Survivor: Arizona

Written by Keridwen Cornelius Category: Valley News Issue: March 2012

Peter Bigfoot’s mouth was as leathery as his home-cobbled cowhide shoes. The mercury on his thermometer surpassed the maximum 135 degrees and strained to break through its glass ceiling. With no water, he’d walked all day in the desert north of Phoenix from New River toward Four Peaks, carefully navigating with compass and topographical map to find a waterhole the size of a kitchen table. “Can you find it?” he asks rhetorically. “If you can, you’ll live. If you can’t, you’ll die.”

He found it.

He wasn’t the first. A bloated, dead cow lay in the slurry, secreting a tar-black slick of decomposing matter that smeared the surface like an oil spill. So Bigfoot decided it would be “a really nice thing” if he spruced it up. He scooped the sludge off the top with a flat stone, then piled rocks around the hole so other thirsty animals wouldn’t meet a similar demise. This was a bad idea. In a dehydration situation, the saying goes, “Ration sweat, not water.”

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He rested under the bony shade of a skeletal mesquite. Stood up. Then came to, face in the dirt, God knows how long later. He stood up again. And awoke later with another mouthful of dirt. “Oh, I get it,” he thought. “My body’s trying to die of dehydration.”

So he sat down and meditated, achieving an airy bliss that only brink-of-death lightheadedness can bring, and his attitude shifted. He walked over to the hole, scooped up the water, poured it through a mosquito net filled with plants to filter out the chunks of rotting flesh, and boiled it with handfuls of horehound. Then, he says, “I must have drank three gallons of it.”

The next morning, he hiked two miles to Fig Spring, an old well covered with “a thick crust of dead animals,” he recalls. “So then I drank three or four gallons of that.” He woke up the next day with a raging case of hepatitis.

“I’m a little different,” Bigfoot explains. “Most people, they’re survival experts on ‘drop ’em off some place and see how fast they can get home.’ I’ve always been one of those people that [thinks], drop me off some place and see how long I can stay out there.”

Most of us wouldn’t voluntarily become guinea pigs for desert survival skills. We’d only find ourselves in Bigfoot’s predicament after uttering what survival expert Tony Nester considers three of the most dangerous words in the English language: “I am just.” As in, ‘I’m just gonna go out for a little hike. No need to bring much water or tell anyone where I’m going.’ Or ‘I’m just gonna see what’s on the other side of that ridge.’ Another semantic landmine? “Shortcut.”

Surrounded by urban sprawl streaked with preserves that give us only a passing acquaintance with the desert, Phoenicians tend to both underestimate its dangers and undervalue its gifts. Our primitive survival skills are buried deep under the strata of civilization. If we were lost in a wasteland with no water, or bitten by a rattler, or stranded in snow, most of us wouldn’t know what to do or how to survive. It doesn’t have to be that way.

“When you read about someone getting caught in a survival situation, there are usually two factors involved,” says Tony Nester, director of Flagstaff-based Ancient Pathways, who teaches desert survival to the public and military. “They don’t tell anybody where they’re going, and they don’t bring any gear.”
Learn from their mistakes:
Tell someone where you’re going. Be specific: ‘I’m going hiking in Lost Dutchman State Park, I’m parking near Siphon Draw trailhead, and I’ll be back at 6:00. If I’m not back by 8:00, call the authorities.’

Bring the right gear. Whether you’re going on a two-hour traipse or trekking a day in the wilderness, Nester says, “bring gear to deal with the Big Five: water, fire, shelter, signaling and first aid. Those are your five physical priorities in a moderate survival situation where you might be lost for a day or two.”

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For day-trips or longer excursions, Nester carries the following:

Water bottles: Nester usually hauls two to six quarts of water in his pack. Think that’s a lot? In his vehicle, he stashes anywhere from 10 to 50 gallons of water.

Electrolytes: Chugging water but not replacing your sodium and potassium can be just as deadly as heat stroke (read: excessive brain swelling). To keep hyponatremia at bay, Nester carries electrolyte replacement packets. Electrolyte-enhanced water such as SmartWater does not contain sodium and will not prevent hyponatremia.

Water purification: Instead of bulky water filters, Nester recommends water purification drops or household bleach to decontaminate potentially giardia-, meningitis- and hepatitis-infested water.

Fire starters: Nester advises triple-preparation: stormproof matches, a spark rod and a lighter. His favorite? The spark rod, which has about 500 fires in it and works when wet. Plus, he says, “[Striking it] is a gross motor skill, which is what you are going to be reduced to when you’re hypothermic.” Matches, on the other hand, are difficult to strike when you’re hypothermically ham-fisted, and matchboxes contain only about 25 stormproof matches with a shelf-life of about two years. Cigarette lighters tend to conk out above 10,000 feet.

Tinder: Nester’s pyro-centric secret weapon? Petroleum jelly-smeared cotton balls. He massages about a teaspoon of Vaseline into each cotton ball, then stuffs them into a cylindrical plastic matchbox. These babies ignite even in damp or snowy conditions.

Clothing: “Clothing’s your first shelter,” Nester says. Whether it’s summer or winter, don’t neglect your noggin’. Nester’s never without a hat and a shemagh – a large scarf popular with soldiers deployed to the Middle East. You can wrap the shemagh around you to keep off sun, sand or cold; dunk it in water and drape it around you to make a mini swamp cooler; use it as a filter in those cowpie-in-the-waterhole situations; or treat it as fire fuel.

And though desert-dwellers consider heat our biggest bugbear, Nester warns: “The No. 1 killer of people in the outdoors the world over is hypothermia, and the majority of these cases happen in 50-degree weather. So if you’re stuck out here at night and you’re not wearing the proper clothing and you get wet, you could be in a hypothermia situation.” When the mercury drops, avoid wearing 100 percent cotton, which can plunge people into hypothermia in less than 90 minutes if it’s damp and breezy, Nester says. Instead, opt for fleece, silk or wool – and layer to help keep your body dry.

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Emergency blankets: Compacted into a sandwich-sized package, “heatsheets” can keep you warm on cold nights, and the silver side makes a stellar signaler. Nester likes Adventure Medical Kits ($4.50); some other brands turn to tinsel after six months.

Tarp and rope or tent. Practice setting it up beforehand.

Signaling Mirror: Like a compact mirror but with a sighting device, these mirrors allow you to aim a beam of light at the search and rescue volunteer or airplane looking for you.

Whistle: Handy when there’s no sun, or if you’re injured and can’t use your arms. Nester says his children always go hiking with a signaling mirror, a whistle, an emergency blanket, water and a snack. “I tell parents, ‘Always make sure your kids have the means of staying warm and of signaling,’” he says. “Just [that] can be a life-saver. And telling them to stay put if they get lost and blow the whistle if they hear scary noises at night.”

Cell phone: Even if you don’t have bars, this can be a life-saver (see page 105).

“About 80 percent of the people who end up lost in the wilderness are injured and hypothermic,” Nester says. Take care of the injured half of the equation with a wilderness-tailored first aid kit from Atwater-Carey or Adventure Medical Kits. “I always like to differentiate those from the ones at Walgreens that have 100 rainbow-colored bandages and not much else,” Nester says.

Knife, food, glasses or contact lenses, binoculars, cooking pot.

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Photos - Clock-wise from top left: Emergency blanket, aka heatsheet • water purification drops • Water bottle, electrolyte replacement solution • Tony Nester uses a signaling mirror

Tony Nester and his companions awoke at 2 a.m. with an eerie sensation that something had changed. The stapled garbage sacks that made up one wall of the jerry-built cowboy shack they were holed up in were flapping. Trembling, even.

Nester’s group was nine days into a winter survival trip in Idaho. In the spirit of old-fashioned hardiness, they’d been subsisting on meager rations of oats and lentils, plus any animals they could trap. Jackets and sleeping bags were verboten. So they were ill-equipped for what was happening outside.

A massive snowstorm had barreled into the backwoods, plummeting the temperature from 20 degrees to minus 35 in a single hour. The strange sensation they felt? Barometric pressure freefall.

That morning, they radioed their field director, who ordered them to pull back to the previous day’s shelter. Famished and exhausted, they trudged eight miles through the whiteout, bit to the bone by a banshee wind that froze the air to 50 below, Nester estimates. For the next four hours, his focus lasered-in on the snowshoes of the person in front of him. As he slipped into the middle stages of hypothermia, he began to feel “the most unusual organic sensation I’ve ever had. It was this physical sensation of the life force leaving my legs and my arms and retreating to my chest… I remember at one point this sensation of my life consisting of this little light bulb of energy [in my chest], and I thought, ‘This is all that’s left of me. I have to keep this light going. I can’t let this light be extinguished.’”

For years, Nester and his survival guru colleagues had cultivated a textbook-style syllabus for teaching psychology in spirit-crushing or panic-sparking situations. One of the lessons involved an acronym: STOP (sit, think, observe, plan). The U.S. military had its own acronym: SURVIVAL, which offered the assurance that if you could remember what it stood for, you probably weren’t in a panic situation. Then Nester realized that in real-life calamities, he didn’t think that way – nor did the survivors he spoke to.

Rather, when the chips are down and your adrenaline’s up, your primitive mind takes over. Cognition shuts down. Tunnel vision sets in. Muscles constrict. Breathing slows. Textbook instructions? Fuggedaboutem. These days, Nester gives more organic advice. Whether you’re stuck in a slot canyon with your arm wedged behind a boulder or your car stalled in the snow-covered backwoods, remember two things: 

Just breathe: “If you do get lost, sit down and meditate, and pretty soon it’ll come to you where you’re supposed to go,” says Peter Bigfoot, who teaches wilderness survival and self-reliance at Reevis Mountain School near Globe. “That gets you out of your emotional mind when you’re just going crazy and panicked.”

“Meditating is the simplest thing in the world to do,” he continues. “You just sit there comfortably and don’t even think. However, most people can’t stop thinking. So you can’t just wait till you get in a panic situation and think, ‘Bigfoot said I should meditate, so I’ll just sit down and meditate.’ Not gonna work. You’ve gotta practice before you even get in that situation.”

Even if meditation’s not your thing, breathe. This is scientifically proven to make you think better. Nester tells civilians and military members: Find a tree, sit under it and take at least 10 deep breaths. The next thing to remember?

The One Thing: “You know what gets people through harrowing predicaments in life?” Nester asks. “Having a reason beyond themselves to live. [Survivors] always say the same thing: ‘I wasn’t gonna let my kids be orphans’ or ‘I have my mom at home to take care of.’ Remember City Slickers, when Jack Palance says ‘What’s the one thing that matters to you in your life?’ That’s what it’s about. That’s what gets people through a night of hypothermia and broken ribs and spinal injury. When they’re looking up and thinking, ‘OK, I’m gonna have the ugliest night of my life, but I’m gonna be there when that sun crests over the ridge the next morning, and I’m gonna be here the next day, no matter what.’”

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So you’ve sat down, taken deep breaths, and concentrated on your reason for staying alive. Now what? “Use the Big Five as your gauge,” Nester says.

Ration sweat, not water: If you’re lost and your canteen’s down to its last sloshes, the instinct is to ration sips while you search for a water source. Bad idea when the sun’s blazing, experts say. The body can lose up to four liters of water per hour during strenuous activity in the heat, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services. Nester recalls the story of a lost hiker in the Grand Canyon who tried to reach the Colorado River in the heat of day and died within four hours from heat stroke. His advice: Drink it if you got it.

“The general rule is, you drink until you’re hydrated, which means you’re eliminating clear fluid, then you can start to taper back,” Nester says. “If you’re urinating and it comes out dark colored, that’s bad, and you need to get more water in you.”

Nester continues, “The human body can go about 48 hours without water in the heat, if you’re smart with your existing [internal] water. Meaning you hole up in the shade under a juniper and keep covered, keep out of the wind, build your shelter or tarp, and if you have to move around at all, you do it in the cooler hours of the morning or evening. You’re going to extend your life considerably if you ration your sweat.” Another tip from Bigfoot: “Do not walk any faster than you can breathe through your nose, ’cause you lose twice as much water when you breathe through your mouth.”

If you’ve told someone where you are and it’s likely a search party will find you soon, your best option may be to stay put. If not, wait till it’s cool and look for water. Here are your best bets for finding it:

Topographical map: If you have a map, you can pinpoint several features that may indicate oases. Steep canyons often cradle rivers, but chances are you’d need to rappel to get to them. Instead, look for sloping, north-facing canyons, which see little sun and may retain waterholes (or underground pools) after rainy seasons. “Tanks” sound wet but refer to drainage-prone areas that frequently run dry, or steel tanks maintained (or not) by local ranchers. Springs are more reliable, Nester says, but keep in mind that recent rains do not necessarily mean they’ll be gushing. “The deceiving thing about springs is that they’re not related to the precipitation of this year or even 10 years ago,” he cautions. “They’re related to precipitation from 50 or 100 years ago.” Finally, archaeological sites were always built near water, which may still be available.

Look to the trees: Get to a vantage point and scan for cottonwoods and sycamores, which grow near water.

Follow the critters: If you see hummingbirds zipping out of a canyon, or wasps congregating, they may be heading to or from a watering hole.

Ignore the cactuses: The ectoplasmic goo inside barrel cactuses is spiked with alkaloids, so don’t drink it, Nester says. “You’re ingesting a toxin into your body, which is already heat-stressed. It’s possible to go from heat exhaustion into heat stroke because you’ve just taxed your body even more by adding that.” 

Grit your teeth to strain out the big stuff: Once you find the water, it may be the muddiest, maggotiest muck you’ve ever seen. Tough. “If you’re lost and you’re dehydrated, you’ve got to get it in you,” Nester says. “Even if there’s a cowpie in the waterhole, you’ve still gotta drink so that you can be alive when the rescuers get to you. There’s a cure for what you might get from drinking from a contaminated water source. There’s no cure for being dead.” This is where water purification tablets or household bleach come in handy. Add six drops of bleach to a quart of water, shake it and let it sit for half an hour.

When choosing where to build a shelter, remember the five Ws:

Weather: Don’t build it in a wash where you’re in danger of flash floods or an open area exposed to wind, snow or rain.

Water: Build relatively close to water.

Wood: Build it in an area where there’s wood for fire and/or building material.

Wigglies: Avoid areas where scorpions and snakes are likely to converge, such as washes and areas pocked with rodent holes.

Widow Makers: Watch for trees, branches, or rocks that could fall on you.

Tarp/poncho and rope: Once you’ve chosen your location, set your tarp at a 60-degree angle, use a rope to tie it to two trees, and put rocks down to keep it in place. In winter, face the shelter opening south, where it will catch the sun; in summer, face it north so it’s shady. If you have a tarp or poncho with no grommets, hold a stone underneath, wrap the material around it like a lollipop, and tie your rope around that. No rope? Use flexible branches, or slice leaves off a yucca and tear them into strips. If it’s cold, you’ll need floor cover so you don’t get hypothermia from lying on the damp ground. If you don’t have material, use grass, pine needles, leaves, or fibrous bark, or heat up the ground with a fire before you set up your shelter. In summer, consider digging a few inches down in the dirt, where the ground is cooler, and lying on that.

Vehicle: Your vehicle is a good shelter in winter but a furnace in summer. If you have a tarp, blanket, or something similar, open the hood, put the tarp edge underneath, close it, and secure the other side with rocks or tie it to a tree. Rest under that shade during the day and climb in your vehicle at night.

Natural Shelter: If you have no man-made materials to work with, find the leeward side of a rock, the crook of a tree trunk, a burnt-out log, or a rock overhang. If it’s cold, use debris such as grass, pine needles and bark to form a makeshift sleeping bag.

Use shiny objects: A signaling mirror, a cosmetic mirror, your car’s rear-view mirror, hubcaps, a knife, glasses, even beer cans can be used to signal. Flash the sunlight off it in patterns of three, the universal distress signal. When you’re not actively signaling, dangle your shiny objects from a tree to passively signal.

X marks the spot: Go to an open area and make an X in the ground with rocks or wood, or draw it in the snow.

Make noise: Toot three times on your whistle or car horn, or shoot three times with your gun.

Cell phone: Even if you don’t have bars, it can be worthwhile to attempt a call. One woman was found in the desert near Apache Junction after a search-and-rescue worker noticed the light from her phone screen six miles away. A couple lost in Oregon was pinpointed after searchers triangulated their cell phone’s ping with the nearest cell tower.

Don’t light a signal fire: Unless there’s a lot of snow on the ground, you could be lighting the next Rodeo-Chediski fire. 

Most items in your kit are self-explanatory, but Nester says one of the most useful components is fast-melt Benadryl. “More people die in the wilderness from anaphylactic shock from Africanized bees than any other critter.” That Benadryl can prevent your throat from swelling shut till you get to the ER.

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Natural Navigation
Again, if you’ve told people where you’re going and have reason to believe a rescue party is looking for you, your best bet is to stay put. If you haven’t, you’ll have to search for water or civilization. Keep yourself oriented by paying attention to large landmarks like mountains and canyons. “You don’t have to pay attention to every rock, bush and tree,” Bigfoot advises. “Keep track of what I call the macro view, and the little stuff will take care of itself.” Don’t have a compass? Find your cardinal directions naturally:

•The easiest way to orient yourself is to look to the sun: It rises in the east and sets in the west.

•Hold your watch level with the ground and point the hour hand at the sun. Halfway between the shortest distance between the hour hand and the 12 is south. In the picture to the right, south would be between the 1 and the 2.

•Thick vegetation tends to grow on the north side of ravines; saguaros tend to grow on the south side.

•Draw a line extending down from the tips of a crescent moon; where it meets the horizon is south.

•Draw a line from the outermost two stars of the Big Dipper’s dipper. It will point at the North Star. Hint: It’s about midway between the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia.


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With Sticks
•Cut off the stalk of a sotol plant (or other branch). Cut it into four pieces: A) A bow – a plain, sturdy stick. Tie a rope to each end of the bow. B) A fireboard piece. Shave it flat on two sides and hollow a tiny basin in it with a notch to the side. C) A drill – a pencil-shaped piece (pointed on one end). D) A palm-sized hand piece with a small hole in the center to fit the drill point. (1)

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•Put a pile of tinder (bark, pine needles, etc.) on the ground. Set the fireboard on top. Kneel down, placing your foot on one end of the fireboard. (2)

•For right-handed people: Hold the bow horizontally in your right hand. With your left, twist the drill through the rope so it’s wrapped around once and the drill is vertical, flat side down. Put the drill’s flat end in the fireboard’s basin (you may need to re-shape it so it fits). (2) Hold the hand piece in your left palm. Put the drill’s point into the hole in the hand piece.


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•With the drill’s flat end pressed firmly into the basin, slide the bow back and forth quickly to create friction. (2) When smoke appears, take the drill out and blow on the basin. (3) Repeat this process till an ember appears on the fireboard, then carefully break off the ember and rest it on the tinder. Constantly blow on it to keep the spark going. Pick up the tinder, cradle it in your hands and keep blowing until it bursts into flame. (4) Put it on the ground and add kindling.

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With Matches/Lighter/Spark Rod
•Gather materials and put them in different piles. A) Fibrous bark, pine needles, grass, or split wood. B) Twigs no thicker than a pencil. Try not to gather your wood from the ground; it will be moister. C) Thumb-thick split wood or branches.
D) Larger logs or branches.

•To split wood, hold it vertically, place your knife on top, and use another piece of wood to knock the knife down through it (1).


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•To make wood shavings, shave wood edge with your knife in a full body motion, not just with your wrist (2).

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•Remove debris and fire hazards in a 10-foot-diameter circle. In the center, build a platform with bark, pine needles or split wood (3).

•Place a larger piece of wood on top to break the wind and help oxygen flow underneath (3).

•Place wood shavings or a Vaseline-smeared cottonball on top and fluff it up. (Surface area and oxygen are fire’s friends.) (3).

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•Ignite cotton ball or wood shavings with matches or spark rod (4).

•Place pencil-thin twigs in a teepee pattern on top. When they ignite, place thumb-thick split wood over the flame in a teepee pattern and wait till they burn. Repeat with successively larger pieces of wood (5).


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Peter Bigfoot’s most frequently uttered phrase is “That saved my life.” And he’s always pointing to a plant when he says it. While “reality” TV shows portray survival as a war against the enemy of wilderness, Bigfoot views nature as an ally. That’s largely because he’s taken time to learn wild plants’ uses. To him, the desert is a smorgasbord-meets-pharmacy that provides both in survival situations and in the comfort of home.

“One of the most valuable things that people can learn is the plants,” says Bigfoot, who has written books and offers classes on the subject. (Boyce Thompson Arboretum near Superior also offers classes.) Here’s a taste of what you can learn. But remember, make sure you’re fully au fait with your flora beforehand to avoid Into the Wild-esque mistaken identity.

Mesquite: With the taste of turpentine and the texture of paper, mesquite leaves won’t be sweeping salad bars anytime soon. But, Bigfoot says, “When I’m hiking and feel like I’ve got low blood sugar, I eat a few handfuls of leaves and feel like I’ve had a steak dinner.” The sap is edible, as are the pods, when ripe and beige (July to August). Break them open and gnaw on the sweet inner pith, then soak the pods in water and eat them. The rock-hard seeds can be ground into flour. And if you have athlete’s foot, try simmering the inner bark with water for 30 minutes, letting it cool slightly, then soaking your feet in it for 30 minutes two times in one day.

Horehound: This pale, mint-like plant is an excellent remedy for colds, flu, sore throats, hepatitis, digestive disorders and congested lungs, Bigfoot says. Make a tea from one teaspoon of the leaves or seed pods (best) per quart of water and drink up.

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Cheeseweed (left), Prickly pear (right)

Cheeseweed (Common Mallow): Mallow is edible raw and can make a natural bandage in a pinch. Bigfoot says a tea of the root boosts milk production in nursing mothers.

Prickly Pear: Not all varieties of this desert staple are safe. Choose upright-growing species with large green pads and sparse, short, white thorns. The ripe, magenta fruit is edible and sweet. The pulp inside the pads makes a good sunblock or sunburn relief. It also helps draw out the poison and relieve the pain of bites and stings from spiders, scorpions, bees, ants and rattlesnakes. Note: If bitten by a rattler, your first priority is to get to the hospital ASAP, so don’t waste time extracting prickly pear pulp. However, if you have no vehicle or phone access and no chance of getting to an ER, prickly pear is a good alternative. To get to the pulp, break off the thorns with rocks on either side of the pad, cut the pad off, slice it down the center lengthwise, then scratch the pulp to release the slimy juice. 

Miner’s Lettuce: Eat your heart out, arugula. This delicate microgreen can be picked wild and eaten raw. It carpets the ground in shady places in late winter or spring.

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Desert Broom (Mormon Tea): The bitter tea made from a teaspoon of the twigs per quart of water can help prevent heat stroke, Bigfoot says. It’s also mildly stimulating (its genus is ephedra) and was used by Mormon settlers as a caffeine substitute.

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Bitten by a rattler?

DO stay calm and move slowly. The slower your heart and lymphatic system pump that venom through your body, the better.

DO remove jewelry, shoes or constricting clothing near the bite site before you swell like a balloon.

DO get to a hospital ASAP, but even if you’re a long way from your car, walk slowly. Call 911 if you’re unable to drive to the hospital.

DON’T apply ice to the bite.

DON’T cut the bite site; it can cause infection.

DON’T use a tourniquet; it will concentrate the venom in a confined area, where it will do maximum tissue damage, and may result in loss of the limb.

DON’T suck out the venom. You are not a vacuum; the most you’ll do is concentrate the venom in a smaller area and get flesh-killing fluid in your mouth. Snake bite kits are also ineffective.

DON’T waste time catching or identifying the snake. Physicians don’t need this info to treat the bite.