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Outdoor Survival Crash Course

Before proceeding, please review Important Disclaimers about the information, resources & links contained in this website. The information provided below is for basic reference only and is not intended to be professional instruction.

1. Essential Gear
2. Law of Threes
3. Building a Shelter
4. Finding Water
5. Finding Food
6. Making Fire
7. Navigation & Direction Finding
8. Weather Forecasting
9. Signaling for Help

Essential Gear

Wilderness survival is difficult, if not impossible, without proper equipment. The first column below lists the contents of a 27-item survival kit for the obsessively prepared. For those who prefer or need to carry a lighter load, the second column lists the "ten essential" items commonly considered to be necessary for wilderness survival.

Complete Survival Kit

"Ten Essentials" Kit

  • Multi-tool or Swiss Army knife
  • Water filter or purification tablets
  • GPS
  • Compass and map
  • Flashlight (with batteries)
  • First aid kit
  • Whistle
  • Signal mirror
  • Emergency space blanket
  • Nylon rope
  • Matches
  • Water bottle
  • Sunscreen
  • Butane lighter
  • Cooking stove
  • Candle
  • Toilet paper
  • Lip balm
  • Plastic cup and spoon
  • Plastic bags
  • Coins for a phone
  • Cellular phone
  • Trail mix or granola bars
  • Waterproof shell, top and bottoms
  • Long johns
  • Mittens
  • Sunglasses
  • Multi-tool or Swiss Army knife
  • Water
  • Compass
  • Flashlight (with batteries)
  • First aid kit
  • Emergency space blanket
  • Matches
  • Sun protection
  • Map
  • Extra food

Also consider:

  • Whistle & signal mirror
  • Nylon cord  

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Law of Threes

The Law of Threes states that you cannot survive more than:
  • Three minutes without air.
  • Three hours without shelter from harsh weather.
  • Three days without water.
  • Three weeks without food.

Therefore, to survive in the wilderness, you must seek out the following (in order of importance):

  • Air
  • Shelter
  • Water
  • Fire
  • Food

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Building a Shelter

Building a shelter is an underrated and often overlooked part of wilderness survival. Most people cannot survive unprotected from harsh weather for more than a few hours. Besides breathing, building a shelter is an absolute priority, particularly in areas with harsh or unpredictable weather. A good multi-tool or pocket knife will greatly aid you in your efforts to build a shelter.

An ideal shelter must:

  • Protect you from rain, snow, wind, cold and heat.
  • Provide a basic level of comfort for resting and sleeping.
  • Be conspicuous enough to be found by search and rescue crews.

To build a basic shelter:

  • Look for a transition area between forest and field with good drainage (the trees will provide good protection against the wind and cold but will not completely obstruct the warmth of the sun).
  • Find a natural structure, such as a fallen tree or boulder to serve as the foundation wall of your shelter.
  • Find a sturdy branch about six feet in length to serve as your shelter's ridgepole.
  • Plant one end of the branch into the ground and set the other end on the foundation wall.
  • Gather up non-poisonous vegetation and small braches and place them on both sides of the ridgepole to create the roof.
  • Line the surface of the shelter with dried leaves and twigs for insulation.

Things to avoid:

  • DO NOT use caves, hollow logs or bushes for shelter, as they are likely inhabited by other animals, insects or reptiles, some of which may be dangerous.
  • DO NOT camouflage your shelter, as this will reduce your chances of being rescued.
  • DO NOT over-exert yourself when building a shelter. Instead, work at a moderate pace to minimize perspiration and loss of water.

For more detailed information about shelter building, see Chapter 5 ("Shelters") of the U.S. Army Survival Manual.

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Finding Water

Water can be found in virtually any outdoor environment. If you dig deep enough and in the right place, you can find the water table. In deciding where to dig, use common sense. Shaded areas, muddy ground, low spots and vegetation-rich areas are more likely to contain water than dried out, high-spots with little or no plant life. 

Look for water in the following places:

  • Muddy or damp ground.
  • Shaded sand dunes, especially large and steep ones.
  • Areas with water-craving vegetation such as willows, cottonwoods, sycamores, salt grass and elderberries.
  • Base of cliffs with moderate or dense vegetation.

Other places to find and gather water:

  • Morning dew from plants and rocks (mop up with a towel or shirt).
  • Rain water collected in sandstone ridges, canyon and rock pockets (generally exists on higher ground).
  • Animal tracks or circling birds leading to a water hole.

Always purify suspect water before drinking.

Things to avoid:

  • DO NOT assume that a water source is clean.
  • DO NOT extract water from poisonous plants.
  • DO NOT drink blood or urine.
  • DO NOT drink salt water.
  • DO NOT over-conserve water in a canteen.
  • DO NOT eat more than a minimal amount of food, as the act of digestion depletes body fluid.
  • DO NOT unnecessarily exert yourself.
  • DO NOT sit in the sunlight.

Other things to avoid:

  • Dew on poisonous plants.
  • Stagnant water with little or no signs of life.
  • Water holes with skeletal animal remains nearby.

For more detailed information about water procurement, see Chapter 6 ("Water Procurement") of the U.S. Army Survival Manual.

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Finding Food

Remember, although it might sound counterintuitive, food is your least pressing survival need. The average person can survive for several months without any food at all. If water is scarce, resist the temptation to eat, as the search for food and digestion consume a lot of your body's water. 

If water is plentiful or if you must eat, consider the following:

  • Insects are the easiest to catch and most are good to eat, but they must first be cooked. Avoid fuzzy insects, as some are poisonous.
  • Frogs are easy to catch and are nutritious. Snakes are more difficult to catch and are more dangerous, but are good to eat. Lizards are good to eat, but are very difficult to catch. Skin all reptiles and cook them thoroughly.
  • Most fish are good to eat.
  • Most bird eggs are good to eat.
  • Contrary to popular belief, rabbits and deer can be run down and caught. Although quick, these animals lack stamina.
  • You may be able to scare away prey from their catch by throwing rocks or making noise. Avoid trying this with dangerous predators, as they may decide to prey upon you.
  • If feasible, try setting a trap to catch animals.
  • Beware of sickly animals or those with a spotted liver, as they may carry a disease.
  • Avoid mushrooms, as many are toxic.
  • Avoid plants secreting a milky sap, as many are poisonous.
  • Cattails are good to eat.
  • Most roots and seeds are good to eat.
  • Acorn nuts from North American oak are edible.
  • Pines nuts are generally good to eat, but some pine trees are poisonous.
  • Although many grasses are indigestible, you can extract the nutrition by using it to make tea.
  • Learn to recognize poisonous plants. Avoid eating or even touching them.

For more detailed information about food procurement, see Chapter 8 ("Food Procurement") of the U.S. Army Survival Manual.

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Making Fire

Fire serves many roles in wilderness survival. Fire provides light and warmth and is essential for cooking food and purifying water. A good survival kit should contain all of the necessary items to start a fire. You should always add waterproof matches, a butane lighter and paper to your survival kit.

Using manual friction techniques to start a fire from scratch is nearly an impossible task for most novices. If you would like to learn about these techniques, consult Chapter 7 ("Firecraft") of the U.S. Army Survival Manual.

The following are more realistic ways to start a fire:

  • Matches
  • Butane lighter
  • Striking two stones together next to dry twigs and grass
  • Using a magnifying glass (or any convex lens) to focus the sun's rays onto dry twigs or paper

For tinder use:

  • Dead grass
  • Dry twigs
  • Dead tree bark
  • Dry moss
  • Evergreen needles
  • Paper
  • Clothing

To start a fire:

  • Pile your tinder material tepee style.
  • Leave enough room between the tinder to allow oxygen to pass (remember: oxygen is the fuel that allows a fire to burn).
  • Light the tinder in multiple places.
  • Rub the tinder with candle wax to prolong the fire.

DO NOT burn poison oak or other poisonous plants.

For more detailed information about fire making, see Chapter 7 ("Firecraft") of the U.S. Army Survival Manual.

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Direction Finding

Fewer things are more disconcerting than suddenly being lost in the wilderness. It can happen in an instant, and when it does, every direction begins to look the same. Panic quickly sets in. If this happens to you, STOP (Sit, Think, Observe and Plan). Otherwise, you will likely make a bad situation worse. Chances are, at the instant you realize you are lost, you are probably not too far from where your path. Unfortunately, panic causes most people to wander further off the trail and to become even more lost.

A personal GPS navigator, a compass and a map will greatly aid your efforts to find your way, and may even save your life.

If staying put fails, try this:

  • Look for signs of water, food, other people and man-made structures.
  • Avoid dangerous obstacles such as cliffs and jagged rocks.
  • If going up a steep incline, move in a zig-zag or switchback pattern.
  • If you have a whistle, blast it periodically; if without a whistle, yell.

To determine direction, use the shadow-tip method:

  • First, find a straight stick about 3 feet long.
  • Locate a fairly level, brush-free spot where the stick will cast a definite shadow.
  • Push the stick into the ground so it stands upright. It need not be perfectly vertical to the ground.
  • Mark the tip of the shadow cast by the stick.
  • Wait until the shadow moves 1 1/2 to 2 inches (approximately 10 to 15 minutes).
  • Mark the tip of the second shadow.
  • Draw a line from the first mark through and about a foot beyond the second mark.
  • Stand with your left foot on the first mark and your right foot on the end of the line you drew.
  • If you are in the northern temperate zone, you will be facing north.
  • If you are in the southern temperate zone, you will be facing south.

For more detailed information about direction finding, see Chapter 18 ("Field-Expedient Direction Finding") of the U.S. Army Survival Manual.

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Forecasting Weather

Remember these clever rhymes written by Don Haggerty, author of Rhymes to Predict the Weather:
  • Red sky in the morning, sailor take warning; red sky at night, sailor's delight.
  • Hens' scratching and mares' tails (referring to high altitude clouds) make tall ships carry low sails (this is good).
  • The lower they get (referring to low altitude clouds), the nearer the wet. 
  • A backing wind (referring to counterclockwise wind) says storms are nigh; a veering wind (referring to clockwise wind) will clear the sky.
  • If with your nose you smell the day (referring to humidity giving off plant scents), stormy weather's on the way.
  • Smoke rising high, clears the sky; when smoke descends, good weather ends.
  • When the dew is on the grass, rain will never come to pass.
  • Ring around the moon (referring to high evening clouds), rain by noon; ring around the sun, rain before night is done.
  • When stars begin to muddle, the Earth becomes a puddle.
  • When the air gets light, the glass falls low (referring to barometric pressure); batten down tight, for the winds will blow.
  • Rainbow to windward (referring to damp air of a rainbow that is upwind), foul fares the day; rainbow to leeward, damp runs away.
  • Swallows flying way up high means there's no rain in the sky.

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Signaling for Help

Proper signaling can mean the difference between being rescued and being left for dead in the wilderness. 

A good survival kit can be extremely helpful in carrying out the following signaling techniques: 

Fire. Most effective during darkness. Build three fires in a triangle formation (international distress signal). Build the fire in a natural or man-made clearing to avoid starting a forest fire. Burning a tree will also attract attention, but is extremely dangerous, as it may start a forest fire. Burn a tree only as a signaling technique of last resort! If you decide to burn a tree, always select one that is set apart from other trees, and preferably near a water source.

Smoke. Effective during daylight. Create three columns of smoke (international distress signal). Create white smoke against a dark background and vice versa. To create a white smoke, smother a fire with green leaves, moss or water. To create black smoke, add rubber or oil-soaked rags to the fire.

Mirrors or Shiny Objects. Best on a sunny day. Mirror signals can be seen over 70 miles under normal conditions in most environments.

Flashlight. Best at night. Use a flashlight to send an SOS signal--three short blips followed by three long blips.

Clothing. Spread clothing on the ground or on top of a tree. Use bright colors if possible. Arrange the clothes in an unnatural geometric pattern to distinguish the clothes from your surroundings.

Natural Material. Use natural materials to spell out an SOS. In snow-covered areas, tramp down the snow to form letters and fill in with contrasting material such as twigs or dirt. In sand, use vegetation. In brush-covered areas, cut out patterns in the vegetation. In tundra, dig trenches or turn sod upside down. As a general rule, use material that contrasts with the background.

The following is a table of Ground-to-Air Emergency Code:



Require Assistance V
Require Medical Assistance X
Need Food And Water F
No or Negative N
Yes or Affirmative Y
Proceeding In This Direction -->
All Is Well LL

If your signal is acknowledged by an aircraft and understood, the pilot will rock the aircraft from side to side (during daylight or moonlight) or will make green flashes with the plane's signal lamp (during nighttime).

If your signal is received but not understood, the aircraft will make complete circle (during day or moonlight) or will make red flashes with its signal lamp (during night).

Body signals:

  • Both arms raised with palms open means, "I need help."
  • One arm raised with palm open means, "I do not need help."

For more detailed information about signaling, see Chapter 19 ("Signaling Techniques") of the U.S. Army Survival Manual.

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