Survival skill No. 1: Don't let panic set in

As a Texan, David Alloway likes quick language that drills home a point with a touch of humor. "It ain't over 'til you're buzzard chow," he says of the art of surviving an emergency in the desert, or anywhere.

"I tell my students it's OK to be afraid," he says. "But in any survival situation, the No. 1 priority is to avoid panic."

Deny buzzard chow. Be calm and methodical.

Mr. Alloway ( has taught nonpanic survival skills to pilots in United States Customs, the US Air Force, Outward Bound instructors, and US and Mexican park rangers. He trained members of the Odyssey Exploration Society for their 900-mile camel trek across Arabia's Empty Quarter last year as seen on National Geographic Explorer.

Outside Magazine has called Alloway the "nation's leading desert-survival expert." Join him for a desert hike, says Tracks and Trails magazine, and it's "like a stroll down the aisle of a supermarket" because he knows where the desert is hiding food, water, and tools to survive. Alloway's book, "Desert Survival Skills" (University of Texas), will be published in May.

As more and more people venture into the outdoors for hiking, skiing or extreme sports, survival skills are a must, says Alloway and other survival trainers. A 10-year-old boy recently rescued from a night in freezing weather near a New Hampshire ski slope, stayed calm because his brother had taken a survival course and shared his knowledge with him.

"Each situation has different priorities," says Alloway of snow or desert conditions. "But first, no panic or blame. There's a technique used in Siberia: They tell people if they get lost to sit down and try to remember the last person they shook hands with. It has nothing to do with your predicament, but it gets you thinking in a linear style, and then you can start working out what to do."

Standing in the sun here in Big Bend State Park in the Chihuahuan Desert, Alloway looks born to be under a cowboy hat. He is an interpretive naturalist for Texas Parks and Wildlife, and he offers a number of for-profit survival courses every year.

"My mother wanted me to be a commercial artist," he says, laughing, "but I knew my true calling was to be a bull rider in rodeos." But too many bruises and collisions helped rekindle his basic survival knowledge learned from his father who loved to hunt and fish, plus his days as a Boy Scout and Explorer Scout. "My degree is in range management, but I have a minor in biology and chemistry," Alloway says, "and that has been a great springboard for knowing plants."

In 1996 he became the first non-Australian to complete the grueling 120-mile survival trek across Australia's Pilbara region to the Indian Ocean. It's considered to be the world's toughest trek open to civilians. "I lost 20 pounds," Alloway says of the nine days walking with nine others through daytime temperatures often 100 degrees or more. The organizers of the trek traveled a parallel route but were unseen by the trek participants.

The following are excerpts from an interview with Alloway.

Why participate in a survival trek like the one in Australia?

It was the litmus test for me. I had to prove that all my knowledge was transferable into practical experience. At the start we each had two one-liter canteens of water, no food, and a survival kit (snake-bite kit, razor blades, small utensils, matches, maps, etc.) and one of those emergency medical blankets. We agreed on the goal: All of us would reach the Indian Ocean even if we had to carry each other. We decided our name was the Southern Cross Survivors, and we had our own marching song; not a bad idea for group morale. When the moon came up we traveled at night to avoid the heat.

What did you do for food?

Food is not the important part in a hot desert; we were much more worried about getting water than eating. I had three handfuls of food in nine days, which amounted to some seeds and about six bull-rush stalks, which tasted a little like asparagus. At a water hole we caught a dozen fish each four inches long and roasted them in coals. Then the fish heads went into a community cup for fish head soup. As long as you can get water, most Americans could survive three weeks without food.

What did you and the others learn about each other?

We didn't know that much about each other's past, so we were individuals without preconceptions, and quickly found out what talents we had that would benefit the group.... I think we also found out that we set our boundaries too close, and we should never underestimate our physical, mental, and spiritual abilities.... I'm one of those people who believe in praying, so that's a factor too.

Can a person really be trained not to panic?

Yes. In Australia I learned from Bob Cooper [organizer of the trek] the ABCs of survival that can be taught. "A" means you accept the situation you're in. Don't sit around blaming someone.

"B" means you build a fire. Even in a desert situation by building a fire you have put yourself onto a project, and forced yourself to think in a logical pattern. And a fire, of course, is a signal.

"C" means to consider all your options and take an inventory: How much water do you have, what's in the car that just broke down, etc.

"D" means to decide on a plan.

"E" means you execute the plan. In a snow situation, building a shelter may come first to not be so exposed. But it's part of the process, setting priorities.

Recent studies indicate that many Americans are overweight or obese, and at the same time there is an increase in adventure travel and extreme sports. How do you account for these opposite trends?

A lot of obesity is just food availability, and some people simply take the path of least resistance. Also, many people are still on a plowman's diet but sitting in office jobs. My mother's brothers ate six eggs each for breakfast, but then went out and worked hard all day long instead of sitting down in front of a computer in an air-conditioned office. With the adventure and extreme sports and interest in survival, we see the need to be independent and responsible for ourselves, so you know you can take care of yourself in rough situations and not call on the police, the fire department, an ambulance, or lawyers when things fail.

We are descendants of immigrants and pioneers; it's in the psyche of America, this pioneer yearning. I hope we never lose it. At one time I weighed 230 lbs., and that was from being irresponsible and spending a lot of time on a bar stool. I've changed my life considerably since then.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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