7 Essential Survival Skills

7 Essential Survival Skills

So, you have made the decision to start prepping for survival scenarios.  That is an excellent first step.  However, many people follow the wrong path from here forward.  It is quite common for people new to survival to focus on buying gear and stocking up on canned food and bottled water.  However, these actions should be a secondary priority.  The trap people can fall into is buying gear and supplies and not knowing how to use them. Having a home stocked full of survival gear does you no good if you are lacking knowledge.  I complete several survival challenges each year during which I test my survival skills.  The skills I have learned are always more valuable than the gear I might bring with me.

Your first priority should always be learning survival strategies.  Learning about ways to survive costs absolutely nothing.  There are plenty of free resources online and at the library.  In addition, knowledge can never break like survival gear.  If you practice these tactics, they will never go away.  You will always have these skills as part of your arsenal to get home alive.  However, reading about these skills is not enough.  You must take the time to implement these actions and become proficient with them.  You can practice these strategies on a camping trip, on a hike, or even in your back yard.  Taking this extra step will ensure that you are prepared when your life depends upon it.  In this article we will cover seven survival skills that every person should have. If you study this guide and practice these skills, you have a great start to building your survival knowledge.

Building and Starting a Fire

In any survival scenario, prioritizing your efforts is vital.  You must be strategic about how you spend your time and energy. The four pillars of survival are food, water, fire, and shelter.  This is because you can only survive three weeks without food, three days without water, and three hours without warmth from fire or shelter.  Obviously, fire should be fairly high up on your list of things to do.  However, building a fire in the wilderness is not as easy as you might think.  Even if you are lucky enough to have a lighter or matches with you, the wrong structure will make it impossible to get the fire going.  It is also fairly common for unprepared people to run out of fuel for their fire in the middle of the night.  Finally, wet conditions such as rain or snow can make it nearly impossibly to get a fire going.  However, with the right knowledge you can be sure that you can stay warm while surviving.

Collecting Supplies – Before you start a fire, it is vital that you have the right supplies collected in advance.  There are two general rules that I have learned when collecting firewood.  One is that you want enough tinder to wrap both hands around, enough kindling to wrap both arms around, and a stack of fuel logs that comes up to your knee.  The other is that you should collect what you think is enough fuel logs to keep the fire going all night and then double that amount.  These rules have made it possible to stay alive even in temperatures below 0F. 

First, you will need to collect your tinder bundle.  This will need to be fine, dry material that can catch a flame or even catch a spark. Tinder can be dry leaves, dry grasses, pine cones, cattail fluff, pine resin, or birch bark.  You can also use artificial tinder such as paper, cardboard, dryer lint, cotton balls dipped in petroleum jelly, or Wetfire cubes.  Kindling are the medium sized sticks that vary in size from the thickness of a pencil to about an inch in diameter.  Finally, fuel logs are any pieces of wood larger than this.

To build your fire, you have a few options.  The easiest structure is a teepee fire.  With this design you start by leaning pieces of kindling against each other in a circle to create a teepee-like structure.  You then lean fuel logs against the outside of this structure as well.  Finally, you light your tinder and place in inside your teepee to catch everything else on fire.  Be sure you leave an opening in your teepee so you have a place to put your lit tinder.  You can also build a top down fire to conserve wood.  In this design you start by placing large logs side by side at the bottom and filling the cracks with dirt or sand.  You then add additional layers with each one being perpendicular to the last and the wood being slightly smaller than the last.  Build a small teepee on top and light it.  This design will restrict the oxygen and make the fire burn slowly.

Starting the tinder can be the toughest part of starting your fire.  Having a quality lighter like a Zippo is great because it is windproof and can be refueled with any flammable substance.  A cheap alternative is to have two or three Bic lighters in case one of them runs out of fluid.  I personally prefer using a ferro rod.  It is windproof, waterproof, never runs out of fuel, and shoots spark at about 3000F.  I keep two or more ferro rods with me any time I head into the wilderness.

Finding and Purifying Water

Since you can only survive three days without water, it must be a priority.  First, you must find a good water source.  Running water is always safer than still water.  Get to a high point and look for rivers, streams, lakes, or ponds.  If you see nothing, look for areas in which the plants are taller and greener.  This can be a good sign of water sources.  However, most fresh water is teeming with bacteria and parasites that can make you sick.

LifeStraw Water Filter

You will need to have a good way to purify your water.  My favorite option is to have a water filter with me.  This might be a straw style filter, a filter bottle, or a gravity filter for long term use.  All of these will eliminate 99.999% of harmful pathogens from the water.  If filters are not an option, a good second choice is chemical purification.  Iodine and bleach can be used for this.  I always carry a vial of iodine tablets in my pack.  Just drop one or two in a bottle of water and give it 30 minutes to work.  Then your water is safe to drink. 

Boiling water is always a good option for killing bacteria and pathogens.  If you have a fire, just bring the water to a roaring boil and then let it cool down to safely drink.  You can build a makeshift filter in a plastic bottle by layering gravel, sand, charcoal, and fabric to remove debris and pathogens.  Over the course of six or more hours of direct exposure, UV sunlight can kill harmful pathogens as well. For this you will need a clear (not colored) plastic bottle and a clear, sunny day.  Finally, you can dig a seep well if needed.  This method is iffy, but it is better than nothing.  Dig a hole about six feet from the edge of the water.  Make it deep enough that it dips below the water line.  Let water slowly seep into the well until it is full and give it 30 minutes for debris to settle to the bottom before drinking.  If the water is seeping in fast, move further away and try again.

Building a Survival Shelter

In some scenarios, building a fire is simply not an option.  If this is the case, you will need a shelter to stay warm.  Hypothermia is the primary cause of death for people in a survival situation.  If you know what you are doing, you can build a shelter using only natural materials.  The easiest shelter to build is a lean-to.  This shelter can protect you from rain, snow, and wind from one direction.  Find two trees that are about 10 feet apart and perpendicular to the wind direction.  Clear out the area on the side towards the wind so there are no plants, rocks, sticks, or other debris.  Find or cut a ridge pole 10 to 12 feet long and rest it on branches about four to five feet off of the ground.  Find or cut a bunch of smaller poles that are about five to six feet long.  Lean them against the ridge pole so that your roof is facing the wind.  Then cover the whole thing in several feet of insulation such as dry leaves or spruce boughs. 

debris shelter

If you have no fire, you can build a more enclosed shelter called a debris hut.  This shelter is designed to work like a natural sleeping bag to insulate your body heat.  Start with two support poles about four feet long and lean them against each other.  Then lean a 10-foot ridge pole on your support poles to create a tripod.  If you have cordage, you should secure this joint.  Add additional poles of various lengths to both sides of the ridge pole so that they lean at a 45-degree angle.  Then add at least four feet of insulation on top of the whole structure.  Climb inside and pull your pack in behind you to act as a door and hold in the heat.

It is important that you build a bed of some kind with every shelter.  Sleeping directly on the ground will suck the heat right out of your body.  You need to be at least four inches off of the dirt.  A platform can be built to get the elevation you need if you have cordage.  If not, you can just pile up insulation such as leaves or spruce boughs.  However, it takes much more than four inches of insulation to keep your body four inches off of the ground as the insulation will compact.

Signaling for Help

Your best chances of rescue in a survival scenario are found when you stay where you are and signal for help.  However, you must know the right ways to get the attention of rescuers in the area.  Contrast is the key to a good signal.  Your signal must stand out against your natural surroundings.  If it is a sound-based signal, it must be loud and artificial sounding like blowing a whistle or beating against something metal.  If it is a visual signal, it must create irregular motion or consist of colors that contrast their background.

There are several types of visual signals you can use.  In low light, flashlights and laser pointers work well.  You can flash them on and off rapidly, or you can use Morse code to communicate ‘SOS’.  If you have clothing or tarps that have bright colors, you can attach them to a pole and wave a flag.  For stationary signals, you can spell out ‘SOS’ on the ground in an open area or just create three parallel lines side by side. They are both universal signs for distress.  If you are building a signal on snow, use dark poles or stones for your signal.  If you are building on a dark patch of dirt, use light colored stones or bark.

Finally, if you are with a vehicle it is best that you stay with your vehicle.  It is actually the best signaling device you can have.  Rescuers are trained to look for vehicles.  They are large, metallic, and often brightly colored.  You can flash the lights or turn on the hazards.  You can honk the horn or set off the alarm.  You can even burn the tires and seat cushions to create black smoke for smoke signals.  If you decide to use smoke, you can use a blanket or tarp to create three small plumes, three large plumes, and three small plumes.  This is Morse code for ‘SOS’.

Basic First Aid

It is important that you know some simple first aid if you are injured or sick in the wilderness.  One of the most common reasons for people getting stuck in the woods is a foot or leg injury.  If you have a severe cut, you will need to prevent infection and stop the bleeding.  First, apply direct pressure to the wound preferably with a cloth.  Once the bleeding has stopped, clean out the wound with clean water.  Bandage the wound with cloth to keep it clean.  If you have the proper supplies, you can stitch a deep cut to keep it closed.  If you hit an artery, you will have to stop the bleeding quickly.  A tourniquet may be your only option but should be a last resort as you may lose that limb.  Wrap cloth or cordage tightly around the limb above the cut, put a stick under the cordage, twist the stick to tighten the tourniquet, and secure the stick in place. Always raise a cut limb above your heart to slow the bleeding.

Broken bones and twisted ankles are two more issues that can get you stuck in the wilderness.  If it is a compound fracture, always treat the bleeding before you worry about a splint.  If there is no bleeding, find two or three straight sticks about two feet long.  Place them along the broken bone and tie around them in several places with cordage or cloth.  This should stabilize the broken bone, but you likely will not be able to put any weight on it.  If it is an arm that is broken, use a large piece of cloth or some cordage to make a sling.  This will keep your arm stationary so you do not make the injury any worse.

Other important first aid techniques are CPR and the Heimlich maneuver.  CPR is intended for drowning victims and anybody else that has no pulse.  You will want to kneel next to the victim and place one hand over the other on their sternum.  Keep your elbows locked and use your body weight to press down firmly.  Do this compression 30 times at a rate of about two compressions per second, and then check for a pulse.  Repeat if needed.  Recent updates in the CPR process suggest that you not attempt mouth to mouth, but only stick to the chest compressions.  If a person is choking, first attempt a finger sweep to clear the airway.  If this does not dislodge the object, stand behind the victim and wrap your arms around them locking your wrists.  Place your hands between their naval and sternum and jerk back towards you until the object is dislodged.

Land Navigation

There are times when your only option is to hike to safety.  Unfortunately, some people do not take the time or effort to tell anybody where they are going or when they should be back.  If you have nobody looking for you, it may be best to get on the move.  However, the biggest mistake you can make is to start hiking without knowing in which direction you need to hike.  Having a map and compass is a huge advantage.  With your compass you can determine the four cardinal directions.  You can then orient your map with the compass so you can identify in which direction you will find the closest help.  Look for roads, trails, buildings, and bodies of water.

Many people rely upon GPS devices or GPS on their phones these days.  However, some wilderness locations will have no signal.  In addition, these devices will eventually run out of battery. They can also be broken in a fall or waterlogged if dropped in a stream.  You want to have other ways to navigate.  If you have no compass, you can use the sun to orient your map.  Drive a straight stick into the ground and mark the tip of the shadow created.  Wait 20 minutes and mark the tip of that shadow.  Draw a line between the two marks, and you have your East/West line.  Draw a perpendicular line, and you have your North/South line.  If you have no map, following large bodies of water can be helpful.  You can follow creeks downstream until they flow into rivers or lakes where people might be.  You can also follow shorelines to accomplish the same thing.

Prepping your Home and Vehicle

Some of the most common disasters you can face are those that happen in your home or vehicle. House fires, break-ins, and vehicle breakdowns are three of the most likely situations you can face that threaten your life. Because of this, it is vital that you prepare for these scenarios.

For house fires, be sure you have plenty of smoke detectors and fire extinguishers. Develop a plan for your family to escape the house and call for help. For home invasions, be sure the adults know to get any kids gathered and have a designated room in which to stay. Designate somebody to call 911.

If you have weapons, identify who is best to use them and how. You may also want to install cameras or an alarm system to alert you of intruders.

Finally, make sure you keep your vehicle stocked with needed survival items. This is especially true in the winter as you can slide off the road and get stuck in the middle of nowhere. Blankets, food, water, a jump pack, a tire pump, flares, a phone charger, lighters, and a change of clothes can all help you survive if you are stuck waiting for help.

Understand that these seven skills are just scratching the surface of what you can learn to help you survive.  In addition, reading alone is simply not enough.  You must take the time to practice these skills so you are ready when you life depends upon it. Continue to read, continue to practice, pick up inexpensive gear to help you be more prepared, and you can be sure your odds will be better in survival situations.

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