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What not to do

2/12/2009

On Nov. 25, 2006, James Kim and his family took a wrong turn in a remote area of southwestern Oregon. After nine days stuck on a snowy logging road, Kim decided to look for help on foot. Just two days later, his wife and two children were spotted by helicopter. Kim was found over 10 miles away, having succumbed to hypothermia. If he had stayed with the car, as most experts suggest, he would still be alive as well.

Every year, millions of people leave the comfort of their air-conditioned homes to venture into the wild — to hunt, fish, or just enjoy the great outdoors. For whatever reason — a freak snow storm, a broken axle, bad directions or a feral pig attack — many find themselves in dangerous situations. To stay safe, outdoorsmen must use their heads. But, some ill-conceived decisions can make the situation worse.

Here are several commonly-made mistakes. They may seem like a good idea at the time, but they can turn an inconvenient situation into a deadly one.


Running from bears

When a bear menaces you, the fight-or-flight response seems pretty obvious, since fighting is out of the question. But with many animal encounters, fighting the urge to run away with your arms flailing is not only the manlier, but the smarter, response.

The truth is, large animals such as bears and big cats will avoid you when given fair notice of your presence. And when they are surprised, their aggressive behavior is often a bluff. Unless you're between a bear and its cubs, you're likely a mere curiosity; running just makes you look like food. With top speeds around 30 mph, both black and brown bears gallop at Carl Lewis speeds.

Try to avoid confrontation in the first place. According to Tom S. Smith, a biologist with the Alaska Science Center, the safest plan is to travel in tight groups, make noise, and carry plenty of bear spray.

"Never split up and never run when approached by a bear," Smith said. "Group together and do not let a pushy bear split you up."

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, fewer than 10 percent of bear confrontations are predatory in nature. Most are caused by surprise, and communicating that you aren't a threat can keep them from escalating.

To show you aren't a threat, stay calm, speak in a soft voice, and back slowly away. If you insist on running, remember: You don't need to be faster than the bear, just faster than your friends.


Drinking urine

Drinkable water is a top priority in the wild. Get desperate enough, and you start to wonder whether you could, ahem, reclaim all that liquid you're losing in your urine.

But trust us on this one. No matter how thirsty you think you are, drinking pee ain't the answer.

While urine is indeed 95 percent water, you don't want any part of the other 5 percent. According to the National Institutes of Health, 2 percent of urine is salt, nearly as much as sea water. Another 3 percent is various toxins, expelled from the body for a reason.

If your kidneys have to reprocess urine, they'll draw water from the body to dilute the salt. This further dehydrates you — the opposite of what a thirsty person needs.

Countless experts agree, and the SAS Survival Handbook states it as plainly as possible: "DO NOT drink urine."

Plus, when you make it back to civilization, no matter how gnarly your survival story, you don't want to be known as that guy who drank his own pee.


Hot water to cure hypothermia

Here's a plausible situation. It's winter. Your friend breaks his leg while out in woods, and he's stuck for hours without appropriate clothing while you go for help. You finally get him back to the cabin, but his hands are blue and he can barely speak — both signs of hypothermia.

The cure is to raise his core body temperature. What should you use? You have a hot tub, so throwing him in there will work the fastest, right?

Strictly speaking, it might, but it also could kill him. The temperature shock from the hot water would cause the blood vessels in his arms and legs to rapidly expand, causing his weakened heart to tremble rather than contract properly. Additionally, the cold blood from his limbs would be pulled into the heart, further dropping the core temperature and potentially causing cardiac arrest.

What to do instead? Get him indoors and out of wet clothing. An electric blanket or space heater can help, but first give him something sickly sweet, such as candy or sugar dissolved in warm orange juice. A body stoked with blood sugar will do a lot of warming on its own.


Removing/discarding clothes in desert

The desert's full of trouble. Your radiator explodes, or you get lost tracking pronghorns, and suddenly you're wandering a post-apocalyptic wasteland until you stumble upon Bartertown.

In such an unforgiving environment, your brain may tell you to remove warm clothes. Unfortunately, as so often happens, your brain is wrong. Shedding steamy layers might hurt your chances.

First, clothing prevents sunburns. Many materials are treated to protect against UV radiation, but just a normal cotton layer can spare you a blister.

Also, water evaporates from the skin slower when insulated with clothing. An important concern in the desert is dehydration, and John Wiseman, author of the SAS Survival Handbook,
explains how keeping your shirt on can make a crucial difference when water is scarce.

"Copy the flowing, layered garments of the Arab world," Wiseman writes. "Keep the covering as loose as possible so that there is a layer of insulating air. Sweating will then cool you more efficiently."

Also, temperatures drastically drop once the sun sets. The jacket that was dead weight on the trail will be a trophy when frost settles. Rather than ditching your clothes, stuff them in a back pocket or tie them around your waist. You'll need all the protection you can get.


Obsessing over food

Survival experts claim that most wilderness rescues occur within the first 72 hours. Whether or not you survive may depend on your priorities.

So what is essential to improving your odds? Water, yes. Shelter, probably. But regardless of how loudly your stomach howls, food has little to do with it. In fact, humans can survive about 30 days without any nutrients at all.

Now, your brain does require glucose. After a half day without food, the liver releases its glucose reserve. Once that's used up, usually after 12 hours, muscles begin to break down. This will continue for several days, at which point the body processes fat to avoid further muscle loss.

This process of using stored energy can make you irritable, tired and sore. But so long as you have body fat, you will not starve, even if your mind resists that notion.

Daily routines are often structured around regular meals, and breaking that schedule requires mental toughness. Not only will your stomach ache, but your brain will tell you something is missing. In that instance, the simple act of searching for food can be a comfort. The task keeps your mind busy, keeping boredom and depression at bay. But nutritionally it will be a wash if the calories gained don't match the energy spent.

Gathering food in the wild is a pain. Think you could survive indefinitely off, say, berries? It would take over a gallon-and-a-half to get the daily recommended 2,000 calories. You would spend all day picking berries, then all night regretting having eaten a gallon-and-a-half.

Of course, if for some reason food is abundant, chow down. If it isn't, remember that surviving for a few days doesn't require a desperate struggle to find nourishment.


In a survival situation, knowledge often outweighs tools. Unfortunately for many weekend warriors, a common source for that knowledge is Hollywood. While action movies and hyperventilating survival documentaries are entertaining, they're often full of it. Eating snakes and jumping off cliffs make for good television but bad protocol.

Of course, most outdoorsmen won't face the situations above. But preparation does require study. Start with government departments like the U.S. Geological Survey, Coast Guard, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Also, learn from local guides and outdoorsmen, as much knowledge is specific to a region.