|Before proceeding, please review Important
Disclaimers about the information, resources & links contained in
this website. The information provided below is for basic reference only
and is not intended to be professional instruction.
CHAPTER 14 - TROPICAL SURVIVAL
Most people think of the tropics as a huge and forbidding tropical rain forest
through which every step taken must be hacked out, and where every inch of the
way is crawling with danger. Actually, over half of the land in the tropics is
cultivated in some way.
A knowledge of field skills, the ability to improvise, and the application of
the principles of survival will increase the prospects of survival. Do not be
afraid of being alone in the jungle; fear will lead to panic. Panic will lead
to exhaustion and decrease your chance of survival.
Everything in the jungle thrives, including disease germs and parasites that
breed at an alarming rate. Nature will provide water, food, and plenty of
materials to build shelters.
Indigenous peoples have lived for millennia by hunting and gathering. However,
it will take an outsider some time to get used to the conditions and the
nonstop activity of tropical survival.
High temperatures, heavy rainfall, and oppressive humidity characterize
equatorial and subtropical regions, except at high altitudes. At low altitudes,
temperature variation is seldom less than 10 degrees C and is often more than 35
degrees C. At altitudes over 1,500 meters, ice often forms at night. The rain
has a cooling effect, but when it stops, the temperature soars.
Rainfall is heavy, often with thunder and lightning. Sudden rain beats on the
tree canopy, turning trickles into raging torrents and causing rivers to rise.
Just as suddenly, the rain stops. Violent storms may occur, usually toward the
end of the summer months.
Hurricanes, cyclones, and typhoons develop over the sea and rush inland,
causing tidal waves and devastation ashore. In choosing campsites, make sure you
are above any potential flooding. Prevailing winds vary between winter and
summer. The dry season has rain once a day and the monsoon has continuous rain.
In Southeast Asia, winds from the Indian Ocean bring the monsoon, but it is dry
when the wind blows from the landmass of China.
Tropical day and night are of equal length. Darkness falls quickly and
daybreak is just as sudden.
There is no standard jungle. The tropical area may be any of the following:
- Rain forests.
- Secondary jungles.
- Semievergreen seasonal and monsoon forests.
- Scrub and thorn forests.
- Saltwater swamps.
- Freshwater swamps.
Tropical Rain Forests
The climate varies little in rain forests. You find these forests across the
equator in the Amazon and Congo basins, parts of Indonesia, and several Pacific
islands. Up to 3.5 meters of rain fall evenly throughout the year. Temperatures
range from about 32 degrees C in the day to 21 degrees C at night.
There are five layers of vegetation in this jungle (Figure
14-1). Where untouched by man, jungle trees rise from buttress roots to
heights of 60 meters. Below them, smaller trees produce a canopy so thick that
little light reaches the jungle floor. Seedlings struggle beneath them to reach
light, and masses of vines and lianas twine up to the sun. Ferns, mosses, and
herbaceous plants push through a thick carpet of leaves, and a great variety of
fungi grow on leaves and fallen tree trunks.
Because of the lack of light on the jungle floor, there is little undergrowth
to hamper movement, but dense growth limits visibility to about 50 meters. You
can easily lose your sense of direction in this jungle, and it is extremely hard
for aircraft to see you.
Secondary jungle is very similar to rain forest. Prolific growth, where
sunlight penetrates to the jungle floor, typifies this type of forest. Such
growth happens mainly along river banks, on jungle fringes, and where man has
cleared rain forest. When abandoned, tangled masses of vegetation quickly
reclaim these cultivated areas. You can often find cultivated food plants among
Semievergreen Seasonal and Monsoon Forests
The characteristics of the American and African semievergreen seasonal
forests correspond with those of the Asian monsoon forests. These
- Their trees fall into two stories of tree strata. Those in the upper story
average 18 to 24 meters; those in the lower story average 7 to 13 meters.
- The diameter of the trees averages 0.5 meter.
- Their leaves fall during a seasonal drought.
Except for the sago, nipa, and coconut palms, the same edible plants grow in
these areas as in the tropical rain forests.
You find these forests in portions of Columbia and Venezuela and the Amazon
basin in South America; in portions of southeast coastal Kenya, Tanzania, and
Mozambique in Africa; in Northeastern India, much of Burma, Thailand, Indochina,
Java, and parts of other Indonesian islands in Asia.
Tropical Scrub and Thorn Forests
The chief characteristics of tropical scrub and thorn forests are--
- There is a definite dry season.
- Trees are leafless during the dry season.
- The ground is bare except for a few tufted plants in bunches; grasses are
- Plants with thorns predominate.
- Fires occur frequently.
You find tropical scrub and thorn forests on the west coast of Mexico,
Yucatan peninsula, Venezuela, Brazil; on the northwest coast and central parts
of Africa; and in Asia, in Turkestan and India.
Within the tropical scrub and thorn forest areas, you will find it hard to
obtain food plants during the dry season. During the rainy season, plants are
considerably more abundant.
General characteristics of the savanna are--
- It is found within the tropical zones in South America and Africa.
- It looks like a broad, grassy meadow, with trees spaced at wide intervals.
- It frequently has red soil.
- It grows scattered trees that usually appear stunted and gnarled like
apple trees. Palms also occur on savannas.
You find savannas in parts of Venezuela, Brazil, and the Guianas in South
America. In Africa, you find them in the southern Sahara (north-central Cameroon
and Gabon and southern Sudan), Benin, Togo, most of Nigeria, northeastern Zaire,
northern Uganda, western Kenya, part of Malawi, part of Tanzania, southern
Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and western Madagascar.
Saltwater swamps are common in coastal areas subject to tidal flooding.
Mangrove trees thrive in these swamps. Mangrove trees can reach heights of 12
meters, and their tangled roots are an obstacle to movement. Visibility in this
type of swamp is poor, and movement is extremely difficult. Sometimes, streams
that you can raft form channels, but you usually must travel on foot through
You find saltwater swamps in West Africa, Madagascar, Malaysia, the Pacific
islands, Central and South America, and at the mouth of the Ganges River in
India. The swamps at the mouths of the Orinoco and Amazon rivers and rivers of
Guyana consist of mud and trees that offer little shade. Tides in saltwater
swamps can vary as much as 12 meters.
Everything in a saltwater swamp may appear hostile to you, from leeches and
insects to crocodiles and caimans. Avoid the dangerous animals in this swamp.
Avoid this swamp altogether if you can. If there are water channels through
it, you may be able to use a raft to escape.
You find freshwater swamps in low-lying inland areas. Their characteristics
are masses of thorny undergrowth, reeds, grasses, and occasional short palms
that reduce visibility and make travel difficult. There are often islands that
dot these swamps, allowing you to get out of the water. Wildlife is abundant in
TRAVEL THROUGH JUNGLE AREAS
With practice, movement through thick undergrowth and jungle can be done
efficiently. Always wear long sleeves to avoid cuts and scratches.
To move easily, you must develop "jungle eye," that is, you should
not concentrate on the pattern of bushes and trees to your immediate front. You
must focus on the jungle further out and find natural breaks in the foliage.
Look through the jungle, not at it. Stop and stoop down occasionally to
look along the jungle floor. This action may reveal game trails that you can
Stay alert and move slowly and steadily through dense forest or jungle. Stop
periodically to listen and take your bearings. Use a machete to cut through
dense vegetation, but do not cut unnecessarily or you will quickly wear yourself
out. If using a machete, stroke upward when cutting vines to reduce noise
because sound carries long distances in the jungle. Use a stick to part the
vegetation. Using a stick will also help dislodge biting ants, spiders, or
snakes. Do not grasp at brush or vines when climbing slopes; they may
have irritating spines or sharp thorns.
Many jungle and forest animals follow game trails. These trails wind and
cross, but frequently lead to water or clearings. Use these trails if they lead
in your desired direction of travel.
In many countries, electric and telephone lines run for miles through
sparsely inhabited areas. Usually, the right-of-way is clear enough to allow
easy travel. When traveling along these lines, be careful as you approach
transformer and relay stations. In enemy territory, they may be guarded.
Pinpoint your initial location as accurately as possible to determine a
general line of travel to safety. If you do not have a compass, use a
field-expedient direction finding method.
Take stock of water supplies and equipment.
Move in one direction, but not necessarily in a straight line. Avoid
obstacles. In enemy territory, take advantage of natural cover and
Move smoothly through the jungle. Do not blunder through it since you will get
many cuts and scratches. Turn your shoulders, shift your hips, bend your body,
and shorten or lengthen your stride as necessary to slide between the
There is less likelihood of your rescue from beneath a dense jungle canopy
than in other survival situations. You will probably have to travel to reach
If you are the victim of an aircraft crash, the most important items to take
with you from the crash site are a machete, a compass, a first aid kit, and a
parachute or other material for use as mosquito netting and shelter.
Take shelter from tropical rain, sun, and insects. Malaria-carrying
mosquitoes and other insects are immediate dangers, so protect yourself against
Do not leave the crash area without carefully blazing or marking your route.
Use your compass. Know what direction you are taking.
In the tropics, even the smallest scratch can quickly become dangerously
infected. Promptly treat any wound, no matter how minor.
Even though water is abundant in most tropical environments, you may, as a
survivor, have trouble finding it. If you do find water, it may not be safe to
drink. Some of the many sources are vines, roots, palm trees, and condensation.
You can sometimes follow animals to water. Often you can get nearly clear water
from muddy streams or lakes by digging a hole in sandy soil about 1 meter from
the bank. Water will seep into the hole. You must purify any water obtained in
Animals as Signs of Water
Animals can often lead you to water. Most animals require water regularly.
Grazing animals such as deer, are usually never far from water and usually drink
at dawn and dusk. Converging game trails often lead to water. Carnivores (meat
eaters) are not reliable indicators of water. They get moisture from the animals
they eat and can go without water for long periods.
Birds can sometimes also lead you to water. Grain eaters, such as finches and
pigeons, are never far from water. They drink at dawn and dusk. When they fly
straight and low, they are heading for water. When returning from water, they
are full and will fly from tree to tree, resting frequently. Do not rely on
water birds to lead you to water. They fly long distances without stopping.
Hawks, eagles, and other birds of prey get liquids from their victims; you
cannot use them as a water indicator.
Insects can be good indicators of water, especially bees. Bees seldom range
more than 6 kilometers from their nests or hives. They usually will have a water
source in this range. Ants need water. A column of ants marching up a tree is
going to a small reservoir of trapped water. You find such reservoirs even in
arid areas. Most flies stay within 100 meters of water, especially the European
mason fly, easily recognized by its iridescent green body.
Human tracks will usually lead to a well, bore hole, or soak. Scrub or rocks
may cover it to reduce evaporation. Replace the cover after use.
Water From Plants
Plants such as vines, roots, and palm trees are good sources of water.
Vines with rough bark and shoots about 5 centimeters thick can be a useful
source of water. You must learn by experience which are the water-bearing vines,
because not all have drinkable water. Some may even have a poisonous sap. The
poisonous ones yield a sticky, milky sap when cut. Nonpoisonous vines will give
a clear fluid. Some vines cause a skin irritation on contact; therefore let the
liquid drip into your mouth, rather than put your mouth to the vine. Preferably,
use some type of container. Use the procedure described in Chapter 6 to obtain
water from a vine.
In Australia, the water tree, desert oak, and bloodwood have roots near the
surface. Pry these roots out of the ground and cut them into 30-centimeter
lengths. Remove the bark and suck out the moisture, or shave the root to a pulp
and squeeze it over your mouth.
The buri, coconut, and nipa palms all contain a sugary fluid that is very
good to drink. To obtain the liquid, bend a flowering stalk of one of these
palms downward, and cut off its tip. If you cut a thin slice off the stalk every
12 hours, the flow will renew, making it possible to collect up to a liter per
day. Nipa palm shoots grow from the base, so that you can work at ground level.
On grown trees of other species, you may have to climb them to reach a flowering
stalk. Milk from coconuts has a large water content, but may contain a strong
laxative in ripe nuts. Drinking too much of this milk may cause you to lose more
fluid than you drink.
Water From Condensation
Often it requires too much effort to dig for roots containing water. It may
be easier to let a plant produce water for you in the form of condensation.
Tying a clear plastic bag around a green leafy branch will cause water in the
leaves to evaporate and condense in the bag. Placing cut vegetation in a plastic
bag will also produce condensation. This is a solar still (see Chapter
Food is usually abundant in a tropical survival situation. To obtain animal
food, use the procedures outlined in Chapter 8.
In addition to animal food, you will have to supplement your diet with edible
plants. The best places to forage are the banks of streams and rivers. Wherever
the sun penetrates the jungle, there will be a mass of vegetation, but river
banks may be the most accessible areas.
If you are weak, do not expend energy climbing or felling a tree for food.
There are more easily obtained sources of food nearer the ground. Do not pick
more food than you need. Food spoils rapidly in tropical conditions. Leave food
on the growing plant until you need it, and eat it fresh.
There are an almost unlimited number of edible plants from which to choose.
Unless you can positively identify these plants, it may be safer at first to
begin with palms, bamboos, and common fruits. The list below
identifies some of the most common foods. Detailed descriptions and photographs
are at Appendix B.
ZONE FOOD PLANTS
- Bael fruit (Aegle marmelos)
- Bamboo (various species)
- Banana or plantain (Musa species)
- Bignay (Antidesma bunius)
- Breadfruit (Artrocarpus incisa)
- Coconut palm (Cocos nucifera)
- Fishtail palm (Caryota urens)
- Horseradish tree (Moringa pterygosperma)
- Lotus (Nelumbo species)
- Mango (Mangifera indica)
- Manioc (Manihot utillissima)
- Nipa palm (Nipa fruticans)
- Papaya (Carica papaya)
- Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana)
- Rattan palm (Calamus species)
- Sago palm (Metroxylon sagu)
- Sterculia (Sterculia foetida)
- Sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum)
- Sugar palm (Arenga pinnata)
- Sweetsop (Annona squamosa)
- Taro (Colocasia and Alocasia species)
- Water lily (Nymphaea odorata)
- Wild fig (Ficus species)
- Wild rice (Zizania aquatica)
- Yam (Dioscorea species)
The proportion of poisonous plants in tropical regions is no greater than in
any other area of the world. However, it may appear that most plants in the
tropics are poisonous because of the great density of plant growth in some
tropical areas. See Appendix C.