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Survival skills are techniques that a person may use in order to sustain life in any type of natural environment or built environment. These techniques are meant to provide basic necessities for human life which include water, food, and shelter. These skills also support proper knowledge and interactions with animals and plants to promote the sustaining of life over a period of time. Survival skills are often associated with the need to survive in a disaster situation. Survival skills are often basic ideas and abilities that ancient people invented and used themselves for thousands of years. Outdoor activities such as hiking, backpacking, horseback riding, fishing, and hunting all require basic wilderness survival skills, especially in handling emergency situations. Bushcraft and primitive living are most often self-implemented but require many of the same skills.
First aid (wilderness first aid in particular) can help a person survive and function with injuries and illnesses that would otherwise kill or incapacitate them. Common and dangerous injuries include:
- Bites from snakes, spiders and other wild animals
- Bone fractures
- Heart attack
- Hypothermia and hyperthermia
- Infection through food, animal contact, or drinking non-potable water
- Poisoning from consumption of, or contact with, poisonous plants or poisonous fungi
- Sprains, particularly of the ankle
- Wounds, which may become infected
The person may need to apply the contents of a first aid kit or, if possessing the required knowledge, naturally occurring medicinal plants, immobilize injured limbs, or even transport incapacitated comrades.
Many people who are forced into survival situations often have a risk of danger because of direct exposure to the elements. Most people in survival situations die of hypo/hyperthermia, or animal attacks. A shelter can range from a natural shelter, such as a cave, overhanging rock outcrop, or a fallen-down tree, to an intermediate form of man-made shelter such as a debris hut, tree pit shelter, or a snow cave, to completely man-made structures such as a tarp, tent, or a longhouse. It is noted that some common properties between these structures are:
- Location (away from hazards, such as cliffs; and nearby materials, like food sources)
- Insulation (from ground, rain, wind, air, or sun)
- Heat Source (either body heat or fire-heated)
- Personal or Group Shelter (having multiple individuals)
Fire is a chemical reaction that typically produces carbon dioxide, water, heat, light, and smoke. The resulting heat from the reaction can postpone or prevent the risk of hypothermia. Lighting a fire without a lighter or matches, e.g. by using natural flint and rock or metal with tinder, is a frequent subject of both books on survival and in survival courses, often due to the lack of water and materials if an individual was stranded. There is an emphasis placed on practicing fire-making skills before venturing into the wilderness. Producing fire under adverse conditions has been made much easier by the introduction of tools such as the magnesium striker, solar spark lighter, and the fire piston.
Fires are either started with a concentration of heat, as in the case of the solar spark lighter, or through a spark, as in the case of flint striking a rock or metal. Fires will often be put out if either there is excessive wind (such as either over fanning a fire, or strong winds), or if the fuel or environment is too wet to ignite.
Fire is presented as a tool meeting many survival needs. Along with the needs mentioned above, it also disinfects water (through boiling and condensing), and can be used to cook and eliminate the presence of disease-causing microorganisms in foods like animal meat. Another advantage that is presented through fire is an underlooked psychological boost through the sense of safety and protection it gives. In the wild, fire can provide a sensation of home, a focal point, in addition to being an essential energy source. Fire may deter wild animals from interfering with an individual, though wild animals may also be attracted to the light and heat of a fire.
A human being can survive an average of three to five days without water. The issues presented by the need for water dictate that unnecessary water loss by perspiration be avoided in survival situations. The need for water increases with exercise. Since the human body is composed of up to 78% water at birth, with an average of 60%, it should be no surprise that water is higher on the list than fire or food. Although the human water intake varies greatly depending on factors like age, sex, etc. the average should be about 13 cups or 3 liters per day. Many lost people perish due to dehydration, and/or the debilitating effects of water-born pathogens from untreated water.
A typical person will lose minimally two to maximally four liters of water per day under ordinary conditions, and more in hot, dry, or cold weather. Four to six liters of water or other liquids are generally required each day in the wilderness to avoid dehydration and to keep the body functioning properly. The U.S. Army survival manual does not recommend drinking water only when thirsty, as this leads to inadequate hydration. Instead, water should be drunk at regular intervals. Other groups recommend rationing water through "water discipline".
A lack of water causes dehydration, which may result in lethargy, headaches, dizziness, confusion, and eventually death. Even mild dehydration reduces endurance and impairs concentration, which is dangerous in a survival situation where clear thinking is essential. Dark yellow or brown urine is a diagnostic indicator of dehydration. To avoid dehydration, a high priority is typically assigned to locating a supply of drinking water and making provisions to render that water as safe as possible.
Culinary root tubers, fruit, edible mushrooms, edible nuts, edible beans, edible cereals or edible leaves, edible cacti, ants and algae can be gathered and, if needed, prepared (mostly by boiling). With the exception of leaves, these foods are relatively high in calories, providing some energy to the body. Plants are some of the easiest food sources to find in the jungle, forest or desert because they are stationary and can thus be obtained without exerting much effort. Skills and equipment (such as bows, snares, and nets) are necessary to gather animal food in the wild include animal trapping, hunting, and fishing.
Focusing on survival until rescued by presumed searchers, the Boy Scouts of America, or BSA, especially discourages foraging for wild foods on the grounds that the knowledge and skills needed are unlikely to be possessed by those finding themselves in a wilderness survival situation, making the risks (including use of energy) outweigh the benefits.
Those going for trips and hikes are advised by search and rescue services to notify a trusted contact of their planned return time, then notify them when returning. They can tell them to contact the police for search and rescue if you have not returned by a specific time frame (e.g. 12 hours of the scheduled return time).
Survival situations can often be resolved by finding a way to safety, or a more suitable location to wait for rescue. Types of navigation include:
- Celestial navigation, using the sun and the night sky to locate the cardinal directions and to maintain course of travel
- Using a map, compass or GPS receiver
- Dead reckoning
- Natural navigation, using the condition of surrounding natural objects (i.e. moss on a tree, snow on a hill, direction of running water, etc.)
The mind and its processes are critical to survival. The will to live in a life-and-death situation often separates those that live and those that do not. Situations can be stressful to the level that even trained experts may be mentally affected. One should be mentally and physically tough during a disaster.
To the extent that stress results from testing human limits, the benefits of learning to function under stress and determining those limits may outweigh the downside of stress. There are certain strategies and mental tools that can help people cope better in a survival situation, including focusing on manageable tasks, having a Plan B available and recognizing denial.
New Zealand Civil Defense explains it this way:
- DROP down on your hands and knees. This protects you from falling but lets you move if you need to.
- COVER your head and neck (or your entire body if possible) under a sturdy table or desk (if it is within a few steps of you). If there is no shelter nearby, and cover your head and neck with your arms and hands.
- HOLD on to your shelter (or your position to protect your head and neck) until the shaking stops. If the shaking shifts your shelter around, move with it.
- Seek protection under a structure like a table
- Cover your mouth with your shirt to filter out dust
- Don't move until you are confident that something won't topple on you
- Use your phone light to signal for help, or call
Important survival items
Often survival practitioners will carry with them a "survival kit". This consists of various items that seem necessary or useful for potential survival situations, depending on anticipated challenges and location. Supplies in a survival kit vary greatly by anticipated needs. For wilderness survival, they often contain items like a knife, water container, fire-starting apparatus, first aid equipment, food obtaining devices (snare wire, fish hooks, firearms, or other,) a light, navigational aids, and signaling or communications devices. Often these items will have multiple possible uses as space and weight are often at a premium.
Survival kits may be purchased from various retailers or individual components may be bought and assembled into a kit.
Common questionable survival skills
Some survival books promote the "Universal Edibility Test". Allegedly, it is possible to distinguish edible foods from toxic ones by a series of progressive exposures to skin and mouth prior to ingestion, with waiting periods and checks for symptoms. However, many experts reject this method[weasel words], stating that even a small amount of some "potential foods" can cause physical discomfort, illness, or death.
Many mainstream survival experts have recommended the act of drinking urine in times of dehydration and malnutrition. However, the U.S. Army Survival Field Manual (FM 21-76) instructs that this technique is a myth and should never be applied. Several reasons for not drinking urine include the high salt content of urine, potential contaminants, and sometimes bacteria growth, despite urine being generally "sterile".
Many classic western movies, classic survival books, and even some school textbooks suggest that sucking the venom out of a snake bite by mouth is an appropriate treatment and/or also for the bitten person to drink their urine after the poisonous animal bite or poisonous insect bite as a mean for the body to provide natural anti-venom. However, the venom can not be sucked out and it may be dangerous for a rescuer to attempt to do so. Modern snakebite treatment involves pressure bandages and prompt medical treatment.
- Alone (TV show)
- Bicycle touring
- Distress signal
- Mini survival kit
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- The short film Aircrew Survival: Cold Land Survival is available for free download at the Internet Archive.
- The short film Aircrew Survival: Hot Land Survival is available for free download at the Internet Archive.
- The short film Aircrew Survival: Survival Kits, Rafts, Accessories is available for free download at the Internet Archive.
- The short film Aircrew Survival: Survival Medicine is available for free download at the Internet Archive.
- The short film Aircrew Survival: Surviving on Open Water is available for free download at the Internet Archive.
- The short film Aircrew Survival: Survival Signalling is available for free download at the Internet Archive.
- The short film Aircrew Survival: Tropical Survival is available for free download at the Internet Archive.
- The short film Aircrew Survival: The Will to Survive is available for free download at the Internet Archive.