Medicine for the Outdoors
Medicine for the Outdoors

Dr. Paul Auerbach is the world's leading outdoor health expert. His blog offers tips on outdoor safety and advice on how to handle wilderness emergencies.

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Surviving A Wilderness Emergency 5

This is the thirteenth post based upon educational sessions and syllabus material presented at the Wilderness Medical Society Annual Meeting & 25th Anniversary held in Snowmass, Colorado from July 25-30. It’s based upon an excellent presentation given by Peter Kummerfeldt, who is President and Chief Instructor for OutdoorSafe, Inc. of Colorado Springs, Colorado. In his presentation, Peter wisely made the point that the information provided was designed for educational use only and would not be a substitute for specific training or experience. When going into the outdoors it is the reader's responsibility to have the proper knowledge, experience and equipment to travel safely.


There are at least seven good reasons for building a fire: for warmth, for melting snow, for purifying water, for drying clothing, for signaling, for cooking and for your mental comfort. Having a fire is a great morale builder.

Select a safe site close, but not too close, to your shelter. Clear away any vegetation or snow from the fire site and make sure that you are not building the fire below snow-laden branches that will dump into the fire as the snow warms. Before you strike the first match, be certain that you have all needed materials on hand.

In order to create a fire you need three things: heat source, fuel to burn, and sufficient oxygen. Without each component in the right proportion, the fire will not ignite or sustain. Carry plenty of wind- and waterproof matches in a waterproof match case. As a back up, carry a cigarette lighter and a metal match in your kit. Good fire starting aids include Vaseline-soaked cotton balls, chemical fire cubes and a piece of candle. Birch bark and pitch wood (also know as lighter wood or fat wood) are two excellent natural fire starting materials that can be gathered and carried in your pack or pocket. These aids can make the difference between getting a fire going quickly and not getting one going at all -- particularly during inclement weather. Dry grass, pine needles, leaves, wood shavings and twigs make good tinder. The dead lower branches of trees that are protected by the overhanging limbs are usually dry and make good firewood. Look for standing dead trees. Wet wood can be split with a knife, exposing the dry heartwood. Always remove the soaked bark from a piece of wood before placing the wood on the fire. Compared to an ax, a small handsaw is much safer and more energy efficient to use than is an ax.

After you have ignited the tinder, add the larger pieces of kindling and
then the larger pieces of wood. A fire built in either a tee-pee or log cabin shape works best.


Drink a minimum of three to four quarts of water each day to prevent dehydration. Body water that is lost through waste elimination, sweating and breathing must be replaced or your bodily functions will begin to fail. In dry and/or hot climates, as many as two gallons of water must be consumed each day to prevent dehydration. In cold environments and when traveling at high altitude, lack of water in your body can become a major problem.

Thirst is a notoriously unreliable way to judge how much water your body needs. Thirst may diminish when you are nauseated, tired, or (paradoxically) dehydrated. Your body may be in tremendous need of water but not providing you with the appropriate signal of thirst. The first indication that your body needs more water may be a headache. You can also check the color of your urine -- a change from clear or light-colored to darker yellow indicates that you are becoming or are already dehydrated and need to drink more water.

Whenever possible, purify (disinfect) your water by boiling, adding chemicals, or filtration. However, in the absence of full disinfection capability, in a time of moderate to severe need, drinking unpurified water, and preventing dehydration, may be better than not drinking the water and suffering the more immediate effects of dehydration. You may certainly acquire infectious diarrhea, but the premise is that the short term “save” is necessary.

In addition to open water sources (streams and ponds), there are
many other sources. Snow and ice can be used. Melt snow or ice in a plastic water bag placed between the layers of your clothing or by placing the snow in a pot over the fire. A cloth bag filled with snow may be hung to the side of the fire where the radiant heat will melt the snow. As the snow melts, the water drips from the lowest point of the bag, where it can be collected in a container. Eating snow or ice is not a good idea if you are cold and possibly hypothermic.

Laying a piece of waterproof material on the ground to capture rainwater and then draining the water into a container can be very effective. In a desert environment, you may need to use a transpiration bag or a vegetation bag to gather water.

Despite what your stomach tells you, you can survive for many days without food. Trying to live off of the land by trapping animals and gathering wild edible plants is very difficult and usually results in the survivor expending more energy than is replaced by the food that is gathered. Cold temperatures and heavy physical activity increase the need for food. However, even in a winter survival situation, a person can survive for a long time without food as long as he or she has appropriate clothing, and can build a shelter and a fire. In a survival situation, increase the quantity of carbohydrate in your diet (carbohydrate-centric nutrition bars, candy, etc.) Avoid meat products, such as jerky, for which digestion consumes relatively large amounts of body water.


First aid for injuries, shelter, fire and water will be your primary needs when lost or trapped by bad weather or darkness. Organizing resources and protecting yourself from further harm is the next step. Then, you must decide if you should sit tight and wait for rescue or attempt to make your own way out. Staying where you are and waiting for rescue is usually the best option if you are lost, injured or if you will further endanger your life by moving or leaving the area.

If the weather improves, you are in good physical and emotional condition and you know where you are, you may be able to rescue yourself. If you need help, there are signals that can be used to identify your position and your condition to others. Remember that three of anything is generally recognized as a signal for help. For instance, three shots or three whistle blasts can alert others that you are in trouble and need help. On the other hand, three fires in a triangle are unnecessary. Gather large quantities of green vegetation and place them near your fire. When an aircraft approaches, pile the green vegetation on top of the fire so that columns of white smoke will result.

Searches for missing persons will usually be conducted using both ground search teams and aircraft. Be prepared to signal either group. Remember, a person is very difficult to see from the air unless he or she does something to draw attention. To attract the attention of an aerial searcher, use your signal mirror or, as previously mentioned, add green vegetation to your fire. In areas where fires could damage timber, the smoke from your fire may be noted by a fire lookout tower or by a forester and hopefully be investigated. The light from your campfire is a very effective signal at night. In some instances, searchers use night vision enhancing equipment and other thermal detecting equipment to locate the survivor.

Tramping out the letters “SOS,” “LOST,” or “HELP” in the snow, or laying rocks or logs out in a large X, V, N or Y pattern is intended to draw the attention of searchers. These internationally recognized emergency signal letters should be large as possible, with straight sides and sharp angles and be situated where they can be easily seen from the air. Whistles are effective devices when trying to attract the attention of nearby ground search teams. The human voice, which is not very loud and easily exhausted, is the weakest signaling device; a person can essentially blow a whistle all day long.

Electronic beacons are very useful when one’s ability to attract the attention of rescuers has not proven successful. Most of these devices are GPS-enabled such that when they are activated, search and rescue personnel can identify both the identity of the user and his location. When help is a long way, off carrying a beacon makes a lot of sense.

If you have “filed a flight plan,” e.g., told someone where you were going and when you expected to return, the searchers will have a much easier time finding you. Bad weather conditions and the remoteness of your position may delay your rescue. Do not surrender hope - the rescuers will come! Your job is to keep yourself alive until they get there! Until your “flight plan” expires and someone becomes sufficiently worried about you to initiate the rescue process, there may not be concern for your safety. Once the rescue effort is underway, the rescuers will investigate any sign of your whereabouts – a wisp of smoke, a flash from a mirror, the sound of a whistle, etc.

Always remember, “A positive mental attitude is more valuable than a day pack full of equipment.”

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About the Author

Dr. Paul S. Auerbach is the world’s leading authority on wilderness medicine.