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Survival Guide: 7 Ways to Save Your Own Life

Would you know what to do when faced with a crisis? Here are strategies that could help you come out smiling (or, at the very least, breathing)

En español l With age comes wisdom, but even those of us who've "seen it all" can get blindsided by the unexpected. Of course, no one wants bad things to happen. But when they do — coming fast, hard and without prejudice — what you know and how you respond will determine just how badly a bad thing will turn out.

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"Surprise is our Achilles' heel," says Guy H. Haskell, a 30-year EMS veteran and executive director of Emergency Medical and Safety Services Consultants in Bloomington, Indiana. "Extreme situations always sound crazy — until you're in one. That's when panic sets in." And being older may not give you a leg up. One University of Iowa study found, for example, that only one in four people 50 and up has an emergency plan in place for natural disasters.

No worries here, though. We've cooked up seven nasty scenarios and consulted with the experts to give you the tools you need to be your own first responder. As the old saying goes, "Better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it."

Here's hoping you never need anything you're about to read.

save your life car crash bridge water drowning submerged car

A car escape tool could be your lifesaver if your car is sinking in water. — Brent Humphreys

1. Your car is sinking in a large body of water 

Yes, people do accidentally drive off bridges — and yes, flash floods do happen in a flash (note Colorado in September 2013). This is what to do.

Work before you sink. "As a car sinks, outside pressure against the windows and doors will only build," says Haskell. If you submerge, it will be almost impossible to open the doors. Electric windows may or may not work because of short circuits. So try to open a door or window before the car is covered. Commonsense point: This will make a lot of water enter the car. Move fast to get out.

In a flash flood, use your car. Waters in flash floods are generally fast-moving and may not be as deep as, say, a lake. If water slams your car enough that you start moving, stay in the car, Haskell says: "Your car is now your boat. It's your protection from strong currents, mud, debris and anything you might slam into along the way." In shallower currents, odds are your car will bump against something that will stop it. That's your chance to try to climb onto the roof to escape or to signal for help. Use the horn, swing a shirt — do anything to attract attention.

Be prepared. Buy a car escape tool that is part hammer (to shatter the window) and part blade (to slice a jammed seat belt). Haskell recommends a key-chain version, so that it's easily accessible. "If it's hanging from the ignition, it's right there," he says. You can find various brands at hardware stores and online retailers for about $10.

Survival Tip: A car escape tool (part blade, part hammer) can cut a jammed seat belt.

Next page: What to do if you meet a large animal in a foul mood. »

wild animal  survival skills great outdoors bear attack large animal attack wild

If face to face with an animal, make sure to never turn your back. — Brent Humphreys

2. You meet a large animal in a foul mood

"Don't run," says Tony Nester, director of the Ancient Pathways survival school in Flagstaff, Arizona. "You could trigger a chase response in an animal that had no plans to attack you."

What's critical is to understand the basic brain of the animal — dog, bear, what have you. Even if it's eyeballing you as a potential meal, it prefers prey that won't put up a fight. Make sure the animal knows it'll have to work for its supper: Spread your arms, shout and make yourself look as large and threatening as possible. As you put on this show, retreat slowly, being sure never to turn your back to the animal. If a child is with you, he or she may be the more appetizing prey (smaller, weaker), so keep yourself between the animal and the child.

A complicating factor. You could be facing an animal that isn't hungry but is simply guarding its territory. The plan is the same, says Nester. The animal, however, will be more aggressive in this case. If all else fails and the animal attacks, use whatever you can — a stick, your fists — to fight back, concentrating on the animal's snout.

3. In triple-digit temperatures, your car dies while driving in a remote area

"Be smart with your sweat," says survival-school director Nester. "Contrary to what people think, a person can survive up to 48 hours in a hot climate without water. The secret is limiting evaporation." Think about how cowboys and Bedouins dress. Shorts? Tank tops? No, they cover as much skin as possible — including their heads — with clothing. This helps hold in body moisture. Some other tricks Nester teaches his desert-survival students:

  • Prepare seriously. If you know you'll be traveling in harsh conditions, stock 2 gallons of water per person, per day, along with some salty snacks, to replace the salt you lose during sweating. Throw a couple of big golf umbrellas in the trunk for instant shade. If hiking, don't travel alone, and let someone know where you're going and for how long.
  • Check your tires. Before you leave, make sure your tires are properly inflated. "In hot climates the biggest cause of vehicle breakdowns is tire pressure," notes Nester. "If the air is 100 degrees, the pavement can be between 180 and 200 degrees. Blowouts are common."
  • Stay with your vehicle. You may be tempted to walk for help. Don't, says Nester: "Your car is a rolling survival kit. It's easier to see a car than a person. A car provides shade and shelter. And it has lights and a horn for signaling." In the high heat of the day, keep the doors open for ventilation, and lift the hood so anyone who sees you knows there's a problem.
  • Get off the ground. That's the 180- to 200-degree ground, remember? Nester suggests sitting on one of the tailgating chairs you've stocked or pulling out the seats in your SUV.

Next page: Your plane is making an emergency landing. »

airplane crash survival position save your life

Passengers sitting behind the wings of an airplane have a better survival rate in case of an emergency landing. — Brent Humphreys

4. The pilot announces that your plane must make an emergency landing

The plan. Plane crashes are any traveler's deepest dread, because the general assumption is "Plane goes down, everyone dies." Unfortunately, this does sometimes happen, but it's not always the case.

Consider Flight 1549, piloted by Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, which landed safely on the Hudson River in 2009, with all passengers and crew escaping alive. "For those who think there's no reason to look at the safety briefing card or listen to the safety demonstration because you think we're all going to perish anyway — it's simply not true," Sullenberger says. "Even major crashes are survivable." Here's what you need to know before you board.

Sit in the back. In 2007, Popular Mechanics published an analysis of 36 years' worth of airline seating charts and 20 accidents, back to 1971. The numbers were decisive. Passengers sitting behind the wings had a 69 percent survival rate in an accident. Folks sitting over or in front of the wings had a 56 percent rate (first class was lowest, at 49 percent).

Identify the nearest emergency exit. "Count the number of rows ahead and behind you to the nearest exit," Sullenberger says. "You may have to find it in a darkened or smoke-filled cabin."

Dress for tough traveling. "Imagine running away from a burning plane in a muddy field in high heels, clogs or flip-flops," says Cynthia Corbett, a Federal Aviation Administration human-factors specialist. Long pants, long sleeves and athletic shoes give you the best mobility.

Stow your carry-on. Just not in the overhead bin, says Corbett. Putting your carry-on under the seat in front of you can protect your legs. Also, rest your forehead against the seat you're facing and let your arms hang loosely. This way your head doesn't have far to travel forward, lessening any impact.

Listen closely. Flight attendants will give you direct, no-b.s. instructions in any emergency. Follow them, Corbett says. Oh, and enjoy your flight!

5. While alone, you're overcome with a wave of nausea and light-headedness

Your mind is no doubt racing — is this a heart attack? Stroke? Vertigo? The fact is, there's no way to know, says Travis Stork, an emergency-room physician and cohost of the TV show The Doctors. "Forget self-diagnosis, and react to the immediate situation," he says. "If you think you might black out, sit or lie down so you don't fall and hurt yourself further if you faint." Next:

Call 911. Then try to unlock your front door so anyone coming for you doesn't have to break it down. If you feel yourself fading, get down on the floor and call out for help if you can.

If this happens while you're driving, calmly pull over to the shoulder of the road, put on your flashers and call 911. Do not get out of the car, as you might fall into the road.

Emergency responders will often place you in what they call the recovery position — designed to protect you from injury during loss of consciousness. Arrange yourself in this position by lying on your side, with your bottom arm extended out from your body. Bend your top arm 90 degrees, and drape your top wrist over your bottom elbow. Drape your top leg over your bottom one. Organizing your limbs like this will prevent your body from rolling into another position.

For extra protection, Stork recommends always keeping a cellphone handy, especially if you have a condition such as heart disease.

Survival Tip: If you feel like you might pass out, lie down on the ground and place yourself in the "recovery position."

Next page: You're driving and realize you're going to hit something. »

how to save your life driving car deer road crash

If a large animal is in your path, you may want to hit the accelerator. — Brent Humphreys

6. You're driving and suddenly realize you're going to hit something or are about to be hit

The plan. Your action depends on how well you've developed certain road skills, says Jeff Payne, a former professional race-car driver and the CEO of the nonprofit driver-training firm Driver's Edge in Las Vegas. The big three targets you'll most likely meet on the road are other vehicles, debris (anything from tire shreds to a refrigerator falling off a truck) and wildlife. Call upon the following road rules and you'll either avoid these targets or minimize the damage.

Use your "driver ESP." Whenever you get behind the wheel, be aware of where cars are around you and what your immediate options are if something bad happens. For example: The car in front of you slams on the brakes. "If you know you have room on the right, you may be able to change lanes, or at least maneuver to minimize the impact," Payne says. The real point: If your brain is engaged in predicting what every driver around you will do, your brain is engaged, period. You'll never be a distracted driver.

Embrace smooth and cool. Our first instinct when something appears in front of us is to hit the brakes and swerve. Bad idea. "No matter the situation, drive as if you have a cup of water on the dashboard and don't want to spill a drop," says Payne. "Even if that's not true, having that mind-set will eliminate sudden moves that could cause you to overcorrect, lose control and make the situation worse."

Minimize the impact. If you can't avoid impact, alter it. For example, if you're the only one in the car, try to angle it so the front passenger side takes the hit. If you're in the car with a loved one, angle it so your side takes the hit.

Focus on the main event. It's not easy, but if an object appears in your lane, register it as danger, but don't fixate on it. "Your eyes act as your guide," says Payne. "If a crate falls off a truck in front of you and you stare at the crate, you'll hit the crate. Look for a safe route, and that's where the car will go."

Hit the gas (maybe). There is only one time when you'll want to accelerate before hitting something: When a large animal is in your path. Before you cry out in protest, think about it this way: If you slam on the brakes before hitting, say, a deer, the front end of your car will dip. This makes it more likely that the animal will fly up over your hood, come through your windshield and hit you right back. Speeding up before impact will make the front end rise and possibly confine Bambi to the bumper. "If you can, aim for its rear end," advises Payne. "If an animal bolts, it never bolts backward. You might just miss it."

7. Someone is pointing a gun at you

If it's a robbery, "give up the goods immediately," says Steve Kardian, director of NY Defend University and a former police detective. "Don't challenge them. Treat it like a business deal." Unless you believe you're about to be shot, Kardian doesn't advise going for the gun. Instead, "fake an illness, maybe like you're going to throw up or have a heart attack. Then bolt."

If you hear shots, beware denial. "Believe your eyes and ears," says Kardian. Those shots probably are from a gun, rather than a car that's backfiring. If you've only heard the noise but haven't seen the shooter, you still have time to run in the opposite direction. If you see the shooter and, worse, he or she sees you, put something large between the two of you — a car, a wall, anything that might stop a large-caliber bullet. The shooter may focus on more convenient targets. If you must run and you're in the line of fire, run away in a zigzag pattern. "Even if the shooter has had some formal firearm training, it's hard to draw a bead on an unpredictable target," says Kardian.

Be proactive. Problem-solve a worst-case scenario in your head. Say you know you'll have to walk to your car in the dark. What's your plan? Your escape route? "Visualizing like this opens a file in your brain, almost as if you've lived it," Kardian says. "You'll react much better during the real thing."

Mike Zimmerman tries not to get himself into any sticky situations. But just in case, his daily workouts involve lots of running in the opposite direction.

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