Throw Doritos on the fire and 9 other essential wilderness survival skills
Avoiding elimination on “Survivor” means outlasting your fellow contestants at Tribal Council. Avoiding elimination in the backcountry means outlasting your environment—a far more difficult task, the key to which has nothing to do with frenemies, and everything to do with preparation.
The more you know about the environment you’re headed into, the better your chances of emerging safely. From assembling a shelter, to foraging for food, to re-setting a dislocated shoulder, start with our helpful hints below—then pick up some area field guides and prep, prep, prep.
1. Pack light, pack right
Preparation begins with packing. In addition to the usual gear, grab a pocketknife for woodcutting, food prepping, fire-starting, etc. Throw in a flashlight in case you need to signal for help or get stranded outdoors overnight. Sporting a paracord bracelet—which inconspicuously contains about 10 feet of cord—could also come in handy. Whether it’s building shelters, creating makeshift tourniquets or catching food, this nifty doodad is basically the Swiss army knife of the accessory world. When it comes to clothing, opt for base layers that provide breathability and warmth.
2. Mind your medical needs
From blisters to burns to insect bites, it’s best to manage minor wounds as they occur, rather than risking complications that can worsen with time and exposure to the elements. Always carry a small first-aid kit stocked with sterile pads, adhesive strips, hand wipes, Moleskin bandages, antibiotic ointment, ibuprofen and safety pins (we’re a fan of this first-aid kit from REI). Clean simple injuries early and regularly, and keep an eye out for infection.
For major issues, remaining calm—whether you’re the one in pain, or a companion—can drastically affect the outcome of a bad situation. Thinking clearly will help you assess the extent of the injury, as well as identify potential materials from your immediate surroundings that could be of use. Dried seaweed or sphagnum moss (used for centuries as a dressing for wounds) can be applied with pressure to help stop bleeding. If you’re dealing with a possible fracture, construct a splint using sticks and shoelaces (or your paracord bracelet! See, we told you it would come in handy).
Dislocated shoulder? Again, keeping calm is critical—the more you fight the pain, the tighter the muscles become, which makes re-setting harder. Stay relaxed as possible, then try the knee wrap or tree hug technique. It's better to fix the shoulder than immobilize it, as hiking back out is virtually impossible due to pain and muscle spasms.
3. Put yourself on the map
Harry Potter had his Marauder's Map, Magellan had his back staff and Indiana Jones had his dad's dog-eared diary filled with esoteric doodles. Take a cue from history (or pop culture?) and never venture into parts unknown without stuff that helps you get from point A to point B (namely, a map, compass, GPS and smartphone). And since navigational tools are useless if you don’t know how to read them, consider taking a basic backcountry orienteering class like this one from our friends at OCSC Sailing.
If you happen to drop your compass in a river or accidentally light your map on fire (hey, we don't judge) knowing how to find your bearings could make the difference between getting home in time for dinner vs. wandering around the forest for a week.
- Determine which is way is north by using the constellations or movement of the sun—check out some of these tips for finding Polaris, employing the shadow method or using an analog watch. Then repeat after me: “Sunrise in the east. Sunset in the west.”
- If the moon rises before the sun has set, the illuminated side will be the west. If the moon rises after midnight, the illuminated side will be the east.
- Remember, north-facing mountain slopes receive less sun than south-facing slopes. Even during a hot summer, many north-facing slopes retain small snow patches.
4. Camp smart
Consider three things when setting up camp:
- Location: Stay close to resources, and away from hazards—like caves that aren't really caves.
- Find insulation from ground, rain, wind and air.
- Heat source: Do you have one? Set things up so that (1) there's enough room to snuggle up alongside a buddy and share body heat (if you're with a companion), or (2) can be near a fire. Minimizing heat loss is paramount.
Shelters can be constructed using any number of natural items and your paracord bracelet (see! we told you it would come in handy). Cobble something together using debris or snow, or tuck into a cave, hollow stump or log. Add insulation to the top and sides of your shelter using fibrous plants, grasses, layers of bark, pine needles, leaves, wood or snow.
Wherever you choose to hunker down, if you’re lost, make sure your site is visible for search-and rescue-teams. If you're lost and people are looking for you, it could make all the difference.
5. Moderate your body temperature
Don’t skimp on accessories like scarves and gloves: Nearly half your body’s heat can be lost through uncovered extremities, so protect your neck, wrists, ankles and especially your head. And while keeping your clothes clean isn't necessarily easy when tromping through Mother Nature, keep in mind: Insulation value decreases in clothes matted with dirt and grease. If all else fails? Pee. Your body is using energy to keep that extra liquid warm.
Of course, overheating is just as dangerous. When sweat evaporates off your skin, it cools you down. Wear the right fabrics to let your body’s natural temperature regulation mechanisms to work their magic. Moisture-wicking materials pull the sweat away from your skin to keep you cool, instead of trapping it there like damp cotton.
6. Ignore Smokey the Bear
OK, don’t completely ignore Smokey. But do build a campfire when you legitimately need it. It's hard to image the great outdoors without a trusty Jetboil these days, but if you find yourself stranded without one, fire is necessary for heat, boiling water, cooking or even psychological support when you’re on your own in the wild. Do your due diligence ahead of time by researching how to build a fire safely and effectively.
Practice your lighting skills in different weather conditions and environments before you need them. Then, as the USDA Forest Service recommends, build your campfire away from overhanging branches, rotten stumps, dry grass, leaves and logs. Light the fire from the upwind side, making sure to properly light your campfire. Ration your tinder, kindling and fuel so your fire burns as long as you need it.
Forgot matches? Try using eyeglasses—first spit on the lens, then angle the sun’s rays at a pile of dry leaves, twigs or Doritos. In drier climates, a hand drill (using your hands to rotate the spindle) will produce a red-hot poker that ignites tinder. There's a number of alternative methods out there utilizing hodgepodge items you might have on hand, but carrying back-up gadgets like a flint and steel fire starter is the smartest way to go, especially if your matches get wet.
7. Stream H2O on the go
Water is more important to survival than food. (And no, alcohol, urine, blood and seawater are not substitutes.) Seek out clean drinking water from springs, headwater streams and morning dew.
As unappetizing as it sounds, hang out near flies and mosquitos—they tend to loiter within 400 feet of water. If bugs are MIA, start walking downhill and keep an eye out for dark patches in the landscape or any vegetation bunches that stand out in low areas. If you have any sort of plastic bags or sheeting on hand, creating a transpiration bag, a.k.a, a solar still, is effective and easy.
Collecting dew is a bit of a DIY project, but also very dew-able. (Eh? EH??) Tie bandanas or a cotton t-shirt around your ankles (bonus points if you had a ShamWow on hand), walk carefully through dew-covered grass before sunrise, then wring what you’ve collected into a container. Keep walking and wringing until you have a supply of water, or you’ve run out of dew to collect.
Filter pumps, UV filters and iodine treatments are the most common forms for purifying water, but boiling is the most widely used and reliable option if you're stranded without water purifying tools. Boil collected water for at least two to three minutes to kill bacteria and viruses, and remember that stagnant water is not usually suitable to drink—even if boiled. When collecting dew, take care to avoid areas near poisonous plants, areas that might have been chemically treated, or spots near animal defecation.
8. Forest-to-mouth foraging
Food comes in many forms. And in the wild, it’s all around you—minus the plastic wrap and microwave. Before heading outdoors, study what grows (or crawls) in the area you’re backpacking and how to identify safe-to-munch bugs, berries, and mushrooms. Picking up one of these books ahead of time is a savvy and proactive precaution.
If you know where to look, nature's bounty presents itself: Not only is the inner bark and nuts of pine trees edible, you can also make a tasty, fragrant tea from their needles. Be like a squirrel and stockpile acorns. The entire nut is edible (who knew? Not us). Sample some cattails, conifers (except Yew), grasses, seeds and oats. Near fresh water? Crayfish (freshwater crustaceans resembling a small lobster) are easy to catch by hand. Look for them under rocks or vegetation in streams, then boil until the outer shell turns red.
9. Set yourself up to be rescued
Flares and flashlights top the list for signaling tools, but reflecting the sun off a mirror or the metallic layer behind the screen of your phone also works for flashing distress signals. At night, fire is the most effective visual signal, but during the day, spreading bright-colored clothing on the ground or in the top of a tree will also attract attention. Pack a whistle and learn the universal distress signal of three bursts: try three consecutive blows, lasting about five seconds each. And finally, if you’re on the move, use natural materials to leave notes or arrows at prominent features and clearings, indicating where, when and how you’re going. If you need to be found, your search party will be thankful for some clues.
10. And remember: Survival is an attitude
Even if you're Bear Grylls, all the survival know-how in the world won't lift your spirits like an "I can do this" mindset. If you find yourself in a sticky situation, stay calm and get your priorities in order according to the Rule of Threes, which states a human can survive three minutes without air, three minutes without a regulated body temperature (no shelter), three days without water, and three weeks without food. Use the Rule of Threes as a guideline to assess the order of what needs to get done: Shelter, water, food. Willpower goes a long way—don't underestimate it!
Knowledge is power: Arm yourself with it. Know the land so you can use it and respect it, and always remember that an open mind and positive attitude can go a long way in the wild (and on reality TV).
Take it outside: Hands-on wilderness survival courses
Our friends at the School of Self Reliance in LA offer some fantastic classes. Check them out on ZOZI: