7 Wilderness Survival Skills That Everyone Should Know

Wilderness Survival Skills

Here’s the truth:

Survival skills are crucial to making it out of the wilderness alive.

Without the right skills, you stand little chance of making it out in the rough.

It’s crucial that everyone who takes part in outdoor activities learns at least a few necessary survival skills. You could be hiking along a trail, camping in the woods, or kayaking down a river and get yourself into an unexpected survival situation when things go wrong.

If you don’t have the skills, the chances of you making it out alive are much slimmer.

Whether you’re new to wilderness survival or looking for new skills to add to your skill set, everyone has something to learn from this article.

The Most Important Survival Skill: Mindset & Attitude

This may not have been what you were expecting at first, but managing your mindset and attitude is extremely important in survival situations.

In survival situations, your mind can be your own worst enemy.

One great example of this was when Les Stroud was surviving in the Australian outback.

At one point during the show, Les had set up near a small oasis where he had shelter, access to water, and plenty of food through crawfish and grubs inside of tree bark.

Les even noted how good he had it there, but noted that he saw an area on the horizon that could be more promising.

So, he loaded up a can he had with smoldering cow manure so he could take his fire with him, and set off towards the location.

After a few hours of walking, Les arrived at the location and was let down with the resources available.

The grass he saw there was less numerous than he anticipated, meaning there was much less water and next to no readily available food to be found.

After realizing his mistake, Les talked to the camera and noted how he messed up and let his mind get the better of him. At his previous location, he had everything needed to sustain himself until he could be rescued.

But his new location forced him to stay the night and begin moving to a new location the following morning.

dense green forest foliage

In short, this can be summed in a few wise words: the grass is always greener on the other side of the pasture.

If Les had stayed put and realized how good he had it, his chances of surviving long enough to be rescued were much better.

Of course, part of the reason he moved was likely for the show, as he needs to keep the episode entertaining. But it’s also easy to see how someone in a similar situation would try and move to a more promising area, only to worsen their situation.

Looking at this scenario, we can see just how a good control over your mindset and attitude can significantly boost your chance of survival.

How Do You Practice Maintaining a Better Survival Mindset & Attitude?

The trouble comes in actually training and applying this skill.

When you’re hungry and desperate to make it home safely, you can make very irrational decisions.

Like any skill, the best way to get better at it is to practice, practice, practice.

Now, I’m not saying you should get yourself lost in the wilderness and starve yourself.

Instead, you should practice assessing your mindset and attitude whenever you’re out in the wilderness.

Practice mindfulness by paying attention to how you’re reacting to your situation. Take note of your situation by noting any sources of food, water, and shelter that you have. Ask yourself if you can survive here for an extended period.

Similar to how you get better at making fires by actually making fires, you can get better at controlling your mindset and attitude by observing how you think about your situation and evaluating your mindset from several different angles on a regular basis.

Tied for the Most Important Survival Skill: Sourcing Clean Drinking Water

Being able to source clean drinking water is just as (if not more) important as a useful survival mindset. Clean drinking water is the most critical and urgent resource that you must find to survive in the wilderness.

Health experts recommend going no longer than 48 hours without water; however, in some circumstances, people can last up to a week without any clean drinking water.

Although it is possible to survive more than 48 hours without water, any length of time without water past 48 hours though will leave you much less effective.

water stream

Being able to source clean drinking water is an absolute necessity.

By sourcing drinking water, I don’t mean finding bottles of perfectly clean drinking water laying around either.

Chances are, you’re going to need to find a suitable source of water and process it so that it will be safe to drink.

How to Source Safe Drinking Water

The best way to practice safe drinking water is to learn several methods and go try them out for yourself. Here’s an article I wrote about the different methods of purifying water in the wild.

I have a few favorite methods of sourcing safe drinking water. I’ll list them out and go over the pros and cons of each.

Boiling Your Drinking Water

The most straightforward and conventional method of sourcing clean drinking water that I know of is boiling your drinking water to kill any bacteria and parasites in it.

This method is excellent because you’ll likely already have a fire going and hopefully will have some container that you can boil water in, such as a pot or metal canteen.

If you don’t have a container you can boil water in; unfortunately, you won’t be able to use this method.

There’s two ways you can go about boiling your water.

The first way to is place your container over the fire and wait for your water to heat up and boil. This works fine if your container is fireproof and won’t break down as a result of getting hot.

The second way is to heat up rocks in the fire and then place them in a container of water to boil it. This method works great when you don’t have a fire proof container but can still boil water.

For this method, it’s also important that you choose rocks that won’t explode when put in the fire. Any porous rocks are a no go in this case.

Boiling your drinking water doesn’t always work, however. If your water is filled with toxic elements, you can’t boil those away.

Boiling drinking water also doesn’t directly make saltwater safe to drink, although it is possible to make saltwater safe with boiling by collecting the steam that comes off it (more below).

Evaporating Water to Make It Safe to Drink

Another way to get safe drinking water is to evaporate water to make safe to drink.

This method works because when water evaporates, only the water molecules will evaporate, leaving all minerals, parasites and bacteria behind.

The key here is to have some sort of plastic (ideally clear) to collect the evaporated water.

There are several ways to construct a water evaporator, but the easiest is to dig a hole in the ground, place your container of water inside it, and place your piece of plastic over the hole. If your plastic is clear, the sun will heat up the water and make it evaporate faster.

Another way you can do this is to set up your piece of plastic sort of like a lean-to over your fire. When you boil water over the fire, the plastic can collect the steam coming off it. The evaporated water will run down the sloped edge of your plastic, into your container of choice.

The great thing about evaporating water is that purifies saltwater too, unlike just boiling saltwater.

Capturing Rainwater

Capturing rainwater is a great way to source safe drinking water. Rainwater doesn’t have the pollutants, parasites and bacteria that stream water may have.

For this method, all you’ll need is a piece of plastic and a container to hold your water in. Truthfully, you don’t even need these materials either. You can make do with large leaves, a piece of split bamboo to create a channel, and some container to hold your water.

To collect rainwater, setup your collection device on a surface and connect it to your channels, or position it over your collection container if you’re not using a channel. Just make sure you stay dry during the process!

Using Chemical Tablets

Another alternative method to create safe drinking water is by using chemical tablets to purify your water.

Most chemical tablets will use iodine to kill bacteria, viruses and parasites in the water. It won’t remove any solids or toxic elements, but it will create safe drinking water.

One significant benefit of these tablets is that you can purify large amounts of water in one go.

Instead of trying to boil a gallon of water or trying to gather a gallon of evaporated water, you can drop in a tablet, wait 4 hours (to kill Cryptosporidium) and have lots of clean drinking water ready for whenever you need it.

Easy to use on the go and extremely portable, they’re an excellent option for purifying drinking water.

Using a LifeStraw


LifeStraws came onto the survival scene within the past twenty years and quickly became a favorite of many survivalists.

These straws make almost any source of fresh water instantly safe to drink. No boiling, no chemicals, no waiting.

LifeStraws work with small hair-like fibers in the filter that catch bacteria, parasites, and solids that contaminate water.

Once the water passes through the filter within the straws, 99.99% of harmful factors in the water will be extracted, leaving you with clean, fresh water.

These not only work great for survivalists but also as portable water purifiers for people in third world countries. This was their original intended purpose, and the exceptional performance of the LifeStraw made it a hit on the survival market as well.

Setting Up Shelter to Protect Yourself From the Elements

Shelter is another crucial survival skill that you’ll need if you want to increase your chances of survival.

When entering a survival situation, a shelter is one of the first things you should seek, apart from water and food.

A shelter can be the difference between a few hours sleep, and a restless night spent freezing your cheeks off. Not to mention, if its raining you can and you have no shelter…you’re in trouble. Here is an in depth article about determining if a storm is coming

There are four things you should keep in mind when building a shelter:

Keep it away from hazards (dead trees, falling rocks, etc.).

Find a source of insulation to keep yourself separated from the cold ground, air, and rain.

Create a heat source, whether it be your body that heats the shelter or fire.

Build it big enough so that it can fit you, or yourself and other members of your group.

Building shelter is a whole different game, but there are a few proven shelters you can fall back on.

Emergency Tarp Shelters

My favorite shelter is the emergency tarp shelter. These can be set up very quickly, but they require you to have a tarp handy to set one up.

If you want to save the hassle of setting up a tarp shelter I would recommend this pocket sized survival tent from Amazon.

They can protect you from the rain and the beating sun, plus they can quickly come with you when you’re on the move.

Igloo Shelters

Another excellent survival shelter for extreme cold environments is the igloo shelter. Whether you build a standalone igloo or carve yourself a snow cave out of an existing pile of snow depends on your environment.

While not conventional for most people, they indeed work! Temperatures in igloos can range from 16 degrees Fahrenheit to 61 degrees Fahrenheit when heated just by body heat. Not bad at all.

As a bonus, I’ve included a clip from Discovery’s show Dual Survival showing the duo making their igloo ice cave.

Building a Survival Fire

Being able to build a survival fire is a great survival skill.

While it’s not directly related to your survival such as food and water, fire is a handy tool that will make surviving in the wilderness a whole lot easier.

Fire is great for warming you up on cold nights, as well as cooking food, creating light, boiling water to purify it, making specific tools, drying clothes, the list goes on and on.

Fire makes survival much more comfortable and is well worth the effort.

While in a survival situation the type of wood might not matter much. However, if you can, I’d suggest picking dense firewood because it will burn & produce more heat.

How to Build a Survival Fire

When I’m talking about building a survival fire, I’m speaking on the process and structure that makes the foundation for the fire. I’ll get to talking about techniques for starting the fire after this snippet.

When you’re building your fire, you’ll want to gather tinder, kindling and fuel wood. If you’re unfamiliar with the terms, here’s a quick breakdown:

Tinder is small flammable materials like paper, wood chips, pine straw, etc. Ignites easily and serves as the first fuel for the fire.

Kindling is a bit larger than tinder, being small sticks that can burn easily but longer than tinder. Tinder serves as the bridge between tinder and fuel wood.

Fuel wood is more massive logs that burn longer but take longer to ignite. These keep the fire going for long periods of time and also emit large amounts of heat.

You’ll want to stack up a good supply of each of these types of wood. As a general rule, you should get 50% more wood than you think you’d need. You’ll be surprised how fast wood burns when you’re building a fire. Here are some smaller “bushcraft” axes that are great for the job of gather wood.

survival fire

Once you have your wood, there are several different fire structures you can make.

Each one has its benefits and drawbacks. Choose whichever you feel most confident in building and practice it. Knowing how to build one fire structure very well is better than knowing how to build ten different fire structures very poorly.

Here are a few of my favorite survival fire structures.

Traditional Teepee Fire

Teepee fires are the classic fires structure that you’re likely most familiar.

They aren’t the easiest to set up, but they do use the heat efficiently when starting the fire, meaning it’s fast to light and get going.

Log Cabin Fire

Log cabins are very easy to set up, although they do take a little time. Stacking the firewood takes longer than setting up something like a lean-to fire.

You can stack a lot of wood on log cabin fires, meaning they can burn longer. The stacking structure also makes excellent use of the heat, making them easy to get hot and burning once first lit.

Indian Fire Star

Indian fire stars are great fires that you can quickly and easily set up.

One of the benefits of this fire is that it burns for a long time as the fuel is spread out. It’s also great for generating a lot of radiant heat while using less fuel. The spread out structure helps the heat radiate outwards. The coals left behind to leave a significant source of warmth on the ground, heating the entire area around the fire as well.

Lean-to Fire

Lean-to fires are great fires, with their significant advantages being the long burn time and quick setup time.

The simple structure means you can set it up in no time and get your fire started ASAP.

Techniques for Starting a Survival Fire

There are several methods for building a survival fire, each of which can work in a pinch. If you want to make things easy, you can also carry around a lighter (plus a spare) with you in your outdoors pack.

Classic Flint & Steel

The tried and true method is to carry around a piece of flint and steel. These are great for creating hot sparks that can ignite fine tinder, producing the initial heat required to start a fire.

Making Embers With Air Pistons

Another excellent method for starting survival fires is to use an air-piston fire starter. These work by compressing the air inside the piston so rapidly that the air inside heats up enough to smolder the tinder inside.

The Bow Drill Method

One tried and true method that our ancestors have used for thousands of years, such as a bow drill. The bow drill method works by using a bowstring to spin a “drill” rapidly. This rapid spinning creates enough friction on a piece of wood underneath the drill to create a hot ember capable of igniting tinder.

Using a Battery + Steel Wool

One of my favorite more modern methods of starting a survival fire is with a battery and steel wool. Steel wine being so fine makes it easy for a battery to heat up the wire to the point of ignition. This one works especially useful when it’s when outside since the steel wool burns so well.

A Great Trick for Easily Starting Fires

Another great trick to have for starting survival fires is to carry around a couple of alcohol soaked pads. A great place to get these is at restaurants that offer individually packaged sanitizing wipes.

I’ve left a couple in my pocket before, and they were still sealed after going through the washer and dryer, meaning they should have no problem staying sealed in your backpack when you’re on the go.

All it takes is one small spark or a quick flick of a lighter flame, and these will burn HOT, even in the rain. Great way to dry out your tinder and start a fire when wet.

Sourcing Food for Your Survival

Finding food is another crucial survival skill. How you go about sourcing food is dependent on your environment, your situation and what tools you have.

Gathering Edible Plants

If you know what local plants are safe to eat, then you’ll have a greater abundance of food than someone who isn’t as knowledgeable about the local eats.

My advice to you is to source a gathering guide for your local plants to find out what is safe to eat. A gathering guide will show you everything you need to identify the domestic plant life and determine which are safe to eat.

As far getting meat goes, you have a few options.

Trapping Game

The most practical option is to set up traps to catch small game such as rabbits and squirrels. One easy to way setup traps is to use snares which can catch small game as they travel along their trails. If you see an area that it looks like small game have been running along, you can set up a snare and hope to get a lucky catch.

With enough snares, you could acquire yourself a decent amount of meat to cook and eat. Make sure you have a knife on hand and know these survival knife skills.

Setting Up Fishing Lines

Another great way of sourcing meat is to fish for it. Carrying around a fishing rod isn’t ideal, but carrying around fishing line and a set of hooks is easy and a great idea.

Instead of fishing with one line, you can fish with many. Set Up a fishing rig with several baited hooks and leave it for a few hours. Come back later, and you may have yourself some delicious fish to eat for that night’s dinner.

Here is a DIY guide to cooking fish in the wild.

Learning How to Signal for Rescue

When you’re in a survival situation, your ultimate goal is to seek rescue.

You can know every survival skill in the book, but if no one knows where you are, there’s a slim chance you’ll make it home anytime soon.

There are many ways to signal for survival, some of which can be done with natural resources around you, others require you to bring some gear beforehand.

Let’s break down a few different ways to signal for survival.

Signalling for Rescue With Audio Methods

Signalling for rescue with audio methods is an excellent choice since it doesn’t require a direct line of sight to be effective.

If you’re in a dense forest, it may be impossible to have a direct line of sight for more than 50 yards.

Audio methods also work in 360 degrees, meaning that no matter which angle someone is at, the sound has a really good chance of reaching them.

The downside of audio methods is that sound is less effective at signalling over vast distances. After more than a few miles, any sounds that aren’t as loud as a gunshot will be faint. Over 10 miles or more, and even gunshots can be quiet at times.

Audio methods also have reduced effectiveness when you’re near a source of sound such as a river. These more abundant sources of noise can drown out your whistle or calls for help.

Audio Methods for Signaling for Rescue

There are a few methods that come to mind when I think of signalling for rescue with sound.

Using a Whistle to Signal for Rescue

Survival whistles are easy to carry and can save you in a pinch. Throw one of these in your bag, and you’ll have a device you can always use to signal for rescue when potential rescuers are near.

By blowing hard into the whistle, you’ll create a sharp noise that can pierce through the air and let rescuers know your location.

Using a Gunshot to Signal for Rescue

Gunshots are loud and can be heard from far away. When used correctly, this makes them a great way to signal for rescue.

The only issue is that in some areas, gunshots are relatively common and people move along with their business. They assume it was just a hunter or someone having some fun with target practice.

The other issue is with the opposite scenario in areas where gunshots aren’t frequent. People may be wary of going towards gunshots, and will instead ignore them or move out of the area.

But, if someone is aware of how to signal for rescue, they will recognize the distinctive “3 shots” that you should fire to signal for rescue. If they have a gun on them, they will fire off three shots back to indicate they heard you and are trying to locate you.

Using Your Voice to Signal for Rescue

You can also use your voice to signal for survival. Shouting out the words “help” and “hey, over here!” are great ways to attract attention to yourself, but don’t count on this one to alert anyone except those already close.

Signalling for Rescue with Visual Methods

Visual methods are another way to signal for rescue. Unlike audio methods, visual techniques can be visible over extremely long distances. It’s also much easier to bootstrap a way to signal for survival with visual methods, rather than trying to bootstrap a way to signal for survival with audio methods.

Using a Mirror to Signal for Rescue

Mirrors are quite handy for signalling with survival during the daytime. You can easily signal helicopters, planes, boats, and people over long distances when you have a clear line of sights.

Whether you’re stranded in the woods or on a beach, you’ll find some use for signalling with a mirror.

In the woods, the mirror flash will cut through the monotonous forest and catch the eye of pilots flying overhead.

On a beach, you can signal boats and pilots anywhere in your line of sight. The mirror flash will be very obvious and attract the attention of anyone in your line of sight.

It’s best to have a small hand mirror that you can place over one of your eyes. This way, you can use your other eye to line up the flash so that it is aimed directly at the potential rescuer.

By tilting the mirror back and forth, you can create a flash with the mirror that is unmistakable as someone trying to get rescued. While you can create some OK flashes with the sun to your back, this method works best when you can get the sun shining on your mirror to boost the intensity of your flashes significantly.

Using Smoke to Signal for Rescue

Smoke signals have been used for ages to communicate over long distances. There’s a reason they were used to communicate over long distances. They’re easy to create, can be seen over long distances, and can be seen from almost every angle. The only time they don’t work is in poor visibility conditions such as fog, rain, and night time.

To make a smoke signal, you’ll want to make a large fire and burn a large number of items that create thick smoke.

For natural smoke signals, you can use green vegetation to make white smoke. With enough vegetation, you can create a very large smokestack in the sky that can be seen from miles away.

Another way you can create a smoke signal is by burning items made from petroleum such as tires or large plastic items. These will burn and create a thick black smoke that will stand out from the environment around you.

Regardless, whichever is available to you, you’ll create a great smoke signal that can be seen by pilots, captains, and rescuers near and far.

Using a Fire to Signal for Rescue

Signalling for rescue with smoke won’t work at night, but signalling with fire will work great. The bright light created by fire will cut through the darkness and make you stand out from the environment.

The best way to signal with fire is to create a torch that you can wave around to bring attention to yourself when potential rescuers are near. A waving torch to a plane, helicopter, boat or person is a very clear sign that something is wrong.

To make a torch, you can create a bundle of tightly bound fuel on the end of a stick. Ideally, you can also plaster the fuel with sap or another substance that will burn hot and bright for a long time. Here are two other techniques to making a torch.

Using a Flare/Flare Gun to Signal for Rescue

Flares and flare guns are great for signalling for rescue since they’re a universally known rescue signal. Anyone who sees a flare will immediately know that you’re in trouble and search of rescue. There’s a reason why they’re frequently packed in boats, planes and helicopters.

Chances are you’re not going to find flares just laying around. You’ll need to pack some ahead of time.

If you prepare ahead of time and do manage to bring some with you, then your rescue will likely come to a lot sooner. Whenever you hear a plane overhead, motorized vehicle or people nearby, you can pop off a flare. There’s a good chance it won’t go unnoticed, and that help is on the way.

Rain, shine, nighttime, daytime, and even through fog, flares can work great for signalling rescuers.

Using a Visual Pattern/Disturbance to Signal for Rescue

Finally, we have using a visual pattern or disturbance to signal for rescue. This method is a great last-resort in case you don’t have a fire ready, flares or mirror in your pack. It’s also a great backup method that you can sometimes set and forget just in case potential rescuers come near when you’re not prepared.

The reason this method works so great is that the human mind is programmed to seek out patterns. Even when all stimulus is removed, the brain will search for patterns so diligently that it will hallucinate and create patterns in the absence of stimulus.

You can tap into this shared commonality of humans by making patterns that meat what the brain is searching for. Anything that breaks up the natural pattern of the area around and creates a distinctly different pattern will work great.

This could be a sign on the beach that spells out “HELP ME” in giant logs, or it could by you waving around a bright orange jacket on a stick hoping to catch the eye of potential rescuers.

Either way, you can be creative and find some way to break the pattern around you and create a disturbance to be noticed.


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