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Seven Essential Survival Skills Everyone Should Know

Being lost in the woods or stranded on an island is more likely for some people, such as avid off-road mountain bikers or die-hard adventure seekers. But there is a chance that anyone -- not just actors on TV but real people too -- could find themselves in these situations.

(Really, it's not that hard to take a wrong turn and find yourself in the middle of nowhere, not sure which direction is home -- just ask the Florida jogger who recently spent four days lost in swamplands when he took a wrong turn!)

survival tips

Send these seven essential survival tips to everyone you know who loves the great outdoors.

If you do find yourself stuck in the woods, on an island or in any other precarious, outdoor situation, knowing the following skills will be essential to your survival (and they're things that everyone can do).

1. Find Clean Water

People can survive weeks without food but only a few days without water, so securing a safe drinking water source is one of the first things you'll need to do. If you are near a river, lake or stream, you have a water source but will need to purify it before drinking (unless you know the water is clean). Due to their high salinity, salt water sources are NOT safe to drink, even after purifying.

You can filter your water by passing it through a sock or shirt (or this handy survival filter made from birch bark and gravel) to remove sediment and such, but this does not mean the water is safe to drink. It could still contain:

  • Parasitic worms

  • Bacteria

  • Viruses

  • Chemicals

To purify the water, you'll need to boil it for at least several minutes. NOTE: Chemicals can still exist in water after boiling. To remove chemicals you need special water purification tablets.

If you are having trouble finding water in the first place, set up containers (even curved pieces of bark) to catch rainwater and morning dew.

Condensation can be collected by digging a hole in the soil, placing a collection container inside, then covering it with a piece of cloth, secured with rocks. Place a pebble in the center. Condensation will form underneath the tarp and run toward the center, dripping into your collection container. Water collected in this way (along with rainwater) is already pure and doesn't require boiling before drinking.

2. Build a Fire

You will need a fire to stay warm in the evening (and during the day, if you're in a cold region), to cook food, and to purify water. The easiest ways to create fire when you're in the wilderness are to use waterproof matches or a lighter on some fine tinder. If you're stuck without either of these, try these methods:

  • Be sure to build the fire on a rocky or sandy area so the surrounding ground does not catch fire.

  • If you have a magnifying glass, allow the sun to pass through it, focusing on a pile of tinder (this can be dry grass, paper, lint, dry bark, etc.), which will smoke and then spark. Gradually add larger pieces of bark until the fire grows.

  • If you're in a cold area, you can use a clear piece of flat ice, shaped by scraping onto a rock or melting it with your hands, in place of the magnifying glass.

3. Find/Build a Shelter

Caves, rock formations and low-hanging tree limbs can all provide shelter, but if none of these are available you'll need to build your own. Ideally, build it in a place that is dry, flat, stable and easy to be seen by rescuers.

The general rules for building a shelter are to keep it small, just slightly taller than you when you sit, to keep in warmth. You will need to secure a framework using long sticks, then cover the framework with debris: evergreen branches, palm fronds, leaves, grass, small sticks, anything you can find.

Also remember to put a layer of insulation over the ground so you won't lose heat by sleeping on a cold surface. For more details, has step-by-step instructions on how to build a debris hut or lean-to shelter.

4. Find Food

Eventually, you will need to find something to eat to survive (but remember you can survive for weeks on water alone). There will likely be plenty of plants and berries around that might look tempting, but some may be extremely poisonous. As a result, you can ONLY eat wild plants and berries that you KNOW are 100 percent safe to eat. Some wild plants and berries that are safe are dandelions, orange day lilies, violets, currants and common berries like blueberries, blackberries and strawberries.

If you are in an extreme survival situation, the U.S. Army Survival Manual states that ants, termites, beetles, and grubs are excellent protein sources. You can also try to catch small animals and fish (sharpen a stick into a spear to fish in shallow waters, or use a thorn or carved wood hook and vine for line fishing), but be sure to cook them before eating to kill any parasites.

survival tips

If you find a trail, there's a good chance someone will be by to help. If not, signal for help using fire and smoke, a whistle or a piece of glass or other reflective material to reflect sunlight.

5. Signal for Help

Assuming you don't have a cell phone, two-way radio or whistle, you will need to figure out how to make sure a search party can find you. First, position yourself where you think rescuers will be looking, and where they can easily spot you (a hilltop, clearing, beach, etc.), then stay put.

Some excellent signaling devices are smoke from a fire, a flashlight or a magnifying glass, piece of ice, glass, shell or other reflective material used to reflect sunlight beams.

6. Navigate So You Don't Walk in Circles

It's easy to lose your bearings in a wilderness situation and end up walking in circles. If you know no search party is looking for you and you must move on (if rescuers are coming, you're better off staying put), use these tips to ensure you're walking from point A to point B, rather than in a circle:

  • Find two landmarks ahead of you and line them up so you're walking toward them. Then, find two landmarks behind you and keep them lined up.

  • Make sure a constant wind is directed at the same part of your body, and take notice if the wind direction changes.

7. Stay Calm and Motivated

Succumbing to panic is one of the worst things you can do when stranded. You need to think clearly, size up the situation and make rational decisions (none of which are possible while panicking). You also need to stay motivated to survive. Think of family and friends, and rescuers on their way to find you, and don't give up.

For more survival skills and tips to thrive in the wilderness, check out the source links below.

Recommended Reading

The 5 Great National Parks Almost No One Knows About

Five of America's Most Dangerous Wild Animals -- How to Beware!


Wilderness Survival Skills for Safe Wilderness Travel

The Ultralight Backpacking Site

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