Cutting off an arm
You’ve seen this one, as 2010 movie 127 Hours brought it to life. Aron Ralston, hiking in Utah, became lodged between a rock and a hard place and was forced to amputate his own hand. “I didn’t want to do it,” Ralston later reflected. “But by the second day I was already figuring out how I could do it, so in the film you see that progression: trying to cut into the arm like a saw, finding the tourniquet, then the realisation that the knife was too dull to get through the bone.”
You’ve definitely heard about this one, even if you didn’t want to. Back in October 1972, and on Friday the 13th no less, a Uruguayan Air Force twin turboprop Fairchild FH-227D was flying over the Andes when it crashed into the mountains. The 16 survivors had no other choice but to feed on the flesh of the 12 fallen passengers to prevent starvation. This grim story was also immortalised on film, in 1993’s Alive.
The Marathon des Sables is a six-day event held in the Sahara desert, but pentathlete Mauro Prosperi managed to turn it into nine days in 1994 after he got lost in a sandstorm. Having run out of food and water, in a part of the world where you could really use some food and water, Prosperi was forced to survive off his own urine and bat meat. He was eventually found and taken to hospital.
In 1822, Hugh Glass got lost on a fur-trading expedition near Yellowstone River in South Dakota. Shortly after, a grizzly bear set about breaking his leg, ripping his scalp and puncturing his throat. Glass, hard as nails, ended up killing the bear. While recuperating, he survived off a diet of insects and roots, travelling 200 miles back to camp. In 2015, Leonardo DiCaprio played Glass in The Revenant.
Caught in a nasty blizzard in 1926, Danish traveller Peter Freuchen had the genius if gross idea to defecate and freeze his excrement into the shape of a chisel in order to break his way through the ice. And it actually worked! After a three hour walk, Freuchen was back safe and sound, though he did have frostbite on three toes which he quickly chopped off with pliers and a hammer.
Leeches for lunch
Ricky Megee’s April 2006 drive across a remote area of Australia went awry after he was drugged and robbed of his car by a hitchhiker. In the middle of nowhere, suffering from exposure and malnutrition, Megee had to eat frogs and leeches in order to survive the ordeal, which lasted 71 days. For water, he drank from a dam; lucky for him, it was wet season. Megee finally reached a cattle station where he was treated.
Stripping off to make a life preserver
While sailing over the Gulf of Man in 1995 aboard the USS American aircraft carrier, Marine Lance-Corporal Zachary Mayo was knocked into the ocean by a swinging metal door and subsequently stranded for the next 36 hours. Remembering a Navy skill called “drownproofing”, Mayo removed his trousers, tied a knot at the ankles and created a flotation device by quickly trapping air into them. He was discovered sunburnt but safe – and trouserless – by some Pakistani fishermen near the Makran coast.
In 1984, Richard Dailey’s life hung in a hypothermic balance after he got lost in a blizzard in Idaho. Desperate to prevent an isolated, early death, Dailey ended up shooting a horse, scraping out its innards and hopping inside the carcass for some warmth. “Its guts came out all over your hands and wrists,” Dailey told The Washington Post. “You can’t imagine how good it felt. It immediately warmed you up.” A similar scene is enacted in Star Wars movie The Empire Strikes Back.
Tampons in bullet holes
Tampons have been used to treat wounds since their inception in the 18th century. It may sound crazy at first but given their everyday purpose, can you think of anything better to plug bullet holes if you’re at your wits’ end? In fact, just this year, Russian army recruits were advised to pack tampons in case they suffered gunshot wounds.
During WWII, Australian soldier Jock McLaren was captured and ended up in Singapore’s Changi Prison. After breaking out of prison, McLaren fled to the Philippine island of Mindanao, unfortunately for him under Japanese rule. To make matters worse, McLaren developed appendicitis. Using just a mirror, a pocketknife and some jungle fibres to stitch the wound, McLaren removed his own appendix without anaesthesia.
Fish provide an excellent source of protein, exactly what you need if you’re stranded in the wilderness. The only problem is, they’re notoriously difficult to catch, especially if you aren’t in the habit of carrying angling gear with you at all times. Fortunately, you can improvise a net and bait fairly easily; just stand waist deep in water and hold out your shirt to act as a net. Then, spit in the water. The saliva will attract small fish like minnows, which you can then catch in your shirt.
Breathe toilet air
When a tugboat went down just off the coast of Nigeria in 2013, Harrison Okene – the ship’s cook – was on the toilet. The rest of the crew tragically perished, but an air pocket formed in the lavatory, keeping the water out and saving the cook from a watery grave. Okene spent three days in the darkness and cold, sure his death was only a matter of time. Miraculously, before his air ran out he was discovered by a team of divers who had been sent to recover the bodies. Once they recovered from their understandable shock, they brought Okene some scuba gear and got him back to the surface – after a two day stopover in a decompression tank.
Eat your dogs
Man’s best friend they may be, but when disaster strikes, pooch is on the menu. At least it was for the crew of Endurance, the ill-fated vessel belonging to the great explorer Ernest Shackleton. After the ship was caught in pack ice, Shackleton and co abandoned the vessel and took to their lifeboats, eventually reaching an island from whence they were able to make it South Georgia. The ordeal lasted over a month and supplies quickly ran out, forcing the crew to slaughter and eat some of the dogs they had brought with them to pull their sleds.
Use petrol to treat a maggot infested wound
On Christmas Eve 1971, LANSA Flight 508 was struck by lightning and disintegrated in midair. Still strapped into her seat, Juliane Koepcke plummeted through two miles of thin air, landing in the Peruvian rainforest and miraculously surviving the impact. Seriously wounded, Koepcke limped through the rainforest for nine days, eventually finding a deserted camp belonging to some loggers. By this time her injuries were severely infected and literally crawling with maggots, and Koepcke used some gasoline as an improvised disinfectant.
Keep bacteria out of a wound with saran wrap
Saran wrap is good for more than keeping your lunch fresh. It can create an incredibly effective barrier, making it a handy addition to any first aid kit. If you get cut and you aren’t able to seek immediate medical attention, thoroughly cover the wound in saran wrap. It will prevent bacteria from getting in and causing a nasty infection.
Use sugar to treat a wound
In vitro studies have shown that sugar is surprisingly effective at inhibiting bacterial growth, which it achieves by causing osmotic shock in the bacteria, leaving them unable to reproduce. Whilst it’s not as effective as a dedicated antibiotic cream, sugar can help keep a wound infection free until you’re able to seek proper medical attention.
Sacrifice a limb to escape a croc
Unlike sharks, which generally only attack in cases of mistaken identity and will usually spit us back out, crocodiles have evolved alongside us, known exactly what we are, and view us as tasty snacks. Crocs are ambush predators, exploding out of the water to snatch their prey before trying to drown it with a death roll. If you find yourself in the jaws of a crocodile or alligator, do not let it get you into the water. Fight like hell, and if nothing is working, move in the opposite direction to the croc with all your strength, sacrificing your limb to survive.
Use a coconut as an IV
Coconuts can be used as rehydrating IV drips in emergency situations. The fluid inside them is similar to blood plasma, and can make the difference between life and death if someone is suffering from severe dehydration or heart stroke. Coconuts were reportedly used for this purpose by soldiers in the Pacific theatre during The Second World War.
Thump for worms
Appetising they are not, but worms are nutritional powerhouses that might just save your life in a survival situation. The subterranean creatures are packed full of protein, iron, and amino acids, which will keep your energy levels high. Worms can be brought to the surface by ‘thumping’ soil with a branch.
Try the universal edibility test
Unless you’re a trained survivalist, eating plants in the wilderness is always going to be a gamble, but you can improve your odds of avoiding toxic varieties by performing the universal edibility test. First, smell a plant. If it smells okay, rub it on the inside of your arm. If there’s no reaction, rub it on your lips. Finally, chew a small amount, but spit it out after a few seconds. If you still haven’t detected any undesirable effects, there’s a reasonably high chance it’s safe to eat.
Use fire to cauterise a wound
Minor cuts will generally stop bleeding by themselves after a short amount of time, but bleeding from more significant injuries – especially those involving veins and arteries – will need to be manually stemmed. One of the most effective ways to quickly stop the flow of blood is to cauterise a wound. This can be done by using fire to heat a piece of metal and then applying it directly to the injury. It will hurt like hell, but it will stop you from bleeding out.
Hit a shark in the gills if it attacks you
Shark attacks rank high on many peoples’ lists of worst fears, and with good reason. Sharks are like torpedoes armed with razor sharp teeth, and some of them can grow to monstrous proportions. If you find yourself on the business end of a shark, try to show it you’re tougher than you look by striking it as hard as you can in the gills or snout. The apex predator might just decide you’re not worth the trouble and move on.
Use maggots to clean a wound
Fair warning, this one is absolutely repulsive. If you have a severely infected wound and no hope of reaching medical assistance, you can enlist nature’s help. Leave the injury exposed, allowing flies to land on it and lay eggs. Once the maggots hatch, they will begin consuming the fetid, infected flesh, effectively cleaning the wound.
If you lose a limb, raise the stump to slow bleeding
In 1978, 15-year-old Mary Vincent was kidnapped by Lawrence Singleton. After sexually assaulting her, Singleton hacked off both of her arms with a hatchet, threw her down an embankment, and left her to die. Vincent remained astonishingly calm, waiting for her assailant to leave before climbing back onto the road and flagging down a vehicle. In order to slow down the rate of blood loss, Vincent raised the stumps of her arms above her head while she waited for rescue, a decision that undoubtedly saved her life.
Suck moisture out of wet wipes
Wet wipes are fantastically useful and versatile things, and are often indispensable on camping trips. They might also save your life in a survival situation. As the name suggests, wet wipes contain moisture, which can be rung out and drunk in desperate situations. The amount of liquid in a single wipe is negligible, but if you’ve got a few packets you can get enough liquid to stave off dehydration for a few days.
Drink turtle blood
In 2013, a man washed up on a beach in Ebon Atoll and claimed he had been adrift for 16 months. The man, Jose Ivan, had got lost at sea after going sailing with a friend, who tragically didn’t survive the ordeal. Ivan explained that he had stayed alive by eating birds and fish and drinking rainwater. However, during periods when it didn’t rain for some time, he had fought off dehydration by drinking another fluid: turtle blood.
Be careful which part of a dead animal you eat
If you’re stranded and starving in the wilderness, coming across the carcass of an animal – or killing one yourself – probably feels akin to winning the lottery. It’s important, however, to contain you excitement and exercise caution when it comes to consuming your prize. Almost every part of an animal can be eaten, but the liver should be avoided. It often contains toxins that can lead to serious illness or, in extreme cases, death.
Stay away from mushrooms
Mushrooms are delicious, packed full of nutrients, and they grow practically everywhere. However, unless you’ve undergone extensive training in deciphering edible varieties, it’s best to avoid them altogether. Many species of mushroom contain poisons that will result in an agonising, protracted death, and others contain psychoactive compounds that are definitely the last thing you need in a survival situation.
Dig a spiked pit to catch animals
Pit traps have been used by humans for thousands of years, for a very good reason: they work incredibly well. If you’re lost in an area that you know contains large game – deer or wild boar, for example – it’s worth constructing at least one trap. Dig a hole several feet deep, line it with spikes that you have fashioned from wood, and then cover the trap with branches and leaves.
Drown a python to survive an attack
Pythons reach lengths of up to 33 feet, are built out of pure muscle, and – thanks to the ability to dislocate their jaws – have no problem swallowing large prey. That includes you. If you find yourself in the deadly embrace of a python, and you haven’t got a knife to hand, try and drag the snake into water. If you can submerge its head, the serpent will release you to save itself from drowning, giving you precious time to escape.
Amanda Eller, a 35-year-old yoga instructor, survived for 17 days lost in the dense Maui jungle. Eller credited her yoga training with her ability to go without eating for extended periods of time, but eventually she was forced to turn to a rather unappealing food source: moths. The nocturnal winged insects provided enough protein to keep Eller alive until a search party was able to find her.
Use honey as an antibiotic
Honey has been prized by cultures for thousands of years for its medicinal properties. As well as its ability to soothe sore throats, honey can be applied topically as an antibiotic ointment. What’s more, honey can be found in the wild, although you might have to endure a few stings to get your hands on it. If you do have to raid a hive, your best bet is to light a branch and use the smoke to clear the bees.
Don’t remove wreckage that is stuck in you
If you survive a crash, there’s a strong chance you’ll end up impaled by some of the wreckage. Whilst it might be tempting to pull it out, resist the urge. If the debris has punctured an artery, it might be the very thing keeping you alive, and pulling it out will cause you to bleed out.
Getting a fire going is one of the fundamental challenges in a survival situation. Fires provide warmth, increase your chances of being spotted by a rescue party, and can be used to ward off animals. If you’re in an area where there isn’t a lot of material to burn, like a desert, look for animal dung instead. Whilst it might not smell great, animal dung is a surprisingly good fuel source, especially if it’s dry. It’s easy to light and will burn for hours.
Superglue is good for more than DIY. It was actually invented to treat wounded soldiers in The First World War, where it saved countless lives, and it is still frequently used in medical settings. The glue is able to seal wounds almost instantaneously, stemming bleeding and preventing bacteria from getting in. If you’re going on an expedition, make sure you’ve got a tube of the stuff in your first aid kit.
Swim slowly after a shark bite
It’s hard to imagine a more panic-inducing incident than getting bitten by a shark. Unfortunately, staying calm after an attack is absolutely crucial for survival. Keeping your heart rate down after a bite is key to not bleeding out, which means that you need to swim as gently as possible – even if the shark is still circling.
Don’t mess with cassowaries
Hunting is arguably the best way to survive in the wilderness, as it eliminates the risk of consuming potentially toxic plants and provides you with a bountiful source of protein. Cassowaries – a large flightless bird native to New Zealand – look relatively harmless and might seem like the perfect prey. Don’t be fooled. The birds are astonishingly fast and agile, and possess talons like stiletto daggers. There have been multiple recorded instances of people accidentally disturbing cassowaries and ending up getting disemboweled or having their throats slashed.
Eat raw fish
Unless you’re Gollum, the thought of chowing down on raw fish is probably enough to flip your stomach. But desperate times call for desperate measures, and when sailor Steve Callahan found himself adrift in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, the times were about as desperate as they get. Floating in a small inflatable life raft after his boat sank, Callahan used a spear gun to catch a steady supply of seafood, consuming it raw. After 76 days, Callahan was finally spotted by some fisherman, malnourished, dehydrated and covered in sores, but alive.
Rip your clothes to make a tourniquet
It’s terrifying how quickly you can die from blood loss, with arterial wounds leading to unconscious in a matter of seconds. Stopping the flow of blood is your number one priority in the event of an injury, and a tourniquet is your best friend in this endeavour. If you don’t have any ligature in your first aid kit, rip a strip of fabric off your clothes and tie it as tight as possible just above the wound.
If a bear attacks you, stab it in the neck
Colin Dowler was cycling in the forests of British Columbia when he was charged by a black bear. The animal knocked him to the ground and bit into his stomach, but Dowler was able to get his knife out his pocket, thrusting it into the animal’s neck. The animal released him immediately and backed down, bleeding profusely, and Dowler was able to escape on his bicycle.
Make sure you use the toilet away from where you sleep
One of the ground rules for surviving in the wilderness is to make sure you go to the toilet well away from your shelter. Many animals, including wolves and bears, have excellent senses of smell and will follow unusual scents. A good rule of thumb is to make sure you do your business at least a few hundred feet from where you will be sleeping.
Use corpses as a raft
As corpses decompose, gases are produced and trapped inside the body, making them, for lack of a better word, buoyant. If you’re in a survival situation and have corpses at your disposal – after a plane crash, say – this feature of decomposition can be taken advantage of. Morbid as it may seem, corpses can be incredibly useful floatation devices, allowing you to get across rivers or small lakes.
Use moss like iodine
Iodine is a great disinfectant – it is often the principle ingredient in antiseptic sprays, in fact – and it is incredibly useful for treating wounds. However, unless you’re very well prepared, you’re unlikely to have any iodine to hand in a survival situation. Fortunately, moss naturally contains high levels of the chemical, and can be used as a disinfectant if you cut yourself in the wilderness.
Use garlic to treat wounds
Garlic has been used to treat infections for thousands of years, and with good reason. Studies have found that the bulbs have potent antibiotic, antiviral, and anti-fungal properties. It can also be found growing wild in many parts of the world.
Keep snakebites above your heart
There’s a reason Indiana Jones was afraid of snakes. Whilst more people identify as arachnophobes, snakes pack far more potent venom and are capable of ending your existence with a single bite. If you do get bitten, stay calm, lie down, and elevate the bite above your heart. This will slow the spread of the venom through your body, giving you more time to figure out your next steps.
Drain infected wounds
Infections can turn nasty incredibly quickly, especially if you’re lost in the wilderness with no prospect of professional medical attention. If you have a wound and it starts displaying signs of infection, keep a close eye on it. Wash the cut frequently with fresh water, and if you notice fluid building up under the skin, make a small incision with a clean blade and drain the liquid.
Try and find salt water to treat fungal infections
It’s not just bacterial infections that you need to worry about when stranded in the wild. Fungal infections can be just as nasty, and if you’re in a hot, humid forest, it can be difficult to avoid them. Salt water is a highly effective way of dealing with fungal infections. Obviously, this won’t be an option in a lot of places, but if you are near the sea, you can treat your infection by regularly immersing the effected area in salt water.
Eat meat from a rotting carcass
If you come across a dead animal that has started decomposing, you might still be able to salvage some edible meat. Avoid any parts that are visibly putrid, going only for the freshest looking meat. Ultimately you’re still rolling the dice, but if the choices are risking getting food poisoning or starving to death you’re better off taking your chances.
Amputate an infected digit
If you have an infected cut and nothing seems to be helping, amputation is a last resort strategy for preventing the infection from going systemic. This is only really applicable for cuts on fingers or toes, as the blood loss from anything larger would likely prove fatal. If you do decide that amputation is the only option, sterilise the blade first using fire and be prepared to cauterise the wound immediately afterwards.
Drink dirty water
Drinking dirty, festering water is a pretty great way of making yourself seriously sick or picking up a nasty parasite, but if your only other option is dying of dehydration it’s a risk you’re going to have to take. Avoid any water that has animals decomposing it in, though. It’ll almost certainly make you ill, hastening the process of dehydration.