How to cut off your own arm in an emergency

Marshall Brain

Back in 2003, Aron Ralston became famous for cutting off his own arm. The arm had become wedged under a boulder in a remote area of Utah, and the only way to save himself was to cut it off and go for help:

Hiker Aron Ralston Cuts Off Own Arm to Survive

Pinned in a 3-foot wide slot canyon near the Maze District of Canyonlands National Park south of Moab, Utah, Ralston cut through his own arm below the elbow Thursday morning, applying a tourniquet and administering first aid before rigging anchors and fixing a rope to rappel to the bottom of Blue John Canyon and hiking out to meet rescuers.

See also the description and photos here: Cheating Death in Bluejohn Canyon -and- CMU grad describes cutting off his arm to save his life

Other cases include: - Man Pinned Under Tree Amputates His Leg - Arm trapped, and fearing fire, tough miner knew what to do

This week another man attempted the same kind of thing after his arm became trapped in a furnace:

Cutting off own arm was 'surreal,' says man

Jonathan Metz had his left arm stuck in his furnace boiler for about 12 hours when he asked himself "what would MacGyver do?" and concluded that amputating the limb was his only chance for survival.

So if you found yourself in a situation like this, and you needed to amputate your own arm to survive, what are the steps?

Step 1 - Assess the situation to figure out when you need to act. A big factor in that decision is availability of water and the state of the weather. If you have water and are not threatened by heat stroke or hypothermia, then you could potentially sit tight for weeks. This might give rescuers time to notice your absence and mount a search. If there is no water available or if the weather is bad, then you have far less time available. See How Long Can You Survive Without Water? for details on water.

Another factor is gangrene. If the limb has no blood flow, it will die and the infection can create a life-threatening situation. But if there is adequate blood flow to the limb and minimal damage, this may not be a concern. Step 2 - Search for alternatives to free your limb. Levers, ropes, wedges, saws, etc. are all possibilities.

Step 3 - Think about signaling techniques. Yelling or banging on things are the obvious first steps. If your cell phone has no reception, try turning it off (to save the battery) and waiting for nightfall to see if something changes. Could you light a signal fire without endangering yourself? Smoke during the day or flames at night might be visible from a distance.

Step 4 - Once you determine it is time to act, and assuming you have access to some kind of blade to do the amputation, you have two questions to answer: 1) How are you going to prevent yourself from bleeding to death, and 2) How will you break or cut the bone? Aron Ralston answered question 1 with a tourniquet and question 2 with leverage. He used leverage against the boulder to snap the bones.

Once the bones have been broken, then the remainder of the amputation is gross but fairly self explanatory. Think about cutting through any tough piece of meat. But if you would like to get into the details, this article can help:

Amputation of the Arm

Aron Ralston describes his amputation here:

[[[Jump to previous How To - How to make your own chainmail jewelry (bracelets, necklaces) for yourself, friends and family]]]