In Depth

How to survive five terrifying scenarios: from falling lifts to snakes in your bed

Experts offer their potentially life-saving advice

One of the more curious repercussions of the UK’s heatwave appears to be an increase in reports of snake sightings.

A boa constrictor was found attempting to swallow a pigeon on an East London street over the weekend, and a woman got the “fright of her life” when she awoke last month to find a three-foot python curled up beside her at her Kensington home.

Those terrifying encounters have prompted advice from experts on what to do should an uninvited reptile show up in your bed or other nearby spaces.

Here are more tips on how to survive near-death experiences.

Snakes in your bed

Venomous snakes are an uncommon choice of pet in the UK, so the chances of one slithering into your home univited are low. A survey by the Federation of British Herpetologists found that about 60 people in England had licences, to keep about 300 venomous snakes in total.

But what should you do if you spot a stray snake? Nicola White, senior scientific officer for exotics at the RSPCA, told The Guardian that you should keep well away and call in the experts: “Our advice is always to keep a safe distance - don’t try to collect the snake yourself, or touch it. Just monitor it so we know where it is.”

Should the worst happen and you are bitten by a venomous snake, news site Mental Floss recommends keeping “the bite site at or below heart level, let it bleed for 30 seconds before cleaning, avoid tourniquets - concentrated venom can be damaging - and don’t over-exert yourself getting help”.

Free-falling lift

First off, the height of the fall will almost certainly determine your likelihood of survival. Anything more than five floors and scientists generally agree there won’t be much you can do. In an article for The Conversation, Luke Barnes, a postdoctoral research fellow at Western Sydney University, agrees with the old theory that you may be able to save yourself by jumping just before the lift hits the ground.

“Because of your leap, you are falling more slowly than the elevator. The speed at which you hit the floor of the (suddenly stopped) elevator is the elevator speed minus your jump speed,” Barnes explains.

Unfortunately timing your jump is very difficult, as this HowStuffWorks video shows. “A moment too late, you’ve already hit the floor; a moment too soon, and you might hit your head on the ceiling of the elevator and lose your jump speed,” says Barnes.

That said, he adds that “modern elevators have a wide variety of safety backups, such as multiple cables and electromagnetic brakes. But if the worst should happen, take Van Halen’s advice: you might as well jump.” 

Stranded in the wilderness

Should you find yourself lost in the wilderness, your primary focus should be finding water as humans can last only about four days without it.

To ward off dehydration, “search for animals, birds (especially songbirds), insects (especially honeybees), and green vegetation, all of which can indicate that water is nearby”, says the Reader’s Digest’s Beth Dreher.

Rock crevices may also hold small pockets of rainwater.

You can survive without food for up to three weeks, she continues, but “these four items are always edible: grass, cattails, acorns, and pine needles”. A simple rhyme can also help you identify safe-to-eat berries: “White and yellow, kill a fellow. Purple and blue, good for you.”

Stuck in an avalanche

Being in an avalanche feels like “being in a high-speed washing machine”, according to off piste guide and expert Henry Schniewind.

He recommends swimming furiously for the surface and trying to get your head above the snow. “Make the biggest effort as the avalanche slows,” Schniewind told The Daily Telegraph.

Your chances of survival will be higher if you can keep your nose and mouth free of snow and use your arms to establish space around your face before the avalanche stops.

If you are “completely buried but wearing a radio transceiver, your chance of survival is 34%,” says Schniewind. “After 15 minutes this starts to fall dramatically but if you are not fully buried, survival chances are over 90%”.

Choking while alone

It will be tough not to panic, because “choking always causes a rush of adrenaline and fear”, Richard Bradley, professor of emergency medicine at the Texas-based McGovern Medical School, told the US edition of Men’s Health.

But if you can cough or speak, then your airway isn’t completely blocked, and forcing yourself to cough may dislodge it. If you can speak, call the emergency services immediately.

It is also possible to perform the Heimlich manoeuvre (abdominal thrusts) on yourself to dislodge the object: place your fist with the thumb side against your abdomen, slightly above your navel. Grab your fist with your other hand and deliver a quick punching movement, inwards and upwards towards your sternum.

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