and the other
end to sharpened wooden stakes I hammer into the ground. A kind of poor mans
tent. But, it does work.
Next step, usually for purely psychological reasons is a fire. Keep it
small and keep your fire wood dry. Wet or green wood is difficult to keep
burning and it generates a lot of smoke. I usually keep a small bit of
kindling in my shelter as well. That makes it easier to start a fire in the
mornings. Also, keep your fire small. You will use less wood and a small fire
is much easier to cook on. If you have food. A good fire will also assist
rescuers in finding you, especially at night.
Once you have a shelter and fire the battle is half won. Stop once more
and relax a minute and take inventory of the equipment you have on hand. Look
at what you have, how it is to be use, where it is to be used, and who is to
use it. I mean, fishing equipment will not do you much good as fishing
equipment if you are land locked. However, the line and the tackle is
priceless. You can make snares with the line or use the pole to catch things
for dinner, if need be. Look at abnormal uses for all of your gear as well.
Let your imagination take over. I once saw an Alaskan Native start a fire by
using his book laces and a piece of wood. I have even seen women's sanitary
napkins used as dressings when a person sustained a serious cut. Keep the mind
active. Your desire to survive and your mind are your best tools. Keep them
both finely tuned.
Once inventory is completed, start on the most serious task you have.
Procuring drinking water. Not all water found in the woods is good for
drinking. If you camp, hunt, fish, or hike, always have some fresh water on
you. I carry a small baby bottle filled with water and it fits into my cargo
pocket of my pants. But, for long term drinking carry water purifications
tablets or boil your water. It is funny, when you think of survival most
people think of the lack of food, not lack of water. Most of us, especially
me, can do without food for a long time with few ill affects. No, I am not
suggesting it is healthy, just that water is more of an immediate need. If you
have adequate shelter, fire, and water, you can survive for a surprisingly
long time. Food, for most of us anyway, is a habit. We eat too much. Besides,
the odds are you will be found before your food needs become critical. So, get
comfortable and relax.
When you are surviving you will get dirty. This cannot be completely
prevented. Nonetheless, attempt to stay as clean as you can. Dirty clothing
loses its insulating properties and will not keep you as warm as clean
clothing. Beside, good sanitary conditions will assist your body in fighting
infections from small cuts and scratches you will receive. Keep your clothing
and yourself as clean as you can under the conditions. Keeping your clothing
dry is important as well. Try to wear wool, gortex, thinsolite, or other
commercial products that are known to keep you warm even when wet. There are
lots on the market so get the best you can afford. Wool is one of my choices.
Once you have a shelter up, fire going, and dinner on the grill stay
there. It is much easier for folks to find you than you to find them. I NEVER
go out without someone knowing where I am, when I left, and when I expect to
return. You can tell a family member, girlfriend or a buddy. It is safer to do
this and will assist the authorities if they have to launch a search and
rescue effort for you. Have you ever wandered all over a mall looking for
someone? Difficult to find them, huh? But, if you take a seat on a bench they
will walk by you sooner or later. Two trains of thought here, 1) let them come
to you, 2) you use less energy. This energy thingy is very important when you
don't know when your next meal is coming from. Conserve energy, let them find
you. Besides, you have already established all the comforts of home, right?
Why leave it then?
One aspect of all of this I have saved to the last is being prepared.
Once you are forced to spend the night in the woods is not when you should
discover you don't have matches. Or, when you are bleeding that you don't know
basic first aid or how to use some of your survival gear. Prepare. Be a scout
and remember the scout motto, always be prepared. I never go out without my
survival kit with me. No, it is not very big and it does not weigh much, but
it could prove to be a life saver. I actually carry most of it in a small
plastic box about three inches wide and about five inches long. I have it in
my right pants cargo pocket at all times. What do I have in it?
1. A quality pen knife or jack knife.
2. Condoms for water storage, unlubricated.
3. Water proof matches
4. Flint and steel or a metal match
5. Water purification tables
6. A long strip of aluminum foil folded up to cook with
7. Fishing kit, i.e., hooks, sinkers, and some line. Nothing fancy.
8. Commerical back packing first aid kit (with instructions). I carry a very
9. One small pack of gum and one of hard candy
Also, I carry three other things on my person. I carry a good quality
space blanket, dry socks, and about twenty feet of cotton cord. I have found I
can survive with the above items. And, all of this stuff weighs almost
nothing. I carry it all in one cargo pocket and still have lots of room left.
It is my insurance policy.
One other area I need to discuss is how you dress when you are in the
woods. I usually wear surplus military cargo pocket styled pants and shirts.
These can be picked up in surplus stores at a good price. I also have good
boots, warm socks, and always have a belt. I also wear a wide brimmed hat to
shade my eyes from the elements. Of course you know I also have a poncho but
not much else is really needed. If you want to get a fanny pack and wear
jeans, all of the equipment I have listed will easily fit into the container.
Once you're are in a survival situation is not the time to decide you need the
gear. You have have it with you, or do without.
With todays electronics and gagets it is very difficult to really become
lost. GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) systems, cellular phones, and other
devices make it safer. But, many people, me included, prefer not to carry
those things out of doors. I go out to avoid noise and technology, not to
carry it. Without these pieces of assistance always keep in mind, all it takes
is a touch of bad weather, a serious mishap, or a wrong turn, and you may find
yourself in a survival situation.
Remember, your mind is your best tool. Your determination to survive is
your best motivation. With a survival kit, your mind, and determination you
too can survive until rescue.
Gary Benton is a retired United States Air Force Senior Master Sergeant.
Sergeant Benton is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force water, desert, mountain,
and jungle survival schools. He spent twelve years teaching parachuting
techniques and survival skills to Air Force aircrew members. He has an
Associates Degree in Search and Rescue, Survival Operations, a Bachelors
Degree in Safety and Health, and a Masters Degree in Psychology. Sergeant
Benton retired from the USAF in 1997 with over twenty-six years of active