Demystifying Wilderness Myths

Doug Williams

What is a myth? It is defined as a widely held but false belief or idea and there are plenty of these when it comes to survival and traveling in the wilderness.

The wilderness is defined, by most people, as an area that is perceived as pristine, and untouched by human activity, often an area that has been set aside through a legal process.

We love the idea that somewhere outside of our crowded and dirty cities is a pure and unspoiled tract of land known as the wilderness; I even buy into this still, even though I get into the ‘wilderness’ regularly I still have an idealistic view of what it is.  I sit here in the Outdoor Revival HQ and write about it, but it’s a changing world.


Unfortunately, this is perhaps the greatest myth of all. The reality is that there isn’t anywhere untouched by human life in some respect or another.

Sure, there’s areas that might not have had a human foot on them, but our impact on the earth is immense. Not only have the first peoples of any nation hunted and gathered over the land, modern man, with the spread of invasive alien species of plant, pollution, climate change, and over population, have made it impossible for any tract of land to remain pristine and untouched.

There are, however, many thousands of acres of land that are still more than wild enough for most of us and traveling, hiking, or riding through these areas come with many dangers. There are many myths around these dangers that should be dispelled as they can be dangerous.

Fast running water is potable

This is an extremely dangerous myth. No water in any wilderness area should be considered potable without first being purified or boiled before use. It sounds reasonable to believe that fast running streams, probably caused by melting snow, should be pure, clean water and therefore safe to drink.

The sad fact is that you have no control over the habits of travelers that have come before you. Poor toilet hygiene can result in bacteria being carried in the water and any human habitation between you and the source of the water will almost certainly have introduced pollutants.


Another common cause of unsafe water is the bodies of dead animals that are decomposing in or near the water.

The bottom line is, do not assume water is clean and safe to drink and take the necessary precautions.

Circling vultures mean dead animals

Vultures circling do not necessarily mean that there is a dead animal nearby. Many large birds, vultures included, will use thermals to gain height and will remain within the thermal to save energy by not having to use their wings.

Thermals are columns of warm air, heated by the earth, that rise upwards and carry the birds with them. It only takes one bird to find a thermal; others will join it, and the sky is quickly filled with circling birds.

Don’t think that by moving toward circling vultures, you’ll find a food source.

All venomous snakes have triangular heads

This is another extremely dangerous fallacy. It is impossible to say whether a snake is venomous or not simply by the shape of its head or body. Boomslangs, an extremely venomous African snake, are extremely sleek as they spend their lives in the branches of trees.

The only feature that ALL venomous snakes have are heat-sensitive pits located between the eyes and nostrils.

Suck the poison out of a snake bite

This is a myth made all the more real by western films where the hero is invariably called upon to suck out the poison from a rattlesnake bite. In fact, this will have little or no effect on the venom injected into a human limb.

Please don’t think of cutting a cross over the bite mark and trying to suck out the venom, as all you will do is make a large wound that stands a good chance of becoming infected if not dealt with properly.

The correct way to deal with a snake bite is to cover the wound with dressing, apply a pressure bandage, elevate the limb and keep the patient calm. Get them to medical care as quickly as possible.

You will die from scorpion stings

This myth is very far from reality! It is true that all scorpions carry venom in their tails but out of approximately 1,500 species of scorpion in the world, only 25 carry sufficient venom to kill a person.

Scorpions with big, fat pincers and a thin tail are likely to have low-grade venom as they rely on their pincers to catch prey, whilst scorpions with tiny pincers and a big, fat tail are more likely to have a serious sting.

Scorpions are not aggressive toward humans and will only sting if stood upon. Shake out your boots before putting them on in the morning, shake out your sleeping bag if it is not in a closed tent, and wear closed shoes at night are all simple methods of avoiding a nasty sting.


Moss grows on the northern side of trees

Moss grows where there is sufficient moisture and light for it to flourish but needs shady conditions to thrive. In the northern hemisphere, due to the passage of the sun, it is commonly found on the northern side of trees but will be on the southern side in the southern hemisphere.

Any shady area may well be the perfect microclimate to encourage moss to grow thus sending you off in completely the wrong direction.

Eating black and blue berries will be safe

This is one of the more dangerous myths as it depends largely on where in the world you are. In the Americas, about 90% of white berries are poisonous, and 50% of red berries are poisonous, but this does not hold true in other parts of the world.

The bottom line is, if you see birds eating the berries then they should be safe for you to eat as well, but better to be safe than sorry so if you cannot positively identify the berry, leave it alone.

If you are stranded – Find food first

This is not true; the most important things are water, shelter, and warmth. You can survive a fair length of time without food but water is imperative as your life expectancy as seriously shortened without water. Also, shelter is vital as is warmth: hyperthermia is a killer.


Shelter means walls and a roof

If you are stranded in the wilderness, shelter will not mean four walls and a roof. Wilderness shelter is all about protection and not so much coverage.

If you are in a hot environment, this will mean shade, and conversely, in a cold environment, it will mean warmth. Warmth need not come from coverage; insulation from the earth and protection from wind is more important.

A layer of vegetation can successfully insulate you from the earth, and when formed into a nest, will be of more value than a roofed shelter that provides no insulation.

Pull out anything that stabs you

This largely depends on the size of the object that has stabbed you. If you are speaking of a thorn or a splinter then, by all means, pull it out. If you have fallen and your body has been pierced by a fairly large stick, pulling it out may be the worst thing you can do.

If you have a serious wound, take a bandage and roll it into a sausage. Wrap this around the object and then bandage it securely in place. Pulling it out, apart from causing serious pain which can add to the shock, you could be left with bleeding that is difficult to manage. Instead, leave the object in place and let the emergency room staff or paramedics deal with it in controlled surroundings.

I watched Bear Grylls so survival is assured

It is amazing the number of people that will set off into the wilderness, with little or no preparation but with the mistaken belief in their ability to survive based on watching television programs, or an unshakable trust in their electronic gadgets.

The majority of the population will never be stranded in the wilderness, but if you do enjoy off road travel, wilderness hikes, adventure motorcycles, or mountain bikes, you may well find yourself in a difficult situation at some time or another.

If you do find yourself in this situation, remain calm and try to make considered rational decisions. Do not think that you will be able to Google your way out of trouble. Mobile phone coverage is scant in the majority of wilderness areas so rather invest in hiring or buying a satellite phone. At least in this way, you will always be in contact with civilization and be able to call for assistance.


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fmssolution is one of the authors writing for Outdoor Revival