Basic Outdoor Survival
by Dennis Phan
Download the materials for this course:
The following notes are a compilation from:
- several books of Creek Stewart, outdoor survivalist
- US Army SERE Handbook (Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape)
- US Navy Blue Jackets Handbook
- Personal notes/logs from USAF SERE training
- Wildwood Survival website:
12 Sills for survival:
Survival Skill #1
Locating a Suitable Campsite
“You want to stay high and dry,” Avoid valleys and paths where water may flow toward you (flash floods get their name for a reason—they can deluge a low-lying area in minutes). Choose a campsite free from natural dangers like insect nests and widow-makers—dead branches that may crash down in the middle of the night—as well as falling rocks. Ideally, you want to be close to resources like running water, dry wood (from which you can assemble your shelter and build a fire) and rocky walls or formations that can shield you from the elements.
Survival Skill #2
Building a Shelter
Not surprisingly, hypothermia is the number one outdoor killer in cold weather. That means a well-insulated shelter should be your top priority in a prolonged survival situation. To make a simple lean-to, find a downed tree resting at an angle, or set a large branch securely against a standing tree, and stack smaller branches close together on one side. Layer debris, like leaves and moss, across the angled wall. Lastly, insulate yourself from the cold ground–which will draw heat from your warm body–by layering four to six inches of debris to lie on.
Survival Skill #3
Starting a Fire With a Battery
Any battery will do, “It’s about short-circuiting the battery.” Connect the negative and positive terminals with a wire, foil (like a gum wrapper), or steel wool to create a spark to drive onto your tinder bundle. Have your firewood ready.
Survival Skill #4
Building Your Fire
View fire building in terms of four key ingredients: tinder bundle of dry, fibrous material (cotton balls covered in Vaseline or lip balm are an excellent choice, if you’ve got them) and wood in three sizes—toothpick, Q-tip, and pencil. Use a forearm-sized log as a base and windscreen for your tinder. When the tinder is lit, stack the smaller kindling against the larger log, like a lean-to, to allow oxygen to pass through and feed the flames. Add larger kindling as the flame grows, until the fire is hot enough for bigger logs.
Survival Skill #5
Finding clean water
“You’ll come across two kinds of water in the wild,” “Potable water that’s already purified, and water that can kill you.” When it comes to questionable water—essentially anything that’s been on the ground long-term, like puddles and streams—your best option is boiling water, which is 100 percent effective in killing pathogens. But sometimes boiling isn’t an option.
Rain, snow, and dew are reliable sources of clean water you can collect with surprising ease, and they don’t need to be purified. With a couple of bandanas, you can collect two gallons of water in an hour by soaking up dew and ringing out the bandanas. You can also squeeze water from vines, thistles, and certain cacti. Are there any maple trees around? Cut a hole in the bark and let the watery syrup flow—nature’s energy drink.
Survival Skill #6
Collecting Water With a Transpiration Bag
Like humans, plants “sweat” throughout the day—it’s a process called transpiration. To take advantage of this clean, pure source of water, put a clear plastic bag over a leafy branch and tie it tightly closed. When you return later in the day, water will have condensed on the inside of the bag, ready to drink.
Survival Skill #7
Identifying Edible Plants
There’s no need to go after big game in a survival situation, and chances are you’ll waste energy in a fruitless attempt to bring them down. “Make your living on the smalls,”. That means eating edible plants (as well as small critters like fish, frogs, and lizards).
Separating the plants you can eat from those that will kill you is a matter of study and memorization. Buy a book to familiarize yourself with plants in different environments. And don’t take any chances if you’re uncertain (remember how Chris McCandles died in the end of Into the Wild). A few common edible plants include cattail, lambsquarter (also called wild spinach), and dandelions. Find these and eat up.
Survival Skill #8
Using a Split-tip Gig to Catch Critters
Gigging (hunting with a multi-pronged spear) is the simplest way to catch anything from snakes to fish. Cut down a sapling of about an inch in diameter, and then split the fat end with a knife (or sharp rock) into four equal sections ten inches down. Push a stick between the tines to spread them apart, then sharpen the points. You’ve got an easy-to-use four-pronged spear. Much easier for catching critters than a single sharp point.
Survival Skill #9
Navigating By Day
If you ever find yourself without a GPS tool (or a simple map and compass) you can still use the sky to find your way. The most obvious method to get a general bearing by day is to look at the sun, which rises approximately in the east and sets approximately in the west anywhere in the world. But you can also use an analog watch to find the north-south line. Just hold the watch horizontally and point the hour hand at the sun. Imagine a line running exactly midway between the hour hand and 12 o’clock. This is the north-south line. On daylight savings? Draw the line between the hour hand and one o’clock.
Survival Skill #10
Navigating By Night
Find Polaris, or the North Star, which is the end of the Little Dipper’s handle. If you can find the Big Dipper, draw a line between the two stars at the outer edge of the constellation’s dipper portion. Extend this line toward the Little Dipper, and it will line up with Polaris. Face Polaris, and you’re facing true north. If there is a crescent moon in the sky, connect the horns of the crescent with an imaginary line. Extend this line to the horizon to indicate a southerly bearing. Once you determine your direction, pick a landmark nearby or in the distance to follow by daylight.
Survival Skill #11
Tying a Bowline
Knots come in handy for a slew of survival scenarios—tying snares, securing shelters, lowering equipment or yourself down a cliff face. Ideally, you should have an arsenal of knots, from hitches to bends to loops, in your repertoire. But if you learn only one, learn the bowline.
“It’s your number one, go-to rescue knot,” if you use a mnemonic for every knot, says. It’s foolproof for fastening rope to an object via a loop, particularly when the rope will be loaded with weight: the harder you pull, the tighter the knot gets. The mnemonic for tying the bowline from any angle is “the rabbit comes out of the hole, around the tree, and back in the hole.” A good website for learning knots is at Knots by Grog. http://www.animatedknots.com/
Survival Skill #12
Sending Up a Survival Signal
At times—like when you have a debilitating injury—your only hope for getting saved is to maximize your visibility so rescuers can find you. Two methods, if used properly, will guarantee that, if someone’s looking, they’ll see you.
The first is a signal fire—and the first rule is to put it out in the open for visibility. That means hilltops or clearings in a forest where nothing, like a cliff face or trees, will disperse the smoke. Create a platform to raise the base of the fire off the ground so moisture doesn’t saturate the wood. Save your absolute best combustible material for your signal fire to guarantee a quick light. Once the fire is lit, pile on green branches, like pine boughs in winter, to produce thick smoke. “It’s not about warmth, it’s about 15 seconds of smoke,” “That’s about all you’ve got when you hear a plane before it’s out of sight.”
The second is a mirror signal. A flash from signal mirror—even at night, by moonlight—can be seen for miles, much farther than any flashlight. You don’t need a store-bought signal mirror to be effective. Improvise with any reflective surface you’ve got, from rearview mirrors or headlights to a cell phone screen. Aiming the reflection is the key, and it’s simple. Hold out a peace sign and place your target–be it plane or boat–between your fingers. Then flash the reflection back and forth across your fingers.
10 NEEDS for survival
Sometimes we forget how easy we have it. Amid our crazy life schedules we tend to take for granted that purified bottle of water when thirsty, or the push of a button to light a fire. But it’s important to remember that in the blink of an eye, it can all be gone. The unexpected happens, you get in an accident or lose your way; now, it’s just you and the wilderness with no ties to civilization. Here are ten basic survival tips to get you prepared– just in case.
COMMUNICATION IS KEY
Please please please tell someone where you are going before you set off for a trip. No matter where you go, even if you end up stranded unexpectedly, you started from somewhere in civilization. Tell close friends and family where you are going and if you have a specific route or amount of time you will be gone.
KEEP YOUR HEAD ON
Now is the time to be calm and think positive. It doesn’t sound like much, but optimism goes a long way, and in a survival situation, it starts with you, your attitude and your will, no matter how scared and alone you may feel. First, keep a realistic outlook and diligently plan to keep yourself in the best possible physical and mental state. If something isn’t working out, like building a fire or shelter, don’t rush, because that can lead to panic. Stop, breathe and think about what you need, observe your surroundings and organize a new plan.
Keep everything you’ve got, because the second plans go south, these items will become your most prized possessions and could save your life. Don’t underestimate the worthiness of even the smallest knick knack-in Gary Paulson’s classic, The Hatchet, Brian Robeson used his shoe lace to make a nifty bow and arrow for survival!
BUILD A SHELTER
It’s time to get creative. Familiarize yourself with how to build a lean-to; there are various types of shelters you can build and each has different pros and cons. Obviously you want overhead covering for warmth at night and protection from the elements. If you are in rocky, mountainous terrain, look for overhangs. Otherwise, use limbs and leaves or anything that can provide insulation. Pine needles usually blanket the ground in thick batches, excellent for bedding.
AGUA POR FAVOR
Your body will not last more than three days without water. If you are lucky enough to be near a body of fresh water — good for you, just make sure to boil before quenching your thirst. No water in sight? Continue your search and construct a rain catcher or water still.
KEEP THAT BELLY HAPPY
Things can get frustrating when it comes to finding adequate sources of food when you are in survival mode, especially since malnutrition will work you mentally and physically, making you feel weak, cranky and delirious. It’s a good idea to get familiar with edible wild berries and plants for future reference when out in the wild. Also, it’s time to grow up and banish the word “picky” from your vocabulary. When it comes to survival, embrace anything and everything (carefully) including bugs, eggs, fruit, leaves. Learn to build some simple traps to catch small animals and don’t rely on just one single food source. Protein is important for strength; know what various nutrients your body needs for prime sustainability.
LIGHT THAT FIRE
Those glowing red flames provide light, cooked food, warmth and protection from predators and pesky bugs. Here are a few tried and true techniques for conjuring that mighty blaze:
- Fire Plow
- Bow and Drill
- Lens Method
- Fire from Ice
- Soda Can and Chocolate
- Battery method
ONE WORD: TOOL
Keep a pocket knife, or multi-tool with you at all times, because you never know when you will need it– and when you do need it, you will rejoice that you have something to cut, protect and prepare food– even if all you have is a crappy, little knife. Now just learn how to sharpen it like MacGuyver.
Survival is your first priority, but don’t forget– you need to get rescued as well. Come up with an action plan in case a plane flies overhead or there are search parties nearby. You’ve seen it in the movies — prepare a giant, easily visible fire pit out in the open or lay out stones in the pattern of HELP or S.O.S. You can also use any shiny, metallic object for reflection purposes.
It’s a good idea to have a compass with you at all times, but if not then what? Get old school and use the stars- it’s a lot easier than you think. Also, keep note of rivers, paths or mountains– following these can lead to roads and civilization.
1. No Shelter
This is a two fold mistake that will cost you your life in a Wilderness Survival Situation. The first fold of this mistake is not having a proper shelter with you, the second fold is not having the knowledge to build a shelter from nature’s tools which are all around you. When talking about someone or a group of people who died in the Wilderness there is a common term that you will hear come up, exposure. Whether it is hypothermia or heat stroke, the bottom line is you either did not have shelter (tent, tarp, sleeping bag with bivvy) or you didn’t have the knowledge to build a suitable shelter to shield yourself from the elements. Remember, Staying Dry is the first rule of Survival.
2. Lack of Good Navigation Tools
People who venture into the Wilderness without a map, compass, and GPS are flirting with disaster.
Anyone who has spent time in the woods knows that within seconds even the best woodsman can get turned around in thick trees and bushes and begin to walk the wrong way. The key to navigation is having a back up method to find your way to safety, remember “Two is One and One is None” never rely on GPS alone. Having a good understanding of cardinal directions using the Sun and Stars is also beneficial if you are thrown into a situation where prior preparation wasn’t available (plane crash, boat wreck).
3. Poor Knowledge
“Be Prepared” is the motto of the Boy Scouts, unfortunately most people who find themselves in a Wilderness Survival situation have very poor knowledge on how to survive and are usually totally unprepared.
Know the 5 keys to Wilderness Survival
- Know how to build a shelter
- Know how to signal for help
- Know what to eat & how to find it
- Know how to build and maintain a fire
- Know how to find water and prepare safe water to drink.
4. Miscalculating the Risk
Most Wilderness Survival situations start off very innocent; like a fishing trip with friends, a day hike on a familiar trail, or a planned father & son hunting trip. Then things go terribly wrong and suddenly you are faced with a life and death scenario. The only thing you can do is plan for the unexpected. Sit down and go through contingencies before you set off on your trip. Once you leave, it is too late. There is an old military saying “Failing to Plan is Planning to Fail.” Make sure you have done this same process with your emergency car kit.
5. The Wrong Clothes
As a rule you should always dress one layer warmer than you need. You can always take stuff off and wrap it around your waist, stuff into your pockets or put it in your backpack if you get hot. But once you leave an article of clothing behind there is nothing worse than being cold knowing that you left your jacket in the closet. Also remember the outdoor sayings about Cotton. (Cotton Kills, Friends don’t let friends wear Cotton, and Cotton is Rotten) Find and wear clothes that retain their warmth even after they become wet. Also have a shell jacket and pants of some kind for rain and snow. Remember, most cases of hypothermia happen in temperatures over 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
6. Getting Drinkable Water
We all know that the human body doesn’t last long without water. The question you have to ask yourself in a Wilderness Survival situation is “Will this water make me sick?” Waterborne organisms such as cryptosporidium and giardia can cause severe diarrhea and vomiting that increases dehydration and reduces your ability to carry on your other survival efforts such as building shelter, finding food, and signaling for help. On the flip side dehydration will kill you in a matter of days. Without a good supply of pure drinking water, the body can become dehydrated very quickly. Along with dehydration comes poor judgment, loss of energy, and eventually you will lose the will to survive. There are several methods for purifying water (Boiling it, Chemical tablets, & Water Filters) and there are several methods for catching rainwater or dew. Learn these strategies and be prepared.
7. No Signal Plan
Being able to signal for help is a key trait in Wilderness Survival. If you go to almost any outdoor store they will have a whole section dedicated to these devices. The most common ones are whistles and signal mirrors but you also have to think about being able to use fire starting devices and high beam flashlights. Other good tools to have are radios, bright clothes, and emergency beacon devices such as ACR or SPOT. If you are caught in a Wilderness Survival situation without any of these tools, have an understanding for creating an emergency signal using rocks, trees, snow, or dirt.
It is only one word but in Wilderness Survival it has many meanings. Warmth: a good fire can keep you and your loved ones warm in some of the worst conditions. Protection: a strong fire can keep you safe from predators and a long burning stick has scared more than one animal away. Signal: a blazing fire can be seen for miles away at night and the smoke can be seen during the day. Purifier: a hot fire can be used to boil water and keep your drinking water safe. Keep several methods of making a fire with you when traveling in the Wilderness and also learn how to make a fire the old fashion way……with two sticks.