Survival and preparedness reality shows are both good and bad. On the one hand, they bring awareness to important topics such as being ready for disasters. On the other, they propagate a lot of myths to satisfy and delight some of their less informed viewers.
Myth: The most important thing in a survival situation is finding food and water.
Well, it depends. The rule of threes states that shelter is the most important thing. However, I lean more toward the “What’s going to kill you first?” approach.
For example, if you have a wound that could get infected, then access to clean water and medical supplies is your top priority. In situations where there’s a chance your core body temperature will be affected, then shelter should be your first priority.
Shelter is more than just unpacking your tent. You also have to find the right place to camp to avoid floods, wild animals and people. You have to build it in such a way that it protects you from the elements and keeps you warm and dry throughout the night.
Hypothermia will kill you a lot faster than lack of food. Your body will last for days — even weeks — without anything to eat. But if you’re wet and unable to get yourself dry and stay warm… you won’t last long.
Myth: Starting a fire is easy.
The bow drill method, using dryer lint as tinder, using a ferro rod… there are many ways to start a fire. You see them all the time depicted in YouTube videos that make starting a fire seem really easy. But is it?
If you’re in a damp environment, or if the wood isn’t dry enough or simply isn’t the right kind, you could end up wasting your time and energy.
Some people might argue that starting a fire is not difficult. Anyone can start a fire with a lighter in seconds — most preppers have at least two–three in their survival bags, not to mention blast matches and even steel wool and a 9-volt battery. But if your primary methods don’t work for any reason, you could be in serious trouble.
Myth: Eating snow will keep you hydrated.
In reality, your body will have to spend a great deal of energy to warm that snow before it can utilize it. It’s much better to melt the snow into water and then drink it. You should also filter it with a bandana and purify it if you have the means. Rainwater and water resulting from melting snow are typically safe to drink, but the cleaner the better.
Myth: Water from a cactus is safe to drink.
Water from cacti is very acidic and could cause you to get sick, especially if you drink it on an empty stomach. This doesn’t mean you’ll die, but it won’t make the survival situation any more pleasant for you or your kidneys.
Myth: You need to boil water for X minutes to kill pathogens.
According to the Wilderness Medical Society, which is quoted by a number of survival blogs and articles (including Princeton’s website), all pathogens will be killed by the time the water comes to a rolling boil, even at high altitudes.
Myth: Alcohol warms up your body.
Quite the opposite. Alcohol will make you feel warmer by sending more blood to your skin. However, this blood has to come from someplace else, which means your internal organs will receive less blood and your body temperature will drop.
Myth: Drinking your own pee is a good idea.
Don’t do it unless you’re an astronaut with access to NASA’s Water Recovery System or you really, really need to. Just like salt water, urine will dehydrate your body even more.
Myth: Making shelter is all about the roof.
Not really — there’s a lot more to it. You need protection from ALL the things that can harm your body one way or another: damp soil, wind, critters. Plus, your shelter needs to keep in as much heat as possible to keep you warm.
For survival purposes, a bivy bag may make for a better shelter than hanging a tarp over a few branches. You should also consider how to insulate your shelter, whether it’s with aluminum foil, leaves, moss or other materials.
Myth: You can suck the venom out of a snake bite.
Not a good idea, even if you’re Rambo. You should either have a snake bite kit and the knowledge to use it or, even better, seek medical attention immediately. Never suck the venom out. Not only will you further damage the wound but you’ll poison yourself as well.
The big takeaway here is that you can’t learn real survival skills from reality television. But the more you read and learn from reliable experts, the better prepared you’ll be. Knowledge trumps tools and gear every single time.