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How to survive the wilderness


Lost in the wilderness, people tend to make things worse for themselves by trying to find their way out, or looking aimlessly for food. Yet staying calm and staying put might guarantee your safety faster than anything else.

This week on “Take Care,” we talk to Dr. Christopher McStay, chief of clinical operations in the Department of Emergency Medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. McStay was also the former chief of service for the Bellevue Hospital Emergency Department in New York City, where he treated patients who have survived extreme circumstances such as Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy.

When lost in the wilderness, people might become their own worst enemy.

“Once they get themselves into that circumstance of being lost in the woods, they often work against themselves. Instead of staying put, they often wander around aimlessly and make it harder for people to find them,” said McStay.

Finding food and water is important, but knowing how long you can last without it also goes a long way in wilderness survival.

“Food and water are important, so typically we can survive several days, maybe even two to four depending on the circumstance, without water,” said McStay. “[Without] food, we can survive longer, days to weeks even. So the immediate need of [someone] is typically to find a water source if possible.”

Water may be important, but not all water sources found in the wilderness are safe to drink, as many sources contain infectious or viral things. Yet sometimes you aren’t given a choice, and you have to risk drinking from a natural water source.

Credit Mark Robinson / Flickr

“Typically we tell people to try to drink from running streams, where the water may be a bit cleaner, although probably not from an infectious standpoint. But running water has typically less sediment in it and is more potable to drink,” said McStay.

A person can go two to four days without drinking water, depending on the circumstance. In a hot desert, finding water is more important than if someone is lost in the wet woods of the Northeast.

“We often have more time than we think, and most people when they go hiking, they’re not in the middle of nowhere in Alaska…The most important thing to think about is to back up a little bit and to make sure that when you’re going on a hike that you’re prepared,” said McStay. “And the number one thing I would tell people is let someone else know what you’re going to do.”

When looking for food in the wilderness, McStay says it is difficult to give the general public good advice, but to stick to food substances you might be familiar with.

“Eat food that you are absolutely familiar with. The food substances I can think of grow on trees, like apples, oranges, but beyond that there are berries and other things in the environment, there are some that are not necessarily lethal, but can actually upset the stomach and make an individual sick,” said McStay.

Since you can survive for days without food or water, McStay also emphasizes the importance of staying warm and staying put, two things that might get you discovered faster than if you were wandering around for food or water.

“The things to really focus on are keeping yourself dry, because when you get wet you get cold really easily, so focus on keeping yourself dry, focus on keeping yourself warm, and focus on making it obvious for other people to find you,” says McStay.

“If you start to wander through thick woods that are maybe wet, the environment’s moist, you trip on a log or something and twist your ankle, now you’ve got a twisted ankle, you’re wet and cold, and you’re in trouble. Those things are vastly more important than finding berries to eat or if you were just lost trying to find a water source.”