Survival consultant Megan Hine, 31, gives Stylist a crash course in survival should you find yourself lost in the wilderness
"I never heard the lion approach – they’re notoriously soft-footed when they’re stalking prey. But I was woken by a jolt of adrenaline so strong that my own heartbeat roared in my ears like white noise. Sleeping under the stars as part of a survival trip in Namibia, I was used to being woken unexpectedly and instantly checked for my companion. As I lifted my head, dazed, to look for what had sent my fight-or-flight sense into overdrive, there, just beyond the halo of our campfire, 50 metres from where we were curled up asleep, was a huge male lion. For a second, I froze.
I’m lucky enough to be hired by TV companies and private clients as an expedition guide, often single-handedly sourcing food, water and shelter for a team of people who have no real knowledge of the environment in some of the most inhospitable places on earth. On this occasion, while filming a Swiss survival show, I had been driven to the arid Brandberg Mountain on the north-western edge of the Namib Desert and had been left to survive on whatever food or water I could find for myself and one other contestant. Every night, the camera crew would go to a nearby base camp, leaving us to sleep out in the open. But this night, I shifted over and woke him, pointing to the lion as two more appeared out of the darkness and began to pace around us. We moved so that we were sitting back to back.
It is the only time that I’ve ever been prey to another animal and it felt as if I was on autopilot, looking down on the scene from above. Fighting would have been futile given their size and power – in the firelight I could see their muscles rippling as they paced, but I clutched my knife and thought, ‘If I’m going to die, I’ll die fighting.’ At least this helped to keep panic at bay.
Ultimately it was fire that saved us. The day before, despite the fact that we were both exhausted and hungry after living off small lizards for a month, I had insisted that we collect a huge pile of dry bush and sticks, to keep the fire burning. I’d come to learn over the years that fires burn through supplies much quicker than you’d expect so it’s best to stockpile. As well as heat, a fire offers a degree of safety because wild animals have an innate fear of it.
And that night, every time the fire got low we’d reach over and stoke it with more dry branches and it kept the lions back. For two tense, silent hours I sat watching them as they hungrily stalked around until finally the sun started to come up and they sloped away. My heart was pounding, I was relieved, exhilarated and completely knackered.
The Call of the Wild
The first rule of survival is learning to control your emotions. It’s not easy but in every dire situation that I’ve found myself in – from the lions in Namibia to the time I was hunted by armed opium growers through dense jungle in Thailand, the thing that kept me alive was a clear head.
As any survival expert will tell you, a person can live for three weeks without food, three days without water and three minutes without air, but three seconds of blind panic can kill you. Humans have four basic needs which must be fulfilled if you find yourself in a wilderness situation: food, water, shelter and
fire. Personally, I don’t remember learning some of the survival basics – by the age of six I had already scaled Snowdon, Wales’s highest mountain, with my dad so I’ve always had a very outdoorsy lifestyle. For instance, I feel like the fact you shouldn’t eat anything that you don’t recognise because it’s all too easy to poison yourself is a piece of common sense I was born with, though I know that’s not true. I must have picked it up from my parents or after joining the army cadets at school.
At university I did an outdoor education degree, which prepares you to instruct things like mountaineering, canoeing or rock climbing. Though I loved my course, around this time I began to feel like my life was a jigsaw with a piece missing. I was constantly outdoors – ice climbing in Scotland, or hill walking in Wales, but all my energies were focused on keeping myself safe from the elements and to a certain extent I was keeping myself separated from the world around me. I knew almost nothing about how I could actually live and survive within the natural landscape. I went to a talk about bushcraft – the art of surviving in the wilderness – towards the end of my degree and had a moment of revelation. It felt like this way of living was an answer to a question that I hadn’t even realised I was asking: how do I fit into the natural world?
I applied for an apprenticeship with a bushcraft company and spent the six months after leaving university living in a leaf shelter that I’d built for myself in the Lake District National Park. I was tutored in everything from catching fish with my bare hands, to starting a fire without matches (both take a lot of patience). I only ate what I could catch and I drank from, and washed in, a nearby lake. I also ran weekly survival courses for tourists who would come to experience this completely stripped-back way of life. I made an excellent apprentice because I loved it so much.
The shelter I’d built was rudimentary – just some forked supporting beams covered in sticks and haphazardly (but thickly) piled beech leaves. In damp climates like the UK, if you’re building a shelter it’s best to use a depth of leaf coverage that is at least fingertip to elbow. Beech leaves are particularly great because they take a long time to decompose and as they do, they give off heat. My little shelter was dark, warm and dry and I felt incredibly contented waking up every day with the sunrise. It wasn’t until I got back to civilisation at the beginning of winter that I realised just how bad I smelled.
Since that induction into wilderness survival I’ve been in situations where I thought I would die so many times that I’ve lost count. For instance, when I was 24, I was responsible for the lives of three other people – two were being filmed for a survival show, plus a cameraman – when I stumbled across an opium farm in the Thai jungle. I was in the lead, with my head down, looking for food – we’d been out there for over a month, living off tree ants and small frogs and were all weak with hunger and exhaustion, when the dense jungle opened in front of me onto a field of blood-red poppies. For a second nothing happened – the poppies bobbed in the breeze and I was too stunned to move. Then I heard shouts. Three men with machine guns were running towards us from different points in the field. These men would have been shot on sight if found by police, so it was in their interest to keep their location secret. I remember the next part almost as if it happened to someone else: I made the others get down and we crawled along the edge of the field and back into the jungle where we broke into a run.
The whole time my mind was in overdrive, running through scenarios – what to do if someone sprained an ankle, if someone was shot, if we were caught – and planning for the next 100 metres. The jungle is a bad place to run; everything is out to kill you – from poisonous snakes, to overgrown vines. It is also full of ridges – small, steep hills and valleys, and if you’re not careful you can spend whole days walking up and downhill without actually getting very far. I aimed for the top of the next steep ridge and we ran along it, never stopping to look back. If you’re ever being chased, high ground will make it easier to spot those who are chasing you. I was sometimes physically dragging one or another of the people I was guiding, who after so long with so little food were too weak to keep going. After an hour or so, we could no longer hear the gunmen crashing through the trees at our backs. Still we kept running. We were lucky because they must not have known the area well. If they were locals and this was their back garden, I doubt I would be here today. That night we made camp and reflected: I was dirty, hungry and very far from home. But I was alive. It was a wonderful feeling.
Facing the Fear
The most inhospitable place I’ve been is the Arctic Circle. I’ve been there alone on a number of occasions over the years, doing survival training exercises to hone my skills in new environments. I took no supplies, and was ice fishing for food. It’s always hit and miss, so I’d end up spending hours out on the ice in the howling wind and have no luck. You can burn around 3,000 calories a day just standing still in such a cold place, so my whole time was taken up with sourcing food. Mentally, it was the hardest place to stay positive because in the semi-dark of winter – when the temperatures fell to around -60°C – the landscape is consistently bleak and I was constantly hungry. At least in somewhere like the Himalayas, even if it’s hot and uncomfortable, there’s beauty and life all around you, there are glorious sunrises to be thankful for, but the Arctic is a different beast. I’ve gone without a tent, so had to create shovel-ups – piles of snow that I burrowed into, like a makeshift igloo for warmth – or when I was really weak, snow graves which were just the length of my body. Snow is a good insulator if you’re ever in need of shelter – compressed, fresh snow traps air, meaning it doesn’t conduct heat well; it traps your body heat and can be quite cosy.
Even after short trips I always come back from the Arctic underweight and, strangely, craving cheese (my body is desperate for the fat). I always tell people who have been in survival conditions to allow their body to adapt back to eating rich foods slowly but I can’t do this myself. I’ll gorge on whatever I can and immediately regret it as I’ll have the worst stomach cramps.
Emotionally, irrespective of how bad a situation seems, I don’t get upset at the time, so I don’t cry and I’ve learned not to panic; people’s lives are often at risk so in the moment I need to be in control, but I might be affected a few days later when I’ve had time to reflect. I’ll let myself cry or get angry and then let the emotion go – I’d be useless at my job if I was carrying around years of pent-up fear or sorrow.
Early in my career, for instance, I was hired to guide a film crew in the jungle in Thailand. We started with a rafting trip to get to our base camp. According to local guides, it would take three hours, a time frame I took on face value, though I’d come to regret it. Five hours later it dawned on me that we were nowhere near the camp and that actually, none of the guides had ever rafted this part of the river before. There were no beaches to stop at and between the eight of us on the crew, all rowing in the sweltering heat, we’d quickly run out of drinkable water. The river was filled with bloated dead cows which had been swept down from a village upstream after a flood, so drinking without purifying it could have made us seriously ill.
If we could have stopped, I would have built a fire to boil the water but we were stuck on the raft. The rest of the crew knew nothing about survival, rafting or the area. They were depending on me to guide them to safety. I didn’t show it but I was terrified that something would happen to me, leaving them to fend for themselves. I could have easily succumbed to this panic but I forced myself to concentrate on small goals – to paddle to the next tree, or to make it around the bend. It took 20 hours but we finally found the camp. We were severely dehydrated and I think some of the others were in shock, fear can do that to you, but at least we were safe. I cried when we made it, not in front of the crew, but when I was alone and the reality of how badly it could have turned out sunk in.
Life on the Edge
I spend 11 months of each year either on expeditions or on training trips. I’m away so much that I’ve recently sold my house in the Alps. Now, if I’m back in the UK seeing family – I’m one of four siblings – I live out of the back of an old van, or stay with my parents. I suppose to some people this way of life might not seem worth the danger or discomfort; I’ve broken bones and torn ligaments, I’ve dislocated my knee in a mountain boarding accident, and in 2007 nearly died after contracting Lyme disease from a tick bite. But I can’t imagine a way of life that is more exciting or fulfilling; or one that lets you experience every emotion and environment so viscerally. You might call it an addiction; after spending so much of my life pushing myself to my mental and physical limits I now thrive on high-adrenaline situations.
This does have its downsides; I find it hard to transition back into ‘normal’ life. When I return from a trip I have a couple of days where I enjoy being in a familiar environment surrounded by unlimited food and water on tap but I quickly become restless. And the stresses of everyday life often seem so mundane in comparison to the myriad dangers that I’ve just endured. I’ve never had a career goal beyond experiencing as much as possible and I’m lucky that my partner Stani is also a survival expert, so we often work together on expeditions. Home is where he is, whether that is under the stars in Africa or living in a snow hole in the Arctic.
Ultimately, preparation is the key to survival. It’s why, even when I’m not on an expedition I’m constantly training in places like the Alps. It worries me to think that if humanity ever encountered a situation where our infrastructures failed, there would be so few of us who could find food, shelter and purify water without Google. Humans might be smart, but they’re also fragile. And as I’ve learned first-hand, take away someone’s capacity to start a fire and they might quickly become prey to bigger hunters.”
Find out more at meganhine.com
Survival: the basics
Megan’s essential tips for staying alive if you find yourself lost in the wild
Make a plan
“The first 24-36 hours of a survival situation are the hours in which you will have the most energy to find resources such as food, water and shelter. Use this energy wisely. Have a clear objective: a point to get to or a way to raise an alarm. These are also the hours that any search and rescue will be most active: establish a way to make yourself visible from the air – if it’s safe, with a fire or writing a large sign in sand, while gathering as much food and water as possible.”
“In the wilderness, techniques involving fire by friction may be the only option. Rub a stick against a soft-wood base with enough friction and it will create enough heat to ignite dry materials – leaves, bark, grass. To check whether the base-wood is soft enough, run your fingernail down it, if it leaves an indentation, it is soft wood.”
“Most bacteria and viruses are rendered harmless at 69°C so boiling water is an almost fail-safe method of making water drinkable; 69°C is about the temperature you start seeing steam rising. A rolling boil, when you’ve reached around 100°C, is a good visual indicator to know the water will be safe to drink. Once it has hit boiling it can be taken off the heat and left to cool down. At higher altitudes water boils at lower temperatures due to pressure. On the summit of Everest water boils at 72°C therefore you should be able to make water safe at any altitude with this method.”
“Try not to expend energy on building a shelter unless you plan on staying there for a long time. Use materials found in the location – forked logs are useful for structure, but where possible use natural shelters such as depressions in the ground, overhanging trees or caves.”
Photography: Mark Harrison / As told to: Alexandra Jones