A lot of people think that the biggest threat in the wilderness comes from bears, wolves, and other big wild animals. While these animals can be dangerous, they aren’t the real threats you’d have to worry about in a wilderness survival situation. Here is what you should really be worried about if you ever have to survive outdoors.
You can only survive about 3 days without water. And, before you reach 3 days, you are already going to be dehydrated and all of your bodily and cognitive functions will suffer. It is dehydration which takes most people who die while lost in the wilderness.
As National Geographic warns about the dangers of dehydration:
- Losing up to 5% of body fluids causes thirst, weakness, nausea, and irritability. Judgment may be impaired at just 2% loss of fluids.
- Losing up to 10% of body fluids causes headaches, dizziness, and people may be unable to walk and speak clearly. Vision may begin to blur.
- Loss of up to 15% of body fluids causes severe vision and hearing impairment and makes urination painful. Signs of delirium may occur.
- Loss of more than 15% of body fluids usually causes death.
As Outdoor Life magazine points out, a lot of people believe some stupid myths about what to do when dehydrated and in the wilderness. For example, many people think that they should drink their own urine if dehydrated – but this is generally a bad idea. Likewise, eating snow is a bad idea (you should MELT it first or else you are going to freeze your body). Before you go into the wilderness, please learn these smart ways of finding water.
The body can go about 3 weeks without food, but it isn’t the lack of food which will necessarily kill you. It is what hunger will make you do. If you are really hungry, you will probably do something reckless like try to eat unidentified mushrooms. You could end up eating something very poisonous which then creates symptoms like diarrhea which indirectly kill you.
If you are in a wilderness survival situation, do not eat unknown plants without first performing the Universal Edibility Test. Or, better yet, just eat bugs for survival. Most are safe to eat and highly nutritious!
Believe it or not, but diarrhea is actually one of the biggest killers in wilderness survival situations. Consider that diarrhea is the 2nd leading cause of death in children under 5 worldwide and diarrhea killed 1.26 million people in 2013. Diarrhea leads to dehydration (which is not something you want in a wilderness survival situation). It causes nutritional deficiencies. And it limits your ability to move.
People often get diarrhea because they drank unpurified water (learn how to purify water without a camping filter here). Even if the water looks clean, it might contain a parasite like Giardia. Diarrhea can also occur when people eat toxic plants. So, again, don’t eat anything you don’t know and don’t drink unpurified water.
It doesn’t have to be snowing or below zero for the cold to kill you. Hypothermia is a condition in which the body’s core temperature drops below 95 degrees F. Even with mild hypothermia, shivering can be so intense that the person is unable to move and function. Severe hypothermia will cause symptoms like a decrease of blood pressure, heart rate, and respiratory rate. The person becomes incoherent. Organs shut down and death occurs.
Please learn how to make an emergency shelter before you go into the wilderness. Even a basic shelter could save you from dying from the cold. There are also some tricks for staying warm at night, like covering yourself with dirt to stay warm and building a fire (which is why you always need a firestarter in your wilderness survival kit).
Got a small cut or burn while in the great outdoors? This normally isn’t a problem, but it can quickly turn into a bad infection in a wilderness survival situation. While the infection might not kill you, it can severely tax your energy reserves and limit your mobility – which in turn could lead to your death. If you don't already know, NOW is the time to learn first aid!
Rockfalls, Avalanches, and Landslides
Last July, a 2,400 ton chunk of rock broke loose from the Half Dome formation in Yosemite National Park and came tumbling down. Luckily, no one was in its path and there were no injuries, but this isn’t always the case. There have been more than 15 deaths due to rockfalls in Yosemite alone.
There is little you can do to avoid rockfalls and other terrain disasters. But do follow smart camping practices – like not putting your tent next to a sheer cliff which a boulder could tumble off of at any moment.
Large animals like bears and wolves are dangerous in the wild, but they have mostly learned that people are the ones to be feared and will keep away. Consider that there has only been ONE deadly wolf attack in America since 2000 – and that occurred in Alaska. In the 2000s, there were a total of 12 fatal bear incidences in America (3 of which were in Alaska). By comparison, consider that there is an estimated 5-8 thousand bites from venomous snakes each year, and they cause 5 deaths each year. (Sources: Backpacker and Planetdeadly)
Depending on where you are in the wilderness, I’d be more scared of the small animals than the big beasts. Some of the most dangerous animals in North America include:
- Coral snakes
- Copperhead snakes
- Cottonmouth snakes
- Black widow spider
- Brown recluse spider
- Bees (because of allergic reactions they kill about 40 people each year!)
That doesn’t mean you should dismiss the real risk of encountering a bear or other large animal in the wilderness. Be smart and do things like keep food out of your tent, hang food in a bear bag, and learn what to do if you encounter a wild animal.
And, finally, the biggest threat to wilderness survival is pure stupidity. I am constantly amazed at how many people do downright dumb things – like go for a “walk” in the wilderness without basic gear like a map (seriously, you can’t rely on GPS!), water, and matches. And then there are all those who do stupid things like telling their kids to pet a wild bison in Yellowstone so they could get a photo.
Man might be at the top of the food chain, and has achieved some pretty amazing things like inventing the internet. But, remember, in the wilderness we are nothing more than another animal. Abide by the rules of nature because your humanity isn’t going to save you from being killed!
What are you most afraid of in the wilderness? Let us know in the comments or join the conversation on Facebook.