SCENARIO: When 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is bitten in the arm by a rattlesnake, her partner and protector Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) cuts the wound open and sucks the venom out, then races across Choctaw country, working her horse until it collapses, in order to get her to a doctor. Though Rooster manages to save her life, her arm develops gangrene and needs to be amputated. Did Rooster do the right thing?
THE EXPERT SAYS: Though the “suck the venom out” technique was commonly used in the 1870s, when True Grit was set, it has ”long since been refuted by every doctor and EMT out there,” says Nester. A snakebite should be treated like any other wound: clean it out, wash it, and “get the injured person out of there.” It’s not clear if Mattie was envenomed, since they end up amputating her arm, but time is the most important thing—so Mattie’s horse didn’t die in vain.
SCENARIO: Confronted by the alpha from a grey wolf pack in the Alaskan wilderness, John Ottway (Liam Neeson) tapes a knife and the shards of broken alcohol bottles to his hands and charges at the wolf. The movie leaves Ottway’s ultimate fate ambiguous. If you attack a wolf with a knife and some broken glass, what are your chances of surviving?
THE EXPERT SAYS: While wolves rarely pick fights with humans, a person taking on a grey wolf with a single knife and some broken glass would probably be torn to pieces. Still, Ottway was a survivor, and that may be the most important “technique” of all. Positive mental attitude “is what gets you through the night when you’ve got broken ribs and hypothermia," says Nester—the conviction that "'there’s no way I’m going to go out. I’m going to be here tomorrow morning when the sun comes out, and I’m going to make it.” That belief is the common factor in some of the most incredible true wilderness survival stories.
SCENARIO: When a broken section of a Port-A-Potty washes onto the beach, four-year castaway Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks) fashions it into a sail for a makeshift raft and uses it to escape the island. Given the circumstances, would a boat like Chuck's have any chance of making it to shore?
THE EXPERT SAYS: It may not be the most glamorous craft, but “survival is all about improvising,” says Nester, and the Port-A-Potty seems to be Chuck's best option. It’s common to see people trapped in long-term survival scenarios developing a "MacGyver-esque approach.” This particular craft may not have held up in real life, but the makeshift sail “shows the brilliance of his thinking and his ability to improvise," and a person with that type of mentality is the most likely to survive.
SCENARIO: After crashing their plane into a remote, snowy region of North America, Charles Morse (Anthony Hopkins) and Bob Green (Alec Baldwin) find themselves stalked by a 1,800-pound Kodiak bear. The two men prepare an elaborate spiked trap, hang it from a tree, and swing it into the bear. After they finally manage to kill their ursine assailant, they tan its skin and use it as a cloak. Could two untrained men take down a bear of this size?
THE EXPERT SAYS: Though the mantra of the men—"what one man can do, another can do”—is the right attitude to have, they’re taking a pretty big risk. “I’m not going to stand there and spear a bear,” Nester says. “I’m still going to run.” And their fresh-made bear suits are ridiculous: “I’ve tanned big animals like that, and it takes at least four to seven days of hard, wrenching work until it’s even soft.”
SCENARIO: After their plane crash-lands on an island, a group of young male military cadets led by a boy named Ralph (Balthazar Getty) keep a signal fire lit in the hope of attracting a passing ship's attention. In the broad expanse of the ocean, what are their chances of being rescued?
THE EXPERT SAYS: “There are thousands of rescues around the world with people using signal fires,” says Nester. He has a few tips that might have helped the Lord of the Flies boys get help before their makeshift society devolved into savagery: Keep the fire going at all times, and make it smoky by using green foliage and driftwood, which should be easy to find on the beach. But most of all, “you have to have someone manning it 24/7.”