We have all heard the common claim that in the outdoors we only need 4 things:
As much those things are vital, I think they are missing a basic concept of the outdoors experience – can you be naked and survive? What about exposure? Will you survive with any kind of food? Today I’m offering a different way of looking at it: there are only 2 thing you need to survive outdoors, or in life in general:
- Means to preserve our energy
Energy and how it relates to people Energy is a very commonly used word, but when it comes to the human body and being active outdoors, it relates to our ability to have enough fuel to make sure our body continues to function – pump oxygen to muscles, work the lungs, move blood, have brain functions etc. When we look at survival that way, our perception focuses on what we need on an immediate level and how to meet those needs. From this point we can look at different tools to make sure we are surviving well by accommodating our energy levels. But I’m jumping ahead. First, what is energy? Bringing a little physics to the conversation – energy is essentially movement of atoms, which can be transferred from one atom to another. This a very simplistic explanation, but for our conversation it is sufficient. There are many kinds of energies, but I want to focus on the kind of energy we need the most in our body – chemical energy. So we understand that energy is movement, but what does that have to do with us? The human body, like everything else we know about, needs energy to function. We use energy for 3 main processes in the body (mechanical/muscle powering, molecular transfer and biosynthesis), and they make sure our body functions to its maximum efficiency. The energy enters our body in the form of food and is then used for the processes mentioned previously. Chemical energy is a byproduct of breaking food cells into pure energy using oxygen. We measure energy in calorie units (the amount of heat needed to raise the temperature of a gram of water by one degree Celsius) and everything that holds energy has a caloric value – how many caloric units it offers. When we consume anything, it has a caloric value that we need, whether it is a nice juicy steak, a protein bar or a few sticks of celery – we break them down in our body to extract the calories from them. To sum things up: we eat food to extract energy to get our body to function – pretty simple. Now that we have covered what energy is, how it is measured and how we use it. But how does that relates to surviving outdoors? Energy and outdoor survival Now that we understand the basic functions of energy within the human body, it is time mention another use of energy in our body – heat waste. Heat waste is partially a function and partially a by-product. When we break down food (metabolism), we create heat. That heat is needed to keep our body at a regulated temperature of 36-37ºC for optimal function, and it is also “dumped” from our body when too much heat is generated. To keep us at the optimal temperature, our body does all it can to bring us back to that range using methods such as excess calorie burning (if we are too cold), or sweating (when we are too hot). These 2 mechanisms can be controlled to optimize our time outdoors, and essentially is the sole reason that the outdoor clothing industry exists. So how can we use that knowledge? Lets see how can we get too cold outside. Heat loss outdoors Heat loss has 2 big issues while being outdoors:
- When we are cold, we lose more energy (heat), and so we need to consume more calories to sustain ourselves (i.e., carry more food).
- Extreme heat loss will lead to a systematic shut down of the body, when it has no more energy sources (calories) to make sure the body functions as it should.
We lose heat in 4 ways when outside (or indoors):
- Evaporation – When the body gets too hot, sweat is used to cool it down. If the body is exposed to cold temperature or wind, evaporation can happen too quickly or in such a way that results in too much heat loss.
- Conduction – Being in contact with a cold item will cause the body to attempt temperature equilibrium – our body will try and warm up that object (rock, floor, wall etc)
- Radiation – Happens when in contact with low temperature. Our body and the environment are trying to reach an equal temperature, so our body “warms up” the air while losing heat.
- Convection – Blood vessels expand (due to exertion, trauma, stress etc) and increase the heat lost to the air by increase the exposed surface.
Dealing with energy loss Most of the ways we lose energy outdoors can be simply avoided by dressing the right way, making sure to avoid extreme exposure, eating enough and staying dry. We will cover many tricks to stay alive and comfortable outdoors, but as long as you minimize exposure and keep yourself protected, you will avoid significant energy loss outdoors. What do we need to survive outdoors? Now we can comfortably go back to my original statement and look at it this way – the only 2 things you need to survive outdoors are: Water – you must stay hydrated at all times (also good to prevent heat loss). Avoid energy loss – by whatever means you choose, this is a priority – and if you used energy, replenish it. Be it while sitting around a campfire, snuggling into a down sleeping bag, having warm clothes or pumping in enough energy (calories) to replenish the lost ones, saving your energy is the key to surviving outdoors. This perspective allows us to look at our outdoor gear and skills with a different light – you don’t really need a shelter for a 3 hour trail run, but you do need energy.