How to Survive in the Woods–the Wild

June 5, 2007

Ever been on a hike admiring the wild flowers, gazing up at the tips of the trees–and suddenly found yourself completely alone and lost? What would happen to you if you couldn’t find your way back to safety? While being lost in the woods can be a frightening experience, surviving alone in the wild is generally a matter of common sense, patience, and wisely using the gifts that nature provides. All you need to survive for a few days is shelter, warmth, water, and food.

Steps

Plan ahead. Don’t just trek off into the wilderness, do some research first. There are a lot of resources regarding survival, both online and in libraries. Educate yourself about the flora and fauna of the area you are exploring. Knowledge of the local plants and animals can save your life! You might also want to purchase a survival manual to carry with you.

Make sure someone knows where you are going every time you go into the wilderness,and how long you intend to be gone. That way someone will realize that you are missing, quickly alert rescuers, and be able to tell them where to start looking for you.

Survive in the wilderness by being prepared. Basic survival tools such as a knife, a magnesium stone, some matches, some cord, a whistle, and a small pot can mean the difference between life and death. Even if you are only out on a day hike, be sure to bring the essentials.

Panic is more dangerous than almost anything else, because it interferes with your single best, most useful and versatile survival tool: your mind. The moment you realize that you are lost, before you do anything else, stop. Take a deep breath and stay calm. If you’re hanging from a rope halfway down a mountainside with a broken leg, remind yourself that people have survived exactly this situation.

Stand still and look around carefully!. Wherever you are will become your “point zero.” Find a way to mark it using a spare piece of clothing, a pile of rocks, a sheet of paper, or anything else easily visible from a distance.

Stay in one place, and you not only increase your chances of being found, you also increase your ability to survive by reducing the energy your body expends and the amount of water and food you will need. It is always best to hunker down and stay put. Chances are that someone will be looking for you, especially if you let someone know your plans.

Signal your location to maximize the odds that someone finds you. Make noise by whistling, shouting, singing, or banging rocks together. If you can, mark your location in such a way that it’s visible from the air. If you’re in a mountain meadow, make three piles of dark leaves or branches in a triangle. In sandy areas, make a large triangle in the sand. In a forest, you might want to prepare three small fires ready to ignite at a moment’s notice, with heaps of wet leaves nearby in order to make smoke. Three of anything in the wilderness is a standard distress signal.

Start scouting your area, carefully keeping track of your location. Be sure you can always find your way back to your “point zero” as you search for water, shelter, or your way home.

Find or create shelter. Without adequate shelter, you will be fully exposed to the elements and will risk hypothermia or heatstroke, depending on the weather. If you are not properly dressed for the conditions, finding shelter is all the more important. Luckily, the woods are filled with tools and resources to make both shelters and fires (for warmth, safety, and signaling purposes). Look for a fallen or leaning tree. Use brush or green branches (boughs) from trees to repel water, block wind, keep out snow, or create shade. Close in your shelter on as many sides as possible. Caves can be great, but be sure the cave is not already occupied by bears, large cats, snakes or other unfriendly animals; they know caves are good too, and they’ve been looking for good shelter for longer than you have. Also make sure it’s not going to collapse on you- this reduces your chances of survival considerably.

Find a good source of water. You can last up to three days without water, but by the end of the second day you’re not going to be in very good shape; find water before then. The best source of water is a spring, but the chances of finding one are slim. A running stream is your next best bet; the movement of the water reduces sediment. Be advised that drinking water from streams can lead to some sicknesses , but when you’re in a life-or-death situation, the risk of illness is a secondary consideration.

Get a good fire going–one with sufficient coals to stay hot for many hours–and make sure that you have plenty of extra dry wood. A good rule of thumb is to gather wood until you have enough to last the night, then gather three more piles of the same size, and you *might* have enough to get through the night. In the wilderness you should have access to dry wood in the under story of the forest. You can also use bark or dried dung. If you build a fire that is hot enough, you can also burn green wood, brush, or tree boughs to make a signaling fire (one that makes a lot of smoke). The best wood for maintaining a fire is dead wood that you pull off a standing tree. Regardless of what type of woods you are in, there will certainly be some dry wood available. Remember that a small fire is easier to keep burning than a big fire, though, because it requires less fuel. Once you have sufficient embers, keep the fire to a manageable size so you don’t spend too much time looking for fuel.

Find safe food. Just because you are starving and happen to see a beautiful mushroom growing out of a rotting log doesn’t mean that you should eat it. Make sure that you know food is safe before eating it. If there is anything that will lessen your ability to survive, it is being both lost and deathly ill. If you have a fire going, cook anything that you eat, just to be safe. If you are capable of bringing an animal down you might consider eating it as well. In addition, don’t be afraid to eat insects and other bugs. While it may be disgusting to eat a few grasshoppers, it might also be the difference between life and death. Also, a general rule of thumb is that you can eat insects less than an inch in length raw, but larger ones should be cooked. Make sure to remove the legs or other parts that look like they might hook you on the way down. As for berries: white and yellow berries are poisonous 90% of the time, blue and black berries are good to eat 90% of the time (however, deadly nightshade berries are dark blue or black and they taste sweet, but a couple can kill you fairly quickly), and red berries are a 50/50 shot. Aggregate berries (bumpy ones like raspberries, strawberries, etc.) are almost 100% good to eat. The only exception to that rule is a white berry that grows only in Alaska. Plus, it’s white (see the 90/10 rule). Starvation won’t be a big problem in the short term anyway, so focus on your water supply and consider fasting for this three day period.

Tips

You can survive several weeks without food, but only several days without water, and perhaps only hours without shelter. Keep your priorities straight.

If you’re not absolutely sure where you are and how to get back to familiar territory, don’t proclaim, “I think it’s this way.” The more you move once you realize you’re lost, the worse your chances are of finding your way back.

Consider taking a staff or walking stick with you. If you don’t have one, any staff-sized stick will do. The little mark it makes in the dirt will help you retrace your steps better than Hansel and Gretel.

It is safer not to go into the wilderness alone.

Bear dens are excellent shelters as they provide protection from the elements, but many times you’ll find that a bear will not welcome you into its home; unless it is eating you.

Most “survival knives” with big blades and hollow handles are not worth the money because the handle can break off easily, leaving you with a blade and a handle and no way to reattach them. A Swiss Army knife is a much better bet, especially since it has a spare blade if the main one breaks.

One of the most important survival tools is something that most people never consider: a cooking pot. Without a pot it is difficult to boil water and cook many foods. A pot guarantees that you are not drinking water filled with bacteria.

Machetes are not better than a Swiss army knife on long term hikes. When hiking long distances the extra weight adds up. Also Machetes does not carry as much functionality as a Swiss army knife. They should not be used for protection; bear mace and pepper-spray are much better. The chances that you will come up against an animal with no eyes is slim. Overall machetes are adapted for clearing brush and not much else and are bad choices for hiking.

Don’t rely upon modern technology like cell phones, GPS units, or radios to save you if you are lost. While technology can come in handy, relying upon a battery or a telephone signal is just asking for trouble.

If you don’t have a lighter or any matches, you will have to start the fire by hand. If you find enough tinder (small material, such as dry grass, feathers or bark shavings, that burns easily) you can usually use the energy from the sun to start a fire with a magnifying glass, a piece of broken glass, a cover to a watch or compass, or other clear, light-intensifying objects. You can even shape a lens out of ice. If you don’t have any such objects, you will have to start a fire with friction, which requires that you fashion a device that rubs wood and tinder together quite rapidly (see other articles on fire starting to learn more). Basically, just carry several types of fire with you whenever you’re in the wild: lighters, matches, and strikers (flint and steel). By far one of the best tools to start a fire is a magnesium stone. It’s a necessity to be included in your survival kit. A cheap and effective supplement to the magnesium stone is the lint that collects in your dryer. Dry lint can be carried in a ziplock bag, weighing almost nothing, and is exceptional tinder – the sparks from the flint part of your magnesium stone will catch in lint much quicker than other materials. You can also use pine sap to start a fire. This sap obviously seeps from pine trees and is very flammable, also remember during winter, do not build a fire directly under a tree or anything that might cause the snow to melt and drop down and put your fire out.

An important acronym to remember is “STOP” which stands for stop, think, observe, and plan.

Whenever you go out in the wilderness (for example, going on a hike), bring a whistle. 1 blow means “I’m lost”, 2 blows means “I’m coming” (if you hear someone else blow a whistle), and 3 blows means “This is an emergency” (if you are hurt).

At night, the worst that can happen is freezing to death. Bundle up. Cover yourself with leaves, twigs, whatever is there. To stay warm at night, heat rocks in the fire and then bury them. Sleep on top of the buried rocks. Make sure you bury them deep enough or you will burn yourself.

If you happen to have a reflective object on you (a mirror, a belt buckle, whatever), use it as a signal by facing it towards the sun. Contrary to popular belief, CDs DO NOT make good signaling devices, but are still better than nothing – a signal mirror is recommended instead. You can do the same at night with a flashlight.

If planning an extended trip into difficult or unfamiliar terrain, it is always a good idea to have a backup plan. Detailed maps/trail guides, extra food and water, and signaling devices such as a mirror, flare, or even (depending on the length and location of the trip) a satellite beacon (PLB) could save your life.

Rain, snow, or dew can be a good source of clean water. You can use anything from a cup to a piece of waterproof cloth to a large leaf to collect precipitation.

If you cannot stay where you are until someone finds you, do not pick a direction and start walking, even if you have a means of ensuring that you continue to go that direction. Instead, try to go either uphill or downhill. Going uphill offers a good chance that you will find a vantage point, which can help you get your bearings. If you go downhill, you will probably find water which you can follow downstream; in many cases, this will lead you to civilization. But don’t follow water downstream at night or in fog as it may go off a cliff.

Never, EVER go into the woods without a compass. Note which direction you enter the woods from, say, a straight road or trail and if you get disoriented just head back in the opposite direction from which you entered.

Warnings

Keep your fire contained! Ensure that there is no combustible material underneath your fireplace and enclose it completely with rocks or a berm made of sand. Put your fire out with copious amounts of water: saturate it, so that there is no possibility of even the tiniest spark remaining. You should be able to touch the extinguished coals with your bare hand. It’s one thing to be lost in the woods, but quite another to be surrounded by a forest fire caused by your negligence.

If you encounter snakes, leave them alone. Snakes bite because they are hungry or because they are threatened. We are too big to be seen as prey to most snakes, so they cannot eat us and do not regard humans as food. Stand still and the snake will go away. Attack it and it will retaliate. If one curls up in your kit, chivvy it out with a long stick and gently prod it away. If it comes in your direction, stand still. It doesn’t know that you are causing its discomfort and if you do not jump around, it will probably not even notice you. However, if you kill the snake you can enjoy eating it. Since you probably don’t know if it’s venomous or not, a good rule of thumb is to cut off the head, and then cut the same distance back from that point down the body. This will remove any poison glands if there are any.

Chewing leather is bad advice for most modern, chemical-tanned leathers! Great way to poison yourself with chromium and other toxic chemicals! Besides, do you really want to trade your only real foot protection for a couple of calories? Protect your shoes so you can take a hike to look for nutrition!

Things You’ll Need

Whistle
String
Optional but Helpful Materials: map of the area, water purifying tablets, spare cloths, magnifying glass (for fire), compass!, basic First Aid kit, cotton balls in a bag with Vaseline on them (this is not only for chapped lips, but as an ointment for cuts and sunburn relief, but most importantly, when you tear the cotton balls, and mix them well the the vasoline, it is a very flamable material, which will burn smoothly and long, which is great for making torches and starting fires!).
15 feet of rope.
Universal tool.

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