9 Survival Myths That May Be Deadly

By Annie Hauser
Published: August 13, 2014

What Not to Do in the Wild

There are myriad reasons you might find yourself in a survival situation — a backcountry hike gone wrong, a broken-down car, a day at the ocean turned dangerous. And what you know while you're stuck battling nature might save your life, or at least, keep you safe until help arrives.

To find out which survival tips are nothing more than urban legends, we turned to Laurel Holding, the head Instructor at the Boulder Outdoor Survival School, and Peter Kummerfeldt, who trained Air Force members how to survive natural disasters and accidents for 40 years and now runs OutdoorSafe Inc., a wilderness safety training program.

For their top tips read on — you never know if one might save your life.

NEXT: What to do with a snakebite

Myth: Suck (or Cut) Venom Out of Snakebites

"Absolute nonsense!" Kummerfeldt said of the idea that sucking or cutting venom out of a snakebite will save your life. Venom spreads through the bloodstream, he said, so you can't simply "cut away" an infected area, "and that will make for a very ugly wound."

Your best weapons against snakebite are your cell phone and car, he said. "If you have pain and swelling in the bite area, get to the hospital."

Really, though, you should not be too worried about snakes. Deaths from snakebites in the United States are incredibly rare. But tropical regions face much higher fatality rates because there are more venomous species in many tropical countries, people are more likely to go barefoot after dark, and there’s little antivenin available.

NEXT: Animal fears

Myth: Wildlife is Your Biggest Problem

Those stranded in the woods are often frightened of the bears, cougars and more that might be lurking nearby, Kummerfeldt said. But "very, very few people ever see them," he said. "About 200 people a year are killed by animals in the United States, out of the millions of people who [recreate] in the backcountry. Out of that number, bees are the single greatest cause of death."

Holding agreed. "Perhaps in some places in Africa this might be more relevant, but if you find yourself stranded in North America wildlife is the least of your worries," she said.

NEXT: Can you drink from a cactus?

Myth: Drink Water Out of a Cactus

"There's very little moisture in cactuses," Kummerfeldt said. "Even after the rain when they are fully saturated, it's very hard to extract any moisture, and the moisture that you get out you can't drink it."

If you want to survive in the desert, you need your own water and shade, he said. Often, resting in any shade you can find and hydrating until someone rescues you is the key to desert survival, instead of trying to walk your way to civilization.

NEXT: Another hydration "don't"

Myth: Put a Pebble in Your Mouth When You're Thirsty

This one comes from older survival manuals, but the advice is out of date, Holding said. The idea is that pebbles supposedly provide relief from dehydration. "At best it will provide a distraction and perhaps a reminder to keep your mouth shut — breathing through your nose rather than through your mouth is important when water is scarce," she said.

That said, water and shelter should be your top priority in any survival situation.

NEXT: What about food?

Myth: Food is Your Top Priority

In survival situations, people often wonder what they can eat. "But their first priority, after staying calm and assessing any immediate threats like compromises to airway, breathing or circulation, should be shelter," Holding said. "Exposure to the elements can kill in you in a matter of hours, whereas humans can go weeks without food."

Eating a plant you're not familiar with can also be deadly.

Kummerfeldt agreed, noting that some people put fishing hooks in their backcountry safety kits. "But you're not going to starve to death before someone will rescue you," he said. "What I recommend to people is to bring something reliable for starting a fire — cotton balls saturated in Vaseline, or a fire starter, an orange or blue plastic bag for shelter, and a whistle and a mirror for signaling purposes."

NEXT: What to drink

Myth: Never Drink the Water

Even clear mountain streams can carry dangerous pathogens that can seriously upset your stomach — or worse. But if your choice is between risking it and severe dehydration, drink the water, Kummerfeldt said.

If you do get sick, it's likely you'll be rescued before it becomes anything serious. "Offset dehydration now, worry about it later," he said. "Doctors can fix [illness], but they can't fix death."

NEXT: If you don't know …

Myth: Skills Are All You Need

"I think many people assume that only the fittest and most skilled and experienced people survive situations of extreme duress," Holding said. "This is not necessarily true. Ordinary, unassuming men, women and even children are sometimes the ones who survive. The reason is that they had the will, positive-realistic attitude, and emotional resilience to endure. Those three qualities are indispensable in survival."

Kummerfeldt also said outlook is important. Too many people believe survival situations won't happen to them because they are well prepared — but accidents can happen to anyone.

NEXT: Just start walking

Myth: Always Walk Your Way to Safety

"People, men in particular, will continue to believe that they can find their way out," Kummerfeldt said. "They keep going and going and going, believing around the next corner is going to be salvation."

In some cases, conserving energy and hydrating might be your best bet. During any survival situation, you should sit for 30 minutes to let the adrenaline flush out of your system, so you can begin to make decisions with a clear frame of mind, Kummerfeldt said. This time will also help you assess any injuries — an often-overlooked factor in survival manuals. "It's rare that people are beginning these situations injured," he said.

NEXT: How to start a fire

Myth: Rub to Sticks Together for Fire

Sure, the old "rubbing two sticks together" technique can work, but only if you really know what you're doing. "I've been doing this for 50 years, and the last time I tried to start a fire by rubbing two sticks together, it took me a day and a half," Kummerfeldt said.

Holding said fire is not your top priority. "There are few situations in which fire would take precedence over shelter," she explained. "Fire is important, but it, like food, tends to be something people fixate on to the detriment of higher priorities."

These myths aside, prevention is really your best safeguard. Anytime you are in the backcountry or any body of water, make sure someone knows where you are, and when you should be back. That way, if something should happen, help will soon be headed in your direction.

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