One morning at our daily coffee break, the role of outdoor survival became part of the conversation, inspired by the recent forced landing of a commercial airplane in the Hudson River and the near-record low temperatures then being reported throughout the west and mid-Atlantic states.
My friends and I agreed the first step to staying alive is being prepared, as the airline captain and his crew so ably demonstrated when the plane went down.
Though it's impossible to be ready for all eventualities on aircraft -- few of us include survival suits in our luggage -- if you've taken time to locate available exits or floatation devices, you've taken your first major step.
Suppose your boat sinks, and you must swim ashore and spend the night stranded deep in swampland. How mentally, and otherwise, prepared are you? Survival time is extremely short, maybe five or 10 minutes in near-freezing waters, before hypothermia sets in and bodily functions shut down. Even wet clothing provides some protection. Whenever boating, waterfowling or fishing, consider wearing a Coast Guard-approved float-coat rather than the usual life jacket. Float-coats, wind-proof, convenient and comfortable, easily double your probabilities.
Once a person is ashore, starting a fire is a challenge. If one carries waterproof matches, cigarette lighter, maybe some fire-starter in his float-coat pocket there's a chance. How about including waterproof flares, as the Coast Guard recommends. Consider a waterproofed cell phone and GPS in your kit. Pocket-sized flameless chemical heat pads can provide warmth for 10 to 12 hours. Emergency crews use them for treating shock and hypothermia. Taking little space, inexpensive, available at almost any sporting outfitter, they're well worth the space in survival kits, almost as comforting as a warm dog in your sleeping bag.
Firewood on wet days is always a problem. Look for pitch pine or standing deadwood. If it "snaps" it's probably dry enough. Anything on the ground will be too wet to consider.
Clothing makes a difference. Think old-fashioned wool and wind-proof, vapor-transmitting fibers. The military found wind-proof and water-repellent ponchos, full-length raincoats and shelter halves greatly increased survivability by reducing exposure.
In snow country, take a lesson from the fox or coyote. They'll hollow out a cavity in the snow, creating an igloo-like shelter. Leave a vent hole, especially if you choose to build a small fire inside (or use an oil lamp) for heat. Put any insulation beneath you that you can. Even without a fire, interior temperatures will seldom fall below freezing.
Northern tribes would dig a grave-sized pit, build their cooking fire in the hole, then, after the coals died, cover it with earth, then sleep on top using a skin for a blanket.
No sensible person will go into remote areas without first leaving travel plans behind. Include routes, times and places. Carry the basics: compass and/or Global Positioning System, whistle, waterproof matches, fire-starter and a signal mirror.
There is an old truism: If you're prepared, it won't happen.