The Effects of Starvation

Doug Williams
Christopher McCandless died of starvation on the Stampede Trail, largely due to lack of preparedness.
Christopher McCandless died of starvation on the Stampede Trail, largely due to lack of preparedness.

When people get stranded and lost there’s often a real risk of starvation. Obviously, the priority should be drinkable water because the body can last a lot longer without food than water, weeks more, but food does need to be high on the priority list, this is one fo the reasons that foraging, trapping, and all the other food sources are taught so much on survival courses.

Although I’ve done a few multi-day food fasts I’ve never been starving and I’m extremely grateful for that. It’s a fact though that there’s many that do starve all over the world and it’s one of the nightmares people have about being lost in the widlerness.

We were talking in the Outdoor Revival HQ office a while back about the people we write about, those that have got lost and starved to death and those that have got lost and survived, often by eating very unpalatable things but they survived. It got me thinking that a short article on starvation might be good, so that we’re more aware and hopefully more conscientious of our safety when we go out into the wilderness to places that if we’re lost it can be a serious issue.


Here’s some general information about starvation, if you’re sensitive to this sort of thing then you might want to skip this article.

Prolonged starvation in humans can cause permanent, irreversible organ damage, and eventually leads to death. Starvation occurs when a person’s caloric intake is less than their body expends, which can occur for a variety of reasons.

The primary causes of starvation are poor economy (i.e. not being able to afford food), food scarcity in the area such as famine, and diseases such as intestinal worms or food-related illnesses such as anorexia. For people like us that get out into the woods and wild places the food scarcity is the issue, especially if we do not know how to forage and fend for ourselves.

Outward physical symptoms of starvation include fatigue or lethargy, rashes, fat loss, dry cracked skin and most commonly in children, bloating of the stomach known as “kwashiorkor”. Inner physical symptoms include diarrhea, painful swallowing and a cessation of menstruation in women.

Mentally, starvation victims become impulsive, irritable, and even hyperactive in the early stages. Once the muscle atrophy catches up to them, however, they become more and more apathetic, losing their will and ability to move, eat, and drink.


In general terms starvation can be completely prevented by eating enough of a wide variety of foods. When you’re lost in the woods your best defense against starvation is good training and understanding your environment, being prepared with spare rations and having a plan that other people know about so that you can be rescued if needed. Getting yourself out of the situation is key to not starving, but if you’re stuck in the situation knowing how to handle it and yourself is paramount.

On a world wide scale, according to the Rome Declaration on World Food Security, starvation can be avoided via poverty reduction, prevention of wars and political instability, food aid, agricultural sustainability, and reduction of economic inequality.

Supporting farmers in affected areas by subsidizing fertilizers and seeds can also increase yields and reduce prices which can combat starvation.

If you’re ever in a position where you need need to look after someone that’s starving treatment must be administered extremely carefully to avoid what is known as “Refeeding Syndrome.” The patient must be provided with constant rest and warmth and given small sips of water mixed with glucose at regular intervals. Fruit juices can also be used. Food is then introduced later, in very small, gradually increasing quantities. If the patient lacks proteins, they may be administered intravenously.

When it comes to people getting lost in the wood it’s fairly rare compared to al the other starvation on the planet, one big difference though is that often we can avoid the situation we find ourselves in, if we get lost we should be prepared for the situation, when it comes to the economic situation in parts of the world there are no choices.

Over the past 40 years starvation in the world has decreased, it’s still affecting about 16% of the world population though. Let us make sure that when we go out into the woods and off on our adventures that we’re no contributing to that statistic, it is our responsibility to make sure that’s the case.

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fmssolution is one of the authors writing for Outdoor Revival