Every aspect of life seems to have axioms and truisms. Some are worth living your life by, and others are less reliable. The thing is, the less-reliable axioms usually have a kernel of truth buried inside.
Here are some of the outdoor-related sayings that we hear all the time, some of them so often that we tend to think they must be true. But most of these are not true, despite the occasional kernel of truth lying deep within.NAVIGATION
All rivers lead to civilization so, if you’re lost, follow the river downstream.
We’ve heard it so often and we’ve seen it in movies. However, it’s simply not so! The reason you hear this advice repeated so often is that sometimes the river will get you to a village or a town. Those who died following this advice aren’t around to dispute this myth.
The North Star is the brightest star in the night sky.
If you’re lost, you can find north if you can find the North Star, known as Polaris, which is the brightest star in the night sky, right? If you find the brightest star in the sky, you’ve found Sirius, not the North Star.
The North Star is actually the 48th-brightest star in the sky, and if you don’t know how to find it, you should consult a star chart.
“THE REASON YOU HEAR THIS ADVICE REPEATED SO OFTEN IS THAT SOMETIMES THE RIVER WILL GET YOU TO A VILLAGE OR A TOWN. THOSE WHO DIED FOLLOWING THIS ADVICE AREN’T AROUND TO DISPUTE THIS MYTH.”
Moss always grows on the north side of a tree.
When I was first studying survival in high school, one of my teachers was Abbie Keith, who was head of the Sierra Madre Search and Rescue team at the time. He would ask us if moss grows on the north side of trees, and most of us said yes. He’d laugh and say, yes it does, but it also grows on the east side, the west side, and the south side of trees.
Moss needs shade and moisture and it will grow where the shade and moisture is greatest. Often, this is the north side of a tree, or a rock or a barn but not often and precise enough for this to be a dependable tool for navigation.
Woodpeckers make their holes on the east sides of trees.
Yes, this is true, but they also make their holes everywhere else on the tree. You cannot use woodpecker holes for any sort of practical natural navigation.
A compass points to the North Pole.
When people say this, they are referring to the magnetic compass needle, and they assume it points to the North Pole, or true north. In fact, the compass needle points to magnetic north, which is not the same as true north.
Every topographical map tells you the difference between true north and magnetic north so you can compensate — this compensation is known as the declination.
However, if you happen to be in the line where true north and magnetic north coincide, your compass needle will indeed coincidentally point to true north.HYDRATION
All water can be purified by boiling.
When you boil water, the temperature at boiling (212 degrees (F) at sea level) kills or inactivates living organisms in the water that can make you sick. It’s also true that most biological hazards in the water are killed off by the time the water reaches about 170 (F).
Removing the water from the heat source after bringing it to a rolling boil will be somewhat more effective against viruses and bacteria, but heat will not make saltwater or water with hazardous chemicals, fuels or solvents safe to drink.
“EVERY ASPECT OF LIFE SEEMS TO HAVE AXIOMS AND TRUISMS SOME ARE WORTH LIVING YOUR LIFE BY, AND OTHERS ARE LESS RELIABLE.”
You can fill your canteen with water from a cactus.
I’ve actually seen a picture of someone shoving a spigot onto a barrel cactus and turning it on to fill their canteen. Of course, that’s mythology. There is water in cacti, for sure, but it’s stored in the flesh of the cactus. You can eat your water — it’s often very slimy and gooey — but it isn’t in a form where you can just fill your canteen.
Water that is clear, cold and flowing is safe to drink without treatment.
Though we’d like this to be so, it just isn’t always true. Water that is moving, and moving over sands, has an ability to self-purify, but this depends on what impurities might be present in the water. In fact, stagnant waters can be very safe in some cases, so the flow of water is only one of many factors that may make the water safe or not.
The desert solar still is an unreliable way of getting water.
Sometimes, you get no water when you set up a solar still. I have certainly had my share of this frustration, even when I dug in a dry river bed. But I’ve also gotten water so many times from doing this that I know that success is a matter of where I dig the hole, the time of year, location and other factors. Also, though much has been said and written about the vast amount of work that it takes to dig the hole, it’s never taken me more than an hour to dig the hole. And then, you just wait. You can leave that hole with its cover in place indefinitely if it’s actually giving you water.
You can always dig for water.
This is true! You can always dig … but you won’t always reach water. I’ve dug small wells many times and many times had all the water we needed for several days. However, water is either underground at an accessible depth or it isn’t. And when it isn’t, you’ll just need to find your water elsewhere.FIRESTARTING
You can make a fire by hitting two rocks together.
I have heard this many times from people who remember something like this from childhood but they can’t remember any details. You cannot get a fire by hitting two pieces of flint, or chert or quartzite together. However, if one of the rocks is marcasite and the other is flint, you actually might get enough of a spark to ignite some charcloth.FOOD
You can taste-test unknown wild plants by chewing on a little and taking note of your reaction.
The so-called Universal Edibility Test has been widely published, even in military handbooks. The only reason that more people don’t die from practicing this “test” is that there are not that many plants that will outright kill you! In other words, it only works accidentally, not because it is a valid test.
“IT’S TRUE THAT THERE ARE SOME POISONOUS PLANTS AND MUSHROOMS THAT HAVE SOME PARTS THAT ARE RED. BUT THERE ARE FAR MORE EDIBLE PLANTS WITH RED PARTS, SUCH AS STRAWBERRIES, WATERMELON AND APPLES.”
Plants with red features are probably poisonous.
It’s true that there are some poisonous plants and mushrooms that have some parts that are red. But there are far more edible plants with red parts, such as strawberries, watermelon and apples. This old husbands’ tale probably arose from the fact that there are reddish blotches on the poison hemlock stem and the Amanita muscaria, a mushroom with hallucinogenic properties that has a red cap.
All blue and black berries are edible.
In general, this is accurate, but it’s not worth memorizing because there are exceptions. You still need to learn to recognize the identity of berries (and other plants) before you eat them.
All white berries are poisonous.
This is a correct general statement, but again, there are many exceptions, such as mulberries and white strawberries just to name a couple. Eat only those edible wild plants that you have positively identified.
If you’re uncertain what you can eat in the wild, watch what the animals eat.
This has been repeated so often that you’d think it’s really true. Sometimes, it may be true. But not always. First, various animals can eat things that humans cannot, and they can get away with eating more toxins than humans, in some cases. Also, just because you watched the animal eat something doesn’t mean it’s OK even for the animal to eat; did you watch to see what happened to the animal after it departed?
If you’re uncertain about the edibility of a wild mushroom, boil a piece of the mushroom with a piece of silver. If it does not tarnish the silver, it’s good to eat.
Always be suspicious of quick tests to determine edibility so you don’t have to take the time to actually study! This “rule” has been repeated often and I’ve personally met farmers who told it to me and said they swore by it. However, you can boil a 99 percent silver coin with the deadliest Amanita mushrooms — A. phalloides, and A. ocreata, for example — and there will be no tarnishing of the coin. So, although this is a myth, it does have a basis in fact: a few poisonous mushrooms contain hydrogen sulfide and will tarnish silver. But most deadly mushrooms will not tarnish silver.
Any mushroom growing in your lawn is poisonous.
False! Edible and toxic mushrooms could grow on your lawn if the conditions are right. Just because it’s on your lawn doesn’t make it toxic. (This one should be classified as an old wives’ tale, because my mother believed this was true.)
You can’t survive a rattlesnake bite.
No, not true. In fact, rattlesnake bites are a bit rare, and the fatality rate from bites is well below 1 percent. Yes, it is a serious medical emergency, but it usually won’t kill you, especially if proper care is taken after being bitten. In addition, up to about half of rattlesnake bites are “dry,” meaning no venom was injected.
If someone is bitten by a rattlesnake, you should quickly apply a tourniquet to the affected limb.
False. A tourniquet, by definition, is something that stops the blood flow to the limb. You should never apply a tourniquet unless it has been determined that you must lose the limb in order to save the life. A rattlesnake victim should get to a hospital as soon as possible for treatment. If this is not immediately possible, the victim should lie down in the shade, immobilize the location of the bite, try to relax and slowly sip liquids. If anything, a cloth could be tied above the bite to slow the spread of lymph. However, not all doctors agree on even that last point, but a tourniquet should definitely not be applied.WEATHER
If it’s really cold outside, you can fall asleep and die of hypothermia.
You can definitely die from the cold, but you’re not just going to fall asleep and not wake up. You’ll wake up, feel the pain of the cold, and then if you don’t do something about it, you’ll eventually die.
Hot dry weather is earthquake weather.
False. There is no such thing as earthquake weather. If you study the weather conditions of earthquakes, you will see that their occurrence doesn’t coincide with any particular sort of weather.
People go crazy and commit more crimes during a full moon.
Well, is that an old wives’ tale, or an old husbands’ tale? We’ve heard it a lot. Some studies debunk this idea, saying that there is no clear correlation between the full moon and increased crime, except that there is more light to commit crimes during that time.
Low barometric pressure increases the crime rate.
Barometric pressure is low when a storm is nearing or present. Studies have shown that there is an increased feeling of restlessness and frustration, trouble concentrating and quarrelsomeness during low barometric pressure. A study that was done of police records of major cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and New Orleans, showed that there was an increase in violence, including suicide, when the barometric pressure fell below 30 inches. So we know there is a correspondence between violence and low barometric pressure, but no one can say for certain that the low barometric pressure caused the violence. For example, those who felt particularly frustrated about their job during these times might consider getting a different job.
Even when wet, wool will keep you warm.
Not quite. Wool is an excellent natural fabric, which is also somewhat fire-retardant (that’s why many fire departments used to use wool garments, until they came up with better synthetics). Wool fibers have tiny air pockets, and the air trapped therein will allow the wool to insulate you even when it’s wet. By contrast, cotton has no insulating value when wet. But does wet wool actually keep you warm? That depends on many factors, such as air temperature, wind, etc. In general, though, while there is still insulation value when wet, wool has no magical quality to produce heat. All it can do is trap your own body heat.
These are just a few old husbands’ tales that we hope we’ve cleared up for you. Can you think of more?
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the December, 2019 print issue of American Survival Guide.