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Survival Skills 101: Basic Techniques Everyone Should Know

Say “survival skills,” and what first comes to mind is a grizzled outdoors veteran. The truth is, though, that everyone needs survival skills. Emergencies like floods, fires, tornadoes, or civil disturbances demand that knowledge.

Survival Skills

Knowing First Aid Is Critical

Having first aid knowledge and supplies are crucial survival skills. For great first aid training, find an American Red Cross class. You’ll learn how to handle trauma situations, external bleeding, burns, poisoning, spinal injuries, and more.

First Aid Kits

There is a wide range of first aid kits, from those designed to fit in your glove compartment to kits with hundreds of first-aid items. A basic first aid kit should include a first aid manual, assorted adhesive bandages, sterile pads, roller bandages, aspirin, emergency blankets, gauze bandages, and tweezers.

How to Build or Find Effective Shelter

Whether in the wilderness or in a community disaster, you should know something about finding protection from the elements.

Wilderness Shelter

Facing an emergency situation in the wilderness need not be too worrisome. Even in the desert, you can hunker down around rock outcroppings or between sand dunes with nothing more than a tarp.

In other areas, you’ll have tree limbs and leaves to fashion an emergency shelter. The simplest shelter is branches leaned against a tree or large rock and covered with twigs and leaves.

Urban and Suburban Shelter

Even if you’re not a camper, it’s good to have a tent or two on hand for emergencies. The two-person emergency shelter is a great option for quick shelter.

Beyond having a tent, your survival skills should include being aware of local and state government plans for providing emergency shelter. That information is likely to be available in advance on the government’s emergency management agency website.

Ensuring Adequate Water

Because water regulates critical bodily functions, one of your survival skills should be to get potable water as soon as possible. Even in urban areas, an emergency that disrupts local utilities or deliveries to grocery stores can threaten water supplies very quickly.

So, no matter where you find yourself in an emergency, you should know how to find a water source and how to make it safe for drinking.

Water Heater Tank

If water supplies are interrupted during an emergency, you can still get some water from inside your home. Simply attach a hose to the valve at the bottom of your water heater and direct the hose into storage containers. The average home water heater holds 50 to 60 gallons.

Before draining the tank, turn off its power and water supplies. Release the tank vacuum by opening the pressure relief valve at the top of the tank.

Outside Water Sources

Something to consider in advance of an emergency is establishing a rainwater collection system at your home. Doing so can be as simple as installing a rainwater collection barrel.

Alternatively, scout around your neighborhood for creeks, ponds, or other natural water sources and collect water from them in an emergency.

Purifying Water

Anytime you collect water from a non-standard source, you’ll need to purify it. Boiling water for 3 minutes or more is standard practice. But that may not be enough treatment if the water contains chemicals or heavy metals.

To be certain your collected water is as pure as possible, use filtration and/or purification.

Preparing an Emergency Food Pantry

One thing to do in advance of an emergency is ensure food and water supplies. Mostly, all that is required is to stock up during regular trips to the grocery store with canned foods and other long-lasting products.

Your emergency food pantry can also be the place where you store bottled water. Plan to have enough bottled water to provide one gallon per person per day for at least three days. Also, store some water for cooking and hygiene.

Stock your designated pantry space with a variety of canned beans, vegetables, fruits, and meats. Peanut butter, honey, and protein bars also are good choices.

Building Fires

Even if you experience an emergency in easily survivable temperatures, you’ll want to be able to build and maintain a fire. In addition to cooking food, a fire can alert rescuers to your location.

Building a fire is straightforward. First, clear a flat spot of ground. Encircle it with stones or other nonflammable material. Then, collect pine straw, twigs, or other small small bits of dead vegetation to kindle your fire.

Stack them in a circle and arrange sticks of wood on top. Even in urban areas, there should be at least some wood — if not trees, then bits of scrap lumber or other debris — to use as kindling and fuel for your fire.

While a cigarette lighter or matches are handy, your survival gear should include a “ferro rod” fire-starting tool.

Signaling for Help

Regardless of the level of your survival skills, one of the best strategies for a successful outcome in an emergency is signaling for help. Read on for advice on how to signal for help.

Emergency Locator Devices

Cell Phone capabilities can create a false sense of security that help is never more than a phone call or text message away. But as a largely terrestrial option relying on communications towers, cell phone service is subject to severe disruption in emergencies.

That’s why modern survival skills should include having a satellite messenger in your survival gear.

Other Ways to Signal for Help

But your inventory of survival skills should also include knowing how to get help without electronic help. For that, flashlights and whistles are good options.


Of course, not just any flashlight will do if you’re relying on it to let other people know where you are. You’ll need a flashlight that can cast a long and exceptionally bright beam. Beyond that, you’ll need to know how to use the flashlight to signal you’re in distress.

The easiest way to signal distress with a flashlight is to mimic the Morse code “SOS” signal for distress with bursts of light. Turn the flashlight on and off quickly three times, followed by three longer bursts of light and finishing with three short bursts of light.

Wait between each set of nine flashes so your message is clearly understood.


An emergency whistle is a great tool because it doesn’t need batteries. To use one, which can be heard up to a mile away, simply mimic the “SOS” signal.

Survival Skills

Wrapping up Survival Skills 101: Techniques Everyone Should Know

As you’ve learned, acquiring basic survival skills isn’t just for outdoors enthusiasts or preppers. For more, check Survival World posts on surviving extreme weather and must-have survival gadgets.