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Staying Hydrated A Key To Backcountry Survival Says Pro Instructor

Airman 1st Class Nicolo J. Daniello
/ USAF file photo
Students in the U.S. Air Force Survival School based at Fairchild AFB learn various techniques to disinfect water.

Embedded in the captivating story of plane crash survivor Autumn Veatch is a cautionary tale about dehydration.

Veatch is the 16-year-old girl who walked out of the wilderness after the single-engine private plane in which she was flying home to Whatcom County, Washington, crashed into a mountainside. She emerged from the woods and hailed a passing motorist on the North Cascades Highway nearly two full days after the Saturday afternoon accident.

"It's hard to say how much longer someone could have been out there," said Dr. James Wallace at Three Rivers Hospital in Brewster shortly before Veatch was discharged Tuesday night. "She was severely dehydrated."

The dehydration occurred not because of an absence of water in the rugged mountains, but because Veatch apparently hesitated to drink very much from the natural sources. She worried she might get sick if she drank more according to Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers, who interviewed her and relayed details to the Associated Press.

Veatch told authorities that she stayed with the smoldering wreckage at first, where she said her step-grandparents died. But when there was no sign of rescue, she struck out with just the clothes on her back. She found a creek and followed the water course downhill until it eventually intersected a hiking trail, which led to the road.

"Honestly, within a matter of hours as you begin to dehydrate, your blood thickens. That's going to affect your judgment as well," U.S. Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Charles Pfennig said. Pfennig serves as operations superintendent at the Air Force Survival School based at Fairchild Air Force Base near Spokane.

"In an emergency situation, you're better off drinking unpurified water than no water at all," he advised. Pfennig said you would likely succumb to the effects of dehydration "much more quickly" than you might succumb to whatever illness a person could get from microorganisms in the water. "That could take days or even weeks to develop," he said.

Pfennig added that concern about untreated water is entirely legitimate. "Any water source that is open to the environment is open to contamination," he said. The Air Force Survival School does not allow its students to drink untreated water during training.

Credit Airman 1st Class Nicolo J. Daniello / USAF file photo
USAF file photo

In the basic survival skills course, Pfennig said students are taught to find a container, build a fire and boil water to disinfect it. Lacking those means, he said filtering water through clothing or sand could help remove suspended solids and some - but not all - impurities.

Granted, most people will have the good fortune not to end up in a remote airplane crash. But Pfennig said the advice about staying hydrated applies to lesser ordeals. He strongly recommended storing several bottles of clean water with the emergency kit in your car in case you get stranded for an extended period.

In his interview with public radio, Pfennig closed with an observation about the North Cascades plane crash survivor, which family friends and doctors who treated Veatch also noted. He said Veatch exhibited a crucial intangible quality.

"The will to survive is probably the most critical thing that a person can have if faced with a situation like that, that they don't give up."