In the simplest terms, survival is doing whatever it takes to live through a life-threatening situation. These situations can take place in a variety of settings, from the great outdoors to your own neighborhood. One example of a possible wilderness survival scenario is getting stranded out in the backwoods during a hike as the sun drops below the horizon. An example of a possible urban survival scenario is getting stuck inside your home for several days during a blizzard. (We’ll discuss urban survival in another guide). In either case, preparation is the most critical aspect of living through many hazardous situations. Having the right gear and supplies is one way to be prepared. In the outdoors, however, knowledge is frequently more valuable than gear. As well-known Canadian bushcraft instructor Mors Kochanski says: “The more you know, the less you carry.” This simply means that a knowledgeable person should be able to survive longer with minimal gear compared to a person with minimal knowledge and lots of gear.
Another aspect of survival that occasionally gets overlooked in some guides and training materials is the will to survive. An important aspect of survival willpower is the ability to keep a cool head and make good decisions under pressure. Even a surplus of gear and knowledge won’t necessarily help a person survive if they can’t keep their wits about them in a bad situation. Panic often causes people to make rash choices, which can have grave consequences in an outdoor environment.
Ultimately, the best-case scenario is to avoid getting yourself into a survival situation at all. Many bad outcomes can be completely avoided with adequate research, preparation and care. Life-threatening situations often occur because people are underprepared, overconfident in their abilities or simply ignorant to the risks involved with a certain activity. On the other hand, some life-threatening situations are unforeseeable. Accidents happen. Natural disasters occur. Sometimes you’re just in the right place at the wrong time.
No one can predict every possible danger or threat. Regardless of whether or not the situation you potentially find yourself in was avoidable, you’ll still have to get yourself out of it, or at least survive long enough for help to arrive. This guide is designed to introduce tools, skills and concepts that may help you do just that. However, this guide is only intended to provide an overview of basic survival information and is NOT a substitute for a wilderness education course or survival training program.
As mentioned in the previous section, one of the most important elements of any survival situation is being prepared. Of course, no one can truly be prepared for everything, so it’s better to think of preparedness as a spectrum. On one end of the spectrum is someone who hasn’t spent any time thinking about survival or preparedness whatsoever. On the opposite side of that spectrum is a professional or instructor who has spent extensive time training, researching and honing their survival skills. Everyone should aim to be somewhere in the middle of these two extremes but also never stop seeking opportunities to gain more knowledge. We all have to start somewhere. If you’re just beginning to learn about survival skills and concepts, at least you’ve taken a step in the right direction.
BEING PREPARED IS A LIFE-LONG PROCESS
Good opportunities to grow your survival knowledge include: reading books and articles; watching tutorial videos or programs from trustworthy sources; enrolling in reputable survival courses; and learning first-hand from someone with experience. No matter how much you know, there is always something more to learn. Even trained professionals continue to learn from one another and share knowledge. The best survivalists are life-long learners.
Practice and test your wilderness survival skills before you need them.
It’s very important to practice new skills before you need them in a survival scenario. Although you won’t necessarily be able to test every skill, you can try out many of the most fundamental wilderness survival skills on a camping trip or in your own backyard. Rehearsing these skills will give you a much better chance of performing them successfully in a real life-threatening situation.
FIT FOR SURVIVAL
Being well-prepared for potential survival scenarios also includes taking good care of your health. Skills and gear are certainly important, but you’ll greatly improve your odds of surviving by conditioning your body. This can be a distinct advantage in outdoor survival scenarios because you will be more resilient against the elements and better equipped to withstand injury and keep going. Working on your conditioning will also make you familiar with your own capabilities, which may help you avoid a bad situation. Simply knowing your physical limitations is an important aspect of making smart decisions in the great outdoors. For tips and information on creating a workout plan, check out our Fitness Guide.
THE WILL TO SURVIVE
Attitude and willpower can make a big difference in a survival scenario, more than most people realize. People who have survived life-threatening events are often surprised when they make it out alive. Although they were undoubtedly scared and possibly even on the brink of death, willpower kept them going. Nearly all survival instructors agree that willpower and attitude have a significant effect on a person’s ability to survive. We’re naturally wired to fight for self-preservation, but that willingness to fight inevitably starts to diminish during an extended, life-threatening situation, such as being stranded out in the wilderness. Making a concerted effort to focus on a positive outcome isn’t easy and only becomes harder as a situation grows increasingly dire. Fatigue, thirst, hunger, bad weather, injuries, pain and illness can all overpower the urge to keep going. No matter how bad things get, there is always hope. This is something that anyone in a survival situation must focus on.
People are often amazed at just how far they can push their bodies when the chips are down. Consider the story of Autumn Veatch. In 2015, the sixteen-year-old high-school student was in a small plane with her two grandparents, flying home from Kalispell, Montana to Lynden, Washington. Midway through the flight, her grandfather (the pilot) lost his bearings in thick clouds and crash landed deep in the North Cascades. As the plane caught fire, Autumn managed to escape and tried unsuccessfully to pull her grandfather to safety, suffering third-degree burns on her hands in the process. After realizing her grandparents had passed away in the flaming wreckage, Autumn started walking until she found a small stream. After following the stream for two days through difficult and dangerous alpine woodlands, she finally reached a hiking trailhead just off highway 20, where she was picked up by two hikers. Watching survival shows with her father had given her the knowledge to follow water downstream toward civilization.
“I was certain I was going to die,” Autumn said after her harrowing experience, according to Seattle Times. “I thought, ‘I can’t do this to my loved ones.’” Without any supplies, she had no way to stay warm or protect herself from the elements. Amazingly, despite being burned, wet and suffering from early stages of hypothermia, she kept going. As she walked through the woods, Autumn thought about what it would be like to eat her favorite cereal and hug her boyfriend again. “Appreciate the little things,” she said. “Those are the things you’ll miss when you’re in the forest, dying.”
There’s a military expression: “Good initiative, bad judgement.” Taking initiative is important, but it can also lead to a bad outcome. Finding the right balance between inaction and impulsiveness is critical in a survival scenario. If you suddenly find yourself in a struggle to survive, it’s crucial to stop, assess the situation and come up with a game plan. This includes assessing your surroundings, taking stock of any gear and supplies, and figuring out the best way to reach safety or alert rescuers. There are occasions when snap judgements must be made, but stopping to assess after that decision could make the difference between reaching safety or not. In a bad situation, this may include the decision to hunker down and wait for help or to attempt self-rescue. Likewise, if you decide to take a certain course of action and the conditions change, you may need to stop, re-evaluate and adjust your course of action. Survival is all about adaptation, problem solving and critical thinking.
The term “wilderness survival” is actually somewhat misleading. You don’t have to be 50 miles from the nearest civilization, deep in the remote backcountry to end up fighting for your life. Even a day hike just outside of town could potentially land you in a survival scenario, depending on the location and circumstances. For this reason, “outdoor survival” is actually a more accurate phrase. Outdoor survival encompasses a variety of skills, including navigation, water purification and creating shelter. Some of these skills are referred to as “bushcraft.” A few of the primary bushcraft skills include making shelter, starting fire, crafting various tools and implements, fishing, trapping, etc. However, survival is more than just skills. Preparation is also extremely important.
The Golden Rule of Survival: Always tell several people where you’re going and when you plan to return home. If you can, pull out a map and show them exactly where you’ll be and don’t deviate from that plan once you’re out there. If you go missing, someone can alert the authorities who will then give search and rescue teams your last-known location. This drastically increases your odds of being rescued should you be unable to rescue yourself.
When you’re preparing for a trip, it’s also very important to research and understand the environment you’ll be spending time in. This can help you anticipate many potential hazards that might come into play. For example, the risks and dangers you might encounter in the Rocky Mountains will be different from the risks and dangers in a tropical rainforest. Therefore, the skills and gear you require to survive will also differ. Some of the most common outdoor environments include: mountains, desert, tundra, taiga, arctic, rainforest, deciduous forest, wetland and ocean. Always prepare your survival kit and supplies for the specific environment you’ll be spending time in (and the time of year). Research as many potential dangers as you can before any trip, including: hazardous terrain, weather conditions and wildlife.
Plan for all possible weather conditions, regardless of the forecast.
Weather is particularly dangerous and unpredictable in some areas. Make sure you’re adequately prepared for changes in temperature or sudden storms before venturing into the great outdoors. Recognize and avoid potential flood plains. If you’re navigating snowfields in winter, be alert for possible avalanche conditions. Learning about avalanche safety is especially important for backcountry skiing, snowboarding and snowshoeing. Check out Avalanche.org for more information and safety tips.
Aside from preparation, wilderness survival skills and knowledge can be divided into five key principles: awareness, protection, signaling, water and food. These principles are also ordered according to importance.
The first part of awareness is paying close attention to your surroundings. This skill can prevent you from ending up in a survival situation to begin with. If you’re visiting an unfamiliar area, bring a map and compass. Learn how to navigate with a map ahead of time. You may not always need a compass to orient yourself, but it’s still a good idea to have one and know how to use it, just in case. Before you leave, take note of ponds, lakes, rivers, streams and other water sources in the area you’ll be visiting. If you do get stuck outdoors, finding water will be an important task. Keep your eye out for other natural features during your journey that might help you orient yourself if you need to backtrack.
Avoid river crossings, unless there is no other way. Even shallow water can be dangerous.
Paying attention to your surroundings also includes being extra careful as you navigate outdoor terrain. This is extremely important in a survival situation, because one wrong step or misjudgment could lead to a fall and injury. If you’re rushing and accidentally break your ankle, your ability to self-rescue and/or keep yourself alive in the wilderness will be significantly harder. According to The Survival Handbook, river crossings are very dangerous and should not be attempted unless you have no other option. Check your map or scout for alternative routes. If you must cross a river, try to find a shallow crossing, but be aware that even shallow water can have a strong current. Take your pants off to keep them dry, but leave your shoes or boots on for additional traction. This may help avoid a fall. If you can, use a walking stick for additional stability. Never cross a river that appears to be flooded or has whitewater conditions.
The second part of awareness is paying attention to your own mental state. The first emotion many people experience when they realize they’re in a survival situation is panic. This is even more likely to occur if you or another person is injured. Fear is normal, under the circumstances, but it’s crucial to focus on regaining and maintaining composure. Self-control is one of the most important survival skills. For some people, it’s also the hardest. You won’t be able to accomplish any of the other survival principles if you’re frantic or paralyzed by fear. By remaining calm and evaluating the situation, it may be possible to get to safety without needing to be rescued. In a group, members can usually help each another stay calm.
Never venture into the outdoors alone if you can avoid it. Your chances of surviving a bad situation are almost always better as a group. It’s easier to maintain morale when you have other people to lean on. Also, if someone in the group becomes seriously sick or injured, other group members should be able to help.
The principle of protection can be divided into two parts: 1) finding a relatively safe location and 2) protecting yourself from the elements. First, get yourself to safety before you stop, assess your situation and come up with a plan. If you’re out hiking and become lost, for example, try to find a stopping point that isn’t in a potential floodplain and is away from any other dangerous terrain. (Be sure not to lose track of the trail, if you’re on one). If you decide to setup a temporary camp for the night, choose your location carefully. Scout the area for any possible hazards or environmental dangers. Always research the area you plan to visit ahead of time so you can be aware of any dangerous wildlife, such as bears, wild pigs, venomous snakes, harmful insects, etc.
The second part of protection involves protecting your body from the elements. In cold weather, this may simply involve putting on more clothing and/or covering yourself with an emergency blanket. If you’re stopping to rest before nightfall, it may be necessary to find or create shelter. In hot conditions, protect yourself by finding a shaded area out of the sun. Keep in mind that temperatures can shift dramatically in some locations. In the desert, for example, it can be extremely hot during the daytime and freezing at night.
If you can, try to find a shelter location that provides some natural protection from the elements. If possible, choose a location relatively close to a water source and with firewood and shelter-building materials nearby. For a basic introduction to several different types of shelters, check out Survival Shelters: 15 Best Designs and How to Build Them by Outdoor Life.
Carry two different fire starters. At least one should be waterproof.
Another important protection skill in cold conditions is making fire. A small campfire will not only provide warmth throughout the night, but can also keep wild animals away. A fire can be used for signaling. (More on this in the next section). For simple instructions on making fire in the outdoors, review the step-by-step tutorial by Matt Preye. Practice your fire-making skills in a safe location before journeying into the great outdoors. Always have at least two different ways to start a fire, in case one doesn’t work. Ideally, at least one of your methods should be completely waterproof, such as a ferrocerium rod (a.k.a. firesteel). Check out the infographic below for a quick comparison of five commonly used fire starters.
Once you’re adequately protected, your next task should be thinking about ways to signal for help. Signaling is number three on our list of survival principles for a reason. The faster you can alert rescuers to your presence, the faster you may be rescued. However, if you’re too hot or too cold to function properly, you can’t continue to signal, which is why protection comes first. You may not actually want to start building a shelter before you work on signaling, but you should at least be able to maintain a healthy core body temperature.
One example of signaling includes periodically using a rescue whistle to alert anyone who may be nearby. Three whistle blasts in immediate succession is the universal signal for distress. Using a whistle is much more efficient than yelling for help. Some emergency whistles can hit up to 120 decibels. People can also blow a whistle much longer than they can call for help. Everyone should consider carrying an emergency whistle as part of their wilderness survival kit.
If you’ve been missing for more than 24-48 hours and rescue teams have started looking for you, signaling becomes increasingly more important. When people are lost in remote locations, rescue teams often deploy at least one aircraft to search from the sky. Over time, the search area will be expanded from the missing person’s last-known location. One of the best ways to signal an airplane or helicopter is with a fire that produces lots of smoke. A smoke signal can usually be achieved by placing wet (freshly cut) branches and leaves on top of a moderately sized fire. Always take care not to accidentally smother the fire in the process.
Another way to signal aircraft is with a mirror. Although, signal mirrors may or may not be as effective as smoke, it’s still a very good idea to have multiple signal methods. If you’re stranded out on the open ocean, for instance, starting a signal fire is probably not an option, so a mirror will be the best way to signal aircraft. Signal mirrors are also a safe alternative when weather conditions are very dry and there is risk of starting a forest fire or brush fire. For tips on using a signal mirror, check out this video by Cryptic Cricket.
FINDING AND PURIFYING WATER
Once you’ve found a safe location to stop, adequately protected yourself and resolved how to signal for help, the next step is to locate water. Nobody can survive long without adequate hydration. In extremely hot conditions, it may be necessary to locate water first before worrying about shelter or signaling, especially if you don’t already have water or if you’ve exhausted your supply. Finding water can be easy or very difficult, depending on the location and environment.
One of the most important pieces of survival gear is a container to hold water, such as a water bottle or canteen. Without a container, you won’t be able to bring water with you, which will be a big burden if a water source isn’t easily accessible or if you’re attempting to self-rescue by hiking out of an area. Many people already have a water container with them in the outdoors, but knowing how to create safe, potable water is also very important. There are two methods commonly used to make water safe to drink in the outdoors. Filtering can be used to remove unwanted particles, organic matter and many organisms. Purifying can be used to kill harmful organisms like bacteria, protozoa, cysts and viruses, but does not remove particles.
Before purifying water, it’s highly recommended that the water be free of any particulates. If your collected water is cloudy, discolored or full of floating particles, it’s a very good idea to filter it before purification. Backpacking and emergency filters like those offered by Sawyer are designed to remove particles and organisms. However, even a 0.1 micron filter may not remove viruses, which is why purification is another important step in making water safe to drink.
To purify water by boiling, a cooking vessel is needed, such as a stainless steel bottle, pot or small kettle. According to the CDC, water should be brought to a rolling boil and maintained at boiling temperature for one minute to reliably kill organic pathogens. At higher elevations exceeding 2000 meters (6,562 ft.), boil water for three minutes. To make things faster, water purification tablets are a good alternative to include in any wilderness survival kit. Just be sure to follow the instructions carefully. If you’re stuck in the backcountry without a water filter, it’s possible to construct a filter using a water bottle or hydration reservoir. Check out The Survival Handbook by Royal Navy Combat Survival Instructor Colin Towell for detailed instructions on finding water and filtering it using an improvised water filter.
Never drink directly from an unpurified water source, unless there is no other option.
If all you can do is purify but not filter, this is still better than doing nothing at all. If you don’t have a way to filter or purify water, you’ll likely be forced to drink directly from a water source. Many water sources in the outdoors can be contaminated with microorganisms, such as giardia, amoebas, bacteria and viruses. Exposure to these pathogens can lead to debilitating symptoms like cramps, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. If you get sick from drinking bad water, surviving will become much more difficult.
Rain is a reliable source of safe drinking water. However, rain can be difficult to collect. Melted snow should be purified by boiling to be considered safe. (Eating snow without melting it first is not a reliable way to rehydrate). If you must drink from an unpurified water source, it’s generally best to drink from a fast-moving source, such as a river or stream, rather than drinking standing water, which is typically the most dangerous.
In most survival situations, you should only worry about finding food after you’ve already addressed the four previous survival principles. Finding food is still important, but most people can survive two weeks or longer without any food, as long as they have potable water to drink and adequate shelter from the elements. If you’re properly prepared, you’ll have at least some food already with you. Getting enough nutrients to maintain your energy level becomes increasingly important if you’re attempting to self-rescue by hiking out of a remote location. In an outdoor survival situation on land, there are typically four ways to procure food: gathering, fishing, trapping and hunting.
Gathering food includes finding edible plants and insects. However, eating wild plants can be extremely dangerous without proper knowledge. Some plants are harder to identify than others, and the appearance of certain plants can change depending on the time of year, making them harder to properly identify. Thorough research should be performed before foraging for wild edibles. If you’re not 100-percent certain that a plant, berry, mushroom or insect is edible and safe, don’t eat it.
Fishing is one of the best ways to procure food in the great outdoors, which is why nearly every survival kit includes at least some fishing tackle. Fishing hooks and line are very light and take up almost no space, so there’s really no reason not to include them. Natural bait is often easy to find in the form of insects and insect larvae. Of course, fishing gear may not help if you’re stuck in a desert location, so it’s important to have alternative methods of catching food. If you plan to use fishing in a survival situation, it’s a very good idea to practice basic fishing techniques and learn how to prepare fish for cooking over a campfire.
Trapping can be a good way to procure food in many outdoor locations. Some traps can be set using natural elements, such as the Paiute deadfall trap. Snares can be set using cordage made from natural materials, synthetic cordage (e.g. paracord) or snare wire. Rodents like rabbits, squirrels and rats are often the easiest to trap or snare, although larger animals like opossums, raccoons, beavers and even coyotes can also be caught. Trapping and snaring requires specialized skills. Practice constructing traps in advance. In a survival situation, it’s important to setup multiple traps to maximize the chances of catching food. It’s also very important to remember all of your trap locations and check them regularly. It’s possible to contract a variety of diseases and parasites when eating wild animals, so learn about potential dangers ahead of time when researching wildlife in the area you plan to visit. Always cook meat thoroughly to give yourself the best odds of avoiding illness.
Be aware of food contamination when preparing and eating wild game.
You may be able to avoid disease by thoroughly cooking meat. However, if you prepare an animal for cooking with your bare hands and don’t wash them well before eating (or wear gloves when skinning), your hands could be contaminated. Eating well-cooked meat with dirty hands will still put you at risk.
Hunting is one of the most challenging ways to procure food, especially with minimal equipment. Some survival kits include a sling shot, which may be used to hunt small game, such as rodents and birds. Of course, using a sling shot to dispatch small animals takes significant skill. Obviously rifles and other firearms can make hunting game easier, but most people don’t carry larger weapons with them. Bottom line: If you hope to hunt or trap any food, spend adequate time practicing your skills beforehand.
Ultimately, the best way to give yourself an edge is to always carry at least a few thousand calories with you whenever you venture outdoors, even for just an easy day hike. This can be as simple as packing a few energy bars and some trail mix. Nuts and dried fruits pack a lot of calories into a dense and relatively lightweight package. In a survival situation, having some food will allow you to focus on other essential tasks before you have to worry about finding something to eat.
Building a survival kit (and keeping it with you) is an excellent way to give yourself an advantage in a wilderness survival situation. Making a kit is relatively easy and affordable, but there is no one-size-fits-all survival kit. The kit you make should be fine-tuned for the environment you’ll be spending time in. If you enjoy summer hiking, for instance, a basic survival kit can often be lightweight and compact enough to fit into a small container. Once you have a basic kit put together, you can add supplementary gear as necessary, depending on your anticipated needs. For example, if you decide to go backcountry snowshoeing, you’ll want to add additional cold weather gear to your kit.
You don’t necessarily want to completely start from scratch every time you adjust your kit. To make things easier, consider taking a two-tiered approach. Start with the bare essentials that will serve as your basic kit (first tier). Then put together a collection of additional items that you can add if you think you’ll need them (second tier).
BASIC MINT TIN SURVIVAL KIT (TIER 1)
Although you can use just about any container, a small, rectangular mint tin is a sturdy and compact vessel to store your basic survival kit. There are many different components you can put inside (and outside) your tin. Below is one example of a basic mint tin survival kit. This particular kit weighs about 10 ounces, including the container. To better protect your gear, a small waterproof case from brands like Pelican makes a nice upgrade, but will increase weight slightly.
- 3 size 10 fish hooks
- 3 size 6 fish hooks
- 6 small split-shot weights
- 2 small fishing jigs
- 2 small soft baits
- 2 medium-sized artificial worms
- 50 ft. of 8 lb. monofilament fishing line
- 10 ft. of 50 lb. snare wire
- Micro LED light
- Small multi-tool or folding knife
- Small ferrocerium rod w/ striker
- 6 stormproof matches (trimmed down)
- 3 quick tinder fire starters
- Small signal mirror
- Emergency whistle
- 10 200mg ibuprofen tablets
- 10 ft. waxed dental floss
- 15 ft. sewing thread
- 2 sewing needles
- Duct tape (wrapped around outside of tin)
- 15 ft. paracord (wrapped around outside of tin)
Quick Tip: Don’t forget to tape a match striker to the inside of the lid, if you include any stormproof matches. You can also tape the sewing needles to the inside of the lid to keep them secure.
ADDITIONAL SURVIVAL GEAR (TIER 2)
The second tier of your survival kit is designed to augment your first tier and cover any additional items you may need that won’t fit into your basic kit. This list also includes items that are only necessary in specific environments or conditions.
- Water bottle
- Folding saw or hand saw
- Headlamp or compact flashlight
- Map and compass
- Compact stove and fuel
- Emergency blanket or portable survival bivy
- Plastic drop cloth
- Water filter, purification tablets or iodine
- Emergency food (e.g. energy bars, trail mix, etc.)
- First aid kit
- Toilet paper
- Biodegradable soap
- Pen and small notebook
- Fully charged cell phone
- PLB (personal locator beacon)
- Extra clothing or base layer
- Foldable rain poncho
- Winter cap and gloves
- Extra pair of socks
Once again, it’s extremely important to seek proper instruction on survival techniques so that you can use your survival gear safely and effectively. Learning basic first aid and outdoor safety principles is also highly recommended for anyone venturing outdoors. Visit our First Aid and Outdoor Safety Guide for more information on these topics.
Want to learn more about survival? Consider checking out these great resources on our blog:
- 5 Common Backpacking Mistakes That Can Cost You Your Life
- How to Not Fall Into the Water... and Four Other Canoeing Tips
- Survive a Snowpocalypse... In Your Car
Thanks for checking out our wilderness survival guide. Always remember to never stop learning. Stay safe and have fun out there.
Important Safety Note:
The information contained in this guide is not comprehensive and not intended as a substitute for professional survival advice. This information is published solely as a general introduction to basic survival principles and gear. It is highly recommended that anyone planning to use survival skills or equipment should enroll in a reputable survival training program.