Survival 101: How to make it out of the woods alive

Posted: Friday, September 03, 2004

WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. Surviving a night or longer in the woods may sound like a nightmare to most people, but according to at least one local man, surviving can be relatively uncomplicated if you know what to do and keep your wits about you.

Jay Livziey has been teaching people how to survive in the woods for about 25 years and said he has been researching survival techniques for about 35 years.

''It is nothing more than staying alive. There is one thing out there that can hurt you, that can kill you. When I ask people what it is, I get answers like bears, copperheads, rattlesnakes, things like that. What it is is you. You can panic, and when you panic, all of your survival skills go out the window and you do stupid things.''

What Livziey teaches to people is that if they get lost in the wilderness whether in Pennsylvania, Colorado, Alaska or anywhere survival is literally in your head.

''Survival is 10 percent equipment, 10 percent skill and 80 percent mental,'' he said. ''You have to take charge of your body and realize that most situations are correctable if you keep your wits about you.''

There are several easy-to-remember numbers that people who immerse themselves into the outdoors should learn, Livziey said.

''The first one is four: You can go three to four minutes without oxygen, or four days without water, up to four weeks without food for the average person,'' he said.

''You can go without water for a while, but it eventually will affect your ability to do math or concentrate on a computer screen.''

He said other numbers to remember are five and six.

''If you are positive, or have a positive attitude about your situation, you increase your chances of survival by approximately 50 percent. You can be saved more easily,'' he said. ''Then, with a positive attitude, you can survive five to six minutes after you stop breathing. You can go five to six days without water and five to six weeks without food if you are a positive thinker and say to yourself, 'I can take control of my body' and not panic.''

What Livziey teaches in the first hour or so of up to six hours of instruction about survival skills is that the first decisions you make after realizing you are lost are critical.

''I teach that the first thing you should do is STOP,'' Livziey said.

''Sit down start to think about your situation, keep calm. Think. Fright can kill, if panic sets in. Observe everything around you. Think about what your immediate needs are, such as fire, dry clothes. Plan. The thing is to go back to STOP and review them every so often and plan how to deal with the situation you're in.''

Whenever venturing into the wilderness for camping, hunting or other pursuits, Livziey said he tries to always be prepared.

''I carry this bag, which weighs eight to nine ounces and I carry it wherever I go,'' he said. ''In it, I have the ability to start more than 1,000 fires.

''I carry in it a film canister of about 20 cotton balls. I also put a big pad of steel wool into one. I carry a five-minute red flare, two pocket knives, a butane lighter, a piece of steel with another piece of steel to start fires with, a 9-volt battery, a small chunk of magnesium that you can file off to use in starting a fire, a tube of fire paste and a small flint (Spark-Lite), with extra flints and small tinder made of cotton and beeswax.''

One thing he does not carry is matches.

''They can get wet, and then they will not light, no matter what,'' he said.

He usually also packs in a few fuel tablets, which last up to 15 minutes each long enough to make hot tea along with a collapsible cup and a coffee can to heat the water in. A small, collapsible stove fits into the pack as well.

''I tear off a small piece of cotton. Maybe one-quarter of a cotton ball is enough to start one fire. I can show them how to start a fire with a flashlight or with steel.''

A 9-volt battery, he demonstrated, provides enough voltage to set a piece of steel wool afire. That steel wool can then be touched to the cotton that has been soaked in beeswax. That, in turn, can light a candle and start a fuel tablet on fire. That is usually enough to get a small fire going with small dry twigs.

''You just add larger and larger tinder to the fire until you have a nice fire to warm yourself with,'' he said. That is especially helpful if a person finds himself lost in the woods and forced to stay overnight, with temperatures dropping during cooler months of the year.

Even AA batteries can be used to start a fire with the steel wool, as long as you have a total of at least three volts, Livziey said. Touching the ends of the steel wool to the terminals of the two batteries when they are joined creates the spark needed for a fire.

Fires also can be started by striking two pieces of steel together, which creates a shower of sparks. Those sparks can set a cotton ball on fire, which can be used to start whatever fire you may need for warmth or to signal for help.

He added that a fire can even be started, in the daytime, by using a magnifying glass.

''A fire,'' Livziey said, ''can be a great way to signal to searchers where you are, and a fire is especially visible at night. During the day, the smoke can be seen for some distance, too.''

Fire, he said ''will keep you warm, makes you more easily seen, can be used to purify water, cook food, keep insects away and help you remain positive in your thinking because your needs are being met.''

When you are stranded or lost in the wilderness, water is the most pressing of your physical needs, along with staying dry and warm.

''It is important because when you get dehydrated, your mind gets fuzzy,'' he said. ''You can't think straight and then your ability to make good decisions gets impaired.''

So good, clean drinking water becomes important, especially if the weather is hot and a person is perspiring heavily. But he said there are safe sources.

''Water from dew, rain or snow is safe,'' Livziey said. ''Up to 75 percent of all Americans are chronically dehydrated. A lack of even one 8-ounce glass of water will make you feel tired.''

Because water is so critical for your body to function normally and efficiently, Livziey said, people should drink whenever they are thirsty to keep their mind sharp at all times.

After water and warmth, food is a distant third, because the body can go much longer without food. But in the event someone is lost in the wilderness or must survive for an extended period of time, there are solutions.

''You can put a survival kit in a coffee can that you can use to survive for five days,'' Livziey said. ''You can bait squirrels, chipmunks, anything on the food chain, by baiting with a handful of nuts.''

A relatively small coil of fine wire and a few zip ties, used with the nuts, can bait in squirrels or chipmunks. By using the zip ties and wire, Livziey demonstrated how a simple snare can be made on a tree limb to trap small animals for food.

Then, he said, with fire-starting skills, a person can enjoy some fresh-cooked food in a relatively short amount of time.

On the other hand, he advises strongly against using any kind of snakes as a food source.

''Snakes have too much salmonella in them,'' Livziey said. ''You would almost have to burn them to sterilize them and there is too little meat. Also, mushrooms have no nutritional value and they may be poisonous.''

A space blanket, he demonstrated, can be use to build a quick lean-to by placing it over a tree limb and securing it with a few zip ties.

A lightweight poncho, colored orange or yellow, is good for keeping you dry in rainy conditions and for being easily seen in the woods.

A debris hut can be made with just the natural materials at hand. Using a tree stump and a large limb as a starting point, smaller tree limbs can be leaned up against the large limb, which is supported by the stump. Smaller and smaller limbs can then be stacked on top of the larger ones, followed by leaves and other debris that can be scooped up off the forest floor, such as moss.

Livziey said he always carries three compasses with him so he can find direction. But he said people can find their way by using nature.

''You can find your north, south, east and west by looking at a recently cut tree stump,'' he said. ''The widest rings will always be to the north, because the north side will always have more moisture and less sunshine, which dries out the ground and the roots.

He added that a compass is only as good as the person who uses it.

''People need to know how to use that compass. You have to go out and practice it,'' he said.

He recommends anyone who is planning to go far into the wilderness should get good topographical maps of the area and know how to use them.

Also he carries two whistles with him to signal for help, if necessary.

''Whistles like these are audible for three miles,'' he said.

In the event someone is going deep into the wilderness and wants to be prepared for a potentially extended period of survival, Livziey recommends a few more items.

''You can carry some fishing line and a few hooks, some tea and water purifier,'' he noted. ''You can carry hand sanitizer to clean and eliminate human scent.''

Items like toilet paper, moist towelettes and chemically activated heat packs should be considered. ''You definitely want to pack in a first-aid kit.''

He said that advanced survival skills allow a person to go into the wilderness without carrying a lot.

A cell phone can be handy if you get injured, so you can call for help and tell people exactly where you are. He strongly advises against going out alone.

''Avoid like the plague hunting by yourself,'' Livziey said. ''You can actually make things worse for yourself by going out alone. What if you fall and go unconscious?''

He said he got interested in survival skills because while flying over remote areas of the state for the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association, he realized he would not know how to survive if his small plane ever crashed into a wooded area.

''I wanted to be prepared if that ever happens, so I started researching and this is what it led to,'' he said.

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