We debunk ten travel survival myths and reveal the true techniques

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Harriet Hall
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Last summer, professional surfer, Mick Fanning, was famously attacked by a shark during the World Surf League competition in Jeffreys Bay, South Africa.

The attack, which happened live on television, was avoided when Fanning shielded himself with his surfboard and punched the shark in the back.

The shark swam away and Mick escaped without a scratch but the incident has prompted a flurry of questions about the right way to react in such an unfortunate situation – with many saying that, although Mick’s actions were successful, punching a shark in the back is not, in fact, the best method to adopt.

We consulted survival expert, Jonathan Thompson, co-author of Lonely Planet's book, How to Survive Anything, who helped us debunk the myths of survival techniques.


Myth: Suck the venom out as quickly as possible and then spit it out.

Truth: Sucking the venom out is not in fact the best thing to do. The reason for this is when you get to hospital the doctors need to find the correct anti-venom. Most snake bite deaths are the result of an incorrect anti venom. Slowly back away from the snake (for different species, there are different rules on whether or not to freeze or run, but you've been bitten now so try not to get bitten again), and remain calm - rushing around in panic will only cause the venom to spread. Keep the bite below your chest level as this makes it harder for the venom to reach your heart and kill you. Do not eat or drink anything. 

Myth: Tie a tourniquet around the area.

Truth: Don’t use an elastic band for pressure unless you’re certain what type of snake it is. Remove any jewellery or watches in anticipation of swelling. And get yourself to hospital within 10-30 minutes.


Myth: Stay away from tall buildings and cars.

Truth: This is actually the safest place you could be. Being close to cars (but not inside one) is ideal as it will channel the energy from a lightning bolt into the ground. This is known as the Faraday Cage. Avoid open spaces and abandon any umbrellas or metal poles. A lone tree is dangerous, but a group of trees could provide you with shelter. Do not phone for help - your mobile phone conducts electricity and count for most shocks during electric storms.

Try to learn the 'flash-bang' rule: every five second between a flash of lightning and the crash of thunder represents one mile between you and the lightning. If it gets closer, assume the lightning position - crouch with your feet close together in a standing foetal position - on top of anything that could provide insulation between you and the ground, such as a bag or a coat. Stay here until the lightning starts to move further away.


Myth: Jump just before the lift lands, to lessen the impact.

Truth: Jumping is futile. The reduction will be so small that it will be insignificant and you will probably smack your head on the ceiling and knock yourself out: not ideal. Do not spread out on the floor, either. If you're lying down your brain will be moving at the same speed as the lift. You want to increase the distance over which your brain can decelerate.

To to this, climb onto any bags you may have. Stack up suitcases and wrap your head in a coat or jumper to protect it from falling debris. If the lift is crowded, brace yourself for the moment of impact by standing with a slight bend in your knees. This will allow your legs to crumple and absorb the impact, protecting your organs. If there are handrails, use them to help secure yourself and spread your weight as much as possible.


Myth: Wee on the sting.

Truth: Do not urinate on the sting, or ask any of your friends to urinate on it. Although we all learned from Friends that weeing on a jellyfish sting will stop it hurting, urine does not actually have the correct chemical make-up to numb a jellyfish sting. In fact, it could actually make the situation worse if it reacts badly to the cells that are injecting venom into your skin.

Instead, gently and slowly pour sea water over the sting. This will slightly reduce the pain and wash out any remaining tentacles that are stuck in your skin. You should also look closely for these and try to pull any out using tweezers. If you leave them in, the sting will get worse. When you're back on dry land, spread shaving cream over the sting. It helps prevent the spread of toxins. The apply an ice pack to reduce inflammation and numb what remaining nerves you have. 


Myth:  Curl up into a small ball to protect yourself. 

Truth: If there's no time to get out of the way, the key is actually to make your body as big as possible and move as if you're swimming with the avalanche. The idea here is to try and make sure your body rises to the surface. Jonathan says: "think about when you shake a can of mixed nuts and the larger Brazil nuts rise to the top - you want to become an object that will come to the surface rather than sinking to the bottom."

Try to put a hand or arm in front of your face before you full stop. This will create an air pocket that allows you to breathe. Do not struggle or try to dig yourself out of the snow - avalanche snow packs tight light cement. Try to remain calm, breathe deeply and preserve energy until someone finds you. 


Myth: Tip-toe around and be as small as possible to avoid tripping any mines.

Truth: Lie down on your stomach and remain as flat as possible. This spreads your weight and will protect you from blasts of mines going off nearby. It will also give you the best view of trips - which can be more difficult to spot from above. Keep your elbows in and gradually drag your body forwards. Focus on inching slowly onward and once you've escaped the minefield, help others evacuate by following the route you took.


Myth: Swim against the current as quickly as you can. Wave and splash around to get someone's attention, then swim towards the shore.

Truth: A rip-current can travel at around five miles per hour, which is much faster than you can swim. The key here is to relax and go with the flow. Tread water and let the current pull you away from the shore - this will help you preserve your energy. Once the current eases off, start to swim parallel to the shore - rip currents are narrow channels and you will be more likely to leave if you move alongside it.


Myth: Cover your head and try to navigate your way using the sun.

Truth: Cover any exposed skin. You should create a makeshift sun cream using mud or ground-up roots - anything that creates a barrier between you and the sun's rays. The best way to keep cool is using the evaporate cooling technique - wet some fabric and wrap it around your neck rather than your head. This way it has direct contact with your jugular blood flow.

To find water, look at where the lowest point is, or look for converging animal tracks which might sign-post nearby water. Try to notice if the vegetation changes from dry scrub to a deeper green. Underneath the greener plants will be water stores. Start digging. At night, the desert gets very cold. Create a barrier between yourself and the ground when you sleep. This will allow you to keep as warm as possible.


Myth: Keep the engine running to keep you warm and melt the surrounding snow.

Truth: This is not the best thing to do. To stay warm what you need to do is remain in the car and cut up (or tear apart) your car seats. Although catching a chill might seem preferable to slicing into your beautiful leather interior, stuffing the torn foam into your clothing will help to insulate you and keep you from freezing to death. If you've got any bin liners, pop them on too - they will help to minimise moisture transfer.

Don't forget to keep hydrated. Melt the snow by adding it to any water you might already have and drink it slowly.


Myth: Punch the shark in the nose or back.

Truth: This worked for Mick Fanning, but  it's not advisable. The nose is very close to the shark’s teeth, and aiming for it puts your fist at risk. Also, punching the shark in the nose or back will merely shock it. The best thing to do is to aim for the gills or eyes – these are the shark’s Achilles' heel and will make them retreat.

Myth: Act dead.

Truth: This is the worst possible thing you could do when it comes to a shark attack. You may as well spread yourself across a plate and hand the shark a set of cutlery (if it had opposable thumbs). The answer here is to splash about and make as much noise as possible. This will not scare the shark away (who are we kidding, sharks fear no one) but it might make it cut its losses and leave you alone.

If you find yourself in a sticky situation with access to wifi, you can learn how to save yourself following Jonathan's tips at

Words: Harriet Hall / Jonathan Thompson

Images: Lonely Planet, Rex Features

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Harriet Hall

Harriet Hall is a former Stylist contributor.