Bear Grylls might be able to walk across the road to a McDonald’s when production gets too difficult, but were things not so peachy, you get the feeling he’d be just fine without it. That’s because despite sometimes misrepresenting it, Grylls and other celebrity survivalists have put years of effort into becoming skilled outdoorsmen and women, understanding their surroundings and how to cope in difficult situations.
Would you have the skills to stay alive, keep your wits about you and find a resolution that leads you back to civilization if you were faced with a survival challenge? It’s no easy feat. To be competent at self-preservation, you’ll need a selection of well-honed survival skills. Here are a few places to put your focus.
1. Get Fit
Even though we don’t necessarily think of physical fitness as a “wilderness” survival skill, it’s certainly a survival skill. Keeping yourself healthy is just a necessary part of surviving the stress of our modern world. You don’t have to be into trail running and mountain biking to get the benefit of being fit if you find yourself in a challenging situation, although it might make you feel more comfortable if you’ve spent some time outdoors.
Survival situations often arise out of confusion or misinformation. You read a map wrong and lead yourself several miles off of the trail. The weather turns and you can’t get oriented. A vehicle breaks down, leaving you stranded with little knowledge of how to get home. Physical stamina is important in these situations where getting back might mean stretching yourself beyond your comfort zone.
Strengthening your body to withstand putting a foot wrong while hiking a rocky trail or endure carrying your heavy bike back 10 miles after a flat tire will truly increase your chance of survival. In fact, there are full exercise routines developed with the idea in mind of becoming more resilient in wilderness situations. These exercises will prepare you for physical tasks and help you develop the mental toughness required to effectively navigate such trying situations.
2. Stay Mindful
Speaking of mental toughness, it might be the single most important component to resolving a wilderness survival situation in good condition. When something goes wrong while you’re outdoors, the last thing you want to do is panic. Making hasty decisions or judgment calls without having all the information you need — or when you’re in a traumatized state of mind — can cause the situation to escalate rapidly. Instead, you need to remain calm and have the presence of mind to determine the best course of action.
Wilderness College calls this technique SPEAR, for stop, plan, execute, assess and re-evaluate. Regardless of how you help yourself remember it, keeping your head on straight and not panicking in a wilderness situation is the best way to prolong your survival. The human body is capable of incredible feats, but if you panic, your brain will turn you into your own worst enemy. There could be other people relying on you in a survival situation too, so be sure that you’re capable of making clear-headed decisions to find the best outcome.
3. Practice Building and Finding Shelter
Depending on your locale, the conditions associated with your survival challenge could vary dramatically. You might face blowing winds, extreme cold, flooding or debilitating heat. You might have to deal with a combination of weather conditions or the presence of predatory animals. In all of these situations, you’ll need to understand how to protect yourself from the elements and potentially from animals as well.
Many types of terrain lend themselves well to making shelter. Heavily wooded areas can provide you with tree boughs to build a lean-to, and in the snow, you can dig yourself a cave to preserve body heat. That said, other locales aren’t so benevolent. In a more desolate area, you might need to huddle up against a prominent rock or terrain feature to shield yourself from sun and wind. Remember that as a basic rule, you always want to stay “high and dry.”
It can be fun to practice building shelter. The next time you’re in the wilderness, set some time aside and see what you come up with. Consider whether your makeshift shelter would helpful in a real survival situation, and how you might refine it. It’s more fun to practice it when you aren’t relying on the structure to keep you alive.
4. Figure out How to Get Potable Water
Thirst is one of the quickest killers when someone is stranded in the wilderness, which is why you need to understand how to find or make safe drinking water very well to maximize your chances of survival.
Of course, if you have a means of filtering, chemically treating or boiling water, that’s a reliable method of purifying it for drinking. However, that might not be realistic in some scenarios. Look for fast-moving water that’s clear to the eye — the higher the elevation, the better. If you’re not able to find good-looking water in a river or stream, you might need to resort to collecting water using other means.
In all but the most arid climates, you can create a moisture trap to collect water in the mornings if you have access to a large piece of plastic, which could mean salvaging something you have on you. Plants are another good source to forage for water. Many trees can be tapped for sap with high water content, and some even produce leaves or fruit that can be consumed for small quantities of water. You’ll want to study up on these options, as recognizing them could save your life.
5. Build Your Ability to Forage for Food
We’ll discuss hunting for food shortly, but it’s not safe to rely on the presence of game to provide sustenance. You need a method of finding reliable nutrition, even if it’s little by little. Most wilderness areas have some form of edible plants available, but you’ve got to know how to recognize them.
Nutrient-rich nuts and seeds provide a great caloric value relative to the effort required to find them if you can recognize the plants that grow them. Edible fruits and berries are also a great source of calories but be sure that you know how to recognize those that are safe to eat.
In addition to plant-based foods, insects and bird’s eggs can contribute protein and fat to your diet while you’re surviving in the wild, and they shouldn’t be ruled out. You can learn how to harvest large numbers of insects using some basic techniques. The key to enjoying a fresh bird’s egg is to know where to find nests, so you’ll need to be well-versed in the types of bird life in the area and where they like to lay eggs. Once your foraging skills are well-developed, you can move on to more proactive methods of finding food.
6. Improve Your Shooting Skills
Having access to a firearm when you’re in a survival situation can be a game-changer. Guns are a great tool for self-defense and for hunting food, but chances are, you didn’t bring an unlimited supply of ammunition with you on your journey into the wilderness, so you should plan ahead and practice your shooting to make every shot count.
If you have a choice when you’re traveling into the wilderness, a shotgun or rifle will afford you a better means of hunting food than a handgun. When you’re practicing your shotgun marksmanship, remember that shooting clay pigeons and trap will help build your coordination to allow you to hit birds on the wing. Rifles are best for larger game such as deer and elk. Just make sure that if you’re going to hunt any animal that you have an idea of how to break down your kill — it’s not good to waste anything when you’re in a survival situation.
Since wild animals aren’t likely to walk right out into the open to provide you with an easy meal, it’s a good idea to learn some basic tracking skills to complement your marksmanship. Without an understanding of how animals move in the brush, what signs to look for and how to know if you’ve scored a hit, it’s going to be much more difficult to find food.
7. Learn to Make Fire
Heat for warmth, light and the ability to cook food all rely on your ability to make fire — unless you’ve lucked out and gotten lost with a camping stove. Basic fire-building skills are an essential component to any survivalists’ repertoire and can safely be practiced and developed on a family camping trip or solo outing in a more controlled environment.
Many backpackers have learned to carry fire starting “kits” consisting of a flint and steel and/or some lightweight kindling. Some people even use corn chips — the grease makes them easy to light, and they can be eaten in emergencies!
Perfecting your fire-making can be fun, and with time, you can learn advanced techniques that will make you a more competent outdoorsman, such as how to create a fire in the snow or rain. It might sound impossible, but it’s not — you just have to know what you’re doing. Making it through a cold night without fire can be miserable, so it’s a good skill to have.
8. Master Basic Fishing Techniques
Like shooting, if you’re stranded with a functional fishing rod and reel, you’re in luck. However, unlike with shooting, you can go fishing using only the things you can find around you if need be. Granted, this tip assumes you’re in an area with fish. It’s best to head up in elevation to find lakes and streams with the best chance of fish being present.
The most basic technique of hand-lining fish can be performed with very basic equipment. All you need is a sturdy thread and a hook that can be fashioned from some tough plant matter, but this process might not be the most productive method of fishing. Instead, consider learning how to build a fish trap. A trap and basic spear will afford you a much better chance at eating well than attempting to hand-line from the shores of a wild lake or stream.
9. Work on the Best Ways to Clean and Cook Food
If you do have the good fortune to successfully catch or shoot a meal, you’ll need to know how to prepare it. There’s a whole lot that goes on between the ranch and the grocery store that most people don’t typically know how to emulate. In the wilderness, there’s no one there to process the kill for you. Hopefully you’ve got a good knife available, as one will be required for much of the game you’ll have the opportunity to hunt in a survival situation.
You should learn how to suspend and drain blood from a fresh kill, how to remove entrails and how to skin a carcass so that you can break down the kill and prepare small portions of meat. Fish are slightly simpler than large game. Begin by removing scales, then make an opening along the fish’s belly and scrape out all of the internal organs.
If your fire-making skills are good, you can smoke smaller portions of meat. It’s also possible to create a basic spit and roast larger portions. A grill plate is a wonderful complement to a kit that will open the door to many lovely wilderness meals, but it’s not something you can plan on always having with you.
10. Get Outside!
There’s no replacement for real-world experience. We’re not saying you should go and get lost all the time. Practice safety first, bring friends and tell people where you’re going, but the more time you spend in the outdoors, the more comfortable you’ll be. Experience will help ensure that you don’t end up in a bad situation going forward.
All of this information is meant to help you navigate a difficult situation, but ultimately, we go outdoors because it’s enjoyable. So put the work in to be prepared, but do it also to get the wonderful benefits of being in nature. Do you have a favorite survival story or skill-building technique? Let us know in the comments below!
Note: This was a guest post.