20 From 20/20: Former Navy SEAL's Guide to Surviving Almost Anything

Cade Courtley, a former Navy SEAL, on how to prepare yourself for disaster.

ByABC News
August 20, 2013, 11:44 AM

Aug. 23, 2013— -- intro: When disaster strikes suddenly, do you flee or stay put? Do you wait for first responders or take action? No matter what the situation, it's better to be prepared.

Cade Courtley, a former Navy SEAL, has trained for years on how to survive dire situations and used many of the lessons he learned in the military to help develop his how-to guide called, "SEAL Survival Guide: A Navy SEAL's Secrets to Surviving Any Disaster."

In an interview with "20/20," which airs on Friday, Aug. 23, Courtley talked about how preparing yourself mentally and physically for a disaster can help save your life and offered up ways to escape situations such as finding yourself trapped in your car.

Courtley demonstrated his various techniques at the Los Angeles Fire Department's disaster preparedness center. A sprawling facility where not only firefighters train, but more than 4,000 civilians a year receive instruction as part of free Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) training.

10 Ways to Think and Act Like a SEAL – And Survive

1. Early Preparation: Rehearsing Scenarios Helps

Courtley suggests rehearsing various scenarios so that if the worst happens, it's not so new and you will be able to handle it better.

"Survival is all about preparation," he said. "You start in your mind, start getting mentally tougher. You start rehearsing mentally situations you might find yourself in, so that when you find yourself in that situation, you're able to deal with it. You're able to think through it, act appropriately and do it. And that's exactly what we did in the SEAL teams."

2. Practice 'Battle Proofing'

Both mentally and physically rehearsing for a dangerous situation is "huge," what the military calls "emergency conditioning" or "battle proofing," Courtley said.

"From the military standpoint, as a soldier, before you go into combat you kind of close your eyes and you think about, 'OK, I can expect it's going to sound like this, it's going to feel like this, it's going to be chaotic, it's going to be loud,'" he said.

And then there are occasions when you can physically rehearse something, Courtley said. For example, he said you can get into your car and practice going through the motions as if its flooding.

"Imagine closing your eyes and getting your seatbelt on and off, or closing your eyes and rolling your window up and down," he said. "[It] creates what's called muscle memory. If you do it enough times you can do it without even looking down. It just happens."

3. Confidence is Key

The bottom line, Courtley said, is you have to be confident in yourself and your actions to survive, no matter what the situation is.

"If you feel like you know how to handle a situation, whether it be a boss at work who is a pain in the butt or now I'm upside down in a car and water's coming in, if you feel confident, this thing is going work a lot better than, 'oh gee, now what, what do I do?'"

4. Practice 'Combat Breathing'

Remembering to breathe in high-stress situations can help calm you and allow you to think more clearly, Courtley said.

"You breathe in for four seconds, you breathe out for four seconds, and it's something as simple as that," he said. "Not only are you getting oxygen -- enriching your body with oxygen -- but you're giving this thing a chance to like, okay, bring it down."

"I mean, I use combat breathing when I'm driving and I get cut off."

5. Have a Will to Live

If you find yourself in a dire situation, Courtley said it helps to focus on something to motivate you to live.

"When you're actually in a situation I do what's called create a trigger. … and the trigger is as simple as this: What is the most important thing in your life? It could be a family member. So you visualize seeing your son," he said.

"And then now you're in that survival situation and it's going take 150 percent of everything you have to get out of that, so think about that trigger: I want to see my son tonight. I'm going do whatever it takes, whether it's crawling out of a burning car, fighting a guy twice your size in a back alley, you flip that trigger."

6. 'Rule of 3'

Courtley said it's vital to have multiple options at the ready to escape danger.

"You think of three options that you will have to get out of that situation … option 1, option 2, option 3, do a quick pro and con of those three, and then just pick one and go with it," he said. "If it's not the right one, at least you've made a decision and you can adjust and alter as you continue on."

7. Do Something: 'Inaction Is the Worst Action'

Courtley said that the worst thing you can do is nothing at all, and don't wait for someone to come and rescue you.

"As an officer in the military, I was always told … the worst decision you can ever make is not making a decision," he said. "You can't sort of wait for somebody to help you out. You can't expect somebody that will be there to assist."

8. Don't Be Paranoid

"I would never preach being hyper-vigilant, being paranoid, because that's no way to live," Courtley said. "That goes back to the confidence of knowing, 'OK, I'm ready, I've thought about it, I prepared for it, now I'm going to live my life because I know if this happens, I will know how to handle it.'"

9. Have a Survival 'Go Bag' in the Car

Courtley suggests having a "go bag" in the truck or behind the passenger seat of your car. You can tailor the "go bag" items based on your preferences, such as if you have children, but some of the items he suggested having were a water filtration system, a multi-tool, water resistant pouches for documents and electronics, three days worth of prescriptions, first aid items and a poncho.

10. What If You're in the Car During a Disaster? 'It's All Scenario-Driven'

If you find yourself stuck in your car during a disaster, do you abandon the vehicle or stay put? Courtley said "it depends on the situation."

"Survival is all based on priorities," he said. "What you need to do is [figure out] what is the first thing that can kill me in this situation?" and assess from there.

In an avalanche, Courtley said, the best thing to do is stay in the car, but if the car is on fire, then you will want to get out as fast as possible.

"I'm in my vehicle and my vehicle is on fire, what is the first thing that's going to kill you? Well, it may be asphyxiation but realistically, you're going to burn to death. So your priority is to get out of that vehicle," he said.

Your Car vs. 10 Major Disasters: How to Survive

According to Arbitron, the average American spends 15 hours a week in the car – that's roughly five years of your life spent behind the wheel.

In his interview with "20/20" and in his book, Courtley described the various disasters you can encounter while in your car, and how to survive them.

1. How To Survive: An Avalanche

If your car is caught in an avalanche, Courtley said the first thing to do is turning on the overhead dome light, because it can help calm you down, and turn the engine off.

"You're going die from carbon monoxide a lot faster than you will from suffocation," he said.

Then Courtley suggested bringing legs to your chest to keep warm -- your body heat will keep car warm for a while and snow acts as an insulator.

Don't open doors or windows, he said, because "snow is like cement. You won't be able to push past it, but it will flow into your car and fill it up."

Courtley said your car will act as an air pocket for a couple of hours, so it is important to breathe slowly and evenly to make your supply last. Don't light a fire, even a cigarette, inside the car because you will be using up precious oxygen, he added. You should also honk your horn repeatedly to get people's attention.

2. How To Survive: A Tornado

A car is not the safest place in a tornado, Courtley said, who suggested getting out of the vehicle and either taking shelter in a completely covered structure or laying down in the nearest ditch.

You can also try to get out of its path by driving 90 degrees to the right or 90 degrees to the left, he said. The goal is to have the tornado in your rearview mirror.

If there is no time to get out of your car, Courtley suggested staying buckled in and lay as low as possible inside, below the windows, to protect yourself from flying debris and broken glass.

3. How To Survive: A Hurricane

It's important not be a "sitting duck," stuck in traffic when the storm hits, Courtley said. Have alternative evacuation routes.

He suggests driving away from the storm as quickly as possible, but not so fast that it would cause the car to hydroplane.

Courtley also cautioned against driving through water – "If you can't see the pavement, then the water it too deep, don't drive through it," he said.

4. How To Survive: A Flash Flood or Mudslide

It only takes 18 inches of water to lift your vehicle off the road, Courtley said, so avoid low-lying water.

If you have an opportunity to get out of the car, Courtley said roll down the windows and have an escape route planned before you exit the vehicle.

But if you find yourself trapped inside your car during a flash flood or a mudslide, Courtley suggested staying in your vehicle. "The car protects you from floating objects or being dragged by the water," he said.

5. How To Survive: A Bridge Collapse or Plunging into Water

If your car is plunging towards water, Courtley said the first thing to do is brace for impact by leaning back, scrunching your shoulders so your neck is between them, straighten your legs out and fill your lungs with air.

The other important thing to remember, Courtley said, is to stay calm. You have roughly two minutes before your vehicle will fully submerge, he said, "if you panic, you will lose your oxygen."

As soon as you can, roll down the windows and unbuckle your seatbelt – Courtley said the engine will stall, but you should be able to turn the car battery on to lower the windows. If not, he suggested breaking the windows to escape the sinking vehicle.

"Keep a window breaker device Velcro-ed to door for easy access or find a heavy object like a flashlight to break a side window," he said. "It breaks more easily if you hit an edge or corner. Front windshield is hard to break."

As a last resort, Courtley said to open the door and make sure the doors are unlocked. "You won't be able to open doors until the water pressure has equalized inside and outside," meaning the water has to almost fill the car, he said.

6. How To Survive: A Downed Power Line

If you come across a downed power line while driving, a common occurrence in a storm, Courtley said to stay in your car.

"You've got four tires, rubber. That is acting as insulation. That's keeping you within this car from getting electrocuted," he said.

If you have to leave the car because of a fire or a life-threatening injury, Courtley said to use extreme caution and don't let anyone touch the car because it can electrocute them.

He suggested placing a rubber floor mat outside of the car as far as would be reasonable for you to jump to: "Most floor mats are made of rubber. That's going to help act as the insulator, just like the tires."

Leap far and away from the car, so that no part of your body or clothing touches the vehicle and the ground at the same time. Then Courtley said to "shuffle away" from the car by keeping both feet close together. This can minimize the path of electric current and avoid electric shock, Courtley said.

Another option, he suggested, is have another car come and push your car out of harm's way.

7. How To Survive: An Earthquake

In an earthquake, Courtley you should stay away from large trees and buildings.

If you happen to be in a large, multi-level parking garage, Courtley said get out of your car and lay down next to the tires. The space between two cars is the safest in an earthquake, he said.

8. How To Survive: A Carjacking

It's important to avoid being a target in the first place, Courtley said. When you're stopped, be on your cell phone or eating food, and don't ride with the windows down and the doors unlocked. He suggests checking your rearview mirror to watch for people who might be creeping up on you.

Never park next to a van, Courtley added, especially next to one with a sliding side door, and don't let your car be boxed in. Leave plenty of room to drive off and maneuver around other cars.

One tactic carjackers might use is called "bump and jump." Courtley said if someone bumps your car and you feel vulnerable, don't get out of the car.

9. How To Survive: A Carjacking If You're Force to Drive

If you find yourself being carjacked and you are forced to drive, Courtley suggested driving to a police station or a crowded place.

Tell the carjacker there are children in the car with you, Courtley suggested, because they likely won't want the extra trouble. Also say that the car has a tracking device that can't be deactivated.

Courtley also suggests driving erratically, including drifting into other lanes, slamming into mailboxes, leaving the turn signal on, tapping the brake lights to make flashes, driving with your high beams on or your headlines off if it's dark outside, anything to attract attention to your vehicle that something might be wrong, and hopefully a police officer will pull you over.

10. How To Survive: Being Locked in the Trunk

If you are carjacked and the suspect locks you in the truck, Courtley said there are a few things you can do to escape.

In some cars, you can disconnect the rear brake lights and kick them out to alert cars behind you that you are in the trunk. Many trunks have escape cords now, Courtley said, and you should know where in your car that is located. You could also try sneaking into the backseat by forcing the seat down and then escaping out of the back door.

If the car stops and the suspect goes to open the trunk, Courtley suggested having your tire jack hardware ready to attack.

Watch the full story on "20/20" this Friday, Aug. 23 at 10 p.m. ET