Every year hundreds of people get lost in the wilderness. Many end up in dangerous situations that could have been avoided. Some unlucky souls don’t ever make it back.
Having knowledge of basic wilderness survival skills can help ensure you make it back from your next outdoor adventure. Whether it be day hiking, hunting, camping, or any activity that takes you into unfamiliar territory, basic survival skills are a must.
Getting lost in the wilderness can happen a lot easier than you might think. Even if it's woods you’re familiar with, seeing it at a different time of year and especially at night is very misleading. Everything looks different at night and everything looks different at different times of the year. You could be at your favorite hunting grounds and overestimate how much time you have left in the day. Next thing you know you’re climbing down your treestand at dusk and bumbling through the woods in pitch black. You keep telling yourself the car is right over this next ridge. Before you know it you’re lost, off track, and alone in the darkness of night.
Having a few basic skills and supplies can help to increase your chances of rescue and make survival a little more comfortable. Luckily the majority of wilderness rescue missions happen within 7 days. This means that the typical person should ideally be able to survive 7 days in the woods with what is on their person. Adding a small survival kit could drastically change your chances of rescue and increase the amount of time you are able to survive in the wilderness. Many of these kits can even fit into a small pocket.
One of the first things you should learn is how to make a simple shelter. Many people think “oh it’s fine, I’ll just wait until morning”. That’s a great plan….until it starts raining. Trying to set up a shelter in the dark while it's raining is never a good idea. It’s always better to prepare for the worst. Also if you plan on having a fire, a shelter is a good place to put your dry wood incase it begins to downpour.
The easiest and most effective way to build a quick survival shelter is to simply carry a tarp or a sheet of plastic. Heavy duty contractor style trash bags work great for this. Bonus points if they are brightly colored because then they double as a visual aid for rescue. Unfortunately it’s very time consuming to build a dry shelter without bringing some sort of waterproof barrier with you such as plastic.
You can build a debris shelter. This is simply a small stick framed “ribcage” shape that has leaf litter thrown on top of it several feet deep. The downside is that if the leaves are already wet, it’s raining, or even snowing, this won’t work very well. Even if it does work it could still take a lot of valuable time gathering enough leaf litter to toss on top to shield you from the rain. The only other option is to seek out some form of natural shelter. This could be near impossible in the dark.
By far the best option is to pack in some form of waterproof barrier. Whether it be a tarp, a trash bag, a poncho, or even an old hunk of plastic, it will save you hours that you would otherwise be spent waterproofing. Also, if it does come on to rain you have a way to capture fresh drinkable rainwater. Even if you’re out in searing bright sunlight, a tarp provides yet another function, shade.
If you don’t have any waterproof material and it’s dark, and it’s raining, your best bet is to hunker underneath a large tree right up against the trunk. Feel with your hand for trees that have dry ground underneath them. It won’t be comfortable, and you won’t be 100% dry, but it will offer some protection. Make sure to sit with your back facing the wind so the tree takes the breadth of it.
But, like I said earlier, the best thing to do is bring your own material for shelter. One product I highly recommend is the S.O.L. emergency blanket. Its small, lightweight, and can reflect 90% of your body heat back to you. In addition to that it also makes a great tarp for your shelter because when you light your fire it will reflect off the shiny part of the blanket and reflect back to you. You can purchase one blow through our amazon affiliate. It doesn't cost you a dime more and a tiny portion of the sale goes to helping our site.
Water is a necessity for all life. Humans are no exception. The average person can survive about 3 days without water. This time is even less if you are exposed to extreme heat and exertion. People often underestimate how much water they actually need per day. The minimum for healthy survival is 2qt per person per day. This amount goes up in extreme heat, under exertion, or even in cold temperatures. In extreme heat you can lose as much as half a gallon of water per hour from just sweating. Just as surprising is you can actually become dehydrated in cold weather as well. This is because cold air doesn’t hold any moisture so every breath you draw in is sucking moisture from your body. Then as you exhale that air you are losing that moisture, hence the “smoke” you breath out in cold air.
If you’re lost in the woods, hopefully you brought some kind of bottle to hold water. Bonus points for a metal bottle, but a plastic bottle is better than nothing. If you don’t have a bottle or some kind of container to boil water in then you may have to risk drinking water straight from the source. This could be very dangerous. Most streams and water sources in America contain tons and tons of bacteria and viruses that want to cause you harm. The two most common are Giardia and Cryptosporidium. I won’t go into detail about them, but just know they both are bad, can cause diarrhea, headaches, and even death in severe cases.
If you are on the brink of dying from thirst and it’s either drink this water or die in the next day or two, then you may want to risk it. Having diarrhea for is better than dying of thirst. Also you will hopefully be rescue soon in which they can treat you. Remember, the name of the game is surviving until rescue comes. Its very rare that it’s longer than a week, but it is entirely possible that it could be longer depending on where you’re at and if anyone knows you’re there. Luckily, if you brought a bottle you can boil water in it. This effectively kills 99% of the dangerous bacteria and viruses in the water rendering it safe to drink.
It goes without saying that boiling water in a metal bottle or cup is easier, but it is also possible to boil it in a plastic bottle as well. The key is to build a fire that is mostly nice hot coals. Suspend the bottle over the coals with a bit of cordage or a shoestring. Adjust the height so the flames (if any) barely lick the very bottom of the bottle. If the flames touch any part of the bottle that isn’t holding water it may melt it and then your bottle is ruined. It will take several minutes to boil and the bottle will start to distort and discolor a bit, but the water inside will keep the bottle from melting completely and eventually it will come to a boil.
If you decide to purchase a bottle or a cup I would recommend a single-walled steel bottle. You can boil water in it and carry water in it. If its hot out you can boil water in it and then stick it in a stream. The stream will cool it off in minutes and you'll have clean, cool, drinking water. The bottle I personally use is the one listed below. It's held up well through many fires and boilings. I am very pleased with it so far. If you decide to buy it, please purchase through our link below. Again, its no additional charge to you, it just provides us with a very small percentage of each sale which we use to make more free content for you.
Fire can be an important element to survival. It creates warmth, light, the ability to cook food, and most importantly the ability to purify water. I could spend hours going over the various methods to start a by friction, percussion, and various other means, but to be honest the easiest way to just carry a couple of lighters or waterproof matches. Friction fires such as the hand drill, bow drill, and fire bow are great, but the slightest bit of moisture, or high humidity in the air can make them useless. So unless you pack them in a waterproof bag there’s not much point because you can easily keep a few lighters in a sandwich baggy much easier.
Some people like to carry what are called ferrocerium or “ferro” rods. These are rods of soft metal that when struck with a hard edge of a knife or other piece of metal creates a shower of sparks. These sparks are used to ignite tinder sources such as seed pods, charcloth, dry grasses and other materials. These are a good alternative to friction fire as they work even when soaking wet. Downside to these is they take a very specific sort of tinder to work. The tender usually has to be light, airy, and fluffy in order to ignite by spark. Again, when it’s raining, it can be hard to find this tinder. Meaning you need to pack some in. Also, again, meaning it's much easier to just pack a couple of lighters.
A ferro rod has its place in an outdoorsman’s pack, but it’s not as a primary fire source. It makes a much better backup firestarter as opposed to a primary one. This means if you accidentally drop your lighter in a puddle or stream, you still have the possibility to start a fire without waiting for that lighter to dry off. Take this to the next level by adding some water proof matches. Some can stay lit even under water. The downside to these matches is if the striking pad gets wet they have to way to ignite.
One of my favorite things to do is take strike-anywhere matches and dip them in candle wax. The wax essentially waterproofs the matches and the strike anywhere head means you can strike them on any rough surface, no strike pad required. Just simply scrape the wax off with your fingernail. Pair these with a good sturdy ferro rod and you got a good start to a decent firemaking setup. I've provided links for both of them below if you in case you decide you'd like to have one or both.
We also sell our own house brand tinder kit through Etsy. You can check that out by clicking HERE. It's full of all kinds of goodies to get your fires started in an emergency.
While it is true that food is ranked at the bottom of the list for survival necessities, that doesn’t mean it isn’t important. Food is calories and calories are energy and warmth. Eating before bed can actually help to keep you warm through the night. This is because the process of digestion actually causes a small amount of heat to be released in the body from burning those calories. More importantly is the energy you get from food. Day one or two of survival usually isn’t that hard, but the longer your survival ordeal is the harder it will get. You really don’t start to feel the effects of food deprivation until about day 2 or 3. It will start with stomach cramps or pains, fatigue, or even mood swings and depression.
The best way to avoid facing the side effects of not having food for days is to obviously eat. A few protein bars in a pocket or bag can go a long way in a survival situation. If you don’t have any source of food that you packed in with you then you shouldn’t wait to start looking for another source of food. There are many easy to identify wild edible plants you can learn with little to no effort such as dandelions, wood sorrel, and even the inner bark of certain trees.
Wild edible are everywhere and can be plentiful if you know where to look. They may not taste the best, but they’ll give you the energy you need to perform other tasks. Make sure you are very familiar with the wild edibles you attempting to eat. Some are extremely toxic and other are even fatal.
The best method for getting a substantial amount of food in a survival situation is trapping. Mice, squirrels, birds, rabbits, these animals are virtually everywhere. Simple traps can be made to capture them, but most require some form of bait. Local nuts and berries are best for this. Even if you aren’t sure that you can eat them , it’s worth a try as bait for a trap to catch something that can eat them.
The most dense population of protein can be found in water. These are fish, crustaceans, and shellfish. If you can find a substantial source of water such as a creek, river, lake, or pond, then there is protein and calories there. If you have a survival kit then you probably have basic gear to catch fish such as hooks and fishing line. All that's left is bait. Fish bait is best sought after under old logs and rocks. Worms, slugs, salamanders, newts, crayfish, beetles, just about anything small and alive makes great fish bait. You can also go into shallow water and flip rocks looking for crayfish. The large ones are great eating and the small ones make good bait. You can scoop them into a cup or catch them with your hands (just pin them right behind the head to avoid a pinch).
You can also make various types of fish “traps” with minimal gear. Some traps, such as a basket trap, can be made with virtually no gear at all. Others, such as a spring pole or a trotline, will requite fishing line and hooks which can easily be stored in a small pocket sized kit.
A good thing to keep in your pack or pocket at all times is a small fishing kit. The one I posted below is a great basic set but if you throw in a couple of crappie jigs, small hooks, and some split shot sinkers you'd be all set.
A well thought out survival kit could mean the difference between life or death in a survival situation. It could also be the difference between sitting in the freezing cold for 7 days or signaling for help and getting rescued on day one or two. I can’t stress enough the importance of having some kind of kit on you at all times when you’re out in the wilderness. Even if it’s just a simple “Altoids” style survival kit. It could make a world of difference.
In this next section we’re going to go over two very simple survival kits and what I like to keep in both. You can swap out items to fit your own unique needs or to cater more to your region.
- The Altoids Kit - This is a very simple and basic survival kit. All the contents fit into an Altoids tin and can easily be stored in a pocket or pouch making it easy to always have on you. It also makes a great backup survival kit, because remember, in survival two is one and one is none.
- Small bic lighter
- Button compass
- Button led light
- Water purification tablets
- Razor blade or small knife
- 10-15yds of 10lb fishing or stronger
- 6-12 small #6 or #8 hooks
- 6 sinkers
- 15’ of brass snare wire
- Small whistle
- Coffee Can Kit - This kit is exactly what it sounds like, a survival kit inside of a metal coffee can. Make sure it’s a metal can. This will give you something to boil water in and even cook in if need be. This kit is great for stuffing in a backpack or at the bottom of your kayak. Put the plastic lid on the can, seal it with some duct tape and you have a nice waterproof survival kit that's great for boats. Best of all is it’s completely customizable to each individual’s needs. For example, if you were going to be on a boat you could easily take out the snare wire and water purification tablets to make room for a pen style signal flare launcher.
- Standard (11.3oz) metal coffee can
- 2 bic style lighters
- Pen style flashlight with extra batteries
- Folding pocket knife
- Dedicated fishing kit (Altoids style)
- 50’ of brass snare wire
- 50’ of paracord wrapped around the outside of the can
- Mylar survival blanket
- Small knife sharpener
- (10+) Petroleum jelly and cotton ball fire starters
- (2) High calorie protein bars
- Water purification tablets
- Waterproof matches
- 10yds of duct tape wrapped around a popsicle stick
- Ferrocerium rod/magnesium bar combo
- High decibel safety whistle
- Orange contractor style garbage bag
Below is a video we made a while back showing the benefit of building your own kit vs. simply buying a premade one. Obviously the costs will be lower with kit you made yourself, but you also get the benefit of knowing all the pieces to your kit and how they work, and even being able to custom make them to suit your own personal needs.
If you have to remember anything from this post, remember these tips. A Lot of them are extremely helpful and could get you out a tight situation in a pinch.
- Before you go into the wilderness, always be sure and tell someone or leave someone a note as to where you are going. In some of the more remote areas it’s a good idea to check in at a ranger’s station when entering and leaving.
- One of the best options when completely lost is to stay put. If help is coming they will be heading towards you last known location. This is why leaving a note or telling someone where you’re going is a good idea.
- It may sound silly, but adding a couple of sparklers to you kit could help you out in a pinch. Once ignited, sparklers burn hot and burn long. Even completely immersed in water they still stay lit!
- If you’re in the mountains or an area with a lot of hills and changes in elevations, look for the point where two sides of a mountain or hill meet and form a “V” shape. Lots of times there will be a stream or spring in these areas that carve out that “V” shape over centuries.
- If you are lost and are sure no one will be looking for you, find a large enough stream or river, follow it downstream. Most of the time this will lead to civilization as most cities were originally built around waterways for easy transport of goods. Be careful though, as it could be several miles until the next town depending on what part of the country you’re in.
- You can make cheap fire starters out of petroleum jelly and cotton balls. Simply mix a glob of jelly into a cotton ball. Store these in a waterproof container or wrap them individually in aluminum foil like pieces of candy. If wrapped in foil, each cotton ball can burn for 10+ minutes making it possible to dry out damp kindling.
- If you think you may be lost for several days then don’t wait to look for food. Start setting traps immediately. If you’re near fishable water, set up a couple of trotlines and check them regularly. That way while you are off getting firewood or building a shelter your traps are working hard to get food for you.
- A simple minnow trap can be made by cutting the top part of a soda bottle off and inverting it so the funnel shape points inward. Throw in some bait such as crushed worms, bugs, or even leftover fish parts in the bottom. Poke a few holes in the bottom, toss in a rock as a weight, and tie it off somewhere so the current doesn’t take it. Place it in an active minnow area and come back to check it every 6 hours or so.
- Soon as you have the slightest inclination that you may be lost you need to stop and sit down for a few minutes. Take a breather to assess the situation and calm the adrenal gland a bit. A lot of time when people realize they are lost they panic and start moving faster and faster. Not only is this unsafe, but you could be moving in the wrong direction faster and faster. Stop, calm your nerves, and think. Think about landmarks you can recall such as streams or odd shaped trees. Try to remember if you were going uphill or downhill. These little things could help you get back on track.
Surviving alone in the wilderness can be a frightening experience no matter how prepared you are. There are many dangers out there, but the most dangerous thing is our own minds. If we let it run rampant, get us all worked up, or spread fear and doubt in our thoughts then we’ve already lost. Keeping a positive attitude and strong will to survive is key. Just keep telling yourself how this will make a funny story when you tell your friends or what you’re gonna do as soon as you get home. The second you start doubting yourself and saying “if” I get home instead of “when” I get home is when the trouble begins.
Depression is a serious killer in a survival situation. People will just give up and say “what’s the point” and essentially just roll over and die. You can’t do that. You need to keep a positive attitude and keep your morale up. Simple things like building a fire, eating, getting enough sleep are all ways to boost morale. Think of the little accomplishments instead of the setbacks. Think of the loved ones you have to make it home to.
Having a strong mental attitude is important. Your survival is 75% attitude, 20% knowledge, and 5% kit. All three parts are important. Never think that just because you have a survival kit you will survive. You need to be prepared mentally as well as have a full understanding of the working of your kit, your body, and your surroundings. Just remember, the one piece of gear you always have with you is your mind. You can always learn more and always be better prepared. Learn new wild edibles, how to make cordage from natural materials, flintknapping to make a stone blade, and how to start a fire through friction. Learn these and you will have a basic tool kit you can take anywhere and call upon at anytime.