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Surviving the Wild: 10 Essential Wilderness Survival Skills


Whether you’re a seasoned adventurer or just starting out, the importance of having essential survival skills cannot be overstated. I’m talking about the skills that could save your life when you’re lost, injured, or stranded in the wild.


Why is it so important to learn these skills? Well, the answer is simple – the wilderness is a beautiful but unforgiving place. You never know when you might get caught in a sudden storm, run out of water, or get injured on a remote trail. Without the right survival skills, you could find yourself in a life-threatening situation with no way out.


But we’ve got you covered. In this article, we’ll be diving into the top 10 essential wilderness survival skills that every adventurer should know. From building a shelter and starting a fire to finding food and water, we’ll cover everything you need to survive in the wild.


So, get ready to learn how to navigate through the wilderness, signal for help, and even administer first aid in case of an emergency.


The Pillars of Effective Wilderness Survival Skills


Wilderness survival skills encompass much more than merely staying alive. Several activities, such as bushcraft, camping, hiking & backpacking, and hunting, contribute to a well-rounded survivalist.


Bushcraft: Mastering Nature’s Tools


Bushcraft is the art of thriving in the wild using only natural resources. It’s a cornerstone of wilderness survival skills, teaching essential techniques like:

  • Firestarting with friction

  • Building shelter with natural materials

  • Foraging for edible plants and insects

  • Crafting tools and weapons from wood, stone, and bone


With bushcraft skills, you become a resourceful survivor, capable of adapting to any environment.


Camping and wilderness survival are cut from the same cloth. It’s a fantastic way to practice and improve upon essential skills, including:

  • Setting up tents and shelters

  • Cooking over open fires

  • Navigating with a map and compass

  • Tying knots and lashings

By camping regularly, you hone your abilities to live comfortably outdoors and respond to unexpected situations.


Hiking & Backpacking: Exploring the Great Outdoors


Hiking and backpacking prepare you for extended stays in the wilderness. These activities test your endurance and teach vital lessons, such as:

  • Properly packing a backpack

  • Planning and following a route

  • Identifying and avoiding hazards

  • Reading weather patterns


You’ll learn to travel efficiently and safely while appreciating the beauty of nature.


Hunting: Providing Food for Survival


Hunting is an indispensable wilderness survival skill. It not only provides sustenance but also teaches stealth, patience, and respect for wildlife. Key aspects of hunting include:

  • Tracking and stalking game

  • Field dressing and preserving meat

  • Building and using hunting blinds

  • Understanding animal behavior and habitats


Mastering hunting techniques ensures you can sustain yourself in the most remote locations.


Wilderness survival encompasses a wide range of activities that promote self-reliance and adaptability.


By learning bushcraft, camping, hiking & backpacking, and hunting, you become a more versatile and resilient outdoors enthusiast.


Finding and Purifying Water


Without water, you have about 2 days before life gets precarious. I know the rule of thumb is 3 days, but dehydration becomes debilitating sooner than that. So when you’re in the wilderness, finding and purifying water is essential for your survival. Let’s dive in and discuss the best ways to find and purify water in the wild.


Find Sources of Water


Firstly, let’s talk about finding water sources. The key is to look for signs of life – animals, insects, and vegetation. They all need water to survive, so if you spot them, chances are there’s water nearby.


Additionally, keep an eye out for depressions in the ground or areas with damp soil, as they may indicate the presence of underground water.


The next step to finding water is to head downhill. Surface water trickles into creeks that flow into valleys, where they form streams that flow into ponds and lakes. So heading downhill will significantly increase your chances of finding low lying areas, potentially where water has collected.


Once you’ve located a water source, it’s time to collect and purify it. Don’t just start gulping it down. The water may contain harmful bacteria, viruses, or parasites that could make you seriously ill.


Collecting Water


Once you’ve found a source of water, it’s time to collect and purify it. You can use a water bottle, canteen, or even a plastic bag to collect water from a stream or river. However, make sure to filter the water before you purify it to remove any sediment or debris that may be present. You can use a cloth, coffee filter, or even a piece of clothing to filter the water.


Purifying Water


To purify the water, you have a few options. One is to boil it. Bring the water to a rolling boil for at least five minutes to kill any harmful bacteria and viruses. Another option is to use a water filter or purification tablets. These can effectively remove impurities and kill harmful organisms, but make sure to follow the instructions on the label carefully.


Conserving Water


And finally, let’s discuss conserving water. In the wilderness, water is a precious resource, so it’s crucial to use it wisely. One way to conserve water is to limit physical activity during the hottest parts of the day to reduce sweating. You can also use water sparingly when washing and cooking, and reuse water whenever possible.


Remember, the key to survival in the wilderness is preparation, and that includes having the skills to find and purify water.



Building a Shelter


When you’re out in the wilderness, you need a good shelter that can protect you from the elements. Luckily, nature provides plenty of options for the savvy survivor.


Types of Natural Shelters


There are a few different types of natural shelters you can take advantage of, depending on what’s available in your area. A cave or rock overhang is a classic choice, but you can also build a shelter using natural materials like branches, leaves, and bark.


Building A Shelter


To build a shelter from scratch, you’ll need to find a good spot and gather some materials. Look for a spot that’s dry and protected from the wind, and clear away any debris or obstacles. Then, start building your frame using branches and saplings.


A lean-to, a-frame or debris hut are the easiest to make without any tools. You can use smaller twigs, pine needles, pine boughs, grass and leaves to create insulation and keep the elements out.

If it’s winter, your best bet is to build a snow shelter. All you need is a shovel (see the best survival shovels), lots of snow and a few twigs.


If you don’t have access to natural materials, there are other options. Tarps or ponchos can be used to create simple survival shelters. You can even use your backpack or a piece of clothing as a makeshift roof.


Tips For Staying Warm and Dry


Staying warm and dry is crucial for survival, so make sure to add a layer of insulation to the floor of your shelter as well. Pine needles, leaves, and grass can all be used for this purpose. If you have access to a fire, use it to dry out wet clothing and to warm up your shelter. Just make sure to keep the fire small and contained.


Remember, building a shelter is a key wilderness survival skill that can mean the difference between life and death. So take the time to learn how to build a good one, and always be prepared for the worst.



Starting a Fire


As challenging as it may be sometimes, you have to admit, fire starting is the fun part. And it can be applied across all aspects of survival: urban survival skills and long term survival skills. Here’s what to do to make it as easy as possible so you’re not struggling to catch a flame.


Materials To Make Fire


First things first, you need to find the right materials. Tinder is key – that’s anything that will catch fire easily, like dry grass, leaves, or bark shavings. Your tinder bundle needs to be as big as a bird’s nest or you run the risk of it burning up too soon. 


Next, you’ll need kindling – small twigs and branches that are no thicker than your finger. See the best survival axes. Like the tinder bundle, your kindling pile needs to be twice as big as you initially think. Once you have a decent flame going, it’s time to add some sticks and logs to keep the fire burning long into the night. 


In woodland areas, gather the amount of wood you think you need to burn through the night, then collect 5 times that. That’s how much people typically underestimate the amount of firewood they need.


Fire Starting


Now, onto the fun part – different methods for starting a fire. If you have matches or a lighter, count yourself lucky. But in the wilderness, you can’t always rely on modern conveniences. That’s where a good old-fashioned fire starter comes in – like a ferrocerium rod, which creates sparks when struck with a steel blade. If you don’t have a fire starter, you can try the hand drill or bow drill method, which involve rubbing sticks together to create friction and generate heat. It’s not easy, but it can be done with practice.


Fire Safety


But before you start channeling your inner caveman, it’s important to remember safety precautions.


Always make sure you have a clear space for your fire, away from any low-hanging branches or dry brush. Build a ring of rocks around the fire to contain it, and never leave it unattended. And if you’re in a dry area, be sure to check for any fire restrictions or bans before starting a fire.


With the right materials, techniques, and safety precautions, starting a fire in the wilderness can be a satisfying and even enjoyable experience (see how to make your own survival fire starting kit).


Navigation


In the wilderness, it’s easy to get turned around and lose your sense of direction. That’s why having a reliable navigation system is crucial to your survival.


But with a little bit of knowledge, you can make sure that you never lose your way. In this section, we’ll cover the different tools and techniques that you can use to navigate in the wilderness.


Having a GPS


The easiest and most accurate way to navigate in the wilderness is with a GPS (Global Positioning System). A GPS can tell you exactly where you are and where you need to go. It can also track your progress and give you an estimated time of arrival. However, it’s important to remember that GPS devices can fail, run out of battery or lose reception in areas with thick tree canopies or canyons.


Using a Map and Compass


A map and compass are the most reliable backup navigation tools you can carry. A map will give you a general overview of the area, and a compass will help you to navigate in the right direction. When using a map and compass, be sure to orient yourself correctly, to ensure you are heading in the right direction.


Always keep your map and compass safe from the elements, in a waterproof container or plastic zip-lock bag.


Orienting Yourself Without a Compass


Even if you don’t have a compass, there are still ways you can orient yourself in the wilderness. One method is to use the sun. You can determine the direction of east and west by observing where the sun rises and sets. You can also use the position of the stars and the moon to navigate.


Following Natural Markers


Another way to navigate in the wilderness is by following natural markers. Look for things like rock formations, rivers or creeks, and animal trails. In addition, pay attention to the direction that the wind is blowing, and the way that plants are growing. These can all be clues to help you navigate.


When it comes to wilderness survival, navigation is a key skill that you should have. Always carry a map and compass, and if possible, a GPS device.


Using Binoculars


Binoculars, in tandem with a compass and map, enhance wilderness survival navigation by offering a powerful trifecta. Binoculars magnify distant landmarks, elevating situational awareness, while a compass provides directional guidance.


Maps offer topographical context, streamlining route planning. Together, these tools empower you with superior navigational power, bolstering safety and efficiency, enabling you to confidently travel uncharted territories.


See the top binocular features for survival you should look for when shopping for that perfect pair of binoculars.


Signaling for Help


There are several ways to get the attention of rescuers or passersby, and this section will cover some of the most effective methods.


Creating a Signal Fire


One of the most recognizable ways to signal for help is to create a signal fire. A signal fire is a fire designed to produce smoke that can be seen from a distance. 


To make a signal fire, you will need to gather dry materials like leaves, sticks, twigs, and some fresh green material. Once you have a pile of these materials, you can ignite the dry materials (see fire starting above). The key to making a signal fire is to keep adding dry materials to keep the fire burning bright and hot. 


Then when you need lots of smoke, throw on some green materials. The smoke produced by the fire is what will catch the attention of rescuers. Make sure to keep the fire burning until you are rescued.


Making Noise


Another way to signal for help is by making noise. Yelling, screaming, and blowing a whistle are all effective methods for making noise in the wilderness. If you are traveling with a group, coordinate with them to make noise in a rhythm or pattern. This will make it easier for rescuers to identify that you are human, and not an animal or other natural sound. 


However, do not waste your energy by yelling continuously. Take breaks between your noise-making efforts to preserve your energy.


Using Visual Signals


Visual signals are another way to get the attention of rescuers. Using reflective materials like mirrors or shiny metal can help you to catch the sunlight and produce a signal that can be seen from a distance.


You can also use bright clothing or create an arrow or SOS sign with rocks or sticks on the ground.


Remember to position your visual signal in an open area where it is visible from the air.


Hunting and Gathering Food


When you’re out in the wilderness, finding food is a top priority for survival. While hunting and gathering food may not be for everyone, it’s important to know how to do it in case of an emergency.


Foraging


Foraging for food is another option, and can be a great way to supplement your diet. Take the time to learn the seasonality of plants in your area, otherwise you can expend more calories searching for them than you’ll get in return.


Look for wild mushrooms, berries, and other edible plants. However, it’s important to be careful and know what plants are safe to eat.


Identifying Edible Plants


Before setting out to look for plants, it’s important to know how to identify edible plants. Take the time to research what plants are safe to eat in your area and learn what parts of the plants are edible. 


Some common edible plants include dandelions, cattails, wild strawberries, and blueberries. However, it’s important to note that some plants can be toxic, so it’s essential to have the knowledge to avoid them.


Finding and Trapping Small Game


If you’re looking for meat, you can find small game like rabbits, squirrels, and birds. To catch small game, you can use traps and snares. Learning how to make a trap and set it up correctly is crucial. You can also use a bow and arrow or a slingshot to hunt.


Fishing


Fishing is another option for getting protein. If you have a fishing rod and bait, you can cast a line in a nearby river or stream. If you don’t have a fishing rod, you can make a simple one using a stick and some fishing line.


Learn how to make fish traps like a fish basket or a weir, both of which can be made with natural materials.


First Aid


When you’re out in the wilderness, accidents can happen. Injuries like sprains, cuts, and blisters can quickly become serious if not properly treated. Knowing basic first aid skills and having a well-stocked first aid kit can make all the difference in a survival situation.


Creating a First Aid Kit


A first aid kit is an essential item for any wilderness excursion. It should contain a variety of medical supplies to help you treat a wide range of injuries. Here are some items that should be included in your kit, as a bare minimum:

  • Adhesive bandages in different sizes

  • Sterile gauze pads and medical tape

  • Antiseptic wipes and antibiotic ointment

  • Pain relievers such as aspirin or ibuprofen

  • Scissors and tweezers

  • Emergency blanket

  • Medical gloves


Treating Common Wilderness Injuries


Knowing how to properly treat common wilderness injuries can make a big difference in the outcome of a survival situation. Here are some tips on how to handle a few common injuries:


Cuts and scrapes: Clean the wound thoroughly and apply an antibiotic ointment. Cover the wound with a sterile gauze pad and secure it with medical tape.


Blisters: If possible, leave the blister intact. Cover it with a moleskin or other blister pad to protect it from further irritation.


Sprains and strains: Rest the injured area, apply a cold compress, and elevate it to reduce swelling. Use an elastic bandage to provide support and stability.


Knowing When to Seek Medical Help


In some situations, first aid may not be enough. It’s important to know when it’s time to seek medical help. Here are some signs that you should seek medical attention:

  • Severe bleeding that can’t be stopped with direct pressure

  • Loss of consciousness or a change in mental status

  • Broken bones or suspected spinal injuries

  • Severe allergic reactions

  • Signs of hypothermia or heat stroke


In the end, the key to successful wilderness survival is being prepared. Knowing basic first aid skills and having a well-stocked first aid kit can mean the difference. Remember to stay calm, assess the situation, and take the necessary steps to keep yourself and your companions safe.


Wilderness Survival Skills: Gear Choices


When it comes to surviving in the wild, your wilderness survival gear can make a big difference. Certain items are just too difficult or time consuming to replicate from natural materials. Those are the items you want to carry with you.


Here are some tips for choosing the right gear, as well as ways to minimize the amount of gear you need.


Choosing the Right Gear for Your Survival Kit


You need to make sure you have the right gear in your survival kit. Your kit should be tailored to your needs and the environment you’ll be in. Here are some things to consider when choosing your gear:


Water: Make sure you have a way to purify water, such as a water filter or purification tablets. A metal water bottle or pot can be used to boil water.


Shelter: Your kit should include some form of shelter, such as a tent or tarp, to protect you from the elements. Cordage can be used to tie things down or lash poles together. 


Fire: You’ll need a way to start a fire, such as a lighter, matches, or a fire starter. Having a ready-made tinder can save you lots of time when you’re trying to get warm.


Navigation: Have a compass and map, or GPS device, so you can find your way in case you get lost.


First Aid: Your kit should have some basic medical supplies, such as bandages, antiseptic, and pain relievers.


Minimizing Survival Gear by Learning More Skills


While having the right gear is important, it’s also essential to have the skills to survive without it. Learning how to start a fire with natural materials, finding food and water sources, and building a shelter from natural materials can help you minimize the amount of gear you need to carry. With practice, you can even learn to create makeshift tools and weapons. The more you carry in your head, the less you need to carry on your back. So learn as many survival skills as you can.


Different Ways to Use a Knife in the Wilderness

A knife is one of the most essential pieces of gear you can have in the wilderness. Here are some ways to use your knife:


Building Shelter: You can use your knife to cut branches, sharpen stakes, and make notches in logs for building a shelter.


Starting a Fire: Your knife can be used to make kindling, carve a fireboard for starting a friction fire, and create feather sticks for lighting with a fire starter.


Preparing Food: You can use your knife to skin and clean game, fillet fish, and chop vegetables.


Creating Tools: With a little creativity, you can use your knife to make tools such as spears, bows, and traps.


Having the right gear in your survival kit is important, but it’s also essential to have the skills to survive without it. By learning how to make do with less, you can minimize the amount of gear you need to carry and increase your chances of survival in the wilderness. And remember, a knife is one of the most versatile tools you can have in your kit, so make sure you know how to use it to its full potential.


Self-Rescue & Mobility


When it comes to wilderness survival, it’s essential to prepare for all situations, including the possibility of self-rescue. In this section, we’ll discuss the importance of self-rescue and mobility, as well as some techniques and strategies for staying safe in the wilderness.


Preparing for Self-Rescue


Before you head out into the wilderness, it’s important to be prepared for the possibility of self-rescue. This means having a well-stocked survival kit with essential items like a first aid kit, signaling devices, navigation tools, and extra clothing.


It’s also a good idea to let someone know where you’re going and when you plan to return, so that if you do get lost or stranded, rescuers will know where to look for you.


Knowing When to Stay Put and When to Move


If you do find yourself in a survival situation, it’s important to assess your surroundings and decide whether it’s safer to stay put or to try to move to a safer location.


If you’re injured or in an area where you’re likely to be found, it may be better to stay put and wait for help. However, if you’re in a dangerous or unstable location, it may be safer to try to move to a safer spot.


Techniques for Self-Rescue


You can encounter many obstacles, especially if you’re lost. There are several skills that can help with self-rescue and mobility so you can get back to civilization safely. Here are a few examples:


Swimming: If you need to cross a body of water, swimming may be your only option. However, it’s important to be aware of the risks and take precautions. If you have a watertight backpack and it’s sealed properly, then it can act as a float. Avoid swimming in strong currents.


River Crossing: Crossing a river can be dangerous, but there are techniques that can help. Look for shallow areas, and try to cross perpendicular to the current. If you’re carrying a backpack, loosen the straps so that you can quickly remove it if you fall.


Climbing and Rappelling: Climbing and rappelling can be useful skills for navigating steep terrain. However, it’s important to have the right equipment and training. Always use a harness and rope, and make sure that you have a clear understanding of the terrain and weather conditions.


Improvising and operating Watercraft: In situations where there are no bridges, and you need to cross a body of water, improvising and operating a watercraft like a canoe or raft can be useful. However, make sure you have the necessary skills and equipment to handle the watercraft safely.


Driving: In some cases, it may be necessary to drive to safety. However, driving in extreme weather conditions or on muddy or snowy roads can be challenging. Make sure you have a reliable vehicle, and drive slowly and cautiously.


Hiking: Finally, if you need to hike to safety, make sure you have the necessary equipment and supplies, including a map and compass, water, and food. It’s also important to pace yourself and rest as needed, especially if you’re hiking over a long distance.


Remember, self-rescue and mobility skills are just one part of wilderness survival. The key to staying safe is being prepared and knowing how to react in any situation.


Self-Defense


When venturing into the wilderness, encountering wildlife is always possible. Although many of these encounters can be awe-inspiring, they can also be dangerous if not handled correctly. It is essential to know how to avoid wildlife confrontations and how to defend yourself if necessary.


Avoiding Wildlife Confrontation


The best way to avoid a wildlife confrontation is to make noise as you move. This alerts animals to your presence and gives them time to move away. Keep all food items sealed and make sure to store/hang your food at least 100 yards away from where you are sleeping.


Knowing How to Defend Against Black Bears and Grizzly Bears


If you encounter a black bear, talk to it in a calm voice, try to make yourself look bigger by standing on your tiptoes and spreading your arms out wide. If it charges at you, use bear spray or use any available object to hit it on its sensitive nose. Do not run, as this will trigger the bear’s natural instinct to chase.


Grizzly bears, on the other hand, require a different approach. If you see a grizzly bear, first, move away from it slowly and quietly, without turning your back to it. If it approaches you or attacks you, curl up in the fetal position and clasp your hands behind your neck, play dead, as the bear will eventually lose interest and leave. You cannot outrun these animals so don’t try, it will most likely provoke them to chase you. It is important to remember that grizzly bears are unpredictable, and the best defense is to avoid them.


Self Defense Tools and Makeshift Weapons


Having the right tools can make a significant difference when it comes to self-defense. Pepper spray or bear spray can be useful in deterring animals. A firearm is also an option, but it is important to have the proper training and permits to use it.


If you don’t have access to these tools, it is essential to know how to make makeshift weapons from natural resources around you. Large sticks or rocks can be used to fend off wildlife, and even your hiking poles can be used as a weapon. In a pinch, you can even use your backpack as a shield.


Avoiding wildlife confrontations and knowing how to defend yourself is crucial when it comes to wilderness survival. By making noise as you move, following food storage guidelines, and knowing how to defend against black and grizzly bears, you can significantly reduce your chances of a dangerous encounter. If you do need to defend yourself, having the right tools and knowledge to make makeshift weapons can make all the difference.


Final Word About Wilderness Survival Skills


The ten best wilderness survival skills are essential to have in your arsenal. They include creating a first aid kit, choosing the right gear for your survival kit, preparing for self-rescue, and knowing how to defend yourself. 


Additionally, knowing how to find food, water, and shelter, building a fire, navigating without a map or compass, signaling for help, and staying calm under pressure can all make the difference between life and death in the wilderness. 


Always remember that preparation is key, and being mentally and physically prepared for a survival situation is just as important as having the necessary skills and tools.


FAQ’s


What is the most important survival skill to learn?


The most important survival skill to learn is the ability to stay calm and maintain a positive mindset. In a survival situation, panic can be your worst enemy. It can cloud your judgment, waste your energy, and lead to poor decision-making. On the other hand, a calm and positive mindset can help you stay focused, think clearly, and take the necessary steps to stay alive. Therefore, before learning any other skills, it is important to practice techniques that help you manage your emotions, such as deep breathing, visualization, and positive self-talk. Once you are able to stay calm, you can start focusing on the other essential skills, such as shelter, water, fire, and food.


What should I do if I get lost in the wilderness?


If you get lost in the wilderness, the first thing you should do is stay put and try to remain calm. Moving around aimlessly can increase your chances of getting more lost or injured. Instead, find a safe spot to rest and assess your situation. Use any resources available to create shelter and start a fire for warmth. If you have water and food, ration it out conservatively. Use signaling techniques, such as making noise, using a whistle or mirror, or building a signal fire to attract rescuers. If you have a map and compass, try to use them to orient yourself and find your way back. Get to a high spot where you can possibly see distant landmarks like hills or rises. Then you can use them to orient yourself to your map. Remember that the key to survival is to stay calm, conserve your energy, and wait for rescuers to find you.


How can I stay warm in a survival situation?


Staying warm in a survival situation is crucial to avoid hypothermia, which can be life-threatening. The best way to stay warm is to create a shelter that can protect you from the elements, such as wind, rain, and snow. The shelter can be made of natural materials, such as leaves, branches, and moss, or can be constructed using a tarp or a survival blanket. A good shelter should be small, insulated, and well-ventilated to prevent condensation from building up. Once you have a shelter, you can start a fire to keep warm. Collect dry tinder, kindling, and fuel, and use a firestarter, such as a lighter or a ferrocerium rod, to ignite the fire. Make sure to keep the fire going throughout the night by adding more fuel and protecting it from the wind. If you don’t have a fire, huddle together with others for warmth, and insulate yourself from the ground using leaves, moss, or branches. Finally, make sure to wear dry and warm clothing, such as wool or synthetic fibers, and avoid sweating by removing layers when you start feeling too hot.


Can I drink my own urine to stay hydrated in the wilderness?


While drinking your urine may seem like a viable option, it is not recommended. Urine is full of waste products and drinking it can further dehydrate your body, which can be dangerous in a survival situation (there’s a reason why your body is getting rid of it). Look for other sources of water like streams or rainwater, and consider boiling it before drinking to purify it.

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