8 Skills to Ensure Wilderness Survival – [Informational Guide]

| Last Updated: January 27, 2021

1. How to Make a Fire

Of all the survival skills you could master, the ability to make a fire in any situation imaginable is the most practical way to start. And if you've clicked around on our site enough, you know that we have an excellent resource on this topic. Not knowing how to make a fire could leave you and those you love in a bad spot should you be in a frigid climate where temperatures plummet below 0 degrees fahrenheit. So knowing how to make a fire is paramount if you're truly looking to master wilderness survival. And with that, let's look at some of the most popular ways to start a fire with and without tools!


How to Start a Fire Without Matches

First of all you'll need to get tinder of some kind. Tinder is dried materials that will take the spark you create and grow it into a small fire. Once you have your tinder you'll want to make an ember, this can be effectively by using wood to make friction and eventually an ember. There are too many opinions on the internet to narrow down which method is "most effective", so we're going to tell you what we've used that works.

Hand Drill

This sounds pretty rad, and it's probably the most effective when it comes to starting a fire in the wilderness. There is however a moderate level of skill to getting this done correctly. The movie castaway did a great depiction of how real the struggle is when getting this down, but his face when he gets it is priceless!

Make a notch. Cut a v-shaped notch into your fire board and make a small depression adjacent to it.

Place bark underneath the notch. The bark will be used to catch an ember from the friction between the spindle and fireboard.

Start spinning. Place the spindle into the depression on your fire board. Your spindle should be about 2 feet long for this to work properly. Maintain pressure on the board and start rolling the spindle between your hands, running them quickly down the spindle. Keep doing this until an ember is formed on the fireboard.

Start a fire! Once you see a glowing ember, tap the fire board to drop you ember onto the piece of bark. Transfer the bark to your nest of tinder. Gently blow on it to start your flame.

How to Start a Fire With Tools

The same principal applies when starting a fire with tools, even if you have a lighter it's best to use tinder and smaller sticks to get a fire going and then just build it up. So make sure you have adequate tinder before starting.

Using Flinta and Steel to Start a Fire

If you’re caught without a flint and steel set, you can always improvise by using quartzite and the steel blade of your pocket knife (you are carrying your pocket knife, aren’t you?). You’ll also need char. Char is cloth that has been turned into charcoal. Char catches a spark and keeps it smoldering without bursting into flames. If you don’t have char, a piece of fungus or birch will do.

Grip the rock and char cloth. Take hold of the piece of rock between your thumb and forefinger. Make sure an edge is hanging out about 2 or 3 inches. Grasp the char between your thumb and the flint.

Strike! Grasp the back of the steel striker or use the back of your knife blade. Strike the steel against the flint several times. Sparks from the steel will fly off and land on the char cloth, causing a glow.

Start a fire. Fold up your char cloth into the tinder nest and gently blow on it to start a flame.

2. Navigational Skills

Most people aren't expecting to become stranded in the wilderness, and that's why they don't carry a compass at all times. And let's use this time to emphasize that you should ALWAYS have a compass of some kind on you, ALWAYS. 

However this resource is here to enlighten you for how to survive in the wild and find your way home if you don't have a compass. You can use the sun, moon and even trees to get a sense of direction. We're not going to teach you how to communicate with trees, unless you're from Rohan (Lord Of The Rings Joke for those that care), but we will teach you what to look for on a tree to find your way home.

Using the Sun for Direction

Just in case you're completely new to the world outside of an iPhone we'll go over the basics, the sun rises in the North...just kidding. The sun rises in the East and sets in the West, so now you know the basics of traveling by the sun!

Let's go a little deeper shall we?

The shadow stick is one of the most basic means of getting your cardinal directions (North, South, East, and West). To do this you'll place a stick about a meter long in the ground sticking straight up. The sun will cast a shadow with the stick, and this first shadow is ALWAYS West now matter where you are on earth.

Mark the end of this shadow with something, and wait for 10 or 15 minutes, mark the next shadow in the same way. Draw a line through these marks to make an East-West line. Stand with your first mark, which is West, to your left and the second mark to your right, you're now facing north. 

This method works EVERYWHERE on earth!​

Using the Moon and Stars for Direction

So let's say you're knocked out until nightfall and can't use the sun to make it back home, luckily for you there's a way to do that too champ! The moon and stars can be more tricky though, you have to take into account whether you're in the southern or northern hemispheres for these techniques to work effectively.

However using this technique for finding direction with the moon alone works everywhere. If the moon rises before the sun has set, the illuminated side will be West. And if the moon rises after midnight, then the illuminated side will be East. This can offer a rough East West direction.

Now for the stars, you'll want to pay attention to which hemisphere you're in. And if you don't know, good luck....shoulda paid attention.

If you're in the Northern hemisphere then your best bet is to look for the North Star. Now the mistake most people make when looking for this saving grace is that they'll confuse it with the big dipper. This is because the North Star makes up the handle of the little dipper as well. So to avoid confusion use the big dipper and casseopeia to find the North Star.​ The diagram below should help you out if you're new to this stuff. Courtesy of wilderness-survival.

Now let's get after the Southern Hemisphere, which again if you're new to this whole outdoors thing is below the equator or North America. Now finding your way in the Southern Hemisphere is more difficult because there's no star bright enough to easily recognize to guide you. So instead you'll use the the Southern Cross, which is made up of the four brightest stars that make a cross that's tilted. Draw a line from top to bottom to an imaginary point that's roughly five times the length of the Southern Cross and that will be a general southern direction.  

Again we have a diagram courtesy of Wilderness-Survival

3. Knowledge of Wilderness Survival

There's usually a lack of general preparedness when it comes to fatalities in the wilderness. And it's due in the main to a lack of knowledge about basic wilderness survival. This isn't common curriculum for most kids, even though it should be, and it would be hard to separate kids from screens long enough to absorb the information. So what do you do?

You need to take it upon yourself to cover the basics of what surviving in the wilderness takes.

Basic Botany For Foraging ​

There are plenty of resources out there to help you learn this lost art of feeding yourself in the wild, and in the city for that matter. And we've taken the time to use what knowledge we have to put together a book for those interested.​

This book offers a guide to help you become more resourceful when it comes to food. And who knows, you might actually be able to use it where you live!​

Making Survival Shelter

We'll go over this in more detail later, but for now you need to grasp that this skill is paramount for your survival in most situations.

Not only will having a shelter keep you out of the elements and comfortable, but it's an incredible moral booster just to have a place that's yours​. Next to starting a fire, having a shelter is the greatest thing you could do for your mental health in the wild.

Recognizing Safe Drinking Water

There's a big difference in drinking safety when it comes to water in the wild. You could find a spring that has stagnant water that looks safe, but you need to know that drinking stagnant water, no matter how clean it LOOKS, is dangerous.

Boiling water is always recommended! We're going to go over this in more detail as well later.​

Take a Wilderness Survival Class

It might sound a little strange to go to one of these things, and some of these are pretty strange. But find one that comes highly recommended by someone who's been in the military or has been surviving in the wild for a living. Don't listen to Cletus tell you what he thinks you should do if he's never had to actually LIVE in the woods.

A simple google search will yield all you need to know, and as a 9-5 survivalist/prepper, this needs to be on your bucket list before it's too late!​

Or you can just read a book written by experts if you don't want to go for the class​

4. Proper Outdoor Survival Gear

There seem to be two poles that people gravitate to when it comes to useful gear when in the wilderness. The first is that there's no need for these tools and they'll only hinder you, while valid in the eyes of the dogmatics of survivalism, not exactly true. And the other is that you need to have tools that provide you with most of the luxuries we find at home, again not completely wrong, but not right.

We're here to give you a balanced medium that will allow you to move lite and yet have everything you need to be as prosperous as possible in the wild.​

Trusty Survival Knife

Of all the tools you would need to get the job done in the wilderness, you're going to need a durable blade. A knife has so many uses in the woods it's just not smart to leave home without one, even if you're not going camping.

What Qualities Are You Looking for?

  • Fixed Blade if possible
  • Durable handle with sturdy protector under the blade
  • Quality Steel

Cordage/Paracord Bracelet

You might have noticed the growing trend of paracord bracelets, and while it seems nonsensical for people living in the city to wear them all the time (and it generally is), they could be a life saver in the wild. Instructables has a fantastic article on this if you want to learn more.

Reliable cordage could help you fashion together a great shelter or give you a great tool to fish with. It could be used in so many ways to help you out that it's worth succumbing to ​the masses and getting one to wear just in case. 

The best part is that you can make one, so you're not at the mercy of the stores to get the bracelet of your choice. If you know you like one cordage over the other all it takes is a quick YouTube search to learn how to put it together. Or you could go to our article on the top paracord bracelets.

Head Covering

No joke here, keeping your head warm is the best way to preserve your body heat. And your brain functions much better when your body isn't having to work over time to keep you alive AND warm.​

Shelter Building Material

This can be as simple as a trash bag or a large tarp, either way it will make a huge difference in your moral level to have a dry place to hang your hat for a while. Again, you don't need to set up a shelter with living quarters and a kitchen to be successful. All you really need is a place to keep you out of the elements and warm.

If you have a few trash bags in your pack you can cut them so they open up into large squares, and instead of having to pile layers of leaves to make your shelter water proof, you now have one layer of perfectly water proof material! Just from trashbags, isn't that great!

These are the most important to consider when out in the wild. And while taking a hat or beanie might seem like an insignificant thing to do that won't make much of a difference, just know that that knowledge comes from people who have been in the worst of situations and credit their survival with simple things like this.

It's not always the major technological devices that make the difference, most of the time it's just having a fire or a place to call our own at night that sends our moral through the roof in desperate situations. So take a moment to make sure that these items are in your bag the next time you venture into the woods. 

5. Water Purification in the Wilderness

There are a few ways to make sure you have a supply of clean water in the wild thankfully, and we're going to make sure you are prepared to know how to use ALL of them! From purification tablets, to using charcoal and dirt to purify your water, you'll never have an excuse for getting sick from drinking unpurified water again!

There are 3 main ways to go about purifying water that you've found in the wild, that's to boil it, filter it or use chemicals.

Filtering Water in the Wild

When given the option you'll want to filter water before treating it with chemicals or boiling it, just so you can get the obvious junk out first. This can be done with a straw packed with charcoal, a sock, or even the dirt!

If you're lucky enough to find a reed next to water you can break that sucker in half and use it as a filter straw. All you have to do is stuff charcoal and straw in one end, stuck through the other and you have a natural filter with a trendy charcoal flavor adder. Next you can dig a hole next to a body of water you've found until the water seeps through the dirt into your hole. Once the hole fills up you just empty the water out a few times to get rid of muddy water and then the water will become clear and drinkable!

Boiling Water to Purify it

This is the most effective way and most common way to make sure the water you drink is safe. But it's not enough to just get the water to boiling temperature and call it good. You'll want to get the water to a rolling boil and keep it there for over 60 seconds to ensure it's truly safe.

Now in a perfect scenario you would use your sturdy metal canteen to boil the water, but life isn't always that fair is it? So let's say you're out in the wild and you need to boil water, you have the fire and the water but nothing to boil the water in....ROCKS!

This is a nifty trick where you dig a hole in the ground to hold your water. You'll want to make a pretty big hole because you'll be putting rocks in with the water so you'll need the space. Then stick rocks in the fire to get them smouldering hot, leave them in for about ten minutes. Then you'll take the rocks out and put them in the water and BOOM boiling water! Again, you'll neet to keep that boil going for 60 seconds to get rid of all the nasties, but this works like a charm!

Using Chemicals to Purify Water

This is a last step in purifying water if you have the chemicals. The reason it's the last step is because filtering and boiling the water will both work to purify it, but going the extra mile with the chemicals will put you over the top so to speak.

And thankfully when using chemicals to purify water there's not much guess work because it comes with directions on the package. So it's just a matter of following the instructions to get the clean water you've been literally dying for!

Chemical purification of water should NEVER be the first step to purifying water

This should always be the last step no matter what. While this stuff does work to remove most of the dangers in water, it won't do much good if there's still stuff floating in the water to replenish the baddies in the water. So make sure you get rid of the big stuff first with filtration and boiling before you go sprinkling pixie dust in your water...​

6. Having a Personal Locator Beacon / Making SOS Signal

Let's be real for a minute here, if you had an SOS Beacon you could turn on to let someone know you needed rescue and where your EXACT location was, all of this other stuff would be a mute point. So if you truly want to increase your odds of being rescued and not go through a traumatic wilderness survival situation, get a rescue beacon!

The average cost of an emergency beacon is around $200. But if you're someone who's determined to spend time in the wild, but still wants a mostly foolproof safety net for when things go wrong​, the emergency beacon is the way to go.

How Emergency Beacons Work

Emergency beacons ​are basically tracking devices that routinely send your location and status to either a general base camp or the persons you've registered it with. It's best to register your emergency beacon with local authorities in the area you're going if you know things could get hairy.

These beacons transmit signals across 3 frequencies of 406 megahertz, .25 Watt radio transmitter working at 121.5 MHZ  and a basic GPS wave. And like we said before these can be set up to be sent to different locations when activated.

The ​beacons can be set to activate by command or automatically. You can set the automatic transmission to go out when the beacon is submerged in water or experience strong impact. So these can save your life is what we're trying to get across!

For more information check out cbc.ca​

How to Make an SOS Signal

For the best results it's a good idea to make the usual SOS (Save Our Souls) out of rocks near your camp that can be clearly seen from above. ​

Now if you're lucky enough to have a way to shine a light like a flashlight or use a sound, the internationally recognized signal for help is 3 short 3 long 3 short pause and repeat. This will be universal to help you get out of danger.

Another internationally recognized distress signal is your fire. You can use black smoke as a signal during the day, as smoke can be seen and smelt for miles. However, if you need to signal at night the international signal for distress with fires is three fires set up in a triangle or straight line. For best visibility space them out 100 ft from each other.

7. Knowing How to Make Survival Shelters

As we said before, making a survival shelter in the wilderness could be the best moral booster for troubling times. As humans we long for 3 things, security, community, and personal relationships. While we can't build a community or personal relationships out of wood and debris, we can sure provide security through a sturdy shelter!

We're going to go over the most basic of shelters, but if you want to learn more you can  check out the post we did on wilderness survival shelters.

Making a Lean to Shelter

This certainly isn't the Ritz of survival shelters, but for our purposes this will be a gem and a half!

For best results you'll want to start by finding two trees that are about as far apart as you are tall + about 18" so you'll have room. Then you'll either find a fallen branch that's that long if not longer and fasten it to the two trees with your paracord or lashing of another kind about 4 ft off the ground.

Now you'll get some limbs that are as tall as your shoulder, and you'll lay those against the pole that's 4 ft off the ground. This will make the frame of your roof. To take it to the next level it would be wise to insulate it with a thick layer of leaves and mud to pack it down, layer this a few times and you should have a water tight roof to keep you dry.

If you build this shelter facing a surface like a wall, or just make a wall from limbs, you'll get more from the fire in front of your shelter. Because the heat will bounce off the wall and come back to you in your shelter instead of being wasted. 

And there you have it, now you don't have to worry about not having a place to call home on your long treks in the wilderness 🙂 If you want more you can check out practicalsurvivor.

8. "Going Home Quotes" to Keep You Going

This is the thing that separates people who survive and those who don't in the biggest way. Having a reason to survive in the wilderness and constant reminders of why you're pushing to survive are the source of strength for when you wake up starving and cold. For those times when you want to give up all hope and accept defeat, these quotes will give you the will to live and push on through the pain.

You don't have to live by these quotes though, it's best to keep a picture of your family or home with you. So that you'll keep that reason to live close to your heart.

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