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.