Monday, March 25, 2013

The basics of wilderness survival

Wilderness Basics in a Nutshell

Wilderness survival is a complex subject. It involves the knowledge based skill sets of shelter construction, basic material and tool fabrication from natural materials, hunting, fishing, trapping, animal behavior, wild plant characteristics, fire building and usage, among many others. It is a truly vast subject of study which can in fact be greatly simplified as a concept.

If I had to wrap up the concept of wilderness survival into as simple of a numerical nutshell as humanly possible, it would read:

Survival is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit


Ninety eight point six degrees is the average temperature of a normally functioning human body. The number is ultimately the literal basis for survival. Everything concerning survival or bushcraft revolves around this number. Not maintaining this temperature will kill you far faster than is possible concerning either dehydration or starvation.

You may be asking where food, water, accidents, animal attacks, and poisonous plants or animals, or the other numerous skill sets I mentioned at the very start come into the picture? This question is especially poignant considering my bold statement that the concept of ninety eight point six degrees encompasses survival in a nutshell...

You need five things to survive at all, anywhere in the world. These five things are common sense, knowledge, food, water, and a healthy body (98.6 degrees).

The first four items allow you to maintain the fifth.

Concerning body temperature:

  • If this number decreases too far, then you die. This state of decreasing body temperature is called hypothermia.
  • If this number increases too much, then you die. This state of increasing body temperature is called hyperthermia, and leads to the more commonly known effect called heatstroke.

Survival then breaks down to simply maintaining the number ninety eight point six. Everything else assists in the process.

Maintaining that number is not as easy as it sounds. Body heat is lost or gained by three main mechanisms.

  1. Radiation: Your body naturally radiates heat. If the weather is cold, then this mechanism naturally accelerates heat loss, as your body requires extra insulation to slow down the process. If the weather is too hot, then insulation must be removed by wearing thinner, breathable, or lighter clothing, and direct exposure to sunlight should be avoided until you have cooled, as your body cannot radiate heat fast enough to the environment to help in cooling. This is especially true on hot, humid, wind still days.
  2. Conduction: Touching a cold or hot object transfers heat from the warmer object to the colder. Avoid becoming wet when it is cold. You should also avoid sitting on cold rocks or damp logs, or in snow. If the weather is hot, seek shade and avoid laying on hot rocks or warm ground. Use water to help cool yourself if available.
  3. Convection: Moving air of any given temperature rapidly cools or heats any object that is of a different temperature that it flows around. Everyone has heard of 'a convection oven', and also has heard the terms 'wind chill' or 'feels like' on the nightly news weather report. A hot wind feels cool in the shade, but is rapidly evaporating moisture sweating from your body. This actually cools the body, but the moisture must be replenished by drinking fluids or your body's natural cooling system shuts down. At this point you cannot get any cooler than the wind itself, even in the shade. A cold wind will quickly carry heat from your body, and will rapidly reduce body temperature far faster than is possible by the process of radiation. 

Relying solely on natural senses for body heat control is dangerous.

After a certain point, your natural senses become muddled or even inoperative. When becoming hypothermic, a person might well start feeling warm, or even hot, though their body is actually losing heat. People in this state have been known to shed insulation such as coats or warm clothing, causing a further acceleration of the process. A person on the verge of heatstroke may suddenly feel cool. Approaching either hypothermia or heatstroke causes sense distortion, disorientation, and reduces the ability to think rationally.

A person suffering severely from either state will need help from others, as they will eventually lose the capability of helping themselves. Their hands and feet will go numb from the cold, eventually becoming completely non-functional, or they will collapse or go insensate from the heat.

If you are by yourself, as is often the case in a realistic survival scenario, then you are in serious trouble. Learn to recognize the early warning signs of both hypothermia and heatstroke, and how to immediately deal with them.

Also realize that you do not have to be romping about in the woods somewhere for these situations to strike, as your own back yard or even your house may well become the setting for a real survival scenario.