The Top 25 Life-Saving Survival Skills
From maintaining a positive mindset to knowing how to start a fire without matches, survival experts share their go-to advice for making the best of any bad situation in the wild
Imagine for a moment that you are thrust into an unexpected survival situation, and you need to rely on people in your group for a successful outcome. Now imagine the people in that group are all accomplished survival instructors, survival authors, and similar experts in the field. At that moment you’d probably start feeling a lot more optimistic about your position, and follow their directions to a tee.
Thankfully, you don’t have to be in a survival situation to learn what to do in a survival situation. To help you become confident in bad settings, I gathered advice and tips from several of the most respected outdoor survival authorities, and compiled a list of 25 of the best survival skills. The truth is that people land in survival situations all the time, and those who are prepared with the right tools, knowledge, and mental attitude fare the best. Some of these tips will help you avoid survival situations altogether, while others can help you make an unexpected night outside one in which you thrive, rather than just survive.
1. Carry Fire Starters
Carry fire accelerants in your pack in case you need to start a fire in wet conditions. Products like Solkoa’s FastFire will burn when they’re wet and in the wind, and they require very little heat to get going. Lightweight, inexpensive, and easy to use, these little cubes are lifesavers should you need to make a fire to avoid hypothermia, create a signal, or simply make a restorative cup of coffee. Several come in a pack so stack a few in your hunting pack, fishing bag, the glove box of your vehicle, and anywhere else you can think of—because you never know when the need for heat may arise.
2. Pack a Sack
A 42- or 55-gallon contractor-grade garbage bag is an indispensable, yet often overlooked, piece of survival gear. Bags are very inexpensive, weigh almost nothing, and take up very little space in a pack. In a survival situation, you can fill it with dry natural materials to form bedding, lay it down on the ground as a seat to keep your pants dry, or make a moisture barrier for your bedding. Cut a hole in the bottom of it and place it over your head and you have an makeshift rain jacket. You can bring more than one and also use it to collect water as a transpiration bag, or a simple pack cover to keep your gear dry.
3. Leave Your Location
If you’re planning an adventure, Tracy Trimble, the co-author of Essential Wilderness Navigation, suggests leaving details of your trip with someone responsible and trustworthy before you head out. Write it down and post it on the refrigerator or send it in a text message. Make sure you offer details like where you’re going, when you expect to return, and the names and phone numbers of anyone traveling with you. If for some reason you don’t make it back before the expected time, search-and-rescue can use the details you provide to reach you in a more timely and efficient manner.
4. Power Up
Like many of us, Trimble integrates technology with his love of the outdoors. Cellphones with GPS capacities are as accurate as stand-alone GPS devices, at a fraction of the cost. But like most technology, your cell phone requires battery power to operate, and can remain on for only a finite time. Trimble is a member of two search-and-rescue teams, and he uses his phone as a GPS unit but keeps the device on “airplane mode” to save battery life. He also takes a portable charger to use when necessary. If you are in a group, ask one person to use their device at a time to maximize the group’s battery life.
5. Test Your Gear
Dwayne Unger, the founder of Dwayne Unger Outdoors and 2018 BladeSports world champion, recommends that anyone venturing into the outdoors should experiment with different pieces of survival gear before embarking on an adventure to see what works best for them. For example, some might like to use a water-filtration pump, while others prefer using iodine tablets or a LifeStraw to purify water. For emergencies, Unger advises avoiding pre-assembled first-aid kits. Instead, he says to make your own personalized survival kit so you can customize everything inside based on your activities and for any possible situations that might arise. For example, if you’re not a fan of mini-ferrocerium rods for starting emergency fires, then carry a small waterproof lighter and some fire-starting material instead. Most importantly, Unger says you need to get out and simulate situations to become familiar with your gear. That way you’ll get a better idea of your skills and be able to replace any items that don’t work for you.
6. Avoid Hypothermia
Hypothermia—the loss of body heat faster than your body can produce it—is one of the top five leading causes of death in the backcountry and accounts for nine percent of all deaths on federal and state property. In fact, accidents, illnesses, and hypothermia are the three top causes of death, but also the easiest to prevent from happening. Unger recommends carrying a minimum of two ways to make a fire. One of those should always be a disposable lighter. They are inexpensive, easy to use, and lightweight. That is a nice combination for anything that could save your life on a cold, unexpected overnight stay in the woods. A secondary choice is a backup lighter in another location, a ferro rod, or a Fresnel lens.
7. Bring Extra Clothes
No one knows exactly when a critical or life-threatening situation will occur. Unger says that anytime you plan to take a trip outside, you should always assume you are going to spend an unexpected night outside, and should therefore take the necessary precautions. Ask yourself two questions when prepping your clothes: 1) Will these clothes keep me dry? 2) Will they keep me insulated? If you answer no to either, you should reconsider what you’re packing and instead take something that will stave off things like hypothermia in the event you’re outside overnight.
Wool is a great insulating material because it can take abuse. Even when it’s wet, it remains about 60 percent effective at retaining heat. However, wool does not prevent wind from passing through it. This will effectively cool you down. Primaloft and Primaloft Gold are great polyester, windproof layers that also insulate well when wet, retaining about 85 to 90 percent of your heat. Down is another great insulator, but it loses nearly all its insulating properties when it is damp or wet.
8. Check Your Ego
Jim Cobb, owner of Disaster Prep Consultants and author of several survival books, stresses the importance of having a survival mindset every time you’re outdoors. His philosophy is arrogance will get you killed—and he’s right. He emphasizes that nobody should overestimate their skills, or underestimate the impacts that weather and the environment can have on a situation. There is a big difference between confidence and cockiness. The former leads to good decision-making, and the latter leads to trouble.
9. Mark Waypoints
Cobb also emphasizes how important it is to have good navigation skills in both urban and rural environments. That means always knowing where you are and where you are going. If you are tracking your route on a paper map or an electronic device, take time to mark waypoints regularly. It will help you remain aware of your surroundings, and you’ll be able to accurately gauge the time and distance to your destination, or your return trip home.
10. Know Your Trees
Primitive technologist, Doug Meyer, knows how important it is to identify various trees and plants when collecting or building a tinder bundle to get a fire going. Birch tree bark and fungus, cedar tree bark, pine tree fatwood and resin, and old man’s beard lichen are all great choices that you can easily identify and find in the dead of winter. Doug loves to find beech trees as they are one of the few trees that hold their leaves throughout the winter, which keeps the leaves dry compared to leaves found on the ground. Pick several from the tree to form a bundle, and you’ll have something that will light up as soon as it catches a spark from a ferrocerium rod, flint and steel, or your favorite lighter.
11. Knapp A Knife
Meyer recommends always going into a wilderness setting with reliable and proper gear suited for the tasks you plan to tackle. But, should you happen to lose one of the most important survival tools—your knife—you can improvise a cutting tool by visiting a nearby stream. Along the banks, look for a rock you’ll be able to split—preferably churt. I usually use pieces about the size of a softball. Place it on a hard surface and hit straight down with a larger rock to split the rock into sections. Continue removing smaller “flakes” off the rock by striking in the same direction of the original split, near the edges of the newly formed sections. This skill takes practice, so it’s best to get outside and try it a few times before you need it in a real-world situation. Many of the edges from rocks like a St. Louis Green (photographed above) are sharper than metal blades.
12. Buy a Personal Locator Beacon
Todd Walker, also known as the Survival Sherpa, knows that there are survival situations where time is a factor in determining whether someone lives or dies. It is important to get medical help to someone who cannot make it out under their own power. It’s one of the main reasons he suggests using a personal locator beacon (PLB) in the backcountry. InReach by Garmin, SPOT, and the ACR ResQLink +PLB are all widely used devices with various capabilities. Some devices only send distress messages, while others can send texts between two parties, though there are usually additional charges for those functions. If notified, a search-and-rescue team can pinpoint your exact location quickly and efficiently if you are lost or injured. While some people aren’t keen on taking technology with them in the outdoors, utilizing a PLB could be the difference between life and death.
13. Light a Road Flare
Walker, like many of the survival experts I interviewed, carries multiple tools to create fire. Specifically, he carries a lighter in his pocket, a ferrocerium rod on his key chain, and a Fresnel lens in his wallet. Beyond that, he suggests carrying a road flare in your vehicle in case you desperately need a fire. The flame of a road flare burns at approximately 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and most flares can continue to burn for over 15 minutes. Even under unfavorable conditions like rain or snow, a road flare can get a fire rolling in a short period of time.
14. Wrap Up in a Blanket
Every time you go outside, your most important source of heat is your own body. If you utilize your body heat smartly, you’ll avoid predicaments like hypothermia. That’s why keeping a small, packable, reflective blanket in your supplies is a great idea. Wrap it around your body so when heat naturally radiates off, it is temporarily captured and reflected back toward you. You can also use it for extra warmth on top of your sleeping bag. Just don’t place it directly on the ground and lay upon it. By doing so, you’ll conduct your body heat directly into the earth through the blanket. Lastly, an emergency blanket is bright and shiny and makes a great signaling device.
15. Insulate Yourself
Author and founder of Estela Wilderness Education, Kevin Estela, is one of the most recognized bushcraft and survival instructors in the country. One valuable tip he shares with his students is the importance of insulating yourself from the ground. The ground acts as a heat conductor and can rob your body of heat when you’re sitting or lying down. Estela says you should put down a natural material barrier like dry leaves, pine needles, or tree boughs, along with man-made gear whenever possible. Anything you can do to keep your body from contacting the ground is going to help you maintain your core body temperature.
16. Treat Bug Bites with Toothpaste
Brushing your teeth each day, especially on long hunting or backpacking trips, is not only healthy, it tells your mind and body it’s starting a new day. But did you know toothpaste also has survival uses other than giving you a clean mouth? Peppermint is a natural coolant, and it helps relieve itching on bug bites. It also has cleansing properties and can be used as a hand cleaner and sanitizer. If you find yourself out for a few days longer than you expected, make a spreadable paste with some water and use it to wash off with.
17. Repurpose Your Water Bottle
If you drink water from a recycled plastic container on your way to an outdoor adventure, don’t leave the empty bottle in your vehicle. Instead, put it in the bottom of your pack in case you need to use it later. Estela says you can cut a hole in the bottle top with the tip of your knife, then remove the cap, and fill the bottle with clean, sterile water, and put the cap back on. Create pressure by squeezing the sides of the bottle to force the water to come out of the bottle top. Spray the stream of water into a wound site to clean it of dirt and debris or just keep it in your camp for simple tasks like washing your hands.
18. Recycle Shotgun Shells
Chris Harper, the owner of Skills2Survive, tells his Facebook and Instagram followers to hang on to spent 12-gauge shotgun shells because they make great containers for small survival tools. An empty shell can easily hold matches, tinder, fishing items, or a small first-aid kit with antibiotic ointment and a couple of Band-Aids. They also make great candle holders for when your flashlight runs out of batteries or you need to start a fire. Use yellow shells if possible, and cover the open end with reflective duct tape to make the little cases easier to spot on the ground or in a flashlight beam.
19. Remember Duct Tape
Harper is also an EMT and recommends carrying duct tape along with bandage material to treat small wounds. Like so much other survival gear, Harper says he carries duct tape because it serves more than one purpose. You can use it to start a fire, repair gear, mark a trail, cover a blister, or butterfly stitch a wound. Duct tape, coupled with parachute cord or bank line, is a great combination for tackling several survival situations. (For some other uses of duct tape, see tip No. 23 below.)
20. Carry Cotton Balls
Tim MacWelch is the founder and head instructor of Advanced Survival Training and the author of several survival books. He acknowledges that cotton is not a good choice for clothing in cold weather, but it is a great choice for several other survival situations. Cotton soaks up blood well and you can easily use it to slowly dispense medicinal liquids. For example, MacWelch shows his students how to fill a cotton ball or gauze with antibiotic ointment and place it over an affected spot and secure it with tape so the wound stays clean and constantly receives treatment that prevents infection. You can also soak cotton balls in petroleum jelly and use one or two later to start a fire. (If you need something to store your petroleum balls, remember tip No. 18 above. Spent shotgun shells make great containers.)
21. Create Fire from Junk Food
Who likes chips? You know—the greasy, salty ones you can eat with just about any sandwich? MacWelch points out that the grease in those chips is a flammable oil you can use to your advantage in a survival pinch. Pull a few out and light them up with the open flame from your lighter. In the survival continuum of importance, those chips are not nearly as important for food as they are for a fire that will keep you warm.
22. Signal Search and Rescue
If your wilderness navigation skills are inadequate and you get lost, the best thing to do is sit down and wait for rescue. Refer back to tip No. 12 for some technology you can use to avoid this. If you don’t have a location beacon, you can still create a signal for others to see. A signal fire can bring attention to your location. The best fires capitalize on a searcher’s sense of sight and smell. Keep a stash of damp material or green branches near your fire. When you need to throw up a signal, throw the greenery on the fire to create a lot of white smoke that can be seen and smelled from far away. If you’re in snowy conditions where green vegetation isn’t around, throw an oil-based product like a plastic water bottle on the fire. Oil-based plastics create black smoke that will stand out from the white backdrop of a snow-covered location.
23. Switch Your Socks
Change your socks often on multi-day trips. Without your feet being healthy, and relatively comfortable, you cannot go very far. By keeping moisture off your feet and checking them often, you can head off any hot spots that may be forming uncomfortable and debilitating blisters. Merino wool is my favorite because it doesn’t itch, it wicks moisture well, and it can last through years of use. If a hotspot does get the best of you, use some duct tape to keep it covered and clean. It is always best to wash and dry blisters before covering them with a bandage or applying duct tape. You can also carry moleskin, which is designed for hot spots and blisters, and save the duct tape for a fire and gear repairs.
24. Carry Cord for Snares and Repairs
Vietnam-era detonation cord makes a perfect addition to anyone’s outdoor kit. The line is great for snares or survival trapping. You can also use it to mend a broken boot, knife, gun, or pack. It’s just incredibly hardy material. To build a snare, create an overhand loop on one end of the line and thread the other end through the loop. The detonation cord is stiff enough to hold its shape. Tie the other end to a small tree trunk or some other permanent object. Place the loop directly on a game trail, a log crossing, or any other likely animal corridor. Snares such as this are great tools to capture small game.
25. Build a Bivy Shelter
Bivy sacks are getting more popular as a hasty shelter option because they perform great in survival situations and as a go-to cover for hunting and fishing trips when you need to travel light. Bivy sacks come in many shapes and sizes. SOL makes a bivy that is breathable, lightweight, and has heat reflective material on the inside. The U.S. military also makes a great Gore-tex bivy. I have slept in pouring rain and deep snow with little moisture making it’s way through one of these Bivys, and they’re easy to use on the ground, or in a hammock. Because they pack up so small, it’s not a bad idea to keep one in your vehicle for emergency protection anywhere.