Survive When Everything Goes Wrong: Flood of Fear

Imagine, you’re out in the woods, the birds are chirping, the trail is level and easy, the sun is playing hide-and-seek with gentle clouds, the temperature is just right for pushing yourself hard. The rain starts gently at first, then it begins to slam down. Drops the size of shotgun shells slam through the canopy, soaking your tee faster than you can run for shelter. You barely have time to think, “Flash flood!” before you’re washed away down a side canyon. Good luck, you’re gonna need it.

Image of rescuer inspecting a washed-out vehicle after the 2015 flash flood in Utah and ArizonaAftermath of the 2015 flash flood in Utah, credit Weather.com and AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

Sound crazy? Well, not really. Just last year, a single flash flood took almost two dozen lives in Utah, and Arizona. If you survive the initial burst, then you might find yourself stranded or lost, or worse. For the sake of this article, I’m going to assume you’re smart and prepared with our Adventure Day Pack.

The ROA Outfitters Adventure Pack

As always, we need to consider the rule of threes first. We have, at most,

  • 3 minutes to get air.
  • 3 hours to find shelter.
  • 3 days to secure water.
  • 3 weeks to gather food.

In a flash flood, your first goal is to make sure you can stay afloat in spite of the turbulence. Step one, get your shoes off, they will fill with water and drag you down. If you can save the laces, that’s ideal, but don’t spend more than a few seconds working on it. Turn your body so that your feet are pointed in the direction of flow, that way you can navigate slightly and protect your head from impacts. Don’t try to swim too hard against the flow to avoid exhausting yourself too quickly. If you find a footing above the water level, do not leave it for any reason, no matter how precarious. The fast moving water can rip you off your feet at even just a couple of inches depth.

Once the water subsides, take a minute to just listen and get your bearings. Has the rain stopped? Can you hear traffic, whistles, or shouts? Is there higher ground nearby? Give an SOS blast on your whistle, it never hurts to try. Don’t move too hastily. Your every action from this point out could mean the difference between a great story to tell the grandkids, and an empty casket funeral.

Your next move is to find shelter. Simple is better. There is probably a lot of downed wood and debris. Find a long, narrow branch, ideally half again your height. Snug it into the crook of a tree, a crack in a rock, or tie one end of it to a standing trunk about two feet off the ground. Lay branches across the top, upside-down, with the leaves pointing towards the ground, to make a little tent-like structure. Think Eeyore, but bushy. Be wary of caves. Especially after a natural disaster, there may be dangerous animals taking shelter inside, and they are probably more than stressed enough to attack on sight.

Image of a campfire, CC0, credit Alex Lázaro

Shelter also includes fire and warmth. Find bare, stony ground if possible. You should have a flint with you, and some fire starters. Use them conservatively, and don’t try to start a fire without a good supply of twigs, pinecones, moss, or wood chips to get the first flames going. You need to focus on finding the driest wood possible after the flood. Failing that, look for shattered ends in logs, those have more surface area to catch fire, and the weaker wood is likely dead or dryer than otherwise. Never light a log on fire that you can’t lift or move if things get a little out of control. While a good boy-scout can get a nearly smokeless fire going under even the worst conditions, the smoke and steam from wet wood will actually work in your favor as you try to get found. You’re likely to have a difficult time sleeping, use that energy to keep the fire burning through the frigid night. Fire-building is an art in and of itself, so stay tuned for a later post with more tips on how to get one started in rough conditions.

In flood conditions, safe water becomes ironically difficult to find. The fast moving currents will have potentially stirred up loads of toxins and microbes, making any normal source suspect. If you have a tin cup*, or a rock with a hollow in it, boil your water. If you have a portable filter, never take a drink without it. If you don’t have a filter, strain any water you are going to boil through your shirt or other available fabric first.

Gross floodwaters, credit Wikipedia

Finding food has a lot of gotchas and caveats that depend on where you are and what the time of year is. Learning how to forage is best done with a teacher, and long before you actually need the knowledge. If you think you might have to rely on your wits to survive, nothing beats local wisdom, so find some grizzled old hunter or mountain man in your area and buy them dinner in exchange for a few stories. However, having a knife, fishing line, and a bit of paracord will go a long way towards keeping you alive and eating in any situation. If you can’t find a sufficiently mountainous man in your area, try taking a look at an older survival handbook. The American Boy’s Handy Book by Daniel Beard will give you a nice overview of all sorts of traps, weapons, fires, shelters, knots and so-on that make a decent basis for survival, as well as letting you experience a mild sense of horror at how dangerous childhood used to be.

Finally, if you’re stranded in the woods, and you’ve got an okay handle on the basics of life, make as big a target as possible. If you have a bright poncho, spread it out and stake it down in a clear area, make a sign out of rocks, throw wet wood or grass on your fire to make smoke, make noise, and do everything you can to be conspicuous.


*Not an insulating thermos. That won’t do you much good unless you can puncture the outer wall without breaking the inner wall. Note, you’re responsible to be informed about your own survival. While it may be helpful, and is given in earnest, none of this advice is given with any guarantee of accuracy or effectiveness.
Main image credit Dataquest India.

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