Life and Death

Outdoor Life's survival expert Richard Johnson answers your questions.

Life or Death

We receive a ton of survival-related questions from our readers. This month OUTDOOR LIFE's survival expert, Rich Johnson, shares his advice on what to do in several of the more common emergency situations in which outdoorsmen are apt to find themselves.

SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO?

Q. Recently I was talking wit h a friend about survival strategies. In our hypothetical situation we were faced with the need to walk out of a remote area to reach help. The question raised was whether you should stop at the end of the day and spend time building a shelter or continue to walk toward safety. He maintained that a shelter would be a necessity. I thought it would be better to make as much progress as possible before stopping for the night. We agreed that if weather conditions were extreme, shelter would be a priority. What do you say? --Bill Martin, Seymour, IN

A. As with most survival situations, your decision about whether to seek shelter or continue hiking depends on a lot of things. One is your physical condition and stamina. Hiking to exhaustion can lead to poor judgment, depression and even hallucination--all of which can make the situation worse. Unless there is a compelling reason to keep moving, it's a good idea to take frequent breaks and hike slowly enough to avoid body fluid loss through excessive perspiration. Moving too fast and for too long can result in debilitating fatigue, muscle cramps, loss of coordination and possible injury.

There are very good reasons not to continue hiking through the night. Perhaps most important is that you're more likely to sustain an injury when trying to negotiate a trail after dark. Another reason is that it's easier to get lost after dark. My preference would be to set up camp early enough each afternoon to be snug before dusk. Without exhausting yourself, try to get a shelter together to protect against wind and precipitation, because you never know what the weather is going to do. If possible, I would want to replenish my energy by preparing whatever food I could come up with, rehydrating myself and resting up for the next day's hike.

THE CHENEY TREATMENT

Q. What do you do if you or a hunting buddy inadvertently gets sprayed with shotgun pellets and you aren't close to medical care? --Jerry Farke, Armour, SD

A. The first thing to do is to stop all bleeding and treat for shock, because these problems can be life threatening. I do not encourage do-it-yourself field surgery. If you try to dig out the pellets John Wayne--style, you risk aggravating the injury or causing permanent damage to nerves, blood vessels, muscles, tendons or organs.

Instead, follow these steps, listed in order of priority.

• Stop the bleeding by applying direct pressure, elevating the injured limb or applying a constricting band. Only as a last, life-saving resort should you employ a tourniquet. If you apply a tourniquet, you must be willing to sacrifice the limb to save the life.

• Since the physical and emotional trauma caused by getting shot can lead to hypovolemic shock, be prepared to treat that by laying the victim on his back, elevating his feet above the level of his head (unless you're dealing with an upper-body wound that will bleed more profusely if you do so) and covering the victim to maintain body temperature.

• Dress the wounds to protect against dirt and bacteria.

• Cancel the rest of your hunt and get the victim to a medical facility as soon as possible. Even after you've stabilized the victim and think everything is fine, infection can spread and cause death.

BIG WATER, BIG STORM

Q. If you're caught out in the middle of a big lake, and a thunderstorm blows in on a strong wind, what should you do? --Greg Dolezal, Knox, IN

A. Two considerable dangers exist in this situation--one is capsizing, which can lead to hypothermia and drowning, the other is being struck by lightning. To help mitigate these threats, everyone in the boat should be wearing a personal flotation device (PFD) and should know what to do in the event of capsizing.

The best advice is to stay with the boat, even if it's upside down, because it will offer a floating platform that you can either cling to or perhaps even climb upon. The boat will be much easier for rescuers to spot from a distance than you will be if you're floating alone. If there are several people involved, try to stay together in a group so you can attend to each other's needs and allay any fear or panic. To help forestall the onset of hypothermia, everyone in the water should huddle together and float quietly without thrashing around (which increases the loss of body heat).

The best thing you can do to prevent being struck by lightning is to position yourself so that you present the least likely target. That means getting off the water as fast as you can. By the time you can hear thunder, you are in danger. Lightning can strike many miles from the actual storm, so you can be hit by a "bolt from the blue," without being near the storm cell.

Best advice? Stay informed about the weather forecast and constantly keep an eye on what's happening around you. At the first sign of ugliness, get off the water and take shelter in a substantial building or vehicle, or among low bushes or trees that are all the same size. Stay away from fences, tall objects, open meadows and hilltops or anything metal.

SNAKEBITE DOS AND DON'TS

Q. What is the latest advice in case of a venomous snakebite? --Name withheld, via e-mail

A. According to information issued by the University of Maryland Medical Center, nearly 8,000 people are bitten by poisonous snakes in the United States each year. But even a bite from a so-called harmless snake can cause infection or allergic reaction in some people. The best course of action is to obtain emergency medical assistance as quickly as possible. In the meantime, do the following:

• Wash the bite with soap and water.

• Immobilize the bitten area and keep it lower than the heart.

• Cover the area with a clean, cool compress or a moist dressing to minimize swelling and discomfort.

• Monitor vital signs.

If you're unable to reach medical care within 30 minutes, the American Red Cross recommends two further actions:

• Wrap a bandage 2 to 4 inches above the bite, to help slow the venom. The band should be loose enough to slip a finger under it, so as not to cut off the flow of blood from a vein or artery.

• Place a suction device over the bite to help draw venom out of the wound without making cuts.

The University of Florida offers the following list of dos and don'ts.

• Do pull the snake off immediately. This is particularly important in the case of a coral snake. Its fangs are relatively small, and the snake has to work at getting venom into the wound.

• Do attempt to identify the offending snake. Kill the snake if you can, but don't waste time or put your safety at risk. The symptoms will give medical personnel an accurate diagnosis.

• Do remain calm. Remember that there is an excellent chance for survival, and in most cases there is plenty of time.

• Do remove jewelry. Swelling can progress rapidly, so rings, watches and bracelets should be removed.

• Do suck and squeeze. Extract as much venom from the wound as you can.

• Do mark the time. The pro gress of symptoms (swelling) is the most obvious indicator of the degree of envenomation.

• Do keep the limb low. Always keep the bitten area below the level of the heart.

• Do get to a hospital. Antivenin is the only sure cure for envenomation.

• Do get a tetanus shot. Do this even if you've had one recently.

• Don't cut the wound. This causes more damage than it's worth.

• Don't use a tourniquet. You'll isolate the venom in a small area and cause the digestive enzymes in the venom to concentrate the damage.

• Don't drink alcohol. Alcohol speeds the heart rate and blood flow and reduces the body's counteractive ability.

• Don't use ice. Freezing the limb can be a precursor to amputation.