The Four Phases of Surviving

By Peter Kummerfeldt

As I have reflected on the whole business of survival I came to the conclusion that the process could be divided into four phases:  Anticipation, Preparation, Activation and Reconciliation.

ANTICIPATION – what could happen.

Denial invites catastrophe.” As an outdoor safety instructor the most difficult job I have is convincing people that they might be the next person faced with surviving a night or two out. It is easier for people to bury their heads in the sand than it is for them to face reality and accept the possibility that somewhere, sometime in the future, something bad might happen. It is too easy to say that the situations we read about in the paper or hear about on the evening news always happen to stupid/foolhardy/ unwise/inexperienced people. We’d like to believe that we are too intelligent/smart/clever/experienced etc. for something like that to happen to us.It is always the  “other guy” that gets in trouble. Not necessarily. Sometimes even intelligent/smart/clever/experienced people get in trouble. 

If you’re still in denial mode it’s time to come to grips with reality and recognize that“just because you think something bad isn’t going to happen to you doesn’t mean it won’t.” We are eternal optimists and sometimes our optimism works against us. It clouds our ability to look at a situation clearly and recognize the pitfalls that exist. Men, in particular, are unwilling to admit that perhaps they are not as able to deal with an outdoor emergency as they think they are. We also have to acknowledge the possibility that despite our level of preparedness there are situations that happen in the outdoors that we have no control over. Things that may harm or even kill us.

As you begin planning a trip consider the “what ifs.” Do a risk analysis. What are the dangers? What could go wrong? What are the environmental hazards that could harm me?  “That which can be foreseen can be prevented.” Then, having established a list of possible scenarios, ask yourself  “Am I ready and able to cope with the situations that might arise? If you have any doubts as to your knowledge or ability – do something about it! 

PREPARATION – preparing for what could happen.

Very often it’s not the thoroughly researched and prepared-for remote backcountry trip that is the problem but rather a trip that’s closer to home where little thought is given to what could happen. Said a bit more forcefully: I believe that “the most dangerous trip you can take is the spontaneous ‘let’s take the kids on a picnic’ event.” In this situation no thought is given to what might happen, after all, “we are just goingfor an afternoon picnic.” What could possibly happen? A lot can happen and sooner or later it probably will. Think through these spontaneous trips and give them the same level of attention you would when planning a more adventurous one.

Preparing for any outdoor event should involve an objective, honest appraisal of your skill level, the usefulness of the equipment you carry, the ability of your clothing to protect you from the elements. In other words, your ability to cope with all that Mother Nature can throw at you. Fundamentally, survival revolves around your ability to maintain 98.6° F. for as long as possible.  “You should hope for the best but plan for the worst.”

All too often a person’s first exposure to surviving begins with the realization that they are about to spend the night out in the woods or some other isolated location. A night out that they hadn’t planned on. It is at this point that the  “wishing” begins. “I wish I had prepared better. I wish I had told someone where I was going. I wish I were back home. I wish I had warmer clothing. I wish …… ” and the list goes on and on. All the wishing in the world isn’t going to change reality. You are tired, cold and hungry! You may also be lost, injured and alone. If you have never practiced building a fire, sheltering yourself, collecting water or any of the other myriad things that you need to do to survive, you have no knowledge base to which to refer. When you have practiced, even if it was a long time ago, that knowledge is locked in your memory ready to be called on when needed. Granted, your skills may be a bit rusty but the information is there. 

ACTIVATION – doing what you need to do to survive.

It is extremely likely that upon finding yourself in a tough situation the adrenaline and cortisone is going to flood through your body and put you into a flight or fight mode. This is normal. It is your body’s way of getting you ready to either turn tail and run, or go to war. I believe that everyone is going to panic to some degree but  “fear and panic is not the problem. It’s what you do with your fear and how you cope with panic that counts. ” In an emergency your brain shuts down, and whether you live or die depends in large part on your previous training. Remember too that “you can’t rise to the occasion – you can only rise to the level of your training.” In those first few moments when you are beginning to feel uncomfortable and your world is starting to come apart, get off your feet – sit down. Have a drink of water. Stay put for thirty minutes and then decide what needs to be done. 

 “You can’t govern the elements but you can govern your actions.” There’s nothing you can do about the wind, precipitation, or temperature, but there are many things that you can do to protect yourself from the impact of the elements – especially if you have prepared for the event. Get busy surviving. Every minute counts. It’s your life that you are saving! Get a fire going. Find a sheltered place to spend the night. “The difference between an uncomfortable night out and a life-threatening one hinges on what you do,” not on what someone else does. Think carefully about each step – does it help you to survive?

RECONCILIATION – reflecting back on what has happened.

“An adventure is misery and discomfort relived in the safety of reminiscence.” but to relive your experience you must first survive it. As you reflect back on the crisis that you survived and contemplate the events that led up to your predicament I suspect that you will realize that “it’s not that one thing happened, it’s much more likely that one thing led to another, to another, to another until you were no longer in control of the situation.” The roots of an incident begin to grow long before the event actually happens. People fail to see the early warning signs and all too often ignore them. In retrospect “every great mistake has a halfway moment, a split second, when it can be recalled and perhaps remedied.” The best possible survival situation is the one you don’t get into.

“People venturing into the outdoors assume that technology renders the consequences of human error in the outdoors far less dire.” With the advent of satellite phones, cellular phone technology, beacons and other electronic equipment it is all too easy to believe that all you’ll have to do when you get in trouble is activate some gee-whiz device, call for help and help will be right there.Not true. It takes time for the Search and Rescue personnel to gather, be briefed, deploy into the field, locate your position and then recover you.

In the final analysis, “we all say we want to survive but some work at it harder than others. They are the survivors.”