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Survival Mini-Series: Food & Water
It’s been awhile, but I haven’t forgotten about the survival mini-series. Last time I talked to you about shelters. This time, we’re going deeper into survival and looking at food and water procurement. Shelter is very important for surviving in the wilds, but without food and water, it doesn’t mean anything. I found a lot of this information on the Internet and have provided links to some of the articles. Other information comes from my own Air Force survival instruction and knowledge. Let’s talk about food first.
According to Dr. Alan D. Lieberson, a doctor who wrote an article for Scientific American, “The duration of survival without food is greatly influenced by factors such as body weight, genetic variation, other health considerations, and most importantly, the presence or absence of dehydration.” After doing some of my own research, I found a variable of about 10-30 days, but as Dr. Lieberson pointed out, it depends on each individual. While researching this very topic, I found a helpful little saying that brings it into perspective: Three minutes without air, three days without water, and three weeks without food. In any case, we need food to continue to thrive.
When you start to starve, the body’s metabolism slows down and feelings of fatigue and a drop in mental acuity occur. Simple motor skills begin to shut down, hormone production is disrupted, and your will to survive goes away. As time goes on, the body begins to consume itself to survive which can lead to weight loss (the bad kind), organ damage, and eventually death. Therefore, food is absolutely necessary for continued survival. It doesn’t end there though, knowing what to eat and how to procure it can also be the difference between life and death.
When it comes to surviving, you always have to play a game of risk management. Ask yourself, do the risks outweigh the gains? If so, maybe you might want to rethink your plan. In a long-term survival situation, calories count, so you don’t want to expend a lot of energy if you don’t have to. Hunting sounds great, but it may take a lot more energy than it’s worth; maybe climbing a tree for nuts isn’t worth the risk of injury. I’m not saying hunting game or climbing trees is out of the picture, I’m merely stating that you need to examine all the possibilities and come to an educated conclusion that fits your situation.
As far as food goes, I’ll break it down to three areas: plants, insects, animals. Let’s take a look at the first area, plants. Plants are by far the easiest and possibly the most plentiful source of food you can find in the wild (depending on the area). However, plants can be just as dangerous as anything else, and I can’t stress enough the following fact: DO NOT EAT ANY PLANTS UNLESS YOU CAN POSITIVELY IDENTIFY WHAT YOU ARE EATING. There are some plants out there that are very toxic to humans, and they will make you sick or even kill you. There is an edibility test; however, it is time consuming and still contains risk. The best course of action is to educate yourself beforehand and know what plants are in the area you are traveling through. If you know before you go, you’ll have an idea what you can eat. I can’t stress this enough, you need to be educated on the types of local plants in your area because there are some poisonous look-alikes for safe plants, and unless you know what you are looking for, it could end up making a bad situation worse.
Here are some warning signs of plants to avoid: thorns, shiny leaves, white/yellow berries, milky sap, bitter tastes, plants with leaves in groups of three, fine hairs, and plants with an almond scent. While this isn’t comprehensive, and there are some exceptions to this rule, it’s a good start. Mushrooms are a whole other beast, but follow the same rules, unless you know for a FACT that they are safe, don’t risk eating them.
Here are some known goods that are easily identifiable. Cattails or punks are found near the edges of water sources. They have long stocks and brown “hot-dog” looking part at the top. Many parts of the plant are edible to include the brown part can be eaten in the earlier part of development. The roots can be boiled or eaten raw, as well as the stock and the leaves.
Clovers are another plant that are edible. They can be eaten raw or boiled. Avoid eating these while pregnant.
Dandelions are abundant and can be eaten. The entire plant is edible, although don’t eat the seeds. Also, eat the leaves before they mature otherwise you’ll have to boil them to avoid a bitter taste.
If you live in an arid or desert climate, the prickly pear cactus can be eaten. Just be sure to remove the spines.
The art of foraging plants is extensive and could take an entire book to cover. However, nothing beats hands on training. If there is a class in your area on foraging or identifying edible plants, take it. It could save your life one day. For now, we’re going to move on to insects.
Insects are easy to find and can be highly nutritious. Many cultures survive on a diet of insects and plant all around the world, and if you can get over food aversions, you can also survive on this plentiful bounty. Much like plants though, you have to know what you are eating or you could get stung or poisoned.
When searching for insects, look under rocks, logs, leaves, loose bark or under the dirt. Grasshoppers, crickets, ants, grubs, worms and larvae can be eaten. While most can be eaten raw, some are easier to eat after being cooked. During my training, one of my instructors said if it was much more than an inch long, cook it. Better safe than sorry, especially when it comes to aquatic insects. Avoid insects that are covered in fuzz, brightly colored, slow-moving in the open, and disease carrying (such as flies, and mosquitos). I’d also avoid stinging and known poisonous insects; while some are safe to eat, the risk of procurement may outweigh the gains. Use your best judgment.
Finally, let’s talk about meat. If you are a vegan or vegetarian, then you might just want to skip this part and go straight to water procurement. In my opinion, nothing beats a hot meal when you’re surviving, and having cooked meat can help take the edge off of a bad situation. However, taking game in the field brings its own set of issues. Whether you trap, fish, or hunt an animal, you’re going to have to prepare it for eating. This generally means gutting, skinning, and cleaning the meat. I’m not going to get in to the methods of hunting, fishing and trapping, because that will be another article. I have provided some links below on the procurement and processing of game animals.
First off, once you’ve killed something, you’re going to want to gut it as soon as possible. This helps cool the meat down to prevent spoilage. When it comes to meat, life begins at 40, or in this case, 40 degrees. Meat will spoil quickly at temps above 40 degrees, so it is vital to keep it cool. Be careful not to rupture the intestines when gutting the animal, this will contaminate the meat. You also want to try and keep the carcass clear of flies if possible. Flies carry disease and can transfer that disease to your meal.
When you cook the meat, you want to make sure it is thoroughly cooked in order to kill any bugs or bacteria that may have called that meat home. A good rule of thumb, is if the meat looks discolored or smells funny, don’t eat it. Hunting can be very rewarding, but it can also be very taxing. You have to weigh the benefits to the calorie loss or risk. Also, if you kill a large animal, smoke the meat or turn it into jerky for long term use. A survival situation is the last place you want to be wasteful. Besides, you just killed that animal so you could survive, treat it with respect and use everything you can from its death.
The next step of surviving is water procurement. Without water, you could die within three days. The body needs water to survive, and a lot of other functions depend on that water intake to function, to include eating. Don’t eat anything if you don’t have water. It takes water to digest food properly, and you could speed up the dehydration process by eating without water intake.
Much like food, many factors go into figuring out how much water you need on a daily basis and how long you could actually survive without it. However, a good rule of thumb is that a person needs a gallon of water per day for intake and sanitation needs. Of course, you could get away with less, and probably will have to get away with less in a survival situation. External factors can play a big part in this as well; if it is extremely hot, or you are burning a lot of calories, then you’ll need more water.
Dehydration can lead to heat exhaustion or heat stroke, swelling of the brain, seizures, low blood volume shock, kidney failure, and of course, death. Much like starvation, motor skills will slow or cease, headaches will occur, and the body will begin to shut down. There’s no good gauge for dehydration because everyone is different. If you’re feeling thirsty, you’re already dehydrated. The best bet is to watch the color of your urine. You want your urine to be a clear as possible; dark or yellow urine is a sign that you need more water. To re-hydrate, drink water and try to replace electrolytes if possible. Drinking water alone sometimes isn’t enough, and drinking too much water can be just as dangerous. Electrolytes are the key here. It pays dividends to have an electrolyte powder mix in your survival kit. If you don’t have that, there are many natural recipes that can replace the lost electrolytes. Do some research on what natural herbs and wild veggies grow in your area and know how to make them into a tea or broth.
There are a number of ways to finding water in the wild. Of course, the finding a lake, stream, or pond is the easiest, but also require purification before consumption. Even if the river or stream is fast moving, don’t trust it. You don’t know what’s been in the water upstream, or what kind of bacteria lives in the water. When surviving, a debilitating stomach bug is the last thing you want to deal with.
To purify water, boiling is your best method. Put the water in a metal container if possible, and boil for at least ten minutes. This will kill any of the bugs and bacteria in the water and render it safe to drink. If you can’t boil it, there are other methods such as: water purification tablets, iodine drops, or filtration. I've provided some links below on how some of these methods work, and it’s worth a look. Be prepared and take purification tablets and at least one other method of purification with you whenever you go out into the wild. They make some small filters now that are built into a straw that you can use on the go. A tiny thing like that can life or death.
Now, on to the hard part, what if you are in an area that doesn't have a stream or other open water source? Don’t worry; there are methods of collecting water that you can still utilize to save your life. I’ll explain a couple of these methods, but remember that when it comes to survival, sometimes you think outside the box.
The first method is simply collecting the morning dew off the tall grass or plants. Wrap clothing or a towel around your legs and walk through the tall vegetation in the early morning. The dew will saturate the cloth, which you can then wring out and drink. I wouldn't recommend this method if you think the area has been sprayed with a pesticide though; it will make the water off the plants undrinkable.
The next method is a condensation or transpiration bag. I always pack a couple heavy duty plastic sacks with me when I go camping or hunting. You can take the bag and put it on a tree or bush with green vegetation. Let it sit in the sun for a few hours, and you’ll notice condensation collecting in the bag and pooling at the bottom of the bag. This method takes a while, but if you put a few bags out, it can provide you with enough water to keep you alive.
The next method is referred to as a solar still. Dig a hole about 12 inches deep by 12 inches wide. You’ll need a sheet of plastic (again, a good reason to carry plastic sacks). Put a container centered at the bottom of the hole and then surround the container with green vegetation, and then cover the hole with plastics. Use rocks or something heavy to keep the plastic from falling in, and then place a couple of small stones at the center of the plastic sheet to weigh it down slightly. This method won’t produce much water, but some water is better than no water; plus, the water it produces is pure and will not need to be purified. Plus, as the method implies, it distills water, so it can be used near the ocean and will still produce drinkable water.
Hopefully this post provided you with some good information. It’s always a good idea to be prepared; take food and water with you when you go camping, hiking, or hunting. Have multiple methods of purifying water. Try and be in the best health you can be to make surviving easier. Most of all get educated and trained; I’ve said it before and needs to be repeated, but you have to try these methods out before the shit hits the fan. When you are actually surviving isn’t the time to be trying new things when you could have learned how to properly do those things in a controlled environment.
Coming up next, The Will to Survive. Also, don’t forget to vote on what you want me to cover in the bonus blog post. You can vote here! I’ll pick the top three topics and share some wisdom. If you don’t see a topic listed in the poll, go ahead and vote other and shoot me a message on what you’d like to know about.
Dr. Lieberson’s Article:
C.R. Langille writes horror, fantasy, urban-fantasy, dark fantasy, and is considering stepping into the sci-fi realm. He has a grasp of survival techniques, and has been a table-top gamer for over 16 years.