Survival and Improvisation

Those who conduct Search and Rescue operations must be able to take care of themselves, their teammates, and potentially a person(s) in need of rescue, under difficult conditions. It may mean taking action when one's very existence is in danger. These situations may happen in remote isolated areas, or in times when weather or terrain conditions prevent additional resources from arriving. In any case, it is crucial to establish an effective, rational response to any survival situation.

*The following information relies heavily on personal experience and the National Association for Search and Rescue's (NASAR) Fundamentals of Search and Rescue 2nd Edition handbook.*

Image by Markus Spiske

Necessities of Life

If someone asked you what you needed to live, what would your answer be? For some, it might be access to a chain restaurant, food delivery service, and high-speed internet. However, before modern amenities, humans had to and did survive with much less. The truth of the matter is that there are a few key things that will keep you  alive:

  1. Positive Mental Attitude/Will to Live

  2. Oxygen in air (may only survive 3 to 5 minutes without)

  3. Shelter from extreme temperatures (may only survive 3 to 4 hours without, depending on the environment)

  4. Mental and physical rest ( may only survive 30 hours without under extreme conditions)

  5. Water (may only survive 3 days under extreme conditions)

  6. Food (could survive 3 weeks or more)

Survival Priorities

Should you find yourself in a survival situation, it is prudent to think about what is most important. It is no coincidence that the priorities of survival closely align with the necessities of life.

Priority 1: Positive Mental Attitude (PMA) - Having a positive mental attitude means more than simply being optimistic. Poor choices that lead to injury or death can still happen regardless of how great you are feeling. The idea of PMA is typically broken into two parts: the will to live, and the whole person concept. The will to live is usually described as the overwhelming urge to survive no matter what the odds or circumstances. The whole person concept includes someone's knowledge, experience, and problem-solving ability. These two parts of the PMA concept working optimally together during any given survival experience will give the individual who has both, the best chance at success.

Priority 2: Oxygen - Hold your breath for as long as you can. Oxygenated air is so important to human life, that if you hold your breath long enough, your body will involuntarily force you to take another one, even if you have to pass out first. Life without air is measured only in minutes.

Priority 3: Shelter - Most survival situations involve having to grapple with inclement weather. Because of human physiology, we can only survive naked in temperatures that are very close to our regulated core temperature. If external temperatures rise above or below that core temperature, we need to find a way to help regulate that temperature. This often involves proper clothing or constructing an improvised shelter to block the wind, insulate or stay cool.

Priority 4: Rest - One of the most efficient ways to renew or increase energy levels in the body is through adequate rest. Timely periods of rest during stressful situations conserve energy for future use and help rid the body of carbon dioxide, lactic acid, and other body wastes. Taking short rest breaks helps provide time for reflecting and analyzing the survival situation.

Priority 5: Signals - If you are lost, immobile, or become the subject of a search, it is important to know and figure out a way to capture a searcher's attention.

Priority 6: Water - Approximately two-thirds of the body is composed of water. Dehydration or drinking contaminated water can drastically affect bodily functions and overall health. Increased activity, sweating and even digestion consume additional water resources in the body. The dangers of dehydration are too great to ignore, and extreme dehydration will eventually lead to death in as little as few days.

Priority 7: Food - Modern Western society has us convinced that we require three meals a day to remain alive, but this is not true. In many places around the world, people live on far less, and there are accounts of people living as long as 70 days without any caloric intake. Cold environments may necessitate greater food consumption because the body needs to burn more calories to stay warm. However, the procurement of food should be the last priority in a survival situation.

Mind Over Matter

You have probably heard many quotes regarding the role of fear on the human psyche. When faced with any situations that your mind perceives as threatening, it is normal to experience a biological response. This also includes survival situations. By preparing mentally for SAR operations, you will be more capable of understanding the mind and body's immediate response to an emergency.

General Adaptation Syndrom, otherwise known as GAS, was a term coined by Austrian physician Hans Selye. He discovered that his research subjects all experienced similar reactions to life-threatening stimuli. The concept of GAS has withstood the test of time and will help you to understand what you are going through during stressful events. Being able to recognize what you are going through objectively during a life-threatening scenario may help you deal with the stressful situation. The three stages of GAS are alarm reaction, resistance, and exhaustion.

Stage 1: Alarm Reaction - In this phase, the body prepares for action. The brain quickly starts coordinating with the body in case a "fight or flight" situation becomes necessary. Physical reactions which occur during this stage are:

  • Adrenaline (epinephrine) starts to circulate through the body and triggers the release of blood sugar (glucose) and fats from temporary storage sites, which supplies energy to all parts of the body.

  • Breathing rate increases and small airways in the lungs (bronchioles) dilate to allow more oxygen in, which is sent to the brain to increase alertness.

  • Heart rate and blood pressure increase, pushing blood to the muscles, heart, and other vital organs.

  • Sight, hearing, and other senses become sharper.

  • Muscles tense and become ready for action.

In the case that this elevated level of anxiety progresses uncontrolled, it can quickly turn into overt fear and possibly panic. This is often characterized by frozen limbs and mind, including physical weakness, crying, trembling, nausea or vomiting. Someone undergoing this reaction may turn and run, stand and do something productive, or become completely immobilized. These are all natural responses to a potentially life-threatening scenario, but training and experience can help harness the biological effects into positive action.

Stage 2: Resistance - The Alarm Reaction is energy-intensive and is difficult for the body to sustain. Even though you may still experience some residual biological responses from Stage 1, the body will start to conserve energy by reducing its flood of hormones. When the mind perceives that the danger may no longer pose a threat, it starts to counter the effects of adrenaline so the body can transition from a state of alertness to repair.

Stage 3: Exhaustion - At this stage, the body's resistance to stress may be collapsing. At this point, the body has most likely depleted much of its resources trying to repair itself during Stage 2. If the effects of Stages 1 and 2 continue for too long, the body can give up, sustain irreparable damage, and even death is possible. Some form of Stage 3 is inevitable after the previous heightened states, and you may experience emotional lows, shock, or symptoms of other medical issues such as stroke and heart attack.

Learn more about General Adaptation Syndrome by watching the video below:

The reactions the body goes through when experiencing stress is the reason we need to understand fear and know ways to control fear. Fortunately, being prepared is one of the best ways to manage fear in emergencies. You can prepare yourself by:

  • Acquiring as much knowledge about the situation as possible.

  • Having the proper tools and equipment for the situation.

  • Having the necessary physical fitness needed to meet the challenge.

  • Keeping a positive mental attitude/will to live.

Sometimes, reminding yourself that others have been in similar situations and survived can help you control fear and keep it from turning into overt panic. Being mindful of the symptoms of fear will also help you focus more on controlling it. Some symptoms of fear include:

  • A quickening of pulse, breathlessness.

  • Dilation of pupils.

  • Increased muscular tension and fatigue.

  • Perspiration of hands, feet, and armpits.

  • Frequent urination.

  • Dry mouth and throat, high-pitched voice with stammering.

  • Stomach flutters and faintness caused by an empty stomach.

  • Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

  • Irritability increased hostility.

  • Talkative at early stages, later speechless.

  • Laughing or crying hysterically.

  • Confusion, forgetfulness, inability to concentrate.

  • Feeling of unreality, flight, panic, and sometimes stupor.

Fear is not all negative. It benefits you by helping you avoid something dangerous. Fear can improve your focus and may make you more open to receiving help from others. No matter what causes the fear (real or imaginary) we must recognize it for what it is so that we can better manage it. NASAR offers the following suggestions for helping manage fear:

  • Keep yourself physically fit. Eat healthily, get regular exercise, and get plenty of rest through a regular sleep pattern. Avoid alcohol, unprescribed drugs, and junk food.

  • Recognize that fear can be beneficial. When you feel fear, ask yourself what benefit it might be offering, or what you might learn from it.

  • Do not try to physically or mentally run away from the situation. Recognize fear for what it is and accept it. Try to learn what your reactions are likely to be by looking at your daily habits.

  • Learn how to make decisions quickly and logically by establishing good habits. Take positive action to take control of the situation instead of letting it control you.

  • Develop self-confidence by continually expanding your comfort zone to encompass unfamiliar experiences. Define your fears and recognize them.

  • Realize that "it can happen to me" and be prepared. Be properly equipped and prepared at all times. Always have several options in your plan. Prepare for the worst and hope for the best.

  • Keep informed and increase your knowledge to reduce the unknown.

  • Have procedures mapped out so that you will be busy--if not physically, then mentally.

  • Set realistic goals. Rather than trying to achieve all your goals immediately, take baby steps and get there slowly.

  • Realize that teamwork always accomplishes more than an individual can do on their own.

  • Replace negative self-talk with affirmative and coping self-talk. When you find yourself thinking negatively, replace it with something more positive and helpful. Talk positively about your actions and your future.

  • Gather as much information about your situation as possible.

  • Cultivate good survival-oriented attitudes. The main goal is survival with everything kept in perspective. The discomforts of the moment are only temporary.

Emergency Mangement

One way to develop answers in a survival situations is to use the mnemonic STOP:

S: Stay/Stop

T: Think

O: Observe

P: Plan/Proceed

Stay/Stop whenever you first notice trouble. Knee-jerk reactions cause confusion and can lead to potentially fatal mistakes. Stopping to think about what is going on can also help fight the emotions of anxiety and panic, which can greatly improve your chances of surviving.

Think about the immediate future and any dangers that it presents. Analyze your surroundings and think about any possible resources you could use to sustain life. Use all of your senses to guide you. Move slowly and do not make hasty judgements.

Observe and size up the situations. Identify any immediate hazards that may threaten you and look for the best possible course of action.

Plan the best course of action before implementing any action. Be deliberate and practical. Your plan should revolve around the necessities and priorities of life. After thinking, observing and planning have taken up, then you should Proceed.

Time often works against you in a survival situations. A challenging environment, untreated injuries, malnutrition and other stressors have detrimental affects on your thought processes. Planning for future survival scenarios can be a crucial step that saves time and helps you react faster.


Survival and resilience are intertwined, meaning that, the ability to overcome difficulties and disappointments are vital characteristics that will help you stay alive. While being prepared is the best way to solve the problem of staying alive in a survival situations, there will come moments when you must adapt available resources to meet a life-threatening challenge. This is called improvisation. NASAR has outlined six steps that can be followed to help determine if what you need can be provided by what you have:

  1. Size up the situation: Determine your needs. What is your priority (shelter, fire, medical, etc.)? Is there a need that you must take care of first? How was it done in early or primitive times?

  2. Identify contingencies: Could the situation get worse if I do not improvise something? If so, how bad could it get?

  3. Determine your goal: Exactly what do I need and what is the time frame?

  4. Inventory your resources: What materials and tools are available?

  5. Build a plan: Consider the alternatives (what can I use instead?). Keep it simple and think about simple machines. Select the alternative providing the most efficient use of your materials, time and energy.

  6. Take action: Make your product durable and safe. Remember the real priorities and necessities of life.


Anything that protects the body from temperature extremes, weather, insects, or any other life-threatening force or element is considered shelter. The first line of defense against those aforementioned forces is the clothing we wear. In most regions of Earth, humans can only survive for a short time without some form of shelter. There are three basic types of shelters that can be employed during a surivial situation: an immediate action shelter, a temporary shelter, and a long-term shelter.

An immediate action shelter can serve to protect an individual within minutes, and normally consist of something carried by an individual that can be accessed and put into use very quickly. This could be as simple as a leaf bag or 55 gallon barrel liner, or a naturally occurring shelter such as a cave or downed tree.

A temporary shelter is something that can be accessed or built within 30 to 60 minutes. Minimal energy is expended to construct or access this survival-type shelter, and typically requires some improvisation, basic tools, and knowledge of shelter construction and design. Many items that should be carried in a SAR ready pack can be utilized to create a temporary shelter.

A long-term shelter is designed to accommodate someone for 72 hours or more. This type of shelter requires substantially more resources and energy to build an incorporated more of what we would think of as "creature comforts." These types of shelters are only usually only built when an extended stay is anticipated.

NASAR recommend that, when building a shelter, be sure to:

  • Keep it simple and small, no bigger than what is absolutely needed for body protection.

  • Minimize expenditure of time, energy, and body water.

  • Minimize body heat loss or gain through the primary mechanism of temperature transfer in the body.


There are multitude of shelter styles for every biome on Earth, but this video gives a decent run down to help give you some ideas of how an improvised shelter could be built:


Building a safe fire in a survival situations has many positive effects. It can be a source of heat to help you thermoregulate, it can sterilize water, dry clothes, cook food and can be a comforting source for mental well being. There are numerous fire starting materials that could be carried on your own person, or in your SAR ready pack. This can include lighters, flint and steel, ferro rods, etc. All of these items should be stored in air-tight waterproof containers to ensure they will be ready for use when the moment is needed. Watch the video below to learn about building fires in survival situation, but bear in mind that as long as you are prepared, you can replace any of the primitive fire building tools with something that is much for efficient (such as lighters or matches):

This video gives you an idea of different ignition sources:











And if you were wondering what you would do if you lost your ready pack and every modern source of ignitions:















Emergency Signaling

SAR personnel should understand how to use and implement the following signalling methods:

  • Fire

  • Mirror

  • Whistle

  • Colored signal pannels

Being able to signal for help should be something that can be done rapidly, so it is important to set up your gear in a way that allows you to access signalling equipment quickly. This video shows how signaling techniques can be used:













Given the important role water plays on the human body, being able to obtain and consume clean potable water is extremely important in survival situations. There are many ways to purify water, but it is necessary to understand how each method performs. The following videos will help to understand water purification methods, its importance and their nuances:























Personal Waste


Stay in one location for any period of time, an chances are you will need to relieve yourself of liquid or solid waste. Watch the videos below to learn how to do this in an efficeint way:









Personal Hygene

The best case scenario during SAR operations means you will not have to be roughing it for too long. But there may be instances when operations last longer than expected or, in the worst case scenario, you find yourself in a survival situations. Whatever the case may be, being mindful of personal cleanliness will help prevent disease or other unfavorable conditions. Every one who spends a lot of time in the wilderness has an opinion of what the best way to stay clean may be. At its core, keeping your hands clean is a good start, as well as washing your face, underarms, growing and feet at least once a day. It is important to wash feet only after traveling for the day is complete. Women have other considerations that must be taken into account when preparing for potential SAR or survival scenarios. Watching the videos below will give you a better idea of how to prepare for staying hygenic in the wilderness: