How to Survive in the Wilderness

Ever wonder how the first French or English trappers to come to America knew how to survive in the wilderness? I mean did they pick up a paper back book, How to Survive in the Wilderness, on the boat over here? America was like no land they’d ever visited before, untamed, uncharted and uncivilized. What do you suppose they did?

Ironically they weren’t pampered by technology, they knew how to start a fire from scratch, build a survival shelter and the water wasn’t polluted so finding drinkable water wasn’t mission impossible. So they had a slight head start compared to us, but that wasn’t enough knowledge to keep them alive through winter storms, floods, droughts and just plain hard living. I have a feeling they learned how to survive in the wilderness through trial and error and sharing experiences with other trappers.

Some of what you’ll learn in this article of “how to survive in the wilderness” will appear to be redundant, and that’s because it is. Survivalist love redundancy, we don’t see it as watching a repeat of a television program, we see it as if we experience an equipment failure, we have a back up to take its place. Let’s explore a list of time tested skills to show you how to survive in the wilderness.

Mental Toughness:

Ever hear the saying,” if you can imagine it … you can accomplish it.” Everything in life begins with the state of mind we maintain. The will to survive is the foremost factor in how to survive in the wilderness. The skills we acquire, the adaptations we utilize all originate in a strong will to live. Humans are a resilient species of mammals that have managed to adapt and thrive against all all odds, crawling our way from caves to skyscrapers and the one common denominator displayed is the will to survive.


Boy Scout Motto: Be Prepared

It’s actually that simple, although simple is not always simple. Heading into the Mojave Desert for an exploration excursion. Have plenty of gasoline for your ATV and twice as much water for you. Going skiing in the back country. Have layers of clothes, an avalanche beacon and a tin cup for melting snow into drinking water. Be prepared could possibly be substituted with use common sense. It’s literally impossible to be prepared for any and all potential dangers, to say otherwise is plain silly. Therefore, the best avenue to take is be as best prepared as possible.

Stranded in your car:

You’ve slid off the icy trail and are now stuck in a ditch with no possibility of getting the car out. Hopefully you have an emergency kit in your trunk which will enable you to survive for several days somewhat comfortably, if not take inventory of what you do have in the car. Half a can of Coke, box of birthday candles under the seat, package of stale gum. I’d suggest dumping the Coke because the syrup extract will add to thirst. Don’t throw the can away as you can use it to melt ice into drinking water. That box of candles you lost and couldn’t figure out where, will help you melt ice for water and help keep the interior of the car warmer. The stale gum contains calories, which could prove very beneficial.

You’ll want to conserve gasoline, even if you have a full tank, as you don’t know how long you’ll be stranded. Operate the engine a few minutes each hour, shut the motor off as soon as you begin to feel warm. If you are entrenched in heavy snow, be sure to clear the car’s tailpipe from any obstruction. Do this prior to starting the engine every time as it may have been clear, but the hot exhaust may have melted snow that refroze blocking the exhaust pipe. Never leave the car, it’s your ready made shelter, but if you need to never lose your line of sight.


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Stay Calm:

You’re probably sick of hearing that advise, but it’s essential to think with a logical mind, not an emotional one. Pacing, wringing your hands and hyperventilating only wastes valuable energy. Weigh each decision carefully. For instance, if you feel you could spot a landmark if you could reach higher ground do it, but consider the risks. Climbing up hill is stressful and consumes energy, do you really think you’ll see a familiar landmark, or are you just hoping. Reaching the high ground, unless you spot a solid familiar object, a road, house or town, stay put. Do not continue to wander around.

If you believe you think you can find your way back to civilization by all means go for it. However, to hedge your bet mark your trail as you go with small stacks of stones or piles of sticks in order to re-track to your original position if need be. Additionally, stacks of three is an international code for emergency, therefore if rescue searchers spot these landmarks they will follow them straight to you. One last item… If you have a companion(s) never separate.

Shelter – Priority One

Exposure to the elements, specifically hypothermia is the number one reason people who are lost and don’t know how to survive in the wilderness meet an untimely death. Locating or building a survival shelter is priority one, which is why you never abandon your car, a ready made shelter, plus it’s a red flag for anyone searching for you. Search for a rocky overhang you can shelter under, a downed tree you can build a lean-to composed of branches you can crawl under. Layer the branches with leaves, pine branches, whatever material that will help keep the wind and rain off you. Make it small in order to retain body heat.

Different environments and weather conditions will dictate the type of shelter you will want to build. A scorching hot desert environment requires making shade to get out of the scorching sun the priority. An arctic climate may require digging a snow cave to insulate you from blustery winds and frigid temperatures. Tropic rains will dictate building a shelter that sheds water.

Building a Fire:

Building a fire next the shelter is the next priority. You notice I said next to not in the shelter, and there are reasons for that. If you are snuggled in under a rock ledge it could become your tomb if your fire is too close. The heat from the fire could loosen the rock overhead, either thawing ice or simply causing the rock to expand, which could cause it to collapse. It’s better to build the fire outside the overhang and direct the heat towards you by stacking rocks around one side of the fire, which will reflect the heat towards you.


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Gather enough wood to burn the entire night. How much is that? When you think you have enough … triple it at least. Be sure to clear the area of any flammable materials, leaves, pine needles, moss. Build a rock ring around it if possible. This lesson is on how to survive in the wilderness … not how to survive a forest fire. Tip: If you need to leave the campsite and are concerned the fire will go out before you return, cover the fire with green boughs which will keep the coals hot for a longer period of time. Sometimes starting a fire is not the easiest thing in the world to do … why let one self extinguish if you don’t have to.

Finding Water:

Considering the human body is mainly made up of water, it should come as no surprise that living longer than 3 days without water intake will result in death. Search for any stream, the faster moving the better for purity reasons, but take whatever is available. Ideally boiling the water is your best method of destroying disease causing parasites and microorganisms, making the water safe to drink.

Fire not an option? Build a filtration system composed of gravel, sand and wood charcoal (coconut fibers work too). Then allow the filtered water to set in the sunlight which will further eliminate unwanted substances. This will not make the water 100% pure, but it should be pure enough to consume without the risk of getting violently ill.

Capture dew overnight in broad leaves or plastic sheeting of some sort. Drinking your own urine is a last resort, but will work once. After that the urine will be too contaminated with body impurities to consume.

Dealing with frigid water:

When dealing with the discussion of how to survive in the wilderness we tend to stress locating and sanitizing water, but some wilderness contains ample amounts of water and that too can create problems. We watch the “polar bear group” and other people from around the world that purposely brave freezing waters in order to demonstrate their toughness, for medicinal purposes or lack of intelligence, as to purposely jump into frigid waters is not my idea of smart. However, there may be times entering frigid waters is the only option available. Needing to cross a river, swim a lake or simply accidentally fall in are all possibilities. Let’s exam the dangers of frigid waters and how to combat them.

People think the sudden shock the body experiences by immersing in frigid waters will create a heart attack, but those chances are actually quite small. The real danger is water aspiration, which is the involuntary inhalation of water into the lungs. The body’s immediate reaction to frigid water is to take a deep breath and hyperventilate. There is nothing you can do to stop this reaction and should you be underwater or have waves crashing over you, drowning is a distinct possibility.

There is only one method for dealing with this natural involuntary response, you ain’t gonna like it, and that is to teach the body and mind to adapt to the frigid temperatures. In order to do that you must enter the icy waters, several times, to condition your reflexes to react the way you want.

  1. Warm up by performing exercises, not sitting by a fire;

  2. Slowly enter the water, be sure of the depth, holding your breath.

  3. Emerge to chest high and stay in the water until you can control your breathing, stopping the hyperventilation.

  4. Get out of the water and begin to properly warm yourself. It’s important to warm slowly, not rushing the process. Your body has constricted the blood vessels in the skin and peripheries to deal with the temperatures. This turns the skin and sub- cutaneous fat into a thermal layer similar in nature to a wet suit. Allow the body time to return to normal.

  5. Dry yourself and don layers of warm clothing, drink warm liquids and walk in order to re-heat.

Learning how to survive in the wilderness could fill volumes of books, each dedicated to a specific region, climate and/or individual potential dangers. But if you adhere to the basic rules of logic and survival techniques you increase your chances of surviving until rescued by a hundred fold. Take note of the links in the article which will take you to more in-depth information of how to survive in the wilderness.


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