Beginner Survival Skills You Should Master

Trying to cover all the safety and survival skills one could potentially use in an outdoor, backcountry situation is a topic for a book, not a blog post.

There are, however, some truly basic survival skills that virtually anyone who wants to spend time outdoors should know. You may not be a complete master of these skills, but having a basic understanding could mean the difference between life and death in a true emergency scenario. Here are the survival skills you should make sure you're at least familiar with if you plan on spending some time outdoors anytime soon.

Basic Survival Skills

Know How to Read a Map

Mastering this critical skill could mean the difference between a pleasant day hike and a multi-day slog, so if you're expecting the former, you definitely want to avoid the latter! Being able to read a map comes down to some basic understanding of what almost all maps follow.

  • On a map, the top is North, South is the bottom, West is left and East is right.

  • Map symbols represent things like roads, buildings, rivers, mountains, and more.

  • Blue usually means water, whereas green or brown means land.

  • Most maps have a scale that shows distance as it is scaled on the map. You can use this to calculate the distance between two points.

  • Contour lines on topographic maps show the elevation changes over the terrain.

Using this knowledge, the best thing you can do to get comfortable with a map is to practice!

Know How to Use a Compass

Having a basic compass made up of a magnet needle in a liquid-filled case is a must for any outdoor explorer. Knowing how to use it, though, isn't as easy as buying it. It might be tempting to rely on sophisticate GPS devices or other electronic tools, but the danger of that is, electronics break. A compass has far fewer parts and doesn't have to be charged.

outdoor survival skills beginners

Unfortunately, sharing instructions for how to use a compass would take quite some time and space, and it can get pretty confusing in a written format. That's why your best bet is to take a class or learn from someone who knows what they are doing. As with learning how to use a map, your best bet is to practice in a controlled setting, preferably with someone who is confident in his or her abilities. This video on parts of a compass and this video on how to use a compass with a map can help you get started.

Know How to Create a Basic Shelter

If the unthinkable happens and you are stuck outdoors overnight unexpectedly, knowing how to create a suitable shelter can be a lifesaver. Hypothermia kills, and being exposed at night, in the woods is a surefire way to freeze, even in the summer. To build a basic lean-to, look for a tree resting at an angle, or take a big branch and prop it against a standing tree. Layer smaller branches and brush close together across one side, using whatever you can find to plug up any holes. Then, insulate the ground by laying at least six inches worth of dry debris -- branches, sticks, brush, moss, leaves, etc. -- across the dirt to prevent the cold from seeping upward.

Know How to Find Clean Water

You can go weeks without food, but only a few days without water. Unfortunately, a lot of the water you find outdoors contains parasites and germs that could leave you far worse for wear. In general, standing water is a big no-no. Puddles that appear to have been present for a while are water sources to avoid. If this is your only option, boiling is a must. Rain is obviously the top choice if you're unable to purify your water (one reason carrying iodine tabs is a good idea!), as is snow and dew. You can soak up dew using a loose rag or bandanna and can pull water from certain cacti or maple trees.

Know How to Make a Fire

There are quite a few ways to go about making a fire in the backcountry. No matter what, you need some dry tinder and dry wood of varying sizes. A BIC lighter is your best bet when it comes to starting a fire, but if your lighter isn't working, a battery (snag one from your headlamp, which you should carry with you at all times!) can be used to create a spark. Using a wire or foil, connect the terminals to create a spark. Aim that spark at your tinder bundle, and once lit, delicately feed tiny dry twigs into the fire, increasing the size of the firewood as the flame grows. Take care not to smother the fire -- oxygen is a required component of any blaze.

It would be pretty easy to add another dozen items to this list, but those basic survival skills should get you started. (Be sure to also check out these 10 essentials of hiking, backpacking and outdoor adventure.) Most outdoorsy-minded folks are eager to share their love of the backcountry with others, so hit up a friend with some outdoor experience and ask for their help as you work your way through these skill sets.

For more backcountry know-how, check out these videos and more on Sierra Trading Post's YouTube channel:

Quickly Dry Out a Soaked BIC Lighter

How to Get a Fire Cooking in Bad Weather

How to Completely Fill a Water Bottle in a Shallow Stream

DIY Fire Starters Playlist

How to Make an Emergency Compass
posted by
Kayleigh Karutis
Kayleigh Karutis lives in Denver, Colo., with her partner and two dogs. When she's not hiking or climbing in the nearby mountains, she's exploring the West. See more of her adventures on Instagram, @kkarutis. (Freelance bloggers receive promotional consideration from Sierra Trading Post.)
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