How to Survive in the Woods
Ever been on a hike admiring the wild flowers, gazing up at the tips of the trees, and suddenly found yourself completely alone and lost? What would happen to you if you couldn’t find your way back to safety? While being lost in the woods can be a frightening experience, surviving alone in the wild is generally a matter of common sense, patience, and wisely using the gifts that nature provides. All you need to survive for a few days is shelter, warmth, water, and food.
1. Plan ahead. Don’t just trek off into the wilderness, do some research first. There are a lot of resources regarding and in libraries, but warning: many of the techniques used in these manuals are sometimes wrong or incomplete. One of the most accurate books about this subject is “Bushcraft – Outdoor Skills and Wilderness Survival” by Mors Kochanski. Educate yourself about the flora and fauna of the area you are exploring. Knowledge of the local plants and animals can save your life! Also, see if you need any medication or injections.
2. Make sure someone knows where you are going every time you go into the wilderness, and how long you intend to be gone. That way someone will realize that you are missing, quickly help your friends alert rescuers, and be able to tell them where to start looking for you. Note: this is like a ‘flight plan’ which pilots file before leaving. Similarly, don’t forget to call the person(s) you notified to tell them when you are back. Like “the boy who cried wolf” a false alarm wastes rescue resources and may be costly (some communities have begun to bill the parties responsible).
3. Be prepared. Basic survival tools such as a knife, a magnesium stone, some matches, some cord, a whistle, a “space blanket”, signaling mirror, etc. can mean the difference between life and death. Even if you are only out on a day hike, be sure to bring the essentials. Having all this equipment is nothing if you cannot use it properly. Make sure to practice many times in a safe environment before venturing into the wilderness. Also, know how to catch and cook fish and game if the need arises.
4. Cell phone with spare battery or a portable CB radio can be your best, quickest means of rescue if you are truly lost or injured. A cell signal may only be obtainable from a hill or tree – but be safe if contemplating a climb. Serious hikers may even consider investing in a personal locator beacon for extended, precarious, or very remote, treks.
During the situation
1. Don’t panic. Panic is more dangerous than almost anything else, because it interferes with the operation of your single best, most useful and versatile survival tool: your mind. The moment you realize that you are lost, before you do anything else, stop. Take a deep breath and stay calm. Even if you’re hanging from a rope halfway down a mountainside with a broken leg, remind yourself that people have survived exactly this situation.
2. Stand still and look around carefully! Wherever you are will become your “point zero.” Find a way to mark it using a spare piece of clothing, a pile of rocks, a sheet of paper, or anything else easily visible from a distance.
3. Stay in one place, and you not only increase your chances of being found, you also increase your ability to survive by reducing the energy your body expends and the amount of water and food you will need. Hunker down and stay put. Chances are that someone will be looking for you, especially if you let someone know your plans, (see above).
4. Signal your location to maximize the odds that someone finds you. Make noise by whistling, shouting, singing, or banging rocks together. If you can, mark your location in such a way that it’s visible from the air. If you’re in a mountain meadow, make three piles of dark leaves or branches in a triangle. In sandy areas, make a large triangle in the sand. In a forest, you might want to prepare three small fires ready to ignite at a moment’s notice, with heaps of wet leaves nearby in order to make smoke. Three of anything in the wilderness is a standard distress signal.
5. Start scouting your area, carefully keeping track of your location. Be sure you can always find your way back to your “point zero” as you search for water, shelter, or your way home.
6. Find or create shelter. Without adequate shelter, you will be fully exposed to the elements and will risk hypothermia or heatstroke, depending on the weather. If you are not properly dressed for the conditions, finding shelter is all the more important. Luckily, the woods are filled with tools and resources to make both shelters and fires (for warmth, safety, and signaling purposes). Here are some things you can use:
* Look for a fallen or leaning tree. You can build a lean-to by stacking branches alongside a fallen tree, then over the branches with brush, palm fronds, or other plants.
* Use brush or green branches (boughs) from trees to repel water, block wind, keep out snow, or create shade. Close in your shelter on as many sides as possible.
* Caves can be great, but be sure the cave is not already occupied by bears, large cats, snakes or other unfriendly animals; they know caves are good too, and they’ve been looking for good shelter for longer than you have. Also make sure it’s not going to collapse on you- this reduces your chances of survival considerably.
7. Find a good source of water. In a survival situation, you can last up to three days without water, but by the end of the second day you’re not going to be in very good shape; find water before then.
* The best source of water is a spring, but the chances of finding one are slim. A running stream is your next best bet; the movement of the water reduces sediment. Be advised that drinking water from streams can lead to some sicknesses, but when you’re in a life-or-death situation, the risk of illness is a secondary consideration.
* Or use jacket sleeves to tie around your ankles when it’s morning, and walk in the grass to get dew on the sleeves, then suck the moisture out of the fabric.
8. Purify your water. A crude method of water purification is to take your handy pot and heat the water. For this to effectively kill bacteria, it must be at a rolling boil for at least three minutes.
9. Build a fire. Build a good sized fire, one with sufficient coals to stay hot for many hours, and make sure that you have plenty of extra dry wood.
* A good rule of thumb is to gather wood until you have enough to last the night, then gather three more piles of the same size, and you might have enough to get through the night.
* In the wilderness you should have access to dry wood in the understory of the forest. You can also use bark or dried dung. If you build a fire that is hot enough, you can also burn green wood, brush, or tree boughs to make a signaling fire (one that makes a lot of smoke).
* The best wood for maintaining a fire is dead wood that you pull off a standing tree. Regardless of what type of woods you are in, there will certainly be some dry wood available. Remember that a small fire is easier to keep burning than a big fire, though, because it requires less fuel. Once you have sufficient embers, keep the fire to a manageable size so you don’t spend too much time looking for fuel.
* Find tinder (small material, such as dry grass, feathers or bark shavings, that burns easily). When burned, Tinder creates alot of smoke, that alerts people to your location.
* Start the fire. You can usually use the energy from the sun to start a fire with a magnifying glass, a lens from your glasses, a piece of broken glass, a cover to a watch or compass, or other clear, light-intensifying objects. It is very difficult to start a fire by friction; your best bet is to carry a variety of fire-starting implements.
10. Find safe food. Know that most healthy adults can survive up to three weeks without food unless it’s cold. It’s better to be hungry and healthy than ill. Make sure that you know food is safe before eating it. If there is anything that will lessen your ability to survive, it is being both lost and deathly ill. Starvation won’t be a big problem.
* Don’t be afraid to eat insects and other bugs. While it may be disgusting to eat a few grasshoppers, they do provide useful nutrition. All insects should be cooked as they can harbor parasites that can kill you. Do not eat any caterpillars or brightly colored insects, as these can poison you. Do not eat any insect that can bite or sting you, such as bees and scorpions. Remember if it has six legs or less, it’s most likely ok to eat. Remove the legs, head and wings of any insect before eating.
* If you are near water, fish are a good choice. The only problem is they are hard to catch. Minnows can be eaten whole. Bigger fish will have to be cooked.
* Berries are good to eat. There is a color test to berries that can help you find what is edible. White and yellow berries are poisonous 90% of the time. Blue and black berries are okay to eat 90% of the time. Red berries are a 50-50 shot. Aggregate berries (Bumpy ones like blackberries and raspberries ) are okay to eat 100% of the time, with the only exception being a white berry that grows in Alaska.
* Tie bright clothing (jackets, bandannas, and even underwear) to the top of a tree to attract attention.
* If you’re stuck without a compass, you can orient yourself by taking your watch, aligning the hour hand with the sun, then placing a blade of grass in between the hour hand and the 12 on your watch. The direction the blade of grass is pointing is South. This works in the Northern Hemisphere. In the Southern Hemisphere, reverse the role of the the hour-hand and 12, and the blade of grass will be pointing North. Near the equator, take note where the sun rises and sets, the sun rises from the east and sets on the west.
* You can survive several weeks without food, but only few days without water, and perhaps only hours without shelter. Keep your priorities straight.
* If you’re not absolutely sure where you are and how to get back to familiar territory, don’t proclaim, “I think it’s this way.” The more you move once you realize you’re lost, the worse your chances are of finding your way back.
* Consider taking a staff or walking stick with you. If you don’t have one, any staff-sized stick will do. The little mark it makes in the dirt will help you retrace your steps better than Hansel and Gretel.
* It is safer not to go into the wilderness alone.
* One of the most important survival tools is something that most people never consider: a tin cup. Without a tin cup it is difficult to cook many foods.
* A firearm has always been an essential tool of the woods. A .22 rifle or pistol can serve as a means of obtaining food, self-protection from humans or animals and a signaling device. The cartridges can also be used for fire-starting.
* Another under rated but important item for a survival pack is a large lightweight trash bag. They pack down small, but can be used to carry water from a stream, can be wrapped around a leafy branch end to trap the water vapor given off from the leaves, and can be used as an emergency poncho in wet or cold weather after cutting a hole for head and arms. Stuffing your makeshift poncho with extra leaves or grass can also give additional insulation when cold.
* Don’t rely upon modern technology like cell phones, GPS units, or radios to save you if you are lost. Take one with you if it’s available. But remember that these items are not foolproof; have a backup plan.
* An important acronym to remember is “STOP” which stands for stop, think, observe, and plan.
* Whenever you go out in the wilderness, (for example, going on a hike), bring a whistle. 1 blow means “I’m lost”, 2 blows means “I’m coming” (if you hear someone else blow a whistle), and 3 blows means “This is an emergency” (if you are hurt).
* At night, there is a greater risk of freezing to death. Stay dry. Bundle up. Get yourself off the ground. Make a “bed” of layers of branches, leaves, twigs, whatever is there, and cover yourself with the same stuff. To stay warm at night, heat rocks in the fire and then bury them. Sleep on top of the buried rocks. Make sure you bury them deep enough or you will burn yourself.
* If you happen to have a reflective object on you (a mirror, a belt buckle, whatever), use it as a signal by facing it towards the sun.
* If planning an extended trip into difficult or unfamiliar terrain, it is always a good idea to have a backup plan. Detailed maps/trail guides, extra food and water, and signaling devices such as a mirror, flare, or even (depending on the length and location of the trip) a satellite beacon (PLB) could save your life.
* Rain, snow, or dew can be a good source of clean water. You can use anything from a cup to a piece of waterproof cloth to a large leaf to collect precipitation.
* If you cannot stay where you are until someone finds you, do not just pick a direction and start walking, even if you have a means of ensuring that you continue to go that direction. Instead, try to go either uphill or downhill. Going uphill offers a good chance that you will find a vantage point, which can help you get your bearings. If you go downhill, you will probably find water which you can follow downstream; in many cases, this will lead you to civilization. But don’t follow water downstream at night or in fog as it may go off a cliff.
* Never, ever go into the woods without a compass. Note which direction you enter the woods from, say, a straight road or trail and if you get disoriented just head back in the opposite direction from which you entered. If you don’t have one, use or learn your cardinal directions from the stars and the positions of the sun and moon.
* Shoe/Boot laces make good rope in an emergency situation, but remember once they’re removed, walking will become more difficult.
* Shirt sleeves can be cut off and used as bandages if necessary. Remember to only tie them around a wound so that they are still loose enough to stick one or two fingers between the bandage and the appendage/body.
* A belt can also be used to hold a bandage in place (not too tightly!), as an equipment strap, or as a snare.
* The sleeves of a waterproof jacket can be used to hold water by tying one end of them.
* If you want to fish, you can make a fishing rod out of a stick about 2 meters (6 feet) long and 1-3 inches thick (just bring your own fishing hooks). Peel the bark off the stick and, with a knife or axe, cut a notch about 2-3 inches from the top of the rod. Tie one end of any string or cord placed in the notch, then tie the hook on the other end of the string or cord. Also, you can try to bait the hook with a small piece of meat, an insect, or any other thing you want to try to use as bait.
* Your primary survival knife should be a fixed blade with a solid, sturdy handle; a folding knife should only be used as a back-up, although it is better than nothing.
* Keep your fire contained! Ensure that there is no combustible material underneath your fireplace and enclose it completely with rocks or a berm made of sand. Put your fire out with copious amounts of water: saturate it, so that there is no possibility of even the tiniest spark remaining. You should be able to touch the extinguished coals with your bare hand. It’s one thing to be lost in the woods, but quite another to be lost and surrounded by a forest fire caused by your own negligence.
* If you encounter snakes, leave them alone. Snakes bite because they are hungry or because they are threatened. We are too big to be seen as prey to most snakes; they do not regard humans as food. Stand still and the snake will go away. Attack it and it will retaliate. If one curls up in your kit, use a long stick to gently prod it away. If it comes in your direction, stand still. It doesn’t know that you are causing its discomfort and if you do not jump around, it will probably not even notice you. There are several ways to identify venomous snakes, but it is best to treat every snake cautiously unless you can make a positive identification. In a survival situation, it is possible to eat snake. If you don’t know whether a snake is venomous or not, but would like to eat it, a good rule of thumb is to cut off the head, and then cut the same distance back from that point down the body. This will remove the venom glands, if there are any. Remember, though, that it is against federal law to kill certain endangered species of snakes, and it is against some state laws to kill any snake (snakes help control vermin and insect levels).
* Make sure that, if you heat rocks for warmth, that they are not wet. When heating them in the fire, they will explode as the water inside the cracks turn to vapor. Keep in mind that this might also be a concern when in a cave–too much heat on overhanging or adjacent rocks can cause explosions or shifting of your shelter.
* Never travel directly in a river because water absorbs your heat much more than air, which can lead to hypothermia.
* Drinking your own urine as a source of water is not recommended.
Things You’ll Need
These are things that are very hard to make or that you won’t find in the woods.
* Whistle with a compass in it (these are sold on a necklace of cord sometimes, and you can use the cord, too, if you need it)
* Water container
* Fire starters – Matches, Lighter, Flint/Magnesiumn & Steel, Magnifying glass or lens(sometimes on the cord of a compass)
* Lint or fluff (it’s weightless and good tinder)
* Pot to boil water/cook food
* Universal tool/Swiss Army Knife
* Map of area
* Fishing hooks and a good quantity of fishing line. Coil it up and stow in a pocket. The hooks are good if you want to fish, but can come in handy for other purposes, too, and they weigh almost nothing. Stick them and the wire into your wallet and put it in your back pocket.
* Three or four protein bars, or small portions of trail mix
* Space blanket or bivvy bag (both high visibility of reflective)
* Basic first aid kit
* Small water bottles(unopened until you get lost)
* At least a 5 inch pocket knife
* water purifying tablets
* spare clothes
* magnifying glass (for fire)
* cotton balls in a bag with Vaseline on them (This is not only for chapped lips, but as an ointment for cuts and sunburn relief. Most importantly, when you tear the cotton balls, and mix them with the Vaseline, the result is very flammable, which will burn smoothly and for a long duration. This is great for making torches and starting fires. Do not use on burns!)
* Sewing kit/floss(useful for repairs and fishing line)
Written By: Tom Preston