Wilderness Survival: What to Learn
Where to Start
Wilderness survival is a complex subject, covering hundreds of topics and subtopics. Therefore, when researching wilderness survival, where do you start? The sheer amount of information available has filled numerous books, and some topics can take a lifetime to completely master. Though the topic is complex, the answer is simple... after it is closely examined.
Take It a Step At a Time
Like any subject wilderness survival breaks down into basic topic lists, and is easier to comprehend as a whole when the subject is tackled gradually. Where you need to start learning, and what you should start studying, ultimately depends upon what you already know.
If you are an expert then you do not need to read this post. If you are already interested in the outdoors and camp, hike, backpack, hunt, trap, or fish then build upon what you already know. If you have not spent much time beyond civilization, start from scratch. For the purpose of this discussion, I shall assume you are not a 'wilderness' or 'outdoorsy' type of person who is just getting interested.
1. Determine Whether You Actually Want to Learn Wilderness Survival
Wilderness survival is not for everyone, and many people confuse wilderness survival with other concepts. It is difficult to say the least, and practicing survival is intentional hardship. This is not melodramatic, but a simple statement of truth. Wilderness survival is often confused with such topics as bushcraft, militia, prepping, or even camping, and it is none of these things. Wilderness survival is 'bushcrafting' when your life depends upon it, and is learned so that a person may survive in the wilderness in adverse conditions while having a lack of necessary gear during an emergency situation. When comparing wilderness survival with bushcrafting, the priorities and attitudes often change, though
It is not camping. Camping involves spending a day or two living with most of the comforts of home in a carefully controlled environment. You car generally nor more than a few yards away, and emergency assistance is but a phone call to 911. Your food is in a cooler, and water generally comes from a bottle or a hydrant. You have all sorts of manufactured gear to make your stay as pleasant as possible, such as a pack, tent, cooking gear, rope, etc.
Place yourself in your mind in an area where there is no cellphone reception, and you have no clue where the nearest person is. Then imagine one of these scenarios has happened.
- Your pack is at the bottom of the river, along with your boat, and all you have is your wet clothes, and it is supposed to get down close to freezing during the coming night, and the car is an unknown amount of miles away...
- You were driving through the mountains, and took a shortcut. You can't wait to get to the restaurant, as you are famished. Unfortunately, you are fifty miles from the next town, and your car just broke down. In the hours you have waited hoping for help not even one car has passed, and it is starting to snow heavily. Too bad you didn't have room for a blanket, and you didn't need anything but a jacket in the car...
- Maybe you were having a joyride in the desert, and broke your vehicles suspension sixty miles from anywhere...
- You were separated from your friends, then became seriously lost while hunting, camping, or backpacking...
Now you are talking wilderness survival.
Why even learn wilderness survival, you may ask?
You will have a confidence within you afterwards that is not there previously. The confidence born of the knowledge that no matter what happens, you will at least know that you do not have to die or stay lost because of adversity. It gives you choices which can apply to other emergency situations which temporarily remove the veneer of civilization.
- A storm can knock the power out, and you have no way to cook for days, weeks, or even months. (likely)
- You can suffer the aftermath of natural disaster, such as earthquake, flood, or tsunami. (quite possible)
- You may find yourself in a survival scenario such as listed above. (possible)
- You can be the victim of terrorist attack. (much less likely, but still possible)
Every year these events happen to people. Not one of these people intended to be in the situation within which they found themselves. Some survived, others did not. You do not have to die either if a situation happens to you beyond your control.
In my book at least, that is a very good reason to learn wilderness survival.
2. Evaluate Your Knowledge.
Write a list down of the things you already know. You know yourself better than others do, so be honest with yourself. Your life may eventually depend upon this honesty, do not flatter yourself. The topics you should cover are below
Things you need to know:
- Dangerous environmental conditions - how to both spot and deal with them.
- Shelter construction - alternate and primitive techniques
- Fire - both it's uses and construction using primitive techniques
- First aid - general knowledge and ways to primitively deal with problems.
- Navigation - using nature, maps, compasses, and primitive techniques
- Dangerous wild animal - Deep knowledge of sign and behavior (In order of likelihood -> snakes, spiders, ants, wild dogs, bear, coyotes, mountain lion, and wolves)
- Food sources - general hunting, fishing, primitive trapping, and common edible plants
- Game animal signs - General knowledge of sign and behavior
- Weather - basic knowledge and natural indicators
- Primitive tool construction - basic flintknapping, basic primitive woodworking, and basic sheetmetalworking (cutting tools, cordage, hafting, making hunting tools and traps, etc.)
- Climbing - basic knowledge
- Sewing - basic techniques
- Food - basic knowledge on primitive cooking, preservation, and signs of spoilage
- Water - location and purification
- Knots - A good working knowledge of basic knots for different purposes, including lashing techniques.
- Resources - location and utilization of natural and artificial resources
3. Fixing Your Weaknesses.
Far too many people have issues with the concept of weakness. A true expert in the field will admit that a person is always learning, no matter what level of knowledge or experience they may have. Weakness in this sense is not a perceived weakness between people, it is a weakness against nature. It is not physical strength or prowess, it is a lack of knowledge. A rattlesnake, wild boar, bear, or alligator will not care whether you are strong or weak, it will get you either way. Knowing what to do, what not to do, and how to accomplish what you need to do is a matter of life and death in wilderness survival.
Once the evaluation of your wilderness survival knowledge is completed, it is time to re-enforce your knowledge. Certain subjects, such as concerning dangerous wild animals and dangerous environmental conditions need serious deep study. Others such as knots and sewing can be approached as an overview, requiring that you learn a few techniques. Those subjects where I have used the words 'basic', 'general', or 'common' require that you learn a handful of techniques, sources, or types.
As an example, there are hundreds of possible primitive trap styles which can be constructed to trap a wild animal for food or as a resource for other uses. It is better to become highly proficient with two or three different styles of trap, than have a basic overview of a hundred different trap styles. Just knowing how a trap works is not enough. Practice building them until you can do it proverbially 'in your sleep'.
If you put off practicing a skill until you are actually in a situation, you will find that the 'book knowledge' is not equivalent to 'hands on knowledge', and your failures will far outnumber your successes. In fact, you may not succeed at all.
4. Everything Hinges on Priorities
Quite literally survival, when in the wilderness, or on a day by day basis in everyday life, the priorities are the same. Some knowledged in the art may be startled by the previous statement, but it is indeed true. The human body has basic needs. When these needs are fulfilled, the human body lives to see another day. When it is cold outside you wear a coat. If you are thirsty, you drink some liquid. When your body is damaged, you get it fixed. However, the availability, ease of acquisition of needed resources, and methods for fulfilling the everyday needs change. There is a highly exaggerated 'rule of threes' which break down the priorities of survival.
The human body can go:
- Three minutes without air
- Three hours without heat (shelter/clothing)
- Three days without water
- Three weeks without food
As you can see, the list is quite exaggerated, as many of the stated items are somewhat subjective. Some people can hold their breath for fifteen minutes. On a beautiful warm day, a person may survive quite well without shelter or clothing. This list is quite usable though, in that it is not meant to be exact but as an easily remembered list of priorities concerning what you must do, and when to do it.
It is also a great place to start your learning, concerning the subject of wilderness survival. Facetiously, number one on the list somewhat takes care of itself. When being serious, number one is often used as a placeholder for first aid and safety. The higher an item is on the list, the more important it is to learn. Start with number one.
- Acquire a very good understanding of first aid and safety.
- Learn shelter building, such as debris huts, lean-to's, etc. Learn to create basic clothing, and means of personal insulation.
- Learn about water. The statement sounds stupid, but is quite serious. Learn where water collects and why. Learn what may be in the water you find, and how to purify it for drinking purposes. Learn what water to avoid, and why.
- Learn about commonly found edible birds, fish, mammals, reptiles, and plants. Learn what is edible and what is not. Concerning plants, learn a handful of commonly found edible plants, as this is a huge subject in it's own right. Learn how to catch live food. Learn how to prepare, cook, and eat your food primitively. (For instance, making a stew or soup without a pot from your cupboard is relatively easy... So is eating it without getting a spoon from a drawer. However, both are next to impossible unless you know how.)
One thing I cannot emphasize enough... DO NOT try to learn everything at once! Learn enough about any one topic to be an expert in a few methods. Master these first, then add to what you know. Learn one style of debris hut, then other styles. From one type of lean-to, and then to others. One type of trap or snare, then another.
There is nor real need to learn everything in order to be proficient, learn just enough to actually survive first, and then go on to perfection. Otherwise whole sections of knowledge will suffer, as you will simply be swamped with information. Logically, this leads to the last concept for this topic.
5. What You Do NOT Need To Know For Wilderness Survival
Due to confusion which abounds on the net, many things are often confused with wilderness survival, as was mentioned before. Some of this confusion is accidental in nature, others an honest mistake, and yet a third is term confusion. 'Survival' as a term has been applied to military S.E.R.E (Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape) training, pseudo S.E.R.E. imitation, wilderness survival, and lastly prepping.
Many of the survival teachers you find writing books or operating survival training schools are in fact military trained individuals. This is a problem as the S.E.R.E. training they received was one quarter oriented towards wilderness survival, namely the 'S' in 'S'.E.R.E.. Three quarters of their training had nothing to do with wilderness survival, but had everything to do with military combat. This fact is often overlooked, and what is taught as wilderness survival in their courses often (but not always) includes combat training.
Prepping has nothing to do with wilderness survival, and is only loosely connected with the term survival at all. This is a case of term confusion. People want to financially 'survive', but that does not make what they do 'survival' in these common sense of the term. 'Prepping' as commonly used is actually an attempt to maintain a level of civilization through a general collapse of civilization due to drastic countrywide or worldwide apocalyptic collapse. 'Prepping' is also applied to the more common actuality of preparing for short term emergency, which even FEMA advises, and has information concerning what to do, and how to do it. Floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, avalanches, blizzards, and hurricanes happen every year. This form of prepping actually assists emergency efforts, however, it is still not wilderness survival.
Skills that are NOT necessary to learn for wilderness survival:
- Home security techniques
- Base security techniques
- Hand to hand combat
- Wilderness combat techniques
- Firearm knowledge, acquisition, or ownership
- Military signaling techniques
- Farming techniques
- Long term food storage techniques
- Seed storage
- Makeshift energy sources
- Bug-out bags or bug-in bags
- Foxholes or spider holes
- How to successfully hide possessions
A good rule of thumb, if it doesn't have to do with nature or man/vs/nature, it doesn't have to do with wilderness survival. Television is not real life.
I am not putting a value judgement on any of these things. In other words I am not saying whether they are good or bad. I am saying that these thing are not a part of, therefore not necessary to learn concerning the specific subject which I am discussing... which is wilderness survival. Again, 'wilderness survival' is a specific subject to study and practice.
If you choose to learn other skills that is up to you, but those skills are not a part of what you find on my site in my posts concerning wilderness survival.