How to Save Your Own Life

How a chair, rocks, aspirin, and a scarf can keep you alive in 12 do-or-die emergencies.

By Pamela F. Gallin | MD from Reader's Digest | June 2008

To avoid becoming the lead story on the evening news, be prepared. Before you head out on a hike, check the weather (you can find forecasts for many wilderness areas at, take plenty of water, and make sure someone knows where you’ll be and when you’ll be back. Bring clothes to keep you warm when wet, like a water-repellent jacket, says Laurence Gonzales, author of Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why. Avoid cotton, which traps moisture. “The search-and-rescue people call it death cloth,” he says.

“Expect to get lost, and check often to make sure you’re still on the trail,” says John Dill, a search-and-rescue ranger at Yosemite National Park in California. “The minute you think you might not be on the trail, stop.”
“First, you’ve got to acknowledge you’re in trouble,” adds Gonzales. If you’re not alone, focusing on the needs of others can help hold your own fears at bay. Other keys to survival: staying observant and remembering to rest. Keeping a sense of humor helps too—it reduces stress and promotes creative thinking.

The surest way to get out alive is to take basic precautions, such as stowing a survival kit in your car. Gonzales’s includes waterproof matches and chunks from fake fireplace logs for starting a fire,
a folding saw for cutting branches, and a plastic tarp and cord for making shelter. Don’t forget an emergency blanket, a good knife, a first-aid kit, a flashlight, batteries, snacks, and water.

In general, people who try to find their own way out fare worse than those who stay put, says Richard N. Bradley, MD, of the American Red Cross. Find shelter before dark, and try to keep dry. Stay visible so anyone searching can see you. In a wide-open area, make a signal with colorful gear, make a big X out of rocks, or dig a shallow trench, says Dill. “The top layer of soil is a different color. Scrape it away and make straight lines, which are easy to spot from above.”

You can go several days without eating, so in most cases, you’re better off not foraging for food, since there are lots of poisonous plants in the wild, says Dr. Bradley. You need to stay hydrated, so if you run out of water, it’s usually better to drink from a stream with suspect water than to go without. If you’re stranded in your car, stay there: You’re more visible to rescuers, and the car provides shelter.

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