Use Your Head

One of the best survival tools you have is your brain.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

Remember the 1997 film The Edge, the one in which a big grizzly spends a couple of days chasing Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin around Alaska? If you do, you'll recall that Anthony Hopkins's character, a wealthy man named Charles Morse, does everything he can to instill calm and confidence in his two comrades after they survive a bush-plane crash into a lake. Of course, when the bear shows up, Morse's survival plans boil down to battling the griz. But his catch phrase, "What one man can do, another can do," works to focus his desparing, hyperventilating friends.

The truth is that, in a survival situation, whether you live or die depends to a great extent on what's between your ears, not just what's in your pack. Faced with threatening circumstances, people sometimes panic and either do the wrong thing or do nothing at all. And that's when you might be the one who has to take charge.

Your own degree of calm will influence others, and steadfastness only comes with experience and learning, though a good survival course doesn't hurt. If you're steady, others in your party will feel more calm and confident about the prospects of survival. But if fear-generated breakdowns are looming among members of your group, here are some ways to help.

  • Stay Positive: Speak calmly and confidently about the situation. Be honest and positive but not artificially upbeat. Absolutely nothing is gained by allowing negative talk.

  • Work Together: Formulate a plan as a group by working together. This will help to keep everyone involved and focused. Take inventory of all your resources and assets. Organize the work to be done. Set priorities according to the demands of the particular situation.

  • Be Assertive: Lead by example, not by edict. Start doing the most important tasks and ask others to help. Be very clear about the way the tasks should be done, to avoid confusion and disappointment.

  • Seek Input: Counsel together with everyone in the party. One individual rarely has all the answers and experience. Thank others for their input, and use their suggestions, if possible, as this will give them a sense of importance.

Taking care of priorities helps maintain focus and a positive outlook. I'll discuss prioritizing in next month's column, but the immediate tasks are attending to serious injuries, building a shelter and setting up signaling devices.

People react to intense adversity in many different ways. You may have to handle a wide variety of personalities. They include:

  • The Naysayer: "We're not going to make it," he says. Deal with this person by sticking to the positive. Recount everything that is in your favor. Take inventory of all the implements you have with you and discuss how these items can be used to survive. Talk over the survival plan, always ending with the eventual rescue. Teamwork will get this person motivated.
  • The Dictator: "You're all wrong-we've got to do it_ this way_," he says. Create a dialogue with this person and explain that decisions that will affect the group should be made by group consensus. The most effective leader may not be the person most skilled in survival techniques, but the one who can most effectively bring everyone together in amicable consensus. This always involves compromise. Consensus does not mean everybody gets exactly what they want-it means everyone can come to agreement on a decision and say, "I can live with that." Strong or hostile personalities, however, sometimes must simply be left to their own devices.

  • The Nut Case: This person is either paralyzed with fear or raving mad, and can be a liability. Give him solid, firm directions in clear voice commands. Settle him down and firmly, calmly coax him into a simple task to get him focused. Reassure him step by step, expressiing appreciation for his help, and break him out of his funk.

  • The Overachiever: "There's no sense staying put. We've got a map, let's use it," he says. Listen to the overachiever's suggestions, but explain that staying in camp, at least for a while, statistically offers the best hope of rescue. Harness this person's energy for signaling efforts, shelter improvement and other priorities, expressing gratitutde for his innovations and ideas.

After all that, what do you do if someone breaks a leg or a storm blows in? Or a bear shows up? Calmly tackle the most pressing problem first, then move on to the next most pressing; organization and precise execution are key. Do the most good for the most people, tempering your response with realism. Remember, people survive broken legs all the time, so accentuate the positive despite the pain. If weather moves in, continue to improve the shelter-getting wet is bad.