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A Survival Primer

A Survival Primer
Skill and Luck Medical Priority
S.T.O.P. Improvise to Survive
Shelter Attracting Attention
Basic Firecraft Fuel, Oxygen, Heat & Patience
No Substitute for Water Food, a Lower Priority
Edibility Test Go Fish
Stay With The Plane Never Give Up!

A Survival Primer

Please support Equipped To Survive with a tax-deductible donationWith a final jarring impact, the plane comes to an abrupt stop. For a split second all is eerily quiet. You remember to breathe. Your head clears. Wiping your hand across your eyes clears your vision, but the blood on your hands brings everything into focus and you recall what's happened. Got to get out and get out NOW!

Whether you make an emergency landing on dry land or in the water, your first priority is nearly always to get clear of the aircraft, taking your emergency supplies and equipment if at all possible. DON'T PANIC! Move deliberately and think about what you are doing.

Once clear of the aircraft, gather your passengers together (if you have any) and make sure everyone is accounted for. But, be very cautious about going back into the aircraft immediately to retrieve anything, even passengers. Spilled fuel and hot engines or electrical sparks can ignite into a deadly conflagration in seconds. Stay clear of the plane until you determine it is safe.

Skill and Luck

You've managed to survive this far by dint of skill and a bit of luck. How well things go from here can be significantly influenced by how well prepared you are. Good training, proper clothing and adequate equipment can turn this into little more than an unexpected camping trip or cruise. On the other hand, if you are ill prepared, survival will become a test of your will to live, your resourcefulness and your luck. We're going to try and tip the scales slightly in your favor by presenting this primer for survival.

We will stick to the very basics in this article, because thorough coverage of the subject could occupy volumes. We will assume you didn't crash in paradise, that the climate and terrain are less than hospitable.

We are also going to assume you've got the minimal basic equipment like a quality folding knife, matches and the like and you are dressed appropriately for the climate. If you don't even carry this basic equipment, then you really are in a world of hurt. The situation won't be hopeless, but why put yourself in that position? Finally, we are assuming you don't have much experience or the skills needed to survive in such circumstances.

Medical Priority

Your first priority is to treat any injuries as best you can. Stop any bleeding, immobilize any broken bones, treat shock and generally stabilize things so you can proceed to deal with your situation. Do the best you can with what's at hand.

It's too late now to wish you'd taken that wilderness first aid course or brought along more first aid supplies. There will be no ambulance arriving in minutes and the hospital isn't around the corner. In any but the most temperate of climates, your next priority will be shelter. But, before getting to that, you may do well to first S.T.O.P.


"S" is for STOP. Take a deep breath, sit down if possible, calm yourself and recognize that whatever has happened to get you here is past and cannot be undone. You are now in a survival situation and that means . . .

"T" for THINK. Your most important survival asset is your brain. Use it! Don't Panic! Move with deliberate care. Think first, so you have no regrets. Take no action, even a foot step, until you have thought it through. Unrecoverable mistakes and injuries, potentially deadly in a survival situtaion, occur when we act before we engage our brain. Then . . .

"O" is for OBSERVE. Take a look around you. Assess your situation and options. Take stock of your supplies, equipment, surroundings, your personal capabilities and, if there are any, the capabilities of your fellow survivors. Are you the best equipped to lead in this new survival situation?

"P" is for PLAN. Prioritize your immediate needs and develop a plan to systematically deal with the emergency and contingencies. Then, follow your plan. Adjust your plan only as necessary to deal with changing circumstances.


Click here for a copy of the S.T.O.P. - Immediate Action Survival Plan[(tm)] designed to be printed out for inclusion in survival and emergency kits.

Let's face it, planning is lots easier if you already anticipated the possibility that you might someday find yourself in this situation and equipped yourself for it. If there are more survivors than just you, select the most capable person to be the leader. You may not be the best qualified to lead the party in this survival situation.

There are a few basic fundamentals to survival. You must maintain your body temperature at or near 98.6 degrees. Too cold (hypothermia) or too hot (hyperthermia) and you will die. You need to conserve energy. Don't waste it by "doing" before "thinking." Water is vital for your body and mind to function properly. You need both working as good as possible. Finally, remember that your only responsibilities are to stay alive, and if at all possible, make yourself easier to find by actively working at attracting attention to yourself.

Improvise to Survive

Improvisation is a survivor's most important tool to accomplish these things. It's not what things were that's important, it's what they can become, what they can be used for. Think of your aircraft, personal belongings, survival equipment and the natural environment as your own private wilderness equipment store. With a little thought and effort, you can improvise nearly everything you need to survive, though admittedly, having some basic equipment makes it much easier.

The five rules of improvisation are:

  1. Determine what you really need.
  2. Inventory your available materials, man made and natural.
  3. Consider all alternatives.
  4. Select the best one that takes the least amount of time, energy and materials.
  5. Do it, making sure it is safe and durable.


Shelter is a basic necessity and second only to immediate medical care on the immediate action list. Set up, make or find temporary shelter. Heat and cold can sap the lifeblood from you very quickly. Wind, rain, snow or other inclement weather hastens the process. You can't check in at a hotel, so pick the best convenient location for your immediate action shelter, as dry as possible, away from natural hazards. This is simply a place to retreat from the weather while you get your act together. You may stay there or later move to a better location or construct a more substantial shelter.

Place a single opening shelter like a lean-to with the back to the prevailing winds. A simple tent should be situated at right angles to the wind. If the airplane is safe and properly located, use a wing, the tail or the fuselage as part of your shelter.

As inviting as it may be, you may want to avoid the completely enclosed interior of the aircraft in very hot or frigid weather. With minimal ventilation and little insulation it can act as an oven in high heat circumstances, especially if out in the opne. In cold weather it may be difficult to isulate yourself from the cold metal and the minimal insulation and relatively large volume make it difficult to raise the interior temperature without some external heat source. Lack of ventilation will trap moisture which may drip on you if it warms during the day. Punching out windows or leaving doors open can provide air circulation which can ameliorate some of these problems, but the closed fuselage isn't automatically the best choice, no matter how inviting it may be.

Take advantage of natural shelter. A lean-to can be constructed against a fallen tree using deadwood and layered boughs, a tarp or sections from the aircraft. Beneath the bottom branches of a large evergreen there is often a clear dry area, even in heavy snow. A simple snow trench can be quickly excavated and covered with boughs. The floor of your shelter can be insulated from the snow or ground using seat cushions, carpet, small boughs, dead leaves or other materials which will get you off the ground and trap air. Huddle together for warmth. Do not let any personal inhibitions prevent you from taking advantage of the significant warming effect of bodies in contact.

In the desert, shade is vital. Surface temperatures may be as much as 40 degrees hotter in the sun! The surface is where heat is retained and given up. Temperatures can be up to 30 degrees cooler 12 - 18 inches below or above the surface. Temperatures in desert climates can also drop as much as 40 degrees, sometimes more, at night which can take you well below freezing during winter months. Prepare your desert shelter with these extremes in mind. In the desert it is best to work at night or early morning when it is cooler and rest during the hot daytime temperatures.

A large plastic trash bag or two can make a very effective emergency shelter or poncho. To use, hold upside down and go to one of the corners (bottom corner, but now on top), drop down about eight inches along the crease, and using your knife cut a slit or hole only big enough for your face. Pull the bag over your body so that the corner rests on top of your head and your nose and mouth sticks through the hole. Pull another bag up from your feet for more coverage, since most aren't long enough. If you can, stuff the bags and your clothing with dry leaves and such for added insulation, but be careful not to introduce any unwelcome pests into your improvised shelter.

Attracting Attention

With the basics of medical care and shelter out of the way it's time to make sure you get found. It's unlikely that you'll find a phone out in the middle of nowhere to dial 911. The ELT (emergency locator transmitter) is your best means of attracting rescue. Check to ensure the ELT is on. Check that the antenna is still in place. If it has been torn off during the crash, improvise one with an 18 inch long piece of wire (this length is optimized for the 121.5 frequency) scavenged from the plane. If possible and safe, check the comm, perhaps it is working or can be made to function. Prepare to radio or otherwise signal any Search and Rescue (SAR) or other overflights.

The more you can do to attract attention to yourself, the more likely someone will notice and come to your rescue. A signal mirror is the best all around signalling device. It can be seen for up to 50 miles. If you don't have a mirror at hand, it is easy to improvise one from any piece of metal (polish it with fine sand or dirt), foil or any shiny object like a credit card (particularly one with a hologram on it). A mirror 4 inches by 6 inches is ideal, but smaller works nearly as well. A mirror will even work on bright overcast days and with moonlight, though with reduced range.

While authentic signal mirrors have an aiming hole and instructions on how to use it, any mirror can be simply aimed. Face your target and place your outstretched hand just beneath it. Hold the mirror by your head so that the bright reflection or "fireball" shines on your hand. Now, tilt the mirror up and down rapidly, flashing the target. Flash any aircraft that you can see, no matter how distant, for as long as it is visible. Flash the entire horizon at regular intervals.

Flares are of limited use; one shot affairs that you have to hope get noticed during their brief moment of glory. Save them until you are certain there is a good probability someone is looking or likely to notice. Fire aerial flares and set off ground flares or smoke signals well ahead of, and to the side of an aircraft. They will likely not be noticed if set off too far to the side or behind or straight ahead. Smoke signals may be better used to dye snow as a ground signal. Strobe lights can be very effective at night and are visible for up to 5 miles. Set all these signals on high ground or in a clearing for maximum visibility.

A police whistle, or better yet, a survival whistle can be heard from 2 to 7 miles, depending upon terrain and ambient noise levels. Three blasts in succession, repeated at intervals, will get rescuers' attention.

Contrast is the key to ground signals. Size, angularity and motion all help attract attention. For ground signals, forget complicated symbology, just make a large "V" for immediate assistance or "X" if medical assistance is needed. "SOS" will work, but it is a lot more effort. Construct your signal using a ratio of six to one, a "V" with sides 12 ft by 2 ft. for example. Use brightly colored materials, brush, branches, rocks, logs, clear away ground cover to the dirt, stomp down the snow or otherwise create contrast and shadows.

When signalling by hand, a flag is far more visible than your arms and hands alone. Always wave wildly with both hands in and emergency situation. You don't want to be mistaken for somebody just giving a friendly wave.

A smokey signal fire is an excellent means of attracting attention. Black smoke is best and not likely to be confused with a campfire. This can be created by feeding your fire with green branches and leaves, tires, engine oil and similar materials. It can be impossible or impractical to keep a signal fire going all the time. In that case, set up your signal fire so you can start it quickly. Light it as soon as you hear or see something worth trying to signal. If the resources are available, three fires are an internationally recognized distress signal.

Basic Firecraft

Since you can't just raise the setting on the thermostat to warm up or turn on the stove to cook, building a fire is one of the most important tasks to accomplish in a survival situation. Whether for warmth, signalling or other needs, a fire is critical and a great morale builder. The worse the weather, the more important the fire is and, conversely, the more difficult it can be to get going.

The foundation of any fire is tinder. Tinder must be easily lit, either because of the nature of the material or how it is prepared. This can be a commercially prepared product (best, especially in wet conditions), self made tinder like cotton balls infused with petroleum jelly or found or native materials like paper, tree moss, wood shavings, pitch wood, birch bark, cattail fluff, etc.

Warning If you have fuel from the aircraft, you can use it to start a fire, but BE EXTREMELY CAREFUL! Best to soak a rag or other material with it and use that as tinder, standing well away while lighting. Never pour fuel on a fire, even if it appears to be dead.

Next you will need kindling, ranging in size from no larger than pencil sized to pinkie and thumb size. This can be small twigs or shaved or split wood. You will find dry wood by looking up, not down. Gather dead wood from trees and scrub, not from off the ground, except in very dry conditions. Wood off the ground is nearly always damp. Even dry wood you collect should, if at all possible, not be set on the ground where it will tend to absorb moisture.

Break long pieces against a log, do not risk injuring your knee or shin. Split wood by using a stout piece of wood as a club to hammer your knife down into the end of the branch or log.

Finally, there is "fuel," wood about the size of your wrist or slightly larger. Generally, it is best to avoid bigger logs which can be difficult to light and keep going, though wood split from larger logs makes excellent fuel.

Gather all your materials before lighting the fire, making sure you keep them dry, and gather THREE TIMES what you think you need! Place it in piles close at hand, arranged by size.

Fuel, Oxygen, Heat & Patience

To create a fire you need fuel, oxygen, heat and a measure of patience. Don't rush it. Get it started the first time. Clear an area at least 10 ft around of flammable material. (While a forest fire will get noticed, it isn't a recommended survival signal.) If you must build a fire on top of snow, make a platform of logs--preferably green or wet logs.

There are many ways to construct a fire if you've the experience, but we are going to use the USAF Survival School method because it is one that is very nearly foolproof: Find a flat piece of dry wood to use as a platform. Lay a decent sized piece of wood next to it as a brace, creating a right angle which also serves as a windbreak and gives a path for air flow. Place your commercial or prepared tinder or a handful of natural tinder in the crook of the brace and platform and fluff it up to allow air (oxygen) to pass easily through it. Now you are ready.

Use a spark, lens, match, lighter or other source of heat to light the tinder. Conserve your fire starting resources. Don't waste matches if you can use a spark for example. On the other hand, if you are freezing or it's raining, use the lighter or matches. If all else fails, a signal flare (NOT an aerial flare) will very nearly always light even wet materials on fire.

As soon as the tinder catches, blow gently on it. As soon as it flames up, very carefully place a handful of the smallest kindling over it, leaning it against the brace to keep from smothering the tinder. Leave plenty of air space or you will extinguish the flame. Blow gently, if needed, to coax it along. As the small kindling catches, carefully add larger kindling, a little at a time. Add successively larger kindling until you have a steady blaze large enough to ignite your fuel-sized wood. Keep your fire small and stay close to it for warmth. A large blazing inferno wastes resources and energy, requiring much more effort and energy to gather and prepare fuel without any added benefits worth the extra effort.

You can improve the effectiveness of a fire by building a reflector to direct more of the heat your way. A wall of logs will do, adding foil or a polished aluminum panel from the plane helps even more. Be careful to not get too close the fire. Never put any flammable materials, including your clothes, on or off your body, closer than you can comfortably hold your hand. If you are distracted by something and you forget about it, you may come back to find it destroyed or damaged and it is likely irreplaceable. You must conserve all your available resources; you cannot afford to lose or waste them.

Be careful not to become overheated while building your shelter or fire. In cold whether it is easy to soak your clothing with sweat, losing it's insulating value and chilling you. Always take the time to open up, take off, close up or put on additional layers to prevent getting too hot or cold.

In sunny climes, even under overcast skies, always remain covered up to prevent potentially debilitating or deadly sunburn. Keep your clothing as clean as possible because dirt lowers the insulating value. Don't kneel or sit in the dirt, for example, squat if necessary.

No Substitute for Water

Your next priority is water. You can survive a long time without food, but only days or even less without water. Water is vital to your survival. There is no substitute for water. Never drink blood or urine. They will only hasten dehydration. Alcohol not only isn't a substitute for water, it can lower body temperatures and cause other problems for survivors. Smoking will also hasten dehydration and should be avoided unless water is plentiful.

Thirst is a very poor indicator of your state of hydration, especially in cold weather. Don't rely on it. Try to drink at least four to six quarts of water daily, more in hot and arid climates. Take drink breaks at hourly intervals and force yourself to drink if necessary. Dark colored urine is the most reliable indication of significant dehydration. The effects of dehydration, even mild dehydration, are insidious and extremely dangerous in a survival situation. If water is scarce, drink what you have, within reason. RATION SWEAT, NOT WATER!

With no tap to turn on, you will have to find water where you can. Dew can be collected off sufaces and plants. With snow on the ground, water is readily at hand. However, never eat snow or ice as it will lower your body temperature. Melt it by either placing it in a container between clothing layers or over or next to a fire. You can even gather snow in cloth material and hang it well above the fire with a container suspended underneath to catch the water as it slowly melts.

When melting snow directly over a fire, be sure to start first with a small amount of water or it will scorch and that tastes truly awful. You really can "burn" water. Ice is less work to melt than snow, having much more water per volume. If you've landed in a forested or mountainous area, there's a good possibility that water is close at hand. But, be very careful when looking so that you don't become lost or injured. Be careful where you step. Whenever you leave your base, mark the trail in some permanent, unmistakable manner. Don't rely on landmarks. They are easily lost.

Water flows downhill so check the valleys and the base of cliffs. Look for animal tracks and trails heading downhill. In more arid climates your search will be more difficult, but the same general rules apply.

In arid areas, lush vegetation is a sign of possible water (and a source of shade). Dig down in dry washes at the base of cliffs, on the outside of a bend and near green vegetation. If you don't hit wet sand within a couple feet, try elsewhere.

Desert solar stills, a customary inclusion in most survival manuals, are marginally effective at best and should be considered a last resort. This involves digging a hole in sandy soil, covering and suspending clear plastic into it and collecting water which condenses on the plastic in a container at the bottom. Water lost digging and preparing one generally cannot be recouped by its output.

Using clear plastic or clear plastic bags as a "transpiration" collector can be a better bet if leafed bushes exist, though even they often only work marginally when you need it the most. Wrapping the clear plastic around green foliage and tying it tight traps the moisture given up naturally by transpiration and increases output because of the trapped solar heat. A rock in the bag or tying it down makes a low point for the water to collect. Barrel and other cactus are also highly overrated as a potential water source. At many times of the year, the only reliable source of water in the desert is the water you bring along. Sad to say, but even in the most remote wilderness, water from natural sources like streams and springs must be considered contaminated. Before consumption it should be purified, if at all possible, by boiling, chemical treatment or filtering. In North America, generally, bringing water to a rolling boil is a sure bet. Contrary to popular myth, it is not necessary to boil water for extended periods or for even longer at higher elevations. Simply bringing it to a boil is all that is necessary to kill those bacteria, cysts and other nasties which can be killed by such temperatures.

Easier and more energy efficient is use of iodine treatments if done according to directions. Water purifier filters are the easiest solution, if you have one.

However, if you have no way, whatsoever, to purify it, don't be so afraid of the water that you avoid drinking because you have no way whatsoever to purify it. Better, as a last resort, to risk a bout of "giardiasis" (a microbe-induced intestinal disorder), which can take up to a few days to develop (by which time you can hope to be rescued), than to perish from dehydration.

Food, a Lower Priority

Generally, food is not a survival priority. It is nowhere near as important as is water. In fact, it is such a low priority--and procuring it in the wild such a complicated subject (you could fill a library with books on the subject)--that we will just touch upon it. And, that only because most people consider it so very important, even though it is not. Some basic information will keep you out of trouble.

You can survive without food for weeks without permanent side effects. After the first day or two, which can be difficult psychologically and physically as your mind tries to "encourage" you to eat, your body and mind adjust and it is more easily tolerated. Food can be an asset, particularly in cold climates, and is good for morale; but be cautious and careful about obtaining it in the wild if you do not know how.

Always eat sparingly; you risk severe upset due to the unfamiliar foods. If you have little or no water, don't eat! It takes water for your body to digest and metabolize food. Don't eat unless you have at least two or more quarts of water available per day available.

Plants offer the most common and ready wild food source. Some basic rules to stay safe (there are always exceptions, but don't risk it unless you are positive): Avoid all plants with white sap, tiny hairs, umbrella shaped flowers and white or green berries. Red berries are less risky, but eat only if you recognize them as safe. Black or blue berries are generally safe. Aggregate berries, like raspberries, are always edible. Single fruits on a stem are generally safe. Avoid mushrooms and fungi, plants with bulb roots and fruits from plants with shiny leaves.

Edibility Test

Cautiously test any plant you are unsure of. Be sure there is enough around to be worth the effort. Test only a single specimen at a time per person. First, rub it on a sensitive part of your body--the inside of the wrist for example--and wait five minutes for signs of any adverse effect. Next, chew a very small amount for five minutes and see if there is any adverse effect. Do not swallow at all during this test. If, after this, you and your mouth still feel fine, swallow it. Wait eight hours and if no adverse effects, eat a small handful. Wait another eight hours; if nothing happens, go for it. Remember to eat sparingly.

Go Fish

Catching and preparing wild game is possible, but generally impractical for the inexperienced. With the proper training, it is a more viable alternative. Fish, on the other hand, are much more easily caught and prepared by even those lacking experience. You can fish even in winter by chopping a hole in the ice, but be very careful not to fall through. Use your survival fishing equipment or improvise hooks out of safety pins or the like. For line you can use wire or cord. Worms dug from along the bank or bugs will generally work fine as bait.

A spear can be readily fashioned and spear heads improvised or simply sharpen the end and add a few notches to keep the fish from coming off. In a pinch you can even catch fish with your bare hands. The secret to fishing is to be quiet and patient. Avoid white water, fish the quiet pools and eddies behind rocks or along banks. Slice open the belly and remove the entrails, cut off the head if it bothers you, and cook.

Insects, grubs and the like are another viable and readily available food source, but most people have a strong aversion to them. Raw or cooked, they offer an excellent source of protein. When cooking wild foods, plants or meat, boiling is the preferred method because the resulting broth captures much of the important nutrients and they do not go to waste. But, you have to drink the broth to benefit.

Stay With The Plane

In almost all circumstances, your best bet for being found is to stay by your aircraft. Travel in wilderness areas, unless you are experienced, is fraught with hazards and danger. Don't travel unless you are absolutely positive about where you are going. Even if you saw a road or cabin just over the ridge on your way down, don't try to walk out unless you are sure you know how to get there, finding your way through possibly inhospitable terrain, and that your physical condition and equipment is good enough to ensure you can make it. Experience tells us that the odds are against you. Generally, the only reason to travel is if rescue is virtually inconceivable and unlikely and you have absolutely no other alternatives.

Never Give Up!

Pilots have perished from exposure after crashing just off the end of a runway. People have died just a few miles or less from civilization because they panicked, didn't think or failed to even try and signal search and rescue parties. A positive mental attitude is your most important survival resource. This is easier to maintain when you are prepared with training, equipment and supplies.

But, no matter how bad your situation, you can be sure others have survived far worse with much less. The will to live burns bright in most people. You must never give up hope. All you have to do is hold out until help arrives. You can do that. Don't panic. Use your brain. Improvise. Hang in there. You will survive to fly again.

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Revision: 10 January 31, 2001
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