Self Rescue: When Staying Put to Survive Isn’t an Option

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Stay or go? A fundamental precept of urban and wilderness survival is that during or after an emergency and survival situation, you should stay put so rescuers can find you. But what happens if that isn’t a possibility? What if self-rescue, typically considered the least optimal choice, is actually the best option?

What if a tornado or hurricane just happened, and emergency personnel are overwhelmed or non-existent, and you know there is no possibility of rescue?

Or an accident occurs in a remote wilderness area with no potential for a rescue.

Even in circumstances as seemingly mundane as driving home from work…What if a blizzard is occurring, and you phone 911, but because of conditions, rescue workers cannot reach you where you are stranded in your car? (This happened to Anndell Taylor in December 2022 as she attempted to drive home from work during a blizzard.)

What do you do in that situation? How do you rescue yourself? How do you tell the difference? ? How do you make the decision to stay or go?

In the following article posted initially on Leon Patenburg’s Survival Common Sense blog, survival expert Peter Kummerfeldt looks at the mental and physical processes of self-rescue.

image: woman in orange rain jacket wearing green backpack attempting self-rescue using compass

What is the definition of self-rescue?

The definition of self-rescue is “Getting yourself out of trouble without having to put other people at risk to rescue you.”

If you work or recreate in the outdoors, sooner or later, you may find yourself at a fork in the fork-in-the-road, having to decide if you should attempt to get yourself out of trouble or wait to be rescued. Always be prepared to self-rescue and not rely on others to come to your aid. Always remember that when you call for help, you put other people’s lives on the line!

Every life-threatening event is different, and the mechanics of extracting yourself from danger will be different in each case. However, while the techniques used may be different, the actual process of getting yourself out of trouble is the same.

3 Parts of the Self-Rescue Process

The self-rescue process involves three parts:

  1. Recognizing the threat
  2. An awareness of “certain” verses “potential” harm
  3. Taking action to remove yourself from the life-threatening circumstances

Threat recognition

The ability to recognize threats to your life is based on the knowledge and experience acquired over a lifetime. However, the ability to recognize those situations that place you in harm’s way can also be learned from other, more experienced people and by attending training programs that teach threat recognition.

Nowhere does the need to be able to recognize danger apply more than when you venture into the outdoors. Being able to recognize warning signs enables you to see what’s coming and then step back from the brink before the hazards threaten your life. Threats to your safety might include:

  • inclement weather,
  • dangerous terrain,
  • wild animal attack,
  • and many other circumstances.

Certain versus potential harm

A survival situation can be caused by weather or your reaction to it. Be able to tell the difference between real and potential danger!

Learn to differentiate between situations that will affect you right now and those that are not as immediate but will still have to be confronted.

Certain harm, for example, is finding yourself in a crashed plane that will explode when the ruptured fuel tank ignites. Or perhaps, you find yourself in an avalanche chute with a cornice above that is about to break loose. Or you’ve been bitten by a venomous snake.

On the other hand, potential harm could be the onset of inclement weather later in the day or the lack of water in an arid area.

Rising water could be a potential danger and not an immediate, critical concern.

Taking Action

When faced with a sudden, life-threatening situation, any immediate action in the direction of safety is better than deciding on the best action that comes too late!

John Leach, the author of Survival Psychology, writes: “In an emergency, 75% of people have to be told what to do. Only 10-15% of the people act appropriately, leaving the remaining 10-15% sitting on the sidelines acting inappropriately!” Those in the top 15% had prepared for the events they found themselves in.

8 Steps to Self-rescue

Once you’ve recognized a threat and identified it as a life-threatening situation, you must take action. Here are eight steps for acting appropriately in self-rescue circumstances:

1. Immediate life-threat recognition and action

When your life’s on the line, you must act immediately. You won’t have time to think. Whether you live or die depends on what you did to prepare for this moment. If you’ve never thought through what you might do “when bad things happen,” you are more likely to panic and take what you hope is the best course of action but often isn’t.

Assuming you can extricate yourself from the event that precipitated the crisis situation, your first step, whether you plan to save yourself or not, is to deal with any life-threatening medical conditions. That includes your medical condition and the medical condition of others. Take care of yourself first. Are you bleeding severely? If so, take care of that quickly using first aid. Next, check the accident scene to locate other people needing immediate help.

Is the site safe? Do you need to move to a safer area? Once you have control of the medical issues and area safety, then you can sit back and catch your breath.

2. Don’t panic

Easy to say but difficult to do! Comedian George Carlin once commented, “We should teach people to panic because that is what they are going to do in an emergency!” There may be some truth to Carlin’s observation, but I would suggest people be taught, “The onset of panic is a normal reaction. It’s what happens the moment you realize that you’re in trouble”.

At that moment, adrenaline floods through your system putting you into a fight-or-flight mode. This is your body’s instinctive way of handling danger: either fight it or run away from it.

Out-of-control panic must be avoided, however. The steps you take to protect yourself from this moment on can make a huge difference in the final situation outcome. First, recognize the threats to your safety, and then either remove yourself from the situation or remove the threat.

As dangerous as things can become, you are seldom in a situation where you can’t take just a second or two to think before you act, but you must act.

Coping with a crisis depends heavily on your preparations before your life is on the line. Put another way, a person does what they have been trained to do when they are in trouble, and if they haven’t been trained, they have nothing to guide them to take the correct action.

3. Assess your resources

image: survival gear for self-rescue, (from left) firestarter, charcloth (in a waterproof, plastic bag), and a signal mirror

Carry survival gear in your wallet. I always have (from left) firestarter, charcloth (in a waterproof, plastic bag), and a signal mirror with me.

All of the resources you are going to have to work with are those you arrive with, plus whatever you might obtain from the environment you’re in. Despite the advice given in most survival manuals and that advice provided by such dubious survival experts as “Survivorman” and Bear Grylls of “Man versus Wild,” you should never believe you’ll be able to gather what you need.

Go through your pockets and inventory your possessions. Inventory the contents of your vehicle. What do you have that will enable you to start a fire, erect a shelter, and signal for help? Hopefully, you will have emergency equipment (survival kit) available that will enable you to do what you need to survive.

Evaluate the environment. Find and identify the available natural resources that you can build shelter from. Is there fuel available to build and maintain a fire? Is water available? Are there materials present with which to signal for help?

4. Make a tentative self rescue plan

The object is to remove yourself from the survival situation and return to your family and friends as quickly and safely as possible. At this point, it is very important to be totally honest with yourself and develop a realistic plan with a high likelihood of success. Unfortunately, it is very easy to allow the desire for comfort and companionship to override what may be a better decision: stay where you are.

Ego, especially with men, often gets in the way. They often grossly overestimate their ability to travel to a distant destination and also grossly underestimate the distance to that destination! Not a good combination!

Do you know where you are relative to the availability of help? What time of day is it? Is it too late to try to walk out today? Would it be better to hole up for the night and re-evaluate the situation in the morning? Did you tell someone where you were going and when you would be back? If so, you can be assured that help will come. Be patient and allow yourself to be rescued rather than attempting to save yourself. It’s safer.

(Survival Mom editor: We mentioned Andell Taylor in the introduction. Due to white out conditions and heavy snowfall, help couldn’t reach her, but initial reports suggest she died from carbon monoxide poisoning due to a snow-blocked exhaust pipe. It’s unknown if she would have survived overnight in her vehicle had this not occurred.)

5. Step by step, plan your moves

At least plan the first few moves because you might not be able to see the entire journey. Decide what you are going to do and when you are going to do it. Here are some questions to ask:

  • Is your physical condition such that you can safely accomplish the overland travel you are planning?
  • If it is, do you have the clothing you need to protect yourself from the weather conditions that exist?
  • Do you know where you are going?
  • Do you have the energy that you will need to get to your destination?
  • Do you have the navigation equipment you need to reach that destination safely?

If you can answer all of these questions in the affirmative without letting wishful thinking cloud your decision-making ability, then your next step is to plan for contingencies.

6. Plan contingencies

Make alternative plans for foreseeable problems. Anticipate the problems that might arise as you rescue yourself. These problems may include changes in the weather, rougher terrain than you expected, heavy vegetation, overestimating your ability to negotiate the terrain you encounter, and other issues. By thinking ahead, you may already have a solution to the predicaments you may face.

7. “Do” the plan in your head

Before you start, walk through your plan step-by-step. Review each stage of the plan objectively, realistically, and with an eye for anything you may have forgotten. Ask yourself, “Can I really do this, or is it my impatience and desire to be back with my family that is making me want to “get home?”

If you can’t “do” the plan in your head, it won’t work on the mountain! Revise your plan. Find alternatives to those parts of the plan you have doubts about and when you are comfortable with it, then execute the plan.

8. Execute the plan

When all is in order, put your plan into action. Do not let the concerns of others, the promises you made to be home by a certain time, the desire to go for help, or any other issue influence your choice of action. Your decision to self-rescue should not be driven by panic or an overwhelming desire just to “get out of here!”

A Final Word About Saving Yourself

Deciding to self-rescue can be a difficult decision and should be made after a thorough, comprehensive, objective review of your situation. It’s essential to be prepared and have the necessary equipment and knowledge before attempting a self-rescue.

Following the eight steps of self-rescue can increase your chances of success and reduce the risk of injury. However, in the final analysis, even if it looks like you can “do the plan,” the best choice might still be to sit tight and let the rescuers come to you!

Originally published 8/23/2011; updated by The Survival Mom editors.

4 thoughts on “Self Rescue: When Staying Put to Survive Isn’t an Option”

  1. Original Country Girl

    Good posting. I am a homesteader/blogger who has an eye on self-sustainability/prepping. I've been poking around your blog and enjoying myself very much.

  2. I have been wondering about the east coast evacuations for Hurricane Irene.
    Who was ready with plastic bins to just throw in the car to beat the other 2 million people out of the area?
    Did they pack like they were going on vacation? Did they already keep their gas tank full or did they wait in long lines?
    Being prepared ahead of time would have been a major bonus.

  3. Peter Kummerfeldt is a great instructor, easy to understand and learn from. His website is worth looking for, outdoorsafe inc.

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