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General Rules of Surviving in the Wild

Updated on August 13, 2013

Be it a camping trip gone wrong, a hunting trip misfortune or a road trip which includes a broken down vehicle, you might find yourself separated from the rest of your group, in the middle of nowhere, with little or no survival equipment and no apparent way of finding your way back. The good news is you are not the first person (and definitely not going to be the last person) to be in such a position and just like others that survived before you (some of them against all odds), you can survive this as well. The bad news is it is probably not going to be easy; you may have to walk for days without any food or water, sleep in uncomfortable positions, come across wild animals and more. Here are some general rules and guidelines to follow that can turn the odds a little bit in your favor.

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Things to Do Before the Trip

There are certain things you can do even before you start your trip that will improve your situation in case such a misfortune happens to you.

First of all, you should make sure to let some friend or family member know that you are going on a trip. Tell them where you are going, what you plan to do (like camping, hiking, mountaineering etc.) and most importantly, when you are supposed to be back. This way, if you are not back on time, someone knows that you are missing and if necessary, they can alert the authorities to initiate a search and rescue.

It is also a good idea to be prepared against equipment malfunction. For example, a GPS is a great tool for finding your way but if that is your only means of doing so, what would you do in case it runs out of battery or looses signal or has some other sort of malfunction? A guidebook or a simple map, on the other hand, will never malfunction. So while you are packing for your trip, keep in mind that technology can fail and be prepared.

Finally, doing a quick research on what to expect on your trip could be very helpful. For example, if you are going on a camping trip, what kind of weather should you expect that time of year? What kind of wildlife lives in the area? Where is the nearest body of water? Is there anything specific to the area that you should be aware of? In the world of twenty years ago, finding an answer to each of these questions would be time consuming, but today, with the power of internet at our disposal, it will not take more than a few minutes of our time.

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Having the Right Mental Attitude

The psychological aspect of being in a survival situation should not be underestimated. You have to stay focused, be determined and not give up no matter how bad the situation looks. Stay calm and try not to panic. Panicking will only lead to poor decisions. If you feel that you are panicking, sit down, take a deep breath and try to clear your mind.

One method for keeping your mind straight and maintaining a relatively good mood is constantly coming up with small tasks that will keep you busy. It could be gathering firewood to build a fire, or collecting large leaves and sticks to build or improve a shelter, or looking for new sources of drinking water. Anything that keeps you busy will keep gloomy thoughts away from your mind and help lift your spirits.

You might also have to keep reminding yourself why you should keep going and not give up. It could be to reunite with your loved ones. It could be to see the sequel to that movie you like so much. It could even be to not to give the satisfaction to people who don't like you. A famous survival story tells of a man who, despite doing all the wrong things, survived an extremely difficult ordeal. When asked what kept him going, he replied it was simply because he didn't want his (soon to be ex) wife to get everything.

So if you ever find yourself in a situation where you need to hang on for your life, remember that while lots of people in such situations perished simply because they gave up; others, despite being under much worse conditions, made miraculous recoveries because they kept going.

Uses of a Shelter

In a survival situation, a shelter will:

  • keep you dry when it rains,
  • keep the wind out,
  • protect you from the wild animals (to some extend),
  • give you the sense of security so you can fall a sleep easily and get better rested,
  • keep you busy so that you have something to do besides worrying.

Shelter

When you have about an hour or so of daylight left, you should put everything aside and start thinking about securing a shelter. A common delusion for people who are lost in the wilderness is that it always seems to them as if behind those trees will be their campsite or over the hill are their friends waiting for them or just a little further and they will be back to the path that will take them home; so instead of building a shelter or lighting a fire, they keep walking around. As a result, they find themselves in the middle of a forest or a desert or an equally inhospitable environment with nowhere to rest or sleep. Now there is no choice but to spend a miserable night because when it is pitch black, it is impossible to build a shelter or gather firewood to build a fire.

Before moving on to building a shelter, you might want to check if there are any ready-made shelters that you can use, such as caves or hollow tree trunks. If you can find one of these, you will be relieved from the burden of building one yourself. Just beware that wild animals tend to use such places as nests, so you should be extra careful. Furthermore, if you smell anything foul such as urine or feces, you should probably stay out because droppings of wild animals (especially bats) are known to carry diseases.

If you can't find any ready-made shelter, then you have to build one yourself. First, you need to choose a good spot for your shelter. You should look for a nice, level spot that is as dry as possible and is not infected with insects, reptiles, poisonous plants etc. It is nice to have a source of water nearby, however, don't build your shelter right next to a body of water such as a lake or a river if you don't want to find your shelter underwater during a high tide. When choosing a location for your shelter, also keep in mind that you need to be able to spot possible rescue efforts including search and rescue aircraft and even more importantly, they should be able to see you.

The kind of shelter to build depends on many factors, such as the kind of materials and tools that are available to you, how long you intend to use the shelter, whether heavy rain is expected during the night, etc. If you are only going to spend the night and heavy rain is not expected in your area, then there is no need to build something very elaborate, a simple lean-to should be enough. If, on the other hand, you intend to stay in that shelter until you are rescued, you will probably want to build something bigger. If you are expecting a lot of rainfall, you should build a strong roof. If there is a lot of wind, you should reinforce the sides. If you are in a region where it gets extremely cold, you might want to build a shelter with proper ventilation so that you can have a fire inside your shelter (be very careful not to burn your shelter down though).

In a forest or a similar environment, it is usually not a very good idea to sleep directly on the ground. You should try to build an elevated platform to sleep on or find vines that could be used to form a crude hammock which will get you off the ground. Climbing on a tree to sleep is not recommended for the obvious reasons.

Uses of Fire

In a survival situation, a fire will:

  • keep you warm,
  • dry your clothes,
  • boil your water,
  • cook your food,
  • keep wild animals away,
  • provide light,
  • improve your mood,
  • keep you busy so that you have something to do besides worrying.

Fire

When it is about to get dark, you should prepare to start a fire. This includes gathering firewood and finding tinder. According to survival expert Les Stroud, people usually underestimate the necessary amount of firewood by a factor of five; so when you think you have enough firewood, multiply that amount by five.

If you have a lighter or some matches, then it is relatively easy to start a fire but even if you don't, there are various methods of starting a fire without any lighter or matches; such as using flint and steel, a magnifying glass or shorting a battery. Most well known of these methods is to rub two sticks together, called fire by friction. A detailed explanation of this method would be beyond the scope of this article, but the general principle is to create ember by rubbing the sticks together and transfer that ember to your tinder, at which point you should gently blow onto your tinder bundle until it ignites. It is important for the sticks to be bone dry, otherwise you will have a hard time of creating ember. This method, however, takes a lot of patience and practice. It is a good idea to practice this during a camping trip when there is nothing better to do.

If you have little daylight left and don't have any lighter or matches, you might want to choose between building a shelter and getting a fire going. In some situations, like if you need to dry your clothes or boil water, a fire would be more useful. If, on the other hand, you are located in an area which gets a lot of rain, you should go for the shelter since the rain will put out any fire that you may succeed in building, not to mention it would be very hard to find dry wood in such an environment to begin with.

Effects of Dehydration

Upon losing up to 5% of body fluids, the following effects are common:

  • Thirst
  • Weakness
  • Nausea
  • Irritability
  • Impaired judgement
  • Dry skin
  • Rapid hearth rate

If up to 10% of body fluids are lost, one experiences the following:

  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Tingling in limbs
  • Loss of ability to walk and speak clearly
  • Change in skin color
  • Blurred vision
  • Decreased urine volume
  • Abnormally dark urine

Losing up to 15% of body fluids will lead to:

  • Impaired vision and hearing
  • Swollen tongue
  • Sunken eyes
  • Painful urination
  • Signs of delirium

Losing more than 15% of body fluids usually results in death.

Food and Water

As most people are used to eating three times a day and drinking plenty of water, one might be worried about finding food and water in a survival situation. Fortunately, it is not as urgent as you would think. Under non-extreme conditions, a healthy individual can go for days without any water and for weeks without any food. Still, finding a good source of drinking water and some food is always a major component of surviving in the wild.

Between food and water, the latter is definitely the more crucial resource. You should find a source of drinking water the first chance you get. If a standing body of water such as a lake is your only option to obtain water, you should find a way to purify it before drinking. Running water will generally be much cleaner, but if you have the means, it is a good idea to purify water from a running source as well.

There are different methods for purifying water. The easiest method is boiling. For this method, a container and a fire is all that is required. As a container, a small pot or a kettle is ideal. Empty food cans or aluminum beverage containers can also be used for the same purpose. If a metal container is not available, water can also be boiled in plastic containers such as plastic water bottles. Hang the container in a distance from the fire where the container will not be in direct contact with the fire but will still receive most of the heat. Plastic containers might deform and bend but they will not melt away as long as there is water inside. If it is not possible to hang the container over the fire, another way of boiling water is by dropping heated rocks into the water. You need to heat the rocks over the fire, drop them inside the water and put them back on the fire after the rocks transfer most of the heat to the water. It is going to take a while to boil water with this method, be patient. To kill all the microbes and parasites, water should be boiled for at least 10 minutes.

Another method of purifying water is by using chemicals. Most common chemicals used for this purpose are iodine and household bleach. Hydrogen peroxide, potassium permanganate and stabilized oxygen can also be used. If you happen to have a survival kit with you, water purification tablets are usually included in these kits.

Chemical
Amount
Notes
Iodine
12 drops per gallon
Double the amount if the water is cloudy
Bleach
8 drops per gallon
Let stand for 30 minutes after application
Hydrogen Peroxide
7-10 drops per gallon
 
Stabilized Oxygen
20 drops per gallon
 
Potassium Permanganate
11-13 crystals per gallon
Has other uses in addition to water purification, such as starting fires
A list of chemicals that can be used to purify water.

Drinking urine for rehydration is not recommended. Not only it won't do much in terms of hydration, it will actually dehydrate the body faster because of its high salt content. Some people argue that a small amount of urine may be consumed, not to rehydrate the body but for the psychological edge; after all, survival is as much a psychological challenge as it is a physical one. However, there is no agreement if the benefits of this practice outweigh the disadvantages.

Effects of Starvation

  • Weigh loss
  • Weakness
  • Diarrhea
  • Anemia
  • Apathy
  • Listlessness
  • Lowered body temperature
  • Extreme sensitivity to cold
  • Difficulty with mental concentration
  • Swelling from fluid under skin

After finding a steady source of water, you should try to find some food. While it is clear that food is not as important as water in a survival situation, it doesn't mean that food is not important at all. Without the necessary nutrients, you will have less energy, your mood will suffer and eventually your willingness to survive will decrease.

Hunting for food is a no brainer if you happen to have the right equipment on you, but if you don't, it is extremely difficult with improvised gear. As an alternative, you should consider trapping. Though it requires some technical knowledge, building a trap requires less energy compared to hunting and it has the advantage that it does not require any supervision once it is set. To increase your chances of catching something, you should prepare several traps and place these in locations where there is evidence of animal presence. If you have any food, you can use some of it as a bait. Though the details of how to set one is beyond the scope of this article, different types of traps such as snares, deadfalls or pitfalls can be built using little or no equipment.

You should also look for food that is easy to acquire. If there is a body of water such as a lake, river or sea, that is probably your best bet for finding easy food. Look for crabs, shrimp, frogs, turtles and of course, fish. In addition to these, you can eat most insects, worms, grubs and larvae. As repulsive as it may sound, they are full of proteins and other nutrients your body needs.

Collecting wild edibles is another way of getting nutrients into the body, however, extreme caution must be exercised before eating anything collected from the wild. For every plant that is safe to eat, there are probably a thousand plants that will upset your stomach, make you ill or even kill you. You should not eat anything found in the wilderness unless you can clearly identify the plant and you are 100% sure that it is edible. This is especially true for mushrooms.

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Signaling for Rescue

If people are aware that you are missing, they will probably be looking for you. However, depending on the environment, it may be extremely difficult for the rescuers to spot you. There are a lot of stories where people in need of rescue could hear or even see the rescuers, but were not rescued simply because they were not spotted by the rescuers. Therefore, you must make every effort to reveal your location to the search and rescue crew.

A fire is useful for this purpose, but just simply having a fire may not do the job. Smoke from a fire may be ignored by pilots because from a distance, light colored smoke looks just like water vapor, which is not a very uncommon sight in nature. To attract attention, add lots of green vegetation to your fire, which will generate a thick black smoke. Doing so may also lead people to think that there is a wildfire and cause them to take action, in which case you will be rescued even if people were not looking for you.

The problem with a signal fire is that you have to either keep it burning, or have everything ready so that you can light it quickly if you notice someone in the area. If you are caught unprepared, however, it usually takes a long time to start a fire from scratch; at least long enough for the rescuers to leave before spotting you. In such a situation, mirrors can be used to signal the rescuers. This is accomplished by reflecting the sun's rays back to the rescuers so that they will know someone is in the area. In addition to mirrors, CD's, polished metals or anything with a reflective surface can be used. All you need to do is to point the mirror in the direction you want to signal and constantly move the mirror to increase the chances of being spotted. This is a fast, easy and effective way of signaling for rescue.

Another way of sending distress signals it to arrange rocks or other material in a way that can be spotted form a distance. For this method to work, your material has to contrast the background. You can arrange rocks in the shape of a giant X, which is an internationally recognized sign for help. If you have a lot of material and time on your hand, you can even spell out a giant SOS or HELP, just make sure it is large enough to be noticed from a great distance, especially from the air.

A List of Useful Objects

Object
Usage
Shoelaces
Tying up things
Mirrors
Signaling
Batteries
Creating sparks to start a fire
Magnets
Making a compass
Empty Food or Beverage Cans
Boiling water, melting snow or ice
Empty Plastic Bottles
Transporting water, can also be used to boil water
Hard Liquor
Cleaning wounds (just for the surrounding area, do not pour directly onto the wound)
Salt
Disinfectant
Napkin
Tinder for fire
Plastic Bags
Waterproofing shelters, making solar stills

Improvising Equipment

If you were lost, if your car broke down or ran out of gas, or if you got out of a crashed aircraft and found yourself in the middle of the wilderness, you probably won't have a lot of survival equipment on you. In such a situation, it is important to be able to make use of anything you can find, such as things that you were carrying on your person or things that can be found in the area. This is where you need to use a lot of creativity and imagination.

In such a situation, you usually have no idea how long it will be before you found your way back to civilization. Therefore, things that are normally regarded as trash can actually be valuable resources. Think twice before throwing anything away.

If you have a broken down vehicle, the general rule is to stay with your vehicle. There are many reasons for this. First of all, chances of your vehicle being spotted by search and rescue crew or other passersby is higher. Another reason is that your vehicle provides a natural shelter which is usually much more protective and comfortable than anything you can build without proper equipment. Your car also holds a large amount of tools and things that can be used as tools.

In some cases, usually when the area has no water or if the chances of being rescued is very low for whatever reason, you might have to leave your car behind and move to a better place. If this is the case, make sure that you take anything that can be useful along with you. This usually means damaging your car, sometimes beyond any repair so don't do this if there is any chance of getting your car to run again. This may be a difficult decision to make, since some people have emotional attachments to their cars, but think of this way: A car can always be replaced but if you lose your life, how can you replace that?

In addition to the tools you might be carrying in your car, you can use electric cables and seat belts to tie things up, mirrors to signal, hubcaps to carry fire around or to boil water in and fuel to start fires. If your car has run out of fuel, some cloth may still absorb the fumes in your gas tank and ignite. You can also look for things to be used as water containers under the hood (make sure that it won't poison you though). If the area is covered under snow, you can use foam or other insulating material found within the seats of your car to protect yourself against frostbite. To do this, wrap a large chunk of this material around your feet, wrap the seat cushion over that and tie using ropes or cables. The thicker the material, the better you are protected against frostbite and the longer you can walk.

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Suggested Reading

If you are interested in learning more about survival techniques, there are a number of books written on the subject. The book titled "Survive!: Essential Skills and Tactics to Get You Out of Anywhere - Alive" by Les Stroud, who is a survival expert and the creator of the TV show "Survivorman", is a good book for beginners. It covers everything you read in this article in great detail, along with things that were left out such as detailed instructions for building fires and setting traps.

In addition to reading this book, watching the show "Survivorman" by the same Les Stroud can also be very helpful. You will be able to see in action most of the things discussed in the book, almost like a video version of the book. Every episode takes place in a different environment (such as a desert, jungle, swamp etc.) and Les Stroud demonstrates how one can survive in such an environment for 7 days, with very limited equipment and without any assistance from the outside world. A lot of people who were stranded in the elements reported that things they have learned watching Survivorman were extremely helpful.

Another TV show that focuses on survival under tough conditions is Discovery Channel's "I Shouldn't be Alive". Instead of survival experts, this show features stories of everyday people who had to go through life threatening ordeals and how they managed to survive. In addition to learning survival tips and tricks, watching people overcome situations which seem impossible to get out alive will sure be helpful for someone who got caught in a similar situation.

Summary

To increase your chances of survival, you should:

  • make sure to inform someone of your plans before the trip, especially when you are supposed to be back,
  • be prepared against equipment malfunction, have a back-up plan if possible,
  • do a quick research about the area you are planning to visit,
  • remain calm and not panic when you are lost,
  • not give up no matter how bad the situation looks,
  • make sure to build either a shelter or a fire when it is about to get dark, preferably both,
  • find a supply of water as soon as possible, make sure to purify it properly before drinking it,
  • not drink your urine to rehydrate,
  • try to get some nutrients in your system without taking any risks of poisoning yourself,
  • make sure to be visible to search and rescue crew, signal for help if necessary,
  • make use of any available material, find creative ways to use things that looks useless,
  • stay with your vehicle unless you have a very good reason not to,
  • educate yourself about survival techniques by reading books or watching TV shows.

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  • ozgur profile image
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    Ozgur Evren 4 years ago from Yalova, Turkey

    Thank you...

  • profile image

    jkhosa 4 years ago

    Very informative article.

  • ozgur profile image
    Author

    Ozgur Evren 4 years ago from Yalova, Turkey

    Thank you very much. That's what I was shooting for.

  • Highvoltagewriter profile image

    William Benner 4 years ago from Savannah GA.

    Great hub on survival, I have studies survival tactics for years and you have all the basics here.