Between folklore and television, there is so much false survival information floating around today that most people will probably not make it through a true survival situation. I place a large portion of the blame for this on “couch commandos.” These are the guys (and gals) who own every survival book in existence, but have never applied the techniques in the real world, so their only experience is what “should” work, which they mindlessly repeat to anyone willing to listen. This continues over and over until falsehoods become accepted as gospel, so it’s time to dispel some of these myths.
1. You can cut open a cactus for water. You can cut open a cactus, and it does contain fluid, but don’t expect to hydrate yourself this way. First, it’s a pain in the ass to get into them. I ended up in the desert without a knife once, and for curiosity’s sake, tried to bust one open using rocks; I tried stabbing it with small, sharp rocks, and repeatedly threw 30–pound boulders at the damn thing, and after 15 minutes, I had barely scuffed the thick outer skin. You won’t get into a cactus without an axe, machete, or at the very least, a very large, very sharp knife; pardon the pun, but your Spyderco folder isn’t going to cut it. If you do happen to cut it open, you won’t find a reservoir of water like you may have seen on television—it’s more of a slimy, bitter gel. Making matters even worse is that if you do manage to choke the foul goo down, it’s going to cause diarrhea and vomiting, and as a result, further dehydration.
2. Alcohol will prevent hypothermia. We’ve all seen the movies where the rescue dog with a miniature barrel of brandy attached to his collar dashes through the snow to a nearly frozen victim, who happily slurps the spirits, instantly warming up and returning to safety. It’s true that drinking alcohol does make you feel warmer, but that’s only because it increases blood flow to the surface of your skin. This presents a dual problem of giving you a false sense of security and reducing your core body temperature more quickly. Unless you’re sitting in a cozy ski lodge, avoid the alcohol.
3. I can live off the land. When the settlers landed on Plymouth Rock, they had plenty of experience living off the land (hunting, foraging, farming, etc.) and were well-versed in primitive skills like fire-starting and making the most of natural resources, yet they still nearly starved to death. Today there are fewer wild animals and edible plants and far more people than then, and few people possess even a fraction of the skills that our settlers had. If living off the land is your only plan to sustain yourself and your family, you’re in for some rough, potentially deadly times.
4. I know everything I need to survive. Contrary to popular belief, knowledge is not power; knowledge is potential power. I’m a big fan of learning as much as possible, but there is a huge divide between just reading a book and executing a particular technique in the real world. I am fortunate because I have a diverse training background; I’ve received formal training from some of the most advanced experts during my time in the Marine Corps and had the opportunity to execute various techniques in every environment imaginable. Today, I make a point to continue learning, and more importantly, continue practicing in the field.
5. You can survive a snake bite by cutting an “X” on the puncture wounds and sucking the venom out. Please do not try this—you will die faster than if you had done nothing. Cutting the wound exposes the poison to more blood vessels, enabling it to spread more quickly, and you can’t suck all, or even most of the venom out anyway—it was injected under pressure by what amounts to a hypodermic needle deep into your tissue. In fact, much of it will have already entered your bloodstream before you can get your knife out. To further complicate matters, any venom you do manage to suck out will be absorbed sublingually, going straight back into your bloodstream. I recommend getting your ass to a hospital with a quickness where they can treat you with proper anti-venom.
6. Fresh urine is a safe way to stay hydrated. There is a very small bit of truth to this one—nearly clear urine is about 95% water, and 5% uric acid and other wastes, but it will still be a cold day in hell before I drink any. It technically can help you stay hydrated for a little while, but the longer you go without fresh water, the more concentrated the waste materials in your urine will become and the more harm it will do to your body.
7. You can determine direction by moss on a tree. Supposedly, moss grows on the north side of a tree trunk. In reality, it doesn’t—it grows where it damn-well pleases. During my latest trip through one of Florida’s many swamps, I saw moss on all sides of most trees—and I’ve seen the same thing all around the world. It would be convenient if it were true, but it’s not, and basing your navigation on this myth can lead you in circles until long after you run out of food and water.