By Mark Lebetkin
The Active Times
What do you do when survival is not guaranteed?
You’re lost, stranded, injured miles from civilization -- if you even know what direction civilization is. Chances are you haven't taken a survival course, and all you've got to fall back on are your wits and fragments of received wisdom that you’ve gleaned from TV, movies and maybe a magazine article or two.
The sun's going down, and your stomach starts growling, and you think, "Maybe I should find some berries for dinner" -- you’re pretty sure you know which ones are edible. Or it’s been a couple days and you remember an episode of Man vs. Wild where Bear Grylls chows down on a raw grub and think “I might just be hungry enough…”
Or, say you've hiked to the bottom of a canyon and realize you don’t know how to get out and your water's running low. "I should make this last,” you think before your mind turns to an old John Wayne movie where he squeezes clear liquid from the pulp of a barrel cactus.
Ask a survival expert, though, and he or she will likely tell you none of these things is a good idea.
For just about any survival situation, there's a wealth of knowledge out there, and a lot of it's bad. Often things aren't helped by the burgeoning number of survival reality shows, which are designed to entertain rather than to educate.
"I've worked on these reality shows," says Tony Nester, an expert on desert survival and head of Ancient Pathways, an outdoor survival and bushcraft school based in Flagstaff, Arizona. "They're heavily scripted and there’s always a support crew within twenty feet, twenty-four seven."
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As a teacher, Nester constantly finds himself correcting his student’s misconceptions about what do in survival situations. For example, students often come to his survival courses and want to learn right away how to make fire by rubbing sticks together.
"Hey, there’s no greater joy than sitting next to a fire that you made the old way,” says Nester. "But that’s not what I want to do when I have an injured shoulder and the sun’s going down and it’s getting cold."
One of Nester’s favorite examples is the solar still, a device one can make -- given the right materials -- to collect and distill water. Grylls once made one on his show to demonstrate desert survival, and students ask Nester how to do it themselves. Nester teaches his students the method’s fatal flaw by having them make their own. (Hint: digging a hole in desert heat is no easy task.)
Nester emphasizes that there's a difference between "survival" -- living long enough to be rescued -- and "bushcraft" -- the art of living outdoors -- which people often miss, or are unaware of.
People get hung up on the idea of the survival hero, he says, and don’t realize that most survival situations are much more mundane. “80 percent of people who get lost in the U.S. and North America are day hikers. They have a mentality, when they’re at home, they think ‘I’ll just go for a day hike or mountain bike. I’m only going for two hours -- what’s the worst that can happen?'"
Tim Smith, the founder of Jack Mountain Bushcraft School in the Maine North Woods, is also quick to teach his students this distinction. “Survival is very romanticized,” says Smith. "It's not about being the toughest or most experienced; it’s about keeping out of those situations."
Survival, according to Nester, Smith and Shane Hobel of Mountain Scout Survival School in upstate New York, is a matter of getting your priorities straight. (Shelter, water, and a clear mind are at the top of your list, by the way.) We asked them to share some of the most persistent survival myths they encounter, and their corrections.
"You don't get 'water' from cactus; you get a stomachache and vomiting," says Nester. "When you’re heat-stressed, when you have heat exhaustion and you add some of that stuff to your body, you're going to further tax your kidneys and plunge yourself deeper into trouble, possibly even into heat stroke. Basically, you're ingesting a substance that your body has to process, which is not recommended. You can drink from a barrel cactus, but only one of five varieties -- the fishhook barrel -- isn't toxic."
"The solar still thing is one of those myths that gets perpetuated in the literature and on reality shows," says Nester. To build a solar still, you dig a hole in the ground, place a container in the middle, cover the hole with clear plastic and weight the plastic in the middle so that condensation drips into the container. “It’s a sexy idea," he says. “That’ll work if you’re in a place like Maine or Florida or Costa Rica or Seattle where there’s water in the ground. That won’t work in the desert."
Nester likes to demonstrate to his students at Ancient Pathways just how useless a solar still is in the desert. "We set these up in our classes in a wash or in a canyon where there's been rain in recent weeks,” he says. They dig a hole that's three feet deep, fill it with succulents and other non-toxic plants that will respirate and speed up condensation, and cover it. "After the whole process of digging it and setting it up -- you have to wait 24 hours, by the way -- you may have half a liter of water if you're lucky. But if you think back to the day before, you burned three gallons of sweat building it. It’s called the desert for a reason.” (For good advice on finding water in the desert, click here.)
Gandhi did it. Bear Grylls does it. It sounds logical enough: When there is no water to be found, you can drink your own pee. Your body will just re-filter the bad stuff and extract the usable water, or so the logic goes. After all, when would resorting to this otherwise verboten act be more necessary than in the desert when you're dying of thirst?
You shouldn't try to quench your thirst with urine for the same reason you're dehydrated: heat. Nester explains: "The problem with drinking urine -- we hear about it with border crossers -- there becomes a tipping point with your body’s ability to thermoregulate. You’re on the cusp of heat exhaustion or heat stroke and you just added one more thing to a body already taxed by the heat. Your kidneys now have to process something, and it taxes your body’s cooling mechanism." If you really want to make your urine useful, though, Nester has some advice: “You can pee on a bandana and wear it for evaporative cooling."
When your body's on the edge of heat exhaustion, it doesn't care how thirsty you'll be tomorrow. You're dangerously thirsty now, says Nester. "Get it in you. When you're peeing clear, then you can taper back if necessary." Don’t have any water left? You still have a shot if you follow Nester's advice: "Think like a cowboy," he says. Find some shade, wait till dark to move around and if you must look for water, read this. "People have survived up to 48 hours without any water in triple-digit heat in the Grand Canyon and Death Valley, versus a guy -- this happened recently --- who ration[ed] his water and die[d] of heat exhaustion three hours later" because he exerted himself.
"The biggest problem I see today is the sense that if I'm in trouble, I'll get on my phone and someone will get me out of it," says Smith. "People think they’re always one quick phone call away from being rescued, and because of that they take unnecessary risks."
Batteries die; reception is spotty; your phone isn't invincible. Having a cell phone or satellite beacon is no substitute for "being both appropriately prepared with the right clothing and letting people know where you're going," says Smith. The best way to ensure rescue is to tell someone where you're headed and when you'll be back so that person can trigger a search and rescue operation if you don't return. Tony Nester agrees: "My wife and I have a two-hour window, where, if I go out and I'm not back by 6 p.m., she waits till 8 to call for help. She's my safety net."
This myth is the survival fantasy itself: You might suddenly find yourself in a situation -- getting lost in the woods, running out of gas on a remote desert road, getting cut off from the world by a sudden event -- where you'll have to jump into survival mode and depend on arcane skills like fire by friction and building shelter.
Smith has a dose of reality for you: "Survival is very romanticized. It's not about being the toughest or most experienced; it's about keeping out of those situations. Survival is a very limited skill set in reality. To me survival is only when you've made so many bad decisions that, if you don't take immediate action, you might die. It's having an ego that gets you into trouble, and not being flexible. If I'm in the middle of a lake and the fishing's good, and a thundercloud appears, I get off the lake!"
For the complete list of Survival Myths, go to TheActiveTimes.com.