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Do or Die: 5 Unique Survival Tips from American Alpine Club

Don’t let your expedition go south. The American Alpine Club offers some survival tips so you don’t have to call in the big guns
Don’t let your expedition go south. The American Alpine Club offers some survival tips so you don’t have to call in the big guns. (Image: Global Rescue)

Whether you love hiking, climbing, mountain biking, or kayaking, you probably know a lot about outdoor safety.

But if your expedition goes sour, first aid training and compass skills might not be enough to pull you from a life-threatening morass.

Here at the American Alpine Club, we’ve seen a little innovation go a long way, so we put together some of our favorite backcountry tips and tricks:

1. Fire Starters You Didn’t Know You Had.

Cleaning wounds is not a high priority when you’re lost or close to hypothermic. Bust out the first-aid kit anyway! You’ll find a few staples—alcohol swabs and cotton balls—that serve double duty as fire starters in an emergency. For extra spark, coat the cotton in petroleum jelly. Duct tape is also flammable, which demonstrates yet again that it is, without question, the most versatile tool in the universe. Or is it?  

2. Fishing Line—The New Duct Tape

Duct tape is good, but fishing line might be even better. Not only is fishing line super lightweight, but it also has dozens of backcountry uses when you’re in trouble. Hungry? Catch your food. Exposed or broken? Tie up a tarp for your shelter, repair clothes and shoes, or stitch up your wounds.

Stranded? Use the line to make a signal kite. Simply construct the frame from sticks, tent poles, or trekking poles. Build the body from a bright shirt or section of space blanket. Then tie it all together and launch it to direct rescue crews to you—or for impromptu fun on a windy day. Fishing line can even function better than tweezers to remove ticks: just tie an overhand knot around the head, get it snug, and pull away from the skin. Top that, duct tape!

3. The Sun: Nature’s Iodine

Helicopters are awesome. But not so friendly on your wallet. Protect your cash with rescue insurance.
There’s no cell service out here—that’s part of the appeal. But if you need a rescue, use “digital breadcrumbs” as a last resort to help search-and-rescue teams find your location.  (Image: Greg VonDoersten)

For safe drinking water in the backcountry, filters and tablets are best, of course. But there’s another crafty way to do away with dangerous bacteria in your water.

Pack a plastic bottle of soda and drink it the first night of your trip. Save the bottle because the thin layer of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) allows the sun’s ultraviolet radiation to perform a bit of magic. Just fill the bottle most of the way with your questionable water, shake it up, top it off, cap it, and put it in direct sunlight.

In one afternoon the combination of heat and radiation will have killed most, if not all, of the microbes that could do you harm. For the same reason, the top few inches of lake water are the cleanest because of the power of the sun. Remember to choose clean snow over lake ice because bacteria can survive for months in the ice, and use a bandana or shirt to remove large particulates and silt.

4. No Cell Service? No Problem. 

It’s no surprise that making a cell phone call requires satellites to know where you are. Use that to your advantage when you’re having an emergency in no-man’s-land. Even with zero cell service, you may be able to give emergency or rescue teams clues to your whereabouts.

If you can’t call 911 or send a text, at least turn on your phone to drop “digital breadcrumbs” that may aid those looking for you. Make sure your emergency contact at home knows about this trick and has your phone number and service provider at the ready.

5. The Back-Up Plan

There’s no cell service out here—that’s part of the appeal. But if you need a rescue, use “digital breadcrumbs” as a last resort to help search-and-rescue teams find your location.
Helicopters are awesome. But not so friendly on your wallet. Protect your cash with rescue insurance. (Image: Menno Boermans)

Most adventurers have health insurance or accident insurance, but not many have rescue insurance. Whether you’re all about the weekend epic or a long trek overseas, rescue insurance protects you from insane five-digit costs. Even here in the United States, some local rescue groups and some governmental agencies are beginning to charge for rescue services.

Having the right insurance—available from Global Rescue or by joining the American Alpine Club—also creates peace of mind for you and your family and friends. If you have insurance and something does go wrong, you can focus on getting healthy instead of worrying about the rescue bill.

Know other interesting survival tips? Have an epic rescue story? Share them in the comments below—we’d love to hear from you.

About the American Alpine Club
The American Alpine Club is a nonprofit organization that provides benefits, knowledge, inspiration, and conservation for the outdoor community. It's also one of the outdoor and environmental nonprofits that Trailspace supports.

All AAC members are immediately enrolled in $10,000 of rescue benefits. Every human-powered adventure, anywhere in the world, is covered so long as the participant is injured and past the trailhead. Learn more about AAC programs and member benefits at americanalpineclub.org or "like" The American Alpine Club on Facebook to help support its mission.

Filed under: Outdoor Skills, People & Organizations

Comments

FromSagetoSnow
TOP 10 REVIEWER REVIEW CORPS
2,679 reviewer rep
1,137 forum posts
August 9, 2012 at 9:21 a.m. (EDT)

Great article.  

I am seriously considering AAC membership, mostly for the rescue insurance.

nogods
26 reviewer rep
98 forum posts
August 9, 2012 at 10:03 a.m. (EDT)

To me it sounds like "here are some things you can do in case you go to the woods unprepared"

What's the chance someone will have a first aid kit with cotton balls and petroleum jelly in it if they didn't bring a fire starter?   What's the chance they'll even have matches?

And the water bottle advice is ludicrous - "In case you don't plan on bringing any water filtration or purification with you, then plan on bringing a clear plastic soda bottle instead so that you can use it as a poor substitute for the water filtration or purification that you purposefully didn't bring because you read about the clear plastic water bottle idea, and pray you need it only when the sun is shinning...."

Even more peculiar is the advice to save the clear plastic soda bottle after drinking the soda the first night in case it is need to purify water.  Are they suggesting that if you have other means of purifying water then you can chuck any empty clear plastic water bottles along the trail after you have drank the contents?

Seriously, who joins the American Alpine Club then heads off into the woods without telling anyone where they are going, and takes only a clear plastic water bottle, a first aid kit with cotton balls and petroleum jelly, some fishing line, and a cell phone that won't get service in the area to which they are going?

No wonder their members need rescue insurance.

I suspect that the article was written by a professional writer rather than an active member of the American Alpine Club.  Lots of organizations hire internet writes to produce short articles to keep their websites alive.

Callahan
245 reviewer rep
1,469 forum posts
August 9, 2012 at 11:58 a.m. (EDT)

great notes

Bill S
TOP 10 REVIEWER REVIEW CORPS
2,234 reviewer rep
5,182 forum posts
August 9, 2012 at 1:16 p.m. (EDT)

Looks like nogods missed the fundamental point of the article, namely learning how to improvise.

You can't carry everything into the backcountry or on an expedition. Even when you have fully prepared for the "reasonably unexpected", there are those incidents that you can not anticipate or are so unlikely that there may be no way to prepare (as a fellow trainer puts it, "asteroid strikes and dinosaur attacks").

First aid kits are a good example. To really be prepared for anything first aid you might encounter, you would have to carry a full ER crash cart (an MD friend of mine comes pretty close to that in his first aid kit). On the other hand, you can do as taught in WFR courses and described in detail in Eric Weiss' pocket-sized Wilderness and Travel Medicine book and learn how to improvise on the spot with what you have (example - you don't have to include a SamSplint, if you have a seat pad of closed cell foam, to splint a broken leg). This is not to say to forget about any kind of first aid kit. It is just to recognize that you can't prepare for every incident imaginable and unimaginable.

Disclosure - I am a Life Member of the American Alpine Club, as is my wife, and have been for many years.

nogods
26 reviewer rep
98 forum posts
August 9, 2012 at 2:03 p.m. (EDT)

Looks like Bill missed the illogical assertions of the article.  How does one improvise with something they wouldn't carry in the first place?

And as for the soda bottle, the article gives 3 steps to "improvising"

1. "Pack a plastic bottle of soda",

2. "drink it the first night of your trip", and

3. "save the bottle"

Wouldn't it be easier to advise "1. pack appropriate water filtration and purification equipment.  Then you don't have to 1. Pack a plastic bottle of soda; 2. drink it the first night of your trip and 3. save the bottle."  

Now, I will admit that the soda bottle portion could have been written as a legit "improvise" matter, but it would have to been more like "Remember that clear plastic soda bottle you didn't toss because you adhere to LNT?  Well, if you find yourself in a situation needing to purify water without traditional equipment (i.e., boiling, filtration, or chemical) then you can MacGyver that flattened soda bottle into some safe water...."

When a respected outdoor oriented organizations allows such poorly thought out material to be published in association with its name, it reflects on the credibility of the organization.   It's the equivalent of the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics org nailing signs to trees that proclaim "Leave No Trace."  

Bill S
TOP 10 REVIEWER REVIEW CORPS
2,234 reviewer rep
5,182 forum posts
August 9, 2012 at 9:44 p.m. (EDT)

nogods has added a fair amount of wording that was not in the article. The section suggesting the use of the UV sterilization trick says quite clearly:

For safe drinking water in the backcountry, filters and tablets are best, of course. ....

It does not say anything even remotely like the nogods addition of:

"In case you don't plan on bringing any water filtration or purification with you, then plan on bringing a clear plastic soda bottle instead so that you can use it as a poor substitute for the water filtration or purification that you purposefully didn't bring because you read about the clear plastic water bottle idea,

Many people do have cotton balls and petroleum jelly or other flammables like Purell hand sterilizer and other flammable gels in first aid kits. 

Thing is, stuff happens in the woods and hills, and sometimes you end up without what you originally brought with you. So thinking about how you might improvise in various scenarios is a good practice. Maybe it's a waterbottle, or some hand cleaner that saves your life.

whomeworry
87 reviewer rep
2,221 forum posts
August 10, 2012 at 12:51 a.m. (EDT)

nogods said:

Looks like Bill missed the illogical assertions of the article.  How does one improvise with something they wouldn't carry in the first place?

By improvising with stuff you do have.  For instance nylon rope, pack cloth and other plastic articles are also viable fire starters in a pinch.

Or improvise with stuff found in your surroundings.  Spider webs make good bandages and help accelerate clotting. 

Ed

Peter1955
1,347 reviewer rep
1,339 forum posts
August 13, 2012 at 6:26 p.m. (EDT)

I carry a lighter, a flint/steel/magnesium bar, and waterproof matches in my emergency kit.

I also carry hand sanitizer; it's good for cleaning cuts as well as just germs on your hands, it stops the itching from mosquito bites, and it's a great fire starter.  Soak a sterile dressing in it, and it burns even longer.

As for UV purification, my Camelbak All-Clear uses it to purify water by disrupting the DNA of bacteria and viruses so they can't reproduce.

Sounds like the ACC is giving good advice. Of course they've also been doing it a lot longer than nogods.

Old Goat
2 reviewer rep
1 forum posts
August 30, 2012 at 9:57 p.m. (EDT)

Whether you drink soda or not, soda bottles are great to have in your pack as water bottles. Since they are designed to handle the pressure of carbonated beverages, they are sturdy enough to give years of service as water bottles. I have had ones that I used for as much as 15 years. They weigh less than either metal or polycarbonate bottles and cost a lot less. PET is essentially BPA free. So, there's no worry about BPA like there is with at least some polycarbonate bottles. The only caution I'd give is that if you do use one for purifying water in sunlight, as suggested here, you should retire that bottle because, like nearly all plastics, PET degrades with exposure to UV.

Lah
TOP 25 REVIEWER REVIEW CORPS
1,097 reviewer rep
18 forum posts
August 31, 2012 at 8:07 a.m. (EDT)

For the ladies out there, I recently saw a demonstration of how great tampons burn...they are, after all, just concentrated cotton. They can also be used for first aid purposes. How's that for improvising?

KPatton
6 reviewer rep
1 forum posts
August 31, 2012 at 1:11 p.m. (EDT)

I'm glad to see that back country hikers are being advised to take out rescue insurance.  This is something that divers like myself have been doing for years through the Diver's Lert Network (DAN) to defray the cost of being flown to a hyperbaric chamber if needs be.  I have often wondered how many of the high rescues we read about taking place in our national parks are covered by insurance and whether or not the taxpayer gets stuck with the tab.  I agree with some of the comments about the article.  It does appear the scenarios are a bit contrived or fallacious.  If you are preparing for the unexpected, you should prepare to provide for your needs for your primary needs depending on what you are heading into:  shelter and water or weather conditions.  Water is incidental if you freeze to death before you can get thirsty.  Being unprepared through ignorance is no excuse, but it might make a cool epitaph.

ppine
21 reviewer rep
1,012 forum posts
August 31, 2012 at 1:36 p.m. (EDT)

Considering backcountry insurance is a good idea for those that are adventurous.  I have taken a $15,000 plane ride when no helicopters were available.  Health insurance often has a $5000 maximum benefit for transportation.  In a backcountry accident, a helicopter brings EMTs and is not just transportation.  I would gladly pay it again for the first morphine.

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