Monday, November 9, 2009

Wilderness Survival Myths

Survival in an emergency situation in the wilderness often depends on being able to sort out myth from reality.People who find themselves in precarious scenarios may be forced to deal with such things as how to stop bleeding, how to help a snake bite victim and how to treat a badly sprained ankle. Knowing what works and what is an old wives' tale can be of great aid and possibly even save a life.


Many people have heard that the best way to stop bleeding is by using a tourniquet. Nothing could be further from the truth. The tourniquet should be the last resort and is only a viable choice if someone has lost a limb or a limb has been partially rendered from the body by a horrible accident. The pressure that a tourniquet applies will severely damage blood vessels and can often result in tissue death, making it possible that a limb will need to be amputated. Heavy bleeding should be handled by applying pressure directly to the wound or to the area right above or below the wound. Once bleeding has been controlled the wound can be cleaned, packed and a pressure bandage applied. Less serious wounds should be allowed to bleed until they stop as this process will usually keep any organisms capable of causing infection from entering the wound.

(Correct Use of Tourniquet)
When should you apply a tourniquet? The simple answer: almost never. Tourniquets severely restrict or occlude blood flow to the arm or leg to which they are applied. Using a tourniquet to stop bleeding has the potential to damage the entire arm or leg. Patients have been known to lose limbs from the use of tourniquets.
Often, if a tourniquet doesn't cause a loss of function on the extremity which has it, then it probably wasn't applied correctly. Applying a tourniquet is a desperate move - only for the most dire emergencies where the choice between life and limb must be made.
For a step-by-step guide, see How to Use a Tourniquet.
Using a tourniquet requires wrapping a cravat (non stretchy material like terry cloth or linen) around an extremity and tightening it with the use of a windlass stuck through the bandage (see photo).
The tourniquet should be tightened until the wound stops bleeding. If there is any bleeding at the wound after placing a tourniquet, then the tourniquet must be tightened.
When a tourniquet is applied, it is important to note the time of application and write that time down somewhere handy. The best bet is to write the time on the patient's forehead with a water-proof marker

Snake Bites
Many misconceptions and myths surround snake bites and how these dilemmas should be treated. A rattlesnake does not always warn someone of an impending attack as is widely thought, and even though this species has potent venom a person rarely receives a full dose of it when bitten. Many times, no venom at all is injected into the person. When a person is bitten by a suspected poisonous snake, a tourniquet should never be applied for the reasons previously mentioned, and the area should not be cooled or iced. The myth that cutting an "X" shaped incision over the wound and then sucking the venom out, perpetuated by countless examples on film and television, has never been proven to provide any relief. This procedure in truth would only be responsible for tiny volumes of the venom being removed from the bloodstream but would make the person vulnerable to extremely dangerous infections. The proper way to treat snakebite is to clean the wound thoroughly with soap and water and to keep the bitten area below heart level. If possible, carry the person to a vehicle and get her prompt medical attention; if she must walk then have her move slowly.

(For Correct Survival Treatment - See previous posted blog here dated Nov.9.09 "Surviving a snake bite")

Sprained Ankle

How to treat a badly sprained ankle, which for a hiker or backpacker can be a serious situation when out in the wilderness, has always been subject to myth, with a large portion of the population thinking that warmth should immediately be applied. However, the opposite is true since heat will make the swelling and pain increase and slow down the healing process. If you spend time on trails and out camping, REMEMBER "RICE". This stands for Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation. The ankle should be quickly rested and iced if possible or soaked in cold water from a stream. Even snow can be used as a substitute for ice. Ice the ankle for 20 minutes to half an hour and then put a compression bandage such as an elastic wrap on it to give it support. Elevate the affected foot. Repeat this procedure up to four or five times a day until the swelling goes down.

As a wilderness survival enthusiast I have come upon many questionable survival tips and half truths presented as fact. Unfortunately there is a great deal of survival related advice that does not actually work, or works poorly, when attempted in actual field conditions. Either the information is downright incorrect or there are vital pieces missing that put a successful outcome doubtful at best, and very dangerous at worst.
Many who relate their survival skills to others are more of the arm chair variety than real life doers. From the safety of ones home survival misinformation may seem harmless and few are the wiser. All too often these bad survival skills are merely passed on from one armchair enthusiast to another and over the years take on a mythical standing, so much so that most people consider them as facts.

Cactus Water Myth

One survival myth in particular that nearly everyone has heard is what I call the "cactus water myth". As the story goes, if you are thirsty in a desert all you need to do is lop the top off a cactus to find plenty of sweet water to drink. The common association with this myth is that a cactus must be something like a spiny watermelon with plenty of cool refreshing water just waiting to be tapped into. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Surviving on water from a cactus is generally a very bad idea. First of all, the amount of water you are likely to obtain from a cactus is minimal - its inside is tough and fibrous. Indeed, it is possible to obtain some moisture from the inside of a cactus but it is not pure water. Often cactus water is slimy and highly acidic. The survival fact is that drinking cactus juice like this may only lead to further dehydration.
But it gets worse. Should you be unlucky enough to obtain and drink plenty of cactus juice you are likely to be further dehydrated by intense vomiting and diarrhea. Cactus juice may burn your mouth, throat, and the lining all the way into your intestines. So much for a cool refreshing drink.

The few times I have had the pleasure of choking down barrel cactus fluid (notice I didn't say "water") made my stomach churn like a cement-mixer and required a Buddhist's monks meditative effort, that's humor for ya,  at keeping from vomiting. 

Save the romantic notions for the Hollywood westerns and rely on this method only if there is no other alternative. By the way, the only barrel cactus that isn't toxic is the fishhook barrel (Ferocactus

asdm041(So, Can you get Potable water from a Cactus?) 
Lets explain why the answer is a resounding NO!

NO, because the moisture within the pulp of a cactus is very acidic and many cacti contain toxic alkaloids. You can, however, eat the fruit.( but that is another post)
The moisture is acidic because of the way many succulents, including cacti, carry on photosynthesis, the process by which carbon dioxide and water are turned into carbohydrates.
Most plants have their pores (stomates) open during the day to take in carbon dioxide, and use sunlight as a catalyst for the reaction: Carbon dioxide + water sugar + oxygen. But in the desert, plants with pores open during the hot days, lose much water through evapotranspiration.
So, succulents use a modified version of photosynthesis called CAM (Crassulacean Acid Metabolism). CAM plants open their stomates only at night when it is cooler so there is less evapotranspiration. Because there is no sunlight to act as a catalyst, carbon dioxide is stored as an organic acid, principally Malic Acid (C4H6O5). Carbon dioxide is gradually released from the acid during the next day. CAM plants use about one-tenth the water to produce each unit of carbohydrate compared to standard photosynthesis. The price: a much slower growth rate.
Many plants contain malic acid, but usually in lesser quantities than found in cacti. Also cooking generally destroys the acid.
Besides malic acid, succulents produce Oxalic Acid (C2H2O4), which is toxic, as another product of photosynthesis. “Its chief function seems to be sequestering metals, principally calcium. Calcium oxalates often occur as crystalline minerals within the cactus pulp. Their function seems to be aiding structural integrity and enzymatic processes. In fact two crystalline calcium oxalate minerals have been identified in all cacti tested: CaC2O4.2H2O (weddellite) and CaC2O4.H2O (whewellite).” [Source: Plant Physiology, February 2002, Vol. 128, pp. 707-713.] Oxalates are also formed with heavy metals such as copper, perhaps to reduce toxicity to the plant.

**Oxalic acid is toxic to humans because it combines with calcium in our bodies to produce calcium oxalates which clog up our kidneys**

So, what about the barrel cactus. Can’t we get water from those? Did you bring along a machete and solar still?
The Seri Indians sometimes used the Fishhook barrel (Ferocactus wislizeni) for emergency water. However, drinking the juice on an empty stomach often caused diarrhea, and some Seri report pain in their bones if they walk a long distance after drinking the juice. The Seri called the Coville barrel (Ferocactus emoryi), “barrel that kills” because eating the flesh of the cactus causes nausea, diarrhea, and temporary paralysis. Think you can tell the two apart? (See: Edible Desert Plants – Barrel Cactus Fruit).
What about Prickly Pear pads we sometimes see in grocery stories or on the menu of Mexican restaurants? What you see are generally young spring pads which naturally contain less oxalic acid. Cooking leaches out the acid. In an emergency you can eat the young pads raw. And there are some spineless cultivars that naturally contain little oxalic acid which can also be eaten raw. These were developed mainly as cattle feed.

The bottom line is this: Your in a crap shoot against survival and in my opinion and the facts are stated. You should NOT attempt to get a drink from a cactus in spite of what you may have seen in old cowboy movies or survival tapes and discovery channel shows, without accepting that your dehydrated body stands the likely hood of your damaging it's natural water filters; ie: your kidneys and digestive tract, exposing your weakened body to even more so with toxicity. Just m,y humble opinion shared.

Snake bites in the wilderness - 101- Tips to Survive a Rattlesnake Bite

Responding to a snake bite appropriately is critical. If medical care is easily accessible, call 911 immediately. Remember if calling from a cell phone, dialing for help will be different by geographic location. Be prepared. Know what your area's emergency help number is for cell phone use. If in a remote area, getting the victim to medical care will be your ultimate objective.

"How to immediately treat a Snake wound"

Step 1

Call 911 immediately. If using a cell phone from a remote location, stay calm and do your best to give your exact location.

Step 2

If available, wash the area with warm water and soap.

Step 3

The area around the site may swell. Clothing or jewelry that would restrict this from happening should be removed.

Step 4

Some snake bite kits have venom suction cups. Placing the cup over the wound can extract roughly 30 percent of the venom. Do not cut or attempt to suck the venom from the wound. This will open the possibility of infection.

Step 5

Keep the limb at or below heart level. Do not elevate the bitten limb.

Step 6

If medical help is more than 30 minutes away, a bandage or strip of fabric (clothing) can be wrapped 2 to 4 inches above the wound. You are not creating a tourniquet, but wrapping the site loose enough to slide a finger underneath the bandage. The purpose is to not cut off the blood flow through veins or arteries, but to slow the venom.

Rattlesnakes are members of the viper family of snakes. Each year there are an estimated 7,000 to 8,000 snake bites with venom injection in the United States. These numbers include rattlesnake bites as well as bites from water moccasins, copperheads and coral snakes. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health estimates that about five people die every year from the effects of snake venom; learning how to deal with a rattlesnake bite increases your chances of surviving.

Rattlesnakes are capable of delivering large amounts of potent venom. If encountered it should be left alone. A large percentage of envenomations occur when a snake is handled or abused. 

Arizona Black Rattlesnake:

Are almost exclusively found in the mountains and upland areas of Arizona, with only a small part of their population range extending into far west-central New Mexico. Near Tucson, Arizona, these snakes can be found in the Santa Catalina and Rincon Mountains, generally from the middle to high elevations.

"Tips to aid in the aid of a Rattlesnake Bite"

If you can summon help but cannot reach a hospital:

Step 1

Understand the risk of a rattlesnake encounter. Hiking or camping around boulders, tall grass, leaf piles or logs and spending time in deserts, prairies, forests, mountains and even on beaches make it possible you will come across one or more rattlesnakes. 
There is no working rattlesnake repellent on the market, and the animal may strike  and deliver a bite during the day as well as the night.

Step 2

Remain calm and orient yourself. Have a map of the area on your person at all times and pinpoint your location. Staying calm may slow the spread of snake venom in your body.

Step 3

Call for help. Contact emergency medical personnel by cell or satellite phone right away. Give the operator your map coordinates and mention significant nature markers you can see from your location. This makes it easier for rescuers to find you. Do not move away from your location once first responders confirm that they are en route to you.

Step 4

Clean the wound and wait for help to arrive. Wash the bite area gently with soap and water, cover it with a sterile dressing from a first-aid kit and remain seated until help arrives. Lower the bitten limb so that it is not at or above heart level.

"Hopi Timber Rattlesnake"
The coloration of this species of rattlesnake has evolved to match the light pink sandstone of the Colorado Plateau of northeastern Arizona. The camouflage is so effective that this one almost went unnoticed, even though it was coiled on the patio of a State Park visitor center! Moments after I took this photo with a telephoto lens, the ranger arrived to relocate this particular park resident to a not-so-central location

 Things You'll Need:
  • Area map Cell or satellite phone Water Soap First-aid kit Wrap
  • Area map
  • Cell or satellite phone
  • Water
  • Soap
  • First-aid kit
  • Wrap

    "If You Cannot Summon Help"

Step 1

Remove jewelry from the affected limb. If you are bitten on the hand or arm, make sure to take off rings, watches and wristbands. Because the bite area may swell, you might not be able to remove these items later on and they could cut into your flesh.

Step 2      *Pay special attention to the cautions of sucking venom from the wound*

Suck out as much of the venom as possible with your mouth, but only if you know that it may take you hours to reach help. Make sure your mouth is free of sores. Spit blood and venom onto the ground. Continue this process for about 45 minutes. Walter Howard, professor emeritus of wildlife biology and vertebrate ecology at the University of California at Davis, suggests that you take this course of action only if help is too far away.

Step 3

Apply a loose wrap to the bitten limb. Do not tighten it to constrict blood flow completely, but only to gently compress the area to slow the spread of the venom. Make sure you place it about three inches away from the bite site, between the wound and the heart. If the wrap leads to swelling, loosen it more.

Step 4

Return to your vehicle and try to reach a medical facility. Use your map to chart the fastest course to your car and calmly hike there. Do not wait for the swelling or skin discoloration to set in or worsen. While it is true that rattlesnakes actually inject venom in only an estimated 20 percent of reported attacks, you do not want to wait until you are sure that you are suffering from the venom's effects. Even if you do not believe that a lot of venom was injected, the poison that did make it into your body may cause tissue damage.
The Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake:

Is one of three species of rattlesnake in North Carolina. Diamondbacks are the largest snakes in the United States, and can grow to be 8 feet long.

  "Rattlesnake FACTS to keep in mind"

These reptiles are primarily nocturnal and crepuscular during the hot summer months and diurnal in spring and on mild or overcast summer days. It hibernates alone or in a group den during the cold months of late fall and winter. Like the other "pit-vipers" (members of the subfamily Crotalinae) this snake uses heat sensing pits (one on each side of the face between the eye and nostril) to detect warm-blooded predators and prey.Rattlesnake feeds on mice, other small mammals, birds, and lizards. It uses venom injected through long, hollow, retractable fangs to kill and begin digesting its prey. Mating takes place in July and August. Young are born in summer.