Let’s start off with a question. Have any of you ever gotten turned about, lost on a hiking or hunting trip? Have you ever felt a twang of panic vibrate through your belly for that second before regaining your bearings? It’s okay, you can admit. I will. I’ll admit to feeling that more than once and for more than just a second. I’ve gotten myself lost on more than one occasion but things always worked out, I found my way back (wouldn’t be here writing this if I hadn’t). Afterward, I’d kick myself for not being better prepared. Had I not found my way out, what would have happened? That’s the question left to linger, isn’t it? Could I survive? Could you? Ask yourself that. With the skills you have tucked away in your mental arsenal, could you survive a night in the wilderness?
Two?… Three?… A week?
In my case the answer was, probably, but not very well. However, with some viable bushcraft skills I, and you, can answer that question with more confidence. With such a skill set under your belt you can survive, not only lost in the wilds but also be well prepared for any given bug-out scenario or worse, a widespread catastrophe.
The 10 To Get You Through
While there is a vast world of survival skills you can learn to stay alive let’s narrow the scope down to, say….the top 10 basics that will certainly get anyone by in the wilderness.
Everyone has seen any given reality TV survival show where the host is plopped down in the middle of nowhere, right? What’s the first thing the host does? That’s right, they build a shelter. If it’s not the most important skill, at least shelter building is in the top 3 crucial bushcraft skills to know. The purpose of any shelter is to guard against the elements. It should not be bigger than necessary as larger shelters are harder to hold in heat. A smaller space, a bit larger than your body will warm with body heat alone.
First, find a location away from potential hazards (runoff areas or dry river beds, near dead trees that could fall or cliffs) There are numerous types shelters to choose from but the general A-shape design is one of the most reliable and easiest to construct. It can be as simple the classic tarp draped over a line tied between two trees or the sturdier design made from a ribbed ‘A’ frame of branches covered in leaves, tree boughs or snow.
Should you find yourself caught out in the open during winter a snow shelter will work. Constructed in the classic igloo manner using stacked blocks of snow or burrowing into an existing drift, these shelters are remarkably well insulated and will stay comfortably warm with little more than body heat and a candle.
2) Fire Starting
Unfortunately, chaos happens at the least opportune times leaving you in need of a fire without a match or lighter or dry kindling to get a fire started. If chaos was more considerate then fire starting would not be number 2 on this list. So in all likelihood should you find yourself in a dire situation, shivering with the chill of the elements you should know a couple of ways to get a fire going without the modern convenience of a match.
First, gather a tinder bundle or ball made up of dry grass, the “fuzz” moss found on some trees or dry wood shavings, any type of lightweight dry material that will ignite with heat or spark. Two of the simplest methods are the friction low and the bow drill both employing a flat horizontal piece of wood (fireboard) and a friction building vertical piece to heat up and ignite the tinder.
The topic of navigation can quickly run away into intricate complexities but here we’re going to stick with locating the cardinal directions without the benefits of a compass. Find east and west during a clear day by sticking a stick into the ground, mark the tip of the shadow cast with a rock or another stick. Wait 15 minutes or so, as the shadow moves away from the mark. Draw a line in the dirt from the original mark to the tip of the current shadow. This is your east-west line with west indicated by the first spot and east being the current.
Find south during the day using an analog wrist watch by pointing the hour (small) hand at the sun. Draw an imaginary line halfway between the hour hand and the 12. This is south. Should you find yourself in the southern hemisphere that halfway line will point north.
Navigating at night is as simple as locating the North Star, easy if the sky is clear. Locate the Big Dipper then draw an imaginary line through the two stars that form the outer edge of the cup and follow that line to the brightest star along that path. This will be the North Star. Follow that point straight down to earth and you will have north.
4) Finding Water
A relatively healthy person can go upwards of 8 weeks without food but that same person will last only 3 to 5 days without water, less if that person is hiking through the woods or sweating under a hot sun. What is more vital than water? Not much. In the absence of obvious sources (rivers, streams, lakes) there are various methods to locate water.
Rain water: Collect rain water with open plastic bags, a tarp, or clothes laid out flat to increase surface area. Funnel water off the tarp into an empty water bottle or makeshift container. Wring water out of clothing into a container.
Dew and Condensation: Lay out a plastic bag or tarp to collect early morning dew. Trap condensation by wrapping a plastic bag around green-leafed plants, positioned to let water droplets to pool in a bottom pocket of the bag.
Groundwater: Locate a low point in a valley, a dry riverbed or near a concentrated area of green plants and begin digging. Dig down a foot or two to find moist soil. Let it sit for a while and water will begin seeping up into the hole.
Follow the Critters: Animals tend to stay near water sources. Find a game trail and follow downhill. Eventually, this will lead to a watering hole.
5) Purifying Water
Natural sources like rivers, springs and lakes may seem untainted but in all likelihood, there is something swimming around in them that will throw your digestive system for a loop. Approach any outside water source with suspicion. If you find yourself without a quality water filter, the best way to make the precious stuff drinkable is to boil it, use iodine or chlorine tabs. These will kill off parasites and bacteria but won’t remove particulate or chemical contaminants. A water filter can be constructed with sand, grass, charcoal and fabric layered in a water bottle or plastic bag. This will filter the particulates, and charcoal will help with chemical contaminants but will not likely remove harmful microbes. Combining both methods is best.
6) Foraging for Food
Foraging for food really comes down to familiarizing yourself with edible wild plants through a quality wilderness course or region specific, edible plant field guide. Memorize some of the commonly found types without complicated identifications. Grasses are generally a safe bet. Do not eat something you are not 100% sure about and avoid mushrooms. Here are 5 common edible plants;
- Kelp (for those on the coasts)
- Prickly Pear Cactus
- Cattail (most of this plant is edible)
7) Rope Craft and Knot Tying
Rope craft encompasses knowledge of rope, the materials it’s made from and what different types of rope are used for. There is also an aspect of this skill set that teaches how to make rope from natural materials in the immediate surroundings. This set of knowledge, skills and expertise combined with various types of knots will go a long way to surviving in the wilds. Here a five useful types of knots;
Overhand Knot – An easy starter knot used for keeping the end of the rope from unraveling as a temporary stopper or for passing through a pulley or ring. It is also a starter knot for other types.
Square Knot – This is the go to knot used to tie two ropes together or to lash objects together. The square knot is essentially two overhand knots formed one on top of the other.
Figure Eight Knot – This one works as a better stopper than the overhand, easier to untie. The knot, when done correctly, looks like the numeral eight.
Bowline Knot – This knot forms a loop at the end of the rope that is secure and easy to untie.
Sheet Bend Knot – This is the knot to use when tying two ropes of different diameters together, as opposed to the square knot which is not as secure for this job.
8) Tracking – Animal tracking, not unlike forage for edible plants, is a skill you can begin building through a quality field guide then hone through practice. Familiarizing yourself with animal tracks will allow you to identify wildlife to hunt or trap and determine the areas they frequent. In the same vein, tracking will also alert you to those animals that may prey on you.
9) Hunting and Trapping – Hunting and trapping employ both tracking and rope craft skills to locate and take prey animals for food. When we talk hunting, the mind tends to picture prepared trips, out with rifle or bow, the tools that give the hunter a better than even chance of coming back with some food. But what if you’re stuck in the wilderness without a quality distance weapon requiring a decent amount of beyond the norm ingenuity. This is where the tracking and proper craft skills come into play. Tracking will guide you to where potential prey congregates or frequently passes through while rope craft enables you to devise traps and snares to catch that prey.
10) Processing Wild Game – We’ve talked tracking, hunting and trapping animals for food but once that part is done, what do you do with it? You eat it, right? Well, yes but first it has to be skinned, cleaned and readied for cooking. There are few universals to know about this process as basic, introductory knowledge. Most animals, besides fish, require skinning as the first step and this is done about the same for all. One thing to remember is to avoid puncturing the internal organs as they can contaminate the edible portions causing them to spoil quickly.
Generally, lay the animal on an incline with the head uphill and with a good sharp knife, make a slit just under the skin from tail to chin. Then another down the inside of each leg to the joint above the foot and begin pulling the skin off. Cleaning is a bit more involved with special care to avoid contamination. Again cut from just above the sex organs up to the breast bone which will open up the body cavity. Cut and tie off the anus waste tubes to avoid leaking then reach up inside the cavity for the windpipe and gullet. Cut these and pull out along with the rest of the internal organs. Prop open the now empty body cavity with a stout stick letting the inside cool before readying it to cook.