Essential Survival Skills

By Suzanne Wiley

What are the Most Important Survival Skills?

  1. Mental preparedness
  2. Water purification
  3. Shelter building
  4. Fire starting
  5. Navigation and orienteering
  6. First aid

It can happen quickly. Even the most experienced hiker, hunter, fisher or outdoorsman can slip, fall, lose sight of a trail or take a wrong turn. There are a lot of things nature deals us beyond our control—violent storms, flash flooding, an avalanche and slippery rocks can catch hikers and backpackers off guard with fatal consequences.

Man crouching beside a lake using a primitive fishing pole
Do you have the skills and gear to survive an unexpected night in the wilderness?

There are thousands of Search and Rescue missions dispatched every year for hikers and other outdoor adventurers who have gotten lost or injured while in our country’s forests, mountains and deserts. Though there is nothing we can do to prevent some accidents, like a sudden avalanche or landslide, most calls for Search and Rescue are preventable.

For example, on March 4, 2016, Hua Davis, an experienced hiker who had successfully climbed all 46 Adirondack mountain peaks in one winter, set out to hike the MacNaughton Mountain—a 4,000-foot mountain that takes the experienced hiker an average of 4 to 5 hours to reach the summit. Fellow hikers who met Davis on the trail recall her wearing lighter-weight clothing and tennis shoes.

When Davis failed to meet hiking partners the next morning, Search and Rescue was called. Davis’ body was found after a 16-hour search. She had died from hypothermia. Though Davis had made it to the summit, she did not survive the descent. Rescuers say they found her with her clothing soaked and an attempt to start a fire. In her car, there was a sleeping bag, snowshoes and other cold-weather gear. People who knew Hua Davis say she was an excellent hiker but was always ill-prepared. Hua’s son-in-law, Steve Volla, said that leaving her gear behind was “a fatal mistake,” and “…that ultralight doesn’t mean take nothing and survive with your instincts.”

Nearly half of the problems that arise when hiking are due to those who are unprepared, inexperienced and unskilled. One of the Golden Rules of hiking, if not the most important rule, is to prepare to spend an unexpected night on the trail, no matter how short you’ve planned your hike to be.

Fortunately, most people who get lost in the wilderness are found alive. Especially when hikers can reach out through their cell phones and/or have left their plans with someone. Those who are expertly skilled at navigating and orienteering can usually self-rescue. No matter which way you want to look at it, the United States is so developed that no matter where you are, it is nearly impossible to be five miles from some type of road or town in most of the lower 48 states. (Project Remote) Pre-planning their trip and knowing how to read a topographic map helps lost hikers find their way back to civilization.

The Dangers of Being Unprepared

Hiker in the rain with a backpack and raincoat
Planning your trip by checking the weather and studying maps can save your life.

We humans are pre-disposed to deny any type of disaster will befall us. We aren’t quick to act on something that isn’t an imminent threat. Though we technically know a disaster like a tornado, hurricane or earthquake is possible, most of us don’t do anything about it. This is a fallacy that gets us in trouble and can even kill us.

Being prepared prior to an emergency increases your chances of survival—especially outdoors. One of the most important—if not the most important—skill you can have is a prepared mind and can-do attitude. The prepared mind is confident in its abilities to stay calm and focused in an emergency, hash out a plan and execute when necessary, as well as follow all safety precautions before heading out on the trail. The prepared mind acknowledges the risks involved in adventure and educates themselves on how to mitigate those risks.

The safe hiker:

  • Practices their survival skills
  • Knows their limits
  • Is prepared to spend an unexpected night out
  • Leaves a detailed itinerary of their trip with a friend or family member
  • Packs a basic survival kit (Yes, even for a 2-hour hike)
  • Wears the appropriate shoes and clothing

How to Survive in the Woods—The Basic Survival Kit

  • Water—water filter or purifier and water bottle
  • Fire starter—more than one method. Lighter, flint and steel and waterproof matches
  • First aid kit
  • Knife
  • Mylar emergency blanket/poncho
  • Flashlight and extra batteries
  • Rain gear
  • Non-perishable snacks like dried fruit, nuts, protein bars (Since we can live up to three weeks without food, it is the least important aspect of your survival kit)
Hiker with blue backpack on a mountain top overlooking a cloudy blue sky and crystal clear lake
If you get lost, utilize the stress-reducing S.T.O.P method—sit down, think, observe, plan.

Whatever type of outdoor adventure you’re seeking, it’s important to nail down the following six essential survival skills.

  1. Mental Preparedness

First, realize bad things can and do happen. Knowing this and preparing for it is half the battle. Practicing your survival skills in a controlled environment, like building various shelters and starting a fire, will give you the ability to do so calmly and correctly in an emergency.

Conscientiously preparing for the worst will naturally cause you to:

  • Map out your route
  • Locate sources of water
  • Leave your plans with someone
  • Rely on maps and a compass, not your cell phone
  • Take a charged cell phone
  • Check local weather conditions and plan and pack accordingly
  • Pack the 10 Essentials
  • Carry more water than you think you need

Even those fully prepared can panic when they realize they’re lost. Panic causes us to lose our ability to reason. If lost or injured, it is important to remember the S.T.O.P acronym—sit down (take deep breaths,) think, observe, plan. Originating from a stress-reduction program developed by a professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, the S.T.O.P. method helps you become focused and alert, while also reducing stress.

  1. Find and Purify Water

    Man using a 12 Survivors water filter straw to drink from a body of water
    Locating water can save your life. Personal water filter straws allow you to drink from virtually any water source.

Though it is possible to live up to three days without drinking water, it’s not a good idea to test your body’s limits when it comes to survival. Water is heavy, but you need to carry more than you think you’ll need. It is recommended you drink 1.5 liters of water a day performing normal activities. While hiking, it is recommended you drink one liter every hour especially when hiking in hotter climates and higher elevations. That’s a lot of water, so you need a backup plan. Compact water filter straws allow you to drink directly from a water source and are super lightweight. Studying maps of the area you’re trekking and mapping out your route will help you figure out where water sources are located. No matter how clear or fast moving a body of water is, it still might not be clean, uncontaminated water. All water needs to be purified or boiled before being safe to drink. Contaminated water can make you very, very sick and even kill you. Melt snow and ice before consuming. You can also collect water through dew and condensation.

  1. Find or build a shelter

On average 1,300 people die a year due to hypothermia. It takes just a two-degree difference in body temperature to fall victim to hypothermia. When we lose heat faster than we can produce it and our core temperature drops under 95 degrees, we begin to suffer from hypothermia. Depending on the circumstances, hypothermia can take minutes or days to begin. Your age, weight, and physical condition are factors, as well as your environment. If you are submerged in cold water, your chances of suffering from hypothermia faster greatly increase. Within one to two hours, hypothermia can kill you. Even when not necessarily fatal, victims of hypothermia will slow down, get confused, be uncoordinated, and have slurred speech and even hallucinate, making it very difficult to do what it takes to survive.

To learn how to prevent and treat cold-weather illnesses like hypothermia, click here. 

  1. Start a fire

    Man is cutting firewood with a 12 Survivors brand knife
    Learn more than one way to start a fire. Using flint and steel is a good alternative to a lighter.

Fires provide warmth, signal for help, dry out wet clothing, deter animals, cook food, boil water and offer emotional comfort. A fire can be started with a magnifying glass, battery, lighter (even if there is no fuel left, you can still get a spark) bow drill, matches, flint and steel and even your eyeglasses or a water bottle. You should master making a fire every way you can.

  1. Finding Your Way Out of the Woods—Navigation

“You’re never lost; you’re just exploring. However, exploring grows old very quickly if you are cold, hungry and exhausted.” – Cam Honan

When we move around, we create mental maps of our surroundings. Numerous studies have shown that the more we rely on GPS, the less we are able to recognize where we are. Orienteering is the ability to read a topographic map and visualize where you are located on that map. When using a compass and a map, we are forced to pay attention to our surroundings and are able to better locate ourselves and thus, less likely to get lost. Besides, a GPS can fail in multiple ways—batteries die, and satellite signals get lost. Anyone who has used a GPS unit with any regularity has experienced at least one wild goose chase where you ended up nowhere near where you intended. Cam Honan, one of the world’s most traveled hikers says, “A topographic map does more than just show you how to get from A to B. It enables the hiker to form a mental picture of the terrain which he or she will be traversing. Before each and every hiking day, I look at the maps and visualize my proposed route. Rivers, valleys, ridges, peaks, cliffs, buttes, gullies, gradient (i.e. contour lines). Imagination to realization…the backcountry remix.”

  1. First Aid

Hiker putting up first aid supplies
First aid is considered to be in the wilderness class when you are at least 60 minutes away from a doctor.

Basic wilderness first aid is the knowledge to prevent, assess and treat common injuries and illnesses that occur in the backcountry. These treatments are made to help keep someone alive when medical help isn’t quickly accessible. This includes cleaning and dressing a wound, stopping bleeding, heat- and cold-related illnesses, burns, blisters and splinting a broken leg or ankle.

Click here to learn more about hiking first aid.

Spending time outdoors whether it’s hiking, camping, hunting, or fishing, is generally a safe and very beneficial pastime; however, accidents do happen.  Be prepared for any emergency during your outdoor adventures by mastering these six essential survival tips every outdoors person should know.

What survival tips can you give others? Leave them in the comment section.

Click here to shop for survival gear.