Surviving a volcano eruption – what would you do?

photo credit:
photo credit: @mori____mori

So hopefully most of you know that I place a lot of value in learning survival techniques related to hiking, as well as teaching hiking related survival techniques.

From complex topics such as thermoregulation (which most hikers seem to struggle with), too simple topics such as ‘never hit the trail without a compass’ (which almost every hiker I encounter on the trail and ask, does not have, and which I require for every person on my guided trips) to some of the more complex survival techniques such as compass navigation, when to allow yourself to get wet in the rain and when not too (which might sound simple but is a complex issue that is a key aspect of thermoregulation and highly variant upon other weather conditions) — all of these are topics I have written about and taught on over the last five years (and learned a great deal of myself by being out there and forcing myself to learn more and more about these issues).

Every so often, however, a hiking related survival issue comes up that makes me, if not downright forces me, to grab my extra small moleskin notebook ( and scribble some notes on things I have never thought about or encountered before while out hiking.

Earlier this morning I was reading an article that made me go “umm” and reach over and pull out my moleskin and jot down some notes. The article was this one: and it is all about a volcano eruption in Japan.

There was one specific video that make me cringe, knowing that if such a situation happened to me, I would have to proceed based on nothing more than some adaptation of SERE, rather than being able to evade and survive such a situation because I had already trained and prepared myself mentally and educationally on such a situation.

Watch the following video and from the very start think “what are the first five actions I should be taking at this very moment“.

Perhaps the scariest moment of this video is at the 45 second mark when the camera looks back up the trail and you see a line of people behind you and the ash cloud coming down and covering every single person. That moment is what caused me to just pause the video and go “OMG, what in the world would I be doing?

Do you stop and hope for the best?

Do you link up arms with somebody else?

Do you take 60-90 seconds and use some cordage (perhaps shoe laces, bungee cord from your backpack, or some 550 cord if you’re one of those type of hikers) and tie-up with another hiker?

Do you immediately grab your bandana, buff, or shemagh and cover your mouth and nose? There is no way you can prevent breathing in gases but at least you can keep the ash from filling up your mouth, throat and lungs.

Do you make sure you have very easy access to your water bottles for if you need to quickly wash out your eyes or stave off dry-throat issues?

What evacuation risk assessment are you going to quickly run through your mind (and share with fellow hikers if you are hiking with a pack) to determine if the best course of action is to get the hell out of dodge and risk injury by running, or hunkering down where you are and hoping you can wait it out, or what about quickly setting up your shelter and hoping it can withstand the gale force abuse when the ash cloud hits.

These are just five of the questions that came to me when I was watching that short 90 second video. Since I first saw it and grabbed my moleskin I have since come up with 17 questions that I felt I should invest some time into answering. There is a very slim chance I would ever need to put these type of questions into actual use, but a HUGE part of survival, even hiking related survival, is knowing how you would handle a situation if it ever did become something you were faced with.

I would love to hear some well thought-out questions, and even possible answers to your questions, to this issue. Watch the video, jot down some questions on what you find yourself thinking about when watching it. Then watch the video again three or four more times and start thinking up answers to your questions. Find a bit of healthy fear in watching the video – force yourself to go “oh ****” (that healthy fear of the situation) and freeze-frame yourself in that moment and think to yourself “ok, what am I going to do in the next 60 seconds, the next three minutes, and the next 6 minutes” – anything beyond that is probably going to be too late to do anything anyway.

I look forward to (a) what initial questions you find yourself asking regarding ‘(the: what do I do…‘) as well as (b) what steps of actions you feel would be best to address each of the questions you come up with.

Hopefully you can come up with at least five steps that you feel you should take – I would love to hear them.

+John Abela

5 thoughts on “Surviving a volcano eruption – what would you do?

  1. That would be pretty intense… And honestly, I am not sure what I would do considering I am not even anywhere close to a volcano…

    Saying that though, some of your first thoughts (I would think) would also be mine.

    While watching the video, the first thing I thought was why aren’t they getting closer together. After this, I was thinking that I would definitely like to have something to cover both my mouth and my eyes.

    Also, it would be nice to grab a piece of cord and tie off… the group wouldn’t even have to tie off really, just the person at the back and the front. The folks in the middle could quickly thread the cord through a shoulder strap and hand it off to the next person. Unless the cord is actual climbing cord, there would be no reason to secure it anymore I would think.

    From this point I would think that I would like to try to continue making my way away, following the trail, assuming that the trail was easy enough to follow. If it got sketchy, or hard to see where we were going, maybe try to wait it out for a bit? I really don’t know at that point though… I guess this is where group decision comes in? Of course if someone had a GPS, it would be helpful in this situation.

    As for my water, I always carry it in the same way, so luckily, I wouldn’t even have to think about that situation. The only concern would be how much do I have…

    Anyway, like I said, I have never even been close to this situation, besides the one time we drove up to Sunrise at Mt Rainier! Admittedly, all of my hiking so far has been the easy kind where I follow a heavily travelled footpath…

    Good article though, thanks for sharing!


  2. If that ash cloud is actually a pyroclastic flow instead of just an ash cloud, there’s nothing I could do to survive (Emergency beam-out, Scotty; NOW!). It is basically the old “bend over and kiss your a$$ good-bye scenario. But since I won’t know for sure if it is packing that 1000°F heated gas until it’s too late, I would hopefully remain calm enough to:

    1. Protect my airway by tying my bandana or something similar over my nose and mouth while:

    2. Locating the 1st large solid object in the IMMEDIATE area and placing it between me and the cloud as a windbreak/shelter, then STOP RIGHT THERE.

    3. Shoot a quick compass bearing of the way down, if there is time to do so and still do 4 and 5

    4. Lie down and cover myself and my gear with my tarp or shelter to further protect my eyes, airway, and body. Tuck the shelter under my body and hold onto some of the lines in an attempt to secure it.

    5. Pull my pack over my head (under the tarp) for protection from falling debris, close my eyes, and hold on tight to the pack straps (and shelter lines) so I don’t loose it in the windstorm rapid descending upon me.

    Hopefully I got lucky and the cloud was just ash. if not, I’ll finally have the answer to the age-old debate “Is there life after death or is religion really just a means to sow fear and thereby control the masses?”

  3. I would cover my nose and mouth. Look quickly for any sheltering rock, just in case the force was bad enough to take me off my feet, hunker down and cover my head against falling debris, make sure my water hose is very handy and then just hang on. Maybe the ole Spot unit 911 button would also be a standby too (although I would not expect it to save, but would help searchers narrow the area to search). I would have to hope my hiking partners were doing their best to survive too, so that we could be alive to help each other later. This is definitely a scenario I had never even contemplated. I do play the “what if” game on a lot of my hikes. It makes you think.

  4. Several weeks ago we spent 3 days camping on Mt.Hood Oregon while hiking the PCT on the way to PCT days at Cascade Locks. That same thought crossed my mind as I remembered what happened to Mt. St. Helen.
    Looking at the video, I would have ducked into that reinforced shelter which is cabled down to the ground. It looks as if it was built to withstand such impacts. However, most of us wouldn’t have such a place to take shelter. There appears to be a rock cave near the shelter you could quickly wet a bandanna and craw into it or something similar which could block the initial impact.
    On Mt. Hood I would have ducked between large rocks or built a quick wind break to duck behind.

  5. So I watched the first short video, then the longer BBC clip that led into the half hour Mount St Helens video, which made me think that other than a little dust and pebbles and you’re pretty much sol.

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