A User's Guide to Life's Little Emergencies

In an ideal world, you’d never have to deal with the scary situations shown below. But if you do, this guide will help you be so ready.

Picture this: You’re on a hike with friends when you realize you haven’t seen a trail marker in a while. You try retracing your steps, but nothing looks familiar. Even worse, you have zero cell service. Your mind starts spinning. What if you don’t find the trail? How long can you survive on half a bottle of water and the linty piece of gum in your pocket? Yup, you’re officially freaking out. 

Finding yourself in a potentially life-threatening situation is definitely scary. But here’s the good news: With some planning, you can prevent many mishaps from becoming full-blown emergencies. “The keys are knowing your risks, being prepared, and feeling confident about what to do,” says Jeffrey Pellegrino, a professor of emergency management who advises the American Red Cross.

Fingers crossed, you’ll never need to put your emergency skills into action. But being ready for the worst will help you keep your cool. In fact, studies show that teens who learn how to prepare for emergencies make better decisions and feel more in control in disaster situations. 

Read on to learn about the pre-emergency prep you can put into practice today. Plus, you’ll find expert advice on how to tackle some common potential emergencies.

Emergency Situation 1: You’re on a hike when you realize you’re lost—and your phone is dead.

Reduce Your Risk: Always overpack for a hike. Bring extra water and food, a whistle, a jacket (even if it’s warm), a flashlight, and a trash bag (more on that later). Look up the trail map online so you’re familiar with the route. Tell someone where you’re going, which trail you’re following, and when you expect to return. Once you’re on the hike, stay on the trails. Pay attention to your surroundings, and note any times you switch trails or come to a fork in the path. 

Take Action: If you know where you took a wrong turn, retrace your steps. But if you’re sure you’re lost, stay calm and stay put. “You’re much more likely to be found if you stay in one spot,” says Liz Hall, emergency manager of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Blow a whistle or yell for help if you think other hikers are nearby. You can also make a big X with rocks or sticks so rescue drones or pilots can spot you. If you’re cold, tear a head hole in the trash bag and wear it for insulation—it also offers great protection from the rain.

Emergency Situation 2: You're swimming when you feel yourself pulled away from shore by the current.

Reduce Your Risk: Along with slathering on sunscreen as soon as you hit the sand, check for signs that it might be unsafe to swim, such as red flags on the beach or a forecast of an approaching storm. If you do go in the water, swim with a buddy and stay near a lifeguard. 

Take Action: Fighting the current by swimming against it will only zap your energy and increase your risk of drowning. Instead, stay calm and remember that even though the current is pulling you out, it won’t pull you under. If you’re close to shore or other swimmers, yell or wave your arms for help, but don’t wear yourself out. Swim or float on your back parallel to the shoreline until you’re out of the current, then head back to shore. Once you’re on dry land, be sure to rest and drink some water to recover. Also make sure you alert the lifeguards of the conditions so they can warn others. 

Emergency Situation 3: You’re home alone and—sniff, sniff—you smell smoke.

Reduce Your Risk: Make sure you have an up-to-date family emergency plan (see “Does Your Family Have a Plan?” on pgs. 8-9). If you have a fire extinguisher, be sure you know where it is and how to use it.

Take Action: Try to pinpoint the source of the smoke. Is it coming from a neighbor’s barbecue or your own kitchen? If the fire is small and you can access the fire extinguisher, use it—but only if you feel comfortable doing so. “Trust your gut,” says Pellegrino. If you can’t see the fire but feel heat when you touch a closed door handle with the back of your hand, then it’s time to get out—but not through the door that feels warm. If there’s no other way out, open a window to signal for help or to escape if you’re on a low floor. Once you’re safely outside, call 911 or ask a neighbor to call for you.

Emergency Situation 4: You’re playing  basketball with a friend when he cuts himself on something sharp—and there’s a lot of blood. 

Reduce Your Risk: Keep a small first aid kit in your bag or car. It should include adhesive bandages, antibiotic ointment, cleansing wipes, and a gauze roll. 

Take Action: First, check the scene for the sharp object to make sure you don’t get injured too. Then apply direct, heavy pressure on the wound using a clean bandage or a piece of cloth (like your T-shirt) to stop the bleeding. To do this, press straight down with the palms of your hands for a few minutes. If the bleeding doesn’t stop, or if your friend is losing a lot of blood (think enough to fill half of a soda can), call 911. 

Emergency Situation 5: Your car begins making a new strange sound or it starts losing power while you’re driving on a busy road.

Reduce Your Risk: Know where the hazard light button and spare tire are in your car. You should also have an emergency bag with a blanket, water, snacks, a flashlight, and a first aid kit in your trunk. 

Take Action: Tap your brake to signal drivers behind you. Pull over on the shoulder of the highway or onto a side street. Park, put on your hazard lights, and call 911. “As long as you’re not on the edge of traffic, it’s safest to stay inside the car with your seat belt on,” says William Van Tassel of the American Automobile Association. If you’re too close to other cars, carefully get out using the door opposite traffic and wait somewhere safe for help to arrive.

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