Essential Survival Skills to Learn
Your particular approach to survival will depend on your environment, bioregion, climate, season and a whole host of other factors. These conditions and factors might impact your access to necessary tools, the availability of wild or previously prepared food but there are a few skills you MUST learn to survive in the wilderness;
However good you are at any other aspect of survival; it won’t help if your life is cut short by an injury. Beyond simple cuts and bruises, potential injuries range from things as simple as a twisted ankle (this could turn a planned trip into the wilderness into a survival situation) to catastrophic injuries from a vehicle crash. In the wild, you could be attacked by a wild animal, be physically assaulted or experience self-inflicted wounds due to careless use of firearms or other survival tools (happens more often than you think). You should be equipped for all of these potential situations.
Take a first aid course which includes the use of tourniquets and treatment of catastrophic hemorrhage and trauma, pack a compact but comprehensive first aid kit whenever you head to the outdoors, and keep one in your car and home for emergencies as well.
You can take this skill further by learning about medicinal plants and survival home remedies but at the very least learn some basic modern first aid techniques. A good foundation of basic first aid will prove useful in any post collapse situation, and is essential for any outdoors survival situation as well. We actually have an article written by former Combat Medics where they discuss trauma treatment and first aid in an apocalyptic situation.
Even with expertise in first aid though, you may still find yourself incapacitated in the outdoors so proper planning and preparation for emergencies is essential too.
If you or someone you care about suffers an injury in the wild, your first aid kit and skills might stabilize the injury or save a life in the short term. However, if you are immobilized you will still need help. To ensure you get the help that you need in a situation where you or someone in party is unable to move, you should properly plan and prepare for every outdoor excursion.
Rule number one for any kind of outdoors trip, whether it’s a casual trail walk or a month-long alpine trek. Someone should always know where you are going and when to expect you back when you venture into the wilderness. If you don’t get back when they expect, they can raise the alarm and request help on your behalf. If your priority is truly survival, then this is just plain common sense – it costs you nothing and significantly increases the chances that you’ll receive help if something goes wrong.
In the case of unpredictable emergencies that life throws at you a bit of prior preparation will help. Some extra (warm) clothes, the previously mentioned survival first aid kit and an ultralight sleeping bag in your car (or in your pack) are a good place to start. This especially true if you are travelling through remote country and might be stranded for a while. Plenty of survival food with extended shelf life in a well-stocked pantry at home is a good idea in case bad weather stops you getting to the store. At minimum, you should have a few simple things like a small survival knife, a survival lighter and a flashlight on your person as part of your EDC (every day carry) at all times – these are lightweight tools that will help immeasurably in emergencies.
Being able to find your way and pin point your location is an essential survival skill – so that you can either get to the place you need to go, or to provide someone with your precise location. Trusting phones and GPS systems is not an option for survival. You can’t count on having access to that technology in a survival situation. So a map, compass or even improvised navigational aids are the key.
You can even tell direction using your watch with a simple trick; In the Northern Hemisphere start by pointing the hour hand at the sun. If it is before mid-day you then measure clockwise between the hour hand and 12 o’clock. Half way between the hour hand and 12 is South. In the afternoon the process is the same except you measure counter clockwise from the hour hand. During daylight saving time you will need to measure between the hour hand and 1 o’clock instead of 12.
Being able to use a simple trick like turning your watch into a compass can give you confidence in the outdoors – but there are a few more vital skills you need when it comes to navigation. Transferring distance on a map to real life distance is very difficult unless you have a reliable means of measuring how far you’ve traveled in real life. The easiest way to do this is to pace out distance by determining how many of your paces equal 100 yards/meters. It’s unlikely you will need to count too many sets of 100 meters so you shouldn’t lose count, but if necessary, a set of beads on a compass string or something similar can be used as a counting aid. This simple technique will help you accurately determine how far you have traveled/hiked and when you should expect to meet a feature or when you need to change course.
There are more advanced survival skills related to navigation including learning how to find true north without a compass by using the sun/stars, as well as actually getting to where you want to go safely (e.g, learning the skill of crossing rivers and rapids or survival swimming) – in the medium term, these should certainly be on your list of survival skills to learn if you want to add to your cache of survival knowledge.
Finding and Building Shelter
Unless you’re injured and require first aid, finding shelter is the first priority of survival (as dictated by the survival rule of three). Shelter is a broader topic than just staying out of the rain or cold, although those are a good start. Your clothes are the first barrier between you and the elements whether that be extreme heat, cold, rain or wind. If you are adequately prepared for wilderness emergencies, you’ll have some basic materials like tarp and paracord to provide shade and a windbreak. This kind of preparation gives you an advantage. However, if you are in a true survival situation and don’t have access to any equipment, you will ideally know how to build (or find) a shelter in the wild, whether that means an improvised shelter from available materials (brunches, twigs, moss, etc) or finding a natural shelter (like a cave or large cavity in the trunk of a tree).
We have an article specifically about survival woodworking if you want to dive deeper into this particular topic.
If you need to protect yourself against cold, a fire will be an integral part of your approach to shelter so that is the next skill you need to master.
Without doubt one of the most essential elements of survival – it purifies water, cooks food and keeps you warm. With a bit of simple preparation, you can be equipped with some tools that will help you make fire – but if you can make fire with almost nothing you will have an advantage. There are always situations where you might not have the tools you need, and ideally, you’ll have the tools… but if not, you should be using your survival skills as a backup plan.
Fire by friction takes a lot of practice but it is definitely worth learning and is often considered the ultimate survival skill. With nothing but a knife and a bootlace or some other cordage, you can create a bow drill for friction-based fire lighting. You can even take it a step further – with mastery of some old school survival skills and some knowledge about plant identification, you can find the resources to make natural cordage that is strong enough for a bow drill and still get a fire with virtually no starting materials.
As well as friction fire you should master spark-based fire lighting with both traditional flint and steel and with modern ferro rods. A ferrocerium rod can easily be carried as part of your survival kit and if you carry a carbon steel survival knife (see a list of the best ferro rods here), even without the ferro rod you can strike a spark from your knife with a piece of flint or chert (which you can find almost anywhere).
Once you have made one fire in a survival situation you need to ensure the longevity of that fire, especially if it has been particularly difficult to produce that fire in the first place. You might have struggled to make it by friction (or even resorted to something like using your car battery to get a spark and lighting a length of dressing from your first aid kit). So once that fire is lit, one of the best ways to keep it going is to make some char cloth. This is easy to make with a scrap of material, packed into a small tin, like an altoids tin (but you can also use a piece of tinfoil or even a couple of sea shells). Once you have put your material into a small container, you can basically turn it into the cloth equivalent of charcoal and it will take a single spark very easily making your subsequent fire much easier.
Fire could literally save your life so do not overlook it. We have a number of articles about making fires, covering the topics of how to make a torch, how to start a fire in wet conditions, and how to start a fire the primitive way (without matches/lighters).
Once you have a fire you can purify water by boiling. It doesn’t clean it completely (boiling doesn’t remove heavy metals) but in many cases in the wilderness it will suffice. In some climates and regions, it is easier to find water, but it isn’t always straightforward, so it makes sense to learn a few survival tricks to help you along.
Keeping an eye on the local vegetation can help you find water. Plants need water and typically won’t grow where there isn’t a ready supply of it. In arid regions in particular, looking for valleys and gorges with plenty of vegetation will likely lead you to water.
Birds can help you with finding water too. Mammals aren’t as helpful except in very arid regions – herbivores often get most of the water they need from plant moisture and dew, so they won’t necessarily lead you to water. Birds though really can help; small birds in particular need to drink very regularly and can be tracked or followed to water.
In an emergency you can even collect dew from plants and other surfaces, animals do it so why not us. You can even drink dew (as long as you haven’t collected it from poisonous plants) without purifying it and you’d be surprised how quickly you can collect plenty of it. Using a bandanna, rag or piece of clothing it’s easy to soak dew from vegetation and ring it out into a container.
If you’re looking to survive in a post-disaster urban environment, we have tips for finding clean drinking water in an urban disaster (learn more urban survival skills here). We also have a more detailed guide about how to find water in the wilderness here.
Using Survival Tools (Like a Survival Knife)
While finding shelter, water and making fire are ultimately more important than your survival tools, and ideally you’ll have the skills to do all of those things without tools, a big part of survival is preparation, and a big part of preparing for any eventuality is having a set of survival tools that have high utility and adaptability across different types of survival scenarios.
It’s widely acknowledged that a knife is by far the most important survival tool – but in order to get the most out of your survival knife (and before you learn any advanced skills), the first and most important thing is safety. Cutting your finger off (or something worse) in the wild isn’t going to do you any favors when it comes to your odds of survival.
When working with a survival knife you must avoid the so called ‘triangle of death’; the area between groin and knees, this might be a comfortable position to sit in but a single slip could slice into your thighs or groin, this sort of injury could sever the femoral artery which is potentially lethal – if this happens, even those first aid skills you’ve learned might not save you. The dangers of other survival tools are similar (or even greater) – for example, axes/hatchets and machetes, due to the power required to wield them and the size of their blades, can cause very severe wounds if mishandled. On the other hand, one thing to note is that most people are pretty careful when handling larger tools, but everybody feels like they can use a knife. You should take the same amount of care when handling a survival knife as when you’re using a machete.
Other than working safely, there are a few simple skills you should work on developing with your survival knife;
Batoning: In a survival situation a survival knife might be your only tool, so using it for tasks that it’s not technically designed for (such as splitting wood) might be necessary. Batoning is a skill that allows you to split wood without a larger blade – and it’s particularly useful for getting dry wood that can be then used for starting a fire. It’s also great for reducing larger pieces of wood to use for crafting components in traps and other survival items. To split wood with a knife, first find a heft stick (baton sized, hence “batoning”). Hold the sharp edge of your blade a piece of wood. Use the baton to strike the spine of your knife while the blade rests on the piece of wood you want to split. To do this safely you will need a strong knife with relatively thick blade stock and a robust tang.
The blade should be placed so it is driven down the grain of the wood and a few strikes should see the piece split quite easily as long as it’s not too full of knots. Obviously, your knife needs to be sharp as well.
You can also use this knife to cut across wood grain as long as you don’t try to go through anything too thick. This technique is very useful but it is very hard on a knife. Use this as a backup solution when you don’t have access to a survival hatchet or axe, or a survival machete. One of the reasons why the survival knife is so highly valued is because in a pinch, you can improvise and use it for heavier duty tasks, and a survival knife is something that’s lightweight and small enough that you can literally have it on you at all times.
Chest lever grip: Also known as the scissor grip, the chest leaver grip provides a bit more power than a standard forehand knife grip. This is really useful for creating pointed ends for stakes in your shelter or for creating traps. The motion allows you to rapidly carve away material for whatever it is you’re trying to do. Hold your palms up (facing the sky), grip the knife in a reverse grip with the sharp edge facing away from your body, and grip the piece of wood you are carving in your other hand. Position the wood so that it is underneath your knife, forming a “scissor” shape between your knife and the wood. Working in front of your chest you can you can use your chest and back muscles, pull your arms away from each other (think the opposite of a hugging motion) and make powerful cuts.
Making feather sticks: Feeding in to your fire making skills, the ability to make feather sticks is a vital survival skill, especially when all the wood around you is wet. In this case, you’ll need to split down to the centre of larger pieces of wet wood to get dry kindling. Feather sticking is also helpful if you can’t find small dry twigs to use as tinder. To carve feather sticks you will need a wood with a long and straight grain, and hardwood doesn’t work well for this. Look for softwoods – pine, cedar, fir, and so forth. You want pieces that aren’t so thick that they are difficult to baton, but aren’t so thin that water has penetrated to the center of the wood. Now you will need to shave a mass of fine curls using as much of the length of the stick as possible. These simply won’t work if you only carve a few inches at the end. Properly executed these curls will be very fine and arranged in a tight mass which can be lit with the spark of a ferrocerium rod and with just a few of these you should be able to get your fire going quite easily. To get the best curls, brace your knife by locking your wrist against the front of your knee while you are sitting and draw the wood across the blade at quite a shallow angle, as you do wooden shavings will form curls and you want to keep these attached to the piece of wood eventually forming a mass of curls at one end that can be lit with a single match or even with a bit of practice the spark from a ferrocerium rod. The idea of feathering is that you create tinder at the end of the piece of wood, but you aren’t actually separating the tinder from the stick itself – the feathers will catch, which will in turn ignite the main stick.
Using an Axe
For some tasks, such as building large lean too shelters in cold environments you will need a larger, more powerful tool than a survival knife. This is when a survival hatchet is particularly important. In boreal forests (essentially cold forests, also known as taiga), a hatchet might actually be more important than a knife. You must be careful though and properly learn how to use an axe or hatchet, and of course always have your first aid kit with you when you are also carrying your survival hatchet (or knife for that matter).
There are a couple of safety precautions you need to bear in mind when using your axe. If you are felling a tree make sure you properly check above your head for dead limbs; the impact of the axe on the trunk may shake free dead branches above you which could fall and cause an injury or even kill you. You are most likely to encounter this if you are felling dead standing wood for firewood. But really, anytime you’re working on a standing tree, you should be on the lookout for these “widowmakers” as they are known. You should also look out for them when you are deciding where to place your shelter.
Because of the force and power required to use an axe effectively they are one of the most dangerous survival tools. If you are cutting or splitting wood make sure you either use a chopping block or only swing your axe away from your body.
Sharpening Your Tools
You will need to use knives and axes for survival so you will need to know how to sharpen them too. Small sharpening stones are easy enough to include in a simple survival kit but you can also improvise with very fine sandpaper, shale, sandstone or the inside of a leather belt depending on what you can find. Keeping your tools sharp is an important aspect of safety as well a general practical preparation. Contrary to popular belief, sharper tools are safer. The sharper the tool, the more likely it will perform as intended, and the less likely it will slip off the thing you’re trying to cut and go into your leg or hand instead.
Being able to identify local plants could help in a number of ways; if you want to find wild food or natural resources for making cordage you should learn to identify your local plants and wildlife. Yes carrying a field guide will be good practice but if you end up in a survival situation you probably won’t have that and will have to rely on your own knowledge, which means knowing the most common edible plants in you specific area. What’s more, if you are going to eat what you find you should be confident.
There are plenty of wild plants and mushrooms that will certainly kill you, so if in doubt DON’T EAT IT!
Learning plant identification will also help you identify plant species that can be used to make cord – this is a particularly important skill for bow drill fire lighting, improvised fishing and trapping (we like to encourage trapping vs hunting as it’s more appropriate as a true survival skill) and a host of other survival skills. Obviously, you should always have some sort of cordage on you (we like paracord survival bracelets for this reason) but again, when push comes to shove it never hurts to have the skills to do things even without the right tools.
That might be a simple as borrowing your boot lace for a survival task or wearing a bracelet of 550 paracord (we have an article on the best paracord survival bracelets here) which can be unraveled to give you enough cord to string up a shelter or to make snares with. In the absence of cordage, you can also improvise cord from certain plant fibers and tree barks so if you can identify suitable species you should also learn to braid or reverse wrap the fibers into useful cordage. Cordage can be used for things like improvised survival backpacks, shelters and snares like we mentioned already, and have a vast number of other useful survival applications.
This list of survival skills isn’t exhaustive but these are some of the most important skills for survival, and you should make learning them a priority. Other skills will undoubtedly follow – skills such as flint knapping and trapping perhaps, as well as softer skills like developing a survival mindset and learning how teamwork is essential to survival – but master these first and you will be in a good position to be safe on any wilderness adventure as well as in emergency scenarios.
Some more advanced survival skills include hunting, foraging, and survival fishing, and survival food preservation. We have various articles about each of these topics here:
Elk Hunting Series:
Other articles about hunting:
Food Preservation & Preparation
More Survival Skills
If you want to learn more survival skills, here are all our posts related to survival skills that might come in handy in the event of wilderness survival situation or just plain old man made or natural disaster: