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Begin by preparing yourself to be a survivor. That means preparation in every sense. This section is concerned with making sure that you have the right equipment for any expedition you undertake. It introduces the idea of carrying a pocket-sized kit of carefully selected key survival aids – which should go with you everywhere.

A knife is your most important survival tool. It must be chosen and used carefully and it must be kept in perfect condition.

Equally important is a personal preparedness, so that you are both physically and psychologically equipped to deal with the stresses and hazards of survival conditions. You must have a clear understanding of survival needs, especially of the need for – and ways of obtaining – water.

Essentials for survival

The human species has established itself in almost every corner of the Earth. Even in territories too inhospitable to provide a regular home mankind has found a way to exploit its resources, whether by hunting or by taking wealth from the ground, and has often pitted its skills against nature simply for the satisfaction of doing so.

Watch Lofty discuss important elements of the survival scenario.

Almost everywhere nature provides the necessities for survival. In some places the provision is abundant, in others very meagre and it takes common sense, knowledge and ingenuity to take advantage of the resources available. Even more important is the will to survive. Men and women have shown that they can survive in the most adverse situations, but they have done so because of their determination to do so – without that, the skills and knowledge in this book will be of little use if you find yourself really up against it.

Survival is the art of staying alive. Any equipment you have must be considered a bonus. You must know how to take everything possible from nature and use it to the full, how to attract attention to yourself so that rescuers may find you, how to make your way across unknown territory back to civilization, if hope of rescue is not on the cards, navigating without map or compass. You must know how to maintain a healthy physical condition, or if sick or wounded heal yourself and others. You must be able to maintain your morale and that of others who share your situation.

Lack of equipment should not mean that you are unequipped, for you will carry skills and experience with you, but those skills and experience must not be allowed to get rusty and you must extend your knowledge all the time.

We are all used to surviving on our home ground – though we may not think of our lives in that way – but the true survivor must learn how to survive when taken from familiar surroundings or when those surroundings are drastically changed by man or nature. Anyone, young or old, from whatever walk of life, can find him or herself in a survival situation. As more and more people fly the globe, sail small boats or cross the sea in large ones, walk the hills and climb mountains and take their holidays in ever more exotic places, the situations to which they could become exposed are increasingly diversified.

But survival skills are not only concerned with the extremes of the air crash on a mountain peak, a shipwreck in the tropics or a vehicle breakdown in the middle of a desert. Every time you fasten a seat belt in a car you are giving yourself a greater chance of survival. Checking each way before crossing a road or ensuring that an open fire is safe before you go to bed are survival techniques that you carry out instinctively. It is these habits of mind that you must develop as much as acquiring skills.

The main elements of survival are Food, Fire, Shelter, Water, Navigation and Medicine. To put these in order of priority we use the acronym Plan. No matter where you are in the world this will never change be it the Arctic, desert, jungle, sea or seashore.

Being suitably prepared may well save your life.

P – for Protection

You must ensure that you are protected from further danger, e.g. impending avalanche, forest fire or exploding fuel. Always stay on the scene of the incident as long as it is safe to do so and then make sure you are protected from the elements. This means making a shelter and often lighting a fire. There are several reasons why you should always stay at the scene:

  1. You can utilize the wreckage for shelter, signalling etc.
  2. It’s a bigger signature on the ground, making it easier to find.
  3. There are probably injured people that cannot be moved.
  4. By staying where you are you conserve energy.
  5. Because you have booked in and out and have stayed on the route, rescue time will be minimal.

L – for Location

The next step after building a shelter is to put out emergency signals. You must draw attention to your position. Do this as soon as possible to help the rescuers.

Watch Lofty explain the importance of selecting your location when setting up camp.

A – for Acquisition

While waiting to be rescued, look for water and food to help supplement your emergency supplies.

N – for Navigation

Good navigation will keep you on route and will often avert a survival situation. But if you find yourself stranded, always stay where you are.


You must become your own doctor and carefully monitor yourself at all times. Treat blisters as they occur, don’t let them become septic. Keep an eye on your companions and deal with any unusual problems as they arise. If they are limping, falling behind, or behaving strangely, stop and treat immediately.


Before any journey or expedition make a checklist and ask yourself the following questions:

  • How long will I be away? How much food do I need for this period and do I need to carry water?
  • Have I the right clothing for the climate and enough of it? Is one pair of boots enough or, because of the surface conditions and the amount of walking, should I take a standby pair?
  • What special equipment do I need for the terrain?
  • What medical kit is appropriate?

Be prepared

The Boy Scouts’ motto is the right one. Anyone setting out on a journey or planning an expedition should follow it by discovering as much as possible about the situations likely to be faced and the skills and equipment called for. It is the most basic common sense to prepare yourself, to take appropriate gear and to plan as carefully as possible.

Your kit could make the difference between failure and success, but, especially when back-packing, many people initially take too much and have to learn from bitter experience what they really need and what they could have done without. There is no fun in struggling with a huge pack full of superfluous items while wishing that you had a torch or can opener with you. Getting the right balance is not easy.

Make sure that you are fit enough for what you plan to do. The fitter you are, the easier and more enjoyable it will be. If you are going hill-walking, for instance, take regular exercise beforehand and wear in your hiking boots. Walk to and from work with a bag weighted with sand and get your muscles in condition! Mental fitness is another factor. Are you sure that you are up to the task, have prepared enough and have the equipment to accomplish it? Eliminate any nagging doubts before you set out.

Always prepare contingency plans in case anything goes wrong. Things rarely go quite according to plan. What will you do if you are prevented from achieving your objective? What will you do if a vehicle breaks down, or if weather or ground conditions prove more severe than anticipated? If in a party, how will you regroup if separated? What happens if someone becomes ill?

Health checks

Have a thorough medical check and ensure that you have all the necessary injections for the territories through which you intend to travel. There are vaccinations against yellow fever, cholera, typhoid, hepatitis, smallpox, polio, diptheria and tuberculosis, and an anti-tetanus injection is a must. Allow plenty of time for jabs – the full anti-typhoid protection requires three injections over the course of six months. If travelling through a malarial region take an adequate supply of anti-malaria tablets. You must start taking these two weeks before your journey, so that resistance is in the system before you arrive in the risk area, and should keep taking them for a month after your return.

Go to the dentist and get your teeth inspected. Teeth that normally do not hurt can cause considerable pain in cold climates. At least start out in sound condition.

Make up a medical kit that will cover all your likely needs and, if travelling with a group, ensure that any particular individual medical needs are covered. If a potential member of the group is not fit, should they be dropped from the party? A difficult decision among friends, but one that must be made for it is best in the long run. Consider, too, the ability of each member of the group to deal with the challenge of hardship, risk and endurance that you may meet. Stress often brings out the unknown side of a person, and in planning any group expedition some form of selection is needed when choosing your companions.


You can never have too much information about a place you are going to. Contact people who know it already, read books, study maps – and make sure that you have reliable and up-to-date maps to take with you. Find out about the local people. Are they likely to be friendly and helpful or are they wary of strangers? Are there local customs and taboos?

The more detailed your knowledge of the way people live – particularly in non-westernized societies, where life is linked much more closely to the land – the more survival knowledge you will have if you come to need it. Local methods of shelter building and fire making, wild foods, herbal medicines and water sources will be based on an intimate understanding of the surroundings.

Study your maps carefully, get a feel for the land even before you see it and gain as much knowledge of the terrain as possible: river directions and speed of flow, waterfalls, rapids and difficult currents. How high are hills and mountains, and what are their slopes like – are they snow covered? Which way do the ridges run? What kind of vegetation can you expect, what species of trees and where? What might temperatures be and how different at day and night? When are first and last light? What is the state of the moon, the time and height of tides, the prevailing wind direction and strength? The weather that can be expected?

Knowing your terrain before you set out is very important for planning what kit to take with you.


For a group expedition get the members together for frequent discussions of what you aim to achieve. Nominate people for particular responsibilities: medic, linguist, cook, special equipment, vehicle maintenance, driver, navigator and so forth. Ensure that everyone is familiar with the equipment and that there are spares where needed – batteries, fuel and bulbs especially.

Divide the project into phases: entry phase, objective and recovery. Clearly state the aim of each phase and work out a time scale. Plan for emergency procedures such as vehicle breakdown, illness and casualty evacuation.

In estimating the rate of progress, especially on foot, allow plenty of time. It is always better to underestimate and be pleasantly surprised by doing better. Pressure to keep up to an over-ambitious schedule not only produces tension and exhaustion but leads to errors of judgement and risk-taking that are frequently the reason for things going wrong. You cannot carry all your water requirement with you but must replenish supplies as you travel. Water sources will be a major factor in planning any route.

When the route is planned and agreed make sure that others know about it so that you can have expectations of rescue if anything goes wrong. If you are hiking in the hills inform the police and local mountain rescue centre. Tell them your proposed plan and give times of departure and expected arrival. If touring by car, log the route with the respective motoring organization. If sailing, check with coastguard and port authorities.

Always make sure that someone knows what you are planning to do and when, and keep them informed at prearranged stages so that failure to contact will set alarm bells ringing. Boats and aircraft are strictly controlled in this respect and, if overdue, a search is raised and the route checked out, effecting rescue. Get into the habit of telling people where you are going and what time you expect to return or reach your next destination.


Being prepared for any eventuality is a tall order if you are on foot and have to carry everything you need yourself. Whatever you carry, you must ensure that it is up to the job, versatile and robust. It’s a fine balance between what you would like to carry and what you must carry. When preparing for any adventure, you must take into consideration what the dangers are and how you can overcome these. This is what is called contingency planning.

The climate, weather and time of year will all help you to determine what to carry, but you must ensure that everyone with you knows how to use and maintain the specialist kit you decide to take with you. Armed with information from your research you will be able to select your equipment, matching it to objectives and conditions.


The correct choice of clothing is so important. If you start out right the chances are that you will succeed. Man is a tropical animal and can only survive as we are born in the tropics. The moment we leave this area we have to provide our bodies with this tropical environment, hence the need for clothes. There is no heat in clothing, it only traps what the body produces.

The wind and rain are the most dangerous elements in a temperate climate and the cold in extreme areas like the polar regions. If the heat that is trapped in the layers of clothing you are wearing is continuously being replaced by wind and rain, you are in danger of hypothermia. In cold climates layering is the answer so pull on a jersey if it turns cold and waterproofs if it rains. However, if you wear an anorak while carrying a heavy pack, there is a danger of wearing through the shoulders and lower lumbar region allowing the ingress of water to soak the body. You need a change of clothing and additional warm garments for when you stop.

In hot climates it is very difficult to get the balance right between comfort and practicality. There has always been a danger of overheating in extreme conditions caused by wearing heavy clothing while carrying out physical activities. When on the move wear the least amount of clothing possible and avoid walking in waterproofs if you are too hot, as the condensation generated will soak the inner layers.

Clothing should give good protection and be well-fitting without being restrictive. It must keep you warm and dry but have plenty of ways to keep the body ventilated so you don’t overheat (if it gets colder you can always put on more).

With all the great breakthroughs in recent years in fabric technology it is worth understanding the pros and cons of the different materials on offer. Gore-tex™ is an excellent material because it is breathable and so keeps you warm and dry while ventilating the body, but it does have limitations. Breathable materials can only work if they are kept clean. Once they get covered in mud and accumulate grime they are less effective. Gore-tex™ is not robust or hard-wearing and must be looked after. The best way to use Gore-tex™ is to walk or climb in windproof garments and when at rest, put on the breathable kit.

Synthetic materials such as fleece are very popular and in certain conditions outperform natural materials like wool, down or cotton. Having a zipped front makes a fleece easy to put on and take off and they are also comfortable to walk in. Choose one that is windproof as this is often all that is needed in most conditions. If it gets colder they can be worn under an outer waterproof giving good insulation. There are also garments which act like an animal’s skin, using the buffalo system. They have a windproof outer with a man-made fibre pile inside. When wet they perform like a wetsuit. They are good for walking in cold/wet conditions, and are ideal for boating, canoeing and caving.

As for natural fabrics, wool is still an excellent choice for jumpers as it retains its warmth even when wet. The downside is it stretches and becomes heavy, so it’s not a good choice for socks.Down is the warmest and lightest of all natural insulating materials but loses all its heat-retaining qualities when wet. Cotton acts as a wick and draws up all the moisture. So it’s good to wear in the tropics but not in the cold/wet regions.

Footwear is an important consideration and for serious walking give your feet priority. Break in new boots gradually and harden up your skin with surgical spirit, starting two weeks before you set off.

For the enthusiast the major consideration in choosing clothing is cost. Surplus stores are very popular for the younger adventurer who loves to parade in camouflage clothing. Although ex-military kit is good, and cheap, it is already obsolete. The big drawback of wearing camouflage or dark clothing is the risk of not being found when lost. The reason soldiers wear it is so they cannot be seen which contradicts what you are trying to do if you get into trouble. Most outdoor clothing is blue or orange, some is reversible, so a contrasting colour will always stand out wherever we find ourselves. Buy the best clothing you can afford, and take advice from a reputable outdoor shop.

Remember: There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.

Sleeping bags

Two types are generally available. One kind uses hollow fill, man-made fibre, the other (and more expensive) is filled with down. Down is very light and gives much better insulation – provided it stays dry. If it gets wet it loses all its insulating properties and is very difficult to dry out. For conditions that are likely to be wet the man-made fibre will therefore be the better choice. Avoid getting your sleeping bag wet, however, as sleep will be seriously affected.

Excellent bivouac bags made of breathable material are also available that will keep you dry in place of a tent, but in the long term you cannot beat a tent which can also be used for cooking and communal activities. Keep your sleeping bag inside the bivy bag and stow it inside a compression sack to make it as small as possible.Keep the bag clean and use a kip mat or poncho to lie on.

Sleeping bags of man-made fibre will stay much drier in wetter climates than the down-filled variety.


You need a strong and comfortable backpack to carry all your clothing and equipment. Choose the very best you can afford. It should have tough and fully adjustable webbing, well secured to the pack’s frame or fabric. Heavy loads can quickly loosen poorly made webbing. It must have a comfortable hip belt. The secret of wearing a pack is to take the weight securely on the hips – the body’s strongest pivot – not on the shoulders and back, which quickly strain and tire.

Do you want a pack with an external or an internal frame? Internal frames are lighter and make a pack more easy to stow, but external frames are stronger, ensure a more even distribution of the load and are especially useful for awkward or heavy equipment – including, in an emergency, a sick or injured person. A good external frame should carry the pack high up on your body, putting less strain on hips and shoulders, and it should be designed to allow an airspace between the pack and your back to minimise contact perspiration. A frame adds weight and is more prone to snag on rocky projections or branches, making progress through dense vegetation a little more difficult, but its advantages more than compensate.

Finally, choose a pack made from a tough, waterproof fabric, preferably with a lace-up hood inside the main sack to prevent water leaking in and the contents falling out. Side pockets are always useful, but they must have secure zips rather than straps or drawstrings, which do not hold equipment safely.

Choosing a backpack is very important – make sure it’s tough and comfortable to carry.

Stowing kit

If you expect to get wet, stow everything in polythene bags. Pack so that you know where everything is and so that the first things you need are not buried at the bottom. The sleeping bag is probably the last thing you need so that goes at the bottom. Your tent should be on the top, so should heavy kit such as radios, which are more easily carried there – though try not to make the pack too high, if you have to cope with strong winds, for a very high pack will be more difficult to balance and you will expend a lot of energy just keeping upright.

Pack a stove and brew-kit in a side pocket so that you have easy access when you halt. Make sure that foodstuffs that can be easily squashed or melted are in suitable containers. In a warm climate you can carry food to eat cold and make plenty of hot drinks. In a cold climate make sure that you have plenty of fats and sugars. The exact rations depend on your taste, but they should be chosen to give a good balance of vitamins, minerals, fats, proteins and carbohydrates. Take into account the extent to which you will be able to live off the land and carry a supply of anything unlikely to be available locally.


A G.P.S. (Global Positioning System) is an excellent piece of equipment and has taken a lot of skill away from the navigator. Basically these systems receive radio signals from satellites and can locate your current position, anywhere in the world, and are relatively easy to use. You need at least two satellites to get a position, but the more the better. It is also useful to note that they are reported to have 95 per cent accuracy rate. However, in order to work, the satellite transmission must not have any obstructions in its way, such as a tree branch or movement, so to receive a clear signal you need to be standing still and out in the open. However, if we depend solely on technology our basic skills will suffer and we will become unstuck if it becomes unserviceable or is lost. G.P.S. is not effective unless you can identify where you are, so stick to the basics. Map read and navigate normally and use the G.P.S to confirm your navigation or correct it.

When looking to buy a G.P.S there are several considerations to think about: what you’ll be using it for – if walking you will want the unit to be as light as possible and compact; where you’ll be using it; and if you need it to be waterproof (this is usually a feature of the heavier models with extra gadgets). Battery life should also be taken into account. Some G.P.S are more complicated than others so choose the model that you’re happy with. Most have the facility of being able to put in way points (at sea this means the eastern and northern coordinates and on land these can be campsites, rock formations etc) and there are many convenient hand-held versions and some are even featured on watches.

There is always a danger with any battery-operated equipment that it lets you down when you need it most. Batteries always discharge faster in the cold and with age. Recharging facilities are difficult in the wilderness (although solar panel chargers and extra power packs should keep them charged) and bad connections caused by constant abuse while on the move are a real menace.

Carry the G.P.S around the neck tucked under the jacket. This will minimize the risk of damage and protect it from the weather. Don’t place it in your pack or leave it lying around.

When planning your route from the map, choose prominent points that can be used as emergency rendezvous. Have these at regular intervals, preferably every hour of walking. Enter these into the G.P.S and they will keep you on track. Once entered they will offer information as to where you are in relation to these points and tell you what direction to take to reach them.


For a long expedition in remote territory a radio is a necessity. They tend to be expensive but are well worth the cost; if you cannot afford the radio, you cannot afford the expedition. Choose a model with the fewest channels available to suit your particular needs. The trouble with multi-channelled sets is that people get confused and tend to use the wrong ones. Have a working channel that everyone uses at established schedules. Have a priority channel that you can switch to in an emergency so no one will break into your transmissions. If working with coastguards/forest rangers etc make sure that your radio is compatible and you know the emergency channel (channel 16); knowing the frequency of the World Service is also useful. Keep your radio in a safe place, ideally on a person and not in a pack.

A radio is essential for a lengthy expedition. Make sure you stay in regular contact with base.

Prearrange a signals plan with scheduled calls morning and evening, especially when working in a large party. A signals plan entails people manning the radio at base and two-way communication is easily made. Make sure that the chosen frequencies will work in the areas you are going to, and that at least two people in the party are familiar with the working of the radio. Every group on the ground must be in radio contact with base. They should be allocated a call sign and frequency, and a schedule of calls to be made.

Discourage groups from talking to each other without going through base. This will cause great confusion if not controlled. Listen out before transmitting otherwise you will interfere with other stations. Everyone has verbal diarrhoea when they talk on the radio so write down what you want to say before making contact and have pencil and paper ready to make notes and take instructions. This will help to keep transmissions to a minimum and preserve the batteries.

In the evening give a situation report to base with your location, what you have done and your future intentions. In the morning receive an update on weather conditions, a time check and other information that base can give you. A noon time call can be used to confirm your position.

If you are tackling a dangerous aspect of the expedition you may want to arrange that base listen out for additional calls so that in an emergency you can call for help and get a response immediately.


Signals will be weak in steep gullies and valley bottoms and good signals will be received on top of high ground or across water.

A radio is essential for a lengthy expedition. Make sure you stay in regular contact with base.


Rhythm – don’t talk like a dalek

Speed – talk slowly

Volume – speak softly

Pitch – pitch voice higher than normal and use the phonetic alphabet when spelling out place names


An emergency plan should always be put into operation when two consecutive calls are missed. Even if all is well, if you have not been able to make contact this will be treated by base as an emergency.

You must return to or stay at the last reported location and await contact. If you are really in trouble base will know where you last were and where you planned to go to, and the rescue mission can follow.


The mobile phone is one of the great inventions of the twentieth century. In an emergency situation it can be a real life-saver. On expeditions where the radios have failed due to bad weather or the location of the victims, a mobile phone has been used to raise the alarm. A group on Everest got into trouble as they started their descent after summitting. They tried many times to raise base camp but without success. The leader phoned his wife in Hong Kong on a mobile phone and reported their situation. She then alerted Kathmandu, who in turn alerted base camp, Everest and effected a rescue.

Some phones are better than others so it’s worth doing some homework; it’s also essential to check the network coverage with the service provider before going abroad. Keep one in the car, they are priceless when help is required and a cigarette lighter is a convenient charger for the battery, providing you have an adaptor. Charging can be a problem in the wild so use your phone wisely, but small, hand-held manual chargers can now be bought to recharge batteries. With radios and phones it takes less power to listen than to transmit, so make your call and listen for a reply. Texting is also good for battery life and you need less signal. If nothing is heard don’t despair. With all electrical kit water/moisture is the enemy. The transmitting side may be working but not the receiving side. Make short calls on the hour. Someone may be picking up your signal so don’t give up. Once you receive confirmation that the rescue is under way keep the radio/phone on listening watch.


In mountainous areas an altimeter is a good idea. Relating the height recorded can help you determine what contour you are on, and how far it is to the ridge or summit.

You never have enough kit in an emergency. It’s nice to have G.P.S, phones etc but you can still manage without as long as you have the ability to improvise and adapt. Learn the basics and use technology for confirmation, rather than depending on it whole-heartedly. Communication is of the highest importance and must be given priority. It is a safer place as long as you can communicate with the outside world.

Many survival sagas begin because of bad navigation, with people getting lost. Always plan for the worst eventuality.

Measuring altitude can be very useful in mountainous terrain to estimate how far it is to the a ridge or summit.


Motor vehicles need special adjustment and adaptation to deal with high altitudes and extreme conditions, as well as a thorough overhaul to make sure they are in tip-top working order. You will need tanks for extra fuel and water as well as spares and modifications.

Boats and planes

Whether travelling privately or on a commercial service you must take note of the emergency procedures. Maritime and aviation authorities rule that passengers must be informed of them and remembering them could save your life.

When you board an aircraft cabin staff point out the emergency exits and advise you on action to take in the event of an emergency. On board ship you will carry out lifeboat drills and be instructed on how to abandon ship if you have to.

The safest place on an aircraft is as far back in the tail as possible. In a crash this frequently breaks off and most survivors are from this portion. If you are a passenger in a light aircraft ask the pilot about the trip: how long will it take and what sort of ground will you be flying over? Attend to details – they count in an emergency. Also, try to keep your kit with you at all times.


You’re getting your kit together, what is the most important item to remember to take with you?

Take your brain with you. You can’t beat the combination of common sense and experience in high-stress survival situations.


When things go wrong it’s a series of events that compound the situation. The weather deteriorates, the radio is broken, the mobile phone is lost. Two people have multiple injuries and you are out of water. Never give in. Plan for these situations and you will come through, but always have a contingency plan. Imagine the worst possible scenario, and train for it.

The unexpected

How can you prepare for what you do not expect? Preparing for expected difficulties and dangers is difficult enough, but what chance have you of equipping yourself for the totally unknown disaster? Yet these are the disasters that immediately spring to people’s minds – the shipwreck and the plane crash or forced landing in unfamiliar and difficult terrain.

This is the reason for this book’s existence. Even more important, however, is to know about a whole range of skills which can be applied and adapted to all kinds of situations and to develop a way of thinking that enables you to draw upon them to find the solutions to particular problems. This is the preparation you can make for the unexpected.

But this is not all. You can equip yourself with a few small items which will increase your chances many times over by helping you with some of the basic necessities of survival. This can tip the balance between failure and success. They will fit in a small container slipped into a pocket or bag and can be carried anywhere. They are your survival kit. If there is an emergency you will be glad you always carry it.

More bulky, but still compact enough to carry on a belt whenever you are travelling, are a knife and the items which will fit in your survival pouch (see Survival Pouch).

Without the basics, which these two kits provide, you can still improvise but they will give you a head start.

Survival kit

A few key items can make all the difference in the fight for survival. Collect the things listed below. They can all be fitted into a small container, such as a 2oz tobacco tin, that will be hardly noticeable when slipped into an anorak pocket. Make a habit of always having it with you. Do not choose something bigger, you may find it inconvenient to carry and leave it out on the one occasion you actually need it. Many people who roll their own cigarettes carry such a tin.

Experience has proved that each item earns its place, though some are more use in some situations than in others: fish hooks, for instance, may be invaluable in the jungle but less so in the desert.

Polish the inside of the lid to make a mirror-like reflecting surface and seal it, to be waterproof, with a strip of adhesive tape which can be easily removed and replaced. Don’t then just forget the tin. Regularly check the contents, changing any which deteriorate, such as matches and medicine tablets. Mark all drug containers with use and dosage and a run-out date when they should be replaced. Pack spare space in the tin with cotton wool, which will keep the contents from rattling and can be used for firelighting.

The key items a survival kit should contain.

Standard survival tin

An example of a survival kit – a well-prepared surivival kit could save your life

Matches (1)

Waterproof matches are useful but bulkier than ordinary non-safety, strike-anywhere matches, which can be made ‘shower-proof’ by dipping the heads in melted candle fat. To save space, snap off half of each matchstick.

It is much easier to use matches than to make fire by other methods but don’t waste them, use only when improvised methods fail. Take them from the tin one at a time and replace the lid. Never leave the container open or lying on the ground.

Candle (2)

Invaluable for starting a fire as well as a light source. If made of tallow it is also fat to eat in an emergency or to use for frying – but be sure it is tallow; paraffin wax and some other candles are inedible. Tallow does not store well, especially in hot climates.

Flint (3)

Flints will work when wet and they will go on striking long after you run out of matches. Invest in a processed flint with a saw striker.

Needles and thread (4)

Several needles, including at least one with a very large eye that can be threaded with sinew and coarse threads. Choose strong thread and wrap it around the needles. They can be used for repairing or making clothes in an emergency.

Fish hooks and line (5)

A selection of different hooks in a small tin or packet. Add a few split lead weights. Remember that a small hook will catch both large and small fish but a large hook will only catch big ones. Include as much line as possible, it will also be useful for catching birds.

Compass (6)

A luminous button compass – but make sure you know how to read it, as some small compasses can be confusing. A liquid-filled type is best, but check that it does not leak, has no bubbles in it and is fully serviceable. The pointer is prone to rust. Make sure it is on its pivot and swings freely.

Snare wire (7)

Preferably brass wire – 60–90cm (2–3ft) should do. Save for snares, but could solve many survival problems.

Flexible saw (8)

These usually come with large rings at the ends as handles. These take up too much room, so remove them; they can be replaced by wooden toggles when you need to use it. To protect from rust and breakage cover it in a film of grease. Flexible saws can be used to cut even quite large trees.

Water sterilizing tablets (9)

For use where water is suspect and you cannot boil. Follow manufacturers’ instructions. These should only be used when no other purification methods are available as they can cause stomach upsets and nausea.

Condom (10)

This makes a good water-bag – holding 1 litre (1¾pt). It is easiest to fill it from a source that has an abundance of water and a degree of water pressure, like a waterfall. Alternatively plastic bags can be used.

Cotton wool (11)

Compact and easily stored, cotton wool is one of the best kindling materials available. Also stops the tin’s contents rattling.

Whistle (12)

Key item for raising an alert, attracting attention, and preventing members of a group from getting lost.

Pocket knife (13)

Pencil (& waterproof paper) (14)

It is essential to keep a record of important survival information – for instance, the locations of resources or lists of edible local plants.

Safety pin (15)

If you’re on the move and tear your clothes, safety pins can provide quick repair until you can fix things properly. The same can be applied for shelter coverings. You can also use the pins as fishing hooks for catching fish or birds.

Waterproof Tape (16)

Use to seal the survival tin. Serves as an all-weather adhesive with applications ranging from building shelters and tools to securing medical bandages.

Additional survival gear

A good survival kit is one that is flexible and dynamic. When preparing a trip to the wilderness, it is essential to know how your needs will change depending on the anticipated range of conditions. The following is a list of basic items needed to build the most comprehensive Survival Kit tailored around your requirements.

Magnifying glass

Can start a fire from direct sunshine and is useful for searching for splinters and stings.

Beta light

Beta lights provide a reliable and continuous light source for about 15 years. The lights are generally the size of a small coin, are self-illuminating requiring no batteries, and are ideal for map reading.


Assorted sizes, preferably waterproof, for minor abrasions and keeping cuts clean. They can be cut and used as butterfly sutures (see Stitching Wounds).

Medical kit

What you include depends upon your own skill in using it. Pack medicines in airtight containers with cotton wool to prevent rattling. The following items will cover most ailments:

  • Analgesic: A pain reliever for mild and moderate pain. Paracetamol is ideal for tooth-, ear- and headaches and brufen (containing ibuprofen) is also an anti-inflammatory and is good for bruises and sprains. DOSE: one tablet every six hours as needed but can cause constipation as a side-effect so will help in cases of loose bowels. Not to be taken by children, asthmatics or people with liver disorders.

  • Intestinal sedative: For treating acute and chronic diarrhoea. Immodium is usually favoured. DOSE: two capsules initially, then one each time a loose stool is passed.

  • Antibiotic: For general infections. Tetracycline can be used even by people hypersensitive to penicillin. DOSE: one 250mg tablet, four times daily, repeated for five to seven days. Carry enough for a full course. If taking, avoid milk, calcium and iron preparations or other drugs containing aluminium hydroxide.

  • Antihistamine: For allergies, insect bites and stings (may also help in cases of a bad reaction to a drug). Sleepiness is a side-effect of some brands, so useful as a mild sleeping pill. Do not exceed recommended dosages or take with alcohol.

  • Anti-malaria tablets: Essential in areas where malaria is present. There are types which require only one tablet taken monthly.

  • Potassium permanganate: Add to water and mix until water becomes bright pink to sterilize it, deeper pink to make an antiseptic and to a full red to treat fungal diseases such as athlete’s foot. Useful also as a fire lighter.

Surgical blades

At least two scalpel blades of different sizes. A handle can be made from wood when required.

Butterfly sutures

Use to hold the edges of wounds together once it has been properly cleaned and sterilized.

Survival pouch

In a car, boat or aircraft don’t stow all your kit separately. Pack a survival pouch, too large to carry in your pocket like your survival tin but kept where it can be grabbed quickly in an emergency. If you are on foot keep it outside your backpack, and carry it on your belt. It should contain fuel, food, survival bag and signalling kit, all packed into a mess tin (a) which protects the kit and doubles as a cooking utensil. If you fancy a brew or a snack, it is all there for you and in an emergency it gives you a first back-up for survival. Anything you use from the pouch must be replenished as soon as possible.

Mess tin

This is made from aluminium, which is light and strong. A good cooking utensil, it protects kit packed inside it.


Preferably you should have solid hexamine fuel tablets in their own stove container (1). Use sparingly when a wood fire is inconvenient. They make excellent fire lighters. The stove simply unfolds to form an adjustable pot stand (2) and holder for burning fuel.


Pack a small pencil-like torch (3) that takes up little room. Keep batteries inside it, but reverse the last so that, if accidentally switched on, the batteries don’t run down. Many modern torches use light-emitting diodes (LED) as their light source rather than conventional bulbs. They use less battery power and will typically work continuously for two weeks.


Signal flares (4) to attract attention, especially in close country. Carry red and green miniflares (5) and a discharger (6) (no bigger than a fountain pen). These are explosive so pack carefully. Simply remove discharger and screw on to flare (7). Withdraw flare and point skywards at arm’s length. Pull the trigger to fire.

Marker panel

A strip or bar of fluorescent material about 0.3 x 2m (1 x 6ft) used to attract attention in an emergency (see Signalling). One bar signals immediate evacuation. Form other signals with panels carried by others in your party. Pack to stop the other items in the pouch rattling. A silver thermal blanket is ideal for this.


Pack as many matches (8) as possible in a waterproof container, you never have enough. Movement against each other can ignite non-safety matches – pack carefully.

Brew kit

There is nothing like a brew-up to restore morale. Pack tea powder and sachets of milk and sugar (9). Tea quenches thirst – coffee aggravates it!


Fat is the hardest food to come by when living off the land. Its extra calories earn it a place in your kit – tubes of butter, lard or ghee (10) are available. Dehydrated meat blocks (11) are nourishing and sustaining, though not very good in flavour. Chocolate (12) is a good food, but does not keep well – check regularly. Salt (13) MUST be included – or, better still, an electrolite powder which contains vitamins, salt and other minerals that the body requires.

Survival bag

A large polythene bag about 200 x 60cm (7 x 2ft) is a life-saver in the cold. In an emergency get inside to reduce heat loss. Although wet from condensation you will be warm. Even better is a heat-insulated bag made of reflective material that keeps you warm and solves the condensation problem.

Survival log

Keep a written log of all events. Do not trust your memory. Record discoveries of resources, and of what works and what does not. It becomes a valuable reference and making it helps keep up your morale.


The pouch must be made from waterproof material and be large enough to take a mess tin. It must have a positive fastening that will not come undone, and a strong tunnel loop to hold it on your belt. Remember the pouch contains matches, solid fuel and flares – all life-savers, but to be treated with care.


A knife is an invaluable asset in a survival situation. The serious adventurer will carry one always. They should be packed with the luggage that you are checking in when travelling by commercial aircraft, otherwise they will be confiscated. Current knife law in the UK states that knives where the blade folds into the handle are legal as long as the blade is shorter than 3in (7.62cm).

Watch Lofty show you how to handle a knife safely

Choosing a knife

A multi-bladed folding knife is a useful tool, but, if you carry only one knife, you need something stronger, a general-purpose blade that will do all likely tasks efficiently and comfortably, from cutting trees to skinning animals and preparing vegetables. Some have a compass built into the handle or have the handle hollowed out so that you can carry survival kit inside it. However, these features will be offset by the possibility of a hollow handle breaking and a compass may soon lose its accuracy after the knife has been used on a hardwood tree. If you lose this kind of knife you also lose your survival kit – much better to keep the kit in a separate pouch on your belt or on the sheath.

Remember: You are only as sharp as your knife

Your knife is such an important piece of survival equipment, that you must keep it sharp and ready for use. Don’t misuse your knife. Never throw it into trees or onto the ground. Keep it clean and, if you don’t intend to use it for a while, oiled and in its sheath.

When walking through close, or difficult terrain, get in the habit of checking your knife. This should become an automatic reflex especially after negotiating difficult terrain. A check of all pockets and possessions should be second nature.

Folding knives

A folding knife that has a serrated edge, and which can be opened one-handed is valuable, provided it has a good locked position. Always carry one. A blade in a wooden handle is usually more comfortable: it will not slip in a sweaty hand and, if the handle is made from a single piece of wood, is less likely to cause blisters.

Handle (a) is ideal: a single rounded piece of wood, the knife tang passing through it and fastened at the end. If the handle breaks the tang can be wrapped with cloth or twine.

Handle (b) is only riveted to the tang and would cause blisters. Handle (c) could break at the rivets if subjected to heavy work and the short tang would make it difficult to improvise a handle. The sheath (d) should have a positive fastening and a tunnel belt loop.

The parang blade has three different edges: (b) does the heavy work of chopping wood and bone, (a) is finer and used for skinning, (c) is finer still for cawing and delicate work. (a) and (c) are easily maintained and (b) is sharp but not so sharp as to chip easily.


This is the Malayan name for a type of knife with a large curved blade like a machete. It is too large to be carried in normal daily life but ideal when going out into the wild.

A parang 30cm (12in) in overall blade length and weighing no more than 750g (1¾lb) is best, the blade 5cm (2in) at its widest and end-bolted into a wooden handle. The curved blade enables maximum effort to be applied when cutting timber and the blade arrives before the knuckles, so giving them protection. Even large trees can be cut down with a parang, which is especially useful for building shelters and rafts.

Sharpening a knife

Any sandstone will sharpen tools – a grey, clayey sandstone being best. Quartz, though more rarely found, is good and granite can also be used. Rub two pieces together to make them smooth. A double-faced stone with a rough and a smooth surface is ideal and should be carried in the sheath pocket. Use the rough surface first to remove burrs, then the smooth one to get a fine edge. The object is to get an edge that will last and not chip.

The sheath must have positive fastenings to keep the parang secure, and a loop for fixing to a belt. Some sheaths have a pocket on the front for a sharpening stone.

REMEMBER: There is a danger that the cutting edge may come through the side. To draw the parang NEVER hold the sheath on the same side as the cutting edge. This is dangerous. Get into the habit of gripping the side AWAY FROM THE CUTTING EDGE.

To sharpen the blade, hold the handle in the right hand. Use a clockwise circular motion and apply a steady pressure on the blade with the fingertips of the left hand as you push away. Keep the angle constant and make sure you push the knife into the stone so that the edge is sharpened rather than rounded. Keep the stone wet. Rock particles on the blade will show the angle you are obtaining. DON’T drag the blade towards you under pressure. This will produce burrs. Reduce the pressure for a finer edge. Work counter clockwise on the other side.

Blade profile: (a) is too steep and will soon wear, (b) is good and (c) is too fine and might chip.

Facing disaster

When facing a disaster it is easy to let yourself go, to collapse and be consumed in self-pity. But it is no use giving up or burying your head and hoping this is a bad dream that will soon pass. It won’t, and with that kind of attitude it will rapidly become much worse. Only positive action can save you. A healthy, well-nourished person can physically tolerate a great deal, provided that he or she has self-confidence. Even if sick or injured, a determined person can win through and recover from seemingly impossible situations. To do so there are many stresses that must be overcome.

Survival stress

The survival situation will put you under pressure, both physical and mental. You will have to overcome some or all of the following stresses:

  • Fear and anxiety
  • Pain, illness and injury
  • Cold and/or heat
  • Thirst, hunger and fatigue
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Boredom
  • Loneliness and isolation

Can you cope? You have to.

Self-confidence is a product of good training and sound knowledge. These must be acquired before you have to face up to a survival situation.

Physical fitness plays an important part. The fitter you are the better you will survive. Initially you may have to go without sleep to find a safe location, or make a long march in dangerous conditions. Don’t wait until you are forced to go without sleep to see if you are capable of doing so. Prove it to yourself now by getting into training. Develop the resources to cope with fatigue and loss of sleep.

You will be working hard to procure food and water. They will relieve hunger and thirst. But finding them will tire you and you will need an adequate shelter to enable you to rest and recover from your efforts. Don’t overdo it. Rest frequently and assess the situation.

Pain and fever are warning signals that call attention to an injury or physical condition. They are not in themselves dangerous, however distressing and discomforting. Pain can be controlled and overcome. Its biological function is to protect an injured part, to prevent you using it, but this warning may have to be ignored to avoid the risk of further injury or death.

Basic needs

To reiterate, the main elements required for survival are FOOD, FIRE, SHELTER and WATER. Use PLAN (Protection, Location, Acquisition, Navigation) to help you to prioritise your survival needs. If you don’t have shelter in the desert, having 2 litres (3½pts) of water is of little use to you in the longer term.

It takes a healthy person quite a long time to die of starvation, for the body can use up its stored resources, but exposure to wind, rain and cold can be fatal even in temperate climates and death comes in only minutes in the icy waters of the poles. Food is rarely the first priority. Even in those places where it is difficult to find there are usually other problems to face first. Shelter will often be the prime necessity in extremes of climate or temperature – not just in the frozen polar regions or the baking deserts, but for walkers trapped by mist on a hillside. The need for fire is closely linked.

Water is something that most people in the modern world take for granted. They are so used to turning on a tap that until an extreme drought causes water rationing they scarcely think about it. Yet the survivor at sea, or after a flood, though surrounded by water, may be desperate for drinkable water – and there are many places where, unless it rains, no obvious water is available. The other survival necessities are dealt with later in the book, but water is universally important.

Survival scenario

How long can the body cope without essentials?

In general the human body can survive for 3 minutes without air, 3 days without water, 3 weeks without food. There are always exceptions to this and there are examples of people pushing these boundaries and surviving for longer periods. It is amazing what the human body can endure but such a survivor’s health can suffer in the long term due to such trauma. For example a person surviving for more than 9 days without water will undoubtedly suffer kidney damage or failure.

Animals as signs of water

Most animals require water regularly. Grazing animals are usually never far from water – though some kinds travel thousands of miles to avoid the dry season – as they need to drink at dawn and dusk. Converging game trails often lead to water; follow them downhill. Carnivores (meat eaters) can go for a long period between waterings. They get moisture from the animals on which they prey so are not a positive indication of local water.

Grain eaters, such as finches and pigeons, are never far from water. They drink at dawn and dusk. When they fly straight and low they are heading for water. When returning from water they are loaded with it and fly from tree to tree, resting frequently. Plot their direction and water can be found.

Water birds can travel long distances without stopping to feed or drink so do not necessarily indicate water nearby. Hawks, eagles and other birds of prey also get liquids from their victims so cannot be taken as a sign of local water.

Not an indicator of water. They collect dew and get moisture from prey, so can go a long time without.

Good indicators, especially bees: they fly at most 6.5km (4 miles) from their nests or hives, but have no regular watering times. Ants are dependent upon water. A column of ants marching up a tree is going to a small reservoir of trapped water. Such reservoirs are found even in arid areas.

Most flies keep within 90m (100yd) of water, especially the European Mason Fly with its iridescent green body.

Will usually lead to a well, bore hole or soak. It may be covered over with scrub or rocks to reduce evaporation. Replace the cover.


Water is essential to life. A person can survive for three weeks without food but for only three days without water, therefore its discovery and conservation should be prioritized over food. Don’t wait until you have run out of water before you look for it. Conserve what you have and seek a source as soon as possible, preferably fresh running water, though all water can be sterilized by boiling or by using chemical purifiers. In a survival situation a 1 litre-jug (1¾pt) can be made to last 4 days, but if necessary the last ¼ litre (½pt) can be made to last 3 days. This is achieved by dividing the last ¼ litre into three, then drinking half of the day’s ration at midday, and the balance at night, for 3 days.

Water is the coolant that keeps the body at an even temperature, it is needed to keep the kidneys functioning to eliminate wastes, is required for breathing, and for digestion. But the fluids contained in the body are limited. Lost water must be replaced or health and efficiency will suffer. The average human requires the minimum of ¼ litre (½pt) of water per day to survive.

Water loss

The average person loses 2–3 litres (3½–5¼pt) of water each day – even someone resting in shade loses about 1 litre (1¾pt). Just breathing loses fluids, and loss through respiration and perspiration increases with work rate and temperature. Vomiting and diarrhoea increase loss further. This must all be replaced to preserve the critical water balance, either by actual water or water contained in food.

How to retain fluids
  • Avoid exertion. Just rest.
  • Don’t smoke.
  • Keep cool. Stay in shade. If there is none, erect a cover to provide it.
  • Do not lie on hot ground or heated surfaces.
  • Don’t eat, or eat as little as possible. If there is no water available fluid will be taken from the vital organs to digest food, further increasing dehydration. Fat is hardest to digest and takes a lot of fluid to break it down.
  • Never drink alcohol.
  • Don’t talk – and breathe through the nose, not the mouth.

Finding water

The first place to look is in valley bottoms where water naturally drains. If there is no obvious stream or pool, look for patches of green vegetation and try digging there. There may be water just below the surface which will build up in the hole. Even digging in gullies and dry stream beds may reveal a spring beneath the surface, especially in gravelly areas. In mountains look for water trapped in crevices.

On the coast digging above the high water line, especially where there are sand-dunes, has a good chance of producing about 5cm (2in) of fresh water that filters down and floats on the heavier salt water. It may be brackish but is still drinkable. Where cliffs fall into the sea look for lush growth of vegetation, even ferns and mosses, in a fault in the rock formation and you may find a soak or spring.

If no fresh water can be found, salt water can be distilled (see Solar Still and Distillation).

Dew and rain collection

Despite the acid rain produced by industrialized countries, which can cause a build-up of pollution in the soil, rainwater everywhere is drinkable and only needs collecting. Use as big a catchment area as possible, running the water off into containers of every kind. A hole dug in the ground and lined with clay will hold water efficiently, but keep it covered. If you have no impermeable sheeting, metal sheets or bark can be used to catch water in. If you have any doubt about the water you have collected, boil it.

In climates where it is very hot during the day and cold at night, heavy dew can be expected. When it condenses on metal objects it can be sponged or licked off.

You can use clothing to soak up water and then wring it out. One way is to tie clean cloths around the legs and ankles and walk through wet vegetation. These can be sucked or wrung out.

Remember: ration your sweat, not your water! If you have to ration water, take it in sips. After going a long time without water, don’t guzzle when you do find it. Take only sips at first. Large gulps will make a dehydrated person vomit, losing even more of the valuable liquid.

Dig a small hole in the ground, deepest in the centre.

Line the hole with a waterproof material fastened securely on all sides with small logs or stones.

By morning, dew will have accumulated in the centre of the plastic.


Tree and plant roots draw moisture from the ground, but a tree may take it from a water table 15m (50ft) or more below, too deep to dig down to reach. Don’t try; let the tree pump it up for you by tying a plastic bag around a leafy branch. Evaporation from the leaves will produce condensation in the bag.

How to produce drinkable water using a plastic bag

Tree sweatbag

Ground sweatbag

Even cut vegetation will produce some condensation as it warms up when placed in a large plastic bag. Arrange the bag on a slight slope to encourage condensation to run down to the collecting point. When no longer productive carefully replace with fresh foliage.

Solar still

Dig a hole in the ground approximately 90cm (36in) across and 45cm (18in) deep. Place a collecting can in the centre, then cover the hole with a sheet of plastic formed into a cone. The sun’s heat raises the temperature of the air and soil below and vapour is produced. As the air becomes saturated, water condenses on the underside of the plastic, running down into the container. This is especially effective in desert regions and elsewhere when it is hot during the day and cold at night. The plastic cools more quickly than the air, causing heavy condensation. This kind of still should collect at least 570ml (1pt) over a 24-hour period.

The still may also double as a trap. Insects and small snakes are attracted by the plastic. They may slide down into the cone or wriggle underneath it and drop into the hole and then cannot climb out. A solar still can be used to distill pure water from poisonous or contaminated liquids.

How to produce drinking water in the desert

Dig a hole in the ground approximately 90cm (36in) across and 45cm (18in) deep.

Cover the hole with a sheet of plastic formed into a cone, using stones or weights to secure edges and keep the cone shape.

Securely place a can in a position directly beneath the apex of the cone. Use a syphon to draw off water without disturbing the still.

Placing vegetation in the hole will increase moisture and condensation – producing more drinkable water.

The sun’s heat raises the temperature of the air and soil below and vapour is produced. As the air becomes saturated, water condenses on the underside of the plastic, running down into the container. This kind of still should collect at least 570ml (1pt) over a 24-hour period.


Be suspicious of any pool with no green vegetation growing around it, or animal bones present. It is likely to be polluted by chemicals in the ground close to the surface. Check edge for minerals which might indicate alkaline conditions. ALWAYS BOIL WATER FROM POOLS. In deserts there are lakes with no outlets; these become salt lakes. Their water MUST be distilled before drinking.


Distillation kits are part of the equipment of life-rafts, but they can be improvised. To distill liquid you need to make something to do the job of a laboratory retort. Pass a tube into the top of a water-filled covered container, placed over a fire, and the other end into a sealed collecting tin which, preferably, is set inside another container providing a jacket of cold water to cool the vapour as it passes out of the tube. You can improvise the equipment from any tubing – pack frames, for instance. To avoid wasting water vapour, seal around the joins with mud or wet sand.

An easier method is a variation on the solar still. It takes a little longer for the water to condense but may be easier to set up.

Take a tube from a covered vessel in which polluted / saltwater, or even urine, is to boil. Set the other end under a solar still. A sheet of metal or bark, perhaps weighted down, will cover the vessel. Even a cone of leaf over the water pot will help direct the steam into the tube.

Another way to ensure water is clean is to build a filter from materials available in the wilderness. First, gather loose sand, charcoal and moss then layer into a plastic bottle in that order.

Filter the water through the layers and most of the impurities should be removed.

Water from ice and snow

Melt ice rather than snow – it produces a greater volume faster for less heat: twice as much for half the heat. If forced to heat snow, place a little in the pot and melt that first, gradually adding more to it. If you put a lot of snow into the pot, the lower level will melt and then be soaked up into the absorbent snow above it, leaving a hollow beneath which will make the pot burn. Lower layers of snow are more granular than that on the surface and will yield more water.

Water from sea ice

Sea ice is salt (no good for drinking) until it has aged. The more recently frozen, the saltier it will be. New sea ice is rough in contour and milky-white in colour. Old ice is bluish and has rounded edges, caused by weathering.

Good water can be obtained from blue ice – the bluer and smoother the better. But beware of even old ice that has been exposed to salt spray.


Never drink either – Never! But both can produce drinking water if distilled – and sea water will provide you with a residue of salt.

Water from plants

Water collectors

Cup-shaped plants and cavities between the leaves of bromeliads (many of which are parasitic on the branches of tropical trees) often collect a reservoir of water.

Bamboo often holds water in its hollow joints. Old and yellow stems are more likely to be water-bearing. Shake them – if you can hear water slurping around, cut a notch at the bottom of each joint and tip the water out.


Vines with rough bark and shoots about 5cm (2in) thick can be a useful source of water. But you must learn by experience which are the water-bearing vines, because not all have drinkable water and some have a poisonous sap. The poisonous ones yield a sticky, milky sap when cut. You will know not to try that type again – otherwise it is a matter of trial and error and worth trying any species.

Some vines cause a skin irritation on contact if you suck them, so it is better to let the liquid drip into your mouth rather than put your mouth to the stem, and preferable to collect it in a container.

To obtain water from a vine select a particular stem and trace it upwards. Reach as high as possible and cut a deep notch in the stem. Cut off the same stem close to the ground and let the water drip from it into your mouth or into a container. When it ceases to drip, cut a section from the bottom and go on repeating this until the vine is drained. Do NOT cut the bottom of the vine first as this will cause the liquid to run up the vine through capillary action.


In Australia the water tree, desert oak and bloodwood have their roots near the surface. Prise these roots out from the ground and cut them up into 30cm (12in) lengths. Remove the bark. Suck out the moisture, or shave to a pulp and squeeze over the mouth.

It is not easy to find some of the most useful desert roots unless you have been shown by someone with experience. Australian Aborigines can identify a tiny twig which grows from a football-like bulbous root, which can be a life-saver – but unless you have been shown how to find them it is not worth expending your energy and resources looking.


Both the fruit and bodies of cacti store water, but not all cacti produce liquid safe to drink – the Saquarro, the giant multi-fingered cactus of Arizona, is very poisonous. Take care to avoid contact with cactus spines, they can be very difficult to remove, especially the very fine, hair-like ones, and can cause festering sores if they stay in the skin.

The barrel cactus Echinocactus grusoni (see Desert Plants) can reach a height of 120cm (4ft), is found in the southern United States through to South America and requires considerable effort to cut through its tough, spine-covered outer skin. The best method is to cut off the top and chop out pieces from the inside to suck, or to smash the pulp within the plant and scoop out the watery sap, which varies from tasteless in some plants to bitter in others.

An average-sized, 100cm (3¼ft) barrel cactus will yield about 1 litre (1¾pt) of milky juice and this is an exception to the rule to avoid milky-sapped plants.

Saquarro cactus Sereus giganteus of Mexico, Arizona and California, grows to 5m (17ft) high and holds large amounts of fluid – but it is poisonous. Collect and place in a solar still to evaporate and recondense during the cold night.

Opuntia cacti – Prickly pears, or Figilinda, have big, ear-like excrescences and produce oval fruits which ripen to red or gold. Their large spines are easier to avoid than those of many cacti. Both fruit and ‘ears’ are moisture-laden.


The buri, coconut and nipa palms all contain a sugary fluid which is very drinkable. To start it flowing bend a flowering stalk downwards and cut off its tip. If a thin slice is cut off the stalk every 12 hours the flow will be renewed, making it possible to collect up to a quart each day. Nipa palms shoot from the base so that you can work from ground level; on grown trees of other species you may have to climb up them to reach a flowering stalk.

Coconut milk has considerable water content, but from ripe nuts it is a powerful laxative; drinking too much would make you lose more fluid.

Traveller’s Tree Ravenala madagascariensis, one of the banana family, can hold 1–2 litres (2–4pt) of water between the bases of the chevron of leaf stalks.

Water from animals

Animal eyes contain water which can be extracted by sucking them.

All fish contain a drinkable fluid. Large fish, in particular, having a reservoir of fresh water along the spine. Tap it by gutting the fish and, keeping the fish flat, remove the backbone, being careful not to spill the liquid, and then drink it.

If you need water that badly you should be careful not to suck up the other fish juices in the flesh, for they are rich in protein and will use up water in digestion.

Desert animals can also be a source of moisture. In times of drought in north-western Australia, Aborigines dig in dry clay pans for the desert frogs that burrow in the clay to keep cool and survive. They store water in their bodies and it can be squeezed out of them.


Salt is essential for water retention. A normal diet includes a daily intake of 10g (1/3oz). The trouble starts when you start to get rid of it faster than you eat it. The body loses salt in sweat and urine, so the warmer the climate the greater the loss. Physical exertion will also increase the loss. However, replenishing the salt levels in your body is not always recommended, and much will depend on the situation you find yourself in. If you are on reduced food and or water rations, salt is the first thing that should be cut from your diet, because it increases dehydration.

What happens if you do not carry salt or your supplies run out? By the coast or at sea there is plenty of saltwater available – a pint of sea water contains about 15g (½oz) of salt, but do NOT just drink it as it is. Dilute it with plenty of fresh water. Evaporating sea water will leave you with salt crystals.

Inland salt supplies are more problematic. In farming areas you will find salt licks for cattle – but you will then be close to civilization and not likely to have reached the stage of salt deprivation. However, all animals need salt, and observation of them may reveal a natural source. In one part of Africa elephants risk the dangerous depths of a dark cave to lick salt from its sides.

Salt can be obtained from some plants. In North America the best source is the roots of hickory trees, and in south-east Asia those of the nipa palm can be used in the same way. Boil the roots until all the water is evaporated and black salt crystals are left.

If no direct salt sources are available to you then you will have to rely on getting it second-hand, through animal blood, which should never be wasted as it is a valuable source of minerals.

Recognize the signs of dehydration

The first symptoms of salt deficiency are muscle cramps, dizziness, nausea and tiredness. The remedy is to take a pinch of salt in half a litre (¾ pint) of water. Salt supplements in tablet form used to be the prescribed method of increasing sodium levels but always dissolve these in water, or isotonic drinks – if they are available.

Reading the signs

Being able to read and make a map is only the beginning of being able to find your way about. You must learn to interpret the signs found on the ground itself and in the air.

If you do not have a compass, there are a number of ways of creating your own. The sun and stars can provide firm orientation – a variety of methods are available for finding direction in both northern and southern hemispheres.

An ability to anticipate the weather can also be a valuable asset in the wild and simple guidelines for prediction and the interpretation of cloud patterns equip the survivor with more skills.

Before embarking on any expedition you will have learned all you can about the terrain, equipped yourself with maps, if available, and worked out routes. Memorize the lie of the land, the direction in which rivers flow, the high ground, the prominent features, the prevailing winds, the weather patterns to expect and any known hazards, check the phase of the moon and times of first and last light – all of which will be invaluable knowledge if you find yourself in difficulties. In a case of accident you may find yourself in a totally unknown territory and have to find out everything about your location from the land itself.

In choosing a campsite, tracing water and finding the other necessities for survival you will need to interpret the surrounding countryside – the other side of a hill may offer quite different conditions – and if you decide not to stay put you will have to interpret both the general geography and the particular landscape as you proceed.


Choose maps carefully, making sure that they are to a scale that will be useful to you and show helpful information. A very large-scale map that shows every footpath and building will be no use at all if you are driving a thousand miles along a motorway. Everything will be shown in great detail but only a tiny fraction of the journey will appear on one sheet and you would have to pile the car with maps and change from one to another every few miles. On the other hand few motoring maps give much information about the nature of the terrain or show features which would help a walker choose their route. Sailors must be equipped with accurate charts so that they can keep to safe waters. The surface below the sea can be as varied as that above. Flyers will need to know what altitude obstructions are and what turbulences occur near mountains which make it safer to fly higher. From the air the pattern of the land may show plainly but its contours are flattened out; without interpretation, a map looks rather like that to many people.

Maps and terrain

Height cannot be reproduced on flat sheets of paper so altitudes are recorded at regular intervals (usually every 50ft or every 15m according to the measure used) and every point at this height is joined up by a line – the contour line. In most cases these lines join up to form a complete shape, some sort of irregular oval with bulges here and there. If they suddenly stop against another line that means that there is an abrupt change of height – in fact, a cliff or a very steep fall.

The only contour line that you can see in nature is that of sea level along the coast (and even that is not quite true because of tidal variation) but you can imagine the contour lines as the edges of flat disks and that these are ranged equidistantly above each other. If you threw a cloth to rest over them it would link them together in a shape that would be approximately like a hill or other feature. However, you do not have a record of exactly what happens between those contour lines and there will not necessarily be an even slope connecting them. There could be outcrops of rock, hollows – any manner of variation within that 15m or 50ft. From the relative positions of one height to another you could make a pretty good guess as to what the ground surface was like, but you could not be sure. There may therefore be features that, because they fall between the contour lines, make no appearance on your map.

The contour lines on the map represent a series of points at the same distance above sea level and do not record what happens in between.

When the contours are closely grouped the change in height is more rapid (a). Conversely, greater spaces between the contour lines indicate gentler slopes (b).

Interpreting maps

Remember that the intervals between the contour lines are the distances between horizontal points at the same theoretical height – not the actual distance on the slope of the ground. They are measured in units that show relative positions and are not to a scale as is the horizontal plotting.

It is a common error to think of a group of contour lines indicating a rise in the ground comparable to the scale of the distance shown between them – but the scale of a typical walkers’ map is 1:50,000 and 10m on that would be only .02mm. Contours spaced 5mm apart on the surface of the map would be at a horizontal distances of 250m and the gradient only 1 in 25.


Before you can begin to use a map you must understand its scale. This may be shown by a scale bar marked with miles or kilometres to the size that they are shown on the map or it may be given as a ratio – 1:50,000 means that every measure on the map represents a distance 50,000 times greater on the ground.


There will usually also be a key to the symbols used within the map to represent natural and manmade features – rivers, roads, buildings, types of woodland or swamps, types of beach. What is shown, and how, will vary greatly. If there is no key on the individual map or on its wrapping make sure that you find out what symbols mean in that map series. Some will be fairly evident: if the map is in colour rivers will almost certainly be in blue, marshes will usually be indicated by stylized tufts of reed.

Not all features can be shown to exact scale. Roads and paths will probably be given standard widths to match the kind of track they are rather than their exact measurements, and streams and rivers will be similarly standardized. The British Ordnance Survey (OS) maps, for instance, show waterways as a single blue line, gradually increasing in width until it represents a width of 8m (27ft) across a stream, whereupon a double line is used, giving you an immediate indication that you have a river at least that wide to cross. There are similar standardizations on all maps. Once you have mastered the way that information is shown, maps will tell you a great deal.


Maps almost always carry a grid of lines which divides them up. This is either based on degrees of latitude and longitude or a special grid developed by the mapping authority. The advantage of the special grids is that they are usually planned to form squares based on ground measurement which can help you rapidly assess distances. On the British OS maps, for instance, the grid lines are 1km apart and the diagonal across them is 1½km. If you want to find, or report, a position it can be described by a coordinate made up from the line references from two adjoining sides of the map. To anyone using a map with the same grid this will immediately locate the ‘box’ in which it appears. Dividing the square by eye into further tenths pinpoints the location. This provides an easy way of telling rescuers of your location or of fixing a rendezvous point with them.

North on maps

Unless they are lines of longitude, the grid lines on a map are not an indication of north and south, though they may sometimes be close to it. Remember that a compass points not to true north but to magnetic north – and the difference between the two varies both according to where you are in the world and because magnetic north is slowly changing its position. To take accurate bearings you need to know these variations, but even a rough idea of orientation will help you to match your map to the landscape.

If you have an adjustable compass and information on the deviation of it and of your map grid from true north you can carefully match up all of them so that even in poor visibility, or where landscape features are beyond your horizon, you can take accurate bearings and follow them.

Many maps indicate the deviation or the direction of magnetic north. If this is not given you can find it from the North Star or by using the watch method to point to north. Use the Southern Cross in the same way in the Southern Hemisphere to establish south (both are illustrated later).

The point marked with a dot can be described as 15.5 x 62.8 using the coordinates from the sides of this grid. This system requires that squares are mentally divided into tenths in each direction. The ‘map reference’ is normally expressed as six digits: 155628. Any letter area codes on the map should be included.

Local magnetic variation

To find the local magnetic variation, when not recorded on a map, point the compass at the North Star. Note the difference between the pointer and indicated north.

Lining the compass up with the grid lines on the map you can discover their variation, if there is one. If you then propose to walk on magnetic bearings you must remember to compensate for the variation.

Map-reading skills should be learned by anyone planning an expedition and are particularly important in mountainous country. Compasses are available mounted with calibrations, scales and direction markers which make this kind of orientation easier. Check them out and have them explained to you.

In a survival situation you will probably have to manage without such sophistication. If unable to make appropriate corrections, continually check your position against visible features.

Measuring distances

As-the-crow-flies distances can be measured by using any straight edge and matching it up against the scale bar or multiplying by the ratio of the map’s scale. Meandering routes can be followed with a piece of thread which can then be straightened out. Gradients can make an appreciable difference to distances and must be allowed for – a gradient of 45 degrees, for instance, will add another 82m to a horizontal map distance of 200m (328ft becomes 725ft).

Survival scenario

You are navigating your way across unfamiliar terrain – what’s the most important thing to watch out for?

One of the most common errors people make is to overestimate how much ground they have covered. It is usually much less. One way around this is to fit the ground where you are to the map rather than the map to where you think you are.

Your own maps

The survivor may not be lucky enough to have a map and should then set about making one. With a map you will always be able to find your way back to camp – essential if you are going for help for the sick, children or elderly survivors left behind.

It is not possible for you to measure exact contour heights, but you can devise your own system for indicating the contours.

Find the best vantage point and look out over the terrain. Climbing a tree may give a better view. Note the direction of the ridges, count how many you can see. Between each ridge there is probably a stream or river flowing, you cannot be sure – there will be a lot of ‘dead ground’, territory you cannot see. Make a general map with blank patches and then fill them in as you gain more information from other vantage points and from your explorations on the ground.

Mark anything of interest on your map: watercourses, rocky outcrops, isolated trees, strangely shaped features that will act as landmarks, and areas of different vegetation. You can plot positions of your traps, animal lairs, good places for foraging for food and fuel or finding useful stones for implements. It will be much easier for you or your companions than relying on your memory or vague descriptions.


A concave slope (a) (where you can see the top from the bottom) has the higher contours close together.

A convex slope (b) (where you cannot see the top from the bottom) has the low contours close together.

Direction finding

The Earth’s relationship to the rest of the solar system and the position of the stars in the sky help to locate any position on its surface. Its revolution on its axis produces the changes from light to darkness and its orbit around the sun produces the seasons, for the earth is tilted at an angle to the sun and first the north and then the south becomes nearer to it, the closest point traversing from the Tropic of Cancer (23.5°N) to the Tropic of Capricorn (23.5°S), the sun being above Cancer on 22 June and above Capricorn on 22 December. It is above the Equator on 21 March and 21 September.

The sun rises in the east and sets in the west – but not EXACTLY in the east and west. There is also some seasonal variation. In the Northern Hemisphere, when at its highest point in the sky, the sun will be due south; in the Southern Hemisphere this noonday point will mark due north. The hemisphere will be indicated by the way that shadows move: clockwise in the north, anticlockwise in the south. Shadows can be a guide to both direction and time of day.

Shadow stick method #1

1 On a patch of flat, clear ground place a tall stick as upright as possible. Note where its shadow falls with a marker.

2 Wait at least 15 minutes for the sun to travel across the sky, and then mark the new location of the tall stick's shadow.

3 Join the two markers and you have the directions of east and west – the first mark is west.

4 North-south will be at right angles to this line. This method works at any time of day when there is sunshine and at any latitude. Use it for spot checks as you proceed.

How to navigate using the sun

Shadow stick method #2

Another, more accurate, method – if you have the time – is to mark the first shadow tip in the morning. Draw a clean arc at exactly this distance from the stick, using the stick as a centre point. As midday approaches the shadow will shrink and move. In the afternoon, as the shadow lengthens again, mark the EXACT spot where it touches the arc. Join the two points to give east and west – west is the morning mark.

Direction by watch

A traditional watch with two hands can be used to find direction, provided it is set to true local time (without variation for summer daylight saving and ignoring conventional time zones which do not match real time). The nearer the Equator you are the less accurate this method will be, for with the sun almost directly overhead it is very difficult to determine its direction.

Northern hemisphere

Hold the watch horizontal. Point the hour hand at the sun. Bisect the angle between the hour hand and the 12 mark to give a north-south line.

Southern hemisphere

Hold the watch horizontal. Point 12 towards the sun. A mid-point between 12 and the hour hand will give you the north-south line.

Improvised compasses

A piece of ferrous metal wire – a sewing needle is ideal – stroked repeatedly IN ONE DIRECTION against silk will become magnetized and can be suspended so that it points north. The magnetism will not be strong and will need regular topping up.

Stroking with a magnet, should you have one, will be much more efficient than using silk – stroke the metal smoothly from one end to the other IN ONE DIRECTION ONLY.


Suspend the needle in a loop of thread, so that it does not affect the balance. Any kinks in or twisting of the thread must be avoided.

Using electricity

If you have a power source of two volts or more (a small dry battery, for instance) the current can be used to magnetize the metal. You will also need a short length of wire, preferably insulated. Coil the insulated wire around the ‘needle’. If it has no ready-made insulation wrap a few layers of paper or a piece of cardboard around the needle first. Attach the ends of the wire to the terminals of the battery for five minutes.

Floating needle

A suspended needle will be easier to handle on the move but in camp or when making a halt a better method is to lay the needle on a piece of paper, bark or grass and float it on the surface of water.

Razor blade compass

A thin flat razor blade can also be used as a compass needle because it is made of two metals bonded together. It can be magnetized simply by stropping WITH CARE against the palm of the hand. Suspend it.

Use other methods to establish which general direction is north and then identify which end of your new compass needle is which and mark one of them. Top up your needle’s magnetism from time to time, and always check your reading with the sun. A ‘wild’ reading may be given if large amounts of ferrous metal are nearby.

Plant pointers

Even without a compass or the sun to give direction you can get an indication of north and south from plants. They tend to grow towards the sun so their flowers and most abundant growth will be to the south in the Northern Hemisphere, the north in the South.

On tree trunks moss will tend to be greener and more profuse on that side too (on the other side it will be yellowish to brown). Trees with a grainy bark will also display a tighter grain on the north side of the trunk.

If trees have been felled or struck down the pattern of the rings on the stump also indicates direction – more growth is made on the side towards the Equator so there the rings are more widely spaced.

There are even species of plant known for their north–south orientation:

North Pole Plant which grows in South Africa, leans towards the north to gain full advantage of the sun.

Patterns in sand-dunes are useful indicators of wind direction.

Compass Plant of North America directs its leaves in a north–south alignment. Its profile from east or west is quite different from that of north or south.

The wind direction

If the wind direction of the prevailing wind is known it can be used for maintaining direction – there are consistent patterns throughout the world but they are not always the same the whole year round.

Where a strong wind always comes from the same direction plants and trees may be bent in one direction, clear evidence of the wind’s orientation. But plants are not the only indication of wind direction: birds and insects will usually build their nests in the lee of any cover and spiders cannot spin their webs in the wind. Snow and sand dunes are also blown into distinctive patterns by a prevailing wind which blows from the outside of the high central ridges.

Making use of the moon

The moon has no light of its own, it reflects that of the sun. As it orbits the earth over 28 days the shape of the light reflected varies according to its position. When the moon is on the same side of the earth as the sun no light is visible – this is the ‘new moon’ (a) – then it reflects light from its apparent right-hand side, from a gradually increasing area as it ‘waxes’. At the full moon it is on the opposite side of the earth from the sun (b) and then it ‘wanes’, the reflecting area gradually reducing to a narrow sliver on the apparent left-hand side. This can be used to identify direction.

If the moon rises BEFORE the sun has set the illuminated side will be on the west. If the moon rises AFTER midnight the illuminated side will be in the east. This may seem a little obvious, but it does mean you have the moon as a rough east-west reference during the night.

How to navigate by the stars in both the Northern and Southern hemipheres

Direction by the stars

The stars stay in the same relation to one another and pass over the same places on the earth night after night. Their passage over the horizon starts four minutes earlier each night – a two-hour difference in time over a month. If you study a star at a certain position at a certain time one evening and then check its position the next evening at the same time you will find that it has moved one degree of arc anticlockwise in the northern hemisphere, clockwise in the southern. Rising in the east, stars attain a zenith and set on the western horizon at the same distance from their zenith as they rose.

The stars have been studied for thousands of years and the groups, or constellations, in which they appear to the naked eye were named in ancient times after the animals and mythological figures that their shape suggested.

In the northern hemisphere there are groups of stars that remain visible throughout the night, wheeling around the only star that does not appear to move – the Pole Star (a valuable navigation aid, for it is located almost above polar north). In the southern hemisphere the Pole Star is not visible and there is no comparable bright and stable southern star, but direction finding in the southern hemisphere makes use of a constellation called the Southern Cross, in a way that is explained later.

The northern sky

The main constellations to learn are the Plough, also known as the Big Dipper (diagram ‘a’, opposite), Cassiopeia (diagram ‘b’, opposite) and Orion, all of which, like all stars in the northern sky, apparently circle the Pole Star (Polaris), but the first two are recognizable groups that do not set.

These constellations come up at different times according to latitude and Orion is most useful if you are near the Equator.

Each can be used in some way to check the position of the Pole Star (North Star) but once you have learned to recognize it you probably will not need to check each time.

A line can be drawn connecting Cassiopeia and the Plough (the Big Dipper), through the Pole Star. You will notice that the two lowest stars of the Great Bear point almost to the Pole Star. It will help you to find these constellations if you look along the Milky Way.

The Plough (The Big Dipper) (a) is the central feature of a very large constellation, the Great Bear (Ursa Major). It wheels around the Pole Star. The two stars Dubhe (x) and Merak (y) point, beyond Dubhe, almost exactly to the Pole Star about four times further away than the distance between them.

Cassiopeia (b) is shaped like a W and also wheels around the North Star. It is on the opposite side of the Pole Star and about the same apparent distance away as the Plough (the Big Dipper). On clear, dark nights this constellation may be observed overlaying the Milky Way. It is useful to find this constellation as a guide to the location of the Pole Star, if the Plough is obscured for some reason. The centre star points almost directly towards it.


Apparently rising = facing east

Apparently falling = facing west

Looping flatly to the right = facing south

Looping flatly to the left = facing north

These are only approximate directions but you will find them adequate for navigation. They will be reversed in the southern hemisphere.

Other stars that rise and set can be used to determine direction. Set two stakes in the ground, one shorter than the other, so that you can sight along them (or use the sights of a rifle propped in a steady position). Looking along them at any star – except the Pole Star – it will appear to move. From the star’s apparent movement you can deduce the direction in which you are facing.

Reading the southern sky

There is no star near the South Celestial Pole bright enough to be easily recognized. Instead a prominent constellation is used as a signpost to south: the Southern Cross (Crux), a constellation of five stars which can be distinguished from two other cross-shaped groups by its size – it is smaller – and its two pointer stars.

Finding south

To locate south, project an imaginary line along the cross and four and a half times longer and then drop it vertically down to the horizon. Fix, if you can, a prominent landmark on the horizon – or drive two sticks into the ground to enable you to remember the position by day.

Finding the southern cross

One way to find the Southern Cross is to look along the Milky Way, the band of millions of distant stars that can be seen running across the sky on a clear night. In the middle of it there is a dark patch where a cloud of dust blocks out the bright star background, known as the Coal Sack. On one side of it is the Southern Cross, on the other the two bright pointer stars.

Weather signs

Weather is much more localized than climate. Although it is possible to generalize about the weather to be expected in different parts of the world, and in some territories weather patterns are very stable, the geography of one small area may make it differ considerably from that adjoining.

Weather patterns are produced partly by the broad movements of wind and water over the whole globe and partly by localized differences in temperature and air pressure which cause air movements. These produce winds and carry rain.

In general, air moves from high-pressure areas into low-pressure zones, with warm air expanding and rising, cooler air moving in underneath. The warm air takes up moisture but at higher altitudes, or when some other cause brings down its temperature, the moisture begins to condense as cloud and eventually will fall as rain.

The most obvious example is where mountains force air currents upwards, rain falling on the slopes. In some places so much water is lost that on the far side of the range there is a dry ‘rain shadow’ territory.

However, that does not necessarily mean that if, from the dry terrain, you climb and cross the ridge you will move into a well-watered zone. The mountain zone may continue some way before the area of great precipitation is reached, or some earlier physical feature may have caused clouds to shed most of their rain.

Coastal areas

In coastal areas, whether of an ocean or an inland sea or lake, there will usually be a wind pattern that reverses from day to night. Water absorbs and loses heat less readily than the land and consequently it tends to be cooler than land during the day and warmer at night. The temperature difference affects the air above it and during the day breezes usually blow from sea to land, at night the wind changes and blows off the land.

Where an island is close to a large land mass these patterns may be overlaid by a broader air movement but a very regular pattern of day-night change in wind direction suggests a large body of water in the direction from which the day wind blows.


Winds can carry scents with them, providing information about the place from which they blow. Even to the untrained nose the smell of the sea will be recognizable, and to the shipwrecked survivor the smells of vegetation will indicate the direction of land. However, do not rely entirely on the nose, use other evidence to confirm its message.

Where winds tend to maintain direction they can be an aid in keeping to a course, but some other check should also be regularly made to keep direction.

Study the direction of the wind and the accompanying weather. Make a note of them. Dependent always upon barometric conditions, wind from a certain direction is always likely to bring a similar kind of weather. It is a guide for weather prediction.

If a wind is strong and dry the weather will remain constant until the wind drops or veers, then it may rain.

If it is foggy and misty you may get condensation but you will not get rain – but if a wind rises and blows away the fog it may turn to rain.

On a fine day a noticeable increase in the strength of the wind indicates a weather change. (See also Hurricane and Tornado.)

Studying wind direction will help you learn to predict weather patterns.


Watch the way that clouds change, for clouds are the most reliable of weather signs.

Clouds are formed from masses of water vapour which becomes visible as it condenses with cooling. If cooling continues the droplets increase in size until, too heavy to remain airborne, they fall as rain. When their temperature rises sufficiently they evaporate and the cloud disperses.

There are ten main types of cloud formation. Approximate altitudes are given for each type. The same shapes occur at lower altitudes in polar regions.

The higher the clouds the finer the weather.

Small black clouds scudding beneath a dark stratus layer often bring showers.

Clouds hanging on high ground indicate rain, unless they move by midday.

Cirrocumulus clouds are small rounded masses, looking like rippled sand and often referred to as a ‘mackerel sky’. Normally an omen of fair weather, they usually follow a storm and dissipate, leaving a brilliant blue sky.

Altocumulus clouds are fair weather clouds, similar to cirrocumulus but on a larger scale, thicker, not so white and with shadows in them. They usually appear after a storm.

Cumulonimbus clouds are low thunder clouds. Dark and angry looking, they may tower to 6,000m (20,000ft) with the top flattening out in what is often called an anvil top. This is a cloud that brings hail, a strong wind, thunder and lightning. False cirrus appears above, false nimbostratus below.

Cumulus clouds are very easy to recognize: fluffy white clouds, not unlike cauliflowers. They are usually an indication of fair weather when widely separated but, if they become very large and develop many heads, they are capable of producing sudden heavy showers. Cumulus clouds at sea in an otherwise cloudless sky are often an indication of land beneath them.

Cirrus clouds are high, wispy clouds formed from ice crystals which give them a white appearance. Often called ‘mares’ tails’, they are seen in fine weather.

Cirrostratus clouds are clouds made up of ice particles and look like white veins. These are the only clouds which produce a halo around the sun or moon. If it gets bigger it means fine weather, smaller a sign of rain. If the sky is covered with cirrus clouds and the sky above them darkens and the formation changes to cirrostratus it is an indication that rain or snow are coming.

Altostratus clouds form a greyish veil through which the sun or moon may appear as a watery disk. If wet weather is approaching the disk will disappear and the cloud thicken and darken until it begins to rain.

Stratocumulus clouds form a low, lumpy, rolling mass, usually covering the whole sky, though often thin enough for the sun to filter through them. Light showers may precipitate from these clouds but they usually dissipate in the afternoon and leave a clear night sky.

Nimbostratus clouds form low, dark blankets of cloud and spread gloom. They mean rain or snow within four or five hours and usually the rain continues for hours.

Stratus clouds are the lowest of clouds and form a uniform layer like fog in the air – they are often described as hill fog when they occur. They are not a normal rain cloud but can produce a drizzle. When they form thickly overnight and cover the morning sky they will usually be followed by a fine day.


To be caught in bad weather could be fatal to survival. There is a time to go out or move on and a time to shelter. With an awareness of certain signs, short-term weather predictions can be made to help decide which to do.

Before setting out on any activity take note of the weather and any changes that are likely. Learn to observe all wind and pressure changes and keep a record of the weather and the conditions which precede it and what they develop into.

Wildlife indicators

Animals have great sensitivity to atmospheric pressure which aids them in forecasting the weather a day or two in advance.

Insect-eating birds, such as swallows, feed higher in good weather, lower when a storm is approaching.

Unusual rabbit activity during the day, or squirrels taking more food than usual to the nest, may be a prelude to bad weather.

Nature, however, does not go in for long-time forecasting. A squirrel’s hoard of nuts is an indication of its industry, not the intensity of the coming winter. The depth of a bear’s den has no relation to its severity, but reflects the soil conditions. A particularly big crop of berries is the result of previous bad conditions, the tree producing extra fruit to give the species more chance of survival.

Fireside clues

If the smoke from the camp fire rises steadily the weather is settled and likely to remain fine. If it starts swirling, or being beaten downwards after rising a short way, it indicates the likely approach of a storm or shower.

Wooden tool handles tighten at the approach of stormy weather. Salt picks up increasing dampness in the air and will not run.

‘Feelings in your bones’

Curly-haired people find their hair becomes tighter and less manageable as bad weather approaches – and the same happens to animal fur. Anyone with rheumatism, corns or similar ailments can usually tell when wet weather is coming by an increase in their discomfort.

Sound and smell

When wet weather is on the way sounds tend to carry further than usual and distant noises seem more clear – the moisture-laden atmosphere acts like an amplifier. But compare like to like – remember, sound always travels better over water.

The smell of trees and plants becomes more distinctive before the arrival of rain, the vegetation is opening ready to receive it.

Signs in the sky

‘Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight, red sky in the morning, shepherd’s warning’ is one of the oldest of weather sayings. Since a red sun, or a red sky at sunset, indicates that the atmosphere holds little moisture it is unlikely that rain or snow will occur within the next two hours, but equally a red sky in the morning is a fair indication that a storm is approaching.

A grey morning is usually the start of a dry day. The dull colour is the result of dry air above the haze formed by the collection of dew on the dust particles suspended in the lower atmosphere.

An evening sky that is grey and overcast indicates rain – the dust particles are so laden with moisture that they will soon drop as rain.

In hilly country, if mist has not lifted by noon, it is set in for the day and will probably turn to rain during the late afternoon.

A clear night sky is an indication of good, settled weather. At the end of summer it may also be a warning of frost: at night clouds insulate the surface of the earth against loss of heat. Without them frost is more likely. Cold air, being heavy, fills the hollows – avoid camping in them.

A clear sky one night, followed by one with only a few stars visible, indicates a change of weather.

A corona, a coloured circle visible around the sun or moon, can be used to forecast the weather accurately. An enlarging ring is a sign of good weather – the enlarging circle shows that moisture in the atmosphere is evaporating and day or night will be clear.

A shrinking corona around the sun or moon is a sign of rain.

Green light blinking from an afternoon sun indicates fair weather for at least 24 hours.

Early morning mist lifting from a valley is a sure sign of fair weather.

A rainbow in the late afternoon is also a sign of fair weather ahead.


Fire can be the difference between life and death. It is imperative that you are able to light a fire under any conditions, anywhere in the world. The most important uses of fire are for boiling water, signalling, cooking, and protection from animals and flying insects.

Learn effective fire building techniques

Because 90 per cent of the diseases that are carried in water can be countered by boiling water it is vital that you learn the skill of firelighting. However, you don’t need to boil rainwater, as it won’t carry any of the bacteria found in the other water sources that you will encounter.

Fire can help to make or fashion tools (you can fire-harden bamboo to make a spoon), while charcoal can be used to burn out a hole. This can be safer than cutting the hole yourself which could lead to you injuring yourself.

When lighting a fire, always ensure adequate ventilation, with enough fuel and a hot enough source to ignite this fuel. To produce flame, this temperature must be maintained to keep air and fuel continuously reacting. The more oxygen introduced, the brighter the fire: by using the wind, or forcing a draught, the fire is fanned to a high temperature and rapidly burns fuel. By reducing the ventilation the fire burns less fiercely and embers are allowed to glow, needing less fuel.

If these principles are understood, smoky fires can be avoided. Smoke is the result of incomplete combustion – with care smoke can be virtually eliminated.

A fire is made up of three equal elements – air, fuel and heat – it cannot exist without this combination.

Try and keep a fire alight at all times and use it for as many purposes as possible – as well as heat, perhaps boil some water to purify it, or cook on its embers.


First make sure that you have sufficient quantities of TINDER, KINDLING and FUEL. Then prepare a fireplace so that you can control the fire. Used carelessly fire can get out of hand and bring disaster.

The fireplace

The fireplace needs to be prepared carefully. Choose a site that is sheltered, especially during high winds. Except for signal purposes (see Signalling), or exceptionally to warm a temporary bough or snowhole shelter, do not light a fire at the base of a tree or stump. Clear away leaves, twigs, moss and dry grass from a circle at least 2m (6ft) across and scrape everything away until you have a surface of bare earth.

If the ground is wet or covered with snow, the fire must be built on a platform. Make this from a layer of green logs covered with a layer of earth or a layer of stones.

Temple fire

If land is swampy or the snow deep a raised platform is needed. This is known as a temple fire. The hearth consists of a raised platform, built of green timber. Four uprights support cross-pieces in their forks. Across them place a layer of green logs and cover this with several inches of earth. Light the fire on top of this. A pole across upper forks on diagonally opposite uprights can support cooking pots.

Practice firelighting

Fire is essential to survival. It provides warmth, protection, a means of signalling, boils water, and cooks and preserves food. You must learn to light a fire anywhere under any condition. It is not enough to know all the methods – you have to be expert at them.

In windy conditions

If there are particularly strong winds, dig a trench and light your fire in it.

Also good for windy conditions: Encircle your fire with rocks to retain heat and conserve fuel. Use them to support cooking utensils. Their heat, as well as that from the fire, will keep things warm and you can use the rocks themselves as bed-warmers.


Avoid placing wet or porous rocks and stones near fires, especially rocks which have been submerged in water – they may explode when heated. Avoid slates and softer rocks, and test others by banging them together. Do not use any that crack, sound hollow or are flaky. If they contain moisture it will expand faster than the stone and can make it explode, producing dangerous flying fragments which could take out an eye if you are close to the fire.


Tinder is any kind of material that takes the minimum of heat to make it catch alight. Good tinder needs only a spark to ignite it.

Birch bark, dried grasses, fine wood shavings, bird down, waxed paper and cotton fluff from clothing all make good tinder. So do pulverized fir cones, pine needles and the inner bark from cedar trees. Dried fungi are excellent, if finely powdered, and scorched or charred cotton or linen, especially ground finely, are also among the best. Where insects such as wood wasps have been boring into trees, the fine dust they produce is good tinder and powdery bird and bat droppings can also be used. The insides of birds’ nests are usually lined with down feathers and ignite easily – dry fieldmouse nests are also usable.

Whatever tinder you use MUST BE DRY. It is a good idea to carry tinder with you in a waterproof container. Always keep an eye open for tinder to collect.


Kindling is the wood used to raise the flames from the tinder so that larger and less combustible materials can be burned.

The best kindling consists of small, dry twigs and the softer woods are preferable because they flare up quickly.

Those that contain resins burn readily and make firelighting a snip. The drawbacks of soft woods are that they tend to produce sparks and burn very fast. You may need more to get the main fuel going and they are soon consumed if they form the main fuel themselves.

Don’t collect kindling straight from the earth, it is almost always damp. Take it from standing deadwood. If the outside is damp, shave until the dry middle is reached.

Birch has been traditionally used as a firewood on account of its high calorific value per unit weight and unit volume. Even when wet, birch bark burns extremely well because of the oils it contains.

It can be peeled off the tree for use as kindling, and if split into thin sheets, birch will ignite from even the smallest of sparks.
Smaller twigs and dried grasses can also make good kindling.
To build a fire first collect sufficient quantities of firewood. Make sure you have suitable amounts of kindling and fuel in various sizes. Make a fire-pit for the fire to shelter the fire from wind.

Make fire sticks

Shave sticks with shallow cuts to ‘feather’ them. Preparing kindling in this way makes it catch light more freely and establishes a fire quickly.

1 Using small to medium-sized pieces of firewood, create a platform on which to build the fire.

2 Gather together a sufficient quantity of tinder and amass upon the platform.

3 Once sparked, the tinder will produce a strong flame.

4 Kindling should now be added to the fire to keep it burning.

5 Continue to add larger and larger fuel to keep the fire burning.

6 Finally, once the fire is strong enough throw in your larger pieces of wood. Initially, use dry wood from standing trees to get the fire going. Later you may add different types of wood depending on how you intend to use the fire.


Use dry wood from standing trees to get the fire going. Once it is established you can use greener wood or dry out damp wood.

As a general rule, the heavier the wood the more heat it will give – this applies to both dead and green wood. Mixing green and dry wood makes a long-lasting fire, which is especially useful at night.

Hardwoods – hickory, beech or oak, for instance – burn well, give off great heat and last for a long time as hot coals. They keep a fire going through the night.

Softwoods tend to burn too fast and give off sparks. The worst spark-makers are cedar, alder, hemlock, spruce, pine, chestnut and willow.

Remember that damp wood is sometimes advantageous, producing smoke to keep off flies, midges and mosquitoes and burning longer so that it keeps the fire in.

Save energy

Don’t waste energy chopping logs: Break them by smashing them over a rock (a).

If that does not work, feed them over the fire, letting them burn through in the middle (b) or, if they are not so long, feed them end first into the fire.

If it is absolutely necessary to split logs in order to conserve fuel, an axe is not needed. Even quite a small knife placed on the end of a log and hit with a rock may split it (c). Once begun, plug a wooden wedge in the opened gap and drive this downwards to complete the split. But if you only have one knife don’t take the risk of damaging it.

Dry wood across two supports above a fire – not so close that it is set alight. Lay green logs at an angle beside the fire, tapering away from the wind to speed combustion of a sluggish fire while drying them.

Rest logs against a pot rail to dry. Build a wood shed – essential in wet weather. Set it close to the fire so that the fire’s warmth will help dry the wood, but not so close that a spark could ignite it. Build two bays and use wood from one while the other batch dries.

Star fire

The fire is started where the ends of large logs meet, then they are pushed inwards as more fuel is needed.

When not required to produce strong heat they can be drawn apart leaving glowing embers for cooking in the centre.

To resurrect the fire push them together and they soon take flame again. This type of fire is used mainly to conserve fuel but also saves chopping wood.

Other fuels

In areas where wood is scarce or unavailable other fuels must be found.

Animal droppings: These make excellent fuel – frontiersmen of the Wild West used ‘buffalo chips’ for their fires. Dry the droppings thoroughly for a good smokeless fire. You can mix them with grass, moss and leaves.

Peat: This is often found on well-drained moors. It is soft and springy underfoot and may be exposed on the edges of rocky outcrops – looking black and fibrous. It is easily cut with a knife. Peat needs good ventilation when burning.

Stacked with plenty of air around it peat dries rapidly and is soon ready to burn.

Burning oil and water

This mixture makes one of the hottest of all fires. Pierce a small hole in the base of a tin can for each liquid and fit a tapered stick into it to govern the flow (a). The oil and water run down a trough on to a metal plate. Pulling the stick out increases the flow, pushing it in reduces it. Try 2–3 drops water to 1 drop oil.

First light a small fire under the plate to get it hot. The mixture becomes highly volatile when heated. Light it above the plate. This fire will burn almost anything.

Coal: This is sometimes found on the surface – there are large deposits in the northern tundra.

Shales: These are often rich in oil and burn readily. Some sands also contain oil – they burn with a thick oily smoke which makes a good signal fire and also give off a good heat.

Oils: If you have had a mechanical failure and have crashed or broken down with fuels intact you can burn petroleum, anti-freeze, hydraulic fluid and other combustible liquids. Even insect repellent is inflammable. Anti-freeze is an excellent primer for igniting heavier engine oils. With a little potassium permanganate (from your survival kit) you can set it alight in a few seconds.

In very cold areas drain oil from an engine sump before it congeals. If you have no container drain it on to the ground to use later in its solid state. Tyres, upholstery, rubber seals and much of any wreckage can be burned. Soak less combustible materials in oil before trying to make them burn.

Mix petrol with sand and burn it in a container as a stove, or dig a hole and make a fire pit.

Burn oil by mixing in petrol or anti-freeze. Do not set a light directly to liquid fuels but make a wick and let that provide the flame. The same goes for insect repellent.

Animal fats: These can also be used with a wick in a suitably ventilated tin to make a stove. Bones can add bulk when fat is being burned as a fire (sometimes the only available fuel in polar regions).

Start flame with tinder or a candle then place a network of bones over it to support the fat or blubber. Use only a little fat at first. Unless it is surplus, burning fat means sacrificing food value, but seal blubber spoils rapidly and makes good fuel.


Make a bed of tinder and form a wigwam of kindling around it. In a strong wind lean the kindling against a log on the lee side. Ignite the tinder. Once the kindling has caught add larger sticks. Or take a bundle of dry twigs, no thicker than a match, light them first and place them in the wigwam.

Damp matches

If your hair is dry and not too greasy roll the damp match in it. Electricity should dry out the match.

Waterproof matches by dripping candle wax on to them. Rip it off with a fingernail when about to strike one.

Strike a damp match by stabbing obliquely into the striker strip instead of drawing the match along it.

Remember: Whenever you strike a match light a candle. Many things in turn can then be lit from it – saving matches. Place it in the wigwam of kindling to start a fire and remove it as soon as the flame spreads. Only the smallest amount is burned and even a small candle will last a long time.

However many lighters or fire-makers you carry, still pack as many matches as you can – you can’t beat them. So-called everlasting matches can be used over and over again but sooner or later even they pack up. So carry ordinary matches as well. Work out which kind gives you the most strikes for the weight and room they take up.

Using a lens

Strong direct sunlight, focussed through a lens, can produce sufficient heat to ignite your tinder. Accidental fires are caused by the sun shining through broken bottles on to dry leaves or pasture. Your survival-kit magnifying glass or a telescope or camera lens will serve instead.

Shield tinder from wind. Focus sun’s rays to form the tiniest, brightest spot of light. Keep it steady. Blow on it gently as it begins to glow.

Powder from ammunition

If you are carrying arms you can use the gunpowder propellant from a round to help ignite your tinder.

Break open the round and pour the gunpowder on to your tinder before using your flint (a), or remove only half the powder and stuff a piece of cloth into the cartridge case (b).

Chamber the round and fire as usual, into the ground. The cloth will be ejected smouldering. Place it on tinder with the remaining propellant and you will soon have a fire going.


Matches are the easiest way to start a fire. Carry the non-safety ‘strike anywhere’ type and as many as possible. Pack them in waterproof containers so that they cannot rub or rattle and accidentally ignite. Waterproofing the matches themselves does both jobs.

Some people split all their matches in half and it has been claimed that one can be successfully divided into six. But do NOT risk wasting them – one that works is more use than six that don’t!

Strike split matches by pressing the business end against the striking surface with a finger. If this burns the finger be ready to cool it at once – in cold water, snow or even ‘spit on it and blow’.

Flint and steel

Flint is a stone found in many parts of the world. If it is struck vigorously with a piece of steel hot sparks fly off which will ignite dry tinder. A saw-edged blade can produce more sparks than an ordinary knife and should be in your kit. A block of magnesium with flint on its side is an even more efficient device – magnesium burns very strongly.

Strike the blade against the flint (a), or draw the saw across the ridged surface of the flint supplied with it (b), close to tinder so that sparks fall on it.

With a magnesium block, scrape slivers of magnesium on to tinder first (c), then use the saw to produce the sparks.

Battery firelighting

A spark from a car battery can start your fire, and torch and radio batteries should have sufficient power. You need two lengths of wire, which you simply attach to the terminals. If you cannot find any wire you could do it with a couple of spanners or other metal implements. Unless you have long pieces of wire, take the battery out of the vehicle first.

Slowly bring the bare ends of the two pieces of wire together. Just before they touch, a spark will jump across. You must catch it on your tinder. A small piece of cloth with a little petrol on it makes the best tinder, the petrol vapour igniting from the spark.

Fire bow

A simple fire-making technique, but one that needs lots of practice. The friction of a hardwood spindle rotated on a softwood base produces first fine wood-dust tinder, then heat. Balsa, pine and bamboo are typically suitable softwoods; oak, ash and beech are hardwoods. Both must be dry.

Gouge a small depression at the near end of the baseboard and cut a cavity below it in which to place the tinder. Shape the spindle evenly. Make the bow from a pliable shoot such as hazel or bamboo and the string from hide, twine or a bootlace. You also need a hollowed piece of stone or wood, or a small jar to steady the top of the spindle and exert downward pressure.

Wind the bowstring once around the spindle. Place the spindle in the depression, hold the steadying piece over its end and bear lightly down on it while the other hand moves the bow backwards and forwards. This makes the spindle spin. Increase the speed as the spindle starts drilling through the wood. When it begins to enter the cavity apply more pressure and bow vigorously.

Keep on bowing until unable to continue. If successful the tip, glowing like a cigarette, will drop on to your tinder, which, if you gently blow on it, will burst into flame. You must keep the spindle upright and steady.

It helps to kneel with one foot on the baseboard and to lock the spindle arm on to this leg while bowing with the other hand. Keep the bow strokes very even.

A V-shaped notch, as shown in the baseboard of the hand-drill method, is also recommended.

Hand drill

This variation on the fire bow is useful in dry territories with low humidity and little rainfall – making everything ‘tinder’ dry.

1 In a baseboard of hardwood cut a V-shaped collecting notch which will hold tinder, but still allow air to reach it. Make a small depression near it. For a spindle use a stem of hollow softer wood with a soft pith core.

2 Roll the spindle between the palms of the hands, running them down it with each burst of spinning to press the spindle into the depression in the baseboard.

3 When the friction makes the spindle tip glow red, blow gently to ignite the tinder around it. Putting a pinch of sand in the spindle hole increases the friction and speeds the heating of the tinder.

4 A cavity below the spindle, as shown for the fire-bow method, is also recommended.

Fire plough

This method of ignition also works by friction. Cut a straight groove in a soft wood baseboard and then ‘plough’ the tip of a hardwood shaft up and down it. This first produces tinder and then eventually ignites it.

Firelighting with chemicals

A survivor’s pack is not likely to include a complete chemistry set but there are some very common chemicals that, if they are available, can be used to produce combustion. The following mixtures can all be ignited by grinding them between rocks or putting them under the friction point in any of the types of fire drill already described. Mix them carefully, avoiding contact with any metal objects. All are susceptible to dampness and must be kept dry.


Handle these chemicals carefully, sodium chlorate in particular – it ignites from percussion, so avoid shaking it up or letting it spill. Spilled weedkiller on a hard path has been known to ignite when stepped on or a watering can was put down on it!

Potassium chlorate and sugar in a mixture of 3:1 by volume is a fierce-burning incendiary which can also be ignited by dripping a few drops of sulphuric acid on to the mixture.

Potassium permanganate and sugar mixed 9:1 is less sensitive and temperature is a critical factor in how long it takes to ignite. The addition of glycerine will also produce ignition.

Sodium chlorate and sugar mixed 3:1.

  • Sulphuric acid is found in car batteries.

  • Potassium chlorate is found in some throat tablets – their contents may be listed on the pack. Try crushing one and seeing if it works.

  • Potassium permanganate is included in your survival kit.

  • Glycerine is a constituent of anti-freeze.

  • Sodium chlorate is a weedkiller.

Types of fire

However quickly you want to get a fire going, take time, while you gather fuel and get the tinder ready, to choose the best location and the best type of fire.

Fires for warmth

With a single fire outdoors only surfaces facing it are warmed. With two fires you can sit between them – but that would use a lot of fuel and, no matter which way the wind is blowing, you are bound to be covered in smoke. Build one fire and use a reflector.

A good reflector, close to the fire, not only reflects heat back to you but also helps to make the smoke go upwards, drawn by hot currents of air, instead of getting in your eyes. Use a reflector to direct heat into a sleeping shelter.

The inexperienced often build a fire up against a tree stump or a rock – don’t, build the fire away from it and sit between the two so that the rock reflects the heat and warms your back. Add a reflector.

If there is no ready-made reflector, build one – and build another reflector on the other side of the fire to reflect as much as possible of its heat back to you.

Snake hole fire

This is a shielded fire that produces a good draught and burns almost anything once lit. In the side of a firm earth bank excavate a chamber about 45cm (18in) deep. From above drive a stick down into the chamber, manoeuvre it about a little to make a chimney, removing the spoil that falls below. Build the fire in the chamber.

A snake hole fire is good for burning rubbish and the smoke for preserving meat and fish. The snake hole fire entrance is best sited downwind in windy conditions.

Spontaneous combustion

Fire sometimes breaks out spontaneously in a compacted heap of wet hay. It can be produced in cotton soaked in linseed oil provided the atmosphere is warm and dry, but temperature can be critical. Either it will burst into flames within a couple of hours or not at all. Not a reliable way of firelighting – but a risk to be aware of.

Cooking fires

These cooking fires are also good for heating.

Yukon stove

This fire, once lit, will burn almost anything. It takes a lot of effort to build but is worth it for the whole structure gives off good heat and the top can be used for cooking.

Dig a hole circular in shape and about 24cm (9in) deep with a channel on one side leading down to it. Set rocks up all round the outer edge of the main hole and build up a funnel, bridging over the channel and gradually sloping inwards. Let the upper courses begin to open out again. Seal all the spaces between the rocks with earth. The fire is shielded, the chimney creating a good draught.

Light the fire first in the channel. When it gets going push it beneath the chimney. Fuel is then fed in through the top of the chimney and the rate of burning is controlled by opening or closing the top. This fire leaves very little ash and will burn a very long time before it needs clearing out.

Trench fire

This fire is sheltered from strong wind by being below ground level. Dig a trench about 30 x 90cm (12 x 36in) and about 30cm (12in) deep plus the depth of a layer of rocks with which you now line the bottom. Build the fire on top of the rocks. Even when it has died down they will remain hot and make an excellent grill.

A spit placed across the embers is excellent for roasting.

Hobo stove

This stove provides a heat source several people can huddle around and its top can be used for cooking. To make it you need something like a 5-gallon oil drum.

How to build a simple heat stove

Punch holes in the bottom and around the bottom of the sides of the drum for draught to enter. Cut out a panel on one side, about 5cm (2in) from the bottom through which to stoke the fire.

Punch holes in the top if to be used only for heating, but make them on the upper part of one side if you don’t want smoke coming through the top.

Set the whole drum on a ring of stones so that there is plenty of draught beneath.


The first requirement for rescue is to let others know of your situation and, if possible, your location. Once you are in contact you can pass on other information.

The obvious technique is to use a mobile or satellite phone, which should be used sparingly, but if you don’t have the luxury of such systems then there are a number of internationally recognized distress signals. The letters SOS (for Save Our Souls) is probably the best known. It can be written, transmitted by radio, spelt out by semaphore or sent in Morse code by any method.

The signal ‘Mayday’ (a phonetic rendering of the French m’aidez – help me) is the one used in most radiotelecommunications by ships and planes.

Vehicle or aircraft wreckage

If you are with a stranded vehicle or downed aircraft it may provide many useful signalling aids. If there has been no fire there will be supplies of fuel, oil and hydraulic fluid which can be burned. Tyres and electrical insulation on a fire will generate black smoke.

Glass and chrome make great reflectors, especially engine cowlings and hubcaps. Lifejackets, dinghies, and parachutes are all brightly coloured and eye-catching. Arrange these colourful and shiny objects around your location where they will be most visible and attract attention.

Switch lights on at night – or if batteries are running low keep them in reserve to flash headlamps, sound the horn and otherwise attract attention, when passing aircraft or signs of possible searchers are observed.

Fire and smoke

Fire – both flames and smoke – is an excellent way of attracting attention. Establishing signal fires is one of the primary tasks once the immediate needs for treatment of injury and provision of shelter from harsh elements have been met. In a large group some people should set about gathering fuel for a campfire and for signal fires as soon as possible.

Where to site signals

When siting signals take full account of the terrain. Choose high points for light signals. If you are on a ridge, erecting an unusual silhouette may attract attention. If you are laying out marks on the ground, use level ground or ensure that they are on slopes that are not likely to be overlooked in the usual pattern of aerial search.

Survival tip

It is usual for planes to fly over hilly territory from the lower to the higher ridges. This creates the problem that the slopes behind the ridges may be hidden as the plane approaches. If in doubt, signals nearer the tops of ridges should be seen from whichever direction the rescue aircraft is travelling.

International codes

When contact has been established more complex international codes (shown later) will enable you to signal your basic needs, if verbal communication is not possible.

With air or sea rescue it may then be necessary to prepare a landing strip or to help rig lines or apparatus, and some knowledge of basic procedures will greatly facilitate the operation. (See Helicopter Rescue.)


Dinghies, liferafts and even personal lifejackets are sometimes equipped with transmitters which send out bleeps indicating position, though these are not usually effective over a very long range. Many emergency radio transmitters are also very limited in range and to avoid wasting precious batteries should be held in reserve until there is some chance of their signals being picked up. With effective radio apparatus, however, distress signals should be sent out immediately and transmitted at regular intervals.

Check instructions on all transmitting apparatus. Ship and plane transmitters can operate on many wavelengths, but some emergency equipment is set to fixed distress channels.

Generally speaking, the portable VHF transceivers used by mountaineering teams can communicate only with stations in a direct line of sight and without any intervening obstruction (though sometimes a permanent relay station may be established on a strategic high point). Such sets are usually tuned to a mountain rescue frequency but procedures should be established before departure.

If you have a working transmitter, check the battery situation. Can the vehicle engine still be used to generate electricity or recharge the batteries? Conserve fuel for this purpose and plan your transmissions to a pattern rather than attempting long continuous periods on the air. If anyone picks up your signal they can then work out that they can expect it again.


Noise is also an excellent way of attracting attention if you know that people are within earshot. The International Mountain Distress Signal, apart from signalling SOS, is six whistles a minute (or six waves, light flashes, etc.) followed by a minute’s silence, then repeated. A shout may be enough if you are trapped, or near help but too injured to reach it.

Be imaginative

Do not reject even such ideas as the message in a bottle. This particular method has a low chance of success if you are shipwrecked in the middle of the Pacific but on a river a more noticeable floating object which carries a clear message might well attract attention – a small raft with a bright sail labelled SOS, for instance. Use your imagination to think of ways that will attract attention to you and your plight, without using up valuable energy and resources.

Moving on

If you decide that rescue is unlikely, and that your best plan is to make your own way back, you should leave clear signs behind so that if searchers do track down the disaster spot they have an indication of the route that you have taken. On your way you may have more success in attracting attention if closer to regular flight routes or in more open territory.

Signals and codes

Fire signals

Three fires is an internationally recognized distress signal. Ideally they should be placed in a triangle at equal distances apart, an arrangement which also makes them easier to feed with fuel, but if that is not possible any grouping serves, provided that the fires are clearly separated. However, if fuel is scarce, or if you are too badly injured or too weak from hunger to maintain several fires, use only your campfire.

You can’t keep signal fires going all the time but they should be prepared, covered to keep them dry, and maintained, ready to be lit to attract the attention of any passing aircraft. Build them with plenty of easily ignited tinder so that they will get going rapidly when lit. Birch bark makes an ideal tinder. Other tinder materials are described under Fire in Make Camp.

Be aware
  • Keep a stock of green boughs or supplies of oil or rubber close by to create smoke if needed.
  • Among vegetation or close to trees, build an earth wall around each fire to contain it.
  • There is no point building fires among trees where they cannot be seen, the canopy will block out the signal. Place them in a clearing.

If by a lake or river, build rafts to place your fires on and anchor or tether them securely in position. Arrow indicates direction of current.

Be aware

Almost any signal repeated six times will serve as a distress signal. Depending on your location, this could be six fires, six columns of smoke, six loud whistles, six gunshots – even six flashes of light. If using noises or lights, wait one minute between each group of six signals.

Petrol can be used as a firelighter but DON’T just pour it on the fire. Use a piece of rag as a wick, soak it in petrol and lay it to the tinder. Don’t light it straight away. Carry the fuel can off to a safe distance and wait a few seconds before lighting the wick. If a fire does not light first time pull the tinder apart, checking that there are no sparks or embers still burning, before adding extra petrol.

Torch trees

Small isolated trees make excellent fire signals. Build a fire between the boughs. Use plenty of dry twigs – old birds’ nests make good fire starters. This fire will ignite the foliage and produce plenty of smoke. If a tree is dead start a fire at its base. It will burn for a long time leaving you free to attend to other signals.

Note: Do not risk starting a forest fire. Apart from the damage this will cause, your life will be in greater jeopardy.

Luminous cone fires

On a clear and open site make a tripod with a platform to support a fire. The platform keeps the tinder off damp ground, or you can store more firewood beneath it. Use a covering of evergreen boughs to keep the cone dry; they will burn brightly and give off a good smoke.

Cover the complete cone fire with bright coloured material, if available – a parachute would be ideal. This will not only keep the fire dry and ready to burn, but will itself be noticeable during the day. Whip it off when you ignite the fire – you may not attract attention the first time.

When alight the glow of this cone can be seen for miles. In an exposed location a smaller fire inside a conical tent or tepee of parachute fabric will also make a noticeable beacon. Ensure there is a smoke and heat outlet at the top of the tepee and keep the fire under control. If it is on a slope add fuel from the side or above the fire so that you do not excessively mask the firelight – though some flickering of movement before it may help to attract attention.

Keep these tripods well maintained, ensuring that wood is dry enough to light at a moment’s notice and that the supply is not poached for other uses. Drive the pole ends into the ground to prevent tipping over in strong winds.

Use wreckage to help fire-signalling

Stand a fire on a piece of metal from an aircraft or vehicle. It will keep kindling from damp ground, when hot will increase convection and make the fire burn brightly and, if polished, will act as a reflector intensifying the brightness. Three such fires become an immediately recognizable distress signal.

Be aware

Smoke not only helps the pilot of a rescue aircraft find you, it also shows the surface wind direction. Make sure that smoke is downwind of the landing site and of any panel codes that you have laid so that it does not obscure them from above.



Smoke indicators

During daylight smoke is a good locator, so have plenty of smoke-producing material ready to put on your fires. Choose this material to give off a smoke that shows up well against the surroundings.

Light smoke will stand out against dark earth or dark green forest. Produce it with green grass, leaves, moss and ferns. Any wet material will produce a good smudge fire and damp mats and seat covers will smoulder for a long time. This will also keep flying insects at bay.

Dark smoke will show best against snow or desert sand. Use rubber or oil to produce it. If atmospheric conditions make the smoke hang in layers along the ground then build up the fire to increase its heat. Thermal currents will then take the smoke to a good height.

Ground-to-air signals

These letters are internationally recognized emergency signals. FILL is a useful mnemonic for remembering the main ones. The single bar: I is the most important and the easiest to make. A pilot will risk a great deal to answer such an emergency. Make them as large and as noticeable as possible using colour contrast or shadow. A recommended size is 10m long and 3m wide (34ft and 10ft) for each symbol, with 3m (10ft) between symbols.

Lay or make these panel codes out in the open, avoid steep gullies or ravines and do not make them on reverse slopes. Use the marker panels from your survival pouch, or if you do not have these – improvise. Lay out pieces of wreckage or dig out the signs as a shallow trench, banking up the earth so that it increases the depth of the shadow. Use rocks or boughs to accentuate it.

On snow, even tramping out the symbols will show clearly until the next snowfall.

Ground-to-air code

Serious injury – immediate casevac (casualty evacuation) – (can also mean NEED DOCTOR)

Need medical supplies

Need food and water

Negative (No)

Affirmative (Yes) – (Y will also be understood)

All is well

Unable to move on

Am moving on this way

Indicate direction to proceed

Do not understand

Need compass and map

Think safe to land here (Broken at angles, means ATTEMPTING TAKE-OFF)

Need radio/signal lamp/battery

Aircraft badly damaged

Once contact has been made, a message dropped or signalled by the aircraft can be answered with A or Y (affirmative) and N (negative) signals, or Morse code or body signals.

Night signals

These signals will attract attention during daylight, even if you are asleep or injured. If you have a supply of petrol or other inflammable substances, you can make signals which will work at night. Dig or scrape an SOS (or any symbol) in the earth, sand or snow and, when the signal is needed, pour petrol into it and ignite it.

Note: You MUST destroy these signals if rescued. They will go on working long after you have gone.

Message signalling

You do not need to learn a complicated system of semaphore. The international Morse code can be transmitted by flashing lights on and off, by a simple heliograph, by waving a flag or a shirt tied to a stick or using sound.

Note: Don’t rely upon your memory – carry a copy of the code on your person. Even if you are a regular user and know it backwards others may need it who do not.

There is a procedure to follow when sending and receiving messages. Learn the special codes to make the operation easier.


Use the sun and a reflector to flash light signals. Any shiny object will serve – polish a tin lid, glasses, a piece of foil – though a hand-mirror is best. Sustained flashes are dashes and quick ones dots. If you do not know Morse code, even random flashes should attract attention. At least learn the code for SOS.

A flash can be seen at a great distance and even when you do not have a specific contact to aim for may attract someone’s attention. It’s worth trying, since it requires little energy. Sweep the horizon during the day. If a plane approaches closely make intermittent flashes or you may dazzle the pilot. Once you are certain you have been seen, STOP signalling.

Note: Practise this form of signalling, but unless you are in a survival situation, do NOT signal to aircraft or ‘transmit’ messages which could cause alarm or danger to others.

Using a heliograph

If you have a double-sided reflector and can punch a hole in it you will have something close to a standard issue heliograph.

Sight the person, plane, ship, etc, that you wish to contact through the hole in the heliograph (a) in the general direction of the sun, so that the sun will shine through the hole (b). You will see a spot of light on your face (c).

Angle the mirror so that the dot of light on your face ‘disappears’ back through the hole in the mirror – still sighting your contact.

If the sun is at such an angle that this manoeuvre does not work bring the mirror close to your eyes and a hand lined up between you and the contact. Angle the mirror to flash on to your hand, then move the hand away.

Single-sided reflector

With an improvised reflector pick up the sunlight to get an image on the ground or some other surface and lead it in the direction of the aircraft or other potential contact.

Rag signals

Tie a flag or a piece of brightly coloured clothing to a pole and move it left for dashes and right for dots. Exaggerate each movement with a figure-of-eight movement.

This simple signing may work without figure- of-eight movements at closer range. Keep ‘dash’ pauses on the left, slightly longer than ‘dot’ movements to the right.

For a ‘dot’ swing to your right and make a figure-of-eight. For a ‘dash’ swing to your left and make a figure-of-eight



LetterMorse codeLetterMorse code
A• –N– •
B– • • •O– – –
C– • – •P• – – •
D– • •Q– – • –
ER• – •
F• • – •S• • •
G– – •T
H• • • •U• • –
I• •V• • • –
J• – – –W• – –
K– • –X– • • –
L• – • •Y– • – –
M– –Z– – • •
NumberMorse codeNumberMorse code
1• – – – –6– • • • •
2• • – –7– – • • •
3• • • – –8– – – • •
4• • • –9– – – – •
5• • • • •0– – – – –


AAAAA* etc.Call sign: I have a message
AAA*End of sentence: More follows
PauseEnd of word: More follows
EEEEE* etc.Error: Start from last correct word
AREnd of message

*Send as one word. No pauses


TTTTT* etc.I am receiving you
KI am ready: Start message
TWord received
IMI*Repeat sign: I do not understand
RMessage received

*Send as one word. No pauses


SOS     • • • – – – • • •

SEND     • • - | - | – - | – • •

DOCTOR     – • - | – – – | – • – - | – | – – – | • – •

HELP     • • • - | - | • – • - | • – – •

INJURY     • - | – - | • – – – | • • – | • – - | – • – –

TRAPPED     – | • – - | • – | • – – - | • – – - | - | – • •

LOST     • – • - | – – – | • • - | –

WATER     • – – | • – | – | - | • – •

Body signals

This series of signals will be understood by airmen and can be used to signal to them. Note the changes from frontal to sideways positions and the use of leg and body posture as well as hand movements. Use a cloth in the hand to emphasize the YES and NO signals. Make all signals in a clear and exaggerated manner.

Pick us up

Need mechanical help

Land here



All is well

Can proceed shortly

Have radio

Do NOT attempt to land here

Need medical assistance

Use drop message

Response to body signals

To acknowledge messages received from the ground, the pilot of an aircraft will perform one of these manoeuvres:

Message received and understood:
In daylight – flying the plane and tipping the wings in a rocking movement side to side
At night – flashing green lights

Message received but NOT understood:
In daylight – flying the plane in a right-handed circle
At night – flashing red lights

Mountain rescue code

These sound, light and pyrotechnic codes are recognized internationally by mountain rescue services:

Message: SOS
Flare signal – Red
Sound signal – 3 short blasts, 3 long, 3 short
Repeat after 1 minute interval
Light signal – 3 short flashes, 3 long, 3 short
Repeat after 1 minute interval

Flare signal – Red
Sound signal – 6 blasts in quick succession
Repeat after 1 minute interval
Light signal – 6 flashes in quick succession
Repeat after 1 minute interval

Flare signal – White
Sound signal – 3 blasts in quick succession
Repeat after 1 minute interval
Light signal – 3 flashes in quick succession
Repeat after 1 minute interval

Flare signal – Green
Sound signal – Prolonged succession of blasts
Light signal – Prolonged succession of flashes


Any flare will be investigated during a search, regardless of colour, but choose one best fitted to the location.

  • In closely wooded country green does not stand out but red does.
  • Over snow white merges – green and red are best.

Familiarize yourself with the types of flare. Make sure you understand the instructions, for some flares eject a white-hot ball of magnesium that will burn a hole in anything it hits – your chest or dinghy – if they are misdirected.

Types of flare

Some flares are hand-held and reversible. One end produces smoke for daytime use, the other a flare for use at night. The higher these are held the easier they are to see. Flares and rockets which are fired into the air will be visible for a greater distance. One type reaches a height of 90m (300ft) where a parachute opens holding the flare suspended for several minutes. Other rockets produce a loud bang and colour balls.

Keep flares dry and away from naked flames and heat sources. Ensure that safety pins are in position and will not accidentally drop out, but also check that they are not bent over in such a way that they could not be quickly removed when necessary.

Handling flares

Hand-held flares are cylindrical tubes with a cap at each end. The top cap is often embossed with a letter or pattern so that it can be identified by touch in the dark. Remove it first. Then remove the base cap to expose a short string and a safety pin, or other safety device. Point the flare upwards and away from you and anyone else in case you accidentally fire it. Remove the pin, or turn to the fire position. Hold the flare at arm’s length, at shoulder height, pointing directly upwards. Sharply pull the firing string vertically downwards. Brace yourself as you do so for there will be a kickback. Some flares and maroons have a spring mechanism trigger like that of a mousetrap.

Very pistols fire various cartridges. To fire them load the pistol, point it skywards, cock the hammer and then squeeze the trigger.

Mini-flares are more usual equipment today, lighter than Very pistols but as effective. They require handling with the same care. To use, screw a flare of the selected colour into the end of the discharger, aim skyward, pull back striker – FIRE!


Hand-held flares get hot. When they burn down do not drop them into the bottom of a boat, where they could start a fire, or burn straight through an inflatable.

Information signals

These are signals to leave behind if you leave the scene of the crash or abandon camp.

Make a large arrow shape to indicate the direction in which you have set off that will be visible from the air, and other direction markers which can be interpreted at ground level.

Signs on the ground will draw attention to your presence or past presence and the direction markers will help rescuers to follow your trail. Continue to make them, not only for people to follow but to establish your own route if you wish to retrace it and as a guide if you lose your sense of direction and start going back on your trail.

At camp leave written messages in containers to detail your plans. Hang them from tripods or trees and draw attention to them with markers.

Direction markers could include rocks or debris placed in arrow shape (a), stick left in crooked support, top in direction followed (b), grasses tied in an overhand knot with end hanging in direction followed (c), forked branches laid with fork pointing in direction followed (d), small rocks set upon larger rocks, with small rock beside (e), indicating a turn or arrow- or arrowhead-shape notches cut in tree trunks (f). A cross of sticks or stones (g), means ‘Not this way’.

Signal danger or emergency emergency with three rocks, sticks or clumps of grass, prominently displayed (h).

Awareness of search procedures will show how important it is for any expedition or trip to register its route plans and for survivors to stay as close as possible to that course, to set clear signals to draw attention to their location and to mark any camp they have abandoned (leaving information about their subsequent plans).

A search will start from the last known location and sweep on the proposed route. An assessment will be made of probable strategy adopted, given the terrain and the weather conditions. In mountain areas, for instance, it is likely that strong winds would make the survival party use the lee sides of ridges and descend from high ground. If no trace is found of them on the expected route these are the areas in which the search will be concentrated.

The effect of contour will be considered: by studying the ground the search party may assume that survivors were forced off route by the lie of the land. To make the searchers’ job easier, make a cairn of rocks or other noticeable construction on prominent ground where it cannot fail to be noticed and leave a message there in a waterproof bag or in the pocket of a colourful piece of clothing. Give information on your intentions and on the state of your party.

If your route has been checked and the obvious refuge places in the locality searched, the rescuers will extend the search to cover the whole area of your disappearance. Ideally this will be done from the air but severe weather which creates bad flying conditions and poor visibility may mean it has to be done on foot, even if planes are available.

The number of searchers and the type of terrain will dictate the search pattern best suited to the situation.

Search patterns

The first search will be made along the route you were supposed to have taken.

Search patterns from the air cover both sides of the intended flight path of missing aircraft or your known route.

If weather conditions are favourable a night search can be made, for lights will be clearly visible and the search can be made from a greater height so that a wider area can be covered in each sweep. If this does not produce results the area will still be rechecked by daylight.

If you are signalling to an aircraft and it turns away – keep watching. It may be following one of those recognized search patterns and you will be able to anticipate critical moments for signalling.

Base line

Base line, or box search, is carried out when there has been a high wind or bad weather conditions on your known route (a). Searchers should deduce that you may have veered from the route to the lee side of a slope for shelter.


Watercourse search takes in all the tributaries, using the main stream as base line. This is undertaken when your last known position was on or near a river.


Fan search is used when your last known position (x) is fairly certain but it is impossible to deduce the direction you may have taken.

Contour search allows mountains and valleys to be searched with maximum thoroughness. Steep valleys should be searched several times by flying along them.

Creeping line

Creeping line search, beginning in a corner of the search area, is particularly useful when only a single aircraft is available. It follows parallels which should be towards and away from the sun for a land search so that any reflection from a missing aircraft or other wreckage and signals will be more easily seen.

Track crawl

The primary search pattern, or track crawl search, parallels both sides of a missing aircraft’s expected flight path (a), or travelling known land route. After flying for one hour, turn around and fly the reverse pattern.

Square search is useful when a comparatively small area is to be covered. Search starts in the last known location (x) and works outwards. If unsuccessful fly over last known location and start search in other direction. This ensures both sides are covered.

Combined searches

At sea a combined sea-and-air search is desirable. If the aircraft locates survivors the ships can pick them up. The ship can also act as a datum point for all aircraft. Rescue aircraft are equipped with supplies to drop to survivors to help them as they await pick-up by a surface vessel.

Helicopter rescue

While aeroplanes are used for the search, helicopters are used in most countries to carry out the actual rescue, especially on land. Where possible the ‘copter will make a landing to take on survivors and fly them out. It may be possible for the pilot to find a convenient landing site nearby to which survivors can make their way, but it will be easier for the survivors to check out suitability at ground level and to create a site if necessary.

The helicopter will require an obstruction-free approach and exit path, both INTO the prevailing winds. The ground should be level (the slope should not exceed seven degrees – a gradient of 1 in 10). The touchdown surface should be firm and free of loose materials – remove leaves, twigs, everything. There must be no holes, tree stumps or rocks which could cause damage to the aircraft.

Selecting a landing site

Look for a natural clearing. In close country a river bank on a large bend is often the best natural landing place (LP).

Alternatively climb a spur and select a level piece of ground free of large trees. If you need to, cut down trees to clear more space. The trees will fall down the spur without blocking the area and a clear approach and exit path can be obtained across the spur. Do not attempt cutting a landing place on flat ground; it will take forever to create a clear approach and exit.

Non-landing rescue

In an emergency, helicopters will take considerable risks to rescue survivors. They may hover with one skid on a rock to make embarkation possible – but whenever it can be done create a proper landing place and minimize risks.

Most helicopters are equipped with a winch. If a landing place is out of the question you can be lifted from the ground while the helicopter hovers. All that is needed is an opening or clearing through which to extricate you.

Wind indication

It is important to indicate the direction and strength of the wind at the landing place so that the pilot can select the best approach, and keep the aircraft stable while carrying out the rescue. Smoke is an ideal indicator, but do not place it so that it obscures the touchdown area.

If a fire is not practical make a T sign from contrasting material and place it at the downwind edge of the landing place with the horizontal bar of the T placed upwind.

If there is nothing to make a T shape from, a person standing on the far downwind side of the landing place with their arms outstretched and with their back to the wind can form a living symbol for the pilot. Don’t make this signal until you have to – and then only in the correct position. It is very similar to another body signal, which means ‘need help’.

Landing place

A level cleared area is needed at least 26m (85ft) in diameter. A further 5m (17ft) is needed all around, cleared to a height of 60cm (2ft). There should be a clear approach path into the prevailing wind with no obstructions within an angle of 15 degrees of the central landing pad.

Mark the touchdown point with an H. You can make it from inlaid rocks (keeping the surface smooth), clothing securely anchored, or panel markers. On snow, trample it down firmly to prevent it swirling and, in dry areas, water the surface to keep the dust down.

If a spur, mound or area of raised ground is nearby, this will be easier to clear and will provide an easy approach and exit across the spur if the wind direction is satisfactory.

The payload of the helicopter is cut drastically with increased altitude so, if possible, make the landing site below 1830m (6000ft).

In mountains updraughts and downdraughts of air can be considerable according to the pattern of the land and its relationship to prevailing winds. Select a site that gives maximum lift in the direction in which the helicopter will take off. Soft wet snow will cling to the helicopter and hamper its take-off. Try to compact the landing surface as much as possible. Powdery snow will swirl under the rotors’ downwash and restrict the pilot’s vision. Stamp this down, too.

Night rescue

The helicopter will itself have powerful lights by which the landing or lift-off of survivors can take place but you will need lights to bring the pilot in to the landing place. Flares and fires will give an indication of your position once the helicopter is within range.

If you are illuminating from the ground with torches, vehicle headlights or other beams shine them skyward at first to attract attention but, once the pilot has seen you, keep the beams low so that they do NOT dazzle the pilot, and shine them on to the touchdown or winching area.

Sea rescue

If survivors are being winched up from a ship it will help the pilot to place the deck at an angle of approximately 40 degrees to the right of the eye of the wind. If you can control the vessel give a wind speed over the deck of about 29kph (18mph).

Winching techniques

A double lift is the usual method but a single lift is sometimes used.

Double lift: With a double lift a crewman is lowered on the winch with another strop for the survivor. During the lift the crewman supports the survivor with his legs, gripping with them around the midsection, and supports the head with his hands. After the strop has been put in place and tightened keep arms down by the sides and do not lift them – just lie back and enjoy it!

Single lift: With a single lift you fit yourself into the strop. When you have placed it under your armpits and securely tightened the grommet give the ‘thumbs up’ sign. Once acknowledged make no further signals until aboard the chopper – if you raise your arms you risk slipping out of the strop!

Helicopter precautions on landing

When a helicopter touches down at the LP the rotors will be turning. The approach to the aircraft is therefore particularly important both for your own safety and that of the helicopter.

  • NEVER approach from the rear. This is a blind spot for the crew and the tail rotor is unprotected. On sloping ground always approach up the slope – bringing you up below the blades.
  • NEVER approach down a slope close to the helicopter. You could be at risk from the blades.
  • Make sure that you are not carrying anything which could foul the main rotor. If carrying a radio, stow the aerial.
  • Keep all sharp objects away from the body panels of the helicopter. They are of light gauge alloy and easily damaged.
  • Sit in the seat allocated to you by the crewman, fasten the seat belt and keep fastened until told otherwise.
  • Do not attempt to alight until the engine has been shut down after you have landed – even then, wait for directions.
Case study: Emergency on Everest

This is a tale I use to illustrate that it’s not a weakness to give up on an adventure if the weather or circumstances prevent you from reaching your goal safely. There’s always another day; but if you come unstuck there’s no tomorrow.

Two British Army soldiers lost 19 toes between them and almost perished on the treacherous slopes of Everest’s South Summit on May 16, 1976.

After reaching the high altitude camp they set out to make their final assault on the world’s most unforgiving mountain. Leaving sleeping bags, provisions, and radios behind, they took only oxygen with them in their rucksacks.

The weather was fine as they set off at 6.30am, but the loose, powdery snow severely restricted their progress and a 90-minute climb stretched to six hours. Their cut-off point to reach the South Summit before making their way to the peak was 2.30pm. As it gets colder and darker, the air thins, making it difficult to breathe, and by 2pm, they were still one hour away from the peak. They already feared it would be almost impossible to get back to camp safely and stored bottles of oxygen for use on the descent. Despite knowing the risks, they decided to continue and hit the summit at 3.30pm. After taking photographs and celebrating the immense achievement of making it to the top of Everest, they began their descent. By this time, a blizzard had set in and the snow had covered their footprints.

Conditions gradually worsened until it felt like hell on earth. They found the oxygen they had stored earlier, dug a hole in the snow and snuggled down together, their feet in their rucksacks. The winds were horrendous and the altitude meant they were running out of oxygen fast. One of the soldiers had removed his goggles during the descent in order to be able to see more clearly, but this had resulted in snow blindness. With his fellow climber suffering from breathing difficulties, the other  removed his glove to open the oxygen bottle they had stored, exposing him to frostbite. He was to lose the fingers of his right hand. They huddled together in their snow hole, desperately fighting for survival in the winds of up to 170 mph and temperatures of 40 below zero. With no radio or provisions, they were at the mercy of the elements, the high altitude making them so drowsy they had to punch and smack each other to stay awake. As the night wore on they drifted in and out of consciousness.

At 9am next morning, a team from Camp Five, making their own assault on the summit, found the two soldiers and began the painful and difficult task of getting them down to safety. Both men’s feet were frozen and the first climber’s snow blindness made it impossible for him to walk unaided. He had to be helped with every footstep.

Back home doctors attempted to save the men’s toes but the condition of their feet deteriorated and the toes had to be amputated. The second climber also lost the thumb and top halves of his fingers on his right hand. Both men went on to further adventures, unimpeded by their injuries or experiences.

Although they were extremely well trained soldiers, they had carried on, knowing the weather was worsening. Perhaps the wise choice would have been to turn back, but they would have had to start again the next day, the next week or the next year. Weather conditions on the mountain are never predictable and death is an ever-present risk for those who want to reach the top.


  • If there’s a problem, always go back. Losing face and giving up is better than losing your life or risking injury. Give yourself a cut-off point and stick to it.
  • Always have safety equipment. Carrying provisions and equipment may hinder progress but they are lifesavers.
  • Help each other. These soldiers stayed alive because they acted as a team.
  • Never panic and always remember that the will to live will conquer the worst elements.
Case study: judgement call

Should you ever take risks with drinking water?

This very much depends on the situation you are in. I drank water infested with mosquito larvae when I was in the Yemen. I was severely dehydrated and knew the water would make me ill, but it kept me alive until I got to camp next day. The longer-term effects were stomach upsets and sickness but the consequences outweighed the risks. It’s a decision you have to make based on the circumstances.

Case study: mental stamina

This is one of my favourite stories of someone with incredible tenacity and resourcefulness.

Hiroo Onoda was 23 years old when he was sent to Lubang, an island covered with rainforest 120km (74 miles) south of Manila in the Philippines. As a soldier, his commander told him to carry on fighting for Japan even if the rest of his comrades were wiped out. And this is what he did... for 30 years! In the first few years on Lubang, Hiroo kept in touch with other Japanese soldiers. But one by one, his comrades surrendered or died. Eventually, Hiroo was on his own. He lived on bananas and coconuts, and sometimes managed to catch a bird or steal a cow to eat. He made shoes out of old tyres stitched together with pieces of straw, and he built shelters out of bamboo, vines and branches in the forest. Always fearful of an enemy attack, Hiroo kept switching hide-outs and he shot at anyone who came close to him. When Japan surrendered in 1945, planes dropped leaflets over the island to announce the end of the war. Hiroo picked up these leaflets, but he was sure that they were lies written by the American enemy. Friends and relatives visited Lubang to tell him that the war was over, but he remained suspicious and continued to hide.

After thirty years on the island, Hiroo came across a Japanese student called Norio on a camping holiday. Hiroo nearly shot Norio, but Norio managed to persuade him that people back in Japan were worried about him. Hiroo told Norio that he would only give up if his commander told him to.

Luckily, his commander was still alive – he had become a bookseller in Japan. The commander flew to Lubang, and at last, on 10th March 1974, Hiroo Onoda gave up his lonely life. By this time, he was 52 years old.


  • I always tell people that survival is 85 per cent mental, 15 per cent physical. You can have all the survival skills in the world, but if you don’t have the will to live, no amount of training will keep you alive.
Case study: drifting into danger

The most dangerous thing in a soldier’s life can be R&R when you’ve too much money in your pocket and you want to spend it!

I was drinking in a bar in Kenya when two Aussies came in and said they wanted to take a boat out and could I run through the controls. I told them to come back next morning. By that time I’d been drinking all night, but boarded the boat with them, explained the mechanics, then dropped out into the sea. I ended up floating in the water for 12 hours, totally disorientated before I managed to drift back to land. I’d taken my shirt off to protect my head, but my body was badly burned.

No one in camp had missed me because they thought I was in my bunk sleeping off the night’s alcohol. An experience never to be repeated!


  • Only ever carry alcohol for surgical uses; it impairs your judgement and causes fluid loss leading to dehydration, which can be fatal.
Case study: stick together

I often use this case study because it highlights exactly how not to plan and execute an expedition.

While exploring Lows Gully, on Mount Kinabalu in Malaysia, in 1994, two British officers and three Hong Kong Chinese soldiers were trapped for 16 days with only enough rations for three days. At the time they were found, following a huge rescue operation by the British and Malaysian military, medics said that they were on the point of starvation. Mount Kinabalu is not considered a tough climb. The plan was to travel light, so armed with ten days’ rations and a video camera, but without radio and flares, they descended into the abyss of Lows Gully.

On the morning of the third day, the expedition reached the edge  of the abyss and the men saw for the first time the task ahead of them. The team was split into two groups as not all of the men were in good enough shape to continue with the descent immediately. The fittest men forged ahead while a second group rested with the intention of following when they were ready.

When the second team finally began their descent they had only three days’ rations left and, with novice climbers, they made slow progress. Meanwhile, at the bottom of the gully, and with only four days’ rations left, the advance team began to negotiate their way out of danger, but they met with the gully’s unique and unpredictable weather system: mists over the mountain gave way to torrential rains and with nowhere else to go, the water poured down into the gully. In the days that followed, as they slowly struggled through the undergrowth, the team leader and one other team member became separated from the other three in their group. Unable to find them, the two men were forced to continue. With no rations, they attempted to live off the forest, but with dire consequences as one of them became violently ill.

On their return, after 17 days, they learned that the other three in their party had already made it back safely. But the second team were still stranded. The Malaysian Army and a Royal Air Force rescue team were dispatched to search for the team and, after ten days, a Malaysian helicopter finally spotted them and rescued the group. It was 31 days since they had set out.


  • Plan adequately
  • Keep the group together
  • Don’t underestimate the environment you are going to
  • Ensure that you start with enough supplies for survival and for rescue