Emergency Wilderness Survival, Part 2

© Mike Spinak

[Editorial note: This is the second part of a series which starts here.]

Being Survival Minded

At home, potable water is obtained by turning on the faucet, or opening a bottle. Food is available from the fridge or pantry, or a store or restaurant. Warmth is achieved by turning on the heater or bundling up. And the house, itself, provides shelter from extreme environmental exposure. In a true survival situation, it becomes necessary to provide for all of your basic needs yourself, with minimal materials, by means of your thinking and your actions. The mental faculties you bring are likely to be your most important asset. They also may be all that you’ll have.

Will to Survive

In life threatening circumstances, your will to survive can be of paramount importance. Everyone wants to live, but when adversity strikes, not all show equal determination to survive. Confronted with seemingly impossible situations, some see hopelessness and quit trying, while others, like Ernest Shackleton, pursue every small success toward eventual safe return home. Seriously injured, some, like Joe Simpson, bear extreme pain and exhaustion while working to make it through the crisis, while others let their discomfort enfeeble them. Faced with the need to do the unthinkable, such as amputating one’s own trapped leg to crawl out of the wilderness, some, such as Bill Jeracki, do what must be done, while others can’t bring themselves to pay a high price for life.

This kind of stubborn insistence to live onward, no matter what, is the foundation upon which survival of extreme crises happens. Preparation, skill, physical condition, luck, and hundreds of other factors may also play a vital part toward coming out alive, but the underlying perseverance to not perish creates the opportunities for those other factors to come into play. With it, people with seemingly little else often surmount extraordinary difficulties.

The reasoning people use to resolve themselves to survive varies from person to person. The most common wellspring of resolute will to survive is love: love for those whom the survivor believes need him or her, and refuses to abandon; and also love for those whose company the survivor wants to share again. Another common source is religious faith (though this goes both ways: religious faith makes others accept death more readily). Others muster the will because they left an important task unfinished, and they have to get back in order to complete it. Some push themselves to survive simply because they enjoy life too much to let it end.

The people who survive desperate situations are the ones with a powerful will to live, a compelling reason to steel themselves against their hardships, and an innate understanding that you never run out of options until you’re dead.

Knowledge and Experience

There’s no need to belabor the point that knowledge in such areas as first aid, signaling, fire making, shelter building, navigation, foraging, and so forth, can each be extremely important in some survival situations. Beyond their utility, note that possessing survival skills also helps curb dangerous tendencies toward panic and hopelessness, during emergencies.

I’ll discuss skills in more detail, later on in this series.

With survival skills, there’s often a gap between the theoretical knowledge which comes from reading, and the abilities which come from experience and practice. Many survival techniques found in writing are questionable, at best (especially if you’re reading outdated texts, such as military survival manuals from the ‘sixties). Making a solar still, for example, often yields less water than is lost through perspiration when making it. Other textbook survival techniques, while valid, aren’t always as they appear. For example, you may not realize, until you try it, that making a snow cave often takes several hours, and could leave you soaked. Even the best friction or spark firestarting methods perplex most everybody, until they work out the kinks.

The midst of an emergency is not the time to begin slowly learning how to translate theory into practice. One must be sufficiently practiced before the need arises.

Situational Awareness

For the purposes of this article, what I mean by “situational awareness” is: an actively maintained mental state of observation and thoughtfulness about what is happening to you and what is going on around you, so as to identify, process, and comprehend critical elements of information about your circumstances, in order to choose actions wisely.

It comes into play with disaster aversion, through attentiveness to your body and to your surroundings, long before danger presents itself. It includes staying well hydrated before heat exhaustion, fatigue, or loss of coordination begins. It involves adjusting your clothes and your pace before you end up shivering, or soaked from perspiration. It involves frequently checking where you are on your map while you hike, to stay on track and stay found, and frequently turning around and taking a good look behind you as you hike, to make sure that you’ll recognize the route back. It involves recognizing and avoiding dangers such as undercut and eroding cliff edges, shifting boulders, and river crossings that will have risen substantially when you are hiking back, later in the day.

When an emergency begins to unfold, situational awareness helps minimize catastrophe. If you become lost, the sooner you can recognize this and stop wandering farther from your last known point, the easier it will be to figure out where you are, or the easier it will be for a search party to find you. If it will be necessary to spend the night out, the more quickly you realize this, the more time you will have to build shelter and fire before the cold and dark of night is upon you. Whatever the situation may be, the sooner you recognize it and begin to deal with it appropriately, the better.


The defining characteristic of many emergency wilderness survival situations is the lack of the items you would normally rely upon to meet your basic needs. Thus, it is often intrinsic to surviving that you will need to be able to improvise adequately with whatever you have on you and whatever you can find, to make what you need in order to stay alive, and either get to safety or get rescued.

Improvisation involves keeping in mind appropriate basic survival priorities for your situation (such as building shelter, making fire, getting water, signaling for help, stabilizing injuries, navigating, etc.), assessing all the items you have with you and everything available around you from the perspective of your needs, then devising and executing an effective plan to meet your needs with what is available.

With a little practice, and careful assessment, you might be surprised by how much useful material you have to work with. This is is not to say that the items you will have on you in an emergency are the ideal tools for the purposes you will put them to, but they only need to serve well enough to see you through the situation.

If you are a photographer (since this series of articles is aimed at nature photographers), and you have your camera gear on you when get into trouble, then you are likely to have quite a bit available, for applying to the tasks of survival. Batteries can be used to light fires. Methanol lens/sensor cleaning fluid is very easy to ignite, and makes a good accelerant when trying to get a fire to catch. A rubber air blower can also be fuel to get a fire going. Lenses can be taken apart and used as magnifying glasses, for examining and treating wounds or for  fire starting, or they can be fractured to produce sharp edges for fine cutting tasks. The swinging mirror in an SLR can be taken out and used as a makeshift signaling mirror. Reflectors can similarly be used for signaling during the day, and flashes can be used for signaling at night. Lens cases can make warm mittens. Foam padding for all the delicate electronics and glass can be removed from its casing and stuffed into clothes for insulation. Water resistant nylon pack cloth can be used to fashion some weather resistant clothes. Ballheads can be used for light hammering. A remote cable release can be used for lashing together the structure of a shelter. A tripod can be used as part of a shelter’s structure, or can be used for batoning.

If you’re stranded with your car, you have a ready shelter. The seat padding can be removed and used as insulation to keep warm. The cigarette lighter can, of course, be used to start fires, and so can parabolic mirrors of your front headlights. The gasoline in your engine can be used (carefully!) as fuel for a fire, and so can your car tires. Your rear view and side view mirrors can be used for visual signaling, and your car horn can be used for audio signaling.

Even if you don’t have a car or a pack full of camera gear when disaster strikes, you will probably have a number of very handy items to aid with survival, nonetheless. A cotton t-shirt and/or jeans (not recommended for most outdoor adventures, by the way), can be scraped to make lint which will ignite very easily. They can also be used to pre-filter large particulate out of water. Clothes can also be easily made into a sling for hunting (though, slings are hard to aim, without practice). A small piece of rubber cut off the sole of your shoe can make good second stage tinder. Dollar bills, too. Soda cans can make parabolic mirrors to start fires , and can make stoves to use with methanol lens cleaner. A stretchy cotton t-shirt can also be cut into a spiral and used as a compression bandage. A pen cap can be used as a whistle. Tampons and menstrual pads make great tinder. Lip balm makes a great accelerant for getting fires going. Menstrual pads also make good bandages. A belt can be used to lash poles together for the structure of a shelter. The LCD display on a cellular phone can be used in a pinch as a flashlight. The battery from a cellular phone can be used to start a fire. A plastic grocery store bag can be used as a vessel for boiling water. Credit card holograms have been successfully used as signal mirrors. A condom can be used as a torniquet, a binding to lash together shelter poles, a waterproof cover to protect important electronic devices, a water carrier, and even means to ignite a fire.

With a good understanding of your priorities, an open mind, good observation skills, a thorough survey of everything available, and a bit of imagination, improvisation can be lifesaving.

Continued in Emergency Wilderness Survival, Part 3.

Great Egret (Ardea alba) and California Vole (Microtus californicus), Livermore, California

All pictures and text are © Mike Spinak, unless otherwise noted. All pictures shown are available for purchase as fine art prints, and are available for licensed stock use. Telephone: (831) 325-6917.