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A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

6 Proven Skills for Any Emergency, from Someone Who’s Edited 30+ Survival Dramas

As the editor of many of survival stories, I've learned a lot about how to stay alive in dire circumstances. Here, the most important how-tos I've gleaned.

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Find water

Depending on the temperature outside, you can last only about four days without water. To ward off dehydration, search for animals, birds (especially songbirds), insects (especially honeybees), and green vegetation, all of which can indicate that water is nearby. Rock crevices may also hold small caches of rainwater. As a last resort, try digging in dry creek beds or muddy or damp ground which may reveal hidden sources of ground water. Keep in mind that any untreated water could be contaminated. Keep an eye out for these signs of dehydration so that you know you need to find water fast.

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Escape a burning building

I’ve read countless stories of people trapped in burning buildings, and the Good Samaritans (not to mention the firefighters) who rescue them. But if you find yourself eye to eye with flames or smell smoke, don’t wait for a hero. Here’s how to get out safely, from the U.S. Fire Association: Drop to your knees and crawl under the smoke to an exit. If it’s a door, feel it with the back of your hand and proceed out carefully if the surface isn’t hot. Close doors behind you to slow the fire’s spread. Meet the rest of your family at pre-planned place outside. These 10 little things can make your home a fire hazard.

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Signal a rescuer

Whether they’re hopelessly lost in the desert or stranded out to sea, the subjects of many of my stories are able to attract the attention of rescuers using a reflection, a signal fire, or by making a lot of noise. To increase your chances of being discovered, go to an open area on a hilltop, then use a mirror, CD, belt buckle or water bottle to reflect light toward the pilot of an airplane or helicopter overhead. To create white smoke, which is easy for rescuers to see, add green vegetation to your fire. Another idea: create a giant X on the ground with rocks or gear. When you hear rescuers close by, clang on your camping kitchen gear or just yell.

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Survive an animal attack

We’ve all read about bear attacks and shark altercations. But what about an aggressive wolf or deer? Regardless of species, stand your ground. Running will trigger the animal’s chase mentality, and unless you’re trying to avoid an alligator or snake, you won’t be able to run fast enough anyway. For more animal-specific tips, check out Backpacker’s quick guide.

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Splint a broken bone

The people in the stories I read climb backcountry cliffs; they survive plane crashes; they fall thousands of feet to the ground without a parachute. And they often break bones. One key to their survival? A splint, which can help reduce pain, prevent further damage to ligaments, nerves and blood vessels, and allow them to move to a safe place while they wait for help. This video from Backpacker editor Rachel Zurer will give you the basics for creating a splint from materials you have on hand. Take these first aid steps immediately when you have a sprained ankle.

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Find food

You can survive up to three weeks without food, but a growling stomach will set in much sooner. Memorize these three tips for safe wilderness eating, regardless of season. 1. These four plants are always edible: Grass, cattails, acorns, and pine needles.  2. A quick mneumonic device can help you identify safe-to-eat berries: “White and yellow, kill a fellow. Purple and blue, good for you.” 3. When in doubt, test food with the Universal Edibility Test.