Wilderness Survival - Tips to Keep You Alive

Wilderness Survival - Tips to Keep You Alive

The key to wilderness survival is about overcoming fear. When you first realize you’re lost in the wild, panic is instantaneous. Even well trained survival experts are susceptible to the fear of the unknown.

In fact, it would worry me to hear that someone isn’t a little scared of getting lost in the wilderness, as this shows a lack of respect for the potential consequences.

Prepare and Stay Alive

Ideally, anyone going into the wilderness will have, at the very minimum, a basic survival kit. It very rarely happens that you have no plans to go into the wild, yet wind up in the middle of nowhere. (Though it does happen!)

Even if you’re hiking well-blazed trails in a national park on Memorial Day weekend surrounded by hundreds of other day hikers, you still should carry provisions for an emergency.

You can lose the trail easier than you’d think. Or a sudden storm may force you to hunker down. Mount Washington in New Hampshire, for example, is famous for its fickle weather. Temperatures on the summit can dip below freezing in July. Over 130 people have died up there. And Mount Washington hosts a bustling national park, dotted with hiking trails and restaurants.

6 Essential Items for Wilderness Survival

When venturing into the great outdoors, at minimum carry the basics:

  1. Knife
  2. Reflective emergency blanket
  3. Compass
  4. Food (SOS rations, energy bars)
  5. Water
  6. Fire starter (magnesium/flint block, matches, etc.)
  • A Note About Fire: Fire not only keeps us warm and cooks our food, it comforts us. Wilderness survival can be very scary, especially if you’re alone at night. Animals are naturally afraid of fire and the smoke helps keep bugs away. And a roaring fire piled with green foliage makes an effective distress signal. Always, always, always have the means to make a fire.

Do Your Wilderness Survival Homework

Research the area you’ll be exploring. What are the weather patterns like? Can it still drop to freezing even in the summer? What kinds of poisonous plants and dangerous animals should you avoid? (Well, all of them of course, but being able to recognize them is very important.)

Study the terrain with a topographical map (shows changes in elevation and, often, man-made features like roads). Check for potential rescue spots along your route.

Use your compass. When lost, getting your bearings is another major psychological comfort, even if you discover you’re still miles from civilization. At least you know where you are!

And though you'll ideally have a basic survival kit, it is a good idea to get some training in primitive survival skills from schools like Primal-Knowledge. Learning flint knapping, bow making, hunting, fishing and fire starting techniques, without man-made tools, can save your life.

Advertise Your Trip

Make an itinerary and leave it with friends and family. If you fail to check in by a certain time, they should know where to look for you. Naturally, this only works if you plan on venturing into the wilderness.

For all the times that a plane crash leaves you stranded or you need to escape from a prison in French Guiana a la Papillon, you have two options:

  • stay put and wait to be rescued, or
  • find civilization yourself

Neither option is ideal. It all depends on your level of preparation. If you have a search party on call should you fail to reach your destination, the best option might be to find a clearing and start building distress signals.

5 Common Distress Signals

Some widely-recognized examples of duress are:

  1. A set of three large, smoky fires

  2. Placing reflective material (like a mirror, emergency blanket or candy wrapper ) neon or fluorescent-colored tarp or clothing on the ground

  3. Building a giant “X” using contrasting colors (dark wood on white sand, for instance)

  4. Blowing a whistle in bursts of three

  5. Signal an "SOS" (an internationally-recognized distress signal) using Morse code. 

How to Signal SOS in Morse Code

Morse code is commonly an audio signal, sent over a wire, with a whistle or even tapping a piece of metal on a pipe. But it can be a visual signal too, made by flicking a flashlight on and off, for instance.

Morse code works by assigning a combination of "dots" and "dashes" to each letter of the alphabet. A "dot" lasts for 1/4 of a second, while a "dash" lasts around 3/4 of a second.

To send an SOS, you'll need to communicate:

S: ...

O: ---

S: ...

Do this repeatedly for increased chances of success.

The idea with any distress signal is to create visual signals, sounds and even smells that would not normally be found in nature.

If you choose to find help yourself, it is a good idea to stick to waterways and coastlines. Where there is water there are people. For instance, if you were camping on the Oregon coast, head west, on the Maine coast, east, etc.

But if you don’t know where the nearest body of water is, look for signs of water, like clouds, birds and denser foliage. When in doubt, head down. Not south necessarily, but literally down.

Since water runs downhill (stay with us, we’re getting pretty scientific here) you have a better chance of finding it as you descend. Again, this is where your pre-adventure homework comes in. Even a cursory study of the terrain prior to departure can mean the difference between a successful rescue and a loss of life and limb.

To sum up: Plan (and pack) for the worst, know the terrain and set an itinerary to give you the best chances in a wilderness survival situation.

Check out the Wilderness Survival Kit Checklist

Read:  "Emergency Wilderness First Aid"

Read:  "6 Wilderness Survival Skills for Bear Attack"

Read:  "Survival Shelters - Basic Structures That Can Save Your Life"

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