Survival how to: skills in the wilderness

By Sam Gibbs September 14, 2009
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Don’t be caught off guard on your next adventure into the wilderness – brush up on your bush survival skills.

YOU ARE STANDING ALONG in 30ºC heat beside your car, bonnet up and a 250 km drive from the nearest town. Your car is loaded with gear for the daywalk you were planning, including four litres of water, lunch, a hat, sunscreen, and a map of the walk. Due to the lure of isolation there’s no phone reception, and the owner’s manual in your glove box is about as useful as your Eclectic Hits of Queen CDs for starting your car. No other vehicles are on the road, and thinking about it now, you haven’t seen one since taking that last turn 80 km back. It is hot, dry, and as quiet as a tomb…

When I first heard of Bob Cooper’s survival courses, held in the bush of Western Australia, I had visions of an ex-army, ration-packed, drinks-his-own-urine boot-camp instructor offering tourists a Mick Dundee/Steve Erwin style experience. I had no idea. 

Bob Cooper, however, has been conducting wilderness survival courses since 1980, and to the vast number of outdoor people less ignorant than me, he is Australia’s premier survivalist. He carries no knives, wears nothing more camouflaged that an old broad-brimmed hat, and with his fair, blue-eyed complexion, large frame and white beard, looks more like Santa than the leathery character I was expecting when I sat down for day one of his three-day Basic Outback Survival Course.

Survival how to: mind control

It is unbearably hot, you hate your phone provider more than ever, you have abandoned your owner’s manual and have resorted to reading the Queen Disc One song list: ‘I Want To Break Free’, ‘I’m Going Slightly Mad’, ‘Under Pressure’, ‘Death On Two Legs’, ‘Dead On Time’. You begin to wonder if you told anyone where you were going, if this minor road was even the correct one, if Australian birds circle their prey before death… “

The first word I want you to write down”, says Bob. “is control”. If there is one thing that Bob stresses, after all of his years studying and being involved in survival situations, it is the importance of attitude; that creating and keeping an appropriate outlook can be, and often is, the defining factor between an incident and a tragedy. A survival situation is a fantastic opportunity to put your positive attitude and ingenuity to a new challenge.

So you move on to reading Queen’s Disc Two: ‘We Are The Champions’, ‘Hang On In There’, ‘The Show Must Go On’, ‘Don’t Lose Your Head’, ‘It’s A Beautiful Day’. You don your hat and sunscreen, make yourself comfortable in the shade of a tree, and sit down with a pen and paper to think about your situation, what resources you have on hand, and how you can best use them.

Your priorities should be divided into five main themes: Water, Signals, Shelter, Warmth and Food. As Bob says, “Plans don’t usually fail. But people fail to plan.”

Survival how to: stay hydrated

The four litres of water you packed for your walk is looking pretty good. In hot environments, the body will rapidly dehydrate if its fluids are not replaced. The vital organs will scavenge whatever water they can find to continue functioning, and one organ at the back of the bodily queue is the brain. The loss of just two litres of body fluid (which can happen in as little time as three hours in hot climates), can impair your cognitive abilities by 25 percent. One quarter of your senses may leave you in the space of half a day if you do not drink.

Bob Cooper has a library of tales of healthy, intelligent people making tragically poor decisions when suffering dehydration dementia: people walking away from roads for help; stripping themselves naked in the blistering sun; abandoning radios and vehicles filled with food and shelter to wander aimlessly through the bush.

If your well-constructed positive planning is going to have a chance of success, drink your water. Don’t sip. Drink a cupful at a time, when desired. Your thirst and urine colour will tell you when you need to increase the amount.

Bob’s course teaches at least 15 different methods of procuring fluids in a dry bush environment. Our small group experimented with clear plastic bags tied over transpiring tree branches, digging solar stills to collect evaporated water from impure water, and draining water from plant roots. Other clever methods include:

– Collecting dew from surfaces, plants and grasses;
– Following fresh animal tracks to water;
– Observing the flight directions of seed-eating birds, that will travel to and from water each day (towards the water they will fly in a neat formation; away, they will fly in a haphazard arrangement);
– Draining the air-conditioning water of your vehicle (if the engine still works) by running the air-con with the windows down and collecting the overflow in a container or bag.

Survival how to – Communicate

Feeling reassured about your water situation, and having quenched your thirst, you begin to assess when someone is likely to start looking for you.

You will want to be ready for being accidentally found, as much as deliberately found, and so the first thing you do is raise the bonnet of your car so that you don’t look like you have just stopped for a pee, and block the road with a tripod made of sticks and anything to attract attention as a distress sign. You want to be seen by passing vehicles, planes, walkers, riders, whoever – during the day, as well as throughout the night.

According to Bob, you have approximately two minutes in which to work after first hearing an aircraft, and possibly less for a vehicle. This is your window for attracting attention to yourself and you want to make the most of it…

Survival how to – Fire

During the day you will want a contained fire to burn that emits as much smoke as possible. This can be achieved by burning green branches and leaves, or by burning wet branches. You may consider burning parts of your vehicle, such as upholstery or ideally, a spare tyre, as it will signal to the nostrils as much as the eyes. In the night, depending on your position, you will want a fire to signal with its light, and a flaring fire will draw even more attention. Fires positioned at the three points of an equilateral triangle are internationally recognised as a distress signal.

Survival how to – Reflection

One of your greatest tools for attracting notice will be the reflection of light. Daylight, torchlight, headlights, or firelight – reflections from mirrors can travel over 20 km. Reflective materials you may not have thought to use include:

• Car mirrors removed
• Aluminium foil
• The inside of a drink can
• A wine cask bladder
• Reflective patches on jackets, skis and backpacks
• Space blanket from first aid kit
• Credit card
• Eclectic Hits of Queen CDs

When not actively using your reflective tools, you can hang them from dead trees or poles, or a tripod of sticks on the road, so that they may rotate in the breeze and passively signal to potential passers-by.

Survival how to: whistles

If you have the benefit of a whistle, use it. Universally, three whistle blasts (or light flashes, or flares), means distress.

Survival how to: messages

The most basic form of written signal is an SOS message. Create your message in any way that you can; using sticks, logs, bright clothing, tape, stones etc. Make it as large as possible, and as square as possible – round letters tend to blend in with other natural organic shapes. Square, right-angled letters are easier to distinguish in natural surroundings, and are more likely to catch the eye.

It is imperative that you also create informative notes to rescuers. These might be left on roads (attached to large, colourful tripods of sticks), with your vehicle, at your shelter, or at a water source. Features to note include:
•    The words ‘Emergency’ and ‘Help;
•    Date of your note and other incidents
•    Names, ages and medical details of yourself and your companions
•    Colour of your clothing
•    Reason you are stranded
•    Action you have taken and why
•    Direction you have travelled in (also mark with an arrow on the ground)
•    Your intentions
•    Water and provisions you are carrying
•    The help you want
•    A sketch of your area and plan (do not assume the literacy or language of your rescuer)d

  • Survival how: to in the wildernes, part 2
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