7 Wilderness Survival Tips You Need to Know
Hope for the best, but plan for the worst. That should be the motto of every outdoor enthusiast. Faced off against nature, many things can go wrong. You can stumble upon a bear, get carried down a river and even get trapped by an avalanche. Needless to say, you might even find yourself miles from home with a dead cell phone. And when you are stranded in the great wild wilderness, preparedness can even save your life!
From seeking shelter and drinking water to maintaining a healthy, warm fire, here are the seven survival tips you need to know to stay safe until help arrives. Practice these survival skills, and you’ll always be prepared!
1. Take Inventory of Your Resources
If you become lost or stuck in the wilderness, the first thing is to remain calm. Panicking will do you no good and distract you from the things you should be doing: taking inventory of your resources so you can make a strategy and plan for survival.
Hopefully, you at least packed a day bag with the Ten Essentials, including a headlamp and compass. Inside, there should be some provisions like granola bars or fruit to help you get by. Knowing what you have with you can help you determine what you need and what can contribute to your survival. It can also help you ration food and water.
Last, strategize and begin your search for the three most important survival needs: water, shelter and warmth. While it’s up to you to decide which need is more vital at the time, consider finding a water source first, followed by a shelter and then fire for warmth. Water is imperative for survival. Where you find it may determine where to seek or create shelter. Outside your shelter, you can then create a fire.
2. Find a Water Source
Finding a clean water source should be a top priority, but doing so can prove tricky, especially in the wilderness. Here are some survival tips for finding clean water or decontaminating it yourself.
Rivers and Rocks
When it comes to finding water, think topographically. If you have a map — which you should! — look for streams and rivers. You could also find rocks with bowl-like indentations that collect rainwater. However, keep in mind that water found in puddles, streams and rivers needs to be decontaminated of any pathogens. The best way to do so is to boil it for one minute (or more, depending on your elevation).
If rain is in the forecast, be prepared to collect! Ideally, you might have an open container you can sit out, but, if not, you can collect rainwater through other means. One survival tip for collecting rainwater is to use a piece of cloth to soak up water along with leaves, squeezing it into a container. Hint: This also works for morning dew sans rainstorm!
During winters, you can also melt snow. You can do so quickly over a fire, but you can also stuff snow into a water bottle, using direct sunlight or your body heat — inside your coat — to melt it. Tempting as it is to eat snow, your body will waste more energy digesting it frozen instead of allowing it to first melt fully.
Digging for water is another option. Look for moisture-loving plants, such as cattails or willows, and dig a hole until you see wetter soil. Eventually, water will seep up and collect in the hole. Then, you can filter the groundwater using a cloth and boil it for safe consumption.
3. Seek or Create Shelter
Now that you have water, seek or create a shelter to protect yourself from the elements and the danger of hypothermia and heat exhaustion.
More than likely, your environment will require you to seek warmth in order to survive. In general, you want to find a small crevice — like a rock overhang — or create a space as small as possible to accommodate your body lying down. This will ensure you’ll capture your primary source of warmth: body heat.
Next, you want to build more framework, creating a lean-to of sorts. For this, you will need to get creative, using tree limbs and branches. Between them, stack sticks to block wind, filling any gaps. Outside this woodsy lean-to, you want to add an insulative cover of thick materials. Think bark, leaves, needles and moss.
Wilderness survival tips mainly address hypothermia, but heat exhaustion and dehydration are a real threat also. In some circumstances, you could find yourself lost in a much hotter terrain where finding shade and staying cool is critical. In this case, stay cool by creating the same type of structure, primarily to create shade while also allowing airflow.
Still using insulation like bark, leaves or even clothing, cover one side of the shelter. This way, you can lie in the shaded part. Another survival tip for hot climates is to dig into the soil a few inches, uncovering cooler ground.
4. Creating a Fire to Stay Warm and Cook
Now that you have found water and created shelter, it’s time to start a fire. A fire will not only help you stay warm but help you cook. Here’s how to start a campfire using only a few necessities that you should always carry with you.
Gather Kindling and Create a Tinder Bundle
To start a fire, begin collecting kindling such as dry sticks and create a tinder bundle of pine needles, leaves or whatever dried foliage you can find. When first building a fire, the smaller the better. You can always add larger dried branches once it gets going and is hot enough.
Ignite the Tinder
Once you have a good bunch of tinder, light your fire. Practice each of these methods and have them as part of your Ten Essentials and day pack.
Lighter/Matches – Everyone knows how to strike a lighter or match; it’s pretty self-explanatory. The trick is keeping them from moisture. Make sure to keep your lighter or matches in a watertight case, always in your pack as a backup.
Magnesium Fire Starter – This is a bit more advanced technique, but one worth mastering. With a knife, shave off filings into the tinder. Next, ignite them with a spark created by hitting the back of the knife.
Batteries – Last but not least, a true survival tip! Using a removed car battery, attach wires of steel wool to create positive and negative posts. The goal is to create a spark to ignite the wool. The same concept works on smaller batteries too — even 9-volts! Aligned positive to negative, connect the posts with steel wool strands to make a spark.
Once you get a spark and a small flame, blow steady breaths to make it spread.
Stack the Wood
Once your tinder and kindling are burning well, add more larger pieces to keep it going. Larger logs and branches act as long-burning fuel and guarantee to keep you warm. Just make sure they are dry or they could smother the fire before it’s had a chance to get going!
Also, be mindful as you place larger branches on, creating a nest-like tipi structure. Use your largest log to block the wind, while placing other smaller kindling in an open structure that allows oxygen to keep the flames going.
5. Understand How to Tie Basic Knots
Being proficient in knot tying comes in handy in so many ways, making it an extremely practical survival skill. After all, there’s a reason they taught it in scouting. While there are many types of survival knots, here are the absolute must-know basic knots for anyone who spends time outdoors.
The bowline knot is quite useful for creating a loop along a rope to attach items. A bowline knot also tightens as it’s pulled, making a stronger grip. In the outdoors, the bowline is useful in rescue situations, wrapping around torsos or acting as a seat or foothold. But it can also be used to hoist provisions into a tree to keep it away from bears.
Double Half Hitch
The double half hitch knot tightly attaches a rope to the desired object. For example, you can tie half hitches around two opposite tree trunks to create an A-frame shelter.
6. Make a Spear to Catch Food
Food is necessary for survival. But once you run out of provisions, what do you do? Create a spear, of course! Spears are one of the most versatile hunting tools available. With a sturdy stick, you can improve your chances of catching fish and even small game.
To make a spear, you’ll first need to find a long stick. Also, search for a stick that’s as straight as possible. Next, split the end of the stick to create two tines, like a fork, wedging it with another piece of wood or small rock. Using twine or cloth, lash the wedged piece into place. Last, use a knife or sharp rock to sharpen each fork tine, honing it as best you can.
7. Carry This Must-Have Gear
Whether your intention is to get lost in the wilderness or not, you should always carry with you some basic must-have gear to help you survive. Here are some recommendations:
Map and GPS – We always carry our phones with us, but, if the battery dies, you’re SOL. Instead, keep other options like a good old-fashioned map and compass or GPS communicator. Still, carry a back-up battery for your devices.
Fire Starter – Carry more than one fire starter, from matches to lighters to magnesium fire starters.
Waterproof Case – Keep your phone, GPS communicator, and even fire starters protected from the elements with a waterproof case. It also helps to have a hard case with foam to keep out moisture and prevent items from being damaged should it take a tumble along with you.
Hydration Bag – Whether it’s part of your camelbak backpack or rolled up as extra gear, a hydration bag can help you collect your water source. Choose a minimum 10 liter bag with a tough material that doesn’t easily tear or leak.
Multi-Tool Knife – Keep a multi-tool folding knife on you. You never know when it might come in handy. For instance, the knife can shave wood for tinder and even be attached to the spear. It can also cut rope, fillet fish, or perform any number of other useful survival skill taks.
Shelter – At the very least, carry a rope and tarp to create an emergency shelter. Another option would be to invest in a thermal, compact bivvy — just in case!
LED Headlamp – As mentioned, it pays to have an LED headlamp. It helps you get around after dark, and many, like Pelican’s 2710 and 2720 models, come with an emergency signaling mode, which flashes a More code “SOS” for help. Even if you merely underestimate your hike, a headlamp can help you see as you make your way back in the dusk.
First-Aid Kit – Each kit is different, but we suggest making your own first-aid kit with this list to guarantee it has everything you need. From gauzes to antiseptics and rehydration salts, you’ll be glad you have it if you become stranded.
Practice Your Survival Skills
The first step to preparedness is practice. From striking a magnesium fire starter to tying bowlines, take time to practice, in case your survival skills are needed in a true emergency. Better yet, take a Wilderness First Aid class to learn how to handle injuries and survive hypothermia. Guided on basic first aid, you will know how to dress cuts and wrap broken bones, keeping yourself safe until help arrives.
The most important survival tips to remember are to stay calm and stay strong. Feeling hopeless will make you lose your focus and lose grip of that hope. If you are in true need of help, being determined to survive will keep you alive.