We live in a world marked by modern conveniences. Which is totally fine, most of the time. But, every once in a while, disaster strikes. Whether there’s a horrendous storm that knocks out your power or you just get lost by wandering too far off the trails, a very bad situation can be mitigated exceptionally if you just know a few basic survival skills.
In order to help you be a little bit more prepared for whatever might befall you, we’ve put together this list of the 8 most important survival skills that every man should know. From making fire, to building shelter, to binding your wounds – these are the talents that, when properly practiced and honed, can make all the difference between being utterly without hope and coming out the other side a victorious survivor. So bone up on the following skills, because some day you might need them.
Finding & Purifying Water
Nothing is more important in a survival situation than having suitable drinking water. Humans can survive weeks without food and can live entire healthy lives in temporary shelters, but without water we can die in just a matter of hours – minutes, even, if the heat is bad enough. So whether you’re trapped without power by a snowstorm or you’ve taken a bad spill off the trails and into a ravine, one of your top priorities should be seeking out and, potentially, purifying water for drinking. There’s no guaranteed way to make that happen in every circumstance, but there are a few tips and tricks that will go a long way toward getting the job done. They are as follows:
Gravity, Greenery, & Ground: If you find yourself in hilly terrain, remember that the flow of water is always going to be downhill. You can count on seeking out streams and creeks in the crevasses where hills meet. If you can’t see the flow of water, it doesn’t mean it’s not there. Take a quiet moment and try to listen for the sound of water cascading over rocks – then just follow the sound. If you can’t see or hear the life-giving liquid, look for signs of life. Animals frequent areas with suitable drinking water, as do insects. As a final resort, digging a hole in damp soil will sometimes reveal some groundwater. Just remember to use groundwater as a last resort, as it can be very filthy and riddled with germs and parasites.
Beware Of Stagnant H20: Always beware of standing water, as it is likely chalk full of every manner of parasites and bacteria. The same goes for pooling water in streams. Your best bet for finding suitable drinking water is always going to be in places with a strong flow, as all the stuff that will almost certainly make you ill propagates wherever water doesn’t move. For reference, both malaria and dengue fever – two extremely dangerous diseases – are amongst the dangers of standing water, as is anything else a mosquito might be carrying because the bloodsucking insects breed in stagnant pools. If you have a choice, avoid standing water at all cost.
Boil It If You Can: Even if you find a flowing stream with what looks like crisp and clean water, you’ll still want to try and purify it. Yes, it will take more time and you might be thirsty, but the alternative is potentially getting a parasite or an infectious disease that could lead to a far worse situation. If you have the means to build a fire and a vessel in which you can place water, bringing that water to a boil is probably the safest and most reliable way to get any sickness-inducing impurities out of the liquid. Barring that, you can bring with you a personal water filter or purification tablets (which you can find at most outdoor retailers) or, if you are absolutely desperate, drinking questionable water might be your only option. Again, this is an absolute last resort. If you have the means, take the time to try and purify any and all naturally gathered water – even snow or ice. The risk just isn’t worth it, if you have a choice.
LifeStraw Personal Water Filter
It isn’t always easy or even possible to boil water out in the wilderness. Whether you’re having trouble starting a fire or you just don’t have a vessel in which to place that life-giving liquid, you can better prepare yourself for a bad situation if you bring the $25 LifeStraw personal water filter along with you on your adventures. Not only does it kill up to 99.9% of all waterborne bacteria and parasites, but it will filter up to 1,000 liters of water without the use of chemicals.
Starting & Tending To A Fire
Second only to finding suitable water, the ability to make fire is one of the absolute most important and useful skills anyone can develop in the case of an emergency. Not only will it give you life-saving warmth in the cold of night, but you can use it to purify water, cook food, ward off predators, cauterize wounds, and even signal for help. Ideally, you’ll have a lighter or matches on your person in the case of an emergency, but you should also be able to start a fire from scratch, just in case. Because unless you carry an ignition source on you at all times, you could easily be caught in a survival situation without one. Here are some tips to get you started:
The Drier The Better: It doesn’t matter how skillful you are with a bow drill, magnifying glass, or flint and steel if your fuel (e.g. wood, brush, twigs, sticks, etc.) is too wet/hydrated. Rather than pulling branches off of living trees or grabbing anything that looks even remotely green, seek out dry, cracked, dead branches off the ground. Same goes for your kindling – dry dead grass works 10x better than freshly plucked greenery and will save you both time and energy. The only time you want to use any kind of green vegetation on a fire is if you are trying to create smoke signals. And even then, you want to get a good fire going with dry wood first and then “cook” the greenery above it.
Start Small: The smaller the fibers of whatever it is you are trying to burn, the easier it will be to get them lit. You can start a raging bonfire with just a few smoky sparks in a handful of dead grass if you coax the flames properly. Don’t bother trying to light even medium-sized branches, as it will likely be a waste of time, fuel, and precious energy. In fact, you’re probably better off lighting your kindling outside of your main stack of wood and then gently moving it beneath your larger branches once you’ve got a small flame going. Remember, even a single spark can make all the difference. Be patient, be gentle, and you’ll have a flame in no time.
Be Creative: Matches, lighters, and friction aren’t the only way to start a fire. Sure, they’re probably the easiest, but if you’ve got creativity you can pull a MacGyver and figure out other ways to make a flame. Burning ants with a magnifying glass is a cruel childhood trick, but it’s also a useful skill later on in life. If you’ve got glasses, you can focus light from the sun into a concentrated beam and easily ignite your tinder. That same tactic can be applied to clear ice, if you’re in a cold climate. And those are just two ways to use your environment and put the gear around you to good use.
Exotac Waterproof Lighter Case
Never underestimate how important fire can be in a survival situation. Whether you need to keep warm, cook some food, or cauterize a wound, the ability to make fire is an absolute necessity. But rather than struggling with a bow drill or a pocketful of flimsy matches, you can stash a disposable lighter in this small, lightweight, and waterproof $18 Exotac FireSleeve and you’ll always have a flame available at your fingertips.
Building A Temporary Shelter
Hopefully, if you get lost in the woods, you can find your way back to civilization in less than a day or so. If not, however, you’ll probably want to know how to build a shelter to protect yourself from the elements. After all, the danger and risk in an emergency can be compounded by cold, rain, snow, or even a thick fog if you don’t have a shelter to protect yourself from your surroundings. Now, the way that you can build one is going to depend heavily on your surroundings and the environment in which you are, but the following are two common shelter types and the easiest ways to build them:
Lean-To: One of the easiest survival structures to build, the lean-to is called such for the fact that it generally consists of leaning building materials up against a pre-existing structure or natural formation, such as a wall, rock face, fallen tree, etc. It can also be built free-standing if you can construct a 3-piece standalone frame onto which you can lean your building materials. The downside to this type of shelter is that it does not generally offer 360 degrees of protection and, unless you are quite diligent in your build or have some kind of tarp or trash bags, it will likely not be very resistant to water. That being said, it’s an excellent structure in a pinch.
Round Lodge: Commonly known as a teepee, wickiup, or wigwam, this type of survival structure is kind of like the natural evolution of a lean-to. It is built in a similar fashion, with a large number of branches leaning together to create the larger structure, but it offers a bit more protection because it can encircle the user almost entirely when built well. It will certainly take more time and materials to make, but it also offers a greater return in a survival situation as it can protect you, your gear, and any potential food you gather from the elements and, to a degree, any scavenging animals or predators.
Other structures, which are environmentally and materialistically dependent, include the Igloo/Quinzhee snow huts, a snow cave, Ramada, and various tarp shelters. But the ideas are all the same: get a roof over your head to protect you from whatever environmental follies might be coming your way. They also have their own risks. For example, a snow shelter has the potential to collapse and either suffocate or freeze you to death. Dry shelters can easily catch fire if you have your campfire too close or a bad gust of wind blows burning ash into your structure.
While there are some unforeseen circumstances you’ll have to deal with as they come about, there are a couple things you can do to make things easier: do not ever build a structure too close to water or in damp or muddy basins – you don’t want to get washed away in a flash flood. Seek out high and dry land. It’s also a very good idea to stay away from any areas that look too frequented by wildlife – watch out for footprints and droppings. Sure, it might be a good spot to catch dinner, but you might not be the only one looking for a meal. Lastly, it’s always a good idea to build a base frame to keep you and your shelter up off the ground. This will help protect you from bugs, dirt, and minor flooding.
Schrade Survival Hatchet
Although you could arguably break enough wood by hand to build yourself a shelter, the work is going to be a hell of a lot easier if you have an axe handy. This Survival Hatchet from Schrade is one of the best for the job because, while it is an excellent chopping and cutting tool, it also comes with the added bonus of a built-in ferro rod – so you can hack up some firewood and get it lit all with this one handy outdoor tool. And it’ll run you less than $50.
Navigating & Reading A Compass
Let’s say for the sake of argument that you are hiking at your favorite national park and, through some unfortunate accident, you’ve lost your way and there are no trails in sight. Well, what do you do, then? Scream for help until someone comes along? Pick a direction and just start walking? Curl up in a ball and cry? No. Your best bet for survival is to know how to navigate the world that surrounds you. And there are a couple simple way to do that which will come in handy in just such a situation.
Find The High Ground: While not always practical or necessary, finding a high point in the surrounding land is probably the simplest way to see where you need to go. Or at least where not to wander. If you can meander your way to the top of the nearest hill or even climb a small tree, it will help orient you in a much better way. It might seem pretty obvious when said aloud, but if you are lost and panicking, finding a vista to gauge your location is, at the very least, a good starting point.
Use The Sun: Barring the extreme North and South Poles, no matter where you are on planet Earth, the sun moves from relative east to relative west. It’s not a perfect system, but it is certainly better than nothing. There’s also a simple trick to make this easier: take a long stick and push it into the ground so that it stands up on its own. Then, make a marking in the dirt where the tip of the stick’s shadow is. Wait a few minutes and check to see in which direction the shadow has moved – that general direction is east.
Follow Water Civilization and life itself hinges on the availability of water. If you can find a river – follow the flow. Chances are you will come across other people at some point, so long as you aren’t completely off the grid. Even if you don’t immediately find your way back, you’ll at least have a decent source of drinkable liquid in the case that you remain lost. If you’re lucky enough to carry a water bottle with you, you can also fill it up before venturing off.
Bring A Compass: We aren’t going to profess to be expert navigators by any stretch, but you don’t really need to be in order to read and use a compass. Even the most basic understanding of the device (one side of the needle always points north) can help in a survival situation. Of course, reading a compass also helps if you’ve got a map to reference, but it’s still entirely useful if you don’t. The greatest benefit of a compass is that it will continue to work when your other technology doesn’t – and that makes it more reliable. For a more in-depth guide, look to REI’s instructions on how to use a compass.
SE Sighting Compass
Even if you only have a basic understanding of how compasses work, you should keep one with your camping, hunting, hiking, or emergency survival gear. Really, it can be an invaluable means by which you can find your way out of some of the worst situations and back to civilization – especially if you’re lost at night or on a cloudy day and cannot navigate by the sun. For just $11, you can pick up this comprehensive military-style sighting compass and it will make a world of difference in an emergency.
Hunting & Foraging For Food
In the case that your emergency survival situation stretches into days and/or weeks, you’re going to need to know how to find and catch food to keep yourself alive. There are a number of different ways to do this, all of which have both benefits and drawbacks. The following are a few methods you can use to catch food in the wild, so long as you have or can make the proper tools in order to do so:
Hunting Game: If you have the ability to fashion a weapon by sharpening a long sturdy stick, you can use that tool to spear small game or fish. The benefit to this method is that it takes very little craftsmanship to make a stick pointy enough to pierce the body of a small creature, but you can waste a lot of precious energy in your pursuit, as you burn a lot of calories chasing after and trying to spear small critters for food. And that’s compounded the larger the animal is, as is the risk of injury.
Trapping: There are a number of different small survival traps you can make out in the wild using just the materials you have on you and stuff from your surroundings. While it takes patience and some skill to build a trap and use it to catch a meal, it will also cost you far fewer calories than actively hunting for food.
Fishing: If you have something you can use as a fishing line and hook, you’re near a body of water, and you’ve got some time, this is probably your best option for finding high-protein safe-to-eat food. All you really have to do is set up your fishing line – with bait, if you can manage it – and wait until you catch something. Just be aware that places with an abundance of fish are also going to be frequented by other larger predators.
Foraging: You aren’t going to get the same physical returns from eating local flora, but you also probably won’t be expelling the same amount of energy collecting it. You’ll probably also be shocked by the wide variety and number of available plants there are to eat in some places. As a general rule, however, you’ll want to stay away from anything that looks or has a reputation for being even remotely poisonous – like mushrooms, for example. Whenever you go off on a long-form outing, you should familiarize yourself with the local plant life beforehand. Try grabbing a survival book to help.
Edible Wild Plants Field Guide
Unless you are a life-long botanist with a PhD, you’re going to have a hard time telling which flora is edible and which will send you painfully to an early grave. Rather than risk it, you can bring along a handy Edible Wild Plants Field Guide with you on your adventures. This $20 one covers the plant life around the central and eastern parts of North America, but you can easily find guides that are appropriate for any part of the world. Since this can literally be the difference between life and death, we can’t stress its importance enough.
Even if you do catch some wild game, you can’t just eat it raw, unless you want to risk getting parasites or other diseases carried by those animals. As such, it’s important that you know both how to cook in the wild and what’s safe to eat. While the rules are going to vary from locale to locale, there are – of course – some general guidelines that can get you started. They are as follows:
Get Out The Guts: In a 5-star restaurant, goose liver can be considered a delicacy. In the wilderness, it can kill you. Whenever you are dressing your meat for cooking, you should dispose entirely of any and all of the guts – especially with regards to the digestive tract. Yes, we know that Bear Grylls and Les Stroud have eaten raw hearts and livers, but they are long-time professionals. And unless you are too, you don’t want to mistake something safe to eat with something that will, at the very least, give you diarrhea. Stick with muscles and limbs.
Overcook Rather Than Undercook: Burning your meat might make it a little bit tougher to eat and perhaps a mite less savory, but it is far far better than the alternative. A part of the reason you want to cook your food through entirely is to help kill off any potentially harmful bacteria or pathogens that might be in the meat. These are wild animals we’re talking about here, not factory-grown meats or steak cuts you can pick up in a store. So, you never know what might be lurking. As a general rule, you’re better off with tough jerky than anything even remotely rare.
Dispose Of All Waste: This is not so much a tip about camp cooking as it is an important note on keeping yourself safe in the wilderness. Any time you finish cooking, you’ll want to dispose of any and all waste away from wherever you have your shelter set up. And it’s for the same reason you would at a regular campsite: wild animals will smell the food and want to have a bit for themselves. And while some of those animals could be relatively harmless, you wouldn’t want to come face to face with a bear, mountain lion, or otherwise. If you can, bury your garbage. If you can’t, make sure you ditch it far from wherever you sleep.
Snow Peak Giga Power Stove
We know you’re not always going to be 100% prepared for the situations that befall you, but you can still try and do your best to mitigate the worst circumstances by preparing for a number of contingencies. Knowing how to build a camp stove out of materials you find in nature is an excellent skill to have, but your life can be made simpler in the most dire circumstances if you have the foresight to pack something like the Snow Peak Giga Power Stove. It’s tiny, it folds down for storage, and you can use it for everything from cooking to purifying your water.
Dressing A Wound
Being injured in an emergency situation is arguably the worst worst-case scenario, because it just compounds everything that’s already bad about the situation. And while you may be able to avoid any kinds of serious injuries, it’s always better to be ready to deal with them head-on if you or someone you are with suffers a gash, break, or otherwise. Here are some ways you can take care of common types of injuries, as well as other tips and tricks for first aid:
Close The Wound: It might seem obvious, but its importance cannot be overstated: an open wound is a gateway for bacteria and, subsequently, infection – which can lead to even greater complications. If you suffer a cut, even a small one, you’re going to want to do your best to clean the injury (alcohol can do the trick) and seal it shut. There are a few different methods you can use, including bandaging with cloth, using a first-aid kit (band-aids and such), or – in a dire emergency – you can even burn closed a wound that wont stop bleeding.
Bandage Reasonably: Tourniquets should only be used as an absolute last resort. And that’s because the tight binding of a limb can result in that limb’s loss. So unless it’s a life or death situation, using a tourniquet shouldn’t be a consideration. That being said, you still want to be sure that your bandage closed any fresh wounds with sterile cloth, if its available. And change those bandages often, because a dirty bandage can lead to a festering wound. For reference, check out Backpacker’s guide to treating deep wounds.
Brace A Break: In the unfortunate circumstance of a broken limb, you’re going to want to bind the injury in a way that keeps you from making it worse. Luckily, that’s as easy as finding a sturdy relatively straight tree branch and tying it to the limb with some rope, cloth, or – if you’re lucky enough to have some – a bit of 550 paracord. Unless you are a medical professional, do not try to reset a broken bone, as you could potentially make the fracture even more severe.
Sportsman Medical Kit
Anytime you go on an outing, you should have a first-aid kit stashed in your pack. You might not always need it, but it can make all the difference in the case that you do. The Sportsman Series Medical Kit from AMK costs just $54 and is loaded with all the stuff you might need if you or someone you’re with suffers an injury from a number of outdoor activities – like hunting, fishing, camping, or off-roading. And it’s loaded with enough stuff to care for up to 7 people.
Tying A Knot
This is an absolutely underrated skill set, not just for survival, but for a number of different leisurely or sporting activities, including sailing (or, more generally, boating), camping, rock climbing, and more. And the applications can be incredibly helpful in a survival situation. Knots aren’t just for shoes and hastily tied together packages; when properly learned and executed they can help with securing hunting traps, fishing line, bandages, survival shelters, and will play a part in pretty much every other skill on this list.
If you think you know how to tie a proper knot, but you’ve never actually looked into types and instructions as to how they work, you’re probably not doing it right. Sure, with enough experimenting, you might be able to come up with something that’s relatively satisfactory, but you could also end up with a shelter that falls apart, a trap that doesn’t work, or you’ll waste much of your precious paracord, rope, twine, or otherwise. At the very least, you’ll want to know how to tie a clove-hitch, square, and bowline. There are dozens of different types of knots, but the basics should do you right in an emergency. If you want to know more of the ins and outs of tying knots and for what you can use them, check out our guide to the 10 basic knots you should know.
RattlerStrap Paracord Survival Belt
If you were to take just one thing onto a desert island, you might want to make it the RattlerStrap Paracord Survival Belt. This $97+ belt can hold your pants up, but it also unravels into over 80 feet of 550 paracord – an extremely handy survival tool that can be used to build shelter, hunting traps, can be used in fishing applications, is useful for binding wounds, and more. Truly, the applications are as endless as your imagination.