SURVIVAL MANUALS AND MISINFORMATION
Copyright 2000 by David Alloway
Quoting an anonymous Latin proverb two hundred years ago, Isaac D’Israeli
wrote, “Beware the man of one book.” When it comes to survival, the persons
who go by one book should beware for themselves. Many people purchase military
survival manuals because they are cheap. These can sometimes be had for a
few bucks at gun shows, army surplus stores, or in higher priced new editions
through mail order outlets. Up to 200 manuals can also be found on CD-ROM
for what comes out to ten cents each. For many, this may be the only survival
book they ever read, and why not? Wouldn’t the military, with its worldwide
experience in all environments be the foremost source for survival information?
The problem is that many of these books contain outdated and often dangerous
information. Now before I get some offended snake-eaters from Fort Bragg
headed my way, let me explain that every military survival instructor I have
ever worked with were truly masters at their craft. They know what works
and what doesn’t, and don’t always agree with the manuals either. There are
several reasons to have a skeptical view of survival manuals.
In a review of the literature there seems to be a cookie cutter approach
to military survival manuals going back to the 1950s. For half a century
the same verbatim text and illustrations have found their way entrenched
into manuals no matter which branch of the armed services claim authorship.
To some extent, this also carries on to manuals supplied to the armed forces
of other countries. The authorship is anonymous, much copied, and stated
in such a way as to be the undisputed truth. With such a presentation many
casual readers regard their surplus manual as the Bible, and could martyr
themselves for the book.
Because copyright laws do not apply to military manuals, they are freely
copied, sometimes in a cut-and-paste fashion, and compiled into books printed
by civilian publishers. These are sometimes featured in book clubs relating
to military science or outdoor recreation. Again, the military origin lends
credibility to some and the lack of copyright royalties makes for a quick
and cheap book to produce. While the authors (or perhaps more accurately
editors) of these books are stated, there is still the presence of that obscure
fifty-year-old “cookie cutter.” It is also obvious in some cases that the
person compiling the book has not tested what they are promoting.
Another area of inaccuracy is that the authors and illustrators of these
manuals were probably not in close contact with each other. The illustrator
was probably assigned a list of subjects to draw, read the text, and then
illustrated a method they had never tried themselves. The result is some
pretty vague graphics. An example is starting a fire with flint and steel.
The probability of success in starting a flint and steel fire by reading
Search and Rescue Survival AFM 64-5 (Air Force 1969); Survival FM 21-76 (Army
1970 & 1992); or Aircrew Survival AF Pamphlet 64-5 (Air Force 1985) are
minimal. The same goes for The U.S. Armed Forces Survival Manual (1980),
a civilian publication that was compiled from several military manuals. The
text of each is brief and there is not enough on the selection of tinder
for this technique, which is often unavailable in many locales. Some very
dry types of fungi can be used, but in many conditions this method is wasted
effort. For this reason the mountain men and pioneers carried charred cotton
cloth as a tinder source to catch a spark. The illustrations, when provided,
are no help with the tinder being a vague pile that could be anything from
sawdust to powdered giraffe dung. The Military Book Club’s Survival Handbook
(1994), which draws information from at least fifteen U.S. and foreign special
forces units, discusses tinder to a greater degree than the aforementioned
books, but the illustration shows a tiny pile of grass-like tinder that would
probably not ignite with that method.
The selection of stone is also not well covered in any of the texts, and
most of the illustrations show rounded pebbles when a stone with an acute
angle is needed for a striking surface. Two of the manuals herald flint and
steel as the best method for starting a fire when in fact it requires a lot
of practice. Perhaps the most ironic instruction is in the more recent manuals,
that counsel to use a knife to strike sparks from the special flint found
on the bottom of the issued waterproof match case. An alternate method could
be to use one of the matches and keep the fire going!
The graphics gap between author and illustrator is evident in even some of
the better privately published survival books. While in general I like John
Wiseman’s SAS Survival Handbook, it has some of the same illustrative flaws
as the previously mentioned manuals. While the illustration on flint and
steel (page 140) has a more professional look than the military manuals,
neither the graphics nor the text provide the needed information for consistent
success. In addition, the illustration showing the spearthrower (page 108)
indicates the artist has never actually seen such a weapon. I own several
examples of Inuit, southwestern U.S., Meso-American, and Australian Aborigine
spearthrowers, and have never seen one with a hand grip located to the rear.
It just won’t work, and if you build one from that example you will find
you would have better off throwing a spear by hand. The problem is that we
are a visual species, and pictures remain more vivid in most people’s memories
than the printed word. Most
people know not to believe everything they read, but it is harder not to
believe everything you see, and pictures are powerful.
Because I teach desert survival courses I take an especially critical look
at the sections on water acquisition and use. In my professional career as
a ranger on the 420 square mile Big Bend Ranch State Park in Texas, I am
in continual controversy with people who are about to venture into the Chihuahuan
Desert without enough water but plenty of unproved ideas on rationing and
solar stills. Military survival manuals are far and away the most responsible
for the idea that a hole in the ground, a cup, and a sheet of plastic can
provide sufficient drinking water in any circumstance. The solar still was
invented in the mid-1960s and has been a staple of survival lore since.
Both civilian and military survival texts often quote yields from solar stills
at a quart a day. This is possible under ideal circumstances and with a lot
of practice. I have yet to see a successful still built by inexperienced
persons reading a book and then going to work. The best yield I ever had
from my students concerned three men whose one liter canteen cup was overflowing
at the end of twenty-four hours. It should be noted, however, that I talked
them through the process and these men were professional adventurers, one
whom had summited Mount Everest the year before. These guys knew that details
were a matter of life and death. One liter for three people, however, is
insufficient in the heat we were experiencing. Add to the lost sweat from
digging a hole
without a shovel, the usual low yield of four ounces or less, and the time
required for condensation to work, a person can actually work themselves
into a deficit. What is the book solution for low yields? Dig more stills!
More sweat invested on a gamble.
The current rule for water use is “Ration sweat, not water.” Water rationing
is an antiquated method for land travel that probably has its origins back
to sailors lost at sea. While floating about on a lifeboat with little to
do but lay around, water needs are less if shade is available. The infantry,
however, once practiced water rationing, telling their troops when they could
drink and how much. This idea still persists with some older veterans, and
is responsible for many cases of dehydration. Two survival training films
from the Vietnam era for aviators and pilots are the first military references
I know of to caution against water rationing in survival scenarios. Desert
Survival, 3593 DN (U.S. Navy) and Sun, Sand and Survival, T.F. 1-4991 (U.S.
Air Force) are both available on one videotape called Desert Survival Skills
listed in the References. The advice in current military manuals is contradictory,
advising against rationing while falling back on the half-century old cookie
cutter admonitions to sip water or only wet the lips.
The fact is, you cannot ration water in your canteen any more than you can
ration gas in a car’s tank. If you have a quarter tank of gas and sixty miles
to go to get to the next station, giving the car “a few sips” cannot do it.
Instead, you use the available gasoline conservatively by driving slower,
coasting downhill, and avoiding rapid acceleration. It is the same way with
the body. By waiting until cooler times to walk and limiting physical activity
(such as not digging several holes for stills) the available water is used
It is important to drink enough to keep the brain hydrated. The recommended
sipping and wetting the lips is a misuse of available water. Such rationing
causes the less important cells of the body to pirate the water away from
the brain, which will result in irrational decisions and increased body temperature.
Recently, a European tourist died in the Australian outback of dehydration
with one and two thirds liters left in her water bottles, and many similar
cases from rationing are on record. It is the water in your stomach that
saves you, not the water in the canteen. Yet the manuals confuse the issue.
Quoting the 1970 Army manual, page 226: “Don’t gulp your water. Drink in
small sips. Use water to only to moisten your lips if the supply is critical.”
The well known, but erroneous, technique of placing a pebble under the tongue
to allay thirst is described, even though that thirst is telling you to water
your brain. Ironically, the same page continues, “Rationing yourself to 1
or 2 quarts of water a day is inviting disaster (at high temperatures) as
such small amounts do not prevent dehydration. Ration sweat, not water.”
The U.S. Marine Corps Desert Handbook gives the same paraphrased cautions
against rationing water (including the “inviting disaster” line) and later
in the manual gives the same wet your lips and put a pebble under the tongue
advice word for word as the twenty year older text. The same book goes on
to describe a solar still as “a cheap and simple survival still that will
produce drinking water even in a dry desert.” Here is my thoughts on the
subject. If you are thirsty, drink. Don’t risk a befuddled mind and die of
thirst with water in your canteen. This will cause us to use you as an example
in my courses. If you are going to rely on a solar still to save weight in
carrying water, please take a larger sheet of plastic than the often recommended
six foot by six foot square. Those of us on the search and rescue team want
enough to adequately wrap you in so you won’t smell so bad when we pack you
Many military manuals are too general for use without accompanying instruction.
Because our military needs to be capable of operating anywhere in the world
on short notice, many such manuals give descriptions of edible plants that
are not precise enough. It is understandable that if every edible plant in
the world were listed, accurately described, and with step-by-step preparation
methods, the volume would require its own vehicle support to carry. It is
also a fact that scientific names are all but useless to the average serviceman
and that proper identification in many cases would require knowledge of both
botany and taxonomy. The generalities, however, are dangerous without instruction.
For example, let’s use the mescal plant found in several of the previously
mentioned books. Mescal is colloquial Spanish derived from the Aztec name
metl for the edible species of the genus Agave. Commonly called century plant,
there are about 250 species in North America. With no further identification,
the 1970 Army manual, U.S. Marine Corps Desert Handbook, and The U.S. Armed
Forces Survival Manual have brief descriptions of mescal as a food source
with vague line drawings. Both the 1970 army manual and The U.S. Armed Forces
Survival Manual advise to cut the tips off of the leaves for water. The juice
of some Agaves is called agua miel (honey water) in Spanish, and is quite
palatable. Agua miel is what is fermented for beverages such as pulque, tequila,
and mescal. Some species, however, have a juice that causes severe dermatitis.
Once I was preparing Agave havardii, a mescal species with a food history
dating back thousands of years, for pit baking. While chopping off the leaves
I splattered the juice on my arms, creating hundreds of small blisters on
my skin that burned for over an hour. What would happen if you collected
that juice and drank it? To be fair, the 1992 edition of the Army survival
manual has a color photo of a century plant, more correctly identified as
an Agave, with a cautionary note about the irritating properties of some.
Most of the military references advocate baking the agave bloom stalk, which
in most species is not only edible, but also quite tasty. Unfortunately,
those stalks are highly seasonal and uncommon, as many of these plants bloom
once and die. None of the manuals I have seen tell how to cut off the leaves
and bake the central bulbs of these plants in rock lined pits. While the
cooking takes upwards of forty-eight hours, it breaks down the caustic chemicals
and produces basketball sized portions of food that tastes much like sweet
potatoes. These are available year round, and one group of Apaches utilized
the plant this way to such an extent they were known to the Spanish as Mescaleros.
Some of this generalization in survival books is not only intentional, but
contemptuous. One civilian book is advertised as not having Latin names,
as that is “the last thing you want to read about when you are hungry.” It
might be, however, the first thing the doctor wants to know when you’ve poisoned
yourself. I include scientific nomenclature in my writing for those who wish
to pursue the subject deeper. After all, it is better to have a tediously
accurate identification than a vague drawing with a common name.
This brings us to the plant edibility test, of which there are two forms.
Because it would be impossible to teach a worldwide course on edible plants,
a test was developed to identify which could be safely eaten. The earlier
test started by taking a small portion of the plant you were considering
eating and cautiously applying it to the skin, then mouth, and finally eating
the sample at timed intervals. Because some plants like water hemlock could
be deadly with just a taste, the test had to be modified. Newer versions
of the test, such as found in the 1992 Army manual, start with discarding
plants because of seed or fruit color, leaf arrangements, particular odors,
milky sap, and several other factors not requiring skin or mouth contact.
The older test could get you killed, and there are still opponents to the
new method. The 1992 version of the Army text also differs from earlier editions
in that it specifically tells you to disregard all fungi as survival food.
Earlier manuals included a lot of information on identifying edible and poisonous
mushrooms. The edibility test, in any form, is not effective in identifying
edible mushrooms from toxic varieties. Even if you can identify edible types,
most mushrooms contain fewer calories than they take to digest, which do
not make them valuable as survival food. This is a positive example where
the military is leaving the cookie cutter and coming up with accurate information.
Perhaps the biggest information gap is in the area of snakebite. There are
very few doctors in total agreement with each other on treating snake evenomation,
and techniques vary from region to region. As a first responder in a region
that, with one exception, has snakes with hemotoxic venom (which attacks
the blood and tissue), I am allowed to apply a wide constriction band between
the bite and the heart, loose enough to allow arterial blood flow to the
limb but snug enough to slow down venal flow to the heart. I can use mechanical
suction on the bite, but I am not to incise the fang marks.
What I was taught in Australia, which has exclusively neurotoxic snakes whose
venom attacks the nervous system, was very different. It involved using two
elastic bandages, with no incision or suction, to localize the venom. This
method is proving quite successful there considering that of the ten deadliest
snakes in the world, Australia has – ten! Such treatment of a hemotoxic bite,
however, could cause much more extensive tissue damage. Because snakebites
in the U.S. result in few fatalities, one group of physicians in Arizona
is advocating no field treatment other than keeping the victim calm and rapid
transport to a hospital. Of course that is not always possible.
U.S. military publications, however, persist in the one-size-fits-all approach.
I do not know of anyone in the civilian medical field advocating incising
of the bite at this time. Yet the 1969 Air Force manual and the 1982 Aircrew
Survival pamphlet, the 1970 Army manual, and The U.S. Armed Forces Survival
Manual, all advocate incising the bite immediately.
The 1992 Army manual takes a more conventional approach at first, advising
not to incise the fang marks, but then gives instructions to do so if help
is more than one hour away. The same manual does differentiate between neurotoxic
and hemotoxic bites, but does not give separate treatments. The Military
Book Club’s Survival Manual gives separate treatment for hemotoxic and neurotoxic
bites, but advises immediate incision for pit vipers if antivenom is not
available within one hour. The SAS Survival Handbook gives a single method
for all bites similar to what I learned in Australia, which indicates Wiseman’s
extensive tropical experience with a preponderance of neurotoxic snakes.
To compound the confusion, some snakes, including the Mojave rattler found
where I live, have both hemotoxic and neurotoxic compounds in their venom!
It is no wonder there is so much disagreement.
Perhaps the most bizarre advice in the snake category, with a hint of vengeance
from the Book of Genesis, is attributed to the Green Berets in The Military
Book Club’s Survival Handbook. Some books, civilian and military, advise
to kill the snake for identification purposes if it can be done without further
risk. This book advises, however, for the victim to kill the snake, not only
for I.D., but because “it will make you feel better.” Then it says to lie
down and be calm.
It should be remembered that these manuals were intended to be backed up
with instruction, which can make all the difference in the world. Hands-on
experience is always preferable to armchair study. That is why they don’t
have correspondence schools for surgeons. These books are basically meant
to be memory joggers. I am sure that at any moment someone is going to point
out that since I have written a book on survival and teach courses, my motives
for bashing military manuals might have a personal interest. I will say this
about my book: If you read it like I came off of a holy mountain with it
written in stone and do not take the time to practice the skills or learn
the plants, you should use its pages for fire starting or latrine sanitation.
No survival book is a reliable substitute for experience and hands-on instruction.
Unlike the anonymous military manuals, I wrote, photographed, and illustrated
my book. Right or wrong, I own what I say and illustrate.
I am not saying that military manuals have no value. Many contain detailed
and accurate information in many subjects such as navigation and signaling.
The point is that much of the information is rehashed, outdated, unspecific,
and untried by those who still include it for print. In a survival situation
one piece of bad advice can wipe out all the good. Like everything else,
use good judgment and try the techniques before you need them for real. And
once again, my hat is off to the survival instructors of our armed forces.
I believe it is because of your expertise, and not the information in the
manuals, that death from wilderness related emergencies is rare among our
Alloway, David, Desert Survival Skills, University of Texas Press, Austin
Boswell, John, The U.S. Armed Forces Survival Manual, Rawson, Wade Publishers,
Darman, Peter, The Military Book Club’s Survival Manual, Brown Packaging
Department of the Air Force, Search and Rescue Survival, AFM 64-5, World
Publishing Corporation, Ashland, OR 1969
________, Aircrew Survival, AF Pamphlet 64-5, Washington, D.C. 1985
________, Sun, Sand & Survival, T.F. 1-4991, video in Desert Survival
Video, 4585 Murphy Canyon Rd. San Diego, CA 92123 n.d.
Department of the Army, Survival, FM 21-76, Washington D.C. 1970, updated
Department of the Navy, Desert Survival, 35953 DN, video in Desert Survival
Gun Video, 4585 Murphy Canyon Rd. San Diego, CA 92123 1979.
U.S. Marine Corps Desert Handbook, Paladin Press, Boulder, CO n.d.
Wiseman, John, The SAS Survival Handbook, Harvill, London 1994
David Alloway has taught survival for over twenty years in the U.S., Mexico,
and Australia. He is the author of Desert Survival Skills from University
of Texas Press and has his own company specializing in survival and wilderness
You can reach David Alloway by visiting his site at