7 Wilderness Survival Skills You Need To Know
If you've found your way to this page, it's reasonably safe to assume you like the adventure side of the outdoors. Few things beat sitting around a fire talking and sleeping under the stars zipped into your sleeping bag, inside your tent. You feel close to nature, and there is enough of the elements to make you feel just a little like you are staring in a wilderness adventure movie. "Being one with nature." You often say these adventures refuels or recharges you. And you would be absolutely right!
However, while we love to be close to nature, part of the enjoyment is that you still have some level of comfort, convenience and the knowledge that you are safe.
What starts off as adventure could turn into a nightmare if you're put in a situation where survival and safety become priority. Often things happen at times when you least expect it. Being prepared and having a reasonable knowledge of basic survival skills, could make the difference between life and death in some instances.
Here are the most important components of what could make that difference in a wilderness survival situation.
- Mindset and Planning
There is a reason we hear so often that we should “stay positive”. No situation will get better by curling into a ball and crying about it. You will be miserable, and nothing is going to change around you.
In a challenging situation like being lost and faced with your ability to survive, having a positive attitude is of the utmost importance. It will help you think more clearly and creatively, plan better and help keep you focused on the task at hand: surviving and staying safe.
You want to be realistic about your situation, but always stay optimistic. When it comes to planning, you want to remember to ‘S.T.O.P’. This is taught by many survival experts. Stop, Think, Observe, Plan.
Keeping this acronym in mind in all challenges you might face, will save you time, resources and frustration.The first and best thing to do in most survival situations is nothing. Stop. Think about your options before you do anything. Consider what could work, what could go wrong and what other options you may have.
Observe what you would need or what you need to do, for a task to have a positive outcome. Now Plan the execution out in your head before you start. Every step of it. You won’t waste valuable resources and energy by having a fire you worked hard to get going, die if you’ve STOP’ed to realize beforehand that you didn’t collect the right wood sizes to keep it going.
- A Suitable Campsite and Shelter
One of your first priorities should be to look for shelter. Especially in cold weather, as hypothermia is at the top of the list of causes of deaths in survival situations. Your first action should be to find shelter from direct exposure to the elements.
For a campsite, experts say to find somewhere “high and dry”. Look for an area outside of a valley and possible path where flooding could be a risk. Keep a lookout for dangers like insect nests, dead branches and areas where there could be falling rocks.
The best place would be near running water, close to where you can find dry wood and if possible next to large rocks or formations that to shield you from the elements.
The shelter itself should be as well insulated as you can get it. There are many ways that you can build a shelter, but when you make do with what you have, use large tree branches to construct a basic frame and debris, like small branches, leaves and moss to stuff holes and cover the ground for you to sleep on.
Dehydration is a huge risk factor. Your body can function without food for even weeks, but no water for a few days will kill you.
There are many methods for treating water on the market these days that is very effective. But in the instance where one does not have access to it, boiling the water will suffice. Water should be brought to the boil and continue to boil for 2 - 3 minutes to kill off all bacteria and viruses.
Be mindful of where you are collecting water from. Even water that seems safe could contain water-born pathogens and/or mineral and metals from industrial and agricultural operations.
When looking for water, the better sources and springs and head-water streams. Rain, snow and morning dew are very reliable sources and don’t need to be purified. This is definitely the options to consider if you don’t have a pot to boil water in. Water that has been on the ground for a longer time, should be boiled and if you are unsure how long it’s been there, it’s probably better to avoid it.
You could also get water from vines, certain cacti and trees - provided you know which are safe. These also eliminates the need for purification.
Being able to make a fire is one of the most basic and useful survival skill. It will provide warmth, keep clothes and shelters dry, boil water and cook food. It is also very important as a way to signal for help and provides some psychological support in that it gives a sense of safety and security.
When venturing out into the wilderness, taking a few different fire-making tools on the journey would be wise and, ideally, you would have one or more of these tools available when you need it. However, in really bad weather, even those might proof very challenging to use.
Practicing fire making skills in different weather conditions might be one of the most valuable skills you can ever learn. And down to the wire, fire by friction is the most effective way to get a fire going. Different ways to do this includes the bow drill, hand drill, fire saw and fire plough. Starting a fire by friction is by far one of the hardest ways to start it, but as it might be the only available option, spending some time to learn the skill might be a very good idea. Even with practice, it might take an hour or so to even get a spark. You want to be mentally and physically prepared for this one.
Other options to explore and familiarise yourself with is making fire with a lens based method, a bottle of water or a battery and steel wool.
Also on the topic of fire, is the matter of building a fire that is appropriate for your needs, how to keep it going and how to safely put it out.
Always think safety and keep your surroundings and the wind direction in mind. Look for overhanging branches, dry grass and leaves and rotten tree stumps that could catch on fire, and make sure that you know how to put a fire out properly before you leave it. You don’t want a campfire to turn into a raging forest fire.
When you think about survival, your fist thought usually go straight to food. What will you eat? However, humans can actually go for quite some time without food. For up to three weeks you'd still be ok. Not ideal of course and in most instances not necessary as there are many items that can sustain you. But still good to know.
There is little point in wasting energy going after larger animals when there are easier ways to get food. It might be a valuable exercise to familiarise yourself with edible plants in the area that you are heading into before your adventure begins. There are some very common edible plants in many areas like dandelions and lambsquarter (or wild spinach). Cattail and most grasses are also great as you can consume the whole plant.
Make sure to be able to identify those kinds of plants and be very mindful of the edible plants’ look alike.
When in any doubt, steer clear and don’t eat anything that you're uncertain about.
In addition to edible plants, small animals, frogs lizards and fish will keep you going. One of the easiest ways to catch those is “gigging”. Basically, making a multi-prong spear by cutting a sapling into three or four equal sections, separating it with a stick and sharpening the points. Catching anything with a multi-prong spear is much easier than trying to do so with a single point.
- The “other” basics
Basic First Aid
Very basic first aid is a good skill for anyone to have, but essential for those that might get themselves into a potential survival situation. For the most part, you can ignore small cuts and scrapes, as long as it is kept clean. If it is deep wounds and bleeding that won’t stop, using a tourniquet will help, but only until the bleeding has stopped.
Make sure you know how to treat blisters, burns and how to construct a basic splint for the most common fractures and dislocations.
On a related note to injury, making sure you know how to best protect yourself against wild animals is important. In most instances, it is better to try and make yourself as big as possible, make a lot of noise. Don't run and don’t “play dead”.
If an actual attack occurs, block with your less dominant hand as much as possible and go for the eyes or snout with the other, in an attempt to temporarily disable the animal. Then find a tree and get yourself up there before attempting first aid
Learning basic navigation skills by day and night could help you find your way as you might not always have the luxury of a GPS tool, map or compass. Ensuring that you can find a north-south line by using the sun by day and knowing your Polaris from your Big Dipper at night, might be very useful in a survival situation. However, finding North is not going to help you if you know which direction to go towards.
If you don’t know the area and don’t know which way to go, it is safer to either follow a river or stream downstream and/or to head to a clearing where it would be easier for rescuers to see you when you signal for help.
Whenever you head outdoors, make sure to take a good multi-tool with you. And try to have this right on hand. If you can hang on to a tool like this, it can save your life. Any cutting tool in the wild is invaluable, and added tools are a bonus to have.
If you are in a long-term survival situation, you might want to think about basic hygiene. Here, dental hygiene is probably most important as dental infections are very painful and dangerous. Making a basic toothbrush from Birch or even just wiping your teeth with a cloth, will go a long way.
If you find yourself in a warm and humid area, keeping the areas where skin touches skin, clean and dry, could prevent chafing and infections. These are armpits, groin, between toes and other skin folds.
As far a toilet paper goes, you don’t need much as long as you remember to squat and not sit. Leave from a plant like Mullein or an unopened pine cone will work.
While you are thinking of staying alive in a survival situation in the wilderness, you also want to get out of there. In most instances, a fire will be your best way to signal for help and you want to prepare to get a fire going in a clear, open area as quickly as you can if you hear a plane or helicopter.
Signaling with a flare, flashlight, mirror or any shiny object that you have or can find will work well. Another option to consider is stacking rocks (for example) in a contrasting color to the ground to spell out “SOS” or “HELP”. Make sure that it is large enough so it can be seen from the air - at least around 9 feet tall.
Make sure that you know the basic land to air hand signals. For example putting your arms up in a “Y” position instead of a wave, as a wave in fact signals not to land. Not a time to get your signals crossed.
Should you hear rescuers in a distance, make sure to call in a low, deep tone of voice to let them know there is a human around. Other normal and natural sounds in the wild is much higher pitch and might be confusing.