The Wilderness Survival Skills You Should Know

The Wilderness Survival Skills You Should Know

A few hours watching the Discovery Channel can prompt extreme survival fantasies involving frog-licking and urine-drinking, but what about the basic skills you’d actually need to survive in the wilderness? Here’s a look at the basics you need to become an adult Boy Scout straight from a cadre of survival experts.The key to surviving in the wilderness is preparation. But this post isn’t about stockpiling food or preparing for disasters at home (although both are a good idea). This is about the skills and tricks you can learn and remember now that will help save your life if your car breaks down in the woods, you’re lost while hiking, or a terrible disaster strands you in the wilderness. Before we go into detail on the technique, let’s make a list of priorities to keep you alive.

Know Your Priorities

I talked with survival teacher and founder of onPoint Tactical Kevin Reeve for help coming up with a list of priorities for survival in case of a disaster. This is what he suggests:

  • 1. Immediate security: If the building is on fire, get out. If someone is shooting at you, move to cover. Whatever the immediate danger, get away from it.
  • 2. First aid: Attend to any medical problems that may have happened in the original event. Check yourself for injuries and treat them.
  • 3. Self protection: If you are at risk from predators, two-legged or four-legged, you must arm yourself. This might be a sharpened stick, a knife, machete, shotgun or banjo. Just have something to attack the zombies with.
  • 4. Physical needs (in order): shelter, fire, water, food and hygiene.

It’s also worth noting that nearly every survivalist, doctor, paramedic and teacher recommends one key survival tool everyone should follow: positivity. It seems silly, but it can provide you with the mental endurance to stay safe in any number of situations. A recent study in Psychological Science also suggests that your own perception of illness and the potential for treatment has an effect on the outcome. In short, the idea of mind over matter can help you survive.

Let’s look at each of these in a little more detail, starting with your first priority after making sure you’re not it in immediate danger: first aid.

Learn To Perform Basic First Aid Techniques, Kit Or No Kit

Basic first aid is a good life skill to have in general, but it’s an essential survival skill to have in case of an emergency. Knowing how to fix three common injuries will usually get you by. Performing these on yourself will probably cause some tears, but at least you will be able to move to safety. I talked with firefighter and trained paramedic Philip Carlson to find the best solutions if you’re stranded without a proper first aid kit.

Cut And Scrape First Aid

In most cases, you can ignore small cuts, but keep the wound clean and watch it for infection. If the injury is deep, and you can’t stop the blood, your last resort is a tourniquet to stop the flow of blood. Tourniquets should be at least one-inch wide (a strip of shirt, belt, anything like that will work) and tightened around the limb above the injury. Tighten the tourniquet until the bright red bleeding stops and cover the injury with any clean material you have.

Mend Fractures And Dislocations

If you dislocate a bone, you need to get it back in place. For shoulders, you can roll on the ground or hit it against a hard surface to reset the bone. Kneecaps can be popped back in place by stretching your leg out and forcing it into the socket. For fractures, you need to find material to create a splint. In the woods, a couple of sticks will do the trick. Stabilise the fractured bone with the sticks and tie them together with shoelaces to hold the brace in place.

Treat Burns

To care for a first (reddening) or second degree (blistering) burn from fire, remove any clothing and find lukewarm water to run over the burn or coat it in honey if it’s available. Wrap the burn loosely with a wet piece of clothing. If water is not available, clean out debris, dirt and any loose skin as best you can and find water as soon as possible. Keep the wound elevated whenever possible, and do not open any blisters that may have formed.

Self Defence Against Predatory Animals

While Liam Neeson can get by punching wolves in the face, that’s generally not the best way to approach a dangerous situation. Instead, it’s best to get away from the animal slowly.

The Boy Scouts recommend a simple approach for wolves, coyotes and cougars: face the animal and slowly back away from it. Don’t play dead, run or approach the animal. If you’re cornered, make yourself as big as possible. Spread out your arms and make a lot of noise. If this still doesn’t work, throw anything you can find at the animal.

If it comes down to it, you might have to weather an attack. In his book, Emergency, author Neil Strauss provides a means to defend against wild dogs that can apply to other animals in an emergency: If the animal does attack, block its mouth with your non-dominant arm and smash the heel of your hand into its snout or hit it in the eyes. If you can temporarily disable the animal, run and find a tree to hide in before you attempt first aid.

Photo by Dennis Matheson.

How to Stay Warm (And Cool) Anywhere

In order to survive, you need to maintain your body temperature. On one end of the spectrum, this means keeping warm, but you also need to know how to keep cool if you’re caught in a desert. In either situation a shelter is your first order of business.

Build a Shelter to Protect You from the Elements

Even if you can start a fire with everything ranging from your glasses to a bottle of water, you’re going to need a shelter at some point. Thankfully, the human body doesn’t need the Hilton to survive, and your shelter only has to meet two requirements: it must block the elements and insulate for warmth.

The A-frame shelter in the video above is the simplest to build in a hurry, but anything that gets you out of the snow, rain or sun will work. Location and comfort are also two important details to consider, and Kevin Reeve has suggestions for both:

Focus on finding a shelter that protects you from the ground, the wind, that insulates from the cold or heat, and protects you from rain and snow. A tarp or garbage bag is a lifesaver if stuffed with leaves or grass to form a wind/cold/rain barrier.

Once your shelter is built, it’s time to make a fire.

How To Start A Fire With Nearly Anything

Firefighters recommend keeping two things in mind when starting a fire: the wind direction and the surrounding area. A fire is an important part of your survival, but you don’t want to set the entire forest on fire just to attract the attention of rescuers. The USDA Forest Service recommends building your campfire away from overhanging branches, rotten stumps, logs, dry grass and leaves. Fire might have been one of the first things we humans learned how to make, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to start a fire. Let’s look at a few tricks for using materials you might already have to start a fire.

  • Start a fire with eyeglasses: In order to properly start a fire with glasses, your best bet is a pair of far-sighted glasses, which better resemble a magnifying glass. To use eyeglasses, spit on the lens and use the lens to angle the sun at a pile of kindling (dry leaves, twigs or corn chips all make great kindling). It will take a while, but your kindling will heat up enough and smolder. Carefully blow on the fire to start the flame.
  • Start a fire with a bottle of water: The same idea as the eye glasses can apply to a bottle of water (or a condom or ice). Focus the sun’s rays through the water so that it creates a single point of heat. Eventually, it will catch fire.
  • Start a fire with your mobile phone battery: The above two methods require a sunny day, but you won’t always have that luxury. If you’re stranded, there’s a decent chance you have a lithium battery. It may be far-fetched, but if you also happen to have some steel wool you can create a short between the positive and negative terminals to cause a spark. If you don’t have steel wool around, you can use your knife or any conductive material you can scavenge.
  • Start a fire with sticks: This is by far the hardest method, but it’s also one of the most likely scenarios you might find yourself in. This method requires you to quickly roll a stick on a log and use the friction to start a fire. This will take a while even if you have practice. The good news is that you can safely practise this in your own yard. It took me almost an hour to get a spark this way, but I leapt for joy when I did.

Learn How To Find Water And Edible Plants

Your fire-starting skills are great for keeping you warm, but you need to find something to eat and drink to keep you alive. Your first priority is water, so let’s take a look at how you can find and sterilise water for drinking.

How To Find Water To Drink

In many parts of the country you can find water by following the sound of a flowing river, but that’s not always the case. If you have trouble finding water, a few pieces of knowledge will help you on your way:

  • Grazing animals usually head to water near dawn and dusk. Following them can often lead you to water.
  • Flies and mosquitoes tend to stay within around 120m of water.
  • Dew that hangs on grass in a field is an excellent source of water. You can collect this by running an extra piece of cloth through the grass as you walk.
  • Stagnant water is not usually suitable to drink even if you can boil it.
  • In the desert you can often find water if you dig up a dry creek bed.
  • Once you find a source of water, bring it to a boil if possible. Even the cleanest of mountain streams can have microbes and parasites in the water. If boiling isn’t not an option, search out water from a flowing stream or the dew on leaves. You can also create a filter by layering bark, stones, sand and charcoal and running the water through the materials. Remember, no matter how hungry you are, water is more important to your survival. That said, you can settle your gurgling stomach as well. Let’s look at how you can do it without killing yourself.

    Learn The Big Four To Always Find Edible Plants

    The easiest solution is to remember plants indigenous in most areas. Kevin Reeve suggests being familiar with four plants:

    • 1. Acorn from Oak: The entire nut is edible and they’re easy to stockpile.
    • 2. Pine: The nuts and inner bark of the tree are edible. You can also make pine needle tea.
    • 3. Cattail: This is one of best options out there. The base stalk is like celery, the root and tuber can make flour, and the pollen is very healthy.
    • 4. Grass The corm (aka the base) is starchy, but edible and filled with water and carbohydrates.

    Photos by Thomas Quine, Daniel Oines, Andy Arthur, anthony kelly.

    Learn The Universal Edibility Test

    You might have heard the old rule of thumb that you should follow animals around and eat what they eat, but that’s not a foolproof method. In order to find if a plant is edible, you need to test it. You can follow the Universal Edibility Test, which requires you to place a small piece of plant against your lip, then your tongue, and finally in your whole mouth. Unfortunately, you have to wait for eight hours before you know if the plant is safe to eat and it’s still possible a plant can poison you.

    If you’re more of a berry fan, you can follow a simple mnemonic from former Green Barret Myke Hawke to remember which berries are edible:

    White and yellow, kill a fellow. Purple and blue, good for you. Red… could be good, could be dead.

    Like the edibility test, the mnemonic isn’t foolproof, but it’s useful if you have no other options.

    The Basic Hygiene You Can Ignore (And What Not To)

    If you end up in a long-term survival situation you need to keep up with a few hygiene habits. For the most part, you can ignore a lot of it, but I spoke with Dr Dan Weiswasser, a primary care physician in Massachusetts about a few hygienic issues you shouldn’t ignore:

    If you’re keen to pay attention to hygiene while stranded somewhere, I would primarily address dental care. Dental plaque can build up in a hurry, and dental infections are painful, dangerous and expensive to repair. Brushing and flossing require relatively universal, rudimentary tools and can go a long way towards preventing such infections (you can make a toothbrush from birch or by just wiping your teeth with a clean piece of cloth).

    Beyond that, I would say that a lot of hygiene consideration depends on what conditions are like where you are stranded. Bacteria and fungus flourish where it’s moist, dark, and warm. If you’re trapped in the jungle, you’ll want to keep intertriginous areas (areas where skin touches skin such as the armpits, under breasts, in groin, between the toes, and in other skin folds) as dry and aired out as possible. Again, this can simply be an issue of wearing dry clothes. Baby powder or corn starch can also be helpful for absorbing moisture.

    But what do you do when the call of nature is too strong and you need to find toilet paper? Kevin Reeve has a simple solution:

    As for primitive toilet paper, in the winter, a snowball is actually quite invigorating, but most of the time, leaves of a plant like mullein are the go-to method. Sometimes an unopened pine cone will work, but ouch! One of the keys to this is to squat not sit. This forces the cheeks apart and means that there will be far less cleaning necessary.

    Navigation Methods to Help You Find Your Way Home

    If you’re lost, the Boy Scouts recommend a simple mnemonic: STOP (Stop, Think, Observe, Plan). In most cases, you want to stay where you are and wait for help to come. If it starts to get late, you can build your shelter, start your fire and search for food. If help doesn’t come, it’s time to move on.

    How To Get Rescued

    In order to get rescued, you need to know the most basic hand signals to alert a helicopter or plane you see pass overhead. Curiously, a wave is considered a sign to not land. Instead, if you see a helicopter or plane, form your arms in a “Y” as if you’re ready to perform the Village People’s “YMCA”.

    If you have a signalling tool like a flare, torch or mirror, make use of them the second you see a rescue helicopter. Reflect the sun off the mirror in the direction of the helicopter to attract its attention.

    If you hear rescuers in the distance but don’t have any way to signal them, you can call in a deep voice. Normal natural sounds are usually a high pitch. Call out in a low tone so rescuers know you’re a human.

    If everything goes well, you won’t ever need these skills, but even if you don’t venture into the woods on camping trips, the chance of a disaster in your city or being stranded on a road trip is always a possibility. With the above survival techniques you can get yourself safely out of any number of situations.

    Have some tips you’d like to share? Sound off in the comments.


    • We do have plenty of pine and “Cat-tails” in the southern states, so that information is valuable.

      Some Australian native food advice: find wattle trees leaking sap (which is edible sugar) and with saw-dust around them. The saw dust is from grubs which are very high in fat and protein. You will need an axe, knife, rock or hardened wood implement to get at them.

      Australian fire advice: Don’t even attempt to make friction fire from Australian native woods if you aren’t familiar with the process.

      The exception is the “Black-Boy” grass tree, which has a woody spike growing out of it, this is soft straight grained wood that is perfect for friction fires. Aboriginal tribes traded for fire-sets made of this wood almost exclusively out of everything else available; and they had 50,000 years to try the alternatives.

      Basically, the food/water advice is moot: if you go into the bush, tell people where you are going (exactly where-routes, checkpoints, ETAs), for how long, and bring a spare set of clothes and some water. If you do this, if you get lost, chances are you will be searched for and found before you run out of water, let alone food.

      The most important thing is common sense: sensible people can get themselves out of trouble, and rarely find themselves in it anyway.

  • Dislocations should NOT be put back into place. These require x-raying to determine if additional damage has been done (chipped bones, fractures etc). Incorrectly attempting to reseat a dislocation can cause more problems.

    A StJohn Ambulance first aid course would serve people better than a collection of well meaning but potentially dangerous advice.

    • I believe that in the this scenario, you probably don’t have ready access to an x-ray machine or real doctors. I’ve dislocated my knees a few times, and there is no way you could leave it out of place in any survival situation. The quicker you get it back into place, the less tissue damage and swelling there is, and the more likely it is you’ll actually get to a hospital.

    • Maybe, maybe not. Has you eer seem an arterial bleed? Nothing but a tourniquet and a surgical team will stop that. And like dislocations, if you are lost in the wilderness you may not have the luxury of being able to sit and elavate a limb. Life over limb is important to remember, your precious first aid course would have mentioned that.

      • A constrictive bandage (which is what Reused probably meant) for severe bleeding effectively acts as a tourniquet; you apply it until the pulse distal to the application site can no longer be palpated, and they’re applied over major arteries (e.g. brachial for arm). Have a look at combat tourniquets, they’re fairly wide, they’re not like thin pieces of belt. But this article is in an absolute worst-case scenario environment, and life comes before limb in those cases.

      • Maybe, maybe not exactly. I’ve had an arterial bleed (femoral) so yes I have seen one. The doomsday scenario of a major arterial bleed is the extreme case. Bleeding doesn’t have to be arterial to be life threatening, and in such cases a tourniquet will stop the bleeding, but will also probably result in loss of a limb. I don’t want some ill-informed do-gooder effectively amputating my arm/leg with a tourniquet, when some compression and elevation would have fixed it. My arms and legs are a precious to me as my first aid course is 

        It is listed as a last resort, and it is exactly that. The first resorts of compression and elevation should be mentioned first.

        • Actually a tourniquet is now the preferred option for major bleeding. Thanks to the experience of a recent decade of war in two countries there is now a new protocol, which is put a TK on any extremity bleeding which is potentially life threatening. This recommendation has not been applied to civilian first aid for a number of reasons – poor effectiveness of improvised TKs, lack of knowledge of how to apply them correctly (Both of which may actually worsen bleeding) and the potential muscle and nerve damage to the limb not being worth the risk when medical assistance is readily available. However, when medial assistance is a considerable distance away (Like you are going to have to wait until morning for the RFDS) or the bleeding is severe it’s a good option.

      • Yeah I think mobility would be a big factor in a survival situation like this article is referring to.

        A tourniquet or relocation would be preferable to staying in an unsafe situation. Maybe not idea, but being stranded in the desert or rainforest isn’t ideal either.

  • I was just wondering, following on from pooping while stranded, what’s the best way to wash say E. Coli and faeces off your hands without soap? I’d reckon that a bout of stomach illness (and the resulting dehydration from diahorrea) would be a pretty big concern.

    • A handful of cold Charcoal and ashes with a splash of water to make a paste, rub your hands vigorously, and then rinse off with plenty of water (non sterile). If possible, then rinse your hands with some sterile (boiled, chemeically treated) water

      The idea is the charcoal and maybe even mild levels of lye in the ash combine to remove a lot of the oils and bacteria, which can then be washed away. The non-treated water can be used to start getting off the black mess, then the treated water to clean away any possible pathogens from the non-treated water.

      It isn’t ideal, and not 100% effective, but it’s better than nothing!

      • I meant boiled OR Chemically treated, only needs to be one of those.

        The idea of using crappy water first is to not waste good water to wash the stubborn mess away; by the time it’s gone, the good water should be able to wash away the vast majority of anything that could have been in the non-treated stuff.

        And by non-treated water, I mean water that is clear and from a running source; dodgy brackish crap filled puddles are obviously not worth the trouble.

        Might be worth bringing some hand sanitiser, when you think about it!

    • Thank you for pitniong out such a crucial aspect of preparedness. Appropriate sanitation is a MUST post-disaster and is something people who don’t have a clue about it will find out the hard way in the form of sickness and potential death from unsanitary practices.

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