Outdoor Life Online Editor

In last issue’s column (“Use Your Head”), we discussed the psychological factors of a survival situation. These factors often hinge upon the setting of priorities that keep everyone alive, focused and upbeat. But survival situations are rarely textbook cases, and survival priorities are governed by infinite variables.

What’s Important
In setting priorities, if you don’t know what’s most important you might start working on the wrong thing. To establish a reasonable priority list, evaluate your situation realistically. The main elements of a survival situation that need to be evaluated include the following:

  • Immediate and long-term threats to life.
  • Physical health, illness or injuries of those involved.
  • Number of people in the party.
  • Mental and emotional condition of the party.
  • Terrain and location. (Do you know where you are? Do you know from which direction you came there?)
  • Weather, immediate and impending.
  • Resources on hand: equipment, food, water, medical supplies.
  • Natural resources available for fire, shelter, water and food.
  • Likelihood of rescue. Threat Level
    Within your survival plan, you must honestly evaluate the first point on the priority list-immediate and long-term threats to life. If you believe a rumbling in your stomach is an immediate threat to life, you won’t live long enough to starve to death, because you’ll let something else kill you first. To identify and assess the threat level you face, consider that a human life is threatened in this order:

  • Serious threats such as drowning, an animal attack or a fall can kill instantly.

  • Exposure to extreme heat or cold can kill in a matter of hours or minutes.
  • Dehydration can kill in a matter of days or less.
  • Illnesses or injuries can kill immediately or over a period of weeks, depending upon their severity.
  • Starvation can occur within a month.

The given level of threat affects how quickly you have to act upon your priorities. Time is often not on your side, but hasty decision making is a liability.

Setting Priorities
After assessing potential threats, it’s time to turn prioritizing into action. You can’t carve priority lists in granite, because each predicament must be evaluated on its own merits. Consider these situations:

  • In early elk season, your truck skids off a faraway mountain road and rolls into a valley. Your two buddies have broken legs, and one is bleeding badly. You have a broken arm. The weather is fair but the terrain is rough. There are lots of deadfall and trees, and a river not far below.

First, stop the bleeding and then stabilize the fractures. Arrange some sort of shelter, possibly utilizing the truck wreckage and whatever is inside-sleeping bags, headliner, carpet. Make sure you can stay warm and dry.

Create a signal fire but don’t forget to use the truck horn or beat loudly on the hood, and use the truck’s mirrors as reflective signals. Ensure a water supply.

After everyone is stabilized and secure, make your way back up to the road (if possible) to try to flag down some help or spell out “help” with deadfall or rocks on the roadway. (If there’s a reasonable expectation of frequent traffic on the road, move this step much higher on the priority list.)

  • In an Alabama swamp, you and two city-slicker friends get lost while hog hunting. You slide down a creek bank and tear up your back so badly you can’t walk. Night is rapidly approaching, and you’re the only one who knows what to do.

Have your buddies help you position yourself to stabilize the injury: Find a comfortable, lying-down position and stay there. But if you’re not in a suitable site for a camp, they may have to carefully carry you. Then delegate tasks to your two friends. Get a fire going so you can see around camp whiile building a shelter from natural materials. Prepare the fire as a signal device by gathering lots of dry wood to create a bright blaze for the night, and moist or green foliage to feed into the flames to create smoke by day. If you suspect that other hunters may be in the area, signal by firing three shots in close succession. If return fire is heard, fire three times again, because this is a recognized distress signal.

Locate a freshwater supply. You won’t starve for a while (especially if your friends are capable hunters), but dehydration will be an issue. Keep yourself stable and keep improving the shelter. If you don’t recover from your injury soon or get rescued, one of your buddies may try to scout a way out, but he risks getting lost and injured alone. Telling people where you were going and when you were coming back would have been a big help in this situation.

  • While fishing on a remote Canadian lake, your boat sinks. You and three friends swim to a small, heavily wooded island. No one is hurt, but bad weather is coming in, your buddies are getting edgy and all you have on you is your fishing vests-no cell phone or radio, just lures, a couple of spools of extra fishing line and matches.

Focus everyone by delegating duties. Select a suitable campsite, make a fire and get dried out to help prevent hypothermia. Erect a shelter from the natural resources at hand. Arrange signal devices (the fire, shiny fishing lures, message spelled out on the beach, etc.). Set up a water source by digging a pocket in the beach soil several feet back from the lake edge so water can seep in and pool (sediments should settle to the bottom). Once you’re dry and have a fire and shelter, collect what gear you have in your vests and get some fishing rigs together. When your absence becomes apparent, either at camp or at home, search-and-rescue efforts will begin, but leaving a detailed itinerary of your plans with someone back home will be a major help.