The Survival Experts

Let our survival experts teach you the skills you need to stay alive

A Maine Guide, a Coast Guard search-and-rescue specialist and an Air Force survival expert. Those are the pros who make up the Outdoor Life Survival Team. Their combined 58 years of outdoor survival experience provide a wealth of knowledge that could mean the difference between life and death the next time you go afield.

Don Helstrom - Maine Guide
To become a Maine Guide, you have to know more than just where the deer hang out. There are licensing and certification requirements for expertise in map and compass use, lost-person and survival scenarios, navigation and even sea kayaking.When clients follow Don Helstrom into the woods, they're relying on him to get them out alive. Don, who's been guiding for 45 years, is certified as a Master Hunting, Fishing and Recreation Guide.

Question: In your experience, how do most problems in the wild start?

Answer: The problem I encounter most often is a person getting lost. On a bear hunt, people stay out until a half hour after sunset, so it's easy to miss a trail on the way back. If you walk 20 minutes in the wrong direction, you can get a long way from the road.
Other things can happen, too. One hunter fell out of a tree stand last year and broke his arm. He used his cell phone to call his nephew, and asked him to call for help. But the nephew just laughed because this guy's always pulling jokes. He had to make another call to get help.

Question: What equipment should outdoorsmen carry that would be useful to them in a survival situation?

Answer: For each type of activity--whether it's flyfishing from a canoe, snowshoeing or following a game trail--there's a different list of equipment. A life jacket, a compass, a GPS, waterproof matches, a fire starter, proper clothing, food and a first-aid kit are the givens. But for a January icefishing trip a hundred miles north of town, you could need two spare tires, extra gas, an air compressor, an extra battery, a sleeping bag…the list goes on.

From my standpoint, the most important thing is a written checklist of everything that must be secured before the trip. Trying to remember what you need to gather is nearly impossible. If you've got it written down, you can't forget anything. You can prepare a general list, but it's important to keep in mind that each activity has its own requirements. Sometimes it's 90 degrees and sunny, and sometimes it's 30 below and there's a foot of snow and the wind's blowing, so you'll need a different list for each activity. Check off everything to make sure you have it before you leave.

Question: What should someone do if he finds himself in a potential survival situation?

Answer: The first step is to stop, assess the situation and avoid panic. The second step is to take care of any injuries. The third, whether you're alone or with a partner, is to make a plan and carry it out. And fourth, depending on the predicament, you'll have to decide whether to stay where you are and wait for help or go for medical assistance by the safest and fastest route possible. In all situations, panic is most often the reason people get into trouble. Trying to avoid panic is the biggest challenge. When the sun goes down and the wind's blowing and you don't know where you are, the ability to avoid panicking is not a given.

Question: I assume that thinking things through helps to keep a person calm.

Answer: Yes, it does. Once you think things through and have a plan, at least you're able to collect your thoughts. Sit down and say to yourself, "Step by step, what am I going to do?" I know of a man who went hunting within three miles of town wearing relatively light clothing. A freak storm came in and he got lost. He built a fire and did everything he'd been taught to do. Then a train came by on a track not a quarter mile from where he was and blew its whistle. He just took off, left the fire and his rifle, and went after that whistle. They found him the next afternoon, nearly unconscious. The ability to make a plan and stick with it is the number-one priority.

Question: How can a survivor assist in his own rescue?

Answer: The foremost thing is to have a plan and let somebody know where you're going to be and what time you're planning to be back. That way, rescue can start at a given time and place. When you come to the conclusion that you're lost, build a fire and stay put. Don't go wandering around.
Everyone thinks he should fire three shots if he gets lost. I've had hunters lose their way in the middle of the afternoon and fire off all their rounds trying to attract attention. People who hear those shots just think somebody's into a bunch of deer. Nobody's really looking for somebody to be lost in the middle of the afternoon.

At night, when shots wouldn't be fired at a deer, it's a different matter. I've gone after shots fired at night, and the hunter was so far away, his .30/06 sounded like a BB gun. But if you let someone know where you're going to be and what time to expect you back, that's the first step. Then, when you're overdue, stay put and start a fire. You'll be easier to find.

Question: What about preparation and planning to help stay out of trouble?

Answer: It's all about the four P's: Preparation Prevents Poor Per­for­mance. Be prepared by using an equipment checklist. If possible, recreate with a partner or a group. Check the local weather report, and dress and travel accordingly. Recreate within your ability level. If you are going to be in an area where there is cell phone coverage, by all means take the phone with you. A satellite phone will put you in touch with help no matter where you are, so if you can afford it, buy or rent one.

Question: How can a person prepare mentally for the psycho­logical stress of a survival situation?

Answer: The ability not to panic will come with confidence in your skills and knowledge of the outdoors. Book knowledge is a big help, but outdoor knowledge is priceless. Each time you pull your compass from your pocket and use it to travel 500 yards to a road, or build a fire to cook a hot dog, or look at the sun and your compass to determine what time it is and then confirm it with your watch, you're one step closer to having the confidence in your abilities to get you through a difficult situation.
Each day you're in the outdoors, paying attention to what you're doing, you're one step closer. Do it until it's instinctive, and your confidence will grow. And that will help control panic.

Question: Do you have a personal survival story to tell?

Answer: Having guided for 45 years, I've been on a few late-night jaunts to gather up wet and concerned clients. But the one that comes to mind was back in the mid '70s, during a coon hunt on a rainy, 34-degree night. I was within three-quarters of a mile of my pickup truck when my flashlight went dead. Reaching for my spare light, I found that it was also dead. Trying to travel in the dark was impossible, so my next shot was to start a fire. No matches! But I did have a 60-pound hound to help me ward off the rain.
I curled up under a blowdown, pulled the dog over my head to keep the heavy rain off and stayed there until it was light enough to travel. It was a long time until daylight, but--other than being a little wet and cold, my pride was the only thing that was injured. I got out my compass and made it back to the road just fine.

Kevin Buckwald - Coast Guard SAR Specialist
Boatswain's Mate First Class Kevin Buckwald is a U.S. Coast Guard Search and Rescue expert with more than nine years of experience. The Coast Guard conducts a variety of missions along 95,000 miles of coastline in the continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii, Guam and Puerto Rico, as well as on rivers and lakes. His missions often involve rescuing outdoorsmen from survival situations in near-coast operations.

Question: In your area of operation, what are the most important things for an outdoorsman to consider to avoid a survival situation?

Answer: First, know your vessel. Many states now require a boating license. I highly recommend taking a safe-boating course through either the Coast Guard Auxiliary or the Power Squadron--they are experts on boating safety. They will teach you what you need to know in order to safely operate and navigate your vessel.

Next, check the weather. I have seen it go from perfect to Victory at Sea conditions in a matter of minutes. Don't get caught in a storm. It's as simple as that. We have a saying around here: "Bad things don't happen in good weather."

Finally, know the overall condition of your vessel. Boats are much more fickle than a car or a truck. Unfortunately, some people jump behind the wheel of their boat much like they would in their automobile. It is of the utmost importance to inspect your vessel before leaving the dock. There is so much that can go wrong on the water. Checking watertight integrity, fluid levels and the overall material condition will go a long way toward preventing a bad situation.

Question: What equipment should sportsmen carry to help save them in the event of a survival situation?

Answer: There are both state and federal laws that govern required safety equipment on board your vessel. They cover such things as life jackets, sound-producing devices, flares and life rings. For a complete list of all required safety gear, you can visit uscgboating .org or cgaux.org. Also, it's a great idea to have the Coast Guard Auxiliary do a Vessel Safety Check on your boat. It's free and covers everything required by state and local laws. No citation is issued and the results are not reported to any enforcement agency. If your vessel passes, a decal will be issued for you to display.

Another must is filing a float plan with a friend or relative. Let that person know where you're going and when you'll be back. If nobody knows you're late, nobody is going to come out to look for you. This step alone could reduce response time from days to hours.
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Question:** Step by step, what should an outdoorsman do who finds himself in a situation that is a serious threat to his survival?

Answer: In a distress situation, the Coast Guard will ask you for what we call the "Big Four": your position, the nature of distress, a description of your vessel and the number of people on board. Then we'll tell you to put on your life jackets.

The better you know your position, the faster we can help. If you have a GPS on board, you can use that to give us a location to within feet of where you are. This makes response time much quicker. You'd be surprised how many times we get a call from someone who needs help and can't tell us where he is. We do our best to sort it out--it just delays the response time. If you're caught in a situation that's life-threatening, put on your life jacket, call the Coast Guard and remain calm. Do not try swimming for shore or a structure; in the water, things can seem a lot closer than they actually are. You could tire yourself out, and you'll lose body heat faster.

If your vessel is overturned, stay with it. Climb onto the hull, if possible. The more of your body you can get out of the water, the better. Of course, anti-exposure coveralls or a dry suit will make your survival time that much longer. If you see another vessel or an aircraft, use your flares. If a red flare is spotted, we will come out and try to find you.

Question: How can a survivor assist in his own rescue?

Answer: It's a tough thing to do, but you have to remain calm. If we're trying to talk to you on the radio and you're terrified and screaming (which does happen), it's far more difficult to get the information we need to help you.

Listen to what the person on the radio is telling you and answer the questions to the best of your ability. Some of the questions might seem repetitive, but it is all information we use to figure out how best to assist you. Remember, when someone is on the radio talking to you, at the same time there might be a rescue boat being launched or a helicopter pulling its chocks coming out to help you.

Question: How can a person prepare mentally for the psycho­logical stress of a survival situation?

Answer: Being in the water is scary. One thing we are taught in the Coast Guard is to develop a "survivor's attitude." Do your best to keep calm and positive. If you're with others, stay with them. Don't separate. You'll be much easier to find as a group and you can help keep each other positive. The reality is that survival time in the water is affected by what you're wearing, your physical condition and how cold the water is. Although it would take a long time, you can get hypothermia in 90-degree water. If, however, the temperature is below 50 degrees, your survival time is much shorter.

Depending on how cold the water is, survival time might be only minutes after hitting the water. If you're wearing a survival suit and are in a life raft, you may be able to survive for days.

Question: What kind of survival situations have you been involved with?

Answer: I've run a vast array of search-and-rescue cases since I've been in the Coast Guard. I've seen everything from boat collisions to diving accidents. Without a doubt, the best part of our job is saving a life. It's what we train for every day. When we get to put that training together to carry out a successful search-and-rescue case, there's no better feeling.

Joshua Anderson - Air Force SERE Specialist
Tech Sergeant Joshua Anderson has been a SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) Specialist for more than four years. These Air Force survival instructors are among the world's top experts at survival in arctic, desert, open ocean, jungle and mountain regions, in both combat and captivity situations. The first book he read on survival was Bradford Angier's How to Stay Alive in the Woods, which he borrowed from his dad's library.

Question: What basic survival equipment should hunters and fishermen have with them at all times?

Answer: A map and a compass, a first-aid kit, water containers, sunglasses and sunblock, extra clothes and socks, extra food and a flashlight are a few basics you should always have. Proper clothing is your first line of defense against the elements.

Make sure that you use the layering system--wicking, warmth and weather layers--so you can put them on and take them off to adjust your body temperature. And don't forget a warm hat--more than 60 percent of body heat can be lost through your head and neck. Also, be sure to have high-quality footwear and a pair of moisture-wicking socks.

Question: What are some things to think about when assembling a survival kit?

Answer: Here are some basic principles to bear in mind.
■ Keep it simple, light and small. Take advantage of multi-use items.
■ Keep a primary kit with all the basic components in a container or pack. Keep extra essential items (fire starters, a knife, a garbage bag, water storage/purification aids, signaling items) on your belt, in pockets or around your neck on parachute cord. Use lanyards to tie items to you and they will be there when you need them.
■ Customize your kit to suit your environment.
■ Base the kit upon your level of knowledge in using the items.
■ Practice with the equipment before you need to use it.
■ Buy quality, proven products.
■ Have brightly colored items, so you can find them when you need them or if you drop them.

Question: What should people carry in a survival kit?

Answer: I recommend the following:
■ A quality full-tang knife and/or a multi-tool. Locking blades are an important safety feature.
■ Extra-large garbage bags for shelter, for water storage, to protect moisture-sensitive items, etc.
■ An emergency space blanket.
■ Water purification tablets.
■ Tinder. I like cotton balls coated with Vaseline. They catch a spark easily, and can also be used to stuff a wound, treat chapped lips and dry skin or lubricate a bow-and-drill socket.
■ Fire starters. Ferrocerium rods create a spark of 5,400 degrees to ignite tinder. A cut piece of hacksaw blade can be used as a striker and a saw. Wrap waterproof matches in some plastic wrap or store them in a case. A lighter with a clear housing tells you how much fluid is left. If the fluid runs out, you can still use the sparking element to start a fire.
■ A bandanna. Use it as a sling, make a basket by tying knots in the corners, make a wound dressing or shred it for tinder.
■ Genuine 550 paracord.
■ A button compass.
■ A credit-card-size fresnel lens. Use it to start a fire, inspect a wound or identify plants.
■ Heavy-duty tin foil can be used to make a cooking/storage container, a cup for boiling water or a reflective signaling surface.
■ A small LED light that has both a pressure-sensitive intermittent on/off pad and an on/off button.
■ Snare wire to catch small game, and for binding or making repairs.
■ Signal mirror with sighting hole.
■ Small plastic, pea-less whistle.
■ Small spool of dental floss to use as fishing line or sewing thread.
■ Small fish hooks and sinkers.
■ Heavy-duty rubber bands for improvising traps or a slingshot.
■ A few heavy-duty sewing needles to use as primitive weapon tips or fishing spears (magnetize them to make a field-expedient backup compass).
■ Safety pins to make a treble-hook, for gigging, to secure items and for medical uses.
■ Duct tape.

Question: Step by step, what should an outdoorsman do who finds himself in a situation that is a serious threat to his survival?

Answer: A mnemonic to help you remember the proper actions is the STOP acronym, for Stop, Think, Observe, Plan.

Stop: First, recognize early that you are in a potential survival situation. It is almost always advisable to stay where you are, if you can. Many folks who get into trouble in the wilderness do not take action early enough, and do not start taking serious proactive measures.
Think: Second, think about what you need to do to help yourself. Breathe deeply and relax. Get a drink of water. Panic is your enemy. Folks who do not relax and think clearly about their situation have a tendency to panic and make rash, potentially life-threatening decisions.

Observe: Third, while thinking, observe your situation and the environment around you. Ask yourself, "What got me into this mess, and what can I use to get out of it?" Use all the information around you to help formulate the best course of action.

Plan: Fourth, plan and prioritize your five basic needs:
1. Medical (psychological and physical health)
2. Personal protection (clothing, shelter, fire)
3. Sustenance (water, food)
4. Communication and signaling (letting search-and-rescue know you need help)
5. Travel (the decision to stay or move, based on your condition, situation, resources and whether or not help is coming)

Question: How can a survivor assist in his own rescue?

Answer: Let rescuers know where you are. Use the signal mirror and whistle from your kit. The longest recorded successful recovery using a mirror was more than 100 miles. Three of anything (blasts from a whistle, gunshots, fires) is the international sign of distress.

Send out a ground-to-air signal in a clearing or on a high point that can readily be seen from above. The bigger it is, the better the chance of it being seen. Make sure it has good contrast against the background.

Sharp angles help attract the the human eye. You can add meaning to ground-to-air signals by arranging them in certain configurations: X means "medical assistance required"; V means "assistance required"; an arrow means "proceeding in this direction"; Y means "yes"; N means "no."
Use fire as a signal. Smoke and flames can be seen for miles.

Question: How can a person prepare mentally for the psycho­logical stress of a survival situation?
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Answer:** I believe 10 percent is based on knowledge and skills, another 10 percent on equipment and 80 percent on the will to live.

Don't dwell on negative things or feel sorry for yourself. Instead, think about things that motivate you, whether that's your family, friends or faith. Those who maintain a positive mental attitude stand a much better chance of surviving than those who don't. Your will to live is bolstered by practicing and studying as many survival techniques as you can. As my good friend, a survival enthusiast, often says, "You have to own your survival skills."