Essential Outdoor Survival Skills

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A campfire is used for cooking.
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A campfire provides warmth.
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Build a basic shelter for protection.
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Study the terrain and use maps.
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Starting a fire is a necessary skill for survival.

Years ago, I led wilderness expeditions for college students, and then later for troubled youth. As we taught the participants, my colleagues and I could see that some were able-bodied students, some struggled along the trail, and some would not fare so well if a true survival situation ever occurred while on their own.

But regardless of your physical state, knowing a few basic outdoor survival skills gives you an edge if a survival situation were to ever arise. It is far better to know such skills and not need them, rather than the other way around.

Our greatest tool

More than anything else, survival in the outdoors is directly linked to common sense and awareness of self, others, and the surrounding environment — train your brain to help you out. Add to that the following seven skills, and the chances of a positive outcome increase.

Key outdoor survival skills include: (1) building a fire; (2) sheltering yourself in extreme heat and cold; (3) staying hydrated; (4) signaling and increasing your visibility; (5) taking care of injuries and wounds well enough to help yourself return to safety; (6) knowing where you are and knowing how to get where you’re going; and (7) knowing your skill level and when to back off, retreat, etc.

Building a fire

Learn to build a fire correctly on the first try — as you may not get a second chance.

Three essentials to building a fire are heat, fuel and oxygen. As simple as it may sound, all fires require these components. Take any one of these away, and there cannot be a fire. Additionally, there are other aspects of making a fire that must be considered: tinder, kindling and sustaining fuel.

Tinder is material that readily ignites. Material may be paper, dried grasses, fibrous bark, or any finely divided combustible material. One thing to consider is whether the tinder will produce enough heat and last long enough to ignite other material.

Kindling is material that is easily ignited and yet burns long enough to ignite larger sources of fuel to sustain the fire.

Once the kindling is burning well, sustaining fuel can be placed on the fire and maintained as long as needed. In most cases, fuel no thicker than one’s wrist suffices.

Carry at least three independent sources of fire for each person. That way, there will be someone who has fire-making material in the event of mishaps or getting separated. Windproof matches are a good bet, as are lighters. I also carry an essentially fail-safe fire source: a 15-minute highway flare. Even with wet tinder in driving rain, I have gotten a fire going. It obviously also serves the purpose of emergency signaling if needed.


The purpose of a shelter is to keep dry and warm, or to keep cool or shaded when needed. The first element of shelter is clothing. Several layers are more effective than one thick layer. Avoid cotton and opt for wool, which is my personal choice since it is natural, durable, flame resistant, and retains heat even when wet. There are also various synthetic alternatives to wool on the market that are lighter and may be easier to obtain.

A workable shelter that is very portable can be rather simple. For example, two large plastic leaf sacks can make a rain- and windproof emergency shelter that helps retain vital body heat. Simply pull one sack up from the feet, then put the other over one’s head and cut out a face hole. Adding a closed cell pad to sit on will reduce heat loss even further. Space blankets are also great to carry with you, as they are light and compact.

From there, use what is around you to create any manner of lean-to, dugout or other structure to protect against the elements.

Stay hydrated

Humans need at least 2 liters of water a day for efficient travel, and more if the weather is hot or exertion is significant. A simple monitoring system is the color of one’s urine — it should be pale yellow. The darker it gets, the more water you need. Safe water for drinking is important, and care must be taken to avoid illness and diarrhea, which will dehydrate you all the faster. Boiling, chemical purification, and 0.02 micron filtering systems are all effective means of purifying one’s water.

Emergency signals

You may need to signal for assistance, and making yourself stand out from nature helps. I have found these tools to be useful and carry them with me whenever I go out: signal mirror, military grade; fluorescent orange survey tape, orange flags, etc.; 15-minute highway flare (use only when you spot someone, as you only have a one-time use, and it also doubles as an emergency fire starter); and a whistle (it’s loud, lasts longer than your voice, and is not a sound of nature). A key element is to make yourself more visible or larger than natural. Disrupting natural features, such as stomping snow or grass, can make you more visible.

First aid

Most injuries in the field are due to haste and inattention. A first-aid kit should be available and should contain dressing materials such as moleskin for blisters, gauze pads, butterfly closures and bandages. Tweezers, a magnifying glass and sterile scalpels are useful additions to the kit. Moreover, a sanitizing soap such as Povidone is also worth carrying. One of the books that has proved invaluable is Wilderness Medicine by William W. Forgey, M.D. His information is accurate, straightforward and easily read.

Location, location, location

A GPS is great, but what happens when the batteries die or your technology breaks down? Learn how to read a topographic map as well as how to use a compass. That technology has not changed in decades, nor has much of the land. A standard resource is Bjorn Kjellstrom’s Be Expert With Map and Compass. It covers all that one would need to know in orienting oneself to the land. Plus, you become more self-reliant, which is a bonus for survival knowledge. Just understand that the map is a tool. Trails and roads appear and disappear, depending on the date the map was published. Don’t depend on features that appear, but rather study the land for landmarks like forests, elevation changes, directional changes in the land features, and more.

Know your limits

Avoid allowing your confidence to exceed your competence. Remember, you have to walk back at least the same distance you covered when heading out from your drop zone. If you or your team gets tired, rest and set up camp for the night. There is always tomorrow, and you need the strength to get back home. Your adventure is not a commando course. And as you get closer to being in the clear, overconfidence can lead to a lackadaisical approach that can quickly get you into trouble. You’re not out of the woods until you’re home. Be aware, keep safe, and avoid getting into a survival situation.

Read More: Discover amazing, wild finds by learning animal tracks in Animal Tracks and Other Wildlife Signs

Gordie Soaring Hawk is originally from the Iroquois people around the Great Lakes, though he has lived in the deserts of the American Southwest for most of his life, where most of his survival expeditions occurred. Although he no longer runs expeditions, he teaches numerous Native American and primitive technologies workshops on the 6  1⁄2 acres where he and his companion, Pam, live.

Precious Resources

On any outdoor adventure, it is essential to maintain the safety of one’s resources, be it food, equipment or energy. Over the years, I watched people sit close to a fire, blithely unaware that they were burning their primary means of transportation, i.e., their boots. At other times, students would melt their canteens, burn their clothes, sleeping gear, food and shelter, and then wonder what went wrong.

Out on the trail you only have what you’ve carried with you. If disaster should hit, you’d have to figure out how to make it home with those precious items. If you don’t learn on your own or with the help of others, Mother Nature will teach you, and she is rather unforgiving and highly impersonal as to whether you live or perish.

Tread Lightly

As uplifting as it is to immerse yourself in the landscape, we cannot ignore the land. It is not our entitlement, but rather a precious loan from those who will follow us. As stewards, we must take care of this Earth, and do what we can to minimize our own personal impact. The “Leave No Trace” ethic can be practiced in many ways without detracting from an awesome outdoor experience. It is certainly worth our attention, and doing so will help ensure that those who follow us may also experience nature’s wonders firsthand. It would be fitting if it could be said of current generations that we helped return the Earth to a sense of balance and beauty.

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