SCENARIO: In an attempt to escape from a mysterious, armed assailant which turns out to be a human-hunting alien, Alan “Dutch” Schaefer (Arnold Schwarzenegger) covers himself in mud to avoid detection. If you’re being stalked by a predator—extraterrestrial or otherwise—is mud an acceptable camouflage?
THE EXPERT SAYS: “I’ve done that myself,” says Nester—though as the predator, not the prey. “When I was younger, we used to cover ourselves with mud and lay on the trail and try to sneak up on deer.” As an added bonus, mud can repel bugs if you apply it thickly enough. Though Predator is obviously fiction, Dutch’s various improvised techniques and makeshift weapons are consistent with his background as a Green Beret; using improvisation to overcome an unknown situation “is certainly something those guys know how to do.”
SCENARIO: After being shot, Vietnam vet and all-around badass John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) heats up a metal rod and uses it to cauterize the wound. If you’ve been shot in the field and you don’t have access to medical supplies, should you use the same technique?
THE EXPERT SAYS: “That’s Hollywood, for sure,” says Nester. Anyone who attempts to cauterize a wound like Rambo is just sealing in a possible infection. You’d be better off if you clean it, thoroughly irrigate it with water, and cover it while you find a way to get out of the situation and into a hospital. But you’d better do it fast. After 24 hours, any untreated wound stands the risk of becoming a serious problem—or, at the very least, a “cool tattoo.”
SCENARIO: When Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is thrown by his enemies into a pit filled with snakes, he uses a torch to scare them off. If you’re being attacked by poisonous serpents, will fire frighten them away?
THE EXPERT SAYS: “With that many snakes, I think he’d be screwed,” says Nester. At best, Indy’s torch technique is a coin toss: “The heat might draw the snakes in, though it could repel them if they’re too close.” But given the circumstances, it was also his last option—so if you’re somehow unlucky enough to fall into a comparable situation, it’s worth a shot.
SCENARIO: When Han Solo (Harrison Ford) finds Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) freezing to death on the ice planet Hoth, he cuts open the belly of his dead Tauntaun—a furry bipedal creature that’s used as a mount by explorers of the planet’s icy wasteland—and shoves Luke inside, keeping him warm for the night. Would a non-Jedi in a comparable situation be able to survive?
THE EXPERT SAYS: The “stay warm in an animal carcass” technique is surprisingly effective—and more common than you might think. “If you look at Germany, Poland, or Russia 100 years ago, there will be stuff like that that shows up,” says Nester. There are many historical cases of soldiers who, stranded in the snow, “cut open their horses and stuffed their buddies inside for the night.” Though it won’t keep them alive forever, it’s a good last-ditch effort if you know help isn't far away.
There are few things Hollywood loves more than a good survival scene. Humanity's clash against nature has led to some of the most memorable movie moments—and biggest box-office grosses—of all time. (Think Predator or Cast Away.) But that doesn’t mean that Hollywood always offers good survival advice; in fact, it’s generally the opposite. Trying to follow the example of Sylvester Stallone or Alec Baldwin could get you killed.
Would fire scare a snake away? Could two untrained men kill a 1,800-pound bear? Could a Port-A-Potty be turned into a sail? To fact-check these questions, and seven more of Hollywood’s most dubious claims, I reached out to Tony Nester, a survival expert who has instructed actors like Emile Hirsch (Into the Wild) and Josh Brolin (Jonah Hex) on a wide range of bushcraft techniques, to get the lowdown on what would work and what wouldn't.