Whether you take a wrong trail and run out of daylight while hiking the Tetons, or get caught in unexpected fog or blizzard while snowmobiling, even the most experienced people in the wilderness can run into an emergency survival situation. We do not want you to become a statistic. This article is a practical guide to help make sure that you are both mentally and physically prepared for any wilderness survival situation and know how to survive.
We suggest you practice these things so that you learn by actual experience, rather than trying to go by book learning and memory in a real crisis. Experience will give you the confidence to not only stay calm and be able to think rationally, but you will not have to try to develop new skills when your life depends on it.
Wilderness Survival Rules
To start off with let’s go over some of the all important wilderness emergency survival rules. These are the things you need to follow and do to make you come out of the wild in one piece and healthy. The wilderness is beautiful and fun to be in, as long as you are safe and are able to come home when you want to. If you make sure you are prepared and follow these rules, you and your loved ones will be safer.
1. “Stay Found” So You Don’t Get Lost
The term “staying found” basically means that you do what you need to do so that you never “get lost”. We talked a little bit about this above in the “Lacking Good Navigation Tools” section. The basic idea is you make sure you have the necessary navigation tools with you which include a topographical map, a quality compass and if possible a GPS unit. Then you use the compass so you know which direction you are traveling and watch for landmarks shown on the map.
As you pass in person landmarks you can identify on the map, you “stay found”. The most common cause of people getting lost is they do not check their map and compass enough (or they didn’t bring them), and just assume they are going in the right direction. Unless you are very familiar with the wilderness area you are in, this is a recipe for losing your way for sure. If you always know where you are, you can’t get lost. If you are not lost you are much safer.
2. Maintain A Healthy Respect For Bad Weather
When you are in the mountains the weather can sometime change on a dime. A beautiful sunny day can turn to fog, rain or even worse quickly. Those experienced in being in the wilderness have learned to respect these sudden weather changes, be prepared for them, and not take any unnecessary chances. Getting home safe and uninjured takes precedence over making it out on time.
They also learn that proper preparation is the key to having an enjoyable and safe experience in the wilderness where you can get through bad weather and then back home quicker. If you are injured, wet and miserable, your trek home will go slower once the bad weather has passed. It is the unprepared that are more likely to turn an otherwise survivable unexpected storm into a life threatening danger.
3. Communicate Well
When you find yourself trapped, lost or injured in the wilderness and in need of rescue, this time will often be greatly reduced if you have communicated properly with those you know closest to you who did not come with you, such as family and friends. If they know where you are going, the route you plan to take, and the time when you plan to return this can speed up the time of authorities finding you immensely (and be sure to let them know when you’ve safely returned).
The best way to do this is by creating a trip plan and sharing it with them. You will want to include things like where you are going, which route you are taking and what route you will use to return home. And be specific. Pull out your map and plot your plan out with them. Have them take pictures with their phone if possible of your map and your plan.
You will also want to tell them who all else is going to go with you, and make sure to give them these people’s phone numbers, and the phone numbers of their family. Be clear on what you will be doing, such as mountain climbing, dirt-biking, canoeing, horseback riding, snowshoeing, or hunting.
The idea here is that if they know your plan and when to expect your return, if you don’t come back there will be someone to contact the authorities. If they then have detailed information on your trip plan, what route you planned to take and so forth, it will be much easier for the authorities to locate you. This could very well save your life.
4. Bring Someone With You
If your goal is not to make it home safely and to just become another statistic, then by all means go alone. But if your want to make it home, be sure and bring someone with you. The odds for a safe trip are much more in your favor if you have a buddy along with you.
According to the data Robert Koester (the search-and-rescue incident commander for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management) has collected and processed in his book Lost Person Behavior, solo hikers account for 58% of all lost hikers even though they make up a very small percentage of all hikers. Mr Koester says that being male is also a risk factor. He says that 40% of all lost hikers are males hiking by themselves between the ages of 20 and 50. So if you’re a man planning to hike alone, think again. Bring a friend and don’t become another statistic.
5. Come Prepared
“Be Prepared” is the motto of the Boy Scouts Of America. It is not only sound advice, but in the case of time spent in the wilderness it will be the difference between life and death, especially in an emergency situation.
Depending on where you plan on going, and the time of year, you will want to put a checklist together of all of the emergency supplies, clothing and gear that you will need to bring.
If you will be hiking weight will be a factor. So you will want to think through all possible problems that could arise and make sure that you have what you need for anything that may go wrong. Here is a book (image on the above left) that is available on Amazon that is a great place to start in putting your checklist together. It is called The Ultimate Guide To Hiking, Camping and Backpacking.
6. Remember the Rule of 3
- People die in 3 minutes without air.
- People die in 3 hours without warmth or shelter.
- People die in 3 days without water.
- People die in 3 weeks without food.
This one is not typically a problem in a wilderness emergency survival situation, unless your situation puts you in deep water or is some how suffocating you. Normally in the wilderness you have high quantities of fresh air. So we will move on.
Many people have gotten hypothermia in temperatures over 40 degrees Fahrenheit, especially if they were wet and their was significant wind. The biggest culprit when it comes to hypothermia is being wet. You have to be able to get out of your wet clothes, get into some dry ones and get out of the elements.
If you don’t have spare dry clothes to change into your other options would be taking your wet clothes off and crawling into a dry sleeping bag, building a fire to dry your clothes, or both. So you need to think about this problem in your preparation. You will want to consider bringing an extra set of clothes, making sure you have what you need to start a fire, and you have a tent or the ability to make a shelter.
We will discuss what to do to have safe drinking water further below in the “Getting Drinkable Water” section. Just to hit the highlights here your options are you can bring it with you or learn how to harvest due. If you have ponds or streams where you are you can boil that water, treat the water with chlorine pills, or use a portable hiking water filter if you brought one. See the above section for more details.
The whole 3 week limitation on food is only for survival type situations that involving work such as a long hike back to civilization, or situations where your body has to work harder to stay warm or cool. People can live 60 days without food in normal low stress conditions such as in a water fast type of situation.
But in an emergency survival situation conditions are not ideal. You have to work to survive, stay warm or cool, or find your way home. You also have the added energy expended by your body due to the stress of the emergency. In emergency situations you will die sooner without food than you would if you were resting in your home.
7. Remember To Stay Calm
Everyone knows that a person in an emergency situation will do much better at trying to get themselves out of the situation if they stay calm and clear headed. But often it is much harder to do when you are actually in that situation.
Not only will you make much better decisions and think better, but if you are panicking the stress will cause your body to waste energy and burn many more calories than you would be burning if you stayed calm. So it is a very important rule to due your best to stay calm. Doing so could be the difference between life and death.
8. Practice The “S.T.O.P.” Rule
This is an acronym that can help you remember the basic steps you need to follow, should you ever become lost in the wilderness, injured or stranded:
- S stands for “stop”. It could also stand for “stay” or “sit”. All are important. The idea of this is once you realize that you are lost, instead of going ahead a little bit further to see if you recognize something, it is better to simply stop and stay where you are, and then follow the following steps.
- T stands for “think”. It is very important in a situation that you make good decisions. Being rash is your enemy. What you want to do now is to take time to study your map and look for landmarks that might also show on the map to see if you can determine where you are. If you can try to remember when the last time was that you knew for certain where you were. What direction did you travel from that time onward. Figure out the time and if the sun is in the direction you expect it to be. You will also want to figure out how many hours you have until dark.
- O stands for “Observe”. Next you need to asses the situation. Is there a place such as a cave that can be used as a natural shelter? What condition are you in physically? Have you injured yourself or have you acquired blisters? Do you have sunburn? Do you need water, food or to dry out any clothes. Are you cold? Are the weather conditions changing? Are you near a water source? What gear and supplies did you bring that can help? Stay put while you think and observe.
- P stands for “Plan”. When you stop, think and observe this can aid in keeping you calm and prepares you to be able to plan a course of action. Remember this is a time when making the best decisions could save your life. Take all of the data that you gathered so far and determine the best plan. You know how much daylight you have left. What is most important. Do you have enough time and water for a hike out, or should you set up or build shelter. Consider all of the data here and put together a plan that will have the best chance of getting you home safely.
9. Have A Survival Mindset
The aptitude of survival does not begin by just lighting a fire, putting up a tent or building a shelter. Before you can even start on any of those things, you must first ground yourself and make sure that you are operating with a survivor’s mindset.
If you seriously analyze any “real-life” survival story and you’ll find that those who survived in each shared similar mental traits that gave them the ability to endure their specific situation. The act of developing the mindset of survival is so important, that I rank it first in order of priority. It is like a sick or injured person having an unyielding will to live; miracles happen. Most of us are already equipped with the following five attributes of a survivor’s mindset to one degree or another, but we want to master them before we really need them in a crisis.
A. Positive Attitude
B. Mental Toughness
D. Work Ethic
10. First Aid
In case you’re going out into the wilderness, you will need to bring either a prepackaged medical aid unit or a DIY pack that you can make utilizing this suggested checklist as a guide. Realizing how to utilize the things in an emergency treatment pack is as significant as having them, so consider taking an instructional class.
This suggested checklist is a decent beginning stage. It additionally incorporates crisis basics that you may convey independently from the checklist itself. You’ll likewise need to incorporate any physician endorsed prescriptions your gathering needs, just as extra supplies you may requirement for where you’re going and to what extent you will be out.
Basic First-Aid Care
- Antiseptic wipes (BZK-based wipes preferred; alcohol-based OK)
- Assorted adhesive bandages (fabric preferred)
- Compound tincture of Benzoin (bandage adhesive)
- Antibacterial ointment (e.g., Bacitracin)
- Gauze pads (various sizes)
- Splinter (fine-point) tweezers
- Medical adhesive tape (10 yd. roll, min. 1″ width)
- Blister treatment
- Nonstick sterile pads
- Insect sting / anti-itch treatment
- Antihistamine to treat allergic reactions
- Butterfly bandages / adhesive wound-closure strips
- Safety pins
- First-aid manual or information cards
- Ibuprofen / other pain-relief medication
Wound Bandages, Splints and Wraps
- Triangular cravat bandage
- Elastic wrap
- SAM splint(s)
- Finger splint(s)
- Liquid bandage
- Hydrogel-based pads
- Rolled, stretch-to-conform bandages
- Hemostatic (blood-stopping) gauze
- First-aid cleansing pads with topical anesthetic
- Rolled gauze
Medications And Other Treatments
- Throat lozenges
- Sunburn relief gel or spray
- Prescription medications (e.g., antibiotics)
- Diarrhea medication
- Lubricating eye drops
- Oral re-hydration salts
- Aspirin (primarily for response to a heart attack)
- Injectable epinephrine (for severe allergic reactions)
- Glucose or other sugar (to treat hypoglycemia)
- Antacid tablets
Other Supplies And Tools
- Paramedic shears (blunt-tip scissors)
- Cotton-tipped swabs
- Knife (or multi-tool with knife)
- Standard oral thermometer
- Irrigation syringe with 18-gauge catheter
- Safety razor blade (or scalpel w/ #15 or #12 blade)
- Emergency heat-reflecting blanket
- Small notepad with waterproof pencil or pen
- Medical / surgical gloves (nitrile preferred; avoid latex)
- Waterproof container to hold supplies and meds
- Medical waste bag (plus box for sharp items)
- Hand sanitizer
- CPR mask
- Biodegradable soap
Common Wilderness Survival Mistakes
Now lets touch on some of the most common mistakes people make when trying to survive in the wild. These kinds of mistakes can turn a survivable situation deadly when it does not have to be.
1. Miscalculating the Risk
When you are out in the wilderness, even the most experienced person sometimes finds themselves lost, injured or caught in an unexpected storm. However the more experienced the person is, the more likely it is that they have prepared properly.
When I talk to people who are experienced being out in the wilderness, they say the most common mistake they see by less experienced people, is them not preparing properly for possible emergency situations. This is mostly because they are unaware of what the possibilities really are. Inexperienced people are more likely to not expect problems, and so they do not prepare for them. Preparation is often the difference between life and death.
2. Lack Of Knowledge
Most people who find themselves in a wilderness survival situation lack the knowledge of how to protect themselves and survive the situation. The good news is that you need not find yourself in that situation. If you are reading this article you are not yet in a wilderness emergency. There is still time to prepare.
There are 5 very important basic things that you need to know to survive a wilderness emergency situation. Knowing these 5 things will make all the difference in life and death. They are:
- How to build a shelter
- How to signal for help
- What to eat & how to find it
- How to build and maintain a fire
- How to find water and prepare safe water to drink.
Here is a great book you can get on Amazon that I recommend if you really want to get a comprehensive amount of knowledge that goes beyond what I am able to put in this article. Bushcraft 101: A Field Guide to the Art of Wilderness Survival
3. Lacking Good Navigation Tools
Even the most experienced and best wilderness experts can get turned around in the woods. Things start to look the same. You think you know where you are but you have been going in the wrong direction. Going into the wilderness without a map, compass, and GPS, is just asking to get lost and in trouble. Going into the wilderness with these items, but not knowing how to effectively use them, is almost just as dangerous.
You should have a good topographical map and check where you are at on it on a regular basis. When you cross a stream for example or come over a rise, you can check and make sure the terrain you are seeing matches where you believe you are on the map. Using a quality compass in this process is necessary so that you know you are going the direction on the map you think you are.
A GPS system can also be a very helpful tool, but they can be sometimes inaccurate. Also on some GPS systems if you don’t turn your GPS on until you are lost, you won’t know where you are and how you go to get back. Be prepared and stay safe.
4. No Signal Capability
The knowledge and ability to effectively signal for help is a crucial skill set to have in any wilderness emergency situation. Any camping or outdoors store will carry a host of these kinds of items. The most important basics are items like loud whistles and a signaling mirror. With a mirror however you also need to know how to signal things like SOS with it so that people seeing the reflection can tell you are someone in need of help.
If you can you should also have emergency beacon devices such as CAR or SPOT, and know how to use them. In some situations it is important to have a knowledge of how to signal to aircraft using natural materials such as dead trees, snow, dirt or even rocks.
5. Not Having Shelter
The number one rule of survival is the ability to stay dry. If you get wet, even if it is not winter, the risk of hypothermia is real. This is why you should avoid cotton clothing, especially right next to your skin. Cotton absorbs moisture and will keep you wet. Cotton kills.
As far as shelter is concerned, when going into the wilderness to be properly prepared you need to bring two shelter items with you. The first would be your bivvy, tent, sleeping bag or at least a tarp. The second would be the knowledge of how to create a shelter from the resources around you.
Of the two the most convenient is to bring shelter with you. Sometimes in the wilderness resources may be scarce and hard to come by. If you have a quality tent you can pop it up and have shelter. The most important of the two is the knowledge of how to create a shelter from the resources around you. There are emergencies when this is the best option, such as in extreme high winds or cold. Having both is being completely prepared.
6. Wearing The Wrong Clothes
Most often both hypothermia and heat stroke happen in wilderness emergency settings because the people in these situations expected nothing to go wrong and so they did not prepare. Remember most hypothermia cases happen in weather over 40 degrees Fahrenheit!
As a general rule you should always dress one layer warmer than you believe that you will need. You can always take clothes off and tie them around your waist. In my article “How To Dress For Winter Survival” I teach you how to layer properly and how to dress for the worst cold situations. The principles you learn in this article will enable you to dress properly for all weather conditions. Once you understand layering you can just pick how many layers for the given situation.
What your clothes are made out of are also critically important. That article will teach you what material each layer should be made out of as well. Remember these sayings about cotton: “Friends don’t let friends wear Cotton”, “Cotton is Rotten”, and most accurately “Cotton Kills”. Cotton absorbs moisture and keeps you wet. Being wet in many situations kills you.
7. Getting Drinkable Water
In a survival situation the human body typically can only live about 3 days without water. In an ideal low stress type environment where you can just rest you may last 4 to maybe 5. But in a survival situation you will be moving around and trying to get home or get rescued, so you have about 3 days max. So you need to find safe drinkable water.
The other big water problem you will have in an emergency wilderness experience is finding water that won’t make you sick! Waterborne microorganisms such as Giardia and Cryptosporidium can cause severe vomiting and diarrhea. This will then also cause dehydration, which will also kill you in a matter of days. With dehydration comes poor judgment, loss of energy, and eventually you will lose the will to survive!
You don’t want to be dealing with these problems while you are working on other critical things such as building a shelter, finding safe food sources, and signaling for help. There are multiple good methods for purifying water. You can kill all of the harmful microorganisms by either boiling it or using chemical tablets if you have them. There are several methods for catching rain water or dew. Dew is a safe form of drinking water.
In my opinion the best way to convert river or pond water into safe drinking water is by including in your pack a small light weight water filter straw. These will typically filter out 99.99% of all the harmful microorganisms as well as any harmful chemicals that may be in the water. To learn more about these options see my article entitled “Best Emergency Water Filter Straws – My Top Picks!”
8. Not Being Able To Start A Fire
There is arguably nothing in a survival situation more important than being able to start a fire. A fire can add warmth to you and your loved one’s bodies. It can be used to dry out wet clothes. It can boil unsafe water to make it safe and drinkable. It can keep you safe from predators because it will often scare them away.
Another sometimes overlooked use for a fire is as a signal to tell rescue searchers where you are located. This can be the difference of days for them to find you. And perhaps a most important benefit of having a fire is that it can lift your spirits and give you hope for survival. How much is that worth to you in a wilderness emergency situation?
Here are links to two pages on this website that will be most helpful to you in preparing to be able to start a fire on your next wilderness adventure. The first shows you my top picks for the Best Fire Starters, as well as my top picks for the Best Fire Tinder that are small and light weight that you can easily include in your pack.
Final Thoughts – My Wrap Up!
Indeed, even the most experienced veteran of the wilderness can find themselves lost, harmed, or stranded. Bend over backward to maintain a strategic distance from a survival circumstance by knowing your area consistently, and going to a S.T.O.P. when you have any uncertainty.
Try to avoid panicking, and choose to act not on your sentiments, however on your legitimate arrangement for survival. Concentrate on evident survival needs, and save your vitality. 95% of all wilderness rescues are successful in under two days, so your scary experience should be over soon.
On the off chance that you don’t remember anything else from this article, be sure to remember this: Always tell somebody where you’re going and when you will return. Always.