Survival Myths and Misconceptions

Much of the information available to people who want to learn more about survival and surviving is based on material that is outdated and in some cases totally incorrect. Unfortunately the early outdoor writers created a problem for those of us interested in learning how to survive a wilderness emergency today.  Techniques and procedures that were once state-of-the-art are no longer practical.  What was once thought of as an effective technique is now not only inappropriate but in some cases dangerous.    The times have changed.  The needs of a hunter who gets lost today are different from the needs of the mountainmen who trapped beaver in the American west and lived off the land while doing so.  The individual who gets in trouble today is unlikely to be able to spend a night out without great discomfort.  They will not have devoted sufficient time to practicing survival skills – skills that were once second nature that could be counted on when difficulties arose.  Even a once commonplace skill such as striking a match to light a fire is no longer commonplace.     If you were to open some of the currently available “how-to-survive” books you would find techniques and procedures that date back to those who survived by manufacturing what they needed from the resources on hand.  The question is “How appropriate are these techniques and procedures today?”  In many cases they are not!   However, despite the passing of time, the fact that the advice given is still in print implies that the information must still be valid. In many cases it is not.  New and better procedures have developed.  New equipment is available.    The result of all of this misinformation is that inexperienced people who find themselves in trouble today still believe that they can rub sticks together and start a fire.  They believe that a waterproof, wind proof shelter can be built from natural materials.  They believe that they can live off the land until they are rescued.  It must be so – it’s in the book!

Many current, popular outdoor writers perpetuate the problem.  Much of the rubbish that is published today would never be published if the writer (or the editor) first went out and tested the procedures they write about.  Instead they “Google” the topic or go to their bookshelf, remove a survival or woods lore book written fifty years ago, extract from theese questionable sources some procedure used by Jim Bridger to build a fire and present it once again as if the procedure is still valid today.  Sometimes it is but most often it isn’t    More confusion results from the contemporary experiences of those who survived traumatic incidents.  They quickly become the newest “survival expert!”  They survived therefore what they did to survive must be valid!  Again – sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t.  Sometimes people survive in spite of what they did.  They got lucky!  Choose your role models carefully!

Many myths, misconceptions and misunderstandings still exist today and as a result, the inexperienced outdoor person who, when confronted with a night out in the bush, experiences unnecessary discomfort, hardship, injury and sometimes death because of their reliance on antiquated information. The following is a short discussion of some of the more blatant myths and misconceptions commonly found in print today.

Firecraft.   Building and maintaining a fire is fundamental to surviving.  Were you to believe the advice given in most survival literature the ability to produce heat and light is an easy one.  Simply rub sticks together (bow and drill or hand drill) and presto you have fire.  Nothing can be further from the truth.   Without considerable practice and prior preparation producing fire by rubbing sticks together is impossible!  Even with practice and preparation starting a fire by rubbing sticks togetherr can be very difficult!  When rubbing sticks together was the primary way to produce a fire the person needing afire did not go to the nearest tree, obtain the needed wood for the pieces, assemble the apparatus and start rubbing as the magasines would suggest.   Instead the pieces we carefully handcrafted and carried by the user much as we today would carry a metal match or perhaps a cigarette lighter!

The use of a magnifying lens is another fire starting method that is more myth than reality.  Writers would have you believe that tinder can be ignited using the lens from your eye glasses.  Or that you can remove the glass lenses from your camera or binocular and then using the lens, focus a beam of sunlight onto the tinder until it ignites.  Writers talk of “shaving and shaping a piece of ice into a lens” and then using it to ignite the tinder!  This begs the question “When do you need a fire?”  Not on a bright sunny day in the middle of summer but on a cold wintry day when the sun is low on the southern horizon or as the sun is about to set or the storm about to break and your spouse or child is dying from hypothermia!  Where’s the ice going to come from then? Carrying a magnifying glass to start a fire makes no sense when there are other much more reliable devices that can be depended on.

Cigarette lighters are touted as a piece of fire starting equipment that should be carried in your survival kit.  Cigarette lighters are difficult to light when your hands have lost their dexterity, they do not perform well under cold conditions or at higher altitudes and if dropped into a fire accidentally, they explode sending shrapnel in all directions!  Cigarette lighters are for lighting cigarettes not campfires!

Matches come in many forms and to the unknowing they may all look alike.  Another trap!  What do the words “safety,” “strike anywhere,” “stormproof,” and “waterproof” really mean?   In each case there are significant survival ramifications.  “Safety” means the match must be ignited using the striker on the side of the box from which the match was removed. How would you light the match if the box was damaged? The words “strike anywhere” would lead you to believe that the match could be literally “struck anywhere!  Nothing could be further from the truth.  While these matches do not need the matchbox striker to be ignited, finding a suitable substitute is not always possible  “Stormproof” matches are less susceptible to wind and water than other matches but are often hard to light and quickly wear out the matchbox striking surface – often before you have run out of matches.  “Waterproof” matches are coated with a lacquer-like material which must be worn through before the striking surface of the matchbox comes in contact with flammable material on the match head.  Each time the match head is struck the coating is deposited on that striking surface and will eventually (before you run out of matches) so contaminate the surface that other matches will not light.



  Carry a metal match and a container full of cotton balls saturated in petroleum jelly.  There’s no better heat source for starting a fire.




Sheltering.  Here once again confusion exists about the kinds of shelters that need to be built to protect those that are faced with an unexpected night out.  Most survivors first become aware of the need for shelter as a storm is about to break or as the sun is about to set leaving them little time to protect themselves.  Many survivors are already dehydrated and possibly hypothermic as they begin their survival experience! Some are injured.  Building a shelter from natural materials is possible if time allows, if there are plenty of natural materials available, if the survivor has practiced building an emergency shelter previously; if cutting tools (knife or saw) are available and if the survivor is fully functional!  That’s a lot of “if!” But lacking time, skill, natural resources, tools and the use of both hands building a windproof, waterproof shelter from natural materials becomes impossible.  You must have spmething with you that is big enough to crawl under or better still crawl into to get the protection you need.   Socalled space blankets made from mylar plastic or aluminized polyester are the most commonly carried survival shelter material and are largely useless in an emergency!  This material is difficult to remove from the packaging and unfold; (especially if you are injured and only have the use of one hand) The blankets are generally too small to adequately protect an adult; two hands are required to drape the blanket around your body; mylar plastic is very noisy when the material is pulled over your head (you can’t hear the rescuers and the constant “crackling” noise will quickly cause you to uncover your head to get some relief!) and  tears very easily when  nicked or  punctured.



  Carry large plastic bags or an 8’ x 10’ tarp that you can crawl into or crawl under to protect yourself rather than trying to build one of the many survival shelters shown in the books.



Signaling.  In addition to staying alive, a survivor’s next greatest need is to be rescued as quickly as possible and to do that they must be able to indicate to others that they are in trouble and need help.  Once again the books, manuals and magazine articles are full of nonsense.  Three fires placed in a triangle, wetting a slab of wood to form a reflective surface and other labor intensive, less-than-effective procedures commonly feature in survival literature.  With the equipment available today inexpensive, effective devices are available with which to signal and get rescued quickly.


       Carry a beacon, signal mirror and a whistle.  Use the beacon to transmit an emergency signal contaning your latitude and longitude coordinates. Reflect a beam of sunlight to passing aircraft, a        boat  or ground search personnel looking for you.  Three blasts of a whistle are recognised internationaly as an emergency signal.   Do anything you can to make yourself visible.




Survival Medicine, (defined as the medicine that survivors would administer to themselves or to others that were with them) is another area where many myths, misconceptions and misunderstandings exist.  Unlike the medical community, where doctors are required to attend Continual Medical Education training annually to update their knowledge and skills, those who recreate or work in the outdoors have no such requirement.  Their knowledge of medicine and medical practice is based on first aid courses they may have taken and, once again, on what they read in the popular outdoor press – which may or may not be current.  For example,  there are many who still believe that “cut and suck” is the standard treatment for snakebite! Some still think that the treatment for a frostbite injury is to rub the frozen tissue with snow!  Still others are reluctant to render aid to a lightning strike victim for fear that they will be electrocuted when they touch the victim!

  Attend a Wilderness First Aid or better still a Wilderness First Responder Course. Remember – you may be the patient and your own doc!   Also remember that others may be counting on you   to be the doctor they need.  Wouldn’t it be nice if someone else in your party also knew what to do in case you needed help.




To survive an emergency is difficult but not impossible if the survivor is properly prepared.  That preparation must be based on good information, selecting your clothing and equipment carefully and practicing your survival skills. Read widely and compare the recommendations that are given.  What worked for one person may or may not work for you.  Just because you are told something works don’t believe it until you have tested the technique in the field.  Select procedures that work under a wide variety of conditions.     Remember – you are not going to rise to the occasion you are going to settle to the level of your preparation and training!

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