Basic survival skills are something that everyone should take the time to master. Even if you’re not interested in hiking, camping, or other outdoor activities, in the event of an accident or natural disaster, you could find yourself alone in the wilderness with only your wits to rely on. Learning some simple survival techniques will ensure you’re prepared for the worst-case scenario and could save your life one day.

Table of Contents

Survival List – Preparing Your Emergency Essentials

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It’s easy to get carried away and buy lots of fancy tools and gadgets when you’re building your survival essentials kit, but experienced survivalists realize it makes more sense to travel light and rely on a few core items that are simple and have multiple uses.

After all, survival preparedness at its heart is learning how to use what you can find from nature in the environment around you. If you rely on man-made equipment, you’ll be completely unprepared if you end up needing to survive in the wild without your kit.

Having said that, if you’re going camping or hiking, you should of course bring some essentials with you. The following provides a good basic kit that won’t take up too much space or weight in your pack:

  • A knife – for cutting rope, cloth and branches, preparing food and killing animals
  • Something to help you start a fire – matches or a lighter should definitely be included but they may run out, break, or get wet so it’s always a good idea to have a backup. Commercial emergency fire starters are inexpensive and can be used thousands of times to easily start a fire.
  • A water bottle – having access to clean drinking water is the most important aspect of survival. Without water you will die within a few days so when you find a source of water it’s important to have somewhere to store and transport it.
  • A plastic sheet or poncho – a lightweight plastic tarp is ideal. It can keep you dry and warm and makes an easy shelter.
  • Rope or cord – a paracord bracelet is a handy way of ensuring that you always have durable cord with you that can be used for constructing a shelter, making animal traps, tying items to your pack, making splints and hundreds of other uses.
  • A compass and map – these days many people rely on the GPS on their phone for navigation but electronics frequently fail and you should always have a backup. Knowing how to read a map and use a compass is still an essential survival skill.
  • Aluminum foil – helpful for starting fires, signaling, keeping things dry, reflecting heat and many other things.
  • Water purification tablets – a cheap and easy way to make water safe for drinking that takes up practically no space in your pack
  • Duct tape – has many different uses from helping you to construct a shelter to protecting your feet from blisters
  • A needle and thread – for fixing clothing and your pack, medical uses and the needle can also be used as a makeshift compass
  • First aid kit – including cotton wool, bandages, alcohol cleansing wipes and antibiotic ointment.

Wilderness survival skills


How to Build a Survival Shelter

One of the most important survival skills you can learn is how to protect yourself from the elements. Exposure kills around 2,000 people every year in the USA and in most cases this is entirely preventable. In order to stay dry and warm, you’ll need to figure out how to build a shelter with the materials you have on hand.

Where to build a shelter

Look for somewhere dry that is naturally protected from the elements, ideally close to a source of fresh water. Avoid damp ground, areas exposed to the wind, or the bottom of valleys and ravines where rain will collect and may flood your camp.

A-Tarp Shelter

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If you’re lucky enough to be travelling with your survival kit, one of the easiest shelters to make is using a plastic tarp or sheet. Simply tie a rope or cord between two trees and hang the tarp over it. Weigh down the edges with stones so it makes an A-shape like a tent for you to sit or lie under.

Lean-to Shelter

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If you don’t have a tarp, you’ll need to improvise with whatever you can find in your surroundings. One of the simplest shelters you can make is the lean-to style from sticks and branches. You’ll need to collect several sticks and lash them together. You’re aiming for a triangular entrance with a longer stick for the horizontal brace/roof. If you can find a large boulder or fallen tree you can also lean branches against this solid object to provide one of the walls for your shelter.

Once you’ve built your frame, cover it with materials like pine boughs, grass and moss to provide insulation and rain protection.

Emergency Nature Shelter

If you’re caught out in the wilderness and need to find shelter quickly in a storm or before nightfall, look around and see what nature provides.

A small cave or overhang is an ideal natural shelter from the elements and fallen trees, dense branches and rocks can provide some protection from the wind and rain.

You can also gather up dry leaves and snuggle yourself inside to make a sort of nest that will help to keep you warm and offer a little protection from rain.

Body Insulation – Keeping Warm

Your shelter should be just enough for you to crawl into. This will help your body to heat the space and stay warm – a space that’s too big will lose heat quickly.

Build a fire outside the entrance of your shelter (not too close) to provide extra heat and ward off wild animals.

The floor of your shelter should be lined with dry leaves, pine needles, bark or another plastic tarp or trash bags if you have them available. Make a nest of leaves for your bed at least 8-inches thick – this will help to insulate your body and help you to maintain body heat.

Wear all the clothes you have available and a hat to stop heat escaping from your head. You can also stuff your clothes with leaves for extra insulation.



How to start a fire

Hypothermia or death caused by exposure to cold weather is one of the biggest reasons people do not survive in the wilderness. It’s vitally important to learn how to keep yourself warm and, apart from maintaining your body’s natural heat with good insulation, starting a fire is the best way to do this.

Fires can also be used as an emergency signal, to ward off wild animals, to cook food and boil and purify water so starting a fire is one of the most important outdoor skills to master.

Finding Suitable Materials to Burn

It’s not much good starting a fire if you can’t keep it going, so it’s essential to first collect some materials that will both set alight and keep burning. You’ll need both tinder and kindling. Tinder is what is used to start a fire and kindling keeps it burning.

Tinder
Cotton wool, paper, dry leaves, straw and dry grass, pine needles, dandelion head, jute twine fibers, alcohol-based sanitizing wipe, cattails, tinder fungus
Kindling
Twigs leaves and branches, logs, dry leaves and bark

Where to Find Dry Materials

It’s almost impossible to start a fire with damp materials and it can be challenging to find dry ones in wet weather, which is why it’s a good idea to carry some dry tinder material like cotton wool with you.

Look for fallen logs and old trees, which will be dryer than freshly cut timber. Wood will be drier in areas that are naturally protected from the rain. You can also try carving away damp bark from to reveal the drier wood underneath.

If you’re using damp wood it will take longer to start your fire and make it harder to keep going. You can combat this by using extra tinder.

Fire Building Basics

Take care selecting the location for your fire – It should be protected from the wind and close to your shelter but not so close that it’s at risk of catching alight.

Clear away any debris on the ground and build your fire on a base of clean earth or flat rocks. If the earth is damp, using aluminum foil as a base can help get your fire started quicker.

Start building your fire with a small pile of tinder. Once it is successfully alight you can slowly add kindling, starting with the smallest pieces such as small twigs. As the fire becomes more established you can add larger pieces of dry wood and bark to fuel the fire.

How to Light your fire If You Don’t Have Matches, a Lighter or a Fire Starter

Friction Fire

Starting a fire with friction can be done without any special tools or materials however there’s a real knack to it and it takes a lot of time and effort. This is one of those primitive skills that is really worth practicing before you need to rely on it for survival.

You’ll first need to build a nest of tinder. Friction fires are started from sparks and you’ll need a good collection of dry tinder material to catch that spark and turn it into fire.

There are various methods to create fire from friction but in all cases the fire is started by rubbing two materials against each other. The simplest method is called a hand drill and you’ll first need to create a fireboard and spindle with some bone-dry wood

The fireboard is a flat piece of wood with a small depression in it and the spindle is a long thin straight branch.

Place the end of the spindle in the depression in the fireboard and roll it rapidly between your hands, moving up and down the length of the spindle. With a little luck and a lot of energy, you can create a glowing ember between the spindle and the fireboard.

Drop this ember onto a piece of bark and gently blow on it to create sparks to light your tinder.

Flint and Steel

Commercial fire starters are a type of flint striker and are a very effective way to start a fire – they make a good addition to your survival pack.

However if you’re without one, you can make your own by using your pocketknife and a piece of flint or quartzite. Flint can be found on the banks of rivers and small pieces may also be embedded into larger rocks. Learn how to identify these stones, as they can be very useful in the wilderness.

You’ll also need a char cloth (burned cloth that has become charcoal) or a piece of tinder fungus or birch bark to catch the spark created with your flint.

On striking the flint or quartzite with your knife, sparks will fly and you can transfer these from your char cloth to the tinder pile by gently blowing until it catches fire.

With a Lens

A lens can easily be used in bright sunlight to create fire by focusing the sun’s rays onto your tinder pile. After only a few moments of direct sunlight through a suitable lens, the tinder should start smoking and ignite.

Normal eyeglasses or the lens from a pair of binoculars will work well for this method. You can also polish the bottom of a soda can and use this mirrored surface to focus the sun’s rays in the same way.

How to Make a Signal Fire

In most cases you’ll want to make sure that the materials you’re using to build your fire are as dry as possible. However if you’re making a signal fire, the rules are a little different.

To create a signal that can be seen from a distance you’ll want to create a lot of smoke and damp or green wood are the best for this. Build and start your fire as normal and then top the fire with green branches and green leaves. Make sure there is enough dry wood and ventilation in your fire so it is not extinguished.



How to Find and Make Clean Drinking Water

Water is essential for life. Dehydration can occur quickly and will cause you to become weak, confused and disoriented, which could spell disaster when you’re surviving in the wilderness.

As water is heavy and you’ll only be able to carry a small amount around with you, you’ll need to know how to find it from your surroundings

Where to Find Clean Water

If you can find a fast-flowing river or stream, this is the best place to collect drinking water. Water flowing over rocks or coming from a natural spring will be the cleanest.

Ponds, lakes and slow-flowing rivers are less ideal as the water is more likely to be contaminated with bacteria. If this is your only source of water, it’s important to purify before drinking it.

Melted snow and ice is also a good source of clean water in the winter.

If you’re not near a source of water look for animal tracks and lush green vegetation, which is a sign that water is close by. You can also try digging in muddy ground to find groundwater.

How to Collect Rain Water

Rainwater is an easy source of purified water but you need a container with a large surface area to collect a decent amount unless it is raining very heavily.

If you have a tarp or plastic poncho, an easy way to do this is to use a rock to make a shallow depression in the ground and cover it with the tarp, weighed down with stones. The rain will collect in the depression and this can then be transferred into a more practical container.

How to Make a Transpiration Bag

A transpiration bag is a simple way to collect ready-purified water from plants and trees that just requires a large, plastic bag, preferably transparent.

t-bagSimply tie the bag around a handful of branches, making sure as many leaves as possible are inside the bag and tie the top with some cord. Make sure you don’t use a poisonous plant.

On a sunny day condensation will quickly form inside the bag and drip down to collect as water in the bottom. The easiest way to collect this water is to snip off the corner to drain into a container and then re-tie to wait for more to form. You can usually keep collecting water in this way for 2-3 days before moving to a different set of branches.

How to Purify Unclean Water

There are various methods you can use to purify potentially contaminated water:

  • Boiling
  • Filtering
  • UV treatment
  • Chemical purification

While it’s always a good idea to carry water purification tablets when you’re hiking in the wilderness (or a physical or UV filter, though they take up more room) if you have to survive without equipment, boiling is the most suitable method. Boiling water for 60 seconds should be enough to destroy most bacteria and microorganisms.

If you have a clear water bottle, leaving it out in the sun for 24 hours will also purify it via the UV light from the sun.


How to Find Food

After water and shelter, finding food is the next important aspect of survival. You’ll need food to give you energy for wilderness living, though fortunately it is possible to survive for several weeks on very little food.

Identifying Edible Plants and Berries

poisonous-plants

Wild plants, nuts, and berries can be a good source of nutrition but it’s very important to educate yourself on how to identify plants as it’s easy to poison yourself or at least give yourself a stomachache.

It can take years to learn about all the plants in the area you’re exploring, so start by learning how to identify 2 or 3 common plants so you’ll be able to find at least something that’s edible.

You can also test plants for edibility with a series of tests:

The Universal Edibility Test
☑  Rub the plant on your skin and wait 8 hours, checking for a rash or other adverse reaction
☑  Hold the plant against your lip for 3 minutes to check for any tingling, burning or numbness
☑  Hold the plant on your tongue for 15 minutes and wait for any reaction
☑  Chew the plant for 15 minutes without swallowing and check for any reaction
☑  Swallow a small portion of the plant and wait 8 hours to test for sickness oe any advserse reaction
☑  Eat a quarter cup of the plant and wait 8 hours for any reaction

If the plant passes all of these tests, it is most likely safe to eat in large quantities.

You should also avoid plants with the following characteristics, as they are more likely to be poisonous:

  • Groups of 3 leaves
  • Milky sap
  • White berries
  • Almond scent

Fishing

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If you’re survival camping by a river or lake, fishing can be a good way to find nutritious food that doesn’t expend a lot of energy. The simplest way to fish is with a makeshift line and hook that you can easily make with cord and wire, baited with insects and worms.

You can also fish by making a spear from a branch or a fashioning a net out of a piece of clothing.

Fishing using these methods takes some practice so it’s not a food-source to rely on if you’re starving and haven’t been successful with it before.

Hunting

Hunting is a pretty advanced wilderness skill and if you don’t know what you’re doing, you can expend more energy than you gain from the food you catch. However it’s worth practicing in non-emergency circumstances, as part of survival training, which might come in very handy one day.

There are two main methods to hunt wild animals: with weapons and with traps.

Basic Weapons You Can Make
  • Throwing sticks or rocks – this is pretty much the simplest weapon you can get. Throwing a heavy stick or rock with a good aim can be effective for killing small animals like rabbits but definitely not to be used against larger animals that will simply be angered by your actions.
  • Spear – to make a simple spear, lash your knife or a sharpened rock to a long stick. Spears can be used for fishing or throwing from a distance.
  • Slingshot – a slingshot can be effective at killing birds and small animals from a distance and can easily be made with a y-shaped twig, parachute cord and a rock.
Easy Animal Traps

Trapping animals requires less energy than hunting, allowing you to leave the traps set to do the work for you, while you continue foraging or building your shelter and fire.

Simple Snare

A simple snare is a noose made from wire or rope that should be fixed to a stake and placed in the path of an animal trail or den entrance.

When the animal passes through the snare it tightens around its neck, trapping it.

Dead Fall Trap

dead-fall-trapA simple dead fall trap uses several branches to prop up a heavy stone in such a way that the trap will trip if disturbed by an animal.

Bait is used in this kind of trap so that when the bait is taken, the stone falls on the animal, crushing it.

Dead Fall Pit

deadfall-pitA dead fall pit is the easiest and safest way to trap large animals, although it will take a lot of time and energy in preparation.

You’ll need to dig a large pit, deep enough that the animal will not be able to climb out of.

Place branches, leaves and other material over the top of the pit to camouflage it – when the animal steps onto the top they will fall into the pit.


How to Navigate

It’s become common for modern hikers and outdoor enthusiasts to use GPS for navigation, but a compass should always be part of your survival kit. Phones get wet, break and run out of battery but a sturdy compass should last you many years.

If you have a compass and a map, you’ll be able to find your way out of the wilderness, provided you know how to use them properly but in an emergency, it’s unlikely that you’ll have a map.

So if you’re stuck in the wilderness with no tools, how do you find your way home?

How to Use Your Watch to Navigate

To find north using your analog watch and the sun, lay the watch on your palm so it is flat and parallel with the ground. Turn the watch so that the hour hand is pointing directly at the sun. You can also use the shadow from a stick to help you line up the hour hand exactly.

You then need to find the midpoint between the hour hand and 12 o’clock on your watch – if it’s before noon, measure clockwise and if afternoon, measure counter-clockwise. The line of bisection between the two markers points towards south and so north is directly opposite.

This method works in the northern hemisphere. If you’re in the southern hemisphere, the method is almost the same but you need to line up 12 o’clock with the sun instead of the hour hand.

How to Make a Compass

If you’re in the wild without a compass, you can make one by magnetizing a needle, razor blade or piece of wire. If you rub the needle with a piece of silk or your hair in one direction many times, the needle will become magnetized.

To make your compass, simply float a leaf in a puddle of water and place the needle on top of the leaf – it will spin and will point to north. To determine which end of the needle is pointing north, look at where the sun is. As the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, if you are facing north it will be on your right hand side in the morning and your left hand side in the afternoon.

Navigating by The Stars

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The easiest way to find north at night is by locating the North Star. This is easily done by finding the Big Dipper, a constellation that most people learned how to find during childhood. The two stars that form the outer age of the ‘cup’ of the dipper, point towards the North Star. As long as you’re facing the North Star, you’ll be heading north.

Navigating with Landmarks

Finding north may not help you get home if you don’t even know in which direction you should be heading, but if you’re lost without a map at least you know you’ll be making progress in your travels.

Several studies have shown that humans tend to walk in circles when they’re lost, especially on cloudy days when the sun is not visible or in landscape such as thick forest or desert with few landmarks. This can be fatal when in a survival situation so it’s vital to use some kind of navigation method at regular intervals to make sure you’re still walking in the right direction.

Once you’ve found the direction you want to travel, look for a landmark ahead. Re-taking your bearings once you reach this landmark and finding a new checkpoint will ensure you keep walking in a straight line.


Basic First Aid

Having some knowledge of first aid in a survival situation is vital. In the wilderness even the smallest cut or stomach problem could turn into a life or death situation.

Cuts and Scrapes

Prevention is better than treatment in the case of cuts so you should educate yourself on proper knife handling to avoid self-inflicted cuts

However even if you are careful, some cuts and scrapes are likely in a survival situation, so you need to know how to treat them properly in order to reduce the risk of infection and promote healing.

Basic wound treatment for deep cuts
Elevate – hold the injured part of the body as high as possible above the heart to reduce blood flow
Apply pressure – placing pressure on the wound, ideally with a sterile dressing, will help the blood to clot. Firm pressure should be placed on the wound for 10-15 minutes
Irrigate – after the wound has stopped bleeding freely it should be cleaned thoroughly with purified water
Dress – at this point the cut should be covered, prederably bandaged. If you don’t have a bandage available, you can improvise with paper tissues, strips of clean clothing, tape, or even leaves. Some leaves such as plantain even have natural antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties

Small cuts and scrapes can usually be treated simply by cleaning and covering.

Treating Infection

If you get an infection in your cut despite your efforts to keep it clean, it can make you very ill. Signs of infection include pain, swelling, pus and red streaks from the wound.

Warm salt-water soaks are very effective at drawing out infection for small injuries. For larger cuts you’ll need to make a warm damp compress from clean fabric and hold it over the injury for up to 30 minutes several times a day, changing out the cloth when it cools.

You may also need to re-open the wound with a sterile instrument to drain the pus.

Blisters

Blisters are not normally life threatening but they do have the potential to become infected and at the very least, they will slow you down.

Blisters should not be burst unless they become large and very painful and are preventing you from walking. If this is the case you can pop the blister by piercing it from the side with a needle or knife (sterilized in a flame) and gently squeeze out the fluid. The blister should then be bandaged and padded.

Duct tape is helpful for covering blisters (covered first with paper or gauze) and can also be used on spots that rub to prevent them from occurring in the first place

Broken Bones and Fractures

A broken bone is difficult to treat in the wilderness but you can at least stabilize it so it does not cause further damage. Do not attempt to manipulate bones back into place as this can sever blood vessels. Use a straight piece of wood as a splint and wrap a bandage or strips of cloth around it firmly to immobilize the limb.

Diarrhea

Diarrhea is common in the wilderness when you are consuming contaminated food and water and can be very serious. Diarrhea causes 4% of all deaths worldwide and can be difficult to treat without access to medical help. You can minimize your risk of diarrhea by making sure to purify water before you drink it and cooking food thoroughly.

The biggest danger with diarrhea is dehydration so it’s important to drink plenty of clean water. To treat the diarrhea, charcoal can be very effective to absorb toxins and is easy to make.

To make charcoal, burn soft woods in a fire and when they have formed glowing coals, bury them in the ground. Once cooled, grind the charcoal into powder with a rock and drink it mixed with water.

There are also various medicinal plants that can help to treat stomach upsets in the wild.

Dehydration

dehydration

Dehydration can easily occur in the wilderness either because of diarrhea or because you are not consuming enough water to make up for the physical activity you are doing.

Symptoms of dehydration include darkened urine, lack of saliva, headaches, fatigue and dizziness. Thirst is generally not a good indication of hydration levels.

The most important thing to do to combat dehydration is drink water in small frequent sips and stop excess physical activity that will cause your body to lose excessive fluid.

Severe dehydration will also require electrolyte replenishment and the easiest way to do this is by adding 6 teaspoons of sugar and half a teaspoon of sugar to each liter of water.

Of course in a survival situation you’re unlikely to have these on hand. Salt can be found naturally occurring in sea water, animal blood, and some plants can also be boiled down to extract their salt.

Insect Bites and Stings

Stingers from bees should be removed by scraping the skin with a knife blade or fingernail and then the area should be washed thoroughly to remove venom from the area.

Itching and swelling caused by bites and stings can be reduced by treating with a cool compress, a paste of mud and ashes, or dandelion sap.



Conclusion and Further Resources

Training yourself in outdoor survival is a worthwhile activity that can be very rewarding, even if you never have to use the skills you have learned for true survival in the wild.

While this guide has given a brief overview of survival tactics, you can educate yourself further by reading some of the following resources:

Online resources

Identifying edible plants in the wild
Six primitive traps for catching food in the woods
15 best survival shelter designs
Map skills
How to start a fire in the rain

Books

The Hunting & Gathering Survival Manual
Bushcraft 101
SAS Survival Handbook
The Survival Medicine Handbook

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Enthusiastic about everything outdoor related. We love the idea of living off the land and creating a small personal paradise somewhere in the outback.

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