Many independent travelers are inclined to push their travel style into the realm of adventure, whereupon they may face an entirely new set of challenges that have nothing to do with finding a quiet hotel room and more to do with finding a decent cave with sufficient elevation that it won’t flood to hunker down in.
Note that you don’t have to be a hardcore outback hiker to need some survival skills; a good friend of mine once took a simple day hike and ended up huddled on a mountain for three days when a freak snow squall stranded him.
If your own travels have ever taken a turn for the adventurous, you may have wondered if you could survive if things got really bad — like Jack London or Jon Krakauer bad. Could you start a fire? Could you forage for food? How long could you survive with what is in your backpack? How would you respond to getting robbed or seriously injured abroad?
For all those who’ve ever found themselves pondering these seemingly existential but potentially practical questions, here is a primer on nine travel skills we hope you will never need.
1. How to Start a Fire
The classic method to get a fire started is using a hand drill, the method seen in old movies and survival books that employs a stick spun at high speed to create friction, heat and a spark. For a few different approaches using this method, see Survival Skills — How to Start a Fire.
You can also start a fire with a battery, steel wool and some tinder by placing the steel wool against the positive and negative charges of the battery, which will cause the steel wool to smolder enough to apply it to some good tinder. A wholly modern variation on this tactic is starting a fire with your cell phone. (Note that since this video was made, far fewer cell phones have a removable battery, but it’s still worth a look.)
Starting a fire in the wild is probably one of the hardest tactics to pull off, so you may want to do a bit more research; there are heaps of YouTube videos on the subject to spark your interest (no pun intended).
2. How to Ration a Limited Food Supply
On a trip way back in the pre-ATM historic period, I ran out of cash on a Saturday morning and had to make some meager rations last until Monday. My question then as now was: should I eat it all at once and pack the calories in, or spread it out over the next 48 hours?
There are actually two answers here — one for water, and one for food. Humans can live a relatively long time without food, but only about 72 hours without water.
Experts recommend that you tally up your food supply immediately, focusing on calorie content and not volume, then space it out over the necessary time period.
If you are not in the wilderness, water is pretty easy to find at government offices, in public bathrooms, at your hotel, at a McDonald’s, etc. But if you find yourself in the wilderness, it is a different challenge altogether. Most survival experts recommend that you drink what you have up to the necessary quart per day, and then get on with the business of finding more for later if needed.
Which leads us to …
3. How to Find and Treat Water for Drinking
Several types of water are generally safe for drinking: rain water, melted snow or ice (after allowing it to warm up a bit so not to lower your body temperature), melted ice cubes, water drained from a water heater, liquids from canned goods and water drained from pipes.
Unsafe sources include lake and pond water, standing puddles not made by very recent precipitation, radiator water, hot water boilers, water beds, toilet water and pool water (these can be used for personal hygiene in most cases though). The one option that occurs to almost everyone pondering the question is their own urine; in the short term it is safe, although the natural waste products from your own system are best not consumed in large quantities.
In the wild, there are many potential sources for safe water. Clear flowing water that is likely not from a source that has pollution will work; these might include springs and clear streams with no human presence upstream. Note that even for apparently safe sources, you should still purify the water if at all possible.
Collecting natural condensation is a go-to tactic; a common trick is to put plastic bags on tree limbs in such a way that the water runs down the bag to a low point; then you can collect the condensation that drips off the bag all night long.
If no reliable source is available and you can make a fire, there are a bunch of good ways to purify water, including boiling, filtering and using UV light. We mention some of them in Drinking Water Safety. Another good guide is here.
Other tips to remember:
– Drink your “safe” water first, saving riskier water for later if you really need it.
– In general, the dehydrating effects of caffeinated and alcoholic beverages (though perhaps not hard liquor) are not quite enough to overcome the benefit of drinking them if necessary.
– There are many store-bought options for water filtration and purification as well.
4. How to Conserve Body Heat
Keeping your body heat to yourself can be an important survival skill, and sometimes the correct approach can be counterintuitive. For example, it might seem helpful to curl up against a rock — but if you transfer heat from your body to the rock, it can be a net loss.
When trying to conserve body heat, the phenomena you need to prevent or control are conduction (transferring heat from your body to neighboring colder surfaces), convection (transfer of heat to moving air around you), evaporation and respiration (loss of body heat through sweating and breathing) and radiation (allowing your heat to dissipate into the cold sky above). To deal with each in order: for conduction, try to put materials between you and colder surfaces; for convection, avoid air currents and wind; for evaporation, be careful not to disrobe if you get warm; for radiation, make sure you have a cover over your head, especially at night. For more, read 5 Ways Your Body Loses Heat and How to Avoid Them.
5. How to Find Shelter
Practical Survivor offers numerous tips on finding and building a wilderness survival shelter, including choosing a location (DO look for a site that faces the sun to keep you warm in cold climates; DON’T build near a creek that could overflow) and working with the materials at hand (ranging from caves to your own poncho). For visual learners, this video is also worth a look.
If you are in an urban or suburban environment, many of the same techniques can be used; check out Urban Survival Shelter, which offers instruction on building a shelter from stuff you can find in most trash cans, including cardboard boxes, Styrofoam, tape and the like. The refrigerator box shelter they build is remarkably effective, with an interior temperature of 65 degrees compared to an outside temp of 34.
6. How to Forage for Safe Foods
Foraging can be tricky business and takes a lot of knowledge to do safely — but edible plants can be as easy to find as the dandelions in your backyard. Here are a couple of good starting points: Wilderness Survival Skills: Foraging Edible Plants and Wildman Steve Brill’s Learn About Foraging (he even has an app!).
When things get really dire, you might have to consume some stuff that you would otherwise swat, termites, crickets and worms among them. You can even eat poisonous snakes if you cut off their heads, and scorpions if you cut off their tails, as long as you can capture the animals safely.
7. How to Get Home in a Medical Emergency
Particularly if you don’t have travel insurance, it’s important in a medical emergency to contact your home country’s nearest embassy or consulate. Staff there can provide contact information for reputable local doctors, notify your family, help obtain medical records from your primary care doctor, assist in getting funding from home and in some cases provide emergency evacuation. (It’s important to remember that ultimately you will be responsible for most or all of the expenses incurred.)
8. How to Get Money in a Pinch
If you are robbed, you should typically report the incident to local police as you would anywhere else. Next contact the embassy or consulate, who can help you replace your passport, obtain emergency cash either from home or by loan, cancel credit cards and more.
If you simply run out of cash, perhaps on a bank holiday or the like, and are traveling in a place where credit cards don’t help much, you will probably survive by going into a rationing mode as outlined above. For lodging, look for a hostel that may let you stay in exchange for some labor.
A more common occurrence these days is to have your credit card shut down while traveling. If you find yourself in this situation and you don’t have a back-up card, use your bank’s toll-free number to try to straighten it out immediately. If getting a new card to you will be too difficult, I have heard of stories where a bank agreed to leave a card active but locked, and to unlock it when the customer called in specifically to request access. Obviously this depends on the policies at your bank, but give it a chance to help you.
If you are truly destitute, the U.S. consulate can sometimes provide emergency loans under the Emergency Medical/Dietary Assistance program to help pay for medical care, food and lodging or funds to get home.
Finally, in many cases simply relying on the goodwill of strangers can produce wholly unexpected and inspiring results; don’t be afraid to ask for help. It might not always work — a destitute traveler can be a scary thing to encounter even for the most altruistic of locals — but you will be surprised how many people will help an honest traveler.
9. How to Get Out of Jail
Getting arrested in an unfamiliar place can be terrifying and risky. Travelers are subject to local laws when abroad, and ignorance is rarely accepted as an excuse.
If you go afoul of the law overseas, you will want to contact the embassy or consulate immediately; they can provide contacts with lawyers, alert your family, facilitate transfer of funds, arrange for medical care and more.
Have you ever survived one of these scenarios and lived to tell about it? If so, please do in the comments below!
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