Last month, The Active Times published an article that dispelled several long-standing myths about how to survive in the wilderness. The list was generated by writer Mark Lebekin with help from a handful of seasoned survival experts. We’ve listed the 13 myths discussed in the article below; you can read the original published article here.
Myth #1: Locating food is a high priority
What the experts say: Since a healthy adult can survive for up to six weeks without solid food and the average person who gets lost is missing for two to four days, foraging for berries and edible shrubs should be the least of your concerns. “In a short-term situation, the things that’ll kill you will be getting too cold — hypothermia — not drinking water, and not getting enough rest to stay rational,” says Tim Smith of Jack Mountain Bushcraft School. “If you take care of these things, you should be okay for 40 days.”
Myth #2: Anyone with a mushroom field guide is an “expert”
What the experts say: When we’re hungry, our mind plays tricks on us. That’s often how we end up with more groceries than originally planned. But unlike at the supermarket, this mentality can kill you in the forest if you spot a mushroom that looks like an edible specimen in your little book. Smith warns hikers that the risk of death (or heavy nausea, paralysis, etc.) far outweighs your need to eat wild fungi. “In any short-term situation, it’s not not going to keep you alive if you don’t eat it, but it might kill you if you do,” he says.
Myth #3: Shelter is defined by overhead support
What the experts say: A makeshift structure with a sealed roof will keep those pesky raindrops away, but Smith says the biggest concern should be the surface of the ground. In fact, he plainly states that a bed to cushion you from the hard, damp earth is much more important that a roof. “An inexperienced person spends 10 hours building a roof and freezing to death on the cold ground,” he says. “A smart person spends their time building a bed to insulate them from the cold ground, and getting to the roof if they have time.”
Myth #4: Anyone with enough patience can start a fire using friction
What the experts say: There’s a memorable scene in the film Cast Away when Chuck Noland (played by Tom Hanks) is able to finally start a fire by rubbing sticks together. We all clapped, but Smith says this scenario is highly unlikely in the real world. “You have to have good or near perfect materials, and everything has to be dry,” he says. “There’s an old saying among woodsmen: ‘When the weather’s nice, a toddler can light a fire.’ But when the weather’s been miserable, it takes a lot of experience to pull it off.”
Myth #5: Starting a fire using friction is “hard”
What the experts say: Building on Smith’s point, Mountain Scout Survival School founder Shane Gobel says that using friction is relatively easy ― assuming all the correct materials are in place and you know which way to rub. The process generally takes between 15 and 20 seconds, plus additional time if the materials are wet For this reason, it’s a good idea to pack a book of matches and a tin container of Vaseline-drenched cotton balls whenever you venture into the wilderness. (Cotton that’s been treated with Vaseline will burn for much longer).
Myth #6: Snake venom can be “sucked out”
What the experts say: In fact, attempting to do so will probably make the situation much worse for the snakebite victim. The human mouth is essentially a bacteria farm, and germs thrive in skin and tissue that surrounds skin punctures (like those made by the snake’s teeth). Additionally, attempting to extricate venom in this fashion could potentially endanger the sucker’s health. “When snakes bite, they do inject venom into the wound,” says Tony Nester, founder of the Ancient Pathways survival school in Flagstaff. “But they also, in extracting their fangs, get venom on the surface of your skin. If you suck the venom into your mouth, it’ll burn up your trachea and your windpipe, and could even damage your stomach.” Instead, the smartest way out of this pickle is to rinse the wound with water and double-time it to the nearest hospital.
Myth #7: A grown human can “outrun” a bear
What the experts say: When one suddenly encounters a bear, their first instinct is to sprint in the other direction. However, Nester says this is probably the last thing you want to do since no one can outrun a galloping ursine. Rather than attempting the impossible, he recommends standing your ground and making as much noise as possible ― and whatever you do, avoid eye contact. “A lot of times, they’re as spooked as you are, and will take off,” he says.
Myth #8: Drinkable water can be extracted from a cactus
What the experts say: That clear liquid oozing out of the surface of a cactus isn’t water, says Nester, but a toxic substance with high alkali content. Consuming the fluid will probably make you explode out of both ends on a good day ― and if you’re lost in the desert, heat exhaustion will only exacerbate the symptoms and strain your innards to the point of expiration. “You can drink from a barrel cactus,” he says, “but only one of five varieties — the fishhook barrel — isn’t toxic.”
Myth #9: Solar stills will help you locate water in the desert
What the experts say: Bear Grylls and other TV “adventurers” have popularized the notion that water can be obtained by digging a hole, placing an empty container in the center, covering it with Saran wrap, and placing a small weight in the middle of the seal; condensation will then collect and gather in the center, you see. Hogwash, says Nester. The only places where this will work are Miami, Seattle, and other damp places where there is plenty of water in the ground ― otherwise known as “not deserts.” Proper execution of a solar still will yield half a liter of water, at best, which doesn’t sound too bad until you consider that the average adult will burn three gallons of sweat during the hole-digging process. If you’re really thirsty in the desert, The Active Times suggests canvassing the area for broad-leafed trees or plants; they perform the same function as a solar still, and there’s no human labor involved.
Myth #10: Drink pee and stay alive
What the experts say: Urine won’t necessarily hurt you ― your body filters out all the waste and sterilizes the rest to prevent you from getting sick. But that’s the problem, says Nester; heat stroke or dehydration greatly tax your kidneys, and the urine filtration process will only make them work harder. When you’re lost in the desert, your goal should be to preserve your kidneys as much as possible ― otherwise they might fail. Instead, he recommends using urine to lower your temperature by dousing it on a bandana and then wrapping it around your head.
Myth #11: In the desert, rationing water is crucial
What the experts say: … if you’re a camel. Humans don’t quite work the same way, though ― and when heat exhaustion sets in, better to hydrate as much as possible. Nester warns that humans should consume water until their urine is clear, and only then should they begin rationing; trying to cross a desert with any less will only overexert your body, and eventually you’ll drop dead. “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,” he says.
Myth #12: Your cell phone is a life-saving tool
What the experts say: This one is tricky. On one hand, dialing 9-1-1 on a cell phone will transmit a signal to emergency services and alert them of your position, even where reception is non-existent. However, one should not rely on their phone alone ― what if the battery dies, or the phone is damaged beyond workability? Smith says nothing will replace being prepared and informing multiple people of where you’re going and how long you’ll be gone.
Myth #13: Getting lost or stranded happens by accident
What the experts say: Most of us imagine getting stranded by shipwreck, Cessna crash, or other circumstances beyond our control. But, according to Smith, it’s probably your fault. He says the key to surviving an ordeal on a desert island or deep in the wilderness is, well, not putting yourself in the position to undergo said ordeal. “To me survival is only when you’ve made so many bad decisions that, if you don’t take immediate action, you might die,” he says. “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!”