Here’s the thing about wilderness survival. There are rules and lists for how to survive in the wild, but no single perfect method. Your most immediate needs can change with your environment.
Consider the saying:
All models are wrong, but some are useful.
But even though they’re wrong, some rules, lists, and models can be helpful. Not perfect, but useful. At Trackers Earth, the first rule we start with is:
Tell people where you are going.
We call this rule the Trailhead. It’s the information you give people about the route you are traveling and for how long you expect before you return. That way, if you don’t come back on time, potential rescuers have vital information to help locate you. Depending on the scale of your excursion into the wilderness, a Trailhead can take the form of verbal or written information and can be as detailed as you need it to be. This principle also includes the following:
Stay put if you know someone is looking for you AND you are safe in that area.
So let’s say that you do find yourself on your own in a survival situation. That where we can start with our wrong but useful model called the “3 and 30 Rule”. It goes like this:
- You can survive 3 minutes in inclement air conditions
- You can survive 3 hours in inclement weather
- You can survive 3 days without water
- You can survive 30 days without food
- You can survive 30 years in a bad relationship (we’re still testing out this last one)
Based on this rule, you have a hierarchy of needs, and a way to prioritize what you should secure first in order to be safe. Given that many of us are not exploring the ocean or traveling outside of our atmosphere, worrying about air is often not the issue. So we start with the effects of inclement weather: too hot or too cold. Then we move onto water and food. This leads to another wrong yet useful model, the Order of Survival:
Addressing what your body needs first will help make subsequent tasks more effective in preserving energy. Again, each situation is different and this order isn’t definitive.
Yet often the first thing you might need in a survival situation is shelter to protect you. Then you’ll need a form of hydration, and then food. But to accelerate all of these, you can use fire as a Level-Up, which we’ll explain later. Let’s explore each need in turn.
Shelter gives you cover from weather, insects, and other nasty stuff; and insulates you from the cold and heat. Shelter can sometimes even provide you with camouflage (a negative if you have rescuers looking for you). Finding shelter means tempering the extremes of weather.
When it’s hot, seek the cool shade. When it’s cold and raining, look for dry, warm spots and out of the wind.
Your first shelter is clothing, so always dress appropriately for the area you’ll be traveling in. But, like clothes, when building a shelter, think about layers. Many layers can insulate you from the cold much better than one warm coat. So this goes for your clothing, but also for your shelter-building. One of the first things you can do? Add to your clothing’s insulation by stuffing fluffy material such as dry leaves or grasses between two layers until you look like a scarecrow.
When building your shelter, consider the ways we lose heat when building your shelter and making choices to retain your body’s warmth:
- Conduction—heat-loss through direct contact. Even just sitting on the ground can affect your warmth. So, build a bed in your shelter so you’re raised off of and insulated from the ground. This reduces heat-loss from laying on the cold ground.
- Convection—heat-loss through air contact. Your shelter should protect you from exposure to the wind.
- Radiation—this is the normal heat exchange your body goes through. Insulation in layers can help prevent this heat-loss and trap warmth closer to your body.
- Evaporation—water conducts heat away from the body faster than air. So if it’s raining, staying dry when it’s cold is critical. When it’s too hot, water can help you cool down.
- Respiration—also known as breathing. Putting a mask on helps retain the heat lost through your exhale.
When you’re building a shelter, think more like a bivy sack and sleeping bag, and not a castle. Remember, it all begins by tempering extremes—for example, if it’s raining or will rain, seek out a naturally dry overhang or build yourself a waterproof roof.
We often often “make our bed” as soon as possible because you want to be elevated off the cold ground to limit conduction. You can gather dry leaves or soft evergreen bows to create a thick layer of bedding. Remember that the bedding compacts as you lay on it, so add more until you have a significant loft. After that, pack the insulation so it will have to burrow into, keeping the shelter close to your body (remember, think sleeping bag). You’ll lose heat with more air circulating, so a shelter that you have to wiggle into like a nest is the best for heat retention. After all, this is survival; not camping.
Take Away: Find natural shelter covering you from rain and blocking the wind. Build a bed inside of that to keep you off the cold ground. Use additional fluffy debris to pack in all around your body. It’s properly snug when you have to burrow in and worm your way in.
Remember, any natural shelter is also naturally camouflaged. It’s crucial that you prominently flag your shelter and surrounding areas so rescuers can easily find you.
There are a couple different ways to source water, depending on what tools you have available. There are the natural methods: you can sop up dew or collect rain; you can follow a spring to its source; or other basin and draws where you find lakes, rivers, and more.
Most sources should be treated to reduce pathogens. You cannot afford a 2- to 4-week bout of vomiting and diarrhea that will likely dehydrate you. The only real exception to this is dew or rain (which is already distilled, but only before the rain has hit the ground; use a tarp to build a rain catch). While springs might be considered safe, it pays to be cautious; there is no guarantee the water is potable, but you have a higher probability since it’s been filtered through the ground. With any source, beware of any animal defecating, dead, or decaying that might pollute it.
How you treat water depends on the tools you have available. Water can be chemically treated for pathogens (you can purchase this, just be sure to dose the water properly). Water can be passed through a chemical filter. Or you can construct a solar still (this is a pretty succinct video of how to make one).
And, of course, you can boil water. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) officially says you need to boil the water for a full minute to be safe (three minutes above 6,500 feet in elevation). We agree. And if you don’t boil it for exactly 180 seconds under 6,500 feet we’ll be officially mad at you.
But locating water is the first component. Follow draws and other basins. Also, watch for water-loving birds and animals such as kingfishers, flycatchers, and of course, unicorns.
Take Away: Find water and treat it to make it safe, using whatever tools you have available.
While you can go quite some time without food, having anything to eat has a positive effect on your emotional well-being. But do make sure that you’re only eating food if you have a steady water source. Water will help your body process the food, and eating without water can dehydrate you even further.
In gathering food, it helps to learn about wild edible plants. Your studies about plants that are safe to eat should start well before you go out. Learn both the toxic and edible species of your area. Even if you are not foraging for survival, learning to key out local plants makes a great trailside hobby.
Just remember, we can go around 30 days without food, depending on the environment and calories your body started with, so long as you have a consistent water supply. So a gourmet meal is not usually your first priority.
Take Away: Hunger may be your body’s loudest complaint, but don’t be foolish when choosing what to eat.
It helps to start by learning to identify and prepare common wild edible plants at home. These could include stinging nettle, miners lettuces, acorns, and cattail. You can also gather certain pine needles to steep in tea, providing useful vitamins and nutrients. Along with flavor that contributes to that important psychological uplift. Research safe and sustainable harvesting and processing for each individual plant. Stewardship should be foremost in your studies, you should never over harvest.
Finally, some foods should be processed in order to be consumed. And that leads us into our next point which is…
Fire is the Level-Up for the priorities we’ve discussed in our hierarchy of needs. Fire can warm your shelter and make it more efficient, boil water, make food more consumable, and help create tools. Fire can also serve to signal potential rescuers as smoke can often be seen from the air or smelled from further afield.
There are many methods of starting a fire. But that’s a whole separate article. Like this one, for example.
A word of caution about using fire in debris shelters. It is very dangerous and can be considered an advanced skill. You must position, build, and maintain your fire with ample firebreaks from any flammable material. To do this you can use distance and stone hearths.
Take Away: Fire is useful. Fire is dangerous. Make sure it is fully extinguished by feeling down to the subsoil of your fire pit.
So that’s a tentative plan for how to weather a survival situation. But with all these skills, you should Train before Trial. Meaning, it’s fun (and recommended) to get plenty of practice in before you really need it.
And start with the number one rule to limit how long you have to survive: always tell someone where you’re going. Leave a Trailhead with information on where you’ll be and when you’re expected back. Using all these tips can hopefully help you stay healthy and happy even in the most challenging of times.
Address your priority of needs. Use fire to help. And always leave a Trailhead.