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Essential Survival Skills Everyone Should Know


The wilderness offers beauty, tranquility, and a unique sense of freedom, but it also demands respect, preparation, and a solid grasp of survival skills.

My time in the military, often spent in remote and challenging environments, taught me that the difference between a minor setback and a life-threatening situation often comes down to knowledge and preparation.

On one occasion, isolated from my unit due to a navigational error, I found myself relying on basic survival skills to secure shelter, water, and warmth until we could regroup. That experience was a stark reminder of the essential nature of these skills, not just for soldiers but for anyone venturing into the great outdoors.

This article draws on those personal experiences to delve into the critical survival skills that can keep you alive and well in the wild.

Building a Shelter 

A reliable shelter can protect you from the elements and provide a sense of security in an otherwise uncertain situation.

The process begins with selecting a safe, dry location away from natural hazards. Then, using materials like branches, leaves, and available natural resources, you can construct various types of shelters, such as lean-tos, debris huts, or snow shelters, depending on the environment.

In the dense forests of the Pacific Northwest, I once had to create an emergency shelter as night and a cold front approached.

With only a few hours of daylight left, I chose a spot between two sturdy trees as the foundation for a lean-to. Using branches and foliage, I constructed a frame and layered it with leaves for insulation and waterproofing.

The shelter wasn’t luxurious, but it kept me dry and significantly warmer than the outside air. That night, the importance of a well-constructed shelter and the ability to improvise with whatever materials were available became incredibly clear.

Starting a Fire Without Matches 

The ability to start a fire without matches or a lighter is a cornerstone of wilderness survival, providing warmth, light, and a means to cook food and purify water.

Techniques such as the bow drill, fire plough, and using lenses to focus sunlight are all effective but require practice to master.

During a survival training exercise in a remote alpine environment, where temperatures plummeted after sunset, starting a fire became a critical priority.

With no matches and damp conditions, I resorted to the bow drill method, a technique I had practiced but never under such pressing circumstances. After painstaking effort, the ember took, and I was able to nurture it into a small flame.

This experience underscored not just the physical skill involved in starting a fire but also the mental resilience required to persist despite initial failures.

Finding and Purifying Water 

Locating a clean water source is one of the first priorities in any survival situation. Streams, lakes, and rainwater can provide hydration, but often, purification is necessary to remove pathogens.

Boiling is the most reliable method, but in situations where fire isn’t possible, solar distillation or chemical purification can be life-saving alternatives.

While traversing a desert landscape on a multi-day mission with limited water supplies, we had to rely on our training to extract water from the environment. Using a solar still, we managed to collect condensation from the soil and vegetation.

This process was slow and the yield was minimal, but it provided enough water to prevent dehydration. The experience was a powerful lesson in resourcefulness and the importance of understanding the environment you’re operating in.

Basic Navigation Skills

In the wilderness, losing your way can happen quickly and without warning.

Basic navigation skills, such as using the sun and stars for direction, understanding topographic maps, and utilizing natural landmarks, are essential.

I recall a time when, during a night operation, our electronic navigation aids failed. We had to rely on the stars to orient ourselves and proceed toward our objective.

Using the Big Dipper and the North Star, we managed to navigate through unfamiliar terrain. This reliance on ancient navigation methods not only got us safely to our destination but also deepened my appreciation for these timeless skills.

Finding Food in the 

Securing food in the wilderness involves knowledge of the local flora and fauna. Safe foraging, fishing, and trapping can provide necessary sustenance for extended periods.

On one survival training exercise, we were tasked with living off the land with minimal supplies. Identifying edible plants and setting snares for small game became daily activities.

I learned the hard way that not all berries are safe to eat, a mistake that led to a night of discomfort. However, successful trapping and fishing efforts provided valuable protein and fats, teaching me the importance of a varied diet and the skills needed to procure it.

Signaling for Help

When lost or injured, being able to signal for help can make all the difference.

Methods like using mirrors, creating smoke signals, or arranging noticeable symbols on the ground can alert rescuers to your location.

I once participated in a search and rescue operation for a lost hiker.

The hiker had wisely used a mirror to catch the sunlight, creating flashes visible to our team from the air. This simple but effective method allowed us to locate and rescue the hiker quickly.

It was a firsthand demonstration of how a basic survival skill could have a profound impact on the outcome of a potentially tragic situation.

First Aid Basics 

Understanding basic first aid is crucial in the wilderness, where medical help may be hours or days away.

Knowing how to treat cuts, burns, fractures, and other common injuries can prevent complications and save lives.

During a remote patrol, a team member sustained a deep laceration. Without immediate access to medical facilities, I had to clean and dress the wound using the limited supplies in our first aid kit.

This experience reinforced the importance of first aid knowledge and the need to be prepared for medical emergencies, no matter how minor they may seem at first.


The skills outlined in this article, drawn from both personal experience and formal training, represent the fundamentals of wilderness survival.

They emphasize not only the practical aspects of surviving in the wild but also the mindset required to overcome challenges. Being prepared, maintaining a calm and focused demeanor, and respecting the power of nature are all integral to survival.

Survival is not just about enduring the wilderness; it’s about understanding it, respecting it, and being able to thrive within it.

By mastering these essential skills, you equip yourself with the tools necessary to navigate any situation you might encounter in the wild.

Practice these skills regularly, respect the lessons they teach, and carry them with you into the wilderness. Preparedness, after all, is the key to not just surviving, but thriving, in the great outdoors.