Getting a grip on some fundamental survival techniques is a must for outdoor enthusiasts. We will scare you with stastics later but the fact is that everything we do has risks and it’s our responsibility to learn to handle them as best as we can. We owe it to ourselves, our loved ones, and to the random stranger we encounter who is in trouble. This blog post is your starting block for eight key survival skills that are perfect for novices aiming to navigate the great outdoors with confidence.
Before we get started let me share a little bit about us. We both grew up in flyover backcountry middle America. We grew up hunting, fishing, camping, and hiking. This makes us more comfortable outdoors than many people, and it used to make us overconfident. Before we started taking our outdoors education seriously we often unknowingly put ourselves at needless risk. Out of sheer ignorance we often went on short (2-3 hour) day hikes in new areas with minimal preparation or supplies. It’s only dumb luck that nothing bad ever happened to us.
Thankfully you are reading this so you’re doing better than we were. This post will cover the 8 wilderness survival skills you need at a minimum. We will also give you some great resources to learn more. So, let’s jump right in with some key takeaways and scary stats.
- Most of us aren’t as prepared or educated on survival basics as we should be.
- Always bring the 10 survival essentials when going hiking or camping.
- Understand the survival rule of three.
- Know the S.T.O.P Method and use it if you should find yourself lost or turned around.
- Always make sure someone knows your plans, and when you expect to be back.
- Consider investing in a ZOLEO Satellite Communicator for emergency SOS alerting.
Why We Should All Take Basic Survival Training
The scary fact is that every outing has a chance of turning into a survival situation. Between 1992 and 2007, there were over 65,000 search and rescue (SAR) incidents, involving nearly 78,500 people in the US National Parks (1). Sadly, 2,659 of these ended in fatalities. Hiking was the top activity needing SAR help (48%), and also led to the most deaths (22.8%). This shows how crucial wilderness survival training is. Many of those rescues took place on well maintained and popular trails.
We’re not sharing these statistics to scare you. Our goal is to convey that these things happen pretty frequently, and can happen to anyone. All it takes is a change in the weather, a slip, or missing a trail marker. While we naturally assume that short day hikes are safe, the reality is that they aren’t. Luckily a little bit of training and preparedness can greatly improve your odds and speed up your rescue.
We Are Not As Prepared As We Think We Are
It appears that while many Americans are enthusiastic about venturing into the wilderness, a significant portion might not be adequately prepared with the necessary survival skills. A study highlighted by Chris Melore (2) suggests that although the average American believes they can survive for 16 days alone in the wilderness, only 17% feel very confident in their ability to start a fire with flint, and just 14% are confident in their ability to identify edible plants or berries in nature.
Further emphasizing the lack of preparedness, The Survival University points out that nearly 20% of search and rescue missions are due to individuals venturing into the wilderness unprepared, lacking the skills or gear required for their activities (3). This is why we recommending always bringing your pack with more than enough food and water, the 10 survival essentials, and a hiking first aid kit.
These findings indicate a gap between people’s confidence in their wilderness survival abilities and their actual preparedness and skill level. It underscores the importance of proper preparation and education before undertaking wilderness adventures to ensure safety and reduce the risk of emergencies.
The 8 Critical Wilderness Survival Skills In order of importance
1. Mental Resilience
This is first because it’s the keystone of wilderness survival, often tipping the scales in challenging situations. It’s not just about the physical ability to build shelters or start fires; the psychological strength to remain calm, think clearly, and keep pushing forward, even when things seem bleak, is what often saves lives. In survival situations, where circumstances can shift dramatically, mental resilience helps you adapt, make sound decisions, and maintain hope. It’s about managing fear and stress, keeping a positive attitude, and drawing on inner strength to tackle obstacles head-on.
Videos on Mental Resilience
2. Building a Shelter
Finding a suitable location and setting up a shelter is usually going to be your first priority in survival situations. A shelter’s primary role is to maintain your core body temperature, preventing hypothermia or heatstroke—two common and serious risks in survival situations. It also provides a psychological boost, offering a sense of security and a place to rest, which can be incredibly valuable when energy and morale are low. If you don’t have a shelter in your pack the survival trainings we recommend in this post will cover building a simple one.
You should be carrying an emergency survival shelter in your pack since it’s part of the 10 essentials. They aren’t suitable for long-term use but will keep you warm and dry in an emergency. The 2 person Go Time Gear Life Tent is what we carry. Even though it’s a 2-person tent we both carry one. This is just in case one gets damaged or lost or in case we get seperated. In survival situations you are never going to regret having extra supplies.
Videos on Survival Shelters
3. Starting a Fire
The ability to start a fire in the wilderness is a fundamental survival skill with a many important benefits. Fire serves as a source of warmth, which is essential in preventing hypothermia, especially in cold environments. It can dry wet clothing and gear, it provides comfort and security, and you can boil water to purify it. Fire can also be a powerful tool for signaling for help. In a rescue scenario, the smoke and light from a fire can be seen from great distances, increasing the chances of being spotted by rescuers, especially at night or in open areas.
To start a fire, one must understand the basic requirements: a heat source (like matches, lighters, or friction-based methods), tinder (small, easily ignitable materials), kindling (small sticks and twigs that catch fire from the tinder), and fuel (larger pieces of wood that will burn for an extended period). Mastering various fire-starting methods and being able to adapt to the available resources in different environments is key to leveraging fire’s life-saving benefits in the wilderness.
Videos on Starting a Fire
4. First Aid
Basic first aid knowledge is essential in wilderness survival when medical help isn’t going to arrive soon. Understanding how to address minor injuries and emergencies can prevent situations from worsening and provide vital support until further assistance is available. We recommend that everyone takes a First Aid and CPR class. You can find one near you on the American Red Cross website. You should also carry a first aid manual in your kit for reference. If you don’t have a hiking first aid kit we have a guide on putting one together yourself.
The Scout's Guide to Wilderness Survival and First Aid: 400 Essential Skills―Signal for Help, Build a Shelter, Emergency Response, Treat Wounds, Stay ... Product of the Boy Scouts of America®
Videos on Survival First Aid
5. Signaling for Help
Signaling for help is a critical component of wilderness survival, especially in situations where you are lost, injured, or in danger. Being able to effectively signal for rescue can greatly increase your chances of being found and receiving the help you need. Your kit should include an emergency whistle and signal mirror at a minimum. Bright clothing, flashing lights, shouting, and banging sticks or rocks will all help. Remember that three of any signal is a universally recognized distress signal.
Videos on Signaling for Rescue
6. Finding and Purifying Water
Finding and purifying water is a critical survival skill in the wilderness, as staying hydrated is essential for maintaining your health and strength. Remember that according to the Rule of Three you can only last a few days without water. Finding a source of drinkable water will be critical if you aren’t found quickly. For that reason we recommend carrying a water filter in your pack. The LifeStraw water filters are reliable, easy to use, last a long time, and are very affordable.
Videos on Finding Water
7. Food Foraging
This one is nearly last because in most emergency situations you won’t need it. You can last about 3 weeks without food and you should be rescued before then. If you do find yourself in a situation where foraging for food is important there are several skills that can help. The most helpful is having the ability to identify edible plants that you find as you go. Of course this is very dependent on the area you are in so we recommend packing a guide book. Never eat anything unless you are very sure it’s safe. The other critical skill is the ability to set simple snares and traps to catch small game. Those two skills should be enough to hold you over until rescue arrives.
Edible Wild Plants: A North American Field Guide to Over 200 Natural Foods. With all the plants conveniently organized by season, enthusiasts will find it very simple to locate and identify their desired ingredients. Each entry includes images, plus facts on the plant’s habitat, physical properties, harvesting, preparation, and poisonous look-alikes. The introduction contains tempting recipes and there’s a quick-reference seasonal key for each plant.
Videos on Foraging for Food
Learning to navigate in the wilderness using a compass and/or landmarks is a fundamental outdoor skill that can keep you on track. This traditional method doesn’t rely on technology, making it reliable even in remote areas where electronic devices might fail. Of the 8 critical skills this is the one that you would be excused for not learning. As long as you aren’t in danger staying put and signaling for help is almost always the best strategy for getting rescued.
Videos on Survival Navigation
Basic Survival Training Resources
Running this website and being interested in survival we come across a lot of resources and links related to survival training. While we can’t share them all we will be sharing as many as possible, especially free resources. You should bookmark this page for future reference.
Free Training Classes
- Virginia Tech Webinar: Wilderness Rescues and Being Prepared: A Systems Approach
- Free Online Bushcraft Survival Course - Only costs an email address
- Free eCourses from Wilderness Awareness School - They offer several free courses including one on wilderness survival.
- Les Stroud aka Survivorman - A goldmine of survival information if you have a couple years to watch it all.
- The Grey Bearded Green Beret - Former Army Ranger and Green Beret with a great teaching style.
- Coalcracker Bushcraft - Lots of survival skills mixed in with some cool bushcrafting videos.
Websites and Articles
Paid Training Classes
- REI Survival Classes & Events - Some of these are free but they are in-person so availability depends on your location.
- Survival Med Online Outdoor First Aid & Safety Basics - The only virtual outdoor first aid class we recommend.
- Wilderness Survival and Awareness on Udemy - Highly rated, seems to cover the basics, and priced right. We haven’t taken it but it looks good.
Books and Audiobooks (from Amazon)
You may want to check your local library to see if they can get any of these in for you. They might also have access to the audiobooks.
- The Essential Skills of Wilderness Survival: A Guide to Shelter, Water, Fire, Food, Navigation, and Survival Kits by Jason Knight - If we could only recommend one book this would probably be it.
- The Official U.S. Army Survival Manual - A very complete guide to survival.
- The Ultimate Survival Medicine Guide: Emergency Preparedness for ANY Disaster - Covers much more than you will need for wilderness survival but worth it if your interested.
- Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why by Laurence Gonzales
- The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes - and Why by Amanda Ripley
You don’t have to become Bear Grylls or Les Stroud unless that’s something that interests you. Thanks to the internet, you can get the basic skills and knowledge for free at home. The 8 skills we discussed above will provide a solid foundation that will go a long way to getting you back home alive. So, never forget to bring your 10 Essentials, and first aid kit and be careful out there. We look forward to meeting you on the trail someday.
Heggie, Travis W. and Michael E. Amundson. “Dead men walking: search and rescue in US National Parks.” Wilderness Environ. Med., vol. Fall;20, no. 3, 2009, pp. 244-9, doi:10.1580/08-WEME-OR-299R.1.
Melore, Chris. “Average Person Thinks They Can Survive for 2 Weeks in the Wilderness – But Most Can’t Start a Fire.” Study Finds, 24 May 2021, studyfinds.org/average-person-survival-skills-wilderness/.
Marsteiner, Jason. “Americans Are Heading Out Into The Wilderness… Unprepared.” The Survival University, 30 Dec 2018, thesurvivaluniversity.com/americans-are-heading-out-into-the-wilderness-unprepared/.
Neumann, R. J., et al. “The impact of physical fitness on resilience to modern life stress and the mediating role of general self-efficacy.” Eur. Arch. Psychiatry Clin. Neurosci., vol. 272, no. 4, 1 June 2022, pp. 679-92, doi:10.1007/s00406-021-01338-9.
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By Summer and Bill
Summer and Bill are the dynamic duo behind Adventureite.com, a blog dedicated to inspiring others to explore the great outdoors. With a combined lifetime of experience traveling and adventuring across America, they have a wealth of knowledge to share. From hiking to camping, kayaking to travel, Summer and Bill are passionate about helping others discover the beauty of the natural world.