Wilderness Survival Skills Needed to Survive


Do You have Wilderness survival skills to Survive?


(c) copyright 2003, by Gary Benton

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In the mid 1960's three of my young cousins left home and walked to a nearby river do a little fishing. They didn't come home until three nights later. While they were fishing a storm moved in on them and they decided quickly to go home. As the wind blew, the clouds darkened, and the rain started to fall they made a serious mistake. They chose a shortcut one of the boys said he knew. They spent the next three days in the woods, lost. Now, you may think it happened to them because they were just kids. But, I know the oldest was fifteen and knew those woods like his back yard. Yet, when the rain hit and day became as dark as night, they got turned around. They slept buried in leaves, ate insects, and drank creek water. Keep in mind, they were in the southern United States and the weather was agreeable, well, at least when compared to some weather in the north. Nonetheless, they had the will to survive and did so. Could you do the same here in Canada? I believe I could do it and be somewhat comfortable at the same time. How do I know? Because I have.


I know most of you have never seriously given the idea of being lost in the woods a second thought. But, those of us who hunt, fish, or hike in the North Country should always be prepared to survive. This is some of the prettiest and most dangerous country in the world. But, It can be unforgiving to the careless. Getting lost can happen to even the best and most experienced of us. Imagine being out and having bad weather hitting. Instead of stopping for a while, you continue on. Soon the weather turns worse and you become disoriented. I use the term disoriented because no true outdoors person is ever lost. With the weather, you being disoriented, what do you do next?


Your first step is to stop. Find temporary shelter if you can, sit on a log, or just stand there. Stop. Look around you. Do you honestly know where you are? Beyond any doubt? You must be totally honest with yourself at this point; believe it or not, your life could depend on it. If the weather is wet and cool, notice I did not say cold, you might even have the beginning symptoms of hypothermia and not be aware of it. (If you are not aware of what hypothermia is, you should not be in the woods. It is the lowering of the body’s core temperature and can kill). If the weather is cold, your life may depend on your next step. Stop, take a look around and decide then what needs to be done. If you are honestly lost, relax. All is not hopeless nor may you even be in serious danger. But, plan as if your life depends on it, because it may. As long as you keep your wits about you and have planned in advance you should be all right.


Take a look around and find a place for a shelter. An ideal shelter would be a cave, but those can be few and far between. If a cave is not available you may have to construct a shelter. Now, in a survival situation, a shelter is not hot and cold running water, a heat lamp, or a set of bunk beds. Many nights I have slept under a shelter made with a tarp or rain poncho. They are easy to construct, are somewhat water resistant, and keep you safe. The key in constructing your shelter is its location. Avoid making it under dead tree limbs, in dry streambed's, or too close to running water. High winds, rain, or other weather conditions could make them very dangerous. Two trees, eight feet of cord or line, a poncho and you are set for the night. Merely tie the cord to the trees, drape the poncho over the line, and secure the bottom of the poncho so it does not blow around. I usually tie the end of a piece of line to the poncho grommets and the other end to sharpened wooden stakes I hammer into the ground. A kind of poor mans tent. But, it does work.


In cold snowy weather, you should insulate your shelter. Place pine boughs on top of the tarp or poncho (as constructed above) and then add about six to twelve inches of snow on top. This snow will act as insulation and actually keep you warm. Have the opening to the shelter facing your fire. Do not have a fire inside the shelter. Keep the shelter well ventilated to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning. (I have used a shelter of this type in Alaska when the temperature was minus twenty degree Fahrenheit for three days.) Of primary concern is to conserve your energy and to keep out of the wind. Wind chill can be a real killer.


Next step, usually for purely psychological reasons is a fire. Keep it small and keep your firewood dry. Wet or green wood is difficult to keep burning. I usually keep a small bit of kindling in my shelter as well so it stays dry. That makes it easier to start a fire in the mornings. Also, keep your fire small. You will use less wood and a small fire is much easier to cook on. If you have food. A good fire will also assist rescuers in finding you, especially at night. A small fire in front of your shelter and you out of the wind will really make you feel much better.


Once you have a shelter and fire the battle is half won. Stop once more and relax a minute and take inventory of the equipment you have on hand. Look at what you have, how it is to be use, where it is to be used, and who is to use it. I mean, fishing equipment will not do you much good as fishing equipment if you are land locked. However, the line and the tackle are priceless. You can make snares with the line or use the pole to catch snakes for dinner, if need be. Look at abnormal uses for all of your gear as well. Let your imagination take over. I once saw an Alaskan Native start a fire by using his book laces and a piece of wood. I have even seen women's sanitary napkins used as dressings when a person sustained a serious cut. Keep the mind active. Your desire to survive and your mind are your best tools. Keep them both finely tuned.


Once inventory is completed, start on the most serious task you have. Procuring drinking water. Not all water found in the woods if good for drinking. If you camp, hunt, fish, or hike, always have some fresh water on you. I carry a small baby bottle filled with water and it fits into my cargo pocket of my pants. But, for long term drinking, carry water purifications tablets or boil your water. It is funny, when you think of survival most people think of the lack of food, not lack of water. Most of us, especially me, can do without food for a long time with few ill affects. No, I am not suggesting it is healthy, just that water is more of an immediate need. If you have adequate shelter, fire, and water, you can survive for a surprisingly long time. Food, for most of us anyway, is a habit. We eat too much. Besides, the odds are you will be found within forty-eight hours if others know where you went. So, get comfortable and relax.


When you are surviving you will get dirty. This cannot be completely prevented. Nonetheless, attempt to stay as clean as you can. Dirty clothing loses its insulating properties and will not keep you as warm as clean clothing. Beside, good sanitary conditions will assist your body in fighting infections from small cuts and scratches you will receive. Keep your clothing and yourself as clean as you can under the conditions. Keeping your clothing dry is important as well. Try to wear wool, gortex, thinsolite, or other commercial products that are known to keep you warm even when wet. There are lots on the market so get the best you can afford. Wool is one of my choices.


Once you have a shelter up, fire going, and dinner on the grill stay there. It is much easier for folks to find you than you to find them. I NEVER go out without someone knowing where I am, when I left, and when I expect to return. You can tell a family member, girlfriend or a buddy. It is safer to do this and will assist the authorities if they have to launch a search and rescue effort for you. Have you ever wandered all over a mall looking for someone? Difficult to find them, huh? But, if you take a seat on a bench they will walk by you sooner or later. Two trains of thought here, 1) let them come to you, 2) you use less energy. This energy thingy is very important when you don't know when your next meal is coming from. Conserve energy, let them find you. Besides, you have already established all the comforts of home, right? Why leave it then?


One aspect of all of this I have saved to the last is being prepared. Once you are forced to spend the night in the woods is not when you should discover you don't have matches. Or, that you don't know basic first aid or how to use some of your survival gear. Prepare. Be a scout and remember the scout motto, always be prepared. I never go out without my survival kit with me. No, it is not very big and it does not weigh much, but it could prove to be a life saver. I actually carry most of it in a small plastic box about three inches wide and about five inches long. I have it in my right pants cargo pocket at all times. What do I have in it?


1. A quality penknife or jack knife.

2. Condoms for water storage, unlubricated.

3. Water proof matches

4. Flint and steel or a metal match

5. Water purification tables

6. A long strip of aluminum foil folded up to cook with

7. Fishing kit, i.e., hooks, sinkers, and some line. Nothing fancy.

8. Commercial back packing first aid kit (with instructions). I carry a very small one.

9. One small pack of gum and one of hard candy (energy)


Also, I carry three other things on my person. I carry a good quality space blanket, dry socks, and about twenty feet of cotton cord. I have found I can survive with the above items. And, all of this stuff weighs almost nothing. I carry it all in one cargo pocket and still have lots of room left. It is my insurance policy.


One other area I need to discuss is how you dress when you are in the woods. I usually wear military cargo pocket styled pants and shirts. These can be picked up in surplus stores at a good price. I also have good boots, warm socks, and always have a belt. I wear a wide brimmed hat to shade my eyes from the elements. Of course you know I also have a poncho but not much else is really needed. If you want to get a fanny pack and wear jeans, all of the equipment I have listed will easily fit into the container. Once you are in a survival situation is not the time to decide you need the gear. You have it with you, or do without.


With today’s electronics and gadget’s it is very difficult to really become lost. GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) systems, cellular phones, and other devices make it safer. But, many people, me included, prefer not to carry those things out of doors. I go out to avoid noise and technology, not to carry it. Keep in mind, all it takes is a touch of bad weather, a serious mishap, or a wrong turn, and you may find yourself in a survival situation.


In the far north, you are isolated and in some very remote country. Often, what you have with you will be all you have to use for survival. Remember, your mind is your best tool. Your determination to survive is your best motivation. With a survival kit, your mind, and determination, you too can survive until rescued.


Can You Survive?


Gary Benton has over 45 years of outdoor experience in camping, hiking, fishing, and other activities. He's no armchair survival man, he's walked the walk from the arctic to the desert and all the area in between. Gary has an associates degree in Search and Rescue, Survival Operations, a B.S. in Industrial Occupational safety, and all but his thesis completed for a M.S. in Counseling Psychology.
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