Wilderness survival “rules” that you see online and on tv are full of myths and half-truths. Sometimes they’re dead wrong, and they’ll make you just as dead.
Knowing your stuff may be a question of life and death. When you have the right info you can use your knowledge to survive.
But when you don’t have all the facts, or you’ve been told outright myths, your chances of survival drops.
To make matters worse, these survival “rules” that we read online and hear from made-for-tv “experts” are usually only half true or simply false.
It’s easy to believe them, especially when we find ourselves in trouble, and when you’re in a dangerous situation the last thing you need to do is trust your life to a myth.
Below are 8 common wilderness myths that I’ll debunk.
Myth 1: Play dead when a bear attacks
You’ve seen this one a million times. On television they’ll be a scene where a person holds his breath when the great big grizzly bear approaches. Suddenly the bear turns away and everyone is ok.
Sure, some bears in some situations will decide to leave you alone and not eat you, but in reality their goal was to kill you because you were a threat and they would probably still maul and bite you for a while (probably until you’re really dead).
To make things worse if you’re a defenseless hiker who meets a blood-thirsty bear in the wild, running is a bad idea too. They will chase you, and they will catch you. Don’t let their size fool you, bears are much faster than you.
Prevention is much better than cure when it comes to animal safety. Quickly walk away when you see bear trails in front of you. Don’t wait around. As you can see in the image to the right, bears do indeed climb trees, they just prefer not to, so don’t think you’ll simply hike up a limb and be ok.
Carry bear spray or at least pepper spray, a knife, and a large caliber pistol.
Your best bet to survive is to make yourself seem larger than the animal. If a predatory bear attacks you, which is usually a black bear, you have to fight for your life. Use your weapons or use anything in your surroundings. It’s literally a life or death fight so don’t ever think you can simply stay still and it will stop.
Different bears in different situations will act differently (I know, shocking, but still). A predatory bear usually attacks their prey from behind hard and fast. A scared bear will usually stand it’s ground and try to scare you off by making noise or standing on it’s hind legs or doing a short charge. A curious bear will usually run off when it detects a threat (like when you make noise or try to act big).
For mother grizzly bear protecting its cubs, good luck! It was nice knowing you, thanks for reading. Ok, seriously the best thing you can do is to show her that you are not a threat to them. Be quiet, make yourself smaller by squatting or bending down and slowly retreat backwards.
Myth 2: You should suck the venom out of a snakebite
Yet another scene played out in countless cowboy movies and survival shows. Someone gets bit and a quick-thinking hero sucks out the poison and spits it out. But experts say you’re doing it wrong, that sucking out venom is based far more on fiction than fact.
“The evidence suggests that cutting and sucking, or applying a tourniquet or ice does nothing to help the victim, says Robert A. Barish, MD.”
If you were to suck the venom from your own (or anyone’s) snakebite it would do no good and have a negative effect, further damaging the tissue around the bite and thus helping to spread the venom. The cut and suck technique will only increase the risk of an infection and a bigger wound.
While venom in your mouth isn’t necessarily deadly, you do risk swallowing any venom you get out, or if you have any sores in your mouth it can get in your bloodstream from there, adding to your problems.
Your best bet is to learn how to identify what a venomous snake and it’s bite looks like. The most venomous snakes in North America are rattlesnakes, cottonmouths and copperheads. We wrote an amazing post and infographic on venomous snakes a few weeks ago.
Trying to suck the venom out of a snakebite victim is indeed useless and simply delays proper treatment. Snake venom quickly spreads throughout the lymphatic system, and it is simply not possible for a human to suck fast or hard enough to remove enough of it to have any real effect.
The only thing you can do is to call an ambulance and apply some pressure to your wound, and pray.
Stocking up on anti-venom for first aid is essentially impossible. You would need that particular kind of AV for that particular kind of snake, and it expires, and it is very costly, and it’s hard to find, and some of it needs to be kept refrigerated. You could spend hundreds of dollars every year and still not have what you need.
Myth 3: If an object penetrates your body remove it immediately
Pulling anything larger than a small nail out of your body is a big mistake. Since you muscles, fat, and skin forms a kind of seal around penetrating objects, the object is actually blocking your blood vessels and keeping you from bleeding out. Pulling it out would only open the wound more and blood will start gushing out of your body.
You actually have a higher chance to survive if you leave the object where it is and get major medical help. A first aid kit isn’t going to stop internal bleeding, fix possible punctured organs, or sew up a deep wound.
Instead of pulling the object out, dress the wounded area first and keep the object stable. Try to stay still and not move if possible. The more it or you moves the worse it will hurt and bleed.
On tv they take a swig of whiskey and pull it out. In reality you need a professional, hopefully a team of them with machines and anesthesia.
Myth 4: If you are bleeding, just grab a belt and make a tourniquet
A tourniquet is a dangerous tool that can damage limbs, kill tissue, and cause heart attacks. You may even have to amputate a limb that would have been ok if you hadn’t used a tourniquet.
Tourniquets should be avoided and only used in a last-ditch attempt to keep blood in. Anything on the other side of your heart should be considered possibly dead after it’s use.
A Tourniquet should only be used when someone is bleeding to death and there’s no other choice, and preferably professional medical attention is within 20-30 minutes. In an ideal situation, only a trained medical professional should use a tourniquet.
Instead apply targeted direct pressure to the point of bleeding. Do whatever you can to stop the bleeding first and only if you have no other choice and the person in front of you is losing too much blood should you use a tourniquet.
Myth 5: You can easily live off the land in the wild
There’s a fantasy feeling out there that living off the land is as easy as walking in the woods with a good knife. While a trained survival expert with years of experience could make it through many situations with just a knife or at least minimum gear, your average person doesn’t stand a chance.
Thanks to survival tv shows featuring people or whole families who seem a little off their rockers bumbling through the woods yet always coming out just fine in the end everyone assumes it mustn’t be too hard to survive in the woods.
Production companies love to edit things so the people look dumber and the situations more serious than they really are too.
“If the Alaskan Bush People can walk into the woods and live in a tree through the winter, then I’ll be fine!”
“If Bear Grylls jumps off a waterfall, I can too!”
“If Grady can find berries and trap game on the side of a snow glacier, then my power bar is all I need!”
I’m not picking on these people by any means, but many of these situations are typically set up for the cameras or outright fabricated in the editing room.
Some made-for-tv survival experts sleep in hotels and eat pizza when the cameras go off. They all have a team of safety experts at arms reach, or in the case of realistic shows where the participants actually DO survive like SurvivorMan and Alone a team of experts is still just a button press away in case anything goes wrong.
Many tv “experts” are within 500ft of busy roads (and rescue) the whole time, and many of the jumps they risk are really much smaller thanks to camera angles and clever editing.
In reality, surviving in the wild is hard, very hard. Physically, mentally, and emotionally it will be about the hardest thing you EVER have to go through. It’s not an extended camping trip.
Don’t take it for granted. Learn the basics of survival now before you need it, prepare well, and always try to maintain a way to contact the outside world in case things go bad.
Myth 6: The woods has plenty of wild edible plants
“I’ll just look along the trail for some edible plants as I walk and sample a few things that I find” says the starving survivor who only finds about 50 calories a day.
First off food isn’t a huge priority compared to other needs, you can go about three weeks without eating, but it is very important because without proper calories and nutrients to fuel your body you will hardly be able to do anything and your body will begin to cannibalize your heart, organs, and muscles.
Unless you’re lost in a garden, thinking you’ll easily find enough edible plants is folly. The list of plants that either don’t provide enough nutrition or that are flat out poisonous is enormous.
In fact, you should totally avoid eating any wild plants if you have no prior knowledge. Your chances of dying are much higher than your chances of finding an 8 calorie bite to eat. Don’t gamble your life away eating plants that you are not familiar with. Do intensive research beforehand, preferably with a trained guide from your local area.
Once you have some knowledge, the Universal Edibility Test is a way for you to identify whether the plant can be eaten or not. Study the plant thoroughly, pull it up if you can and separating it into different parts such as the roots, stems, leaves and flowers.
Then, smell the parts and test them by touching the plant part to your wrist. Wait 15 minutes and if your skin itches or feels numb, most likely the plant is poisonous. If it passes, touch that same part of the plant to your bottom lip and wait another 15 minutes. Finally, chew a small part of it for 15 minutes, spit it out if it tastes bitter of if you feel numbness. If that passes, eat a single bite and wait, preferably overnight but at least three hours (do you see why picking a snack on the trail doesn’t work?) and if you still have no symptoms you can eat a little more. After 48 hours you can consider it safe. Do this with every plant you’re not 1,000% sure about.
There is a huge list of plants that are poisonous and many of the edible ones are still mostly roughage that pass right through and provides no real calorie or nutrient benefits.
Myth 7: You should drink pee or blood and eat snow to stay hydrated
This is where Bear Grylls comes into the limelight. The man made a name for himself by drinking his own urine, eating rancid meat, and sucking down poop. They just don’t tell you about the, uuh… after effects.
Drinking your pee will dehydrate you. Your body is not a perfect 100% in and 100% out system, urine may be mostly water but it is also full of the body’s waste products from the kidneys.
While the urine of a healthy person is essentially sterile, if you keep pouring it back into your body you will only concentrate the waste and salt in your bloodstream. Every time you drink your pee you’ve disadvantaged yourself.
Even so, you actually can use pee to dampening your clothing for evaporative cooling in a dry environment….if you don’t mind the smell. You can also build a solar still and extract the pure water from your urine.
Drinking raw blood from people or animals will provide protein and a lot of iron and some hydration. There’s a limit to how much blood you can drink at once, and you’re taking a very big risk too because you are also consuming pathogens and bacteria. Just like eating raw meat, drinking blood is a great way to catch all kinds of diseases.
It’s a bad idea to eat snow for water too. The air-to-water ratio of snow is 9 to 1, meaning you’ll have to eat a lot of freezing cold snow to get much water. Eating snow will lower your body temperature, which actually requires you to use more energy. Melt and then boil snow before drinking it.
Getting water from a cactus is another survival myth. The stem of a cactus is thick and fibrous, you will only be able to chew a little water from it and it may be harmful to your body too.
The best way to find water is to walk downhill into valleys and low areas, places where water will hopefully be on the surface or right below it.
Myth 8: You can start a fire by hitting two rocks together
Remember the movies where they pick up a couple of random rocks and strike them together to make a spark? Well, they don’t call it acting for nothing.
Of course a few types of rocks do make a spark, but they are not common in most areas and you’ll have to know what you’re looking for. The rocks have to be either flint or quarts to spark, and there’s a technique to it.
Even starting a fire with a single match can be difficult in damp or windy situations. Starting a fire by sparks is no joke, it will take preparation and proper technique.
All of this can be said for rubbing two stick together too, friction fires are sometimes impossible for even the most expert of experts because conditions have to be just right.
You need a proper tinder bundle, or like in the gif some cotton balls and alcohol. Unless you are an expert bushcrafter, you should have a fire starter kit with you when you travel into the woods. And nothing beats a butane lighter, nothing.
Carry a fire piston or a flint and steel like the one used in the gif, and even then remember that it isn’t easy without practice. The art of starting a fire is definitely not something you should take for granted.
I hope that this article has broken some of the common misconceptions and myths towards surviving in the wilderness. What other wilderness myths do you think should be debunked? Please share them with me in the comment box below!