Let’s talk about how to survive in the wild with nothing…
As some of you may already know, I’ve done a few different survival trips over the years to test my skills in various situations.
During my year with the Anake Outdoor School I spent a week sleeping under the hallowed root ball of a big spruce tree in the woods, drinking rainwater out of holes I had dug in the ground lined with leaves.
My training includes such activities as primitive fire, shelter-making and working with stone tools.
I should probably also mention that even though the focus of this article is how to survive in the wild, I do believe that most people who think they want to learn wilderness survival are actually more interested in wilderness living.
Here’s the difference…
Genuine survival training is a brutal way to push your limits, and build proficiency with the whole gamut of basic life preserving skills.
Almost all the focus is on your first 24-48 hours in a critical situation.
Warning: These skills won’t enable you to move into the woods and comfortably live out the rest of your days like a hermit.
Actually a big part of your survival training is simply having the experience of being incredibly uncomfortable, hungry, cold, and tired.
So why should you subject yourself to all that?
Because it will make you stronger. It will show you that you’re capable of much more than you currently realize. It will bring you closer to nature.
And… It will make you a survivor in a world of highly co-dependant humans.
Plus, if you can master the survival skills then you’ll already have the most essential prerequisite for moving onto more long-term wilderness living experiments.
So let’s get started…
1. Survival Shelters & Staying Warm
The most likely cause of death in wilderness survival isn’t starvation or even dehydration. It’s hypothermia.
This could be a very acute danger if you’re wet. There are some situations where the only thing that can save you is a 5 minute fire.
Could you get a fire going from scratch in 5 minutes?
Not many people could. Luckily, this is the less likely scenario. It’s more likely that you haven’t fallen into an icy lake. Maybe you just need to survive a night with cold rain in the forecast.
Your first need in a typical survival situation is shelter.
Don’t underestimate the need for shelter. Even in summer-time conditions temperatures can drop low at night. Add in a bit of rain and you have a recipe for hypothermia.
The best thing is to find a natural shelter. This could be a downed tree with dry ground underneath. Or up against a rocky outcropping.
You can enhance a natural shelter by leaning branches against the main structure and piling on debris.
The most important thing about a shelter is staying dry. If you can stay dry then you’re doing well.
The next most important thing about a shelter is insulation. If you can keep your body well insulated against the cold ground, wind & open air, then you’re doing really well.
So that’s number one. Find shelter. Stay dry. Stay warm.
Now onto water…
2. Finding Water For Survival
A good shelter will keep you from freezing to death on a cold night.
But if you want to last more than a few days, then you need to start thinking about water.
Symptoms of dehydration can start within a few hours of your last drink and include low energy, headache, dizziness, muscle-cramps, and eventually loss of consciousness.
Most rainwater is safe to drink. You can collect it in waterproof jackets, or drink it straight off non-toxic leaves.
Rain is one of the only untreated water sources I would feel comfortable drinking (Unless you’re in a highly polluted area).
If you’re in a climate or a season that lacks rain water, then you’ll need to take a different approach. It’s always good to have a backup plan in case the skies dry up for a few days.
The other more reliable option is boiling water. You can collect it from any source that is free of chemicals. The clearer the better.
Make sure you bring any intended drinking water to a rolling boil. Some sources even say you should keep it boiling for as much as 20 minutes. Better safe than sorry.
You can collect water in anything that won’t leak. It could be an old steel pot left by some campers, or even a waterproof jacket shaped into a holding vessel.
The bow-drill is an incredibly valuable survival skill for creating fire that can be learned in a relatively short period of time, and has the highest likelihood of succeeding.
The hardest part of creating a bow-drill is the string. Just make sure that you always wear sturdy shoelaces when you’re in the woods and you’ll never have to worry about creating fire.
3. Survival Food Sources
Now that you have shelter, water and possibly even a fire, you have everything you need to survive a few weeks in the wild.
Human beings can go a few weeks without food, so this is one of the least important parts of short-term survival.
However… Food does provide you with valuable energy. It helps your body stay warm. It gives you the strength & focus to boil water, make fire, create tools and improve your shelter.
Practically speaking… if you were to go a few weeks without food, your energy level would be so low that it would be difficult to function and do your daily survival tasks.
I put survival foods into 4 different categories.
The secret to getting value from survival food is to be efficient and opportunistic.
This means you want to focus on foods that are both easy to find and have the highest concentration of energy.
Here are some ideas to get your mind working:
- Learn which trees have edible inner bark. This is probably your most abundant source of energy survival food. It tastes like crap, but if you’re in a forest then you probably have an endless supply (and it’s easy to harvest)
- Look for nut trees. Spend some time getting to know your local tree species… especially those that have high calorie food value like acorns.
- Berries make great survival food. They can be gathered in abundance with minimal exertion. This is where your naturalist skills really come in handy. Don’t eat the poison ones. The natural sugars will keep your energy levels up too high and crashing.
- Make a throwing stick & carry it everywhere. You’re looking for the right balance of heavy & dangerous + easy to throw. Use it opportunistically to catch small mammals like rabbits, squirrels, etc. But don’t depend on it as your only food source.
- Only gather low energy foods like salad greens & edible flowers when you travel to gather water, firewood & shelter materials. Don’t go too far out of your way to eat these things. They’re nutritious but not worth the calorie outputs to go searching far and wide.
Different times of year offer different opportunities. There may be times when you eat like a king.
Preparing Yourself For Survival
While it is possible for you to survive in the wild with nothing, you’ll always be much better off with a bit of preparation.
Here are some steps you can take to prepare yourself for survival situations, and still require very few tools or gadgets.
- Build a survival shelter and sleep in it. Start in warm weather, but go back to it multiple times. Continue to make improvements and camp there in harsher conditions. This will give you a clear idea of what’s required.
- Learn the bow-drill. It’s the easiest way to make fire by friction. It took me a few weeks of practice… and I was a slow learner.
- Make a basic survival kit. Even a small amount of basic materials could make all the difference in a survival situation. The photo above shows some of the things I have in my kit:
– Parachute chord for making a fire-kit,
– A strong sharp knife,
– Fishing line,
– Contact whistle,
– Wool mittens and scarf,
– Water bottle.
What else would you include if you could only take one small carry-bag?
- Brush up on your plant & tree ID skills. Learn the poisonous plants as well as edibles. My landscape analysis video gives some tips for how to look at patterns in a forest. This can also help you choose the best location for a shelter.
As always, the best survival tip is simply to avoid real survival situations. Be prepared, but always stay aware when you’re out hiking. Tell people where you’re going. And don’t get lost!
Be safe out there & have fun!
Pattalee Beaver says
A fire starter is always a good tool to carry. Surprised you don’t put it on the list. Yes, fires can be started from stone/Flint and bow drills but there are many other things that would be necessary is TRUE survival situations
Brian Mertins says
Thanks for sharing! I totally agree. I like to include some waterproof matches, or even a lighter in a waterproof container. Even bringing a small waterproof bag of dry fluffy material can dramatically speed up the time to having fire in a real emergency.
very helpful for scouts
Brian Mertins says
Thanks for reading Pratik!
Gary Pearson says
When in the woods I carry a small survival kit.it is a 3 1/2 x 3 1/2 ziplock. Items are: small 3 blade pocket knife-sharp. Ceramic rod to keep it sharp. Small bic lighter. Spool of fishing line. In the recess of that are hooks, weights, flies ( roe patterns, dries,and nymphs). A dozen copper wire snares-rabbit size-twisted up from standard appliance wire. Heavy waxed linen thread ( to make a bowstring) 50 yards of 30lb dacron fishing line (tough and small diameter) lg and sm. needle and thread in small coils. 8 small arrowheads hammered from spoons and sharpened. Tiny compass. 30″ piece of P. cord (for bow drill). Weight: deck of cards only smaller. Way ahead with this 🙂
Brian Mertins says
Absolutely, that’s awesome Gary… Thanks for sharing!