If you have no air, you have only about a minute to live. The absence of shelter and warmth may kill you in a few hours, lack of water in a few days, lack of food in weeks. Therefore it is clear where your priorities should lie, yet every year many folks perish/suffer mostly for the want of some elementary survival knowledge.
I guess death from lack of air is most likely to happen in the wilderness by drowning, but avalanches and other forms of asphyxiation can catch people out – injudiciously entering caves and mines for example. Mostly though, it is folks’ approach to river and lake crossings that gets them into trouble.
If you are crossing a lake, traverse the margins no more than 20 metres from shore even though it will take much longer. Do not cut across. Lakes frequently have a warm layer floating on an icy layer. They are also prey to unexpected (and unexplained) large standing waves which can overturn whatever craft you are using. If you find yourself suddenly pitched into deep water far offshore you will need to keep horizontal near the surface and head for the quickest route to shore as you can quickly die from hypothermia. Better still do not cross lakes.
As for rivers the advice here might help: http://www.theultralighthiker.com/river-crossings/, http://www.theultralighthiker.com/river-crossings-2/ and http://www.theultralighthiker.com/why-you-should-get-your-feet-wet-when-hiking/ To summarise, undo your chest and waist belts on your backpack. Your backpack is more use as a flotation device than strapped to your back to drag you down. Don’t cross on (slippery) logs. Don’t try to use rocks as stepping stones. Don’t jump. If in doubt don’t cross. Find a slow wide section which will give you plenty of time to cross. Better to swim across a wide slow section using your pack strapped to your inflated mat as a kickboard than to attempt to wade a fast-moving stream where you can’t even see around the next corner…and etc.
Fire and shelter are the next two important survival needs, but especially shelter. Somehow you need to stay as warm and dry as possible. A raincoat will not necessarily keep you dry and warm. Water carries away body heat around 20 times as quickly as dry air, so that icy rain running over the outside of your raincoat can kill you if you don’t get out from under direct contact with it. I have seen this happen. You need some shelter. It might be as simple as a hollow tree or log (or under a log) or the lee of a large rock or cliff face. Just getting behind a large tree will help, or underneath thick vegetation which you might supplement as best you can to increase the shelter and warmth it offers. If you can use your raincoat for shelter or construct a debris hut that will be even better: http://www.theultralighthiker.com/raincoat-shelter/
Australian trees especially have lots of useful bark much of which can be found just lying around as they shed it in a way that trees elsewhere shed their leaves. It is not so hard to construct a dry lean-to perhaps under a fallen log with this ubiquitous material where you and the wood you are drying out can be reasonably comfortable. If it is raining heavily you may need to construct a second such shelter nearby (downwind) to shelter the fire from the rain.
You cannot expect that an impromptu shelter will keep every single drop of water out, but the drier and warmer you are the better it will be. If you are going to just use debris to keep you ‘warm’ you will need a fair pile of it – say a couple of feet under and another couple of feet over you. It will take some time to gather and make preparations. Never leave it too late. It matters not that it is wet to begin with as your body heat will dry it out, and as it dries it will insulate you more and more. Even so, without a fire (even with one perhaps) you will likely be quite cold. But cold is not dead. It is just not so much fun! See: http://www.theultralighthiker.com/how-to-have-fun-when-hiking-in-the-rain/
If you can do so it is really good to be able to light a fire. These two posts are vital in this regard: http://www.theultralighthiker.com/carry-a-knife/ and http://www.theultralighthiker.com/how-to-light-a-fire-in-the-wet/ You may also need to know how to light a fire in the snow: http://www.theultralighthiker.com/fire-on-the-snow/
One of the most dangerous decisions folk have made in the recent past is that when they gave up smoking they stopped carrying a lighter. There are a few things you should not only never leave home without, you should not take a step away from your car or camp without. A cigarette lighter is certainly one of them!
You should begin your preparations for spending the night outside in the wet before you get into difficulty. For example, hurrying to a camp/hut you are unlikely to make until after dark may not be the wisest decision. Stopping when you first have doubts that you will make it especially when you are passing some desirable sheltered spot with plenty of time still to add to its advantages (eg by gathering fire lighting materials, fuel, insulation and waterproofing (roofing) materials, would be a better, perhaps a life-saving decision.
Every day you read about someone who is dead basically because they did not value their own life enough and had thought something else to be more important. Don’t make that decision – unless your life is worthless! Hurrying will mostly tire you out so that you are in a worst condition to face the vicissitudes of a night in the outdoors. It also brings with it the risk of injury which will also make your situation worse. Always camp early rather than late. Tomorrow is always another day – unless today is your last, which it might be if you are in too much of a hurry (and panic)
Many people carry an umbrella for just such an eventuality as being caught out in the rain and for those days when it ‘rains’ inside your raincoat because of the humidity. If you spend enough time outdoors, eventually you will encounter this phenomenon. If the weather is cold when this happens the consequences can be truly unpleasant, or even catastrophic: http://www.theultralighthiker.com/the-importance-of-a-roof/ & http://www.theultralighthiker.com/how-to-avoid-being-wet-cold-while-camping/ & http://www.theultralighthiker.com/hiking-in-the-rain/ I have several other posts about umbrellas eg: http://www.theultralighthiker.com/a-hands-free-umbrella/ The ultralight Montbell umbrellas are amazing. I now have one which weighs 85 grams. I will probably always include it in my kit in future.
Lack of water is unlikely to be a problem for several days (unless you are somewhere very hot and dry) . Lack of food is only a major problem after weeks! Most people die on their first night out. Many from not being able to figure they need to walk downhill to get out of the snow! What they were ever doing out in the snow unless very well prepared against death utterly puzzles me. Most do not thirst or starve to death. Keeping warm and dry are your most important considerations. However in my post Hatchet I pointed out some ways of obtaining water, and why carrying a titanium (toilet) trowel might be a very good idea. You should read it. The trowel has other uses: http://www.theultralighthiker.com/trowel-peg/
You can eat practically anything, but eating stuff which might be poisonous or at least make you sick might well make your situation worse, so if in doubt, don’t. You are unlikely to be many days by foot from help anyway, so that missing a few meals should not matter. That being said however, there is not much that is flesh which is not edible (save some toads and non-scaly fish for example). Worms, insects (think eg beetle larvae) and small lizards are particularly easy to find and packed with calories. You literally only need a handful of such stuff per day to keep you alive indefinitely – and it should not take a lot of time to collect.
Similarly the fresh growth of most plants, particularly grasses is quite edible and will stave off the unpleasantness of hunger even if it does not provide enough to fatten! There are many plants which are much more nutritious but of course you need to now what they are, or how to prepare them. Look for a future post about wild food. I know so many things I can eat everywhere I go that I doubt I would even lose weight (though I need to) after a month stuck in the bush. I am always trying out new bush tuckers, just out of interest
You probably know the story of Burke and Wills – the first expedition to cross Australia from South to North (return) through the inland – and how both perished at Coopers Creek, indeed all but one man (King) did, even though it was one of the biggest Australian exploratory expeditions. In contrast other more able people such as John McDouall Stuart basically crossed the continent half a dozen times without losing a man. Stuart or Howitt who helped search for them would have grown fat at Coopers Creek on ducks, fish and cumbungi, for example where Burke and Wills starved. Little knowledge may be a dangerous thing, but sound knowledge and planning can be a life saver.
How anyone could starve to death beside a kilometres long lagoon filled with cumbungi (bullrush) is a mystery. Its fleshy starchy tubers are wonderfully nutritious (better than potatoes) and need no cooking. The seeds of the plant are also edible, and the shoots make a tasty green. Besides the reed beds are bound to be alive with small frogs and tadpoles too, not to mention snakes.
I recall having read that Stuart rode up to Coopers by himself to have a look, spent a week fishing and idling, saw no sign of them and returned to South Australia. I know he volunteered to go search for them but his offer was rejected by the Government. He would likely have found (and saved) them too. A superb bushman.
I am imagining you will find yourself in distress in the wild because you have misjudged how long it will take to reach your destination, because the way ahead is blocked (eg the river has risen), or because you have lost the path ahead. Of course there are many other disasters which can befall you.
One chap for example was driving through the Gibson Desert by himself and stopped to pick up hitch-hikers. Two silly things to do right there. After a little while they hijacked his car, stripped him naked and left him in the middle of the desert. Walking only at night he found a dam after a few days. He stayed by that dam without food or shelter for more than a month before someone came along and rescued him! He was lucky!
If you have read the wonderful escape story ”The Long Walk’ by Slavomir Rawicz (ebook available free here) or watched the film ‘The Way Back’ you will be amazed at what human beings can survive – pretty much just with their bare hands. I posted about a similar incident here: http://www.theultralighthiker.com/thrilling-tales-37-days-of-peril/
If you can avoid getting stuck in the wilds it might be preferable. Learning to find your way with just the tools you were born with is best. Your best ultralight gadget is right between your ears. Some of these posts might help: http://www.theultralighthiker.com/finding-your-way/, http://www.theultralighthiker.com/the-lie-of-the-land/, http://www.theultralighthiker.com/walking-the-line/. Each of these posts has a number of others linked to it. So do read on.
Especially if you don’t have such skills, it is also a good idea to be prepared. You might consider the advisability of carrying ‘The Poor Man’s Satellite Phone‘ for instance. This can cost less than $500 (your life’s worth, remember!) and weigh as little as 100 grams. Even though I have spent many years of my life alone in the wilderness I never venture far without both my sat phone and my sat messenger. You will see that you can buy a second-hand Iridium 9505a sat phone (such as I have) for around A$500.
Mine have been used to rescue others many times. Some day they may even be needed to rescue me! The way my knee and back are at the moment it certainly feels like it. All the farm work I still must do is going awfully slowly I can tell you. The wildlife proof fence, for example. I am now building a new greenhouse. I guess I will recover to continue my ‘adventures’ by and by. Both are ‘fixable’ by surgery after all if necessary. However, if I ever need rescuing I hope the helicopter will take Spot (my Jack Russell) too – as I would not want to leave him in the bush. Well I won’t in fact.