How to Survive on a Desert Island

Paul Hart, a former Royal Navy lieutenant commander, offers advice on how to survive should you find yourself stranded on a desert island, including tips on finding food and building a shelter

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Spending time lying on a palm-fringed beach, with tropical blue waters lapping at your feet might seem like the perfect holiday! But what if there was no umbrella to keep the sun off your head, no waiter to bring you a frosted glass of beer and no hotel to retreat to in the evening for a welcome shower and hot meal? It wouldn’t be long before that desert island paradise became your worst nightmare.

Being shipwrecked or crash-landing on an uninhabited desert island might seem like a scary proposition, but in reality your chances of survival are pretty high as long as you follow a few simple procedures and keep things in perspective. A desert island might have its own challenges but being close to the sea, having natural warmth and an abundant supply of food will all contribute to making your survival more likely than if you had found yourself washed up on an uninhabited polar coastline.

The first thing to remember, if you find yourself alone and in a survival situation, is that a positive and optimistic frame of mind can be the difference between life and death. There are many examples where people with no survival experience have managed to remain alive for extremely long periods before being rescued. Their adaptability, calmness and clear thinking have all been instrumental in helping them get through the ordeal. However, it was that positive mental attitude that meant they battled on where others would have succumbed to despair and given up the routines necessary to sustain life.

If you do find yourself in such a predicament, here are a few tips to keep in mind in order to not just survive, but also thrive and be able to greet your rescuers with a smile and a full belly.

Avoid injury

Once you have removed yourself from any immediate danger, the first thing to do is make sure you deal with any injury you may have sustained as quickly as possible. In addition, you have to make sure you avoid sustaining any further injury, no matter how minor, as long as your desert island ordeal lasts. In the tropics, any cut can quickly go septic and result in gangrene, so it is essential to avoid and treat injuries effectively.

I used to run an exercise that tested participants on what piece of equipment they would choose first if their boat was wrecked on a coral reef, near a desert island. Invariably, they would choose water or something to start a fire. The correct answer was a pair of wellies, so that they could wade ashore without getting cut on the coral. Just as bad on such coasts are ‘cone shells’, which shoot out poisonous barbs – some of which can kill an adult. Once ashore, the wellies have the added advantage of being able to store water, though the taste of stale feet can take a while to get used to.

Salvage all you can

If your boat or plane has broken up, it is a source of many of the items you will need to aid your survival. Anything can be adapted for use in an alternative context. Items can be used to build shelter, beds, make clothes and footwear. It is down to your ingenuity and creativeness as to how you can make things work in your particular circumstance. One of the key things to think about is how items can be adapted to create tools that you need. A knife is a really crucial item that will allow your life to move from one of merely survival to being able to thrive. Axes and hammers all become essential when you need to build something that will make your life more bearable.

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