Basic Wilderness Survival Techniques

Survival in the wilderness requires preparation, knowledge, and the appropriate mindset. Whether you're an expert adventurer or a newbie exploring the great outdoors, understanding basic wilderness survival techniques can make a significant difference.

Planning and Preparation 

Preparation is the cornerstone of survival. It includes:

  • Researching the area, you will be visiting
  • Learning about the possible dangers
  • Preparing a checklist of essential items

The golden rule of survival is always to let someone know where you're going and when you expect to return. Always remember the value of a good plan.

Prioritizing Survival Needs

The 'Rule of Threes' is a fundamental concept in survival:

  • Three minutes without air
  • Three hours without shelter in extreme conditions
  • Three days without water
  • Three weeks without food

The order of these items represents their priority. Shelter protects against harsh weather conditions. Water keeps the body hydrated, and food provides the energy required to keep going.

Building a Shelter

Knowing how to build a shelter is one of the most fundamental aspects of surviving in the wilderness. A shelter can protect you from the elements, keep you warm, and offer a place to rest and recuperate.

To build a basic shelter, you need to understand a few fundamental principles:

  1. Location: Choose a spot that's dry, flat, and relatively free from hazards like falling branches or rising water. It should also be near a good source of materials like branches, leaves, and grass.
  2. Insulation: Your shelter should have some insulation to protect you from cold ground or wind. This can be leaves, grass, or even your extra clothes.
  3. Structure: The simplest and quickest shelter to build is a lean-to. Start by finding a robust and horizontal branch or rock for support. Then lean stems against it, creating a sloping wall. Cover this with smaller branches and then a layer of leaves and grass for insulation.
  4. Entrance: Ensure the access to your shelter is small to preserve heat. It should also be facing away from the wind.

Remember, building a shelter can take time and energy. Therefore, if you anticipate being in the wilderness overnight, build your shelter well before darkness falls.

Finding Water

In a survival situation, finding a reliable source of drinkable water is a top priority. Therefore, knowing where to look and how to make the water safe to drink is essential.

Consider the following when searching for water:

  1. Natural sources: Streams, rivers, and lakes can be good water sources. Be aware. However, that surface water like this is often contaminated and should be purified before drinking.
  2. Collect rainwater: This is usually a safe and easy method to obtain water. You can collect rainwater in any clean container or even your mouth.
  3. Morning dew: This can be collected by tying a cloth around your ankles, walking through grass or bushes early in the morning, and then wringing the water out of the fabric.
  4. Transpiration: This method involves tying a plastic bag around a leafy branch of a non-poisonous tree. The water that transpires from the leaves will condense inside the bag. This method can yield a small amount of drinkable water.

Once you have sourced water, making it safe to drink is crucial. Boiling is the safest method to make water safe to drink. Let the water boil for at least sixty seconds which should kill most pathogens.

Related Resource: Finding and Purifying Water in the Wilderness

Building a Fire

Fire is one of the crucial elements in survival. It provides warmth, light, a way to cook food, purify water, and can be a signal for rescue. Knowledge of how to build a fire in the wilderness is a crucial skill.

Follow these steps to build a fire:

  1. Prepare the Site: Choose a spot sheltered from the wind, with no overhanging branches. Clear the area of dry leaves and twigs that could catch fire.
  2. Collect Materials: Gather three types of materials: tinder (small, light material that burns quickly, like dried grass or cotton balls), kindling (small sticks and twigs), and fuel (larger pieces of wood). Always gather more material than you think you'll need.
  3. Lay the Fire: Start by laying a small fuel in your fire pit. Then, add kindling in a teepee shape over the tinder. Once your fire is going strong, gradually add larger pieces of wood.
  4. Light the Fire: Using a match, lighter, or a fire starter, light the tinder. Gently blow on the fire to give it more oxygen and help it spread to the kindling.
  5. Maintain the Fire: Once the fire burns well, keep adding fuel to maintain it. Prepare a bucket of water or dirt nearby to extinguish the fire quickly.

Remember, always practice fire safety. Always make sure your fire is out before leaving it unattended.

Finding Food

In a wilderness survival situation, finding food is essential for sustaining your energy and ensuring your long-term survival. While it's crucial to prioritize water and shelter, knowing how to find food can significantly improve your chances of making it through challenging circumstances.

Consider the following methods for finding food in the wilderness:

  1. Foraging: Learn to identify edible plants and berries in your surroundings. Carry a guidebook or consult reputable online resources to familiarize yourself with safe and edible options. Be cautious and avoid any plants you need clarification on.
  2. Fishing: If you're near a water source that contains fish, learning basic fishing techniques can provide a reliable food source. Construct simple fishing gear using hooks, lines, and natural bait, or craft a makeshift fishing net from available materials.
  3. Trapping: Set up traps or snares to catch small game such as rabbits or squirrels. Research different trapping methods beforehand and ensure you know local regulations and ethical considerations.
  4. Hunting: If you have the necessary skills and resources, hunting can provide a substantial food supply. However, hunting requires knowledge of local wildlife, proper weaponry, and adherence to hunting laws and regulations.
  5. Insects and Invertebrates: Insects and other invertebrates can serve as a valuable food source—research which insects are safe to consume in your region and learn how to prepare them properly.

Remember, exercising caution and making informed decisions when foraging or hunting for food is crucial. Be aware of your safety, avoid poisonous plants and animals, and respect your environment.

Related Resource: Edible Wild Plants: A North American Field Guide

Navigation Skills

Having reliable navigation skills is crucial in a wilderness survival situation to find your way, locate resources, and increase your chances of rescue.

Here are some essential navigation techniques to help you stay on track:

  1. Map Reading: Learn how to read topographic maps and understand the symbols and contours used to represent the terrain. Familiarize yourself with map scales, legends, and grid references to accurately pinpoint your location.
  2. Compass Usage: Master using a compass to determine the direction and orient yourself with the surrounding landscape. Understand the different parts of a compass, such as the needle and the bezel, and learn how to take accurate bearings and follow a specific heading.
  3. Landmark Identification: Train yourself to identify prominent landmarks in the wilderness, such as mountains, rivers, or distinctive trees. These landmarks can serve as reference points and help you navigate more effectively.
  4. Sun and Stars: Learn basic celestial navigation techniques using the sun and stars as reference points. Understanding the sun's movement throughout the day and the patterns of stars at night can provide valuable directional information.
  5. Trail Markers: Pay attention to trail markers and signs if you follow established trails. These can guide you along the designated route and prevent you from getting lost.
  6. Natural Navigation: Develop the ability to observe and interpret natural signs and indicators. This includes reading vegetation patterns, observing water flow, and recognizing animal tracks or paths.

Remember to practice your navigation skills in various terrains and weather conditions to enhance your proficiency. Bring a map, compass, and other navigation tools whenever venturing into the wilderness.

Related Resource: Basic Wilderness Navigation Techniques

First Aid Skills

Knowing basic first aid skills can be invaluable in a wilderness survival situation where medical assistance may be limited or unavailable. Administering appropriate first aid can help stabilize injuries and potentially save lives. Here are some essential first-aid skills to learn:

  1. CPR (Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation): CPR is a life-saving technique used to help someone who is breathless or whose heart has stopped. Training in CPR equips you with the skills to do chest compressions and rescue breaths until professional medical help arrives.
  2. Wound Management: Understanding how to clean and dress wounds can prevent infection and promote healing. Learn how to identify the severity of an injury, control bleeding by applying direct pressure, and dress the wound appropriately to protect it from further contamination.
  3. Fracture and Sprain Care: Knowing how to recognize and provide initial care for fractures and sprains is essential. Immobilizing the injured area using splints or improvised materials can help reduce pain and prevent further damage.
  4. Burn Treatment: Learn how to identify the severity of a burn and administer appropriate first aid. Cool the burn with running water, cover it with a clean cloth, and relieve pain when possible.
  5. Heat and Cold-Related Injuries: Understand the signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion, heatstroke, hypothermia, and frostbite. Learn how to prevent and manage these conditions in the wilderness.
  6. Allergic Reactions: Familiarize yourself with the signs of allergic reactions, including anaphylaxis. Learn how to administer an epinephrine auto-injector (if available) and provide basic care for allergic symptoms.

It's crucial to undertake formal first aid training and receive certification to understand these skills better. Regularly refreshing your knowledge and practicing scenarios can help you retain these essential first-aid skills.

Related Resource: Wilderness First Aid Basics


Q: How can I learn wilderness survival skills?

 A: Wilderness survival skills can be learned through various resources, including survival training programs, books, and online courses.

Q: What are some essential items for wilderness survival? 

A: Essential items include a first aid kit, water purification tablets, a multi-tool, a fire starter, a compass, a map, a flashlight, and a whistle.

Q: How important is shelter in survival situations?

 A: Shelter is crucial as it protects against weather conditions and helps retain body heat.

Q: How can I ensure water is safe to drink? 

A: Water can be purified by boiling, using purification tablets, or a portable water filter.

Q: What to do if I got lost?

 A: If lost, try to retrace your steps, use navigation tools, and stay calm. If you can't find your way, stay put and signal for help.


In conclusion, mastering basic wilderness survival techniques is vital for anyone venturing into the great outdoors. By understanding shelter building, fire starting, water procurement, navigation, food foraging, emergency signaling, and rescue methods, you will have a higher chance of survival in the wilderness.

Remember, preparation and practice are essential. Familiarize yourself with these techniques, acquire the necessary tools and knowledge, and always inform someone about your plans before embarking on any wilderness adventure to stay prepared and safe and enjoy the incredible wonders of the natural world.