Survival Myths and Misconceptions

By Peter Kummerfeldt

Much of the information available to people who want to learn more about survival and surviving is based on material that is outdated. Unfortunately, early outdoor writers created a problem for those of us interested in learning how to survive a wilderness emergency. Many of their techniques and procedures that were once state-of-the-art are no longer valid, yet they are still commonly published in books and magazine articles. 

Times have changed. The needs of a lost or stranded person today are different from the needs of the mountainmen who trapped beaver in the American West and lived off the land while doing so. If you were to open many of the currently available “how-to-survive” books you would find techniques and procedures that date back to those who survived by manufacturing what they needed from the resources on hand. The question is “How appropriate are these techniques and procedures today?” In many cases they are not! New and better techniques have been developed. Technology has advanced and now provides us with more reliable equipment than was available 100 years ago.

As a result of this misinformation, inexperienced people finding themselves in trouble today still believe they can rub sticks together and start a fire. They believe that a waterproof, wind proof shelter can be built from natural materials. They believe they can live off the land until they are rescued. It must be so – it’s in the book! Many of the current, popular outdoor writers perpetuate the problem. The rubbish that is published would never be published if the writer first went out and tested the procedures. 

Many myths, misconceptions and misunderstandings exist today, and as a result the inexperienced outdoor person, when confronted with an unexpected night out in the bush, experiences unnecessary discomfort, hardship, injury and sometimes death because of their reliance on antiquated, inaccurate information. 

The following is a short discussion of some of the more blatant myths and misconceptions commonly found in print today.

Firecraft. Were you to believe the advice given in most survival literature, the ability to produce heat and light in an emergency is an easy one: simply rub sticks together and presto you have fire. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

The writers would have you believe that tinder can be ignited using the lens from your eye glasses. Or that you can remove a lens from your camera or binocular and using the lens focus a beam of sunlight onto the tinder until it ignites. These writers talk of “shaving and shaping a piece of ice into a lens” and then using it to ignite the tinder. None of this makes any sense when there are other much more reliable devices available. For instance, carry a metal match and a container full of Vaseline saturated cottonballs to start your fires.

Cigarette lighters have been touted as a piece of equipment that should be carried in a survival kit. Cigarette lighters are difficult to light when your hands have lost their dexterity, they do not perform well under cold conditions or at higher altitudes, and if accidently dropped into a fire they explode, sending schrapnel in all directions.

Matches come in many forms and to the unknowing they may all look alike. Another trap! What do the words “safety,” “strike anywhere,” “stormproof,” and “waterproof” really mean? In each case there are significant survival ramifications. “Safety” means the match can only be ignited using the striker on the side of the box from which the match was removed – they may not work on the striker of another box. The words “strike anywhere” would lead us to believe that the match could be literally “struck anywhere.” Not so. While these matches do not need the matchbox striker to be ignited, finding a suitable substitute is not always possible. “Stormproof” matches are less susceptible to wind and water than other matches but are often hard to light and quickly wear out the matchbox striking pad. “Waterproof” matches are coated with a lacquer-like material which must be worn through before the striking surface of the matchbox comes in contact with flammable material on the match head. Every time a match head is scraped across the striking pad the lacquer is deposited on that striking surface which will eventually (before you run out of matches) become so contaminated that other matches will not light.

Sheltering. Here, once again, confusion exists about the kinds of shelters carried by those who venture into the outdoors to hunt, fish, backpack, etc. and those needed by a survivor. Most survivors first become aware of their need for shelter as it begins to snow or the sun is setting over the western horizon. Many survivors are already dehydrated and possibly hypothermic as they begin their survival experience. Some are injured. Could they build a lean-to or debris hut that is windproof and waterproof in that condition? I doubt it. Building a shelter from natural materials is possible if time allows, if there are plenty of natural materials available, if the survivor has practiced building an emergency shelter previously, if cutting tools (knife or saw) are available, and if the survivor is uninjured. But lacking time, skill, natural resources, tools, and the use of both hands, building a windproof, waterproof shelter from natural materials becomes impossible.

It is wiser to carry waterproof material with you. Carry a large orange or blue plastic bag or an 8’x10’ tarp that you can crawl into or under to protect yourself rather than trying to build one of the many survival shelters shown in the books. Bags or blankets made from Mylar plastic (space blankets) are the most commonly carried survival shelter material, and the most useless in an emergency. They tend to tear very easily when nicked or punctured.

Signaling. In addition to staying alive, a survivor’s greatest need is to be rescued as quickly as possible, and to do that they must be able to indicate to others that they are in trouble and need help. Once again, the books, manuals, and magazine articles are full of nonsense. Three fires placed in a triangle, wetting a slab of wood to form a reflective surface, and other labor-intensive, less-than-effective procedures are commonly featured in survival literature. With the equipment available today inexpensive, effective devices can be purchased with which to signal. Carry a good glass signal mirror and a loud whistle. Carry a personal rescue beacon.

Surviving an emergency. This is difficult but not impossible if you are prepared. That preparation must be based on good information, selecting your clothing and equipment carefully, and practicing your survival skills. Select your “experts” carefully. Read widely and compare the recommendations that are given. What worked for one may or may not work for you. Select procedures and techniques that work under a wide variety of conditions – procedures and techniques that you can count on and then practice the techniques. Just because you are told something works, don’t accept that advice until you have tested it in the field. Remember, “It may be more important for you to know what does NOT work than what does!”

Suggested Reading:

  • The Psychology of Wilderness Survival – G.F. Ferri
  • Outdoor Safety and Survival – Paul H. Risk
  • Northern Bushcraft – Mors Kochanski
  • Survival – a manual that could save your life – Chris & Gretchen Janowsky
  • 98.6 Degrees – the art of keeping your ass alive. – Cody Lundin
  • The Survivor Personality – Al Seibert
  • Life at the Extremes – Frances Ashcroft
  • Last Breath – Peter Stark
  • Survival Psychology – John Leach
  • Deep Survival – who lives, who dies and why – Laurence Gonzales
  • Surviving Extremes – Kenneth Kamler
  • Surviving a Wilderness Emergency – Peter Kummerfeldt