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Order of Operations in a Survival Situation

This list prioritizes what you should do first in a crisis.

Outdoor Life

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shelter made of leaves and sticks in the woods

 Photo by Tim MacWelch

When it comes to survival, there’s no “average” emergency. Each crisis is unique. Specifics like the setting, the weather, the people, and the events combine to create an occurrence that has never happened before and will never happen again. Yet in the face of all these variables, there are a few constants. The cold can kill you faster than dehydration. A lack of water can kill you faster than starvation. And a panicked decision can get you killed immediately. There’s a lot to consider, but luckily for us, we can learn from the successes and failures of others. And, we can use that wisdom to predict the most likely hazards for any given situation. To help make sure that you and your family get it right—here’s our order of operations in a survival setting. Even though the conditions might change, this process will help guide you to safety.

While they might not keep you alive in the same ways as shelter and water, an upbeat positive attitude and a generous streak of mental toughness can be literal lifesavers under the dire circumstances of a survival situation. Maintaining a positive attitude is like a light in the darkness. You’re more likely to have a better frame of mind and you’re more likely to think clearly. By mustering your mental toughness, you can tolerate hard conditions better and do what needs to be done. It also helps if you understand the “Rule of Threes” and how that rule can help you prioritize your needs. Generally speaking, you can only live 3 minutes without air or if you have massive bleeding. You can only live 3 hours without shelter in a cold, wet, and windy setting. Finally, you’ll only have 3 days without water and 3 weeks without food. Of course, these numbers can vary wildly, but it’s still a good framework to help us organize your work and our needs. Remember, stay positive, be tough, avoid panic, work hard and take care of the worst problem first.

When something bad happens, medical skills and supplies may be the very first things you need (rather than shelter, water, and all the rest). Sure, the cold air could kill you in a few hours, but that life threatening bleed kill you in a matter of minutes without effective medical care. You’ll need to deal with major injuries right away, with first aid skills and supplies. The best way to be prepared in this arena it to get some hands-on first aid training and carry a med kit. Medical skills are the most likely “survival” skills that you’ll use in your lifetime. Make this a top priority.

Let’s jump back to our “Rule of Threes” for a moment. What if I suggested that there’s another “three” you could add to the list, and this is something that may only give you as little as three seconds to live? It’s a self-defense situation. For many of us, it’s a lot more disturbing to consider our response to an attacker than to imagine dealing with an injury or a hostile environment. But unfortunately, any one of us may find ourselves facing an adversary, with only seconds to react correctly. And whether you are facing man or beast, your quick response could mean survival. Being able to defend yourself from the most likely adversaries and being able to act quickly (rather than being frozen in fear) are critical parts of preparedness.

This skill set is not as popular to practice as fire making, shelter building, or other survival basics, but the skills of signaling are your ticket to go home and they should be taken seriously. Carrying a whistle in your survival kit can signal your distress to others, day or night, as long as you have breath to blow it. A signal mirror can be helpful too, giving you a signal range much farther than the whistle can carry. Your fire may be the best low-tech signal of all, but bringing a charged mobile phone beats everything – if you can get a phone signal in the area you are venturing through. Signaling isn’t necessarily the first thing you’d do in a wilderness survival or disaster setting, nor is it the third thing you do, or the last thing on the list. This can be done at any time, and it should be done often. Burn a big fire at night for a signal. Blast your whistle while you go to collect water (my favorite is the Fox 40). Try text messaging a loved one for help (over and over), since texting takes less signal than connecting a phone call.

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Since the deep cold can kill in hours and intense heat can kill in a day, shelter is usually your first physical survival priority if there are no life-threatening injuries. There are many ways you can build a shelter or enhance a shelter you may already have (like your home or vehicle). With some practice, you can create your own wilderness shelter from available materials like sticks and vegetation. You can also stuff your clothing with leaves for warmth. Just make sure you have a backup plan for shelter that accompanies you wherever you go. A small lightweight poncho, space blanket or survival bivy can fit in your purse, pack, or pocket – and provide you with lifesaving shelter.

Normally, we say “food and water”, giving an unreasonably high importance to eating. Let’s face facts, even though most people are used to three square meals a day and plenty of snacks, we need water a lot more than we need food. In particularly hot, dry and windy conditions, you could die from dehydration in less than three days if no water is available. So before you head out into the wilderness, make sure you take plenty of water with you, as well as the supplies for water disinfection. This way, when you locate water – you can make it safe to drink. For a pocket-sized survival kit, it’s hard to beat the light weight and effectiveness of Katadyn’s MicroPUR water disinfection tablets. Drop one tablet into a quart of dirty water, wait a few hours and it will be perfectly safe to drink.

In any survival emergency, the fire starting gear in your survival kit will be worth its weight in gold. Considering the many of uses that fire provides, from water boiling, to heating, lighting and cooking, it makes sense to carry multiple fire starting methods in your kit, but even these can be inadequate in cold, wet, and windy weather. Carry a container of fire starting fuels in your survival kit for these frigid and damp occasions. Cotton balls, drier lint, curls of birch bark, and even greasy snack chips can turn the small flame of a match into the roaring flame of a campfire. Fire is your friend out there, and it’s also a great signal for help. In many of my previous posts, you’ll learn tricks and secrets to making fire, including several ways to make it by [“rubbing two sticks together.”] (https://www.outdoorlife.com/blogs/survivalist/video-how-build-friction-fire-bow-and-drill/ ) For now, I’ll just recommend a Bic lighter, a ferrocerium rod and UCO’s new Titan Stormproof Match Kit (the biggest baddest matches on the planet).

As soon as you secure both shelter and a water source, the pressure for survival shifts to food. This is the long game. In extended emergencies, the daily quest for food can quickly become your all-consuming task. Foraging, fishing, trapping and hunting can be fulfilling activities, and give you a full belly if you’re lucky. In a multi-day ordeal, you’ll probably spend most of your time looking for food (that is, when you’re not signaling for help). In the right season and location, wild plants might give you all the protein, fat and carbs you’d need. Using a book like Peterson’s Field Guide to Wild Edible Plants can help you to safely identify and prepare tree nuts, seeds, roots and many other edible plant parts. And if you don’t have that book and you’re not sure about your local wild edible plants, then stick with animal foods. Fish, worms, crickets and many other critters are safe for human consumption. Just make sure that you cook them thoroughly, as many of them are loaded with parasites or disease causing pathogens. Try to focus on calorie-dense foods, like fatty animals, tree nuts, bone marrow, and organ meats. At the end of the day, survival is about calories, so I hope you’re not picky! Get enough calories to stay strong, and avoid calorie loss through hypothermia and dysentery.

Many survivors hit a brick wall during longer ordeals and start thinking about giving up. Even on a good day, our hormones and brain chemistry take a dip late at night (usually around 2 a.m.). Pain from injuries will be worse at this time, and even if we are unharmed physically, our thoughts will become darker and our worries will grow. Many survivors report that the nights were usually the worst time during their survival experience. When you find yourself at a low point, try to find little ways to maintain your morale and remain motivated to survive. Think of family, friends and loved ones, and fight to stay alive–not just for yourself, but for them as well.

Normally, you would stay put in a survival scenario, maybe light a big fire in a prominent place, and wait for the search and rescue chopper to arrive. Other situations however, demand that you take a different approach, and that approach is to get out of the wild while you still have the energy. But how do you decide when to stay or go looking for help? The first factor in the decision making process is mobility. If you’ve been injured in the wilderness and cannot move, there is no decision to make. Stay put, and signal for help as best you can. But if you are mobile, you’ve got choices. A few years ago, one injured man strapped camera bag padding to his knees and literally crawled back to civilization through the rocky Arizona desert. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

The second major factor in self-rescue is whether anyone knows where you are and that you’re overdue. If you’ve done the right thing before leaving home (told someone exactly where you are going and when you’ll return), then you can expect some kind of help when you come up overdue. Stay put, build a camp, signal your distress and wait for help. But if you are lost in the wild, and no one knows where you are, then no one knows where to search. Any help you encounter is dumb luck or divine intervention, and you shouldn’t bet the farm on receiving either of those. If no one knows where you are, and you can move, you need to self-rescue while you still have strength. If you’re a week’s walk from the nearest road, it’s time to self-rescue. One week is usually the time period that the largest number of personnel are searching for a survivor. After a week, fewer people are looking (and typically, they are looking for a body). If a week has passed, leave ample signals in your camp that establish your identity and which direction you are headed.

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This post originally appeared on Outdoor Life and was published January 23, 2019. This article is republished here with permission.

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