Basic Survival Skills
By Filip Tkaczyk
You might be asking, “What is the best way to approach basic survival skills,” especially since there is so much information available. Here are 6 primary components of wilderness survival to help you thrive in any situation:
Number 1: Attitude
More than any other skill, your attitude determines how successful you are in a survival situation. This first of the basic survival skills might even determine whether you live or die!
To start, consider “The Rule of Threes.” A human can survive for:
- 3 minutes without air
- 3 hours without a regulated body temperature (shelter)
- 3 days without water
- 3 weeks without food
The “Rule of Threes” provides a guideline of how to prioritize basic survival skills: first shelter, then water, and lastly food.
Surviving a difficult wilderness situation also requires meeting many challenges while avoiding panic. When faced with a potential survival situation, remember to use a "SPEAR":
By systematically assessing, planning, and executing your basic survival skills, you will help keep your mind and body actively engaged in addressing your situation. This will greatly aid in avoiding panic and other negative states of mind. By upholding an upright attitude, your chances of survival are greatly improved!
Number 2: Shelter
Many people who are forced into survival situations often get into serious trouble because of direct exposure to the elements. Most people in survival situations die of hypothermia, which can be easily avoided with basic survival skills. Being able to build a shelter is of paramount importance in a survival situation. It is extremely important to prevent or minimize heat loss, or if in a desert environment, to minimize water loss. Here are some things to think about when planning to build a shelter:
- Location (away from hazards, near materials)
- Insulation (from ground, rain, wind, air)
- Heat Source (body heat or fire-heated)
- Personal or Group Shelter
There are many types of shelters to consider including natural shelters such as caves, hollow stumps and logs, as well as building shelters such as a debris hut, lean-to, debris tipi, scout pit or snow shelter. Of the shelters listed, the debris hut is often the most practical to construct in almost any environment.
Learn how to construct a debris hut.
Number 3: Water
Since the human body is composed of up to 78% water, it should be no surprise that water is higher on the list than fire or food. Ideally, a person should drink about a gallon of water per day. Many lost persons perish due to dehydration, and/or the debilitating effects of water-born pathogens from untreated water. In addition to water-borne pathogens, minerals and metals can be found in waters downstream from industrial and agricultural operations. The best sources for clean drinking water in a wilderness setting are springs, head-water streams, and collecting morning dew.
Popular modern methods for purifying/treating water include filtering pumps and chemical treatments, such as iodine. These can be efficient and effective solutions if you have access to these items in a survival situation. An herbal treatment is another method in which water may be purified from viruses and bacteria. Grapefruit seed extract is sold as a water purifier, although there is some debate on whether or not it is one hundred percent effective. The most widely used and proven method for safely purifying water is boiling. Bringing water to a boil and allowing it to continue to boil for 2-3 minutes will kill bacteria and viruses.
By maintaining a level attitude, creating a shelter, and obtaining clean water, a person can successfully survive for many weeks.
Number 4: Fire
Even though it is not directly a survival need, fire is one of the most useful basic survival skills. It can help warm your body or your shelter, dry your clothes, boil your water, and cook your food. Also, fire can provide psychological support in a survival situation, creating a sense of security and safety.
Ideally, when traveling in the wilderness, it is best to carry multiple fire-starting tools, such as a lighter, matches, flint and steel, etc… Even with these implements starting a fire can be challenging in inclement weather. We highly recommend practicing fire starting in different weather conditions within different habitats. Good fire-making skills are invaluable. If you were to find yourself in a situation without a modern fire-making implement, fire by friction is the most effective primitive technique. Popular friction fire-making methods include bow drill, hand drill, fire plow, and fire saw.
Learn how to build a fire using the bow and drill friction fire technique.
Number 5: Food
You might be surprised to see food so low on the basic survival skills priorities list, though we can survive for much longer without it as compared with shelter and water. Remember “The Rule of Threes”: humans can survive without food for roughly 3 weeks (though I'm sure you would not want to go that long without food!). Thankfully, most natural environments are filled with a variety of items that can meet our nutritional needs. Wild plants often provide the most readily available foods, though insects and small wild game can also support our dietary needs in a survival situation.
Here are a few plants which are abundant throughout North America:
Cattail: known as the “supermarket of the swamp”, the roots, shoots, and pollen heads can be eaten
Conifers: the inner bark, known as the cambium, is full of sugars, starches and calories, and can be eaten on most evergreen, cone-bearing trees [except for Yew, which is poisonous]
Grasses: the juices from the leaves can provide nutrition, and the root corm can be roasted and eaten
Oaks: all acorns can be leached of their bitter tannic acids, and then eaten, providing an excellent source of protein, fats, and calories
Be sure that you properly identify any plant you plan on consuming (using field guides and/or the guidance of an experienced expert). Many plants can be difficult to identify and some edible plants have poisonous look-a-likes. If you cannot identify the plant, do not eat it.
Number 6: Naturalist Skills
The more you know about nature, the better you will be able to survive in the outdoors. To be great at wilderness survival, beyond the basic survival skills, requires an in-depth understanding of a variety of nature skills. For example, wildlife tracking skills allow one to effectively locate wild game for food, and knowledge of herbal medicine allows one to heal illnesses with wild plants. Especially for the situation where you may choose to purposefully practice survival living for a lengthened period of time, naturalist knowledge is absolutely invaluable.
All of our hunter–gatherer ancestors had classification systems for living organisms, knew their names, understood their uses, recognized how they inter-related to each other, and were aware of exactly how to utilize those resources in a sustainable fashion. This knowledge was at the foundation of their ability to thrive within the natural environment.
For even the recreational wilderness skills practitioner, a basic knowledge of the natural sciences (such as botany, ecology, geology, etc…) can be very useful and enriching. A great place to start is by purchasing the relevant plant and animal field guides for your region. These resources can help you begin to identify species and understand how they relate.
Now, with these six keys to basic survival skills, you are well on your way to thriving in the outdoors!
The Alderleaf Wilderness Certification Program
Wilderness Survival Series
Wilderness Survival Skills Intensive
Wilderness Survival Weekend Course
Survival Stone Tools Class
Wooden Bow Making Course
Survival Knots, Cordage & Lashings Class
Survival Trapping & Tracking Course
Wilderness Orienteering & Navigation Class
Survival Nature Awareness Class
Survival Fire Making Skills Class
Return from Basic Survival Skills back to Wilderness Survival Articles