Survival Strategy

“Good planning and preparation enable the survivor to confront difficulties and dangers that pose a serious threat to survival. They become contingencies for which you are equipped. But you cannot anticipate everything. You must be ready to respond rapidly to the unexpected danger and to deal with potential disaster rationally and realistically. You must overcome the tendency to panic which in such conditions so easily engenders and take the action appropriate to the situation.

Sometimes a collision or other accident occurs with no warning of any kind, but in most instances there is a moment of realization that something is going to happen and it is in that moment that instinctive reaction can save lives. In many situations there is considerable time in which an awareness of potential disaster can develop and that is when the panic reaction is probably most dangerous. As mist closes in on a hillside, reducing visibility to almost nothing and making it easy to lose any sense of direction, most people would begin to panic at the thought that they are going to be trapped. They begin to do foolish things and increase their danger whereas they should be assessing the possibilities and looking for some suitable shelter in which to wait until conditions become safe to continue. Keeping calm, in the knowledge that you have the ability to handle the situation, will not only enable you to see it through but also see other solutions that may present themselves.

Some situations are predictable and knowledge of the techniques for handling them will minimize the risks. Learn them; they may save your life. They may take considerable nerve—like waiting for the right moment to escape from a car that is sinking under water—but they are based on experience and sound principles. The answer to more general survival problems, however, will often lie in inspired improvisation drawing on those skills appropriate to the situation.

Disaster may involve you in a contained situation which you must handle alone—or you may find yourself one of the hundreds of people in a large-scale disaster over which there can be no control at all. There is enormous difference between coping with motoring accidents and dealing with an air disaster.


Brake failure: if brakes fail while driving, change gear and apply the handbrake. You must do several things at once: take your foot off the accelerator, flick the switch of your warnings lights, pump the footbrake rapidly (it may still connect), change down through the gears and apply handbrake pressure. Don’t slam the brake on, begin with gentle bursts, gradually braking harder until you stop.

If there is no time for all this, take your foot off the accelerator and change down through the gears—and grab the handbrake—but DON’T apply maximum pressure you are sure you won’t skid. Look out for escape lanes and places where you can leave the road, preferably a soft bank or a turning that has an uphill slope.

If speed remains unchecked, on a steep hill for example, brush the car along a hedge or wall to reduce speed. Take advantage of a vehicle in front and use it to stop you—run into it as gently as the situation allows. Use warning lights, blow your horn and flash your headlights to give the driver in front as much warning as possible that you are on a collision course.

Collision: if collision seems inevitable, stay with it and steer the car to do as little damage to others and yourself as possible. Try to avoid a sudden stop by driving into something which will give. A fence is better than a wall, a clump of small saplings better than a tree—they will eventually stop you but a tree or wall will bring you to a dead stop—and probably very dead.  Seat belts (compulsory in many countries) will help stop your plunging forwards through the windscreen, but unbelted it is better NOT to try to brace yourself against collision. In the rare exception bracing may work, but generally it means only that when the car stops you continue travelling, doing even more damage than if you had gone with the collision, because your deceleration on impact is more sudden. Throw your arms around your head to protect it and twist sideways, away from the steering wheel, while flinging yourself TOWARDS the point of collision. It sounds difficult but, on collision, that steering wheel is like a ram in front of your rib cage. Back seat passengers should similarly protect their heads and lie against the back of the front seats.

Jumping out:  do NOT try to jump out of a runaway car unless you know it to be headed for a cliff or other substantial drop and will not survive the impact. Then open the door, undo safety belt, begin to roll yourself into a ball—tuck the head tightly into the chest, bring feet and knee together, tightly tuck elbows into the sides, hands up by the ears, then bend at the waist. Drop from the car in a rolling movement. Do not resist the ground but keep balled up and continue to roll.

Car under water: if possible abandon the car before it sinks, for it will not sink immediately and will take time to fill. Water pressure on the outside makes it very difficult to open the door so roll down the window if you can and wriggle out of it. It takes great presence of mind to manage that when subject to the shock and surprise of the ‘splash down’, but if there are small children in the car it may be possible to push one through. Do not try to save possessions.

If you have not been fast enough CLOSE the window firmly, get children to stand and lift babies near to the roof. Release seat belts and tell everyone by a door to be ready with a hand on the handle. Release at once any automatic door locks or master locks. Water could prevent them from working. Do not attempt to pen doors at this stage.

As water fills the interior, air will be trapped near the roof. The water pressure inside the car will nearly equalize the pressure with that of the outside water. As the car comes to rest and is nearly full of water tell everyone to take a deep breath, open the doors and swim to the surface breathing out as they do so. Everyone leaving through the same door should link arms. If you have to wait for someone to get out before you, hold your breath for that moment.

Precaution: Always park alongside water, not running towards it. If you have to park a car facing water then leave it in reverse gear and with the handbrake on (if facing away from water, in first gear with handbrake on).

Car on railway tracks: if your car breaks down on an unmanned level crossing, put it into gear and use the starter motor to jerk it clear. This will work with a manual gear change but not with an automatic. If a train is approaching abandon the car, carry children or infirm persons to safety and keep away—about 45 meters (50 yards) should be far enough—for if a train is travelling at high speed it could fling car wreckage quite a distance.

If there is no train visible, or you can see one several miles in the distance, you must try to avert the collision. If the car can be moved by pushing, push it clear of all tracks—you cannot be sure which one the train will be on. If there is an emergency telephone, warn signalmen further down the track of the situation. If not, walk up the track towards the train. Stand well to one side (high speed trains have quite a slipstream) and wave a car blanket or bright coloured garment to warn the driver. If he is doing his job properly he will know that he is approaching a crossing and should look ahead to see that all is clear.


A ‘plane crash or forced landing in difficult terrain is one of the most dramatic of disaster scenarios. Since it could happen anywhere, the individual cannot prepare for any specific situation. Airline cabin staff is trained for such emergencies and you should follow their instructions. Aircrew will be trying to land the plane as safely as possible; there is nothing you can do except to keep calm and support the crew in calming the other passengers.

To prepare for a crash landing tighten the seat belt, link arms with other people either side, hold your chin firmly down your chest, lean forwards over a cushion, folded blanket or coat, interlink legs with your neighbours if seating permits it and brace yourself for impact. When the aircraft finally stops moving—and not before—evacuate the aircraft as instructed in the pre-flight brief. If a ground landing, then quickly get away from the immediate area of the plane, as there is a danger of fire explosion. Even if there is no fire, keep away until the engines have cooled and any spilt fuel evaporated.

If ditching into water, dinghies will be automatically inflated and anchored on the wings. Do not inflate your own life jacket while you are in the aircraft. To do so would restrict your exit. Wait until you are in the water and then pull the toggle to inflate it and get into a dinghy. If the plane is sinking, release the dinghy from its anchorage as soon as the passengers and equipment are stowed. As you leave the plane the more kit you can take with you the better. But do not stop to gather personal belongings and luggage. This is when you will be very glad you have a survival kit in your pocket.

Note: If bailing out from a plane by parachute in wild country, make your way to the wreck if you can—the wreckage will be much more noticeable to rescuers than a single-person parachute.

After The Crash

However self-disciplined you are, the entry into this kind of survival situation will be dramatic, abrupt and confusing. You will be in a state of shock and may be on the verge of panic. If there is fire or risk of a fire or explosion keep at a distance until that danger seems to have passed, but no further away than seems necessary for safety. Do not allow anyone to smoke if fuel has been spilled.

You must not blunder off into unknown terrain, especially at night, and need to maintain contact with other survivors. Move injured persons to a safe distance with you and try to account for all the people involved. The immediate treatment of the injured is a priority. Treat cases in order of severity of their injuries and with each individual deal first with breathing difficulties, then in sequence, with major bleeding wounds, fractures and shock. Separate the dead from the living if possible—the deaths are part of the frightening strangeness of the event and the survivors will be easier to calm down. Even with a fire, all may not have been destroyed. Investigate the wreckage and salvage whatever you can of the equipment, food, clothing and water. Take NO risks if there is still a chance that fuel tanks could ignite and beware of any noxious fumes from wreckage which has been smouldering. If you have to wait for fire to burn out, take stock of the location in which you find yourself—which should in any case be the next step in your strategy.

Is it practical and safe to remain where you are? If your anticipated route is known—and with a flight it will be—some kind of search and rescue operation can be expected and there are considerable advantages in staying where you are. Searchers will already have some idea of your location, and even if you have been forced off route they will have a record of your last reported position. The wreckage or grounded plane will be more noticeable from the air, especially in heavily wooded country where even a large group of people will be hidden by the trees. If you find that you are in a very exposed or dangerous location then a move to a more protected position is necessary. However, do not move at night unless the threat to life outweighs the risks of trying to negotiate unknown terrain in the dark.

Leave an indication on the crash site of the direction in which you have moved off, so that it is possible for rescuers to know that there are survivors and to know which direction to go on looking.

The usual reason for making an immediate move will be because you are in an exposed position on a mountain or hillside offering no protection from the elements or at risk from rock falls or other dangers there. Move down, not up the slope, as conditions are likely to be less exposed on lower ground. Do not all go off looking for a safer location. Send out scouts to investigate the surrounding terrain carefully. They must keep together, working in pairs, and not go off on individual explorations. They can maintain contact vocally and should mark their routes as they proceed so that they can easily retrace their steps.

Remember this it may save your life one day. YOU MUST PLAN

  1. P=Protection
  2. L= Location
  3. A= Acquisition
  4. N= Navigation

Protection: The first requirement will probably be some immediate shelter from the elements, especially for the injured. A more extended reconnaissance can follow to choose a proper campsite. Make the most of any natural shelter and augment it by using whatever materials are at hand. If injuries are too severe for a person to be moved, some kind of shelter must be provided for them on the spot.

On bare ground, if there is no equipment or wreckage which can be utilized, then the only thing to do is dig down. If possible find a natural hollow and burrow deeper, using the excavated earth to build up the sides. This will at least get a casualty out of the wind. Get a fire going to provide warmth (it will also help raise morale) and use reflectors to maximize the heating effect, enabling you to conserve fuel. If the circumstances make movement away unnecessary or impossible, follow similar procedures. Build up rocks, wreckage or equipment to form a wind break if no natural shelter is available. If in a group huddle together, it will reduce the loss of body heat. Survival time for badly injured persons in these circumstances is limited and you must hope for an early rescue. Fit people must go off in search of water, fuel, shelter materials and food—but always in at least pairs. Lay out as many signals as possible to attract attention.

Remember shelter may be as necessary from sun as it is from wind and cold. Exposure is not only a matter of hypothermia.

Location: if you have a radio you can signal for help—but do not go back on board a damaged and still potentially explosive aircraft to do so. Wait until you are sure it is quite safe. The rescue party will want to know your location. Those who have been traveling overland should have a pretty good idea of their position—even if temporarily lost—and with a map should be able to give a more accurate fix. If you the victim of a disaster in the sea or air, however, it will help considerably if you know what your planned course was and have some idea of your position when disaster struck, as well as of wind or current directions. As often as not you must light fires—three fires are an internationally recognized distress signal. Make them as large as possible. Lay ground signals to attract attention, use pyrotechnics when you know help is within range and even make a noise when help is very near. This is when you are glad that the responsible authorities were told of your intentions and that you kept precisely to your route. It is only a matter of time before rescue comes. Meanwhile make yourself as comfortable as possible.

However, even the most careful laid plans may go astray. Navigational instruments could fail, storms, high winds or fog could all throw you off course and there you are, safe in your shelter but with no one knowing where. You could have a longer wait than you anticipate and you need to provide for it.

You also need to assess where you are on a more local scale, to study the terrain for anything it can tell you, not only to pin-point your position—if that is possible—but to see if there are safer and more comfortable locations to pitch camp, sources for fuel, food and water. In the long term you will also be assessing the possibility of making your own way across the land.

At sea you will be looking out for any indications that, rather than staying put, there is land close enough for your survival chances to be greater if you try to reach it rather than holding your present position. But  you at the mercy of wind and current, though you can delay your drift with a sea anchor.

On land, it is seldom most sensible to set out immediately to walk to safety, rather than wait for a rescue. However, if you know that no one will be aware that you are missing, if the terrain is so barren that it provides no food, water or shelter, or if you feel convinced that your reserves of energy and rations are sufficient to see you back in civilization, or to a location where you are sure you will be able to live off the land, you may decide to set off as soon as the light is good enough or conditions are otherwise right.

Acquiring Food and Water: On an isolated cliff ledge, cut off by the tide or forced by storm or mist to wait until you can move on, there may be little opportunity to exploit natural resources. Do not tuck into your emergency rations immediately. You may be there for some time and, hungry though you may be, you should ration them out, allowing for a much longer wait than even a pessimistic assessment suggests. Even in such a situation there may be water and food within reach.

Elsewhere save your emergency rations for when there is nothing else and tap nature’s resources first. Do not just find one source of food. Seek out a variety of plants for leaves, fruit, nuts, roots and other edible parts. Look for signs of animals which can be trapped or hunted.

When it is your very survival at stake there is no place for squeamishness about what you will or will not eat or about how you acquire your food, but that does not mean that you should totally concern for wild life and the environment. When there is abundance of other choices there is no reason to take already endangered species for your food—animal or vegetable—not to set traps (which cannot discriminate in what they catch and maim) that will produce more meat than you can eat fresh or preserve. Making the most of nature’s resources does not mean plundering them. Over-exploitation will be to your own disadvantage if you have to stay in the area for a long time.

Remember, too, that the most easily obtained nutritious food may be quite different from what you usually eat. If you have already learnt to eat an unusual diet as part of your training you will find it much easier to feed yourself and will be able to encourage others to eat the same things.

 In the short-term water is much more vital than food for your survival. If fresh running water is not available there are many other sources you can tap, but sterilize or boil to ensure that it is pure. Make finding water sources a priority.

 Fuel for a fire will be needed for boiling water even if the temperature does not demand a fire for warmth—but do not be deluded into thinking that a warm day is going to be followed by a warm night. There can be dramatic temperature changes from day to night in some parts of the world.

Navigation: Although in many circumstances it will be best to stay near to the scene of a crash, because there is material and equipment from a plane or vehicle, or its wreckage, which can be used and because your location is more likely to be known to rescuers, if you have made the decision to move you will need skills in direction-finding and in navigating your way through the terrain to safety.


In a disaster situation anyone may react unexpectedly under stress. With a mishap affecting members of the general public there may be a very varied group of people thrown together. Men, women and children, elderly-people and babies. There may be pregnant women and people with medical problems or physical disabilities that require particular attention. The accident situations that involve such a varied group are likely to involve a higher risk of injuries than among a hand-picked group of the trained and fit.

Babies may look very fragile—but they are very tough. However, they must be kept warm. Children will need reassuring and comforting, especially if they have lost the people with them or they are themselves in pain. Often the adventure of the situation will help to keep them from becoming too worried and it will help to keep them occupied, but they should not be allowed to wander, to play with fire or otherwise expose themselves to further danger.

With ship or commercial airline the ship’s officers or flight crew can be expected to take charge of the situation, if they are among the survivors, but there will not be the military chain of command or the acceptance of leadership and responsibility which can expected in compact organized group. Some democratic procedure to make decisions, plan action and maintain morale must be attempted. The trauma of the experience may leave some people eager to follow any leadership which gives them hope, but it will also throw into relief antagonisms and prejudices which must be overcome.

In an air or sea disaster people of different cultures and backgrounds may be thrown together and forced into situations which their own social taboos would not permit. Considerable tact may be necessary to overcome these problems. SURVIVAL, however, must take precedence.

The wider your medical knowledge the better, but giving people the will to survive will be important and much of this can be achieved by a good ‘bedside manner’—if you can give the impression that you know what you are doing you are half-way there.

Calmness and confidence in you will inspire the confidence and cooperation of others. The more knowledge you have the better you will be able to cope.”

Courtesy: The SAS Survival Handbook by John Wiseman, Harper Collins, Hammersmith, London 1996.


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