7 Survival Myths That Will Get You Killed

June 10, 2013 by | 53 Comments

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 can be absorbed through your mouth, throat, or digestive system, 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.

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.

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.

Melanie Swick (a.k.a. Survival Chick) grew up wanting to be a rocket scientist, but when she realized she that required way too much math, she took to her second dream—spending time in the wilderness. Today, when she's not hiking, camping, or hunting, she's blogging about it. You can connect with Melanie on Facebook.

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53 Comments

  • True on the cactus not having drinkable water, but if you can chop some up and add it to the bottom of a solar still, it will increase the amount of drinkable water you receive.

    • Jeremy Knauff says:

      That is correct, Patrick. The distillation of the solar still purifies the liquid into pure water. The next chance I have to get out to the desert, I plan to do a video on that to document the effort and output.

  • Yellow says:

    Myth 8: “I recommend using the Sawyer extractor pump kit”

    No different to cutting and sucking really.

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14747805

    In Australia where apparently we have lots of dangerous stuff, Aborigines rarely died of snake-bite, just took a few days off sitting under a tree without moving.

  • Mike says:

    Well stated Jeremy. My favorite “notional survival plan” is the proliferation of EDC posts that have 5 knives, a smartphone (with no backup power supply) and a paracord bracelet. 2nd place is the 72 hour bag with all of the contents still in their original package. Anyway, great post, glad I found it.

  • tina says:

    moss does grow on the north side of the tree. I live in northern Canada…I know this!

    • Jeremy Knauff says:

      Look at the other sides of the trees. Sure, it grows on the north side, but it also grows on the south, east, and west sides.

      • Jon says:

        Moss grows where sun shines, so if you go way north it will grow mostly on the Southern side, and way South will be mostly on the Northern side. Still much better off using the sun/stars as navigation tools.

        • Steve says:

          personally, I prefer to use my map and compass. Yes, I do have a GPS and extra batteries, and even a solar charger for the batteries. But I still learned how to use a map and compass in case of emergency.

  • Methane Creator says:

    Living in Texas we have more experience with Cactus than in the Northern climes. Our native prickly pear only offers cactus apples in early summer. The flowers are edible, but contain minute amounts of liquid refreshment. The pear leaves are spiny and hard skinned. We can burn the spines off the leaves and then boil the leaves in some water. squeeze the leaves to release the water from the pulp and allow to cool. Not the best tasting, but you can survive. A solar still would probably be easier. Another cactus we can use are Barrell cacti. Use a machete to chop the head (top) off and you can dig out the inner sponge like pulp. squeeze the pulp into a container or straight into your mouth. It has an acquired taste, but even good whiskey won’t make it palatable. Go easy on this as too much will cause cramps.

    Map out your area 50-75 miles in all directions so you will know where most ponds, streams, springs, tanks, lakes, and wells are located. If you head out, you will know the best direction to go for water supplies.

    • Rob says:

      If you have water to boil the cactus in wouldn’t you be better off to just drink the water? just saying…

    • Gina Loyd says:

      I don’t know where you live, but here in North Central Texas, the cactus tunas are just getting good and ripe and they will stay up on the cactus until it’s way down in the winter. I have made Jelly from them.

  • JackSlick says:

    How about expecting Barry Soetoro to save the economy?

    • DougAintDumb says:

      That’s the best you could come up with troll? Maybe Rush or Sean will let you stay in their bunker…at least till they get hungry. And here I was going to share my zombie apocalypse survival guide. But since your a troll maybe you deserve to wander the earth as an undead.

  • Miriam Aguilar says:

    Thanks for all the great survival info! God help us!

  • Donna says:

    Ok..if and when there is ever a natural catastrophe that keeps me from having my morning coffee without having to pee into the pot first..I want to be one of the first to go. 🙁

  • Randy says:

    As far as the pilgrims go…in many places there is more game than when they landed but also a lot more people…plus they didn’t have modern knowledge and equipment to harvest the game with…I would mostly agree with what you said but for different reasons.

  • ThunderGr says:

    The reason moss grows at the north side of the trees in the *Northern* hemisphere is that the Sun is south during the day and the sunshine hits the tree from that direction, while moss does not like the sun. So, the correct statement is that “moss grows on the north side of the trees, if the sun has a clear path to these trees during the day”. Needless to say, moss grows anywhere on a tree that is shaded. Urine is a very effective way to keep hydrated in an emergency and will keep you capable and alert for at least a couple of days more than you could go without(that is, by wasting it on the ground). This is not to be underestimated in real survival situations. In addition, the composition of the urine is much more complex than what stated. It contains quite a few minerals and vitamins, although the exact composition depends on what you eat.

  • Cris Wentz says:

    I’ve done some reading up on the Plymouth folks. These people were, by and large, farmers. Some were even ‘city’ folk. They learned to forage from the locals, but they really didnt have a clue what to look for..as for hunting, the common man just didnt hunt unless he worked for someone in authority or was a poacher. Seems unlikely that devout christians would have done much hunting. If you know what to look for and have the time and energy, you really can live off the land in most of our country. However, most dont. Or wouldnt eat what they found lol. Funny thing is, a lot of what we forage here actually came from Europe, asia, and africa some time after the plymouth colony was founded.

    • Jeremy Knauff says:

      “Seems unlikely that devout christians would have done much hunting”

      Um, why is that? You don’t think Christians eat meat? Is there something in the Bible you can point me to that says anything against hunting? I’m not sure where your logic is coming from.

      The fact is they they were hunters and farmers and experienced outdoors-men. And where does this “poacher” idea come from? Aside from the Indians, they were the only ones here—where did these “poaching” laws supposedly come from?

      • Cris Wentz says:

        We were referring to people from England by way of Holland, correct? Read up on poaching laws at that time. Common folk did not hunt. Christians would not have (likely) broken those laws to hunt. Poacher, in England, was a legal term. If you read the Plymouth colony annals, you’d see that these were fairly clueless folks about foraging, planting times in that clime, and hunting. They were civilized farmers, for the most part. Jeremy, these people brought their old rules and assumptions with them when they set up shop. The locals …aka ‘indians’…taught them the basics of survival here and they didnt get that right away! 2/3s of them died that first winter. Remember that. They came here during the last of the fat of the year and still mostly starved to death. They simply didnt know.

        • Cris Wentz says:

          Excuse me. Half died, not 2/3. Out of 102 adults, only 53 lived to celebrate that first Thanksgiving.

        • Jeremy Knauff says:

          No, they didn’t bring their old rules—that’s what they came here to get away from. “Poaching” laws in England were irrelevant in what later became America, so no, they would not have been breaking any laws, nor would they have been inclined not to hunt because of some law in the country they left.

          • Cris Wentz says:

            All I can say is, read the diaries. Its an astounding read, what they dared and how they adapted. Its been a while since I read any of it…I believe one is “of Plymouth Plantation” by william Bradford. Yep, as I look it up. Its available as an Ebook, apparently.

          • I think he is saying that since they most likely didn’t hunt before they came to America, they don’t have the skills required to be experienced hunters, as you said. For sure once they got to America they would hunt, gather, farm, etc to survive, but that doesn’t mean they were already skilled at the hunting part.

          • Jeremy Knauff says:

            The thing is, they did hunt, both there and here. All one has to do is read a few history books.

          • Paul says:

            There, in England, all the land was OWNED by somebody and everything on it belonged to the owner of the land and you couldn’t hunt on it without permission or you were a “poacher”. I believe most of what they hunted was birds, rabbits, fox, etc. I don’t think where was an abundance of large wild game to be had in England. I my memory serves me well, for I am quite old and was very young back then, the weapons they used to hunt with had a muzzle like a trumpet and were very inaccurate and America’s wood didn’t look like it does today. Did you know earthworms are Not native to America? I think it is being implied that they did not know how to hunt the game available in the surroundings they were in. I can picture them now walking through the woods in their black coats but stark white fluffy shirts probably yacking away not knowing to be quiet, with their swords dragging the ground clanking on every rock. Makes me think of the Monster Hunter shows where they go out hunting for monsters at night with flashlights blaring on their heads, running thru the woods, hollering back and forth, trying to “sneak up on whatever made that noise”. LOL All the months tehy spent on the boat getting here don’t you think it would have been reasonable they came to and agreement on a set of laws to live by before they got here? Since they were Christian they had the laws oft he Bible to start with. I’m sure none of them were hunting laws but there were laws to follow.

          • Keith says:

            Jeremy, what they are talking about are the laws in England. Land was either owned by the aristocracy or the king, if you were caught hunting on these lands the punishment would be severe. That would mean that the commoners were not experienced hunters, what little meat that they ate in England they raised themselves (pigs, cows, sheep) or it was bartered for.

          • Jeremy Knauff says:

            Right, but they didn’t have to worry about those laws here.

  • Thank you for pointing out these deceptive tips. I think you should add one more to your list. That is the amount of people who think that owning weapons and ammo are the only survival goods they will need for emergency planning.

    They think they will just waltz over to say, “Prepper Joes” home and steal what has been carefully planned and stored. A wake up call will be in order when they find out “Prepper Joe” has a method of deterring said thief…

    • Jeremy Knauff says:

      I agree, and I’ve heard more than a few people of that mindset. What they fail to realize is that those of us who have taken the time to store food, water, and other resources have also armed ourselves. Usually quite well.

    • Alpheus says:

      There is another problem with this mindset as well: the assumption that an event requiring survival is going to be complete societal chaos where you can go steal your neighbor’s food without repercussions. If the survival event destroys your neighbor’s food, or leaves the town’s government intact (“Oh, hello, sheriff! Now that the government in Washington D.C. has collapsed, and the economy is in shambles, it’s legal for me to kill my neighbor for food, right?”) you’re up a creek.

      And frankly, if your survival plan is to kill someone who put in the effort to be prepared and steal their food, you deserve to be shot! And to starve to death, if you manage to survive being shot.

    • teotwawkiandifeelfine says:

      Hopefully methods.

  • Pogo says:

    I will add 2 more:
    I think there were two more above me so this is …
    10. Myth, if water in the stream is clear, it is safe to drink. No still have to purify it. You can’t see bacteria, viruses, and protozoa. I don’t know if they still use the photos, But I recall seeing ads for water filters that showed a coyote and another with some other animal, I forget, pissing in a clear stream.
    11. Myth, If I have stored food, I don’t need to garden. No your food will eventually run out if it is long term. Plus there is the problem with a balenced diet, lots of processed chemicals and palate fatique.
    12. Bonus, Myth, I can just go into the woods and hunt and trap. Yea, you and about 1000 of your closest neighbtors. Many wild game were hunted to extinction and near extinction in some areas during the great depression. It took decades to bring the population back.

  • Pogo says:

    Just remembered some more juicy myths.
    13. Country folks will just love seeing me and my kin show up at their door to take us in as we escape from the city.
    14. I can’t be bothered to walk the dog right now, but I am going to hike 26 miles per day with a 60 pound back pack.
    15. Me and my pump 12ga will scare off 50 heavily armed and determined looters.
    AND THE BEST ONE…
    16. I will start tomorrow!!!

  • Uncle Rice says:

    Spicy, sugary coffee would probably be better for the person freezing than brandy.

  • James G. says:

    Great practical article bro – good to see some sane people in the survival world

    ~James G

  • Ian Hussler says:

    Thank you for your excellent article. Blessings from Texas

  • Preston_USMC 3/3-3/5 says:

    Semper Fi! Spent nine years USMC Infantry and Recon, 20 years later I am still scuba diving, kayaking and hiking- mostly on the A.T. Thanks for writing this, will definitely show it to my hard-headed teenager.

  • Liam says:

    Was almost an Eagle Scout, with no military training, yet I do have some skills, (Camping and hunting, fishing) no longer hard core in these areas, but still retained some knowledge, yet I am always learning. I still have my scout field book for reference. This seems like a valuable site for information. Thanks !

  • markus says:

    excelente informacion gracias–

  • Enrique Nunez says:

    I was under the impression venom was not harmful through the digestive system (which starts at the mouth). Unless you have some form of ulcer or lesion therein.

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