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Backpacker Magazine – October 2006

Essential Survival Skills

Guaranteed to get you out of trouble fast.

by: The Backpacker Editors

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You won't find the key to outdoor survival in a fancy first-aid kit. Or on page 236 of a dusty manual. Nope, your ability to adapt and endure is dependent on what's stored inside your head. In the following pages, we'll help you upgrade your survival smarts with inventive advice on staying warm, dry, hydrated, and focused as you negotiate any do-or-die situation.

How to...

Thaw cold feet

Swing your leg forcefully back and forth, like a pendulum. Inertia will force the blood to the tips of your toes.

Estimate your distance traveled

The average footstep is 30 inches, and a fit person can walk 3 mph over flat ground. Determining how far you've walked is critical for navigating through a whiteout or dense forest--or if you're trying to pinpoint the exact location of a trail junction or landmark.

Find north using a clock face

Hold an analog watch flat, with the hour hand aimed at the sun. South will be halfway between the hour hand and 12. North is 180 degrees in the opposite direction. Adjust for daylight-saving time by using 1:00 instead of noon. If you wear a digital watch, draw a clock face on the ground. This technique works for North America below Alaska, but it should only be used for emergency navigation. Always bring a compass and a map of your route.

Orient yourself using the moon

If the crescent moon rises before the sun goes down (a first-quarter moon), its illuminated side will face west. If it rises after midnight (a last-quarter moon), the bright side will face east. (using the north star is easier and more reliable, but try this lunar method if stars are obscured.)

Find a natural bandage

Gather dried sphagnum moss--soft, bushy, green clumps--from bogs or swamps. WWI soldiers used it to stanch their wounds because it's antibacterial and as absorbent as cotton. Press it against a bleeding wound, or bind it on top of a sterile pad after the blood clots.

Escape biting insects

Seek out windy spots, or apply mud to exposed skin. Rub flakes of birch bark on your skin and clothing--the oil repels bugs. Mosquitoes are attracted to wet and dark-colored clothing, as well as perspiration. They are most active at dawn and dusk, when the air is calm.

Identify a coral snake

Remember: "red on yellow, kill a fellow. Red on black, friend of jack." poisonous coral snakes, with adjacent red and yellow bands and a black head, live predominantly in the southeast and southwest. Similar-looking scarlet king snakes, with their adjacent red and black bands, are harmless constrictors that range from Florida to New Jersey.

Re-warm frostbitten skin

Place the white, waxy frozen skin in lukewarm water or apply hot wet cloths until It becomes pink as blood flow returns. Never apply dry heat; frostbitten skin easily burns. To avoid damaging tissue, don't rub or massage skin. Taking ibuprofen manages pain and can reduce the chance of blood clots.

Self-arrest without an ice axe

Roll onto your stomach, facing uphill. Push up with your elbows to shift more weight to your legs and feet. Your body will create a natural wedge as your boots dig into the ground.

Fix a broken shoelace

If your lace is too short, skip the eyelets near the toes. Just lace up the ankle and cuff of the boot to achieve a tight fit. If you lose an entire shoelace, cut the other one in half.

Find north using the stick-and-shadow method

When the sun is casting shadows, place a 3-foot stick vertically into flat ground. Clear the area around it of debris. Mark the tip of the stick's shadow with a stone (a). Wait at least 15 minutes and mark the end of the shadow again (b). The line connecting the marks roughly coincides with the east-west line. A line perpendicular to this line through the central stick indicates the north-south line.

Identify and treat heat exhaustion

A victim will be sweating heavily, with cool, wet, flushed skin. Dizziness, vomiting, headache, and a rapid pulse are also possible. Have the person lie down in a cool, shaded place. Elevate his or her feet, fan them, spritz them with water, and provide cool drinks and salty snacks.


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Ruined jacket in dryer
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