9 Survival Myths That Could Kill You


Every­one is an expert these days. Unfor­tu­nately, in cer­tain sit­u­a­tions, faux-expertise can get you killed. Erro­neous sur­vival myths usu­ally aren’t mali­cious, just mis­in­formed. Still, the wrong infor­ma­tion can be deadly. The fol­low­ing list iden­ti­fies and cor­rects nine com­mon sur­vival myths:

Myth: You Must Find Food First
There are a lot of things that can kill you in the wilder­ness, and star­va­tion is cer­tainly one of those things, but it is unlikely to be the first or fastest thing to bring you down. Humans can live for up to six weeks with­out food. That’s plenty of time for some­one to fig­ure out that you’re miss­ing and come find you. In all like­li­hood you will be res­cued before you starve unless some­thing else gets you first. Water, warmth, and pro­tec­tion should always be your top priorities.

Myth: Shel­ter Means Cov­er­age
When most peo­ple think of shel­ter, they think of four walls and a roof. In the wilder­ness, this myopic view can kill you. Ade­quate shel­ter has lit­tle to do with cov­er­age and every­thing to do with pro­tec­tion. You need shel­ter to pro­tect you from the ele­ments. In a hot sunny cli­mate, this likely means shade. In a tem­per­ate or cold cli­mate, it means warmth. Poorly built shacks with roofs and walls are a poor way to pro­tect your­self from the cold. The best way to make a quick shel­ter is to find a dry place and insu­late the ground using dry veg­e­ta­tion. Mak­ing a small nest that insu­lates the ground and pro­vides a bit of wind pro­tec­tion and cam­ou­flage is vastly supe­rior to a roofed shel­ter with­out insulation.

Myth: You Can Drink Water From a Cac­tus
So your car broke down in the desert. It’s miles to the near­est gas sta­tion. Your cell phone doesn’t have recep­tion. You don’t have any water in your car. There’s no one around, and you are very, very thirsty. Now you chance upon a cac­tus. I’m saved, you think. I’ll just lop the top off this here prickly pear and go to town. Not so fast, part­ner. The liq­uid inside a cac­tus isn’t pure water and is actu­ally a highly alka­line, nox­ious fluid. Chances are, if you drink from a cac­tus you will get very sick, and vom­it­ing is one way to ensure you dehy­drate faster. You can drink from a bar­rel cac­tus, but only one spe­cific type, and unless you’re extremely into cacti botany, you’re bet­ter off con­serv­ing your energy or seek­ing out a purer water source.

Myth: You Know How to Sur­vive Because You Read This, Watched That, or Have a Smart Phone
If you extract any­thing at all from this arti­cle, I hope you learn that you can’t rely on the inter­net, tele­vi­sion, or field guides to save you. Prepa­ra­tion and con­fi­dence are impor­tant in sur­vival sit­u­a­tions, but its cru­cial to keep in mind that all of your prepa­ra­tion should be geared toward avoid­ing life-and-death sit­u­a­tions. Aside from extreme cir­cum­stances and extreme occu­pa­tions, most peo­ple will not find them­selves in life or death sur­vival sit­u­a­tions, with­out a chance of imme­di­ate res­cue, absent user error. Strik­ing off into the wilder­ness with the mind­set that a book or 3G will save you is more than ask­ing for trou­ble, it’s a pretty good way to find trouble.

Myth: You Should Suck the Poi­son Out of a Snakebite

This is one of many dan­ger­ous myths prop­a­gated by movies and tele­vi­sion. Cut­ting a snakebite to suck out poi­son will exac­er­bate an exist­ing wound with­out pro­vid­ing an ade­quate means of remov­ing the poi­son. Poi­son from snakebites is often spilled on the skin; so press­ing your mouth to the wound may lead to some rather nasty mouth and lip dam­age. Fur­ther, even if you are lucky enough to siphon out some of the poi­son, you can look for­ward to a severely dam­aged tra­chea. Anti-venom pro­vides the best treat­ment for a snakebite, so seek­ing med­ical atten­tion should always be the first line of attack. Res­cue should always take pri­or­ity over ama­teur wound care, and suck­ing the venom from a bite should only be attempted in absolutely dire circumstances.

Myth: Your Pee Will Save You
Your pee prob­a­bly won’t kill you, but depend­ing on your loca­tion, it might do more harm than good. If you are dehy­drated in an extremely hot envi­ron­ment, drink­ing your urine will put unnec­es­sary stress on your kid­neys, which in turn puts unnec­es­sary stress on your body and leads to more over­heat­ing. Drink­ing urine is an accept­able short-term solu­tion to dehy­dra­tion in cooler cli­mates, but is not the best idea in a heat-stroke sit­u­a­tion. In cases of dehy­dra­tion com­bined with heat stroke, using the urine to soak a small ban­dana for evap­o­ra­tive cool­ing may be more effective.

Myth: You Need to Ration Your Water in the Desert
Rationing your water or food is great and all, but if you are on the verge of death today, hav­ing water three days from now isn’t going to pro­vide much help. Peo­ple can sur­vive for over two days with­out water in one hun­dred degree heat. The most impor­tant sur­vival tech­nique in this instance is to remem­ber to avoid unnec­es­sary exer­tion. Find­ing shade, drink­ing until you are rea­son­ably hydrated (clear-ish urine), and reserv­ing phys­i­cal exer­tion for night hours are the most effec­tive ways of staving off dehy­dra­tion and heat stroke. Rationing water while run­ning around in the heat is often more dan­ger­ous than lay­ing low and hydrat­ing as much as possible.

Myth: Punch an Attack­ing Shark in the Nose
This may sound insane, but in cir­cum­stances where a shark has ini­ti­ated an attack, fight­ing back is one of the best ways to increase your chances of sur­vival. For decades, the pre­vail­ing wis­dom on shark pugilism dic­tated that attack vic­tims should try to deliver one strong punch to the shark’s snout. Unfor­tu­nately, most peo­ple lack the upper body strength to deliver a blow pow­er­ful enough to stun a shark, espe­cially when punch­ing in the water. Shark attack experts now believe that the best way to fend off an aggres­sive shark is by claw­ing at the eyes and gills. Sharks, like all crea­tures, will nat­u­rally try to pro­tect their vision and res­pi­ra­tory capa­bil­i­ties. A sharp blow or scratch to the eyes or gills may be enough to scare the shark away. Sharks are look­ing for easy prey, and most species won’t risk their safety for a meal.

Myth: Always Swim Par­al­lel to the Shore in a Rip Cur­rent
Swim­ming par­al­lel to the shore is a good way to escape a rip cur­rent that pulls straight out. Unfor­tu­nately, not all rip cur­rents flow directly out to sea. In a long­shore rip cur­rent, or a diag­o­nal rip cur­rent, swim­ming par­al­lel to the shore could tire a dis­tressed swim­mer to the point of drown­ing. Instead, if caught in a rip, swim per­pen­dic­u­lar to the flow of the rip in the same direc­tion as the pre­vail­ing wind or pre­vail­ing ocean cur­rent. If at any point you feel like you are swim­ming up stream, you’re doing it wrong. Like all sur­vival sit­u­a­tions, avoid­ing fatigue and mak­ing calm, ratio­nal deci­sions increases your chance of survival.