I have an extreme passion for wilderness survival skills. My parents were campers before I was born, so I grew up camping from an infant. Many of my earliest childhood memories are of camping with my family.
At a very young age, I also started walking in the field hunting with my father, uncles and brothers. As children we were not allowed to carry a gun until we were trained on shooting skills and gun safety.
By walking with them, we learned their hunting techniques. The first year or two that we were old enough to carry a gun in the field, we had to carry an empty, unloaded gun. They would watch to see how we handled the weapon. When they all agreed that it was time, we were then allowed to carry a loaded gun and could actively participate in hunting with them. As a result I have always been an avid hunter.
Lost in the Wilderness
I served in the U.S. Navy as a Corpsman from 1972 through 1976. In 1974, I was stationed at the Marine Air Corps Station in Yuma Arizona. I soon began making weekend camping trips to the Mogollon Rim area in northeastern Arizona, northeast of the town of Payson.
I would find old abandoned logging roads and follow them deep into the wilderness, then set up camp. It was truly heaven on earth for me. I usually went by myself (not a good idea, not recommended) but occasionally would take a friend along. During the winter of 1975-1976, I obtained a hunting license to hunt for Mule Deer. I don’t recall the actual month this occurred, but I will never forget the life changing impact this event had on my life.
I recall taking an additional day off from my duties as a Corpsman so I could have an extended weekend for the hunting trip I was going to embark on. I left that Friday morning. It was about a five hour drive from Yuma to the town of Payson. From Payson, I traveled up into the “rim country” as I had done on previous camping trips, found some abandoned logging roads, and began following them DEEP into the woods.
I was looking for a place to set up camp and planned on sleeping inside my SUV instead of setting up a tent. I wouldn’t have to take time to set it up or break it down and also would be mobile to change camping spots easily if I needed to. I heated water and cooked on a small camp stove on the tailgate of my SUV for two reasons. First, I didn’t want to have smoke from a campfire lofting through the woods and potentially driving away the deer. Second, it was also a great time-saver by not having to build a fire. In addition, I would not need some of my water supply to extinguish it.
The plan was to get up long before dawn, make a hot drink and cook breakfast, then head into the woods to set up in a hunting location a couple of hours before sunrise. I was scouting for a spot to camp for the first night. It was getting to be late in the afternoon. I found a good place to pull over and most likely would have camped in that spot overnight. There was a tall ridge to my right. I decided to walk up to the top of the ridge so I could survey the large valley area below. I wanted to see if I could see any deer or find signs of deer, deer trails or bedding areas.
The temperature was cold and getting colder. There were small amounts of frozen snow and ice. I was not dressed warmly, but I was only planning on taking a short trek, just to do some scouting and return in a short time. I remember wearing only blue jeans and a light jacket. In my pockets I had my wallet, car keys, a comb and handkerchief. This occurred long before we had GPS and cell phones.
As I was standing at the top of the ridge, the sun was low in the sky. I suddenly heard what sounded to be a very large tree branch crack under the weight of a large animal. I was hoping it was a deer. I was experienced enough to know that you simply can’t “sneak up” close to a deer, but I didn’t have my gun anyway, and I only wanted to get a glimpse of the animal as it ran away. So I walked very slowly, carefully placing each of my footsteps to remain as quiet as possible.
Well, I never saw anything and didn’t hear any more sounds of wildlife. At this point it was getting late in the day, and I was beginning to feel cold. I knew I had to get back to my SUV and bed down for the night.
I easily found my way back to the exact spot from where I had heard the tree branch break. I had been so focused on getting a look at whatever made the sound, that mind was now a total blank on exactly which way my SUV was parked. I knew the general direction probably within a 30 degree wide range, but that was as close as I could get.
I’m one of those people who has an outstanding sense of direction. Whether I’m in an urban or rural area, I generally know which direction is north. I knew where north was, and I knew I had come to this spot somewhere from a southwest direction.
In 1970, at age 16, I joined our town’s local volunteer fire department as a firefighter. My father had been an active member of the department since 1953. Soon after I joined the department, our county’s volunteer fire departments pooled together to form an underwater rescue and recovery unit. I volunteered and was accepted onto the team.
As a dive team member, I learned some underwater search techniques which I applied to my current circumstance. I knew that If I didn‘t establish some sort of deliberate search pattern, I would likely start randomly wandering through the woods, constantly changing my direction of travel. I would likely become disoriented in the low light conditions and hopelessly lost. I picked what I thought would be the best direction towards the southwest. I thought I needed to go in that direction in order to find my SUV.
I began walking in that direction. After walking enough distance that I was confident I should have seen it by then, I stopped, turned around and walked back to the original beginning point. I calculated walking in the same direction but a few degrees further to the south of where I first walked. I headed out in this new direction.
I again reached a point that I felt I should have been able to see my SUV, so I returned to my starting point once more. For the third time I started walking, again, a few more degrees further to the south of my last walk.
It was getting very dark by now and becoming hard to see. The sky was cloudy so there was no moon or star light to help me navigate. I had a very sick feeling that I was going to have to spend the night at my original starting point. This was going to be my last trek of the evening.
I was going to have to spend the night outdoors in the woods with no shelter, no fire and nowhere near dressed warm enough for the temperatures that I would be exposed to overnight.
As I stated earlier, I was ill prepared to survive the night. The clothing that I had brought for the hunt was long thermal underwear, long sleeve thermal shirt, a tee shirt, insulated overalls, a stocking cap, gloves, heavy boot socks, insulated boots and a hooded rain jacket to wear over my overalls. If I had only taken a couple of minutes to put on my overalls, stocking cap and gloves I would have been dressed much more appropriately for the weather.
I had no way of starting a fire, building a shelter or signaling for help. I simply didn’t have the tools, supplies or even enough daylight at that point to attempt those things. The light was just about completely gone by then. I was getting extremely cold, and I was becoming very frightened. I really had doubts about surviving the night in the frigid temperatures that I was about to be exposed to through the night.
I was standing on a small hill, and as I turned to my left (facing further to the southwest) to begin my final trip for the night back to my original starting point, I caught a faint glimpse of my SUV. It was off in the distance, down the hill, parked along the old logging road.
I instantly began running down the hill. I was so relieved and thankful to have found it, literally just in the nick of time that I began to weep as I was running. I climbed inside and sat there for a few moments, getting myself together mentally. This was such a personally disturbing event that I simply had no desire for camping that night or hunting the next morning. I turned around and started driving home. I drove none stop back home, stopping only for gas. I arrived at home sometime around 3am.
When I arrived back, I left everything in my SUV and went to bed. The following day I unloaded my gear and stowed it. I was still shaken by what had happened. It was truly life changing for me. I did not camp or hunt for some time following this event. I vowed to myself that I would NEVER put myself in a situation like that again.
If I would have dressed appropriately for the weather, had a small wilderness survival kit containing fire staring and shelter building supplies, a good quality knife, some paracord, and a poncho, it would have provided a much different outcome. I most likely would have constructed a temporary shelter and built a fire before sundown, then conducted my search in the morning. Instead of potentially being a victim of hypothermia, I could have stayed relatively warm and at least have been able to maintain a safe body core temperature throughout the night.
This event instilled in me a deep, lifelong passion for wilderness survival. know firsthand the literal potential of the life or death differences a little preparation can make.
7 Wilderness Survival Priorities
There are seven priorities for wilderness survival in this order of importance:
- Mental Attitude
- First Aid
It can happen to anyone, anywhere, anytime. Survival is largely a state of mind, but of course, you are only as good as the knowledge you have and the gear you have with you.
You may find yourself in a survival situation as a result of weather, darkness, accident, injury, and the biggest one, simply getting lost. You’ll likely be terrified by both real and imagined dangers. In order to survive, you must develop a survival attitude. If you become hysterical, you are no good to yourself and may be a hindrance to anyone else you are with. In an unexpected survival situation, you do have the potential to overcome the odds.
You must first accept the reality of the situation you are in. Overcome fear and anxiety and face the many challenges you face, head on. You can overcome even incredible odds and survive if you intensely focus on sustaining your life until you can get out of the situation.
People with training and experience, who know the priorities and have made appropriate preparations, of course have much better chances of survival.
First aid needs are crucial in preventing infections and further complications. Even the smallest injury can bring on serious consequences if left untreated. If sterile first aid supplies are not available, wash off any wounds with purified water. Using untreated water can actually cause an infection.
After cleaning the wound, wrap it with any clean cloth available, and keep it covered. Remove the cloth bandage form time to time, and clean it again with purified water. Then rewrap it with a new clean pieces of cloth.
The survival Rule of Threes states that you should always find shelter within at least three hours.
Build a shelter from available materials, whether in a forest, jungle, desert or snow. The purpose of a shelter is to reduce body heat loss from wind and ground contact and to protect you from rain or reduce hyperthermia from sun exposure.
- Single lean-to
- Double lean-to
- “A” frame
- Pitched roof
- Hut (waffle walls) vertical walls with mud or clay (used thousands of years)
- Eagle nest (critter nest) soft “nest” sit in fetal position, wear poncho
- Half tee-pee
- Wigwam / Wickiup (domed tee-pee) larger group
- Dug out (square, rectangle or round)
- Spider dome (two joined domes, one small, one large)
- Snow cave (insulates well, warmer inside than out (dig air holes)
- Snow cave (suffocation from hypoxia, risk of collapse)
- Igloo (very strong, hard to build correctly)
- Best shelter is your vehicle (if it safe)
The most common shelter is a debris shelter made from materials found in the area.
A Word of Caution
Some take a lot of energy to build and leave you too tired for the other tasks that need to be done. There is always a risk of collapse. Any shelter can flood during rain. I always recommend that you build an exit in the back of a shelter in case of fire.
Useful Materials for Sheltering
- Tarp (ground cloth / plastic sheet)
- Parachute cord (paracord)
- SawSpace blanket
- Tube sleeping bag
Fire is critical to survival, and it’s the top skill to have for survival. Fire building must be learned and practiced BEFORE you need it. You must learn to turn an ember into campfire. It reduces the usage and need of matches or lighters. Also, with five of the six ways of starting a fire without matches or a lighter, it will result in the creation of an ember, not an open flame. You must have the skill to first produce an ember and equally important be able to successfully turn that ember into a campfire.
SAFETY FIRST! Only build a fire in safe areas. Follow all local laws. Clear the area, make a rock fire ring, if possible, or use a pre-made, designated fire pit or grill.
Advantages to having a survival fire
- Signaling (smoke during the day / bright flames at night)
- Water purification
- Melt snow or ice for drinking
- Keep wildlife and insects away
- Dry clothing
- Comfort / Enjoyment
Types of fires
- Key hole for cooking
- Self feeding
- Rain resistant
- and many more
6 Categories for Matchless Fire Starting
- Friction: rubbing wood together (best choice is a bow & drill)
- Spark: (impact) commercial fire starting device, flint and steel
- Solar: (sunlight) focus sun light to a pinpoint
- Electrical: stored electrical energy from batteries
- Chemical Reaction: potassium manganate and glycerin
- Air Compression: use of fire piston
Using a Fire Cloth
Place pieces of cotton cloth (only use pure cotton) into a metal can with a tight fitting lid (Altoid can works great, and it’s pocket size). Punch a small whole in the center of the lid. Place it over an open fire. It will bellow out white smoke for a short period of time. When it stops bellowing, remove from heat and allow to cool. The cloth inside will look like cloth charcoal (basically what it is). This greatly helps convert a glowing ember into a campfire.
Signaling (Universal Distress Signals)
- S.O.S. (save our souls)
- Help (spelled out in large letters)
- Any groups of 3 — three large stones, three logs, three large lines in sand, etc.
- Light flashes
- Large triangle
- Three separate fires forming triangle
- Smoke from campfire (daytime)
- Bright flame from campfire (nighttime)
- Waving a flag
- Spell out signal letters with contrasting colors, add additional letters:
- V need help, no medical emergency
- X medical emergency
- I injuries
- F food needed
Add a large arrow pointing in the direction of your survival camp, to where people are located who need help or your direction of travel if you leave the area.
Use a mirror to flash sunlight at aircraft.
Use 3 short sounds, 1 long sound, 3 short sounds. Pause and repeat.
- Whistle blasts
- Beeps (horn)
- Bell bongs
- Knocks — hit anything that makes noise (hollow log, metal pot or pan, etc.)
- Gun shots (sets of three then pause)
Choose your water source wisely if more than one is available. Pre-filter whenever possible. Disposable coffee filters work great. They are lightweight and don’t take up much space in your survival kit. It will remove larger contaminates like algae and mold spores and other suspended particles but will still allow pathogens to pass through, such as viruses, bacteria and microbes.
Pre-filtered water must be purified before drinking. It’s my opinion that you should NEVER drink water from any outdoor source without purifying it first.
There are four common ways to purify water:
Great choices to filter water in the wilderness are mechanical and boiling. There are good commercial products which purify as they filter. You are able to safely drink directly from an outdoor water source.
Boiling water is a good choice because of the certainty of purifying it. Although you would not use them over an open fire, water can still be purified in a plastic container or hollowed out depression in a log with the right technique. Pour water into the log depression or plastic container. Pull small rocks from your campfire which were placed there earlier. The hot rocks will heat up the water. If water is raised to temperature of 185 degrees and held at that temperature for three minutes, it will be purified. As water heats, it starts to create small bubbles that rise to the surface. The water should be at about 190 degrees at that point. So if you can make the water bring bubbles to the surface for 3 minutes, it will be purified. Water reaches its full boiling point at 212 degrees F.
If you are in a wilderness survival situation, and you can build a fire, it’s possible to purify water even without any container to put it in. Use coals from the fire to burn a deep bowl shaped depression in a log. You can scrape out the charred, wood but it does not have to be scraped. Cup both hands together, scoop up water from a water source, and pour it into the log with the bowl shaped depression. Then transfer hot rocks into the water to heat and purify it.
Water boiling purification
Heating water to 185° F for three minutes will kill all harmful pathogens (bacteria, microbes and viruses). At a boiling point of 212° F all pathogens will be killed. It is considered to be instantaneously purified at 212 degrees. So when water reaches a rolling boil, it should be safe to drink. As you heat water to a boil, it will take some time. Remember, when it reaches 185 degrees F, and held for 3 minutes it will be purified. It will take additional time to raise the water temperature from 185 degrees F to the full boiling point of 212 degrees F. After boiling, water cools much more slowly than it heats up, so by the time it cools back down to 185 degrees F, it will have been at or above the 185 degree temperature in total, likely for more than 3 minutes. HOWEVER both the EPA and CDC recommend boiling water for one full minute to insure that it is purified. At elevations over 5,000 ft, it should be boiled for three minutes. I also recommend that standard. You should always boil water for one minute just to be sure.
Finding food in a wilderness survival situation is extremely difficult. It is very hard to find and ingest enough calories each day to keep up with your daily required caloric needs. Editable plants (vegetation) are great but can be risky. You must have extensive knowledge about indigenous edible plants in your area. Much of the vegetation in the wilderness can make you ill or may even be toxic or poisonous.
Meat sources are possible to obtain through trapping mammals or birds, catching fish or gathering clams and crayfish. Eggs from bird nests and even baby birds are consumable as well. Also, primitive handmade weapons may be successful at bagging some animals, but it takes a lot of knowhow and skill.
It’s possible that you will expend a lot of energy which equals calories burned, to potentially catch something to eat. The calories provided by your catch may be less than the categories burned in catching it. It is possible to end up with a net calorie lose.
Eating insects and worms for survival has a huge YUCK! factor but could save your life. Insects
are the most abundant life form on earth (except during cold winter weather). The Survival Rules of Three state that you may survive for three weeks without food. It’s the least important of all of the survival priorities. Never the less, you need to try and meet your daily nutritional needs if at all possible. For survival, be an opportunist, never turn down any food, even a small snack, and even if it’s only a single cricket.
Very little calories are burned collecting insects and worms, and at times, they may be found in large quantities. Although they contain very few calories each, they can be highly nutritious, being rich in fats, proteins and carbohydrates.
Grasshoppers are easy to pick off grass stems at dawn. Crickets, beetles and grubs can be found under rocks. Insects can be found behind loose tree bark, in decaying stumps and logs and, inside seed pods. Cicadas, termites, ants, moths, butterflies, scorpions, tarantulas, are all edible. Nearly all aquatic insects can be eaten in both adult and larval form, as well as grubs, worms, leeches and beetle larvae.
There is a great gag reflex at the thought of eating insects and worms. So you may want to cut them up into pill size and swallow with water, like taking a pill, without chewing. You can also cook them crispy to make them more palatable. Most insects are okay to eat raw, but just to be safe, COOK ALL INSECTS and WORMS due to a risk of contamination from bacteria and other pathogens. Be sure to remove heads, hard pieces, wings, barbed legs and antennae to make them easier to swallow.
General Guidelines for Eating Bugs and Grubs
- Avoid disease-carrying species like flies, mosquitoes and ticks
- Avoid brightly colored insects; choose more natural earth tones
- Caution with hairy insects; some are barbed but may burn off hairs by cooking over an open flame
- Avoid smelly, pungent insects (if they smell bad before eating, not taste bad afterwards)
- Avoid insects that feed on poisonous plants. Snails and slugs eat poisonous mushrooms and fungi. They are okay to eat but what’s inside isn’t!
- For earthworms, if you place them in purified water, they will purge themselves after a few minutes. They are better to eat after their insides are cleaned out.