Everything You Need to Know About Wilderness Survival

Man in a Shelter Made of Tree Branches

It’s understandable that by watching survival shows on television like Survivor, Alaska: The Last Frontier, Survivorman, or any of the other shows you might see, that surviving out in the wild is pretty easy.

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Guide To Wilderness Survival

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That couldn’t be furthest from the truth. When you are preparing to go out into the wilderness, be it for a camping trip, hunting, or you just want to go hiking, you’re going to want to brush up on you wilderness survival. You’ll never know when something bad will happen and you get lost, or you get hurt.

Person Standing Alone in the Middle of a Forest

We aren’t going to waste time and beat around the bush here because there is a lot of ground to cover. In this extensive article, you’ll find the basic, but essential wilderness survival skills that everyone should know.

The best part of it is you won’t need a wilderness survival merit badge to show that you can hold your own out there in the great unknown—you’ll be able to prove it!

Preparing Yourself For Survival

Before you can start planning on how to survive in the wilderness, you first have to understand that your goal is to survive the situation. It’s understandable that when you’re in a survival situation, you’re going to experience a slew of emotions: anger, anxiety, depression, fear, frustration, guilt and loneliness. Wilderness Survival actually suggests that when you are able to experience these reactions and control them so you can increase the likelihood of surviving.

Lost Survivalist Having a Calm Expression

You might be wondering how that can be. Well, think about it. When you are aware of what you’re feeling, you can be aware of your surroundings. You’ll be more adept to take in the full scope of the situation and be able to react accordingly. You’ll be able to care for yourself and anyone else who may be with you. Here are a few tips that will help you attain that survival attitude that is necessary when you are tasked with surviving in the wilderness.

  • Know Yourself – Through your training, friends, and your family members, you can take some time to learn who you are on the inside. You can build your qualities and develop the necessary traits that will come in handy in a survival situation.
  • Anticipate Your Fears – You shouldn’t act like you aren’t afraid of anything. Start thinking about what would give you the most anxiety if you had to survive on your own. Work on those areas so that you can better deal with them. For example, if you’re afraid of the dark, work on overcoming that.
  • Be Realistic – You shouldn’t think that when you go into a survival situation that everything is going to smell like roses. You should start to anticipate the fact that you are going to experience some hardships.
  • Try to Stay Positive – It’s understandable that you might panic when you’re forced with having to try and survive in the wilderness. However, when you stay positive, it helps boost morale, and it can help you think outside of the box and find things that will help aid your survival that you may not have noticed before.
  • Learn Stress Management Techniques – Along with maintaining a positive attitude, you should learn stress management techniques so you’ll be mentally ready to deal with whatever you may face. Sure, we may not be able to control our environment, but we can control how we react to it.

Packing a Wilderness Survival Kit

If you research wilderness survival, you’re going to get the impression that you should pack a wilderness survival kit. These kits can provide you with just enough tools and supplies that will help you endure the experience of being stranded out in the wilderness.

Gerber Bear Grylls Ultimate Survival Kit Unpacked

Now you might be wondering what you should pack in your survival kit. The Alderleaf Wilderness College points out that your kit may be different when you take into consideration your skill level, where you are traveling, and the time of year. However, these items are the basic components that every wilderness survival kit should include.

The Essentials

These items are some of the most, if not the most important items you should have in your survival kit. Various sites will have their own list, but we feel these four are the things you should definitely make sure you have on hand.

  • Wilderness Survival Knife - Depending on who you ask, the survival knife is going to be the most important wilderness survival tool that you can have in your kit. You’ll want to choose a strong, non-folding knife with a blade that is at least three inches in length. These knives can be used in conjunction with a fire-making kit so you can start a fire. They can also be used to cut down limbs and other materials to build a shelter, but also harvest food.
  • Water Purification System - Water is going to be incredibly important in a survival situation. While you can survive for a couple weeks without food (you’ll be cranky and feel weak, but you’ll still survive), you can only survive a couple days (3 days on average) without anything to drink. It’s important that you bring your own mini water purification system or at the very least a bottle with a filtration straw incorporated into the design. With these tools, you can turn any fresh water source into clean drinking water.
  • Wilderness Survival Shelter - With this, you can choose either a tarp or a full on the tent. If you’re going for the lightest pack possible, you might want to choose a tarp. However, a tent will provide you with protection from the elements, but also from any insects or vermin that might bother you at night.
  • First Aid Kit - One never knows what can happen when you’re out in the middle of nowhere. Gray Wolf Survival suggests that if you are someone who goes out into the wilderness a lot that you become EMT certified. This will give you the skills necessary to treat wounds, setting and immobilizing a broken bone, but also know how to treat things like shock, hypothermia, or heat exhaustion.
Basic Survival Pack with Essentials

Extra Items

The items in this portion of the survival kit list are great (and even important) to have on hand when you’re fleshing out the items you’ll need to include with your wilderness survival gear.

  • Wool Blanket – A wool blanket can keep you warm when the temperatures drop. If you don’t have a survival shelter on hand, but you’re able to build a makeshift shelter from whatever you find in nature, you’ll find that the blanket will be the difference between being too cold to get any sleep to being able to catch some much-needed Zs.
  • Emergency Mylar Thermal Blankets – If you don’t want to have the hefty wool blanket in your pack, you should at least carry this blanket. These blankets can fold up small enough so that they can fit in your first aid kit. Best of all, they are weatherproof and waterproof. They can reflect or retain 90% of your body heat.
  • Flashlight – If you ever have to try surviving in the wilderness at night, you will definitely want a flashlight on hand. If you don’t want to carry one of those heavy Mag-Light and the batteries, you can find a crank flashlight. These flashlights often come with other features such as emergency radio, cell phone charger, seatbelt cutter, compass, and red light flasher.
  • Pocket ChainsawThis tool is great to have if you are in a thick forest and you need to cut down branches for shelter or just to help clear a path.
  • Fire-starting Materials – While you should have some waterproof matches in your kit, you should also know that you can’t always rely on matches alone. You’ll want to have other items ready that will help get a fire going. These include items like a lighter, ferrocerium rod and magnesium, dryer lint or even cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly, Outdoor Life also suggests greasy chips or snacks.
  • Parachute Cord – Most of the time you’ll find parachute cord fashioned into a bracelet, but we recommend that you have a decent amount of rope on hand. The rope can be used to help build a fire via the bow-drill friction method, but it can also help build a shelter, help you climb or prevent you from slipping down a hill.
  • Navigation Items – This includes a compass and map, but if you are willing to spend a little money, you can find navigation systems that fit in your pocket and can be used anywhere. Of course, we also suggest that you understand how to figure out your location just by using the sky
  • Signalling Items – When say signaling items, we mean things like a flare gun, signaling mirrors/lights, whistle, strobe light, or even a two-way communication radio. These items can help rescue parties find you quicker and much easier.
  • Cooking Items – There are some kits on the market that include a pot, a single burner, and utensils. Depending on what you choose to bring with you, these items can take up very little space and weight in your survival kit.
Survival Gear Spread Out on Newspapers

Choosing a Wilderness Survival Shelter

We mentioned that a wilderness survival shelter should be the first thing you pack in your survival kit. They are important for your survival because they can help protect you from the sun, rain, wind, snow, insects, hot or cold weather, and even being seen by enemies. Not only are they important for elemental reasons, but they can play a big role in your sense of well-being and help to make you feel more safe and secure.

Shelter made in a forest with fire inside

In some wilderness survival situations, the need to find shelter will become your top priority, even over finding water or food. One example of this is if you’re caught in a snow storm. If you’re exposed to the frigid temperatures for too long, you’ll become incredibly fatigued and weakened from exhaustion. When you’re exhausted, that positive attitude you’ve worked hard to maintain will be out the window, and that passive, woe-is-me attitude will take over.

Wilderness Survival points out one of the most common mistakes people make when making a wilderness survival shelter is making it too big. The shelter you choose or build should be small enough to hold your body heat, but large enough to keep you safe.

Choosing a Shelter Site

When you realize that you’re in a survival situation and you’re in need of shelter, you should take into consideration what you need at the campsite. Two of the most important things to consider are:

  • Whether there are materials around that are needed to build the shelter you need
  • If the area is large enough for you to lie down comfortably
Basic A-Frame Shelter

Not only should you consider those factors, but you also shouldn't forget tactical situation (if necessary) or put your safety in jeopardy. You should also keep these important things in mind, as well:

  • You are hidden from enemy observation (if applicable)
  • Have escape routes that are camouflaged
  • Is suitable for using your signaling items
  • There is protection against wild animals, but also from natural dangers like falling rocks or trees

Other factors that you’ll want to think about when choosing your shelter location are more environmental than anything else. They include:

  • Avoid areas that are susceptible to flash floods in the foothills
  • Avoid areas that are susceptible to avalanches or rockslides in the mountainous terrain
  • Avoid areas that are susceptible to flooding because water is above the high water mark.

We also want to point out that when you are choosing your campsite, you take into consideration the season in which you are out and about. A site will be drastically different in the summer than in the winter.

Tarp Shelter in a Forest with Fire Next to It

During those cold months, you’ll want to find a spot that’ll keep you protected from the cold temperatures and the harsh wind, but still, have access to a fresh water source and fuel for your fire. Some spots you find in the summer, you’ll want to make sure you’re near water, but also that there aren’t any insect nests nearby, either.

Types of Shelters

Now that you know what to look for when choosing where to set up camp, we should probably discuss what kind of shelters you can choose from. Wilderness Survival has a great breakdown of the types of shelters there are and the materials you’ll need to build each one. For our purposes, we are going to mention the types of shelters from the site:

  • Poncho Lean-To
  • Poncho Tent
  • ​Three Pole Parachute Tepee
  • ​One Pole Parachute Tepee
  • ​No Pole Parachute Tepee
  • ​One Man Shelter
  • ​Parachute Hammock
  • ​Field Expedient Lean-To
  • ​Swamp Bed
  • ​Natural Shelters
  • ​Debris Hut
  • Tree Pit Snow Shelter

Generally, when you are in a survival situation, you will have a tarp and cord in your survival kit. Or you may even have a wilderness survival tent. These are the easiest and most efficient forms of wilderness survival shelters for people who are prepared. However, if you don’t have anything with you, we like Gray Wolf Survival’s recommendation that you at least know how to build a debris shelter.

Wilderness Survival Skills: How to Find Water

Now that you have found a suitable place to set up camp and have constructed your shelter, now it’s time to find water. This is among the first things you have to do because you simply cannot survive unless you have water—especially if the weather is hot. You’re going to lose a lot of water while sweating.

Water Dripping from a Green Plant

Naturally, you’ll want to find a river, creek, or another source of moving water. There you can collect as much water as you can and boil it on fire. Or you can also use your filtration system or even your water bottle with a filtration straw to collect and clean the water. However, if you aren’t able to find one of these bodies of water, the readers of the Wilderness Survival Skills blog talk about how you can find water from plants.

  • Iva from the US says that you can collect dew to drink. If you wake up in the morning and there is dew on the grass, tie a shirt around your leg and walk around. Keep walking until your shirt is wet through. Take it off and then squeeze the water into your bottle.
  • Bianca from California suggests looking for dark green moss, as it contains a lot of water. Squeeze the moss, so it releases its moisture.
  • John from San Antonio says that you can use your survival knife to cut the outer skin of a prickly pear cactus if you are in the desert. Also, you can drink the liquid from inside the red fruit that you’ll find with the cactus.

Wilderness Survival Skills: How to Find Food

Typically when you are planning on going on a hiking trip, you’ll have some kind of nourishment in your pack. However, that bit of food probably isn’t going to last you very long if you’re in a survival situation. When we think about any survival situation, we have to consider how we are going to restore our energy, which is done with food.

What Kind of Animals Are Edible

When you are out in the wilderness, you need to know what things you can and cannot eat. In an ideal survival situation, you would be able to take down the large game so that you’ll have an ample supply of food. However, unless you’re a skilled hunter and you have the tools necessary to do that, you should focus on capturing smaller animals, simply because there are far more of them. Not only are there more of them, but they are easier to prepare.

Survivalist Cooking a Fish on a Fire

Wilderness Survival reminds us that there are going to be poisonous things out there, so you should be familiar with what they are; but, generally speaking, you can eat anything that swims, walks, crawls, or flies.

  • Insects – Everywhere you look, you’re going to find some kind of insect. Did you know that insects can give you 65 to 80% more protein than beef? Avoid insects that will sting or bite, hair or brightly colored bugs, caterpillars, and any insects that have a strong smell.
  • Worms – Worms are also another great source of protein. You can find them in mounds of damp soil or on the top of the ground after it rains. When you do catch a few worms, put them into a clean source of water, as they’ll clean themselves out naturally so you can eat them as is.
  • Crustaceans – If you’re fortunate enough to be around a source of water, you may be able to find crustaceans like freshwater shrimp and crayfish. If you’re by salt water, you may have luck finding lobsters, crabs, and shrimp anywhere from the edge of the surf to about 10 meters deep.
  • Mollusks – This includes clams, mussels, bivalves, sea urchins, periwinkles, chitons, and even snails and barnacles. Two words of caution about eating mollusks: mussels might be poisonous if you are in a tropical zone during the summer, and you should never eat any shellfish if they aren’t submerged underwater during high tide.
  • Fish – Fish are an excellent source of both protein and fat. They tend to be more plentiful than small mammals. You’ll have better luck catching fish when you know their habits, such as feeding heavily right before a storm and they are attracted to light at night.
  • Amphibians – Frogs and salamanders tend to be plentiful right around any bodies of fresh water. If they sense danger, they’ll dive into the water and bury themselves in any debris or mud. Avoid brightly colored frogs, as they are poisonous.
  • Reptiles – If you’re going for reptiles, you’re mainly going after turtles. Reptiles you’ll want to avoid include box turtles, hawksbill turtle, poisonous snakes, alligators, crocodiles, as well as large sea turtles.
  • Birds – You can eat all types of birds, but the flavor will be different between each one.
  • Mammals – All mammals are edible, however, the larger the animal, the more challenging it will be to capture and kill it.
Fish Trapped in a Primitive Funnel Fish Trap

Wilderness Survival Skills: Using Traps to Catch Food

There are a couple of ways that you can catch your food. You can use traps and snares for catching small game. It’s important that when you do decide to use these tools, you must:

  • Familiarize yourself with the habits typical of small animals that you want to capture.
  • Be able to build an effective trap
  • Work stealthily as not to alert other animals that you are around.

Unfortunately, there isn’t one trap that can be used to capture all animals. You have to look at the environment and take stock of the surroundings to see what animals are present. You’ll want to look for:

  • Runs and trails
  • Animal tracks
  • Animal droppings
  • Chewed up vegetation
  • Nesting or roosting sites
  • Feeding and watering areas.
Bird Tracks in Mud

When you understand what kind of animals are in the area, you can then prepare a trap that is most effective to catch that animal. Wilderness Survival Skills has a comprehensible guide on how to trap animals.

Wilderness Survival Skills: Understanding How Plants Can Aid Your Survival

When you’ve secured a stable campsite, found a source of water, and maybe even set up a few traps to catch some food, you still want to go out and forage the area around for edible plants. You can’t always count on catching something in your traps, no matter how well they are constructed.

Nature can be an excellent provider of food, especially when that’s all you have in a wilderness survival situation. When you go out looking for plants to eat, you need to know what is poisonous and what isn’t. It is important that before you go out into the wild, you know the different types of flora in the region where you are going to be exploring.

A woman is collecting mushrooms in the woods

You’ll want to know what plants you can eat, what can supply you with materials to use for weapons, building shelters, and build fuels. You can also learn what plants have chemicals in them that can poison fish, preserve animal hide, and also provide excellent cover for your gear and yourself.

Wilderness Survival Skills: How to Signal For Help

When we find ourselves in a survival situation, we want to do our best to find our way to civilization (or at least where other people are), or we want to signal for help. Just like with other wilderness survival tactics, you will want to practice what you learn enough before you actually need it. By practicing the skills, you learn, you’ll be more confident in putting your knowledge to use.

1. Visual Signals

If you are using visual signals when signaling for help, you should choose a signaling spot that is close to where you set up camp with a good vantage point. This can be a clearing, a hilltop, or even a lakeshore. Consider things like if there is going to be a search for you, and if there is, will it be air or land. When you take these into consideration, you can better choose the spot where you set up your signaling equipment.

2. SOS Signal

The SOS, or Save Our Souls, the signal is the international signal that you are in distress. Not only should adventurers or hikers be familiar with this signal, but everyone should. This signal can be transmitted both by visual signals as well as audio. The code for it is three short signals, 3 long signals, and three short signals. You’ll want to pause for a few moments and then start again.

SOS with Dots and Dashes

The SOS signal can be created on the ground for air search by using materials like rocks or logs and actually spell out SOS. If you are trying to create a visual signal at night, use your flashlight or strobe light and point it at the sky.

If you cannot produce the SOS signal with a light, typically it is understood that any signal repeated three times can be a distress signal as well.

3. Signal Fires

When you’re trying to signal for help, a fire is your best bet, especially at night. The flames can be seen at night, and the smoke can be seen during the day from afar. If this is the method you plan on using, you’ll want to build three fires either in a row or in a triangle. You’ll want to have about 100 feet in between the fires. Three fires are recognized as a distress signal, no matter where you are.

4. Signal Mirror

Signal mirrors are great devices when you’re stranded out in on a sunny day. However, if you don’t have a mirror, you can also use a polished canteen, your glasses, belt buckle, or anything else that is reflective.

The flash can be seen at great distances, so you’ll want to sweep the horizon during the day. If a plane is approaching, you don’t want to shoot the beam of sunlight into the cockpit for more than a few seconds at a time, as you could blind the pilot!


As easy as some of those wilderness survival shows make surviving in the wild, it can actually be quite scary if you aren’t prepared. We hope that the information you’ve learned in this wilderness survival guide will give you enough basic information to help you prepare.

Woman Survivalist Starting Fire

We recommend that even if you aren’t a weekend warrior or someone who enjoys hiking as a past time, you have a survival kit in the back of your car at all times. You’ll never know if and when you’ll have an emergency and you’ll be stranded in a remote area with no cell reception. It’s always a good idea to play it safe than to be sorry, right?

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