WILDERNESS SURVIVAL SKILLS
Even the most experienced outdoorsman can find themselves suddenly lost in the wilderness. There are several reasons for this, including unfamiliar terrain, bad weather or a lack of visual markers.
Other factors include human psychology. Specifically, I’m talking about the construct of mental-mapping. This is a 25-cent term used to describe how the brain tracks its environment.
When you are in terrain that is hilly, meandering or densely populated with trees, it doesn’t take much for your hippocampus to become overloaded with information.
When this happens, a deep sense of confusion, blanketed with anxiety, can quickly take over. If you happen to be hiking alone, these feelings can become compounded.
Survival Skill 1: Remain Calm
You’re lost. It happens. Maybe on your way back to the trail from the water point you mixed up your turns. Maybe the trail is barely recognizable as it is. Maybe you just picked a hike that was way over your head because you wanted to push yourself.
Now you’re here and you’re not sure where here is. If you are alone, or with someone else who is equally lost, this can cause a sudden flood of uncertainty and panic.
Step 1 is to calm down, take a deep breath, and think through the moment logically. The absolute best way to do this is through the mindful technique of situational awareness.
Once you are centered, it’s time to settle in and try to get noticed.
Survival Skill 2: Fix Yourself
The second step depends on your current condition. If you’re hurt, fix it and get yourself as mobile as possible. Every outdoor retailer in existence carries some kind of portable first aid kit.
Always boost them up before you go with extra band aids, moleskin for blisters, and OTC medicines for pain, colds, and digestive troubles.
If it’s hot, pack rehydration salts to avoid those pesky headaches and muscle cramps.
Survival Skill 3: Get Covered
If you’re lost in a remote area, a shelter will separate you from the elements. If you carried a tent with you, then consider yourself lucky.
If not, your only limit is your determination and the tools at your disposal.
Look at what is on your person. Did you layer yourself with extra clothing? Do you pack anything in your duffel bag that can be used for protection against the elements?
When it comes to surviving, it’s all about creativity.
Speaking of survival, you should always have a pocket knife with you when hiking. It’s a necessity for outdoor ventures that ranks right up there with wearing clothes.
If you don’t own one already, there are tons on the market to choose from. A simple, effective and practical cutting tool is made by the folks at Elk Ridge.
Not only does this knife fold and fit firmly into your pocket, it also has a high degree of utility. See Amazon for pricing.
Let’s get back to getting covered.
The most common and easy shelter is the trusty lean-to. Here’s how to build it:
- Tie a cross-beam between 2 trees making sure you have enough space for you and your gear once it’s complete.
- Lay more branches at an angle against the cross beam and tie them into place if you have the spare cord.
- Use smaller branches with greenery and leaves on top of those branches to keep out the wind and the rain. Load up. The more the merrier.
- Incorporate a poncho if you think a storm is imminent to make sure you stay dry. Make sure to tie it off so it doesn’t blow away during the night.
There are a hundred other more advanced shelters that vary depending on your environment and time of year, but let’s start simple.
Survival Skill 4: Get Fed
Finding water and food (in that order) is a lengthy but essential process. There are countless articles and hundreds of survival books describing how to procure these for every environment on Earth.
Hopefully, you have done some research on the area you are traveling and know at least one or two sources of food in the area.
Water is the priority. Dehydration is faster and more debilitating than starving to death. Ideally, you can set up camp near a water source such as a creek bed, a small spring, or a pond.
Running water is best, but beggars can’t be choosers. I also hope you brought a metal cup or a small camping pot because you’re going to need to boil that water for at least 2 minutes before drinking. Add a few minutes to that if the source is particularly unsavory.
Iodine tablets are also great and lightweight, but the taste leaves much to be desired. Filter pumps are handy, but take up a lot of room. Filter straws are a nice compromise, but boiling is best.
Food is energy, and you need the energy to get yourself out of this mess. One of the most common edible plants in the eastern and southern United States and even Southeast Asia is Miner’s Lettuce.
It’s easily identifiable, grows in mass, and can’t be confused with another common plant and poison you like that guy in Into the Wild. Otherwise, there’s the Universal Edibility Test.
Worms and insects are a good source of protein. Grasshoppers and crickets are my personal favorite so long as you remove the heads and legs.
Removing the legs is important because what allows the cricket to make its iconic chirp is a set of barbs which easily become caught in your throat for an unpleasant survival dining experience. It also helps to roast or boil them a bit before eating.
Here’s an extra tip, don’t eat anything with more than six legs. Only in some places in a few circumstances can you eat arachnids. Centipedes/millipedes are also a huge no-no. Best not to take the risk.
Now that you’re satiated, let’s get you warm and rescued.
Survival Skill 5: Build a Fire
Fire is the foundation of civilization. A good fire can be noticed for miles in the right conditions and there are hundreds of ways to build one. The trick is getting it to reflect the fact that you are in trouble. Before we address that, the fire needs to be built.
Hopefully, if you’re camping or hiking you have brought a portable commercially available fire starter. My personal favorite is a combination of “spark wheel” style fire starters for the spark and cotton balls laced with petroleum jelly for the tinder.
Both are lightweight, easy to carry, and you can get dozens of cotton balls into one small plastic bag. They catch fire and hold their flame for a substantial amount of time.
If all you have is what nature provides, that can work too. With some practice, you can have a fire lit using two sticks as quickly as you can with a flint and steel.
- First, get two sticks (one thinner than the other) made from softwoods like cottonwood or pine.
- Strip off their bark with a knife or stone then allow them to dry out on a rock for the day.
- Use your knife to carve out a small indent and channel in the larger stick to allow the tiny embers to easily fall into your tinder.
- Place the end of the thinner stick into the indent and spin the stick back and forth with your palms like you’re trying to stay warm (Use speed rather than force to avoid blisters). Reposition your hands at the top of the thin stick as necessary.
- As soon as a few tiny embers can emit smoke on their own, pour them carefully into your tinder and gently blow on them to get a small flame.
- Place the burning tinder among your kindling of small dry sticks to get it going.
You can also use a bent stick and a string called a bow to spin the thin stick to use less energy. After all, you’re only limited by the resources you carry and carrying a lighter is just easier.
Survival Skill 6: Get Noticed
This is the money-maker. It doesn’t matter how good your fire is or how many crickets you have caught if you don’t get rescued. To that end, you need to signal that you are in distress.
The simplest and most effective forms of rescue signals don’t involve fire. Boring, I know. But thanks to cooperation between Park Ranger Departments,
Search and Rescue, and Military Organizations there are at least six (6) universally understood rescue signals taught to all professional pilots:
- SOS – While SOS is widely understood, sometimes nature doesn’t give you enough noticeable materials to construct it.
- V – A capital V shape indicates that you “require assistance”. It’s easy to make and even easier to remember.
- X – A large X indicates you require medical assistance. While this may not expedite your rescue, it will tell your new best friends that they will need to bring along extra medical equipment when they come and get you.
- Y & N – If a helicopter manages to signal you or speak to you with a loudspeaker, chances are they will try to ask yes or no questions.
In this instance, making your signal logs into a capital Y or N. This will work better than waving your arms frantically and hoping they will correctly interpret your answers.
- -> – If you must move camp, make sure to make a large arrow in your direction of travel. This will also help you if you accidentally find yourself going in circles.
Place the logs in a noticeably unnatural fashion in an open area which will allow them to cast as drastic of a shadow as possible. Set up camp close to the signal if you can.
I always carry a few tealights or small candles which you can light and place along the shape of the signal if you can hear helicopters in the night sky. I know some men who pack at least one or two flares with them as a “just in case”.
Survival Skill 7: Stay Dry
This is more of a quintessential rule you should stick to throughout this entire process. Wet clothes and boots decimate your chances of long-term survival.
Wearing wet clothes in any kind of cold can lead to hypothermia or frostbite. In the heat, wet clothes cause painful chafing and rashes.
Damp boots and socks can cause everything from blisters to trench foot. Your mobility is your greatest survival asset. It’s better to stop and lose an hour than continue walking with damp feet. Take your time, make a fire, and dry off. If you take care of your feet, they’ll get you out alive.
Summing Things Up
Getting lost in the woods can be scary. It’s easy for panic to set in. You can loosen fear’s grip by remembering the 7 tips I’ve offered here.
I highly encourage anyone who will be spending time outdoors to stick a pocket copy of the Outdoor Survival Guide by Skyhorse Publishing.
Seriously, it’s the type of book that could very well save your life.
(2011) Brain Finding May Explain Disoriented Pilots, Astronauts. Welsh, J. Live Science.