One paradox of survival is that many of us have been conditioned to do the wrong thing. Between movies, survival shows, and just everyday modern society, most people would not last a day in a survival situation. Until you really do your research and put that knowledge into practice, your mind will send you in the wrong direction.
Even so called ‘survival experts’ on television will tell you to do things that very well could kill you. In this article, I will cover elements of food, water, fire, shelter, and rescue that are common misconceptions.
I will also explain why many of us need to change our thinking on these subjects. Hopefully this information will give you a new mindset on survival.
Hydration is a bit of a hot topic when it comes to misconceptions. When we see survival situations on television, one of the most common reasons for medical issues is drinking tainted water.
Even survival instructors who claim to have decades of experience seem to forget their training, and end up sick. Here are a few common mistakes that you should avoid:
Hmm, that water looks clean or it’s running. Should I drink it?
This is absolutely not true. Many of the contaminants in water are not visible without a microscope. There are dozens of bacteria and microorganisms that do not change the color of water.
If you have a choice between murky stagnant water and clear running water, I would pick the latter… but it still needs to be purified. But if you have the time and energy, do find better water sources out in the wild.
I’m Fine! I Am Not Dehydrated Because I’m Not Thirsty!
It has been shown that 75% of Americans are chronically dehydrated. Part of the reason why is that we wait until we are thirsty before we hydrate. In a survival situation, you need to drink water as often as possible.
A gallon a day for mild conditions and two gallons a day for extreme hot or cold weather is a good rule to follow. On my last survival challenge I drank three gallons per day while hiking 10 miles a day and was still dehydrated.
What if I Eat Show? Will That Hydrate Me?
Wrong. If it is cold enough for there to be standing snow, then your core body temperature is a major concern.
Snow is 90% air and 10% water. It will drop your body temperature without providing much water. Ice is 90% water and 10% air. It is a better bet if you cannot find running water.
The solution: melt the snow first, and let the resulting water warm up a little.
Hey, I Can Drink Urine for Hydration if I Have To!
This is a myth, and it is not smart. At all. I know a certain survivalist on TV does this all the time, but it does more harm than good.
You are putting toxins right back into your body, and you will probably vomit and lose any water in your stomach.
If I Am on the Ocean, I Can Drink Salt Water!
Most people know this is a bad idea. Salt water will make you crazy before it kills you. Not a fun time. However, you can get drinkable water from saltwater fish. You can pierce the spinal column right behind the head and drink the fluid. You can also collect rainwater.
If I Kill an Animal, I Can Drink Its Blood to Hydrate!
This is another one that I have seen a certain somebody do on TV. Blood is full of sodium that will cause dehydration. I would suggest avoiding it unless it is the only option.
“If I Have Food but No Water, I Might As Well Eat the Food for Energy”
Not always true. Digesting food takes water. If you are dehydrated and you eat a big meal, it can make things worse. You are best to eat a little bit and then find some water.
I Should Always Carry Water With Me in My Pack!
Sometimes. Water is really heavy. Carrying some water is a good idea, but carrying more than about one Liter is tough. If you have any hiking to do, you are better to bring a filter and find some along the way.
Drinking Coconut Water Will Hydrate Me
Not for most people. Coconut water is delicious and is good hydration is small amounts. However, in large amounts it causes diarrhea. Not a good idea, so just stick to water.
There Are More Important Things to Worry About Than Water
You can only live three days without water, but only 3 hours without shelter – but don’t underestimate the need for hydration. Unless it is cold outside, water is your #1 priority.
Fire is a topic I find very interesting. So many of us grew up using lighter fluid, newspaper, matches, or a zippo to light camp fires.
I did not actually build a primitive fire until I was 34 years old. I was in Boy Scouts and actually became an Eagle Scout, but never was I asked to demonstrate this skill. I saw several scout leaders do it, but never got to try for myself.
I feel that survival shows make fire-starting look much easier than it actually is. Through the magic of editing, three hours of working a bow drill looks like it takes three minutes. I know I was overconfident when I started trying for the first time.
There are so many ways for it to go South, and that normally happens when you need fire the most. Here are a few common mistakes with fire…
If I Have a Lighter With Me, a Fire Should Be Easy
Not true. If your firewood is wet, having a lighter will not help much. You also have to gather the right kind of firewood. If it is too thick, you will never get it started.
Lighters break and run out of fluid, wind can blow out your flame, and they can become waterlogged. Always have a backup plan that is waterproof, windproof, and does not require fuel.
I Should Build My Fire As Soon as Possible
In many cases this is false. The sooner you build your fire, the more wood it will take to keep it going. I normally do not want my fire until about an hour before dark.
If It Is Raining, You Cannot Find Dry Wood
Well you have to get a little creative, but it is out there. Look for dead branches that are up off the ground. Pull little dry twigs from the base of evergreen trees.
Split logs and use material from the inside. Strip the bark off of sticks as it absorbs most of the moisture. You can also use a manual pencil sharpener to get at the interior wood of sticks.
All Tinder is Created Equal
Nope. While it all has to be fine and fluffy, some works better than others. Birch bark and pine resin have chemicals that are waterproof and flammable. They can save you if it is raining. You can also bring tinder with you to make life a little easier.
If It Is Cold, I Can Just Build My Fire Inside My Shelter
Maybe, but be careful. If you have a sealed off shelter, it will collect carbon monoxide. You may never wake up in the morning.
If you do go this route, make sure you have ventilation holes to keep the air flowing, but really, you should build your fire outside and find ways to better insulate your shelter instead.
If I Am Sleeping in a Cave, I Need a Fire to Stay Warm
No. Most caves keep a more consistent temperature than the air outside the cave. It may be 35 degrees F outside (1 C) and 60 degrees F (15 C) in the cave.
More importantly, building a fire in a cave is risky. It can collect carbon monoxide, but the heat can also break loose chunks of rock that can fall on you. Do without the fire if possible.
If I Have a Lens, I Can Get a Fire Going
The odds are not in your favor. If you do not have strong, direct sunlight and exactly the right kind of tinder it will be tough. Always bring another way to start fires.
Any Dry Wood Will Work for a Friction Fire
Sadly, no. It takes lots of practice to figure out which woods work best for friction fires. I suggest you use this method as often as possible if you plan to use it in survival situations. It can be very challenging.
If I Do Not Build a Fire Inside My Shelter, There Is No Way to Heat My Shelter
Not true. You can heat rocks in the fire and transfer them to your shelter, or do the same with water bottles. Make sure you bury the rocks so you do not burn yourself. You can also build a super shelter and collect all the heat that radiates from the fire.
I Can Use Any Rock for a Fire Ring
Never use wet rocks for a fire ring or to transfer into your shelter. As the water turns to steam, it can make the rocks explode like grenades sending shrapnel right at you.
If I Need to Move to a New Area, I Have to Start From Scratch on My Fire.
Nope. You can carry that fire with you. Build a fire bundle, a fire can, or find some tinder fungus to preserve a coal and carry it with you to your new camp.
I do not need a fire in a warm climate!
That depends. Even warm climates like the desert or jungle can get very cold at night. If it rains and you get wet, hypothermia can set in at 60 degrees. In addition, fire keeps away predators, purifies water, cooks food, and keeps bugs away. It always has benefits.
Food in a survival situation is a subject that gets a lot of hype. It seems like everybody in a survival situation wants to build a spear and go hunting immediately.
I have seen more sloppy mistakes gathering food than just about any other activity. Here are the misconceptions you can avoid:
Food Is a Major Priority!
Not really. Of all the pillars of survival, it is my last concern. Most people can make it almost a month without food. That being said, it helps give you energy for other tasks.
It is also a huge morale booster. Unless I stumble across an easy food source, I always establish water, shelter, and fire first.
Hunting Is the Best Way to Get Food
A lot of movies and television shows make it look like any real survivalist will go hunting and kill an animal on their first day. It does not work that way in the real world.
Collecting wild edibles is by far the most efficient way to get calories. That would then be followed by fishing, trapping, and then hunting as a last resort. You have to weigh your odds of success with the calories you will burn.
Mushrooms Are a Good Food Source
Not for me. It is so difficult to properly identify mushrooms that I typically steer clear. The exception would be morels. If you are wrong, it could kill you.
If I Set Up a Few Snares or Deadfall Traps, I Will Get a Meal
Uh, no. Statistically, 5% of primitive traps set are successful. That means that you need to set 20 traps to get one animal. If you are good at what you do, you can improve those odds.
If You Find a Food Source, Eat As Much as You Can
Bad idea. Variety is the spice of life, and it also keeps you from getting sick. I try to avoid eating a lot of any one plant or fruit. There are subtle acids in plants that do not bother you in small amounts, but can make you really sick if you pig out.
If You Are Fishing, Attaching Your Line to a Makeshift Rod Is the Best Option
In most cases the benefit of fishing is that you can set it up and forget it. You can build a trotline and bait several hooks on the same line, set up a gill net, or build a primitive fish trap. In all cases you can check it once a day and collect your meal.
When Cooking a Fish, It Is Best to Filet It
There are tons of nutrients and oils in the scraps that most people throw in the trash. I always boil my fish and then drink the broth.
I often will save the head for the following day to make fish head soup for breakfast. You can make three or four meals out of one big fish if you do it right. Here’s a video on how to make fish head soup:
If You Set Up a Good Trap Line, You Can Live on Rabbits Alone
There is actually an illness called Rabbit Starvation that is caused by eating super lean meat with no other fat in your diet. If you eat the eyes, internal organs, and grind up the bones then you are getting some additional fat and nutrients.
Berries Are a Safe Bet for Food!
Not always. If they are blue, black, or purple you have about a 90% chance that they are safe. Any other colors are a bad idea. I stick to blackberries, blueberries, and mulberries.
Snakes, Gators, and Wild Hogs Are a Good Food Source
I know there are plenty of people that think it is pretty impressive when someone kills and eats a gator on TV. It is just not smart. My general rule is that I do not hunt things that can hunt me.
Since Some Animals Are Nocturnal, Hunting or Fishing at Night Might Work
Leaving your camp at night is a bad idea. Even if you have a flashlight, the batteries can always die. Most animals will see you long before you see them in the dark, and it is a huge safety risk. Oh, and all the big predators are out hunting at night. Good luck with that.
Finding or building a proper shelter is one of the most deceptive aspects of survival. There are dozens of shelter designs out there, but deciding which one to use can be tricky.
There are just so many outside variables to factor into that decision. Below are some of the errors that are common in this scenario:
I Need to Make a Big Shelter so I Have Plenty of Room to Move Around and Work
Nope. The larger your shelter is, the more air you have to heat to stay warm. In addition, large shelters take more time and calories to construct. In most cases your shelter should be just large enough to fit you and maybe your gear.
I Want My Shelter Next to a Body of Water so I Do Not Have to Walk As Far
Bad idea. The areas right next to rivers, creeks, and lakes are the most likely to flood. Some are engulfed in flash floods that can kill you in seconds.
Mosquitoes and predators also frequent bodies of water at night. Your camp site should be at least 100 yards away, but close enough for a short walk to your water source.
If I Make the Roof Insulation a Few Inches Thick It Should Stop the Rain
You are in for a cold and wet evening. When piling debris on your roof to stop the rain, three to four feet is what is needed to stop most of the water from coming in.
I Can Save Some Time by Building a Shelter and Then Just Sleeping on the Ground
Do not do it. The ground draws heat out of your body at an alarming rate. Either build a bed, hang a hammock, or pile debris up to keep you at least four inches off the ground.
It Is Summertime, so I Will Just Sleep Under the Stars
Wrong again. Even in the summer, night time temperatures can plummet. The open sky also draws warmth out of your body, so you need a barrier overhead.
I Will Just Use This Cave as a Shelter
Maybe, but you better check it out really well. If there are any signs of animal activity, they will probably be back.
When Building a Snow Cave, I Can Just Eyeball the Thickness of the Ceiling
There is no way to tell how thick your ceiling is without a guide. Shove a bunch of six inch long sticks into the top of the drift before you start digging. You know to stop when you see the sticks.
I Have a Tarp and I Will Cut Holes in the Corners to Tie It Down to Stakes
When dealing with tarps, little holes become big tears. You are better off to put a small stone in the corner and then tie your cordage around it. It will hold fine and protect your tarp.
Wooded Areas Are the Best Place for a Shelter
Sometimes. Trees shelter you from some of the wind and rain. However, you have to look for loose branches and dead trees. These are known as widow-makers for good reason. Just a little wind and you could be in for a rude awakening.
Signaling for help is the fastest way to get out of any survival situation. Unfortunately, it is often overlooked. Many people assume that they will not be found or that nobody is looking.
That is rarely the case. That being said, there are several errors in thinking that can make this process harder than it needs to be. Here are a few examples:
My Vehicle Broken Down, So the Best Thing to Do Is Start Walking
In most cases you want to stay near your vehicle. It is large, sometimes bright in color, and can be seen from long distances. It also can have additional supplies such as cushions and wiring to help over the next few days.
I Can Just Yell for Help
Possibly, but many times your voice will not carry if you are in a low area, or if the wind is blowing. You are better off to find some unnatural noise that will carry such as a car horn or an emergency whistle.
I Will Just Build a Normal Fire for a Smoke Signal
The key to a good rescue signal is contrast. Normal smoke is a medium gray color that blends in with the sky and earth. Use green wood to produce smoke that is bright white, or plastic/rubber to produce thick black smoke.
I Will Just Write ‘Help’ in the Sand With My Foot
Again, contrast is the key. Just writing it out is not enough. Use driftwood or rocks to create contrast against the sand, snow, or dirt.
If I Am Bleeding I Need to Apply a Tourniquet and Keep It On
You have to be careful with tourniquets. It is likely that you will lose that limb is you use one, so only apply one in a life or death injury. You can also loosen it slightly for a few seconds every 15 minutes or so to allow a small amount of blood back into that limb.
I Have Been Bitten by a Rattlesnake so I Will Use a Snakebite Kit or Suck Out the Poison
This is what everybody was taught to do for the last 100 years, but it is wrong. It has been medically proven that the best thing to do is find a way to a hospital. Anything short of that will just make it worse.
A Gun Is the Best Weapon for Survival
Maybe short term, but bullets eventually run out. Spears, bows, and crossbows do not require bullets and make no noise when used.
I Have a Cut, but if I Stop the Bleeding Then I Should Be Fine
More people in the wilderness die from infections than from bleeding out. You have to clean the wound and apply fresh bandages regularly to keep it from getting infected.
Predators Are My Biggest Threat in a Survival Situation
Not so. If you are in the wilderness by yourself, then hypothermia and dehydration are your biggest concerns. If you are surviving amongst other people, many times they are your biggest threat.
I Have Been Working Hard so That Will Keep My Core Body Temperature Up
While exercise does help with hypothermia, it can cause you to sweat. Sweat has a chemical that draws warmth out of your body. If you sweat, it can actually make things worse.
Once I Figure Out Which Way Is North, I Should Get Where I Need to Go
You hear stories of people walking in circles in the woods. This is because you tend to move at an angle because one foot is more dominant than the other. Check your bearings often to keep on the right path.
Hygiene Is Not Important to Survival
Not true. A lack of hygiene makes you more prone to illness. If you cannot bathe in the conventional sense, then strip down and take a smoke bath. The smoke from your fire will kill most of the bacteria.
I Can Survive in the Wilderness With Just a Knife!
Yes, it can be done. However, it takes a very experienced survivalist to pull this off. More importantly, why would you try it if you have the option of bringing other supplies? Your goal is to make survival as easy as possible.
I Am at a Frozen Lake and the Ice Looks Thick Enough to Walk Across
It may be thick where you are, but that does not mean that it is thick across the whole lake. Go around if possible.
It Does Not Matter Where I Urinate… I Am in the Woods
You really need to pick one spot to urinate. Otherwise you run the risk of getting some on your boots. Smelling like human urine makes hunting and trapping pretty tough.
Hopefully you have seen some topics in this article that will help you have a better survival mindset. There is so much information floating around regarding survival these days.
Between the internet, movies, and television you will see a mix of both good and bad information. I suggest you stay critical about survival. Question and test everything before you make it your own.
When I see a new skill that I think might be helpful, the first thing I do is try to implement it in a controlled setting. If it works well for me, then I keep it. If not, then at least I know what does not work.
That is why I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to utilize and develop these skills before you are in a survival situation. When the time comes, knowing what not to do may very well save your life.
My name is Ryan Dotson and I am a survivalist, prepper, writer, and photographer. I grew up in the Ozark Mountains and in the foothills of the Pocono Mountains. My interest in survival started when I was in Boy Scouts and continued as my father, uncle, and grandfather taught me to hunt and fish. In the last few years I have started taking on survival challenges and have started writing about my experiences. I currently live in Mid-Missouri with my wife Lauren and three year old son Andrew.