Wilderness Survival: The Very Basics

Wilderness Survival

Your goal, if you find yourself lost or stranded is to survive until rescued or to sustain mobility so you can self-rescue.

Survival reality shows, for dramatization place the experts in extreme situations. If one were cynical, you might believe some of the situations were staged, because of the extreme nature in some cases, some but not all. Knowing this however, does not take away from the fact that you can actually learn something from the shows.

It is not likely you will awaken one morning to find yourself in the Alaskan wilds or in the middle of the Amazon with literally just the clothes on your back however. You started out on your outdoor adventure with the intentions of coming back in the same shape as when you left.

You likely started out with something, a bicycle, a backpack, possibly firearms, even an ATV in some cases and with items in your pockets as well. Items that can help you survive if you realize you have them.

A day hike, a mountain bike ride, a short hunting trip or you simply decided to grab your binoculars and do a little bird watching, but something went wrong. A wrong turn, a weather event, an injury or you simply wandered a few yards off the trail and became confused. Regardless of how, the fact is, you are now lost or stranded and you have to deal with it quickly, rationally and skillfully.

Survival Skills Are Not Necessarily the Same as Bush Craft Skills

Certain wilderness survival skills are needed for short-term emergencies where your sole focus is on rescue or doing everything you can to find your own way out of the predicament.

Bush craft skills are of course survival skills, and there is much overlap, but bush craft skills not only allow you to survive an emergency in the wild they also allow you to thrive long term in a wilderness environment. 

Lost Versus Stranded

Lost is just that, lost. You have no idea where you are, and of course, have no idea how to get back to camp, the hunting lodge or home.

If you become stranded, you may very well know where you are, but cannot get back because of an injury or mechanical failure with your bicycle, ATV, snow skies or even snowmobile.

Knowing You Cannot Make It Back and It Is Getting Late

There is always a debate on what should be a priority in a wilderness survival situation. Is it shelter first, fire, water or food.

The answer is it depends. If you do not have extensive wilderness survival training then shelter should be your first priority. You do not know what the darkness may bring, so your shelter should be constructed before dark, regardless of the weather conditions.

In cold weather not having an adequate shelter made within a few hours may mean the difference between surviving and not. You need shelter from the hot sun as well. People have died from heat exhaustion and/or dehydration while searching in the hot sun for water while lost.

The logical course is to seek shade/shelter until it becomes cooler. Conserve sweat, not your drinking water when it is hot. A shelter is as important in hot weather as it is in cold weather. Restrict your movement and stay in a shaded, sheltered area during the hottest part of the day. You want shelter from breezes to slow the evaporation of sweat to slow down the dehydration process.

If you are lost, staying in place is recommended and you should never attempt to hike through the woods in the dark. Nocturnal predators prowl the woods at night and this includes deadly reptiles such as snakes. You can also walk off the edge of a cliff, trip and break a leg or fall into a ravine, at the very least shelter in place until daylight.

A debris shelter can be put together within hour using what you find on the forest floor, with limited to no tools at all.  Poles propped on one side of a fallen log and covered with pine boughs, leaves and other vegetation would be considered a debris shelter.

Ideally, you would have a tarp or poncho in your backpack. A tarp or poncho together with some forest debris means you could have a suitable shelter made in no time. Once you have a shelter work on making a fire.

A shelter is not just for protection from the elements. Shelter and fire is needed for morale a psychological shot in the arm if you will, not to mention the very practical need for protection from predators and insects. Fire and shelter can protect you from predators and to more than just annoying insects.

Water is critical and once you have a shelter and fire then seek it out if it is an immediate concern, otherwise hunker down as darkness falls and wait until daylight.

If you panic, you may die and it is that simple, because people make mistakes when they panic, they fall off cliffs or into ravines while dashing from tree to bush, because they think they recognize the tree or bush.

Camp is just around the bend in their mind but it never is, soon the person is worn out, possibly injured, and they have sweated profusely and now need more water, of which they have little. They are still lost, exhausted, scared and it is now getting dark.

Get your mind straight and face the fact you are lost, and that you can think your way through it. You do have resources that you can use. You just do not know what they are until you evaluate your situation calmly and rationally and can see things for what they really are.

Anyone can get lost, even the experts can and do get lost, but the deciding factor when it comes to surviving is that the experts prepared to become lost. Whenever you set out for the woods, regardless of the reason or expected time in the woods, be prepared to stay in the woods overnight or even longer.

You need shelter, fire, water and eventually food. In most cases however, you would be rescued or would find your own way out before starvation became a problem. However, food/nourishment is needed for energy and for morale.

There is that word again morale. Self-confidence and the will to survive is important, the comfort from food is not to be discounted when in a survival situation. Food can calm your nerves, and most people would tell you that food would be their first concern if they did ever become lost.

If you have the skills to survive long enough to starve to death then you would never starve to death.

A Wilderness Survival Kit Is Not a Bug-Out-Bag

The biggest mistake people make is that they overload their bags. What happens when this is the case? The bag is left behind more often than not for those short forays into the wild. The kit is designed to be carried at all times, especially when you think you will only be gone for a few hours or even for just a few minutes.

Keep in mind a survival kit is not necessarily a replacement for the typical supplies you would carry if hunting, camping or even hiking. A wilderness survival kit should be an everyday carry (EDC) whenever in a wilderness environment.

Recommended Items Include:

  • A quality fixed bladed knife
  • A multi-tool
  • A lightweight and waterproof tarp
  • Poncho
  • Fire starting materials
  • Water
  • Water purification means such as purification tablets/ small metal container for boiling
  • Cordage, quality nylon rope or Paracord 50 feet at least
  • Protein bars, trail mix and/or several MRE’s
  • Signaling device or materials such as a whistle, mirror or brightly colored cloth or signal flags

The fixed bladed knife is worn on your belt along with a full canteen of water, with water in the pack as well. The poncho and tarp are tightly rolled or folded up and the rest of the items can easily fit in a small pack that can be shouldered or strapped to a bicycle for example. Not heavy or cumbersome so it can be easily carried no matter the situation.