Helicopters Magazine

Quenching That Thirst

October 11, 2011  By Dan Gibson

In parts 1 through 4 of our “Survival” series, we drew up a dire crash scenario that left you alone in the wilderness.

In parts 1 through 4 of our “Survival” series, we drew up a dire crash scenario that left you alone in the wilderness. We examined the considerable role that psychology plays in survival, the benefits of fire, as well as how to set priorities, build emergency shelters, stock a flight survival kit and facilitate your own rescue.

Continuing where we left off, it’s time to assess your situation. Your first 24 hours since the crash of your aircraft has been both frightening and demanding, but your ability to remain composed has served you well. Encouraged by the cache of provisions in your survival kit, you reward yourself by completely draining what remains in your stainless steel water bottle, as you can always boil more water in this type of bottle . . . that is, if you can find more water.

Recalling your Please Remember What’s First mantra – and with Protection established and Rescue signals at the ready, Water becomes top priority, followed lastly by Food. Finding a reliable source of fresh water is essential to your survival but, although you’ve seen a few stagnant puddles, you haven’t seen any streams or lakes around.

You quickly do a perimeter scout, keeping your eyes open for wildlife. It’s best to look for well-traversed animal trails, which always lead to water. As well, birds settle on or near wetlands. Checking out the sky may also help – the distant sky may appear slightly darker blue over larger bodies of water. Bees may also give you a clue – they rarely travel more than one nautical mile from a clean water source.


If you don’t find water (which, sadly, means no fish, frogs, crayfish or aquatic edibles such as cattails) you can always improvise by trying any of the following:

  • digging at the lowest point of a ravine and straining the damp mud through a cloth
  • wrapping moisture-laden vegetation in a T-shirt and wringing it into a container
  • collecting morning dew from plants and tall grass by walking around and then wringing out your pant legs
  • making a catch basket to collect rainwater
  • wedging a thin rope or shoelace into a cracked wet rock and routing the hanging end into your container
  • tying plastic bags over bushy green branches overnight to capture the condensation
  • tap birch or maple trees for nutritiously thirst-quenching sap
  • You can even distil water from a freshly dug dirt hole if you can seal it well enough. Truth is, locating a reliable water source in the boreal forest isn’t the challenge – locating the two litres you require to sustain yourself daily is, however, so you must decide to employ many methods simultaneously.

On your trek, you come across blueberries, thimbleberries, Queen Anne’s lace (wild carrot) and wild onion. You also find what appears to be a patch of wild sorrel, which, when consumed in moderation, can be eaten like spinach. While Food is not your immediate priority, harvesting now will conserve your energy so you gather as you go.

You can’t be sure of the sorrel-like plant without a field guide – the one item (and by far the most important) that you failed to stock in your flight survival kit – but a test would help, so you pick that, too. You know that edibility tests are never failsafe and despite the “if you aren’t sure, don’t eat it rule,” you sometimes have no choice so you start the test and wait. (For more on testing for edible plants go to www.helicoptermagazine.com).

Suddenly, the hum of a distant engine breaks the silence and you explode into action, racing to light your signal fire. Gathering colourful clothing and signal mirror, you position yourself in the widest expanse you can get to. As the SAR aircraft breaks the horizon, you flash your mirror right in his face. He cuts the smoke from your signal with his wing, acknowledging your presence – they know where you are and you are alive!

Fine Dining: Survival Style is the final segment in our series aimed at providing pilots with critical wilderness survival skills and insight. Look for future useful survival tips in coming editions.

Dan Gibson is a consultant with the Helicopter Association of Canada, an award-winning pilot and president of Bear Beaver Aviation Services. He teaches Wilderness Survival Skills for the Ottawa Flying Club in the Commercial Pilot/Aviation Management Program at the Algonquin School of Advanced Technology in Ottawa.


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