Survival on land or water in an emergency will depend on cool, clear thinking and making good use of any equipment that is available.
Make sure you are properly equipped – whether mountaineering, camping, back-packing, sailing or scuba diving. But circumstances may sometimes demand ingenuity.
Immediate priorities for survival are:
- Signaling for help.
- Shelter from the elements.
- A supply of food and water.
For signaling, use, as appropriate, bright clothing, flares or smoke. If you have a whistle, six blasts a minute followed by a minute’s pause is one of the internationally recognized distress signals. Use a morror or a shiny tin lid to reflect the sun during the day and a torch at night.
A vehicle may provide temporary cover from a snowstorm or its shadow can shield you from the desert sun. on foot you may be forced to seek shelter in caves or under overhangs when possible – they may also contain some water or moisture.
Avoid them during storms, when lightning may strike them. Also stay clear of potential landslide or avalanche areas.
In snow, protect yourself from wind chill by tunneling into the side of a snow drift for about 600mm (2 feet), then scoop out a cavity. Cover the opening with evergreen branches and packed snow, then pierce an airshaft for ventilation.
If possible, lie or sit on a foam pad to protect from damp cold. Keep as warm as possible; wiggle toes and fingers and stay awake.
Food and water
In a desert, dehydration is the major hazard, so protection from the sun is essential, particularly in the heart of the day. If you are on foot cover your head and the back of your neck. Whether on foot or in a vehicle travel in the early morning or evening to avoid heat stroke.
You need, if possible to drink a minimum of 2.3 liters (4 pints) of water a day, but avoid drinking during the heat of the day as this may prompt excessive sweating an consequent loss of body salts.
If you are short of water, ration yourself as necessary. You can survive only a few days without water, even in a temperate climate; in average conditions a fit person can survive for four weeks or so without food.
You should be able to obtain some water from your environment – even in a desert. If you are carrying a large sheet of plastic or a foil space blanket – both of which pack up small- make a dew trap at night and a solar still by day to collect any available moisture.
Spread the sheet or blanket over a large, shallow depression in the ground and pile clean, smooth stones in the center of the cover. At night, dew will condense on the stones and must be collected before dawn, as the sun will quickly evaporate it.
Transparent plastic sheet is best for this, as the aim is to use the sun’s heat to draw the moisture from the ground; foil tends to reflect heat rather than letting it reach the ground.
Dig a hole at least 1m ( 3 feet0 across, and place a clean can or other wide rimmed container at the center. Surround it with any leaves or shrubs you can find, as they also exude moisture in the heat.
Spread the plastic cover over the hole and use stones or other heavy objects to keep the edges in place. Put one stone on the sheet – directly over, but not touching the tin.
As the ground heats up, moisture from it will condense on the underside of the sheet, and trickle into the tin. A well made still may collect up to 2 liters (3.5 pints) of water a day.
Only if starvation threatens should you experiment with unfamiliar plants as food. Try one plant at a time, letting a small piece lie on your tongue. Wait for 5-5 minutes. If you detect a stinging, burning or putrid sensation which may signal poison, discard it.
If the plant seems harmless, chew and swallow a 50mm (2 inch) portion and wait two hours for possible ill effects. Repeat with a larger portion and again wait two hours. Do not eat a plant that brings on vomiting or diarrhea. If possible, boil a safe plant well to improvise a meal; discard the juices.
When sailing or pursuing any other aquatic activity, observe all the recommended safety precautions – such as wearing a buoyancy suit to keep afloat in an emergency. If you are sailing, windsurfing or surfing, never abandon your craft or surfboard unless it is about to sunk or unless staying aboard becomes dangerous.
Even then, try to make a distress signal. If possible, put on warm clothing to combat the effect of the cold water. If you take to a life raft, do not discard your wet clothing – it will help to protect you against heat loss.
Try to stay as near to the wreck as possible, to help rescuers locate you; use a sea anchor if the raft has one. Sea sickness quickly weakens the body, so take anti- sea sickness pills if you have them.
If abandoning ship for open water, leap in from the side facing the wind, so that the boat does not drift into you. Swim well clear of a large sinking vessel, which could suck you down with it.
Never swim for the shore unless it is near; stay on a life raft or cling to wreckage, keeping as much of your body as possible out of the water to reduce heat loss.
If there is nothing to cling to, hug your knees to your chest, which further conserves body heat, and rely on your life jacket to keep you afloat. If you are among other survivors, huddle together for warmth, for mutual support and to increase the chances of being spotted by rescue teams.
If adrift in a small boat, send out regular distress signals, protect yourself as much as you can from exposure and conserve water supplies. Avoid drinking sea water as the salt content is potentially lethal.
Collect any rainwater in a waterproof sheet or container, any water that condenses at night on the cold parts of the craft should be wiped off with a clean, dry cloth before the sun can evaporate it; squeeze out the water immediately into a container.
If the craft is not being buffeted by salt spray, which would contaminate any fresh moisture, you may be able to construct a dew trap on a clean metallic surface.
Survival aids and kits are available but you can make up your own to suit your individual needs. Make sure you carry first aid kits and specific medicines for the area in which you are traveling, such as sunburn prevention ointment, insect repellants, laxatives, anti-diarrhea pills and sea sickness pills if you will be on water. Also include scissors and a good cutting blade plus a booklet or illustration of first aid skills.
The following items can form a basic survival kit:
- Empty tin with lid – to contain the survival kit and to use as a cooking vessel. You can use the shiny inside of the lid for signaling.
- Foil space blanket – for warmth, shelter and making a dew trap.
- Large plastic sheet – for shelter, to lie on and for making a solar still.
- Whistle, flares torch – for signals.
- Clasp or sheath knife – for cutting, opening tins, cooking.
- Potassium permanganate – for purifying water, disinfecting and fire lighting.
- Water proof matches.
- Thin nylon line – for repairs and for tying down your shelter.
In addition, on land or water, you should try to carry a small two-way radio, fishing gear, a water bag and basic food supplies such as concentrated fruit or meat and glucose sweets.