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Peter Kummerfeldt: Preparing to Survive in the Wilderness

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In a survival situation, be it urban or wilderness, your gear alone will not save you. YOU must save yourself. There are three major areas a survivor must be prepared in, before you start being concerned about accumulating equipment!

In this article, survival Expert Peter Kummerfeldt takes you through a survival sequence.

by Peter Kummerfeldt

One of the most important lessons I learned during my survival career is: “Those who are prepared to survive an emergency usually will, and those who are not prepared probably won’t!”

We don’t want to admit we might be the one faced with a life or death situation or some other equally disagreeable circumstance.

Denial leads the list of the coping methods that people use — we deny anything bad is ever going to happen.  It’s often easier to deny than to prepare for a difficult situation and, as a result, we find ourselves totally unprepared when disaster strikes.

It’s easy to say “I’ll assemble a survival kit tomorrow.” It’s easy to rationalize – “I don’t have the money to buy a better rain jacket,” or “I’ll never be in a survival situation. What do I need a survival kit for?”  It’s easy to think that it will always be someone else that ends up in a survival situation.

Consequently the vast majority of people find themselves facing a cold night out without adequate clothing, without basic survival equipment and without having practiced building a fire, erecting a shelter or signaling for help.

To prepare, potential survivors need to consider three areas: Physical, mental and spiritual preparation.
Physical preparation includes careful selection of  your clothing, equipping yourself for an unplanned night out and getting in physical shape.

“Dress to survive – not just to arrive!

What you wear may be adequate for the work commute, but will it keep you warm if you have to spend the night in the ditch when the car skids off the road?  How much protection will your T-shirt and shorts provide if you are caught out in a late summer thunderstorm?
Becoming lost, is probably the most common way that people end up in a survival situation. “Surviving” places a premium on the clothing worn.

Cotton Kills! During the colder, wetter times of the year, dressing properly begins by getting rid of your cotton underwear and switching to synthetics (polypropylene, polyester, or Capilene.) Cotton absorbs the moisture your body produces and holds it against your skin causing heat to be constantly conducted away. You will never be warm!

The synthetics are hydrophobic (water hating) and facilitate the movement of water vapor away from your body.  Other underwear fabrics include wool and silk.  Some very good “non-itchy” wool thermal underwear is now available.  Silk, because it is a natural fiber, tends to absorb and hold water.  It is also not as durable as the synthetic fabrics.

The next layer, the mid layer, serves to facilitate the movement of water vapor out to the environment and to trap “dead air” around you to keep you warm. Once again, synthetics work best – the piles and fleeces, with wool coming in a close second.

Under very cold conditions, an additional insulation layer may be needed. The more “dead air” you trap the warmer you will be. Many insulating materials are available to choose from, both synthetic and natural. I choose synthetics primarily because, unlike down, the synthetic insulators do not collapse when wet.

The outer layer may be the most important.  It must keep the inner layers dry and keep the wind out.  If either moisture or wind penetrates the insulation layers, heat will be lost quickly.  Studies have shown that in windy situations, a good outer shell can increase warmth by as much as 50 degrees. Put another way, a good windproof outer layer decreases the amount of insulation needed to keep you warm.

The objective is to use the fewest layers of clothing that will keep you warm when you are inactive. Activity generates substantial amounts of body heat and reduces the need for multiple layers of clothing.  On the other hand, inactivity drives the need to insulate yourself from the environment and to conserve whatever heat your body is producing – very important in a survival situation!

Special attention should be paid to protecting your head and your hands. If your head is not protected as much as 75 percent of your total body heat production can be lost!  Hands suffer quickly when exposed to cool-to-cold conditions. Fine motor skills, the ability to touch finger to thumb, are lost quickly.

This photo demonstrates how a trash bag can be used as a quick, effective emergency shelter. (Peter Kummerfeldt photo)

Could you zip up your jacket if your fingers are frozen?  Could you tie your bootlaces? Gloves and mittens are an important part of your outdoor clothing.

Equipping yourself to spend a night out is the next step.

There are those who advocate construction of survival shelters built from natural materials.  I disagree.

For the average, inexperienced person, building a windproof, waterproof shelter from sticks, boughs, bark and other natural materials may be impossible!

Shelters built from natural materials take hours to build, require cutting tools and adequate supplies of suitable materials, and, most importantly, call for an “able” survivor — one who is uninjured!

Seldom can all of these criteria be met and, for lack of shelter, the survivor ends up spending a very uncomfortable night or two out.  Additionally, inexperienced people will often wait until the sun is about to set or the storm is about to break before they recognize the need for an emergency shelter!

A vital part of your survival equipment is a waterproof, windproof, heavy-duty, plastic bag that you can crawl into!  Alternatively, carry a sturdy tarp or piece of plastic that can be quickly erected to create a lean-to or pup tent style of shelter.

The ability to ignite a fire may also be critical to your survival.   Once again, relying on improvised means i.e., rubbing sticks together, is an invitation to disaster!

Because of injury or loss of finger dexterity the usual methods of starting a fire may become very difficult.  How do you strike a match if you only have the use of one hand?  Could you still “flick your BIC” if your fingers are cold and stiff?  It can be done but it may not be easy.

Equip yourself with good matches and a metal match.  Fill a screw-top match case with cotton balls that have been saturated in petroleum jelly – it makes great tinder, can be ignited with either the match or a spark from the metal match and burns for a long time.

The duration of your survival situation hinges on two questions.  Did you file a flight plan?  Do you have any signaling equipment with you with which to attract attention? Always tell someone reliable where you’re going and when you’re going to be back.  Include in your survival kit a good plastic whistle and a signal mirror (glass or a good plastic one)

Improving your physical fitness should be part of the physical preparations you make.  People in good physical shape are less likely to injure themselves. Physically fit survivors  injured in an accident will fare better than those who are not in good shape.

Preparing yourself mentally is as important, if not more so, than preparing yourself physically.

If you can’t visualize situations you might find yourself in, how  will you prepare for them?

What scares you about having to spend an unplanned night out?  Is it the fear of predatory animals? Starving to death? Dying from hypothermia? Isolation?

We all have fears. Unfortunately many are based on stories we were told,  TV programs, or on books we read.  Good entertainment, perhaps, but often poor sources of reliable information  to base our decisions and actions.

Make a list of your fears and apprehensions then contact the “experts” and find out the truth. In most instances, the truth is very different from the myth and, as a good friend of mine says: “When you remove the mystery, you’ll remove the fear!”

Spiritual preparation is the final step.  After interviewing many survivors and prisoners-of-war and after reading the accounts of many other survivors,  it is clear: “There are no non-believers in survival situations!”

Survivors may have started the experience without any strong beliefs one way or the other, but inevitably, at some point these survivors turned to a greater power for additional help.

As Doug Ritter of Equipped to Survive (www.equipped.com) says:

“If you are adequately clothed, if you have equipped yourself and if you have practiced your survival skills, a night or two out should not a be a life threatening experience.  On the other hand if you are not clothed adequately, do not have any emergency gear and have never practiced your survival skills whether you survive or not will depend on your will to survive, your ability to improvise, and LUCK.”

I don’t know about you – I want to be clothed, equipped and practiced!
Peter Kummerfeldt has walked the talk in the wilderness survival field for decades. Peter grew up in

Kenya, East Africa and came to America in 1965 and joined the U.S. Air Force. He is a graduate of the Air Force Survival Instructor Training School and has served as an instructor at the Basic Survival School, Spokane, Washington; the Arctic Survival School, Fairbanks, Alaska, and the Jungle Survival School, Republic of the Philippines.

For twelve years, Peter was the Survival Training Director at the United States Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colorado. He retired from the Air Force in 1995 after 30 years of service.

In 1992, concerned with the number of accidents that were occurring in the outdoors annually and the number of tourists traveling overseas who were involved in unpleasant and sometimes life-threatening incidents Peter created OutdoorSafe.com

He is the author of Surviving a Wilderness Emergency and has addressed over 20,000 people as the featured speaker at numerous seminars, conferences and national conventions.

Check out Peter’s blog at: OutdoorSafe.blogspot.com

1 comment
  • William Shuler

    I think you’re article is spot on! Really like how you brought up the clothing and how cotton will lock in moisture. You also covered how to make a shelter, i’ll be it in a rather simple way. However in an emergency, time means everything and your right about that! I can also see how having a higher power such as you said can help provide you with the strength you just cannot seem to find on your own. Really fascinating read.

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