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Being able to survive in the wild is what separates well intentioned survival hobbyists from true survivalists. Everybody is capable of stockpiling supplies and gear, and of hunkering down in place in the face of a crisis. Not everybody is capable of surviving in the wild with minimal gear and a limited supply of food or water. Wilderness survival is what separates the wheat from the chaff.
If your goal is to be well prepared for a disaster scenario, then your first priority should be stocking up on survival gear and supplies as we’v stressed over and over again, nothing beats proper preparation. But what happens once those supplies inevitably run out? What if you’re caught in a situation where, despite your best efforts, you don’t have access to all the resources that you had carefully prepared? This kind of situation is when you’ll need to rely on your wilderness survival skills. Being able to find or provide yourself with basic necessities, being able to navigate the terrain and protect yourself from the elements – these are skills that our ancestors had that most of us have sadly lost over time. Modern society just doesn’t call for being able to start a fire with no equipment, or being able to find water or hunt for food. As a consequence, these skills have atrophied.
But just because surviving in the current world doesn’t call for these skill doesn’t mean that they won’t one day become the difference between life or death. The world can be turned on it’s head in an instant. So if you want to be fully prepared for whatever the future holds, you’d do well to start learning how to truly survive in the wilderness with minimal access to modern conveniences.
To begin with, you need to be aware of the bare basics of how to survive in the wilderness. These basics are the kind of things that even casual outdoor enthusiasts should know – core ideas like how to navigate without a compass, or how to locate shelter. Sadly, many people go hiking or camping without a grasp of even these most basic of ideas – this is often what leads to people being stranded in the wild without supplies or any idea of what to do. Don’t be a dummy – even if you don’t care that much about being able to survive in the wild for extended periods of time, if you enjoy hiking or camping or any other kind of outdoor activity that involves being away from civilization, you need to have a grasp of these basic survival ideas.
If you want to know how to survive in the wild, the first thing you’ll need to learn is how to navigate the terrain. The number one killer in the wild isn’t lack of water or food – it’s the environment itself. Most people who die in the wild fall to their deaths. The second most common cause of death is drowning. This tells you that if you understand the terrain and can conquer your surroundings, your chances improve drastically.
The first skill you need to learn to conquer your environment is knowing where you are and where you’re going. If you know which direction safety lies in, then you are lost… just stranded. If you have a destination and you know how to get there, then you have a means of escape. You just need to be able to survive until you reach safety. On the other hand, wandering aimlessly in the wild is a recipe for disaster. That’s why any wilderness survivalist should know how to navigate. Ideally, you’re properly prepared and you have a compass and a map with you. If basic navigation equipment is unavailable to you, then you’ll need to understand how to navigate without a compass.
Once you know which direction you should be heading in, the next step is having the skill to actually reach your destination. In the wilderness, there often won’t be straight roads or paths that you can follow – if there is a path to follow, then chances are you aren’t really lost or stranded in the first place. Just because you know safety lies a certain way, doesn’t mean that you’ll be able to carve a straight line in that direction. There will be obstructions – heavy overgrowth, cliffs, rivers and so forth. While some kinds of terrain are impassable without the right gear, bodies of water like rivers can be crossed if you know what you’re doing – and if your goal is to go in a straight line to reach safety, you don’t want to be in a situation where you need to take a two day detour to bypass a river. That’s why it’s essential that you learn how to cross rivers, streams and rapids – in most cases, your best chance of survival is to stick as much as possible to a straight line in the direction that leads to safety.
Surviving what your environment has to throw at you isn’t just a matter of finding your way – it’s also about surviving the elements. Heat and cold can both kill very quickly. As we mentioned earlier, falls are one of the most common killers in the wild. Understanding the climate and terrain are essential to survival. For example, surviving in extreme winter carries completely different considerations from getting through extreme heat. Ideally, you want to be a survivalist who at least has a passing knowledge of how to make it through the different terrains and climates that you’re likely to encounter. That means having a working knowledge of surviving in the mountains (e.g the rocky mountains) as well as surviving in the desert. It means you should know the difference between cold weather survival gear and what you’d need in hotter conditions. Items like snow shoes and skis would likely prove life-saving in an extended, frigid winter, but would serve no purpose at all in other conditions. Ultimately, if you know what you’re doing, then you should be able to survive even the most extreme conditions.
If you’ve got a good grasp on factors like climate, terrain, and weather, your next focus should be the core skills that allow you to survive. That means being able to meet your basic needs as per the Rule of Three. The basic needs are, in order of priority: shelter, water, then food.
When it comes to shelter, the best way to protect yourself from the elements when in the wild is being able to start a fire without equipment. Being able to regulate the temperature of your environment (particularly in the cold) is essential to survival. Once you’ve absorbed basic firemaking, you should learn how to start a fire in wet conditions – which is trickier, but also very important. In the wild, even when it hasn’t rained, things tend to be damp unless you’re in desert-like conditions (think morning dew). Additionally, if you need a portable source of light to navigate in when it’s dark out, you should also read up on how to make a primitive torch – having this skill in your back pocket will allow you maneuverability even when the sun has set.
Next thing you’re gonna need to make it through being stuck in the wilderness is water. It’s amazing how bad humans have become at finding water, given that basically every other life form on the planet does it without much trouble. If plants are growing and there are animals around, then by definition there is water around somewhere – without it, everything would wither and die. The problem is, the comfort of modern life (having drinkable water available pretty much any time we want) has lead to us forgetting what should be quite a basic survival instinct. So, the ability to find water is something we need to relearn. If you’re someone who feels like they wouldn’t know where to start, make sure you understand how to find water in the wilderness. Unlike the water that comes from (most of) our taps, water you find in the wild may or may not be safe to drink. If you doubt whether or not the water source you’ve found is potable, you should probably play it safe and find a way to distill the water for drinking. To be able to this with minimal equipment available, you’re going to need to understand how to build an emergency distiller.
So, we’ve got shelter/warmth and water covered. Next is food. Humans can actually survive for a good amount of time without food – roughly 3 weeks. However, a lack of food will lead to weakness, increased chance of illness, and far lower endurance. Being weak and tired will not help your chances of making it through the survival scenario you’re in.
There are two primary ways to find food in the wild. You can find, kill, and eat animals, or you can forage and eat plants. In most situations, the ideal thing to do is a mixture of the two. Eating animals is generally safer than eating plants – as long as you have access to fire, a great many animals are perfectly safe to eat, whereas poisonous plants aren’t all that uncommon. On the other hand, actually getting your hands on an animal tends to take more energy and equipment. When it comes to foraging, you’re dealing with a stationary target that you can simply pluck or cut off the plant. So, how do you avoid consuming a poisonous plant? There are a set of steps that any serious survivalist should be aware of – these steps are used to test whether or not a plant is safe to eat. You can learn about those steps and about foraging for food and edible plants here. Of course, in a survival situation, you may not have the time to test plants for safety. In this case, you’ll want to quickly be able to identify what’s edible in the wild at a glance. If that’s your goal, you should make sure you know some of most common wild edibles – this knowledge could determine your chances of survival.
When most untrained people imagine survival in the wild, they imagine hunters taking down elk or deer and roasting it over a massive fire. In reality, that’s a huge misconception. In a true wilderness survival situation, your goal is to get your hands on enough sustenance (food) for minimal effort. Hunting large game takes a tremendous amount of energy, has a lower success rate, and requires supplies and equipment. If the focus is survival, then small game is your best bet – animals like squirrels, rabbits, small birds, and other critters are much more common require much less energy, and need less equipment/gear. Learn more about trapping and hunting small game to up your chances of surviving in the wild.
Another reasonably efficient way of getting your hands on meat in the wild is by fishing. Typically, fish are available in any relatively large body of water in the wild, and a wide variety of fish are safe to eat, with dangerous or poisonous species being the exception rather than the rule. There are also a number of ways to catch fish, many of which are relatively straightforward and possible to accomplish with minimal equipment. Find out about some emergency methods of survival fishing to make sure that you have multiple ways to get your hands on meats/proteins in the wild.
In a life or death situation, you eat anything you can get your hands on. If you come up short with small game hunting and fishing, what do you turn to as a protein source? While it may disgust the average person, many common insects are actually a perfectly healthy and safe source of protein. Maybe not everyone can hunt, trap or fish, but most people can catch a bug or two. In a real emergency, you may be forced to turn to insects and bugs for protein – in which case, you’d do well to know the top insects you can eat for survival.
If you’ve got a reasonable understanding of everything we’ve discussed so far, then you’re well on the way to being able to live off the land and in the wilderness. If you can stay safe, provide yourself with the basic necessities, and have the means to find your way out of the wild, then your chances of survival will be higher than most. In order to stay safe, you’ll need to avoid some of the common ways that people get injured in the wild. In particular, you should be very aware of the most common ways that people die in the wild so you can avoid meeting the same fate. When it comes to survival, knowledge is power.
As a final bonus, if you don’t want to take our advice on wilderness survival, perhaps you’d be more comfortable relying on the lessons that the US army tries to pass on to it’s soldiers.
We have a series of three articles about how the military trains its troops to survive in the wild, specifically in mountainous and hilly situations, covering not just survival but combat under wilderness conditions. If that interests you, find it below.
PART 1 –
Special Forces Survival Training and Mountain Warfare
Why Are the U.S. Special Forces so Skilled at Mountain Survival? What Can We Learn from Them?
PART 2 –
Special Forces Advanced Mountain Operations School
Finding Food, Water, Edible Plants, Insects, Wildlife, Fire Making, and Making Shelter
PART 3 –
Special Forces Alpine Warfare Survival Training
Scouting, Camouflage, Erasing Tracks, Fighting in the Snow, Choosing a Camp Location, Baiting an Enemy into a Killzone, Retreat, Taking High Ground