Surviving in the wilderness means more than knowing what to bring. Although flashlights, compasses, and extra food are essential items to pack with you, you also need to bring your knowledge.
Knowing how to build a shelter, make a fire, and find non-poisonous food will help you survive when you’re out of supplies.
This knowledge is not just important for survival in an unexpected situation, it can help you create a wilderness adventure when you decide to go off-grid. Either way, the skills we are about to teach you will help you stay calm and find safety.
Table of contents
Know Your Priorities
As soon as you find yourself lost in the wilderness, you need to sort out your priority needs. These are your shelter, water, fire, food, and gear.
The last need – gear – may become a hit or a miss, depending on your situation. If you can only carry a small collection of items, make sure they are the ones described below. Ditch everything else to keep your journeying easier.
One of the biggest killers in wilderness survival is exposure to the elements. Heatstroke and frostbite are silent killers that can harm you slowly. Starting off as headaches, overly sweating, nausea, and shallow breathing, if left untreated these illnesses can kill you.
To prevent overexposure to the elements, you need to create a shelter. This will stop the wind from misleading you about the sun and keep the rain from settling into your clothing and making you cold.
Later on, we will explain how to create a shelter, if you don’t have a tent with you.
If you go without water for 3 days, you can die of dehydration. Before you reach this demise, you will suffer from cracked lips, swollen and cracked tongue, cracked and bleeding nose, difficulty peeing, difficulty breathing, and eventually will go unconscious.
Because the length of time we can survive without water is so short, finding water and purifying it is the most important knowledge you can have.
We will explain how to find water later, but for now, we will teach you how to purify it. Water from plants, and collecting dew or rainwater will allow you to drink clean water. If you only have access to rivers or still water, boil it to remove any bacteria. Let it bubble for 2 minutes and your water will be safe.
To boil water, you need to create fire. Later in our Essential Skills section, we will explain how to make a fire. But for now, we’ll teach you why it is so important.
With a fire you can boil your water, thereby stopping it from infecting you with bacteria. If you become wounded you can use this pure water to clean the area without worry of infection.
Fires can keep you warm. If you are lost in a cold environment, you will need a fire to stop the elements from harming you – shelter or no shelter.
Lastly, a fire can cook your food allowing it to last longer in the wilderness and killing off any bacteria.
Archiv Fur Kriminologie originally stated in 2009 that a human can survive without food for between 8 to 21 days. However, after monitoring hunger strikes in the UK, M.Peel suggested that people can survive for up to 40 days without food.
The large difference in time scale could be due to the difference in food culture in the UK and the US. As US food is known to have less nutritional value in comparison to Europe, US citizens cannot last as long without food.
Knowing this, you should ration your food supply to keep you strong while not burning through your resources. If your food supply is running low, you need to start foraging.
If you are hiking or on a wilderness trip, you should be taking these items regardless of how safe you feel on the trail. These items will help you if you get lost or become injured and need to wait for help.
When you become lost, you may realize that your backpack has become too heavy as you’ve grown weaker. In moments like these, you need to consider what you should dump and what you need to take with you. This list will help you figure that out.
Layers mean insulation. You need it for your shelter and for your clothing. Wearing layers is more likely to keep you warm without making you sweat.
If you sweat your own bodily fluids will cool you down, however in the process it will also soak your clothes. This will make you cold again. Whereas layers will give your body the breeze it needs to stop sweating while staying warm.
With layered clothing, you can also remove an item when the temperature changes.
First Aid Kit
This goes without saying, but you will need a fully stocked first aid kit. It should contain plasters, dressings, safety pins, tweezers, scissors, cleansing wipes, rash cream, antiseptic cream, and painkillers
If you know the area contains other dangers, such as poisoned snakes, take these specific precautions into account.
Not only do you need a compass, but you also need to know how to use it. Your compass will point north at all times. If it has a red and white arrow, the red is for North and the white is for South.
Before you head into the wilderness, you should look for physical landmarks and their location on the compass points. For example, if you know there is a river to the west, and following that river upstream will take you to a village, use your compass to go west until the river is found. Then you can travel knowing that safety is on the horizon.
To carry all of your essential survival gear, you need to have a waterproof and strong backpack. Being waterproof means you can put in any electronic devices and be sure that the rain won’t destroy them. You can also cross a river, with your backpack as a floatation device, and not worry about its contents.
However, if you are lost in the wilderness, breakages can occur. A sharp branch could rip your bag apart ruining the only storage you have for all of your belongings. This is why you need to bring duct tape with you too.
Duct tape will be your saving glory, as it fixes the holes in your tents, bags, clothes, and shoes.
Flashlights will make sure you can see when the night comes along. If you hear a noise you don’t recognize, you can use the flashlight to scare away a predictor.
You can use the flashlight to make sure you don’t step into a ditch while walking in dense woods or areas with little sunlight.
To make sure your flashlight doesn’t run out of battery, you should bring one which runs on kinetic energy. These are flashlights that have a handle you can turn, which generates enough energy to power the flashlight.
The only problem with the lights is the noise they make as you turn them. If you are worried about predators, the noise could alert them to your location. However, most of us won’t have to worry about that issue.
Swiss Army Knife
A swiss army knife, also known as a multi-tool knife, allows you to carry around all of the tools you need without taking up room in your backpack. As a minimum, you’ll have scissors, a knife, a can opener, and a pick. However in modern multi-tool knives, you can also have wire cutters, LED light, wood saw, nail file, screwdriver, and a pen.
These tools can help you create firewood, build shelters, clean wounds and open up your reserved food. You need to keep your multi-tool knife safe from rust. To do this, you should keep it inside your waterproof backpack instead of dangling on the outside.
We will discuss how to light a fire without a match later, but the best way to remove any stress or complication is to have easy-to-use resources at the ready. Bringing waterproof matches is one of these resources that can save you a lot of anxiety, time, and frustration.
If you are trying to survive in a damp wilderness, finding good firewood can be tricky. Using waterproof matches will allow you to start your fire without an issue. You simply need to find enough dry wood to keep the fire going.
The same goes for rainy weather conditions or crossing a river. No matter what the situation is, your waterproof matches will be able to keep your fires lit without concern.
Sun protection means sunscreen, sunglasses, hats, and aftersun creams. The two creams protect you from getting sunburnt and help you recover if your skin does become damaged.
When you are out in the wilderness, you don’t have protection from the sun’s harmful rays. This means you can develop sunburn much easier. Without an abundance of clean water to wash your wounds, these burns can become infected. Using sunscreen will protect your skin, while the aftersun will stop the damage from becoming worse.
Using a hat is another way to protect your face and neck from sunburn – adding automatic shade and delaying the effects of sunstroke. Using sunglasses can also help you stay alert to food, water, and dangerous foot placement.
Although you can survive a long time without needing to eat, lack of food can make you irrational. It lowers your mood, clouds your thinking, and can prevent you from making good choices.
If you become lost while on your nature trails, you should bring double the food you expect to eat. For example, if your hiking trail was meant to last for 1 day, then take 2 days’ worth of food. If your camping trip was for 1 week, then take 2 weeks’ worth.
To ensure the food can fit in your backpack, only take emergency rations or survival ration foods. These are packaged mush in an aluminum packet which you can rip open and push out like cat food. These will be slimlined, so can be packed easily, and will hold enough nutrients for a day, so you don’t need to work out protein sizes.
Although you can use duct tape to repair your clothes, you still need extra clothing to stop yourself from getting cold. If you get wet due to the rain, sweat, or going into the water, your clothes can quickly become your demise. Swapping out your wet clothes for something dry will stop you from getting hypothermia.
We suggest getting one replacement item for every piece of clothing you take. However, you should have extra items for socks. Socks are the quickest item to get wet, and because you are on your feet all day, this can easily turn into trench foot.
Your feet, hands, and head are the quickest to release heat, which means cold feet can change your core body temperature.
Now you know what to bring, it’s time to teach you how to create or find essential items in the wilderness. Before you attempt a survival day, make sure you are completely prepared for the below activities.
How To Create Shelter
If you no longer have a tent or if the landscape and weather are rough, you should start looking for alternatives. A strong storm can make your tent useless as it tries to protect you, but if you know how to fortify your shelter then, you can keep the storm at bay.
To do that you need to understand the 4 basic shelters – natural, snow caves, tree wells, and the leaning technique.
Natural shelters are areas that can keep the elements at bay without interfering with them. Overhanging cliffs and natural caves are perfect shelters here on this green earth.
If you find a shallow cave with a clear end and no sign of wildlife nesting there, then take shelter in the night or as the weather rages on.
If the cave is deep, and you’re unsure if other animals have taken refuge there, then stay away or keep on high alert with your travel companions.
Either way, be sure to build a fire at the entrance of the cave. This should deter creatures from trying to enter while you’re sheltering.
A snow drift is a large deposit of snow that has been shaped by the wind. Imagine sand dunes but much colder. Although the top layers can be moved around easily, the bottom layers are dense and hard to shift.
This is perfect for survivalists. If you find yourself lost in a snowing biome, find a large snow drift and dig into it. Make sure the tunnel is large enough for you and your friends to all huddle inside. Be sure to make ventilation holes in the “roof”, as your breath can soon become a new toxin to contend with.
Although snow itself is cold, when packed together like this, it can act as a good insulator – protecting you against the blizzard outside.
A tree well is another great natural shelter for snowy biomes. Spruce trees in snowy locations will not have the same amount of snow around the base of the trunk as the rest of the landscape. This is because the branches protect the base. This means there will be a hole or a well around the tree. You can hide in this hole to protect yourself against the weather.
The Leaning Technique
The leaning technique is the simplest method to create your own shelter out of the materials around you.
First, you need to find a dry patch of land. Next, you should cover the bottom with bark, leaves, or anything that will stop you from touching the floor. Without this layer, the natural moisture from the ground will make you wet and can cause hypothermia.
Next, find branches that can lean against each other to create a tent-like shape. This should protect you from the rain and wind.
This isn’t a strong construction build, but if no caves or snow drifts can be found, it’s an easy option to attempt.
How To Access Water
You should be aiming to drink between 2 and 3 cups of water a day to stay hydrated, but 6 to 8 to be truly healthy.
To find water you can do one of three things – find a water source like a lake or river, collect water from the area around you like morning dew and snow, or lastly collect water from underground.
In every one of these situations, you should be boiling the water before drinking it, to kill off any bacteria. Finding a lake and collecting morning dew are the easy options.
However, if you cannot find either, you can instead look at the ground for mud. Once you find muddy soil, start digging in the area to create a well. Soon, water will fill up the well. Scoop out what you can, and remember to boil it.
How To Make A Fire
To make a fire you should first find a safe place to get it going. This means avoiding barky areas and instead searching for rocky or sandy landscapes. Create a rocky platform if you need to, otherwise, you can create a wildfire.
Next, you should use your flint and steel or matches on dry and thin firewood.
If you don’t have tools, you can still create fire. Find two dry pieces of wood, and scrape off their bark using a swiss army knife (if you can). Put one piece on the ground, and the other in your hands touching it. The second one should have one edge touching the ground piece and the other pointing to the sky.
Lastly, twist the wood as fast as you can to create friction. It will take a while, but eventually smoke will appear. At that point, grab some leaves or thin dry wood and try to give the smoke and heat something to burn. Blow on the smoke too, to help give it more power.
How To Access Food
As we said before, water, shelter, and fire are the most important things you need when surviving the wild. However, after a while, you need to start looking for food too. Foraging is often easier to accomplish than hunting or creating traps.
You shouldn’t be eating anything you’re unsure of and should take a foraging book with you in case the need for food becomes desperate. While searching, be aware of the following:
Avoid Red Or White Berries
Any berry could be poisonous to humans, however, the majority of fatal or harmful berries come in one of two colors – red and white.
Although some red berries are perfectly harmless, such as strawberries, don’t let this fool you. Red and white berries are the most likely to harm you, so if you’re unsure of the fruit in your hand, reject it straight away.
Watch What Animals Eat
Take this rule with a pinch of salt, even though a deer can eat grass that doesn’t mean you can. However, if you see a bunch of different animals all eating the same berry from a berry bush, you can assume it isn’t toxic.
Before you take the plunge, be sure to boil it.
Boil Your Food To Remove Some Poisons
Just as boiling water can remove bacteria from your liquid supply, boiling your food can remove some poisons. Whenever you’re eating something you’re unsure of, boil it. The worst that can happen after boiling an unknown substance, is the flavor will be diminished. And in these types of situations, the flavor is the last thing on your mind.
Mushrooms are a great source of nutrients if you know what you’re looking for. However, if you have no idea about mushrooms, then you can easily confuse the False Death Cap with the actual Death Cap.
A good rule of thumb would be to avoid mushrooms with white gill and avoid ones with any type of rink around the “neck”. You should also avoid any mushroom with a red cap or a red stem.
However, unless you have some knowledge about mushrooms, you shouldn’t touch them at all.
Look For Nut Trees
All nuts are editable unless you have an allergy. This means looking for nut trees is the safest option when you forage.
Look on trees for bulbous-shaped sprouts near leaves. If they have a hard outer shell, then you may have found a nut. Try to smash it open with a stone. And as always, boil it.
Educate Yourself On Your Surroundings
If you are preparing for the worst on your trailing journey, or are actively getting ready for an adventurous survival weekend, you should educate yourself on the type of plants in the area. If you know that pine trees, spruce trees, and yellow birch are going to be common foliage, then you should learn how to spot them.
These trees have edible inner bark, which means you can use your knife to pull the bark off the tree and find fresh food.
Learning which trees are in the area, and which of those have hidden delights could save you from starvation.
How To Use Your Survival Gear
Most of the survival gear we mentioned above is self-explanatory. You should already know how to build your tent before you take it outside. You should know how to turn your kinetic flashlight before trusting it’s easy on the day. And your multi-tool knife has a lot of options for you to use, but make sure you know how to clip them in.
If you happen to have a map and a compass, you need to know how to use the two together. The basic trick is to see where North is on your map and match it up with North on your compass. Then find a landmark like a village in that line, and keep traveling until you find it.
For a more accurate approach, you need to understand how to use the bezel, direction arrow, and orienting lines. Study these elements and practice in well-known places, so you can learn how to use the compass correctly.
Knowledge Of Medical Plants
Just as you should be learning about the trees in the area you are camping in, you also need to learn about the medicinal foliage too. For example, a dock leaf is an instant remedy against nettle stings. Spitting onto the leaf and allowing the sapling to cool your affected area will stop the stinging sensation allowing you to carry on with your day.
Knowledge Of Herbal Remedies
Knowing which plants are helpful also means knowing how to prepare them. For example, the Yarrow plant can help you treat rashes and insect bites. You can take the flowers and the leaves and boil them into a tea. Or you can chew the leaves and create a paste to rub on the insect wound.
Knowing the plants in your area will help you narrow down your studying session, as you learn which plants can help you against what.
How To Deal With Wildlife
Depending on where you’ve become stranded, the type of wildlife you will encounter will be different. Just as you should study the plants and trees of the area, you should study the animals too.
To help you cope with an animal encounter in the wild, you should try to remember these three things.
Have An Escape Route
Normally when you meet a critter in the wilderness, it will run away from you before you realize it was even there.
If you accidentally trap an animal, it will be more likely to attack you. For this reason, you need to ensure the creature has an escape route. Let it run away from you.
For the same reason, you should create an escape route for yourself. That might mean backing away from the creature, as you exit its area.
Try Not To Panic
While this is happening, it can be easy to allow the adrenaline to take over. But try to stay calm. Take a few deep breaths, and try to think clearly.
Running will likely spook the creature, causing it to become offensive unnecessarily. Remember that most animals will only attack if they feel threatened. Instead, try to remain calm and remove yourself from the situation without suggesting aggression.
While you back away, make sure to keep your eyes on the creature but don’t stare.
Remove Yourself From The Situation Slowly And Calmly
Remember that one of the ways in which an animal could feel threatened is due to territory. If you have stepped onto another creature’s territory, you may have accidentally created a panic response in the creature.
To stop this response from being actively triggered, you should back away slowly. The slow movement shouldn’t surprise the creature any further, and acting calmly will also show no sign of aggression.
As you move, keep an eye out for other creatures too, while quickly returning your gaze to the first animal.
While you are looking, you need to make sure you aren’t backing further into the animal’s territory. If you notice more creatures of the same species around you, you should back away from them too.
Although some people plan to go on a survival weekend, where there is no technology and just their compass to guide them, very few people plan for this type of situation.
Because becoming stranded isn’t an expected outcome of their journey, these same people often don’t know what to do when they find themselves out of luck. This doesn’t have to be you.
If you like to go camping, hiking, or spending time away from the bustle of people, you should also know how to survive if things turn south.
Use our information to help you start these survival skills.