This post may contain affiliate links. If you make a purchase, I'll earn a small fee at no extra cost to you.*
You never know when you’ll need to put your survival skills to good use. Disasters like plane crashes, car accidents, and getting stranded at sea don’t follow a schedule–they just happen. Here are five real-life stories of people who found themselves right in the middle of a survival scenario and lived to tell about it.
1. Aron Ralston
Aron Ralston inspired the events behind the movie 127 Hours. So, just how close to death do you have to get for James Franco to play you in a movie? Pretty close, it turns out. Aron decided to take on Blue John Canyon in Utah back in 2003. Being an experienced climber, he went alone and without telling anyone. (Note: Don’t do that.)
Disaster struck when he was climbing down a narrow slit in the rocks. A large boulder came loose and fell on Ralston, crushing his arm against the rocks. Ralston spent the next five days trapped under the 800-pound boulder. How did he get himself loose?
His knife. According to Ralston, the knife was “what you’d get if you bought a $15 flashlight and got a free multi-use tool”. After using leverage to break his bones, Ralston performed quite possibly the most well-known self-amputation in history, then made his way out and to the road where he was picked up by a (surely very surprised) family on vacation.
At the end, he had lost 15% of his blood volume and 40 pounds of his body weight, but he was alive.
- Buy the highest quality tools you can afford.
- Safety First: Don’t take on the wilderness alone. And if you do, at least tell people where you’ll be.
2. Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571
Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 is one of the harshest survival stories out there and forces people to ask themselves a horrifying question: What if I had to eat my own to survive? It’s been well-publicized and the subject of many films, the most famous of which is the 1993 film Alive (itself based on Piers Paul Reid’s novel Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors).
The accident itself took place on October 13th, 1972 when the plane–a Fairchild FH-227D–clipped the top of a mountain. The impact severed the plane’s right wing and brought the plane down hard in the snow.
Initially, the crash and subsequent events claimed 33 of the 45 occupants. Another 5 died by the next morning, and by the eighth day, there was yet another casualty. Their food supply was sparse and not the kind of thing you want to eat if that’s all you have: snacks, chocolate bars, and bottles of wine.
Survivors also had to deal with an avalanche, make their own sleeping bags and–here’s what made them famous, unfortunately–had to resort to cannibalism to stay alive. Eventually, survivors were rescued over two months later.
- Disaster has no timing, so always be prepared.
- Preparation always includes the most basic needs: Food, water, shelter, health.
3. Steven Callahan
Steven Callahan’s real-life survival expertise earned him a role as a consultant on the popular movie Life of Pi. Some of the tools and lures were made by Callahan himself. Just what makes him the expert? Well…
Callahan set sail on the Napoleon Solo back in 1981. Unfortunately, things started to go south when something collided with the Napoleon–Callahan has mentioned his own suspicion that it was a whale–and the boat rapidly filled up with water. Unable to stay on the Napoleon, Steven opted for the only way out: Jumping onto a raft and getting the hell out of there. He ended up floating on that raft for 72 days.
He has attributed his survival to “learning to live like an aquatic caveman”. This included collecting rainwater and eating what was there: Mahi-Mahi, triggerfish, birds and barnacles. He was eventually picked up by fishermen on the 21st of April, 1982. He was taken to the hospital, but left the same night and recovered on the island of Marie Galante.
- Knowledge is more than power, it’s survival. Learn as much as you can.
- Never give up, no matter how hopeless your situation seems.
4. Jesús Vidaña
Jesús Vidaña, Lucio Rendón, and Salvador Ordóñez were three regular fishermen from Mexico. At least, until something awful happened to them. The trio took off on what seemed like a regular fishing trip, but things turned disastrous when their fuel ran out and winds pushed them in a different direction. They had no radio and no supplies, but they still managed to stay alive for just short of ten months. Unfortunately, two crew members weren’t so lucky and succumbed early on.
Their survival, much like Steven Callahan’s, was down to collecting and drinking rainwater, eating seagulls, sea turtles and raw fish, and lastly, sheer ingenuity: To keep themselves going, they improvised a sail.
Their rescue came on the August 9th, 2006, when their boat was spotted by a fishing boat called the Koo’s 102. They recuperated on the boat until they finally reached shore on August 22nd, no doubt very relieved.
- Sometimes you have to wait it out; make sure you know how to stay alive in the meantime.
- Improvising can save your life. What can you make from the things around you?
5. José Alvarenga
We’ve saved the best for last: José Salvador Alvarenga is the most notable case on this list for the reason that he’s the world’s longest surviving castaway, having survived a total of 438 days lost on the open seas.
He and his newly-befriended colleague Ezequiel Córdoba set out on a deep sea trip on the 17th of November 2012. Everything went fine until they hit a storm which damaged the boat and most of their equipment, and they disappeared just off the coast of Costa Azul in Mexico.
The purpose of their voyage? Fishing. Unfortunately, their catch, an estimated 1100 pounds of fish, had to be thrown overboard in the storm. Eventually, Alvarenga was found on the 30th of January 2014, having survived by all means necessary.
The events of the disappearance inspired the book, 438 Days: An Extraordinary True Story of Survival at Sea by journalist Jonathan Franklin, which you can find on Amazon.com.
As for Ezequiel, according to José’s testimony, he died from (apparently voluntary) starvation about four months into their journey.
Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for people to start speculating about what happened between the two men, and Alvarenga was accused of cannibalism and hit with a million-dollar lawsuit from Ezequiel’s family: A claim which Alvarenga and his lawyer have vehemently denied.
Now what? Believe it or not, he’s gone back to fishing.
- Experienced matters. If you even remotely think that someone is unprepared for a trip or journey, don’t take the risk.
- Preparation matters, too. Familiarize yourself with the weather, and know how to find your way without a compass (Alvarez reportedly used the moon to keep track of passing time).