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9 Wilderness Survival Skills You Need To Know: Essential Techniques for the Outdoors

Staying alive and safe in the wilderness demands knowledge in a variety of areas. From unpredictable weather conditions to potential injuries or getting lost, knowing how to handle these situations can mean the difference between life and death.

Keep reading to discover the 9 wilderness survival skills that you need to know before venturing into the great outdoors.

survival skills

1. Preparation and Planning

When venturing into the wilderness, proper preparation and planning are essential to ensure a safe and successful experience. This involves creating an effective survival kit and understanding the environment one is entering.

Building a Survival Kit

A well-prepared survival kit can be the difference between life and death in an emergency situation. Important components of a kit should include everything from navigation tools, first-aid, and firestarters to tools, food, and shelter materials.

Customize the kit according to the specific environment and anticipated requirements. Keep it lightweight and easily accessible to ensure optimal usability in the field.

Understanding Your Environment

Knowledge of the environment is crucial for wilderness survival. Before embarking on a journey, gather information about the specific region one will be visiting. This includes:

  • Studying a map of the area to familiarize oneself with the terrain and potential hazards
  • Researching local weather patterns, which can significantly impact safety and preparedness
  • Understanding the flora and fauna, including potential dangers posed by wildlife, insects, or poisonous plants
  • Identifying reliable sources of water and potential shelter locations

Equipped with this information, one can adapt their survival strategies and preparations to the unique challenges of the environment they will be entering.

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2. Finding and Purifying Water

Locating Water Sources

Finding a reliable water source is vital for survival in the wilderness. Natural sources of water, such as rivers, lakes, and streams, are the best options. Clear running water is preferable, as it has fewer contaminants compared to stagnant water.

Green vegetation can be a helpful indicator of nearby water sources. Look for areas with lush plant life as a starting point. Keep in mind that sharing water sources with animals also increases the possibility of contamination, so always be cautious when approaching a water source.

Water Purification Techniques

After locating a water source, it’s essential to purify the water to remove impurities and make it safe for consumption. Here are some commonly used methods to purify water in the wild:

  • Boiling: Bring the water to a rolling boil for at least five minutes to kill bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens. This method is effective and requires no specialized equipment.
  • Filtering: Use a portable water filter or create your own by layering materials such as pebbles, sand, and crushed charcoal in a container (like a two-liter bottle). This method can remove contaminants and improve the taste of water.
  • Purification tablets: Adding water purification tablets is another effective option for making wilderness water safe to drink. Follow the instructions on the package to ensure the correct dosage is used.
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3. Building a Shelter

One of the most important wilderness survival skills is building a shelter. A well-made shelter can provide protection from various weather conditions and help regulate body temperature. In this section, we will cover selecting a suitable location and different types of shelters.

Selecting a Suitable Location

Choosing a location for your shelter should be done with care. Keep in mind the following factors when selecting a site:

  • Proximity to resources: Ensure that your chosen spot is near materials like wood, water, and food sources.
  • Drainage: Avoid low-lying areas prone to flooding.
  • Protection from elements: Take advantage of natural barriers such as trees, rocks, or slopes to protect yourself from wind, rain, or snow.
  • Visibility: Balance the need for visibility to spot rescuers with the need for concealment from potential threats.

Different Types of Shelters

There are several types of shelters that can be constructed in a wilderness setting. Some common options include:

Lean-To Shelter

A lean-to shelter is relatively simple to construct. Begin by finding one long, sturdy branch that is a few feet longer than your height. Prop one end of the branch on a tree stump, log, or two shorter branches to create an A-shape. Then, lean shorter branches against the long branch, covering the structure with smaller twigs, pine needles, or leaves for insulation and protection from the elements.

Tarp or Poncho Shelter

A tarp or poncho can be used to create a simple yet effective shelter. Attach the tarp or poncho to trees or branches using cordage, ensuring it is pulled tight to prevent sagging or pooling of rainwater. This type of shelter can be modified to suit various conditions and surroundings.

Debris Hut

A debris hut can be made by creating a framework of branches and then covering it with leaves, grass, or other debris. This shelter type is beneficial when insulation from cold temperatures is a priority, as the debris works as an excellent insulator.

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4. Starting and Maintaining a Fire

Fire Starting Techniques

There are various techniques to start a fire in the wilderness. These methods can be categorized based on the tools and methods used.

  • Friction-based methods: This includes the bow drill, hand drill, and fire plow, where friction between two pieces of wood generates enough heat to ignite a tinder nest.
  • Spark-based methods: Flint and steel, ferrocerium rods, and lighters work by producing sparks to ignite tinder. It may take a few attempts to get the sparks to catch on the tinder.
  • Lens-based methods: Magnifying glasses, eyeglasses, and even plastic water bottles can be used to focus sunlight onto tinder to produce enough heat to start a fire.

Once the tinder is ignited, it can be gently blown on to coax the fire to grow.

Choosing the Right Fuel

When building a fire, it is essential to gather the right materials for effective burning. There are three main categories of fuel:

  • Tinder: Small, dry materials that easily ignite like dry grass, leaves, birch bark
  • Kindling: Small branches and twigs that burn hot and quickly like pine needles, small branches, dry twigs
  • Fuelwood: Larger branches and logs that maintain the fire for long periods such as hardwood branches, thick logs

Fuel should be kept dry and off the ground until needed. Begin with tinder, then gradually add small kindling to create a stable fire. Finally, larger fuelwood can be added to maintain the fire and keep it burning for longer periods.

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5. Procuring Food

Knowing how to procure food in the wilderness is essential for survival. Whether you’re a newcomer or experienced survivalist, you should be acquainted with methods of acquiring sustenance when in natural environments.

Identifying Edible Plants

Being able to identify edible plants is a valuable skill when in the wilderness. Before venturing out, familiarize yourself with the natural plant life in the area you will be visiting. Moreover, carrying a regional plant guide will prove helpful.

Some examples of edible plants include:

  • Dandelions
  • Clover
  • Plantain
  • Wild berries, such as blackberries and raspberries

Keep in mind, toxic plants often have similar appearances to edible ones, so be cautious and avoid consuming plant life if you are doubtful.

Hunting and Trapping

Another option for procuring food in the wilderness is hunting and trapping animals. To increase your likelihood of success, it is recommended that you carry appropriate tools, such as a knife, spear, or bow and arrows.

Some effective and straightforward methods of trapping and hunting include:

  • Snare Traps: Constructed from wire, string, or rope, snare traps are designed to catch small animals, such as rabbits or squirrels. Place the traps near signs of animal activity, like burrows or trails.
  • Fishing: Utilize hooks and lines to catch fish, while also familiarizing yourself with handmade alternatives such as spearfishing or constructing makeshift nets.

While hunting and trapping, be mindful of local regulations and respect any protected species or wildlife preserves. Knowledge of these rules and practices plays an essential role in ensuring your safety and that of the ecosystem.

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6. Navigation Skills

Proper navigation skills are essential for wilderness survival situations. Being able to successfully maneuver through unfamiliar terrain can make all the difference between survival and disaster. In this section, we will discuss two key navigation methods: using a compass and natural navigation techniques.

Using a Compass

A compass is a reliable and invaluable tool for wilderness navigation. When used correctly, it can accurately guide you through your surroundings and help you find your way back to safety. To effectively navigate with a compass, follow these steps:

  1. Hold the compass level and steady in your hand, ensuring the needle is not touching the dial.
  2. Rotate the compass, aligning the orienting arrow and north indicator with the magnetic needle’s north.
  3. Determine your desired direction of travel and rotate the compass housing to align the direction of travel arrow with that bearing.
  4. Hold the compass flat in front of you with the direction of travel arrow pointing ahead. Identify a landmark in the distance that lines up with the direction of travel arrow and proceed to it. Repeat this process as you move through the wilderness.

Natural Navigation Methods

Although a compass is an essential tool, it’s also beneficial to know natural navigation techniques that can be used when a compass is not available. Some effective natural navigation methods include:

  • Sun Navigation: The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. During the day, it moves across the sky, allowing you to roughly estimate directions based on its position.
  • Star Navigation: At night, the North Star (Polaris) can be used to find north. Locate the Big Dipper constellation, then follow the two-pointer stars in the bowl to the North Star.
  • Moss on Trees: Moss often grows on the north side of trees, as it prefers shade and moisture. Observing the growth of moss can provide a general sense of direction.
  • Water Flow: In the northern hemisphere, rivers tend to flow from north to south. Following the flow of water downstream can lead you to civilization or lower elevations.

Combining the use of a compass and natural navigation methods can significantly improve your chances of successfully navigating through the wilderness and reaching safety during a survival situation.

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7. Signaling for Help

Signaling for help is a crucial skill when stranded in the wilderness. Being able to communicate your distress effectively can greatly increase your chances of rescue.

Creating a Signal Fire

Signal fires can be an effective method of attracting attention. Make sure the fire is visible from the air and ground; this can be achieved by selecting a clearing or elevated area.

  • Use green branches and leaves to create thick smoke.
  • Position the fire carefully to avoid accidentally starting a wildfire.
  • Follow the rule of threes: create three separated fires in a triangle or line to indicate distress.

Remember that smoke color may also convey different messages. Use green vegetation for white smoke or add oily materials like rubber or plastic for black smoke.

Using Signal Mirrors

Signal mirrors are another effective way to call for help. To use one, follow these steps:

  1. Face the sun and hold the mirror close to your face, just below eye level.
  2. Look through the mirror sighting hole or reflective surface, aiming the reflected light towards the area where you believe rescuers to be.
  3. Signal using the International Morse Code for SOS by flashing three short, three long, and three short flashes.

If you don’t have a signal mirror, you can use other reflective objects like a smartphone screen or even aluminum foil.

In addition to signal fires and mirrors, it’s essential to have multiple signaling methods in your survival toolkit. Whistles, flares, and brightly colored clothing or markings can also help attract attention and increase your chances of rescue.

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8. Basic First Aid

When venturing into the wilderness, knowing basic first aid can be essential for your safety and well-being. In this section, we will discuss how to treat cuts and wounds, as well as recognize and treat hypothermia and heat exhaustion.

Treating Cuts and Wounds

It is crucial to treat cuts and wounds properly to prevent infection and promote healing. Here are some steps to follow when treating minor cuts and wounds:

  1. Wash your hands or wear disposable gloves to maintain cleanliness.
  2. Stop any bleeding by applying pressure on the wound using a clean cloth or gauze.
  3. Clean the wound gently with clean water to remove dirt and debris.
  4. Apply a thin layer of antibiotic ointment to the wound surface.
  5. Cover the wound with a sterile dressing, adhesive bandage or gauze, and secure it with medical tape.
  6. Change the dressing and reapply antibiotic ointment as necessary, or at least once a day.

Recognizing and Treating Hypothermia

Hypothermia is a dangerous condition that occurs when a person’s body temperature falls below the normal range. When exposed to cold temperatures, it is essential to recognize the signs of hypothermia.

If you suspect someone is experiencing hypothermia, take immediate action:

  1. Move the person to a warmer shelter.
  2. Remove wet clothing and replace it with dry, warm clothing or blankets.
  3. Share body heat by huddling close, but avoid direct skin-to-skin contact.
  4. Provide warm, non-alcoholic beverages, if the person is conscious and able to drink.

Recognizing and Treating Heat Exhaustion

Heat exhaustion is another serious condition that outdoor enthusiasts may encounter, especially in hot climates. You should be alert to the signs of heat exhaustion in yourself and others.

To treat heat exhaustion:

  1. Move the person to a cooler, shaded area.
  2. Have them lie down with their feet elevated.
  3. Offer sips of cool water or a sports drink with electrolytes.
  4. Apply cool, wet cloths to their skin or utilize a fan.
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9. Mental and Emotional Preparation

Wilderness survival not only requires physical skills and practical knowledge, but also involves mental and emotional preparation. Ensuring that you have a strong mindset to handle unexpected situations can make a significant difference in your ability to survive.

Staying Positive

One of the most important aspects of mental and emotional preparation is staying positive. Maintaining a positive attitude can help reduce stress, increase morale, and give you the strength to keep going.

Developing a Survival Mindset

Another key component of mental and emotional preparation is developing a survival mindset. This involves being prepared to handle unexpected challenges and staying determined to survive.

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Wrapping up Essential Survival Skills

No matter your survivalist experience, everyone should learn, master, and brush up on these 9 essential survival skills and techniques. And if you’re ready to take your survival knowledge even further, head to Survival World.