Most of us are used to living in the confines of civilization, and probably won’t ever have to worry about hypothermia, or bears, or a snake bite. But once you head out in the wilderness, you can never be sure when a catastrophe will strike, or when you’ll be separated from your group. Read on for some things to keep in mind if you should ever find yourself in crisis mode.
A body temperature below 95 degrees will draw blood away from the skin to protect vital organs. If you find yourself exposed to the elements long enough for this to happen, you’ll want to get to a warm area quickly. Once you do, it’s best to warm up slowly. Wrap yourself in as many layers as you can, and try taking in warm food and drink and avoiding alcohol until help arrives.
2. SNAKE BITES
More than 8000 people are bitten by snakes each year. Fortunately, only a tiny percentage are fatal—but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t worry. Some people can have serious allergic reactions to bites, even if the offending reptile isn’t venomous. If you find yourself victimized, keep the bite site at or below heart level, let it bleed for 30 seconds before cleaning, avoid tourniquets—concentrated venom can be damaging—and don’t over-exert yourself getting help. Try your best to take a picture of the snake so medical professionals can identify an antivenom as needed. If you’re extremely isolated, Poison Control (1-800-222-1222) can help guide you through additional steps to take.
3. STRANDED AT SEA
Boat capsized? Try using clothing, tarps, or other fabric to act as a catch for rainwater. (Make sure to let the rain wash salt off the surface first.) Wring it out in a container to drink and stay hydrated. And think of the good news: small fish tend to like crowding under rafts, making fishing for sustenance easier.
While adventure movies have exaggerated how deadly a pit of quicksand can be, not knowing how to react can absolutely make it worse. Trying to “swim” out of it in a panic will only allow you to sink in further. Instead, discard anything that’s weighing you down and try to imagine yourself in a pool, slowly leaning back and allowing your legs to come up so you’re floating horizontally. Then you can make incremental attempts to wade to safety. If you know help is coming, just stand by—staying mostly still means you’re not likely to sink any lower than waist level.
5. BEAR ATTACKS
Nothing will get your blood pumping faster than a bear that doesn’t like you. Outdated wisdom about “playing dead” is effective only if a bear appears surprised by your presence and is acting defensively. For an all-out attack—like getting dragged out of a tent—your chances are best if you fight back or offer a diversion like a thrown bag or canteen to distract the animal while you escape.
6. LOST ON THE TRAIL
If you lose your way, the tried-and-true smoke signal is one way to be spotted by other hikers or passing aircraft. Begin by building a standard campfire, then add as much green grass and leaves as you can find, which will help your fire produce thicker, whiter smoke. Next, douse your sleeping bag or blanket in water, then throw it over your fire until no more smoke rises. Once the smoke has stopped, quickly pull your blanket off to let the smoke fly into the air as a single puff—your first signal.
7. MOUNTAIN LION ENCOUNTER
Mountain lions, cougars, pumas, and panthers are all names for the same (dangerous) mammal. If you encounter one, stand your ground, stay calm, and make yourself look as big as possible by raising your arms. If the lion continues to approach you, try to intimidate it by waving your arms and shouting, or even lobbing rocks or sticks its way. These cats may be big, but they’re pretty easily frightened off.
8. YOUR PARACHUTE WON’T OPEN
Fair warning: Free-falling through the sky from 5000 feet up is not a time to be optimistic. But if you want to even slightly improve your chances of living, try to spread your limbs out and lead with your chest to increase friction against the wind; aim for anything that looks soft—but not water, which is concrete-hard when you hit it at velocity—and try to land feet first with your knees relaxed. It won’t be pleasant, but it’ll be better than landing on your head.
9. AN AVALANCHE
A tsunami of snow can totally rob you of your senses. To stay near the surface, try “swimming” through it by thrashing. Create an air pocket by holding a hand up to your mouth. If you find yourself disoriented, look at your spit and follow gravity’s lead.
10. SHARK ATTACKS
Don’t panic: Sharks will only get more excited when they see a splashing, kicking appetizer in the water. As odd as it sounds, try to keep eye contact as the shark approaches; as ambush predators, they’ll be less comfortable knowing you can see them. Try to swim backward to safety. If all else fails, give it a haymaker to the sensitive gills, not the nose.