Basic Survival Skills – Why You Should Have Them?
Survival skills, such as making a fire or a shelter, are useful for people who like to spend time in the outdoors. It could be to camp with the kids or even mountain biking that draws you out into nature. These are just a few of the obvious areas or environments where having survival skills are a no-brainer.
So, why would you need survival skills, if you live and work in the city, possibly never exposing yourself to those other environments. To answer this, you’ll need to consider what else you get out of learning survival skills, other than knowing how to build a fire. You get confidence, along with the practical skills and it might even draw you out of home to face nature and survive.
So much of your survival, depends on your confidence and attitude, which is fed by your knowledge and experience. Therefore, learning basic survival skills, can give you the edge when dealing with a critical situation, in the wild and also at home. Surviving at home just requires a different set of basic survival skills and experience, to succeed there.
You can read the Survival Fitness post, to see how a potential disruption to modern life can force a rethink. Starting with the basics, to surviving alone outdoors and translating that into all aspects of your life, can be powerful. It will force you to think and plan for the worst, and hopefully avoid it all together. That brings us to the No.1 skill. Well, it’s not so much a practical skill but it will be the first thing you need to do, in any situation you face in life.
What is the First Skill You Should Use in A Survival Situation?
I consider life to be a survival situation, just like getting lost in the woods and they both need a plan to survive in them. The very moment you realize your life is in danger, you need to formulate a plan so as not to panic. Keeping your mind calm, by working through the details and solutions you’ll need to employ to survive.
Fail to plan, then plan to fail, as my trade school teachers used to say and for good reason. So, before you get a chance to use any of your basic survival skills, you’ll need to figure out your plans. Once you’ve moved out of danger and worked out your rescue plans, then you can start to think about using basic survival skills.
Which skill is more important and should you use one before the other?
Unfortunately, for anyone surviving anything, including life, that choice will be made for you already and by forces out of your control. For instance, mother nature will decide what your next move should be, even if you’re wanting to do something else!
For this post, I will focus on the basic survival skills in a traditional outdoors survival situation. And I’ll let mother nature put these skills in priority order for you, if the need ever arises and let’s hope not!
What are the 5 Basic Survival Skills?
Basic Survival Skill No.1 – Planning
Obviously, moving out of a dangerous area is your first priority, before you plan for your rescue. Once you’re clear and safe, then you can start your thinking and find a safe way out of further danger. The real skill to good planning, is taking into consideration all of the elements, that may affect your plans.
For example, your first consideration may be how much daylight you have left to work with. If it’s early in the day, then you can plan the direction you need to head back to safety, if you think you can make it. And if it is late, you’ll need to find or build a suitable shelter to rest through the night hours. You can see what I mean about other forces dictating your plans.
If hiking out to safety is not feasible and your location is known to family members, then you’re best to sit tight and plan for a rescue.
Clearly, when you’re outdoors, mother nature is the boss and you need to go with it and not against it. Nature, will throw up all kinds of obstacles to your plans and you’ll need to adapt quickly to the new conditions. Try to take advantage of changes, if you can, and not become desperate with the conditions.
Sometimes, nature will provide unexpected opportunities for you to exploit, as well as some to despair. Rather than seeing everything as an obstacle, you should look to see any advantages with the changes as well. To overcome the unexpected, you’ll need a lot of flexibility in your rescue plans.
Just as important as emergency planning, will be your pre-planning, for any potential survival situation. For a start, basic knowledge of the area you’re going to be in and the direction where rescue is most likely for you, will be crucial. Otherwise, every step you take, could be one step further away from rescue and closer to the inevitable.
Therefore, basic Pre-planning, will take a load of stress away at the most stressful time, making it easier to think clearly when it matters most. As a result of thinking ahead of the potential conditions you face, you may alter the tools and equipment you intended to carry. So, educating yourself of the local conditions and potential survival resources you might find, can make all the difference later on.
At the beginning of a survival situation, you are likely to be well hydrated and fed, possibly even carrying reserves of both. This makes finding or constructing a shelter your next most likely priority.
Basic Survival Skill No.2 – Shelter
A well fed person and with plenty of drinking water, can still succumb to hypothermia in the outdoors. Even if you have several hours of daylight remaining, shelter will soon become a top priority. As you need time to build or find it and gather materials to complete it!
The real basic survival skill in shelter building, is building as little of it as possible and letting nature do the work. Utilizing natural shelter, that you can add to, will save precious calories that you can then expend elsewhere. Observing natural features and opportunities while you walk, can help you plan for making a shelter later on. You can also collect resources along the way, like vines, to suit your shelter plans.
When selecting your shelter, keep in mind what you most need to get out of it for a night. For example, it could be protection from Hypothermia, wild animals, insects, rain, wind or all of the above. A good night’s sleep is as important as ever, when you’re in a stressful mental and physical situation. Medical experts say that sleep deprivation, is the equivalent impairment of an adult male drinking six full strength beers!
When to Find Shelter?
Build and select your shelter to protect you from the local elements but ensure that it is comfortable, you need to get some sleep at the very least. Apart from being tired, there are other reasons for needing to find shelter and it could happen at any time. So, as you walk along, you need to pay attention to the conditions around you and terrain ahead. This will help you decide in advance, of when it’s time to shelter.
For example, you may notice bad weather approaching you, but still hours away, giving you time to find shelter. Don’t wait until it is on top of you! Similar, with the terrain ahead, it may change into a more difficult landscape and require you to rest and replenish, before tackling it the next day.
Obviously, night time is the most likely reason for needing a shelter but you should be prepared to find it at any moment. You may even come across an area with ample resources, forcing you to make camp and resupply for a few days. Or, it might be an area that is perfectly suited, for getting the attention of your rescuers.
Home and Hearth
Depending on the weather conditions, a good shelter may not be enough to survive the night, you’ll need something else.
Basic Survival Skill No.3 – Fire
Even in temperate climates, it can still get cold enough at night to give you the fatal condition of Hypothermia. And, even if the conditions don’t require you to make a fire, attracting the attention of rescuers might. This makes the basic survival skill of starting and tending a fire, essential to your rescue and survival.
When the conditions are good and with the right tools, starting a fire is easy. However, if you take away or diminish any one of the conditions, needed to start a fire, then you could be in serious trouble. For instance, even if you have the right tools to start a fire, you still need dry tinder to get it going and sustain the early fire.
The real basic survival skill with fire, is finding and selecting the right tinder material, to get a fire started. Also, having the next sized fuel ready to place on top of the increasing flames but not choking it out, is critical too. The survivor should always be on the lookout for suitable tinder to collect for use later. Even if it is wet, you can put it in your pocket and let your body heat dry it out as you walk, hopefully to catch a spark later.
So, educating yourself on identifying local trees or plants, that are packed with resin and that will burn even when wet, will be advantageous. Nature often provides the resources a survivor needs, even though it doesn’t advertise where they are to be found.
The Fire Triangle
The 3 sided triangle of a fire; heat, oxygen and fuel. Removing any one of the sides will collapse the triangle and your fire. A lack of Oxygen isn’t a common problem but you will need to add some to your ember, to kick it along at the start. For example, throw a blanket over a fire or cover with sand to starve it of oxygen and it will die out quickly.
Obviously, you need dry fuel to start and dry fuel to progress your fire from the ember stage. Take away the dry fuel and you have no hope of lighting a fire, unless it has natural resins that burn when wet. Either way, you can add/take Oxygen and add dry fuel easily but the third side is a little more difficult.
The heat side of the triangle is not there at the beginning, you have to build it up to start the fire. You may even have to “coddle” the fire at the start, to create a smaller environment to build the heat in. Then slowly build the heat with ever increasing sizes of kindling and finally onto the firewood.
Once you have a glowing coal bed, then the heat is sustained and new fuel catches alight quickly. Even damp fuel will dry out and burn at this stage with the heat. This process is demonstrated with the fire saw/drill method of lighting a fire, it just needs heat to get started.
Lighting a fire with a flint or matches, is not really a skill and survival fitness theory demands you have alternatives. So, real basic survival skills require you to know how to start a fire without these tools and just use nature.
There are a couple of well known methods, that you should practice in advance to ensure later success. The fire saw and drill method is quite effective and has been used for millennia, practice makes perfect with these two though.
Other methods will require some alternative tools, such as a magnifying lens, battery, chemicals or zip lock bag filled with water. You should practice all of these methods, as you’re probably carrying some of this gear with you anyway.
Basic fire survival skills, will require you to also learn different ways to build a fire with your fuel. For instance, a cross hatch fire will reduce the need to gather loads of fuel and the heat can also be regulated. This can be really useful if you step away from camp to go foraging or hunting. You can turn your fire down and back up when you return. And hopefully with a meal in hand.
Once you have your fire for warmth/cooking, you need to prepare a way to signal any potential rescuers. The only way you will survive the ordeal is by being rescued, so make sure you’re ready for it. That completes your camp setup and it’s time for the next step in the survival journey, finding food and water.
Basic Survival Skill No.4 – Resource Gathering
Finding Water Resources
Finding where water should be, is easy, as water flows downhill and collects in low areas naturally. Just like water, the survivor will flow and follow its course down towards the coastal areas and rescue. Although, whether you actually find some drinkable water along the way, is a matter of luck or good timing.
It’s for this reason, that you may need to find alternative sources of water from plants and animals or make your own. Constructing dew traps and solar stills, will form part of the basic survival skills needed to obtain water. You have to take advantage of nature when you can, including following animals to water and signs of lush vegetation hiding deeper water.
Adding to the drama of finding water, is that almost all of it that you do find, will be undrinkable without filtering and boiling it first. Carrying purification tablets in your pocket survival kit will ease the burden of this somewhat. Otherwise, you will need to improvise a filter system and boil the water to sterilize it for safe drinking.
It’s possible, that you may find yourself with an abundance of food options but little or no water supply. Keep in mind, that digestion of food uses up fluids and especially when digesting fatty meat protein. If you’re already in a dehydrated state, then only eat foods with a high water content, like fruits or vegetable matter.
After completing all those chores and if you find some time to spare, then you can concentrate on the next resource gathering skill.
Hunting and Gathering
The real basic survival skill for this crucial area, is obtaining calories without using up too many in the process. Opportunistic gathering of food, as you walk or carry out other tasks, will be critical in achieving a positive return of calories. No sense digging a hole for a trap and burning 4000 calories, only to get 2000 in return for your efforts!
To avoid this, the survivor should look at setting up passive traps, that only require a little bit of work for the reward. Also, you may need to eat things you normally wouldn’t consider but are readily available and gathered with little fuss. Anything you can do, to reduce your calorie loss, will be a huge benefit to you the next day.
Even though you can go without food for 3 weeks, eating is still important and you should try to find food. Only do so after your shelter, fire and signal fires are complete, you still have to prioritize.
Basic Survival Skill No.5 – Navigation
Clearly, if you want to survive and find your way to safety, then navigation skills will be critical to have. Like before, just reading a compass is not a basic survival skill in itself, a compass is just a tool. Navigational skills combined with an ability to read the signs provided by nature, make up this basic survival category.
Of course, having a compass on hand makes finding your direction easy. As long as you know which direction to head, so, make sure you figure that out in pre-planning stage. Survival fitness demands that you have alternative ways of finding your direction without a compass and just use nature.
For instance, the foliage of plants and trees will be more abundant on one side than the other. Some plants even orientate north-south. Although, all of this may be difficult under the forest canopy thick with trees. Navigating through such areas will be more about keeping a straight path and not meandering through the forest.
If you find yourself in such a location, you’ll need to find a clearing and access the sun and it’s shadows. It’s easy to become disorientated in thick forest so concentrate on keeping a straight path out of there. You can tie a long vine onto your belt and let it trail behind you as you walk. Look back and check if it’s a straight line and adjust your path as required.
Navigate to Rescue
The basic survival skill with navigation, is being able to do it just by reading the signs around you. Also, you should have a firm understanding of the local geography based on your pre-planning. You might have even chosen a close by area which provides a better chance for your rescuers to spot you. It may even be possible for you to just follow the terrain, to navigate your way to this preferred rescue location.
In most situations, you will see the rising and setting of the sun each day and stars at night, to orientate yourself. If you’ve pre-planned the best direction for your rescue, then you can set out each day by the sunrise. Pick far off landmarks in the direction of travel and orientate to those to maintain course.
How Can I be Good at Survival?
Each of these 5 basic survival skills has many sub-skills for you to master. For example, hunting will require skills with trapping, fishing and improvised weapon construction. Also, other categories like planning, will require map reading skills and general outdoors experience to be proficient.
Other skills such as first aid, I consider a life skill, more so than a survival skill, even though it’s useful in both. A first aid course will give you confidence in a medical emergency, just like survival skills will in a survival situation.
Educate to Survive
For you to be good at survival, you must educate yourself on all of those sub-skills that make up the basics. Luckily, today there is no shortage of web based education that a survivor can access to increase their skill base. Personally, I have watched and read countless amounts of educational material on survival and one thing sticks out.
They are all pretty much based around survival knowledge learned by special forces, namely the SAS. Their former survival school instructor and his books and videos have become a major resource for survival knowledge.
Years ago I purchased his handbook and placed it near the loo at home and I would read a couple of pages each visit. After several years I have read the book many times over, so its knowledge is now burnt into my head. After you do this a few times its hard to forget what you’ve learned and it becomes a second nature.
Basic Survival Skills Education
Read this handbook and watch his classic video to further your own survival knowledge and I’ll see you in the wild!
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