Survival Lesson

March 17, 2012

For many of our frontcountry friends, outdoor education somehow equates with survival training. Such staples of television as “Man vs Wild” and “Survivorman” certainly add to this view. I had a personal taste of this a while ago when interviewed for a newspaper profile (http://adirondoc.com/publications/profile_post_061209.pdf). Not being a fan of the Discovery Channel (We only pay for basic cable.), I had a difficult time believing the reporter’s questions about the utility of eating bugs and drinking urine as a survival skill. Apparently, such tripe is regular fare on such programs.

I was thinking about this the other day while reading about the seemingly amazing story of a 41 year old woman surviving a 3 1/2 week “ordeal” in the mountains of New Mexico (http://www.columbiatribune.com/news/2012/mar/10/missing-woman-survives-weeks-lost-in-nm-forest/).

No food–no water purification devices–no map or compass–below-freezing nights–her destination unknown to friends or family: this seemed like an obvious set up for fatality.

How did she survive?

Although the data are sketchy, it seems that she pretty much ignored common teaching about survival in such situations.

First of all, she drank plenty of water from a nearby creek, without fretting about its quality. While this might seem pretty basic, compare it to the arguably better-prepared chap I discussed in an earlier posting (April 27, 2010), who nearly died after a shorter period being lost because he avoided drinking for fear of water-borne illness.

Then, there is the matter of food. We often hear that the body cannot survive longer than ten days without food. This has led to the nonsense of courses on “edible plants”, trapping small animals, eating bugs, etc. No one seems to realize that the energy expended by such efforts likely exceeds the minimal caloric content of the “food”. Actually, the body’s tolerance of extended fasting is well documented–time in excess of 40 days has been shown for centuries. Indeed, mammalian physiology is well adapted for extended periods without eating. (This is the reason that calorie restriction alone is rarely sufficient for extended weight loss.) The woman in question wasted no time or energy in pursuit of food.

She also stayed put. Although conventional teaching might have called for her to follow the nearby creek downstream, she chose not to do so. (Apparently, the unfortunate woman had some emotional disorder which contributed to her predicament, so this may not have been an informed “choice”.) Rather than wasting energy and risking injury by walking distances, she simply stayed put, stayed warm, stayed dry, and waited. There are not too many areas in the US where a lost person cannot ultimately be found if she waits long enough–especially after abandoning a car.

Sure, she made some mistakes (albeit possibly intentional) which led to her near-miss. Nonetheless, we should remember the lesson of Margaret Page before pontificating on wilderness survival to our students.