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Extreme Survival: Are Your Off-Grid Survival Skills Good Enough?

also with content from David M.

The will to survive is encoded in our genetic structure. When you’re faced with a situation where you must catch what food you can to stay alive, where you must rely on the elements of nature for shelter and water until the situation resolves, how do you come out? Are your survival skills enough that you make it out alive? Or do you become another death statistic?

Every year dozens of people in each state become lost, hurt, or stranded in the woods. People neglect to take a reading on their compass before heading in to hunt, and then they have no idea which direction to go to get back out. Sometimes you’re relying on the others in the hunting party to come back for you, but as twilight settles, you realize they’ve overlooked you somehow.

That’s what happened to my teenage son. I had to work one weekend, a weekend we had planned a two-day hunting trip. My brother offered to take him hunting with him and promised to have my boy back that night. I knew that it could be after midnight before they came sliding in, so when they weren’t home by 10:00 that night, I wasn’t too worried. I crawled into bed a promptly fell asleep.

I awoke at 4:00 am and found that my son still wasn’t home. Throwing on some clothes and grabbing a jacket, I headed for the deer camp. An hour later, just as the first rays of the sun were coming up, I pulled up into the camp yard as several men began trekking down the road. I spotted my brother and ran to him.

“What the hell is going on?” I yelled at him. “And what do you mean by not coming home last night?”

My brother looked sheepish and tried to calm me down. But I was having none of it. As he tried to explain, the only thing I could focus on was that he had just told me he had lost my son.

My fourteen-year-old boy had been lost in the pine thicket, and no one could find him. I felt sick in the pit of my stomach and began to panic. It was cold, really cold. And my kid had been out in it all night long.

It took us the rest of the morning, but we finally found him. He had panicked to the point of being counterproductive, and he had caused his situation to deteriorate even further and more rapidly than was necessary. Survival in these cases is dependent upon a clear head, a little pre-planning, and an understanding of your options as you try to make your way back into civilization.

Sometimes accidents happen, and you may find yourself sliding down the face of a rocky cliff and losing your gun. You may even suffer injuries or adverse weather conditions, both of which can hamper not only your ability to survive, but also the ability of rescue workers to find you.

First of all, before you even head into the woods, dress appropriately. Don’t ever make the mistake of thinking, I’m just going in a little piece, hunting for an hour, then slipping back out. You always prepare for an extended stay. Besides a compass (that you should have taken a reading from before you headed into the woods), you should always carry the following items in an emergency kit that you can tuck into the various cargo and jacket pockets on the clothes you’re wearing:

  • A lighter
  • A book of matches
  • A two-foot square piece of heavy clear plastic sheeting
  • Two fish hooks (decent-sized treble hooks) with a leader attached and twenty-five feet of twelve-pound test fishing line
  • Half a section of paracord, tightly wound
  • A real carabiner with about four feet of duct tape wrapped around the non-opening side of the clip
  • A small baggy of cotton balls and a small piece of microfiber cloth (such as an eyeglass cloth that is four inches square)
  • One freezer bag folded up and protected from sharp edges
  • A small eyedropper-sized container (about one ounce) of isopropyl alcohol
  • A small container of water purification tablets
  • A sewing needle and twenty-five feet of two-pound test line
  • Two heavy duty key rings (preferably two solid rings made out of one-inch diameter aluminum)
  • A heavy-duty safety whistle
  • Fourteen feet of snare wire or thin diameter braided stainless steel wire

All of these items can be bought in bulk at four to six times the quantity needed and won’t cost more than $50. This will make four to six kits, so every vehicle can have one, every backpack can include one, etc. The container will cost three to five dollars and can be picked up at any outdoor store. If you’re feeling rich, buy a Pelican-brand case to ensure you can use the case for more hardcore uses such as boiling water. The case can also double as a drinking cup or a collection container for rainwater, if needed. And while these items may seem awkward and out of place, rest assured that they can save your life with the proper planning.

Pre-planning Tips:

  • Tell your friends and family exactly where you’ll be and when exactly to expect you home. Never make it a habit of staying out later than what you tell your family you’ll be. When I [David M.] was first married, I would tell my wife I’d be home from the deer camp at 10 p.m. and then come lollygagging in around midnight.  She would be furious with me, and rightfully so. She had been sitting there, worried to death something had happened to me, and had no way of knowing where I was or if I had been injured. We soon came to a good compromise that took into consideration my love of gabbing around the camp fire and her need to know I was safe.
  • Know the area well. Research the poisonous plants and animals in the area, and know what the weather is forecasted to do. Use Google—it’s your friend for this.
  • Understand the basics of how to build a fire. Wet items don’t ignite well, and simply piling wood on top of smaller wood won’t make a great fire. Try to allow airflow to the base of the fire, and build it with a solid base and a loose structure to allow the proper ignition of materials. Be smart—use a few drops of the isopropyl alcohol to soak a cotton ball and start your kindling with it. Conserve the fuel in your lighter.
  • Understand the basics of heat loss. Try to keep your head, hands, and feet covered, but protect your core at all costs from heat loss. Use ground covering to avoid heat loss through the ground while sleeping.
  • Wear smart and technical clothing. Cotton may look good, but it’s bad for cold and wet conditions. Opt for synthetics or wool, and always wear long underwear made from high-quality materials (not cotton).
  • Don’t forget that heat is trapped in dead, insulated air. This means old, dead leaves can insulate between a shirt and jacket. You can then use your own body heat to perpetuate more sustained heat.
  • Know how to use your knife and be prepared to use it, whether you’re protecting yourself from a small-to-medium-sized animal, building a shelter, or cleaning the food that you catch.

Once you realize you’re going to have to rough it until found, it’s important to take stock of your physical and mental condition, especially if you’ve suffered an injury that results in any type of concussion. If you feel that you do have a concussion, ascertain whether it appears to be mild or more life-threatening. If you’re not sick but have some lightheadedness, blurry spots, and general discomfort, try to stay awake and aware. Take the time you need to make sure that you can think clearly and make good decisions.

If you are worse off than this, try to find a sheltered area which should also be an open area. Don’t expose yourself to water or wind, but try to make yourself visible from the air. Keep your clothes on and don’t use them as signals for a search party. Conserve body heat and get as comfortable as possible. If you have a broken bone or other similar non-life-threatening injury, try to make an “X” that can be seen from the air, which is the universal sign of a distress call.

Set up a reasonably warm and safe protected shelter. Cold and wetness are your two biggest enemies. Psychological warfare is the next enemy on the list. Hope and willpower are two of your biggest allies. Be prepared to make this situation work.

Food and Water

Set snares, but be realistic. Even if you know what you’re doing, this can be a tedious and unproductive task if you fail to take into consideration any number of variables. Try to set snares in high traffic areas, and use your survival kit items sparingly. Use the paracord and the wire to make the snares, and save the monofilament fishing line for the next task.

Set leaders with bait across a small channel of water, like over a fifteen-foot wide section of a stream. Don’t let the bait sit on the bottom of the stream, and run a security line across from two small trees, a foot above the water line. Allow the leaders to hang down into the stream. Check it a few times a day—several times a day—so your aggressive catch doesn’t break the line and take it with them.

Prepare for eating bugs if it gets to that point. Look for fruits and roots that are edible.  Remember the extensive Google session you had before the trip? This is where is comes in handy.  Understand about mushrooms and plant life, and know which in the area should be avoided. Look for things like pine needles (edible), cactus (edible), and cactus apples.

Look for succulents (plants that look plump and juicy and have pale colors or bright flowers on chubby looking green bases (example for comparison: iceplant is a succulent, as well as many varieties of cactus). These plants can give off water that is drinkable with the items you have in your kit.

Use the items in your kit to make the difference:

  • The microfiber cloth can be used to soak up drinking water in small quantities from rainfall in your container. Suck on the wet cloth to keep liquid in your system. Every bit counts.
  • Use the plastic sheeting to create water that is drinkable. Dig a small hole that is one foot in diameter and six inches deep. Place your empty container in the center, place succulents (the green clean parts) around the container, and place the sheeting over the hole. Put a small rock into the middle, on top of the sheet above the container, and secure the edges of the sheeting. Do this in the sun. The sun will heat up the area inside the hole, the plants will sweat off water vapor which will collect on the bottom side of the sheeting, and then this liquid will funnel down into the container. Be patient and wait until you extract maximum moisture before you open the hole because escaping heat will cause the process time to increase.
  • Use the freezer bag to treat water in with the tablets.
  • Fish bones contain a large percentage of fresh water within the “marrow” area.

Shelter and Warmth

In a cave or overhang, make sure that your fire is placed to avoid smoke inhalation, and so that you and it are protected from high winds. Find twenty to thirty rocks that can be put into the fire and used underneath the dirt to keep you heated from underneath, if it’s practical. The rocks will retain heat, if insulated by the ground, for most of the night. Used in conjunction with ground cover (pine needles or leaves that are dry), it can keep you from getting hypothermia. Avoid open exposure and don’t sleep on rocks if you can help it. Rocks are colder than the ground.

Use the items in your kit to make the difference:

  • Paracord can lash together branches to create a wind break and shelter.
  • The aluminum rings can create a lash point on either side of a collection of sticks or branches to conserve a considerable amount of paracord.
  • Start a fire, and keep it going.
  • Heat up rocks while you have the fire going, and then you can use these hot rocks to boil water to kill microorganisms. A hot rock can boil water in a metal can or heat-resistant plastic container (which admittedly you do not have as part of your kit) in no time. Look for smooth, hard rocks and get them incredibly hot, then submerge them into a small amount of water (less than a pint at a time). Have several rocks to ensure a long enough boil time. Use sticks to place the rocks. An old tin can could work for this process, or a rock indention that has had stagnant water cleaned out of it. Use a coconut hull or a hollowed-out pineapple. Get creative. Think about things like the core of an agave plant or the base of a thick cactus to use for this purpose. For about fifteen dollars, you can find a durable soft silicone cup that folds flat, can fit in a small space, and will not melt with boiling by this method (although of course you can’t expose it to open flame).
  • Don’t waste the alcohol you have. Use only a few drops to get a cotton ball or a bit of tinder into a more volatile state for lighting. Don’t waste the open flame of your lighter when you can help it.
  • Use your knife to sharpen sticks and remove bark along with your duct tape to make a handle covering (if practical) to create a long-range weapon, or to create defensive cover for larger animals at the perimeter of your sleeping area.

*Important note: For signaling and rescue, don’t light a signal fire unless you have properly cleared a safe area and don’t have a risk of starting a dangerous forest fire. A search party will look for smoke and fire, so look for sap-filled trees and green leaves to create good smoke patterns. A small fire can be as good as a big one—don’t endanger yourself anymore than you have to. Use natural elements and contrasting colors to make large signals that can been seen from the air— like X’s and arrows. Use three arrows to ensure they know your direction of travel. Don’t be afraid to hunker down, as long as your pre-trip planning was good.

Be smart about how you use your items and how you use your energy. Remember, you can last thirty days or so without food, but only about three to four days (a week in some extreme cases) without water.

Here are some more miscellaneous tips:

  • Don’t drink water without treating, even if it looks clear.
  • Don’t handle hot food and hot rocks with your bare skin.
  • Don’t eat snow. Let it melt and come up in temperature. Generally speaking, you don’t have to treat water derived from fresh snow.
  • Stay out of the sun, but don’t travel at night.
  • Drink as much water or fluids as you can while resting, even if you feel too full to drink.
  • Stop early in the afternoon to secure camp each day if you do not have a reasonable expectation of reaching civilization.
  • Use your knife—it was built for that.  Make use of it and its extra features (saw area or other attached functions).
  • Avoid anything you can’t guarantee will keep you safe, including berries, plants, and bugs which could put you into anaphylactic shock.
  • Don’t be a tough guy… no one is watching. If you are in pain, sick, or cut, fix the problem. Rest and regain your wits, then move on.
  • Listen carefully for variations in sounds so you don’t surprise a mama bear, a rattlesnake, or any other dangerous animal.
  • Try to be rescued; it makes for a better story than your death. Even if you want to prove your outdoor survival skills, take the rescue over the “glory” of the survival story.

In this series of articles, we will be exploring more extreme survival hunting and preparation techniques for those who want to ensure their knowledge on the outdoors is up to speed for bad situations. Look for all available resources, and always be prepared for anything. Spend the time and the money on quality information and equipment, and never underestimate the elements or bad luck. Anything can happen at any time, and you should be prepared for it.

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