Growing up, we often hear many myths, legends, and old wives’ tales, such as plucking a hair will cause more to grow in its place or that every December 24th, there’s an overweight guy dressed in a red suit who visits every child on the planet. The survival world is the same way. The difference is, relying on one of these survival myths could lead to far more drastic outcomes than just being disappointed on Christmas morning. This list of survival myths challenges many lessons we learned growing up—but we don’t care, we like our readers alive. Read up on our list of debunked survival myths below and get ready to be disappointed by your Boy Scout Leader.
Reality Check: Building a solar still involves digging a hole in the ground, placing a container into the hole, then covering the hole with a piece of plastic. A small stone is placed on top of the plastic, directly above the container. The theory is that water will evaporate from the ground and condense on the underside of the plastic. It will run down the plastic and drip into the container. Success is contingent upon a huge range of factors, including the moisture levels in the ground, the climate, temperature, and the size of the hole. Rarely will you get nearly enough water to warrant the expenditure of time and energy. In short, you’ll probably lose more water by sweating from the exertion than you’ll gain from the few ounces you might get in return.
Reality Check: This is one of those survival myths that is a fun one to do with the kids. Tell them to figure out which direction is north by finding moss. This could have them walking in circles for quite some time because, given the right conditions, moss can grow all the way around a tree. In some environments, it could be difficult or impossible to find moss growing on a tree at all. A far better solution is to carry a compass every time you hit the trail and teach the kids how to use one as well. Absent a compass, look to the sun or stars to help you get moving in the right direction.
Reality Check: The oft-cited Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards (PETS) Act does not require privately owned businesses to change their practices in the slightest. What the Act does is require FEMA to take pets and pet owners into account as it creates disaster response plans. Call around to local motels now and identify the ones that will allow your pets to accompany you in a room, should the need arise. Keep this list with your evacuation supplies. Don’t just hope and pray that a motel manager will take pity on you and bend the rules because there is an emergency.
Reality Check: There are numerous things we eat that will make our pets sick, right? Grapes, chocolate, and onions are all dangerous or toxic to dogs, yet we readily consume them without a second thought. The reverse is also true. Animals have very different digestive systems and they are able to safely consume many things that would cause severe health issues to the human body, including berries, mushrooms, and more. Even pet food itself could cause serious issues with a person’s digestive system.
Reality Check: While you might be protected from things falling from directly above, the bridge structure creates something like a wind tunnel, increasing the wind speed as it tears through. Plus, that wind may be carrying all sorts of debris with it. The higher you go on the embankment, the faster the wind will be, too. A group of drivers who all leave their cars near the overpass does nothing other than create roadblocks for emergency responders. Stay in your vehicle and get as far away from the overpass as possible. If you find a sturdy shelter, park and run inside to hunker down. Otherwise, it is indeed possible to outrun a tornado, if you know which direction it is moving and you can go in the opposite direction fast.
Reality Check: This is one of the big survival myths, folks. Edible mushrooms have many poisonous lookalikes and someone inexperienced with identification can make potentially deadly mistakes. Even if you are absolutely certain the mushroom is safe to eat, there’s another reason to avoid them in a survival situation. Mushrooms are thermogenic. This means the body burns more calories digesting a mushroom than it derives from it. In a crisis, calories are important as they are what fuels the body.
Reality Check: Waterborne pathogens are killed or rendered inert in less than one minute at 158°F. At sea level, water boils at 212°F so any viruses, bacteria, or protozoa in the water will have been taken care of well before that point. At the highest point on earth, the peak of Mt. Everest, water boils at 158°F. In that particular case, maybe let it boil for a minute, just to be safe.
Reality Check: While crayons can burn similarly to candles, being made of wax, it would make far more sense to just use actual candles. Don’t plan to improvise, plan to use the right tool for the job.
Reality Check: Every situation is different. If it is 72°F and sunny, shelter isn’t going to be much of a priority, though water might be if you don’t have a ready supply. On the other hand, a rainy and cold night requires you to get out of the elements as quickly as possible and warm up before hypothermia sets in. Adjust your priorities to the situation rather than relying upon a rigid set of rules.
Reality Check: The absolute best tools to have if someone is bitten by a venomous snake are a working vehicle and the keys to it. Get the injured party to a hospital as soon as possible. It is impossible to suck the venom out and trying to do so just wastes time and potentially causes more injury. If possible, identify the snake either by killing or photographing it. Remember that a snake can still strike after death due to reflex. Handle the corpse very carefully. Knowing what kind of snake it was will help the medical team treat the injury appropriately.
Reality Check: TV shows aside (we’re looking at you, Better Call Saul), this is a very bad idea. Urine contains numerous waste products the body needs to eliminate. Ingesting them again just concentrates them further. Do whatever you can to find an actual water source.
Reality Check: Frostbite occurs when tissues become frozen. Rubbing these areas causes the tissues to become even further damaged. Plus, the ice crystals can cut into healthy tissue adjacent to the affected area. Don’t rub or massage the frostbitten area and don’t apply direct heat, either. Get the person to someplace warm. If feet or toes are the issue, do everything you can to keep them from walking on the injured appendages. Remove any wet clothing. Moist heat is best. Soak the frostbite in warm water, being careful that the water isn’t so hot it could cause injury. However, don’t thaw the frostbite unless you are confident you can keep it thawed. If it thaws out and refreezes again, this can cause even worse injury.
Reality Check: There are a few reasons why this isn’t a good idea. First, snow is made of ice crystals, the sharp edges of which can cause tiny cuts inside the mouth. Second, eating snow can lower your body temperature and in a true survival situation, it is all about maintaining your core body temperature. Finally, the snow might have become contaminated with one or more things as it sat on the ground, which could cause illness. Melt the snow in a container rather than your mouth. If feasible, use a water filter before consuming.
Reality Check: Never ration water. Drink as much as you need for as long as you have the supply to do so. At the same time, always be looking for water sources and take advantage of them as often as possible. When you do find a source, camel up by drinking as much water as you can, then fill your containers. Dehydration is a very real threat and it can sneak up on you. While the often repeated rule of three is that you can survive upwards of three days without water, the reality is that you can suffer dehydration in far less time. Once dehydration sets in, your ability to find more water is going to be hampered by cramps, dizziness, and more. Out of all the survival myths listed, please keep this one in the back of your mind at all times.
Reality Check: In a sudden crisis like an EMP or something similar, it will take some time before most people understand the extent of the event. For at least the short term, if there are any stores or other businesses still operating, they will almost certainly still accept cash. People are creatures of habit and they will stick with what they know for as long as possible. That said, price gouging is all but guaranteed to happen as well. Use cash as much as possible until people stop accepting it, reserving your barter goods for when you truly need them.
Reality Check: There are few shelters simpler than the lean-to. It is a classic style and many a young boy or girl has built them as forts when they are playing in the woods. But, as a true survival shelter, it is lacking in a few areas. There is limited protection from the elements, with the wind able to run right through and chill the inhabitants. They typically have roofs that are far too high to trap any sort of body heat or the warmth of a fire. A better shelter is a debris hut. It isn’t as pretty but it is far more functional for a night in the wild.
Reality Check: It is best to have multiple methods of starting a fire. A disposable lighter will do the job in the majority of situations, though if the lighter gets wet or too cold, it might not work. In those cases, a ferrocerium rod or a flint and steel set might be your best bet. Most primitive skills instructors will be among the first to recommend you carry several types of fire starters. Nobody is 100% successful with making fire with primitive means, such as a bow drill. There are many things that can cause failure that has little to do with the skill of the user, including humidity.
Reality Check: Waterborne pathogens cannot be seen by the naked eye. While they often tend to favor standing water, there are absolutely no guarantees that running water, even if it is crystal clear, isn’t still teeming with all sorts of nastiness. Always consider any wild source, with the possible exception of fresh springs, to be dirty and require filtration or disinfection prior to consumption. That said, if you lack any means of cleaning water beyond perhaps running it through a T-shirt, running water has less risk of contamination than stagnant pools, all other things being equal.
Reality Check: When I was young, a somewhat common sight in cartoons was a Saint Bernard that would rescue someone stuck in the snow. The dog always had a small whiskey barrel on its collar and would pour a healthy swig into the mouth of the person to thaw them out. While drinking alcohol might give a feeling of warmth, it is a false sense of heat and one of the survival myths that need debunking ASAP. What happens is the blood vessels leading to the arms and legs become dilated. The increased blood flow is what makes you feel warm. But, that blood has to come from somewhere and as it flows out to the limbs from the torso, the end result is a lowered core body temperature. Not to mention, alcohol isn’t exactly known for increasing the odds of good decision-making.
Reality Check: Most of us have seen this suggestion a time or two, either in a book or on social media. The idea is that if you are working in an area where you cannot carry pepper spray, a can of wasp spray could be stashed in a desk drawer, just in case. The thing is, wasp spray is largely ineffective against human beings. While an argument could be made that any substance sprayed into the face will be a distraction, wasp spray will not have an immediate, debilitating effect like pepper spray. Further, it is against Federal law to use wasp spray in this manner, regardless of the circumstances.
Reality Check: While there is something to be said for being able to come up with creative solutions, if you’re putting together a first aid kit, rely on proven tools and gear rather than hoping to improvise. Tampons are a very poor choice for gunshot wounds (GSWs) and other penetrating injuries for a few reasons. A tampon is designed to absorb blood, lining shed from the uterus, and other fluids and semi-fluids. Contrary to this survival myths, tampons are not designed to stop bleeding. Modern medicine has come up with countless much more reliable tools, including pressure bandages and tourniquets. If you’re going to plan ahead, plan properly. Invest a few bucks in the right tools and take a class so you know how to use them correctly.
We know what you’re thinking, “But, I always thought these survival myths were real!” Skillset is staffed with survival experts who are more interested in keeping our readers alive rather than entertained. We hope for your sake that you remember these survival myths the next time you venture into the wild.
Need more information on wilderness survival? Check out “50 Survival Tips and Tricks for the Outdoors“
The Tampin myth is one I frequently run into on various forums, and even when you explain why it’s not a good idea, people still cling to it.
Tampons are also Not Sterile. They’re very clean, but not sterile. You’re much better off stocking your Med Kit with the proper tools for the job. Pressure Bandages aren’t something you find at Walmart or even a well stocked Pharmacy, so you need to find a source to purchase from. A quick Internet search will reveal a whole list if vendors that stock various pressure bandages, and other Advanced First Aid products.
Really good myth busting article. If I may I would like to add that basic survival skills should be practiced now and again before finding oneself in a difficult situation. An emergency is not the time to attempt a skill that has never been tried before.