The Basics of Survival

essential skills survival Nov 10, 2020

Learning the basics of survival stated when I was very young. My father took us on many camping trips and I spent a tremendous amount of time wandering through the forest. He taught us how to build a shelter, how to build a fire, and how to stay safe and warm. I continued that training as an adult by taking survival classes. Furthermore, I’ve spent many a weekend putting myself in “controlled” survival situations and practicing my skills.  

Although I am not a survival expect, I now live off the grid in an isolated area. Additionally the focus of this site is not about survival. However,  if you live off the grid you already know the importance of outdoor skills and simply being prepared. For example, at certain times of the year, if I stayed at the cabin it might be several months before I see anyone.  Consequently, I have to be prepared for emergencies. After 20 plus years at the cabin there have been several times I’ve found myself in less than ideal situations where I had no choice but to be creative and just figure a way out of it. Someday the same could happen with you.  

If you are wondering why I am addressing this issue, then read further.

10) FIRE

But why should I be concerned?

When you mention survival skills most people immediately think of some highly trained, muscular, military dude wearing butt loads of tactical gear.  Or maybe you think of someone hunkering over a fire, eating a tasty dish of worms, and smelling very poorly. Consequently, these kinds of thoughts compounded by visions of movie scenes about survival, most people are somewhat intimidated by this topic. It all seems to be a big mystery that we just push to the back of our already busy minds.

Furthermore, most people just brush it aside as if it is an “old school” thing of the past. Such knowledge and skills are no longer necessary in the modern world. To  further compound the complexity of this subject, survival skills are virtually an endless topic.You can spend months to years learning and practicing all that is needed to literally survive anything.

Taking all of that into consideration, it begs the question of what exactly is the everyday person supposed to do?

As intimidating as this topic can be, most people do not realize that learning the basics of survival is not difficult. It is a matter of learning and practicing a few simple techniques. Additionally, survival is as much about attitude as it is about skills.

The underlying purpose here is to introduce you to some basic survival skills and techniques that could literally save your life. In an emergency, knowledge is power. What is needed is a good foundation of skills so that you can think for yourself in a difficult situation and go back home in good health. It is virtually impossible to prepare for every type of emergency situation.  However, the key is to develop some basic survival skills that can be applied no matter what happens. This gives you the basic knowledge to think things through when everyone else is in a state of panic.

The combination of knowledge and skills breeds confidence. 

More than a century ago Louis Pasteur said, “Chance favors only the prepared mind. 

So, be prepared. 

An emergency situation is not the time to learn a new skill. I would highly suggest learning and focusing on these skills and practicing them in controlled situations until you are comfortable. I have done this for years and it has helped me to gain a tremendous amount of confidence. The more comfortable you are with these skills, the less likely you are to get overwhelmed and panic during an emergency. 

But, but, but!!! What does this have to do with me?? I live in the city. 


A common denominator for many survival situations is that people suddenly find themselves in circumstances that they did not expect or anticipate. 


A True Story

It was a nice weekend with fantastic winter weather so I decided to take a leisurely drive through the mountains to relax and enjoy nature.  That was my thought when I left home for an afternoon of cross country skiing.  My outing went well but the temperatures were well below zero so I only stayed out for a few hours.  

The trail where I was skiing was about 12 miles down a narrow mountain road. The trails in this area are a popular destination for summer hikers.  However, there are few visitors in the winter, most of which are railroad workers.  I barely started my drive back when I hit a patch of ice and buried the front end of my truck in a snow bank. The rear end of the truck was lifted off the ground just enough so that I could not get enough traction to back out. I was stuck 10 miles from the main road. It was late in the day and the outside temperature was minus 15 degrees Fahrenheit.  

Fortunately I was prepared because I always carried basic survival gear. My truck was my shelter. I had an expedition style winter sleeping bag rated to 30 below zero. I had candles and matches to produce some basic heat, extra clothing for even more warmth, and basic food supplies for calories.  

Needless to say, it was a long night sleeping in the truck. But early the next morning some hikers showed up and pulled me out.  I safely returned home having learned a valuable lesson.  Had I not been prepared I would have most certainly frozen to death the night before. 

The lesson to learn from my experience is that you could suddenly find yourself in a survival situation without warning. In fact a common theme in survival scenarios is that people find themselves in situations that they did not expect.  

Chance favors only the prepared mind.”

So, be prepared. Be prepared by learning and mastering the necessary skills to make sure you return home in good health. 

General Outdoor Skills Versus the Basics of Survival

It is difficult to separate the discussion of these two topics. If you have good general outdoors skills, your chances of survival increase exponentially. If you have a good knowledge of basic survival skills, chances are you have a good foundation of general outdoor skills. So, this begs the question of where to start if you are a complete novice??

When it comes to outdoor skills, there is a lot to learn. People are understandably confused about where to begin.  Keep in mind that you need to develop a good foundation of skills so that you can think for yourself and improvise in a difficult situation.  This will not happen overnight. 

You should take the time to read a related post titled The Ten Essentials Needed for Survival.  This is a brief post that sets the stage for being prepared for any situation. But first, let’s discuss the survival rule of threes.

The Survival Rule of Threes 

These are very simple rules that you should commit to memory. If you think hard about these general rules you will soon realize what you have to do to be prepared.  

  • You can survive three minutes without air or in ice cold water.
  • You can survive three hours without shelter in a harsh environment.
  • You can survive three days without water provided you have adequate shelter from the environment.
  • You can survive three weeks without food if you have an adequate amount of water and proper shelter.  

The 20 Basics of Survival

The information below expands greatly on a previous post called The Ten Essentials Needed for Survival. If you have not yet read that post, it is a good place to start. Presented here are 20 different very important things to master that could literally save your life.

1) Have the right attitude

More than any one thing, it is important to have a positive attitude. If you find yourself in a challenging situation or in a real survival situation, having a negative attitude only worsens the situation. A state of panic is your worst enemy. Both states of mind cloud proper judgement and causes you to make irrational decisions.

If you have ever been in the back country and had the sudden realization that you were lost then you are familiar with that instant feeling of fear almost to the verge of panic.  The same thing will happen to you when you suddenly realize your present circumstances are not in your favor. It is similar to the feeling you get when your car careens out of control, you’re about to hit something and there is nothing you can do.  This is the moment of truth. 

If you want to survive, panic is not an asset. Instead, you have to find a way to clearly focus in order to constantly re-evaluate your situation. A clear, calm head helps you to plan and execute your next best move. You have to master your fear. 

The source of fear

There are multiple things that people fear when they find themselves in a survival situation.  

  1. Fear of the unknown: What will happen to me? Will I ever be found? 
  2. Fear of discomfort: Just simply the fear of being dirty, bitten my bugs, getting muddy
  3. Fear of death: This is a very real fear when you are thrust into an unknown situation. The fear of death can be paralyzing.  
  4. Fear of being alone: Many, many people have never been alone in their entire life.  Many people are afraid to be alone. Even experienced sportsman may have never ventured out on their own.
  5. Fear of animals: This is a very real fear for a lot of people especially if they have never spent time in the outdoors. If you are already afraid and you begin to hear the unfamiliar sounds of animals, you can actually be paralyzed by your own fear. 
  6. The realization of your ignorance: Most people who have no survival training fear that they will not know know to take care of themselves.  This fear sometimes prevents them from doing anything at all to help themselves. 

Additional sources of stress in  a survival situation 

  1. Fatigue: Survival situations produce a lot of stress. Additionally, you get less sleep and eat less food than normal.  All of these things can contribute to fatigue and even exhaustion.  When you are tired, you are more likely to make poor judgement calls that could result in making the situation worse.  Additionally, you are more susceptible to injuries as well as hypothermia. Do not work yourself to the point of exhaustion. Get plenty of rest.  
  2. Dehydration: In a survival situation having enough water is one of the most critical considerations. Significant dehydration can result in irrational behavior. If water is limited it is important to rest during the heat of the day and avoid working in the direct sun. 
  3. Cold: Exposure to extreme cold can lead to hypothermia. This will directly affect you ability to move around and will eventually dull your ability to think.  This is the reason it is imperative to have proper shelter and clothing.  
  4. Heat: Exposure to excessive heat can lead to heat stress, heat stroke and death. It rapidly promotes dehydration and can cause significant weakness and severe electrolyte loss.  Again, proper shelter is key. 
  5. Painfulness: If there is an injury involved, you must learn to deal with the pain.  Often times just going about the business of survival takes your focus away from the pain. Most people can tolerate more than they think.  The sheer will to survive can make you ignore a lot of things.  
  6. Hunger: Although being hungry can cause additional stress in a survival situation, it is usually the least of your concerns. Most people in good health can go weeks without food.  
  7. Depression: Being alone and waiting for a rescue can cause significant depression for survivors.  The best way to deal with this is to stay busy and keep a positive attitude.  

How to Control Your Fears and Minimize Panic


This is an easy acronym to remember. When you suddenly realize you are lost or otherwise in a bad situation, just STOP!!!!, which means sit, think, observe, plan.  


One of the first things I learned during my initial survival training is that when you realize you are lost, you will have a sudden onset of fear. To prevent you from doing something stupid at that moment of truth, stop what you are doing and simply sit down!! Sit down!!! Sit down!!!


Once you sit down, take a few deep breaths to calm yourself.  Then think about what equipment you have at hand. What supplies do you have that can improve the situation.  


Look at the local environment, the time of day, the present weather.  Are there any immediate dangers or other situations that need to be addressed? Do you need to move to another location? How much day light is left? What is the current temperature and is it dropping or getting warmer?  


Just the simple process of sitting, thinking, and observing will help you to start thinking rationally. You should start to develop a plan to pick a campsite, build a shelter, find water, and gather firewood. Furthermore, take an inventory of other supplies.  What is in your survival kit? What is there that can help your situation.  

4 Ways to Control Your Fears

Be prepared: It can not be stressed enough that you should have a survival kit and you should practice with that kit. You should be very familiar with everything in it, the various functions, as well as how you can use that equipment to improvise various solutions to problems. Study and learn about survival skills and techniques.  Being educated about such things will help to curb your fears so that you can focus on what matters.  

Keep physically fit: Being prepared for the worse and keeping physically fit to deal with an emergency are key.  A survival situation is stressful. But being fit will keep you from getting exhausted or simply fatigued day after day.  Being fit will also help you to keep a clear mind, a positive attitude, and confident that you can get through the situation. 

Keep a positive attitude: Surviving a bad situation can be completely dependent on having a good attitude.  Many of the challenges of a survival situation are simply mental. No matter how much stress you are experiencing, your response to your fears can determine how well you over come any challenge at hand. Try to focus on anything that is positive such as a phrase, a song, or a favorite memory.  This can take your focus off of your fears. 

Keep moving: Do not sit around and focus on your fears. Keep busy performing various tasks as needed to get you through the situation.  Keeping busy also helps you to relax and stay focused.  

Who Survives and Who Dies?

Have you ever wondered why some people survive a disaster while others do not? Well, you are not the first person to ask that question.  Many studies have been done on that very thing.  It comes down to only a few basic things.  Commit this to memory and it will help you to survive almost any thing.  

1) Respond quickly to the situation at hand. Quickly analyze the situation at hand and make up your mind on what to do.  Respond in a calm manner and do not panic. Many people have died by simply freezing during a critical situation and not responding.  

2) Take the initiative. DO NOT WAIT for someone else to save you, not the government, not another family member, friend, or spouse.  Do something for yourself.  Time and time again we see news reports of people waiting DAYS for disaster relief supplies to arrive. 

3) Realize that you are the master of your own fate. Make you own decisions about how to respond to a particular situation. Just because the “leader” says to do something, that does not necessarily make it the best decision for you.  Take control of your own fate.  

4) Have a clear understanding of what needs to be done in order to survive. 

5) Focus, focus, focus on the task at hand. 

6) Hone your ability to think outside the box and improvise.  Creativity and ingenuity will be your best friend in a survival situation.  

2) Proper Shelter

In a survival situation, protection from the elements is vital especially if you are in a harsh environment. Adequate shelter will keep you dry, prevent hypothermia, and protect you from excessive heat. Even if you are in good environmental conditions, having a shelter will be an incredible comfort and provide a good home base for taking care of your other needs. 

Obviously proper shelter from the elements is a vital part of your survival. You essentially have two options: 1) Keep a small portable emergency shelter in your survival kit. 2) Learn to build an emergency shelter when needed.

Portable shelter

Some form of portable emergency shelter should be a part of your survival kit. Having a portable shelter can save you valuable time and energy during an emergency. This can be something simple but it must be adequate to protect you from the weather. There are plenty of modern materials that are suitable for this purpose. 

A three or four season bivy sack makes a great portable shelter. It can be set up in 5 minutes and is the equivalent of a miniature one person tent. The water proof tarp can be suspended over the bivy for additional protection. There are plenty of water proof survival tarps that are specifically designed to easily suspend between two trees. Combine the bivy with a nice survival tarp and you have a light weight portable shelter.  My bivy and tarp cost me about $250. These two items easily fit into my pack. 

Building a survival shelter

You should have both the knowledge and the experience on how to build a makeshift shelter. These can be built out of space blankets, ponchos, plastic bags, tarps, etc.  Incorporating modern materials into your shelter can save you a lot of time, trouble, and energy in an emergency situation. Using modern materials will typically produce a much more effective shelter. For example, using a sturdy water proof tarp draped over a lean-to is much more effective than covering the top with debris. 

When building a survival shelter it is important to consider the following: 

-The location of the shelter is important. Avoid potentially hazardous conditions such as flash floods, falling debris, avalanche danger, mud slides, etc. Be sure to choose a location with good drainage. In the event that it rains, water will not accumulate in the shelter. 

-Choose a location with convenient access to building materials. This is especially important if you are building a shelter from scratch. 

-There must be some sort of insulation from the ground as well as surrounding conditions.  

-There must be a heat source.  Preferably the heat source would be a fire. But, depending on conditions, simple body heat may be sufficient.  If you heat with a fire, adequate ventilation and wind protection  is important to prevent the accumulate of smoke. Never, ever use a gas stove as a source of heat. While working on a search and rescue team I have personally seen disastrous and unfortunate consequences from people doing this.   

-The size should be appropriate for the number of people. 

Combining a portable shelter with natural materials makes a superior combination. For example, if you build a well insulated lean-to covered with a sturdy water proof tarp, place a water proof bivy sack in the lean-to, and add a fire pit that is protected from the weather, you will have a superior survival shelter.  

If you want to read more, then take a look at this fantastic article on   building a survival shelter. 

3) Water

I’ve had this Katadyn for many years.

Many people in survival situations perish due to exposure and dehydration. Consequently, protection from the elements and proper hydration are more important than even food. With shelter and clean water you can survive for weeks.

There are multiple ways to assure that you have clean drinking water. The best practice is to have several different options of purifying and disinfecting water and keep this equipment in your survival kit. One of the easiest options is to have a high quality water filter. If you want further information read this post on   How to Choose the Best Water Filter.

When is comes to producing clean drinking water, you are ahead of the game if you start with water that is as clean as possible.  Avoid muddy, brackish, or stagnate water.  It is also important to avoid collecting water from around old mine tailings. Springs or clean, clear stream water are good sources but are not always available.

One of the most effective ways to treat water is boiling.  Heating the water to a rolling boil for 2 to 3 minutes will kill bacteria and viruses. There are also numerous water purifiers, filters and other treatment options such as iodine and chlorine that make water purification much more convenient in a survival situation. There is a lot more information on this topic in my post on How to Maintain a Safe Water Supply .

How much water do you need? 

As an absolute baseline requirement, you need at least one gallon of water per person per day for basic survival. At the end of the day, how much water you need depends on a variety of factors: 

  • The number of people in your group
  • Environmental factors such as excessive heat (desert)
  • The amount of physical exertion during the day
  • Medical conditions such as pregnant or nursing mothers
  • Presence of children, which have greater water requirements relative to adults
  • Presence of pets  

It is also a good idea to have extra water bottles in the event that you have to move around to different locations. There are some water filter straws that are used to drink directly out of a water source.  While this is convenient you also need a method for filtering and storing extra water beyond your immediate needs.  I recommend using Nalgene bottles. They are light weight and extremely durable.  I’ve had the same water bottle for 20 years. 

4) Food

If you are in good health, you can survive several weeks without food.  However, I think it goes without saying that your existence would be miserable during that time.

The easiest solution is to have high energy foods in your survival kit. This can be anything you want such as granola bars, MREs, high caloric survival bars, and hard candy. Be sure to rotate these items on a regular basis.  

In addition to high energy foods, you can greatly enhance your experience by having some knowledge of the things around you that are edible.  

Take the time to develop at least some basic knowledge of the common edible plants and insects. Purchase a field guide and spend some time in the outdoors learning to recognize these things.  It is also extremely important to try these things ahead of time so that you know what to expect.  

Many people have died in a survival situation while sitting in the middle of a wilderness cupboard stocked with food.  They simply could not get past the mental block of eating wild foods. I can assure you that no matter how you prepare earth worms, they do not taste that great.  However, they are very nutritious, full of protein and readily available. I know from personal experience. I know it sounds gross. But you have to get past that mental block of eating something out of the ordinary.

A few common wild edibles:

  • Cattails: These are a very common plant.  Several parts of the plant are edible such as roots, pollen heads, and young shoots. These grow at the edge of ponds and low lying areas that are constantly wet.
  • Arrowheads: This plant is easily identified by the dark green arrow shaped leaves. The roots are edible.  They commonly grow in swampy areas and ponds.  
  • Oaks: The acorns from oak trees are edible but require some preparation.  The nuts contain tannic acid which has a very bitter flavor.  They need to be soaked in water to leach out this acid. However, they provide a great source of protein, fats, and calories.  
  • Conifers: The cambium layer, which is the inner bark, is full of calories in the form of sugars and starches. Most evergreen, cone bearing trees can be utilized except for the Yew, which is poisonous. 
  • Wild onions: These are very common and grow in small bunches much like the ones you buy in the supermarket. When harvesting wild onions it is important to crush the leaves between you fingers and make sure you get a garlic, onion-type smell. The poisonous look-a-like plant called the Death Camas, concentrates a potent toxin.  When the leaves are crushed between your fingers, you do not get the typical garlic smell found with wild onions. 
  • Clover: This plant is common everywhere.  It can be eaten raw but is better cooked. 
  • Dandelion: This very common weed can be found most anywhere.  The leaves taste better when they are young.  The mature leaves are quite bitter.  The roots can be boiled to make a tea or baked and used for snacks. 

  • Insects: The list of edible insects is long: weevils, ants, aphids, bees, centipedes, cicadas, cockroaches, crickets, dragon flies, earthworms, flies, grass hoppers and crickets, June bugs, hornets, locusts, meal worms, mosquitoes, stink bugs, termites, grubs, scorpions, maggots 

Important Note: Learning what NOT to eat is just as important as learning what to eat.  Many edible plants have poisonous look-a-likes.  Know the difference!

5) Fire

You may be surprised to know that fire is not necessarily needed for survival depending on the situation. However, the ability to build and maintain a fire is an extremely useful and important  survival skill.  Fire enables you to prepare hot meals, keep warm, and dry your clothes. Furthermore, a nice warm fire provides enormous psychological support during a very stressful situation. 

When it comes to building a fire, I do not want to down play the importance of primitive skills. What I am referring to is being able to start a fire with nothing more than two sticks.  However, you have to keep in mind that the average modern survival situation lasts about 72 hours. Consequently, what I am addressing here is the modern survival scenario, not primitive living.   

That said, ideally ideally your survival kit should always contain several different methods of starting a fire. It is prudent to first practice your fire building skills under controlled circumstances and do so in different weather conditions.  This will give you important experience and confidence so that in the event you are ever put to the test, building a fire under difficult circumstances will be nothing new.  

Several ways to start fires:

  • Matches
  • Lighter
  • Sparking device: a magnesium rod and a piece of metal for striking. These are sold commercially and easily available.
  • 9 Volt battery and steel wool: rub the battery terminals on the steel wool and it will create sparks and catch fire.
  • Cotton balls coated with vaseline: These are highly flammable, light weight fire starters.
  • Calcium carbide: This is sold commercially and looks like small pebbles.  This substance is used in the old style miner’s lamps.  If you drip water on the calcium carbide it produces a highly flammable gas. You only need one spark to start a fire. The fun part of calcium carbide is the once the fire is started, the more water you drip on it, the bigger the flame gets. This is a great fire starter to keep in a survival kit. 
  • Fire starters: There are a number of commercially made fire starters on the market that are readily available.  Purchase them and keep them with you for emergencies.  They have an indefinite shelf life and can be a life saver.  I purchased some fire starters for the cabin 15 years ago and still have the same ones.  

A survival kit should always contain at least three different ways to start a fire. Practice using them so that you are comfortable starting a fire in an emergency. Practice is the key. Remember, whatever you practice is what you will revert to when under stress or during an emergency. 

For much more in-depth information on starting a camp fire, read this post:  Learn How to Build and Maintain a Fire.

 6) Warm waterproof clothing

High quality, warm, water proof clothing is essentially your secondary shelter against the elements. This includes clothing to protect you from the sun.

Gortex parkas and pants, wool socks and hats, and insulated gloves are all good choices. A great deal of the athletic clothing on the market these days is a nylon blend, which tends to be a quick dry material.  It is very important to NOT use cotton clothing. Cotton has zero insulating ability once wet.  Additionally, it takes a considerable amount of time too dry. Invest in decent clothing and you will never regret it.  

7) Proper footwear

This goes right along with water proof clothing. Proper shoes or boots is a must to protect your feet against the elements. They are also necessary in the event you are traveling only by foot. I keep hiking boots in my truck at all time.

8) Tools and Repair Kit

Multi tool, pocket knife, survival hatchet, military style field knife. 

These are essential tools for building a shelter, cutting firewood and kindling, as well as personal protection. At a minimum, purchase a good pocket knife. I’ve had the same Swiss Army knife for over 20 years. 

Your tool kit should also contain basic items needed to make repairs to your other equipment.  

9) Cords and other line

If you had to choose any one cord to have in your survival kit, then choose 550 Paracord. This is a light weight nylon cord that was first used in parachutes during World War II.  But today it is a very popular cord for general utility purposes. It has a tensile strength of 550 lbs. It is constructed with a braided outer sheath and 7 inner stands.

Due to the strength and elasticity of paracord, it is perfect for camping, hiking, and survival situations.  The finer inner threads can be removed and used for sewing, fishing line, making traps, as well as many other functions.  

Not to mention the fact that this type of cord is very inexpensive. It also comes in a variety of colors. 

10) First Aid/Medical Kit

No matter where you are going or what you are doing, you should always carry a personal first aid kit. Purchasing a pre-made kit as a good place to start. You can find these at any outdoor shop. After that, you can expand on your kit depending on your personal needs and preferences.  

Some basic considerations for what type of kit to have are as follows: 

  • The number of people in your group
  • The length of the trip you are planning
  • Type of activity: water sports versus hiking, camping, etc
  • Specific trip risks such as poisonous plants, obnoxious insects such as ticks and mosquitos 
  • Special needs of anyone in the group

As a general rule, first aid kits should contain supplies in the following categories

  • Tools: tweezers, bandage scissors, blade
  • Bandages: wide assortment of sterile and non-sterile bandage material. Simple bandaids, gauze, bandage tape, thick cotton dressings, ace bandages
  • Medications: Ibuprofen, antibiotic ointments, antidiarrheal medications
  • Miscellaneous items: splints, slings, antiseptic flushing solutions, pocket mask for CPR, latex exam gloves, tupperware container as a flushing bowl, cold sterilization fluids. 

It is also possible to build your own first aid kit. For some additional information, read this post on How to Build a First Aid Kit.

11) First Aid Training

It does no good at all to have equipment and supplies that you do not know how to use.  The same is true with first aid kits and emergency equipment.  Studies have repeatedly shown that people will not use equipment that they are not familiar with even in an emergency. 

With modern technology and the internet, no one has any excuse whatsoever for not obtaining some first aid training.  Here are a few links to get you started.  

The American Red Cross has an extensive website loaded with numerous classes.  These can be taken in a class room setting or online.  So, go to The American Red Cross. 

The National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) has been around since 1965. They have some fantastic classes in Wilderness First Aid. 

You may also be interested in becoming a Wilderness First Responder. 

12) Lighting

The best choice for lighting is LEDs. My personal preference is an LED headlamp.  Modern headlamps are compact, light weight, and very bright. They generally use three AAA batteries which makes it easy to keep spares around.

If you really want to go all out, add in a solar charger.  

13) Cookware

Purchase a light weight metal camp wear set. Have at least one deep pot for boiling water and making soups.  Durable mugs are another good addition. There are numerous back packing cookware sets on the market these days that make great survival gear.  

There are also numerous options for other off grid cookware. 

14) Signaling devices

Survival signal mirror and a plastic whistle are imperative.

Signaling mirrors are designed to concentrate and project light. They are highly reflective relative. Never depend on a standard household mirror. Signaling mirrors can also be easily aimed in a specific direction. These can be purchased online or at your local Army surplus store. 

A whistle is a great way to get someone’s attention instead of yelling.  If you are constantly yelling for help, your voice will only last a couple of hours. A whistle is much more effective.  A plastic whistle is preferred because a metal one will freeze to your lips in extreme cold conditions.

15) Non-perishable emergency rations 

This can be anything you want. It does not have to be gourmet stuff. It just needs to be calorically dense, meaning high energy.  Things such as granola bars, nuts, hard candy, and emergency ration bars are a great choice. MREs are also a good choice because of their long shelf life. 

Whatever you choose as your emergency rations, be sure to purchase these items and try them before you have to depend on them. An emergency situation is not a good time to change your diet. Purchasing mystery MREs and having to depend on them only to find out they are disgusting is not a good plan.  

16) Navigation

At a minimum you should have a good orienteering compass. This is an instrument that will never fail you and it does not require batteries. A GPS device is fantastic.  But, it is an electronic device that is subject to failure.  So, have a back up. 

Call me old school if you want.  But I have never owned a GPS device.  I have always navigated with a map, compass, and good observation.  This method has served me well and this is what I still use today. 

Most outdoor equipment shops are going to have some basic classes on how to use a map and compass.  It is an easy skill to learn but it takes a little practice. You can of course purchase a book on the topic. Additionally, most orienteering compasses come with detailed directions on how to use them. 

You should also keep a topographical map as well as a general road map of your area with you at all times. If a major disaster does happen, it is very possible for all road signs and markings to be destroyed. Additionally, in the unlikely event that there is an invasion, the government will likely remove anything that would aid the enemy in navigating through the county.  So, as old school as it may sound, you cannot always depend on modern technology to save your hide.

17) Learn to read the clouds

Perhaps the greatest challenge to any survival situation is dealing with the weather. Depending on your geographic location and altitude, the weather can be your best friend or your worst enemy.  This is why it is so important to have some basic knowledge about the weather.  

You do not have to be a meteorologist to be able to make some basic predications concerning the weather.  You just need to be familiar with some basic types of clouds, why they form, and what that means as far as impending weather conditions. Understanding how clouds are named and correlating that with what you see can help you make reasonably accurate weather predictions. 

The first thing to do is to Learn to Read the Clouds. Then go outside, look up at the sky and practice. I often read the clouds, make my prediction, then check the internet to see if I am correct. It truly provides me with loads of entertainment and it is a useful skill.  

18) Learn Knot Tying Skills

This simple skill is highly underrated yet it is extremely valuable.  Ropes can be used to build a shelter, make traps, secure bandages, as well as many other things. 

There are numerous knots that you can learn. However, I would learn at least 5 or 6 knots and commit them to memory.  

If you want to learn more, Outdoor Life has a great post on essential knots. 

19) Self Defense

Unfortunately during an emergency or survival situation you may encounter people that are not so nice. We have all seen news reports of people looting and examples of complete lawlessness after a hurricane or some other natural disaster. Consequently, you have to think of ways to protect yourself if necessary. 

Personal protection is a matter of choice. At a minimum I would recommend pepper spray and some small hand held self defense weapon.  Firearms and extra ammunition are also a fantastic choice.  Whatever you choose, be certain you know how to use it and are willing to use it if necessary.  Additionally, get some basic self defense training.  

20) Get a backpack


It is best to have your survival gear organized in something that is easily portable. In the event that you have to move on a regular basis, a backpack is going to be your best choice for storing and transporting gear.  

You can visit any sporting goods outlet of your choice.  However, I strongly advise that you visit a shop that focuses on hiking and back packing.  The staff in these stores are going to be much more knowledgeable on how to properly fit you will a backpack.  

It does not have to be anything extravagant.  But it must be comfortable and durable.  Get a pack with padded shoulder straps and a padded waist band. I would also recommend getting a water proof cover that fits over the outside of the pack. These are relatively expensive and they go a long way towards keeping your gear dry. Another option would be to organize your gear into dry bags of various sizes. Dry bags can then be used to haul water and even wash clothes. 

Summary of the Basics

Thirty years after my experience of sleeping in my truck in subzero temperatures, I still carry a survival kit in my truck. You should do this as well.  If you are very crafty, knowledgable, and highly experienced in the outdoors, the simple fact is that you could likely survive most situations with very little equipment. However, why not greatly increase your odds of survival by simply carrying some basic equipment. 

Here is a quick lists of items based on the discussion above.

  1. Have the right attitude: Survival is just as much about attitude as it is about having the right equipment. 
  2. Proper shelter: Carry a waterproof portable shelter.  Additionally, know how to build a survival shelter. 
  3. Water: Have 2 to 3 different means of disinfecting and purifying water for drinking. 
  4. Food: As part of your survival training, have some basic knowledge of edible plants in insects.
  5. Fire: Keep a fire staring kit with your gear, with several different means of starting a fire. 
  6. Waterproof clothing: Invest in some good clothing. No cotton. Remember that your clothing is your secondary protection against the elements. 
  7. Proper footwear: If you are in a survival situation and have to hike on a regular basis, having good quality boots is imperative. 
  8. Tools and repair kit: Basic tools such as a knife and hatchet will make your life so much easier. 
  9. Cord and other line: 550 Paracord is a must have. It has a high tensile strength, is light weight and very versatile. Good rope is not much use unless you have some basic knowledge of knot tying.  Learn this as well.  
  10. First aid/Medical Kit: Medical supplies are imperative.  It may be an injury that put you in a survival situation to begin with. Besides having a good medical kit it is imperative that you know how to use it.  Get some training. 
  11. Lighting: LED headlamps are the best. They are bright, use less energy, and keep your hands free to do other things. 
  12. Cookware: A light weight set of backpacking cookware will serve you well.  
  13. Signaling devices: A survival mirror and a plastic whistle. 
  14. Non-perishable emergency rations: Choose high calorie food items with a long shelf life.
  15. Navigation: GPS, map, and compass.  
  16. Learn to read the clouds: In a survival situation, having some basic knowledge of the weather can be extremely helpful.
  17. Self Defense items: Choose something that you are comfortable and practice using it.  
  18. Get a backpack: A good pack enables you to easily move equipment and supplies from place to place. 

Beyond the Basics

There are numerous items that could be placed in a survival kit. The list above is simple based on the Survival Rule of Threes and The Ten Essentials. This is simply a basic foundation of imperative items, a great place to start. I would strongly recommend going beyond the basics.

The reality is that your survival kit will need to be customized based on your personal needs, geographic location, and the climate conditions you are likely to encounter. Consequently, it is important to start with the basics then take it a step further. Consider customizing your survival kit based on the following factors: 

Geographic region: Northern climates necessitate more cold protection while Southern climates necessitate more heat and rain protection.

Potential emergency scenarios: To some degree this goes hand in hand with geographic region. Traveling through the dessert, hiking over rough mountain terrain, or traveling on a river all require different considerations for equipment. Additionally, these very different environments pose completely different survival scenarios. 

Number of people in your group: This is a simple concept. If there are more people in the group more supplies will be needed. 

How long you will wait: A two day back country trip in your state is a completely different scenario than being dropped off by a float plane in a remote wilderness. Depending on what adventure you choose, take into consideration how long you may have to wait before help arrives.  

Your level of experience in the outdoors: As a general rule, the more outdoor experience you have the less equipment you will need. For example, if you are adept at starting a campfire, you may elect to only have a basic fire starter in your survival kit.  

Additional Items to consider for your survival kit: 

  1. Monofilament fishing line
  2. Fishing pole
  3. Personal locator beacon
  4. Sewing kit
  5. Duct tape
  6. Plastic freezer bags
  7. Collapsible shovel, military style
  8. Hat and sunglasses
  9. Bandanas
  10. Work gloves
  11. Portable camping stove
  12. Emergency hand crank radio
  13. Short wave or portable Ham radio for communications
  14. Gun and ammunition
  15. Pepper spray
  16. Binoculars
  17. Personal hygiene items
  18. Bow saw for cutting logs
  19. Wire for making snares
  20. Cash
  21. Personal Identification papers
  22. Playing cards
  23. Vitamins
  24. Books and playing cards for entertainment
  25. Beverages such as tea, hot chocolate, coffee
  26. Latex gloves
  27. Basic knife sharpening equipment
  28. Other weapons such as bow and arrow, sling shot
  29. Solar charging device

What about Redundancy?

If each item in your survival kit serves a single purpose, what happens if that item breaks or is lost? In a perfect world, you would have duplicates of all of your equipment.  However, in the real work, weight and space places restrictions on the size of your survival kit. 

The best way to solve this dilemma is to have equipment that serves dual purposes. For example, a nice survival hatchet is useful for both personal protection and cutting wood.  A dry bag can be used for water proof storage and to haul water as well as wash clothes. A water proof tarp is useful for constructing a shelter as well as emergency wind protection. 

Final Words

A common denominator for many survival situations is that people suddenly find themselves in circumstances that they did not expect or anticipate.

“Chance favors only the prepared mind.” Louis Pasteur

Memorize the Survival Rule of Threes

Spending time in the outdoors hiking, camping, and backpacking, coupled with doing this in various countries has been one of the greatest joys of my life.  The scenery, the wildlife, the solitude, the great natural beauty, and sense of adventure is something I look forward to. However,  I always take basic supplies and am prepared to deal with unexpected events.

Yet every year I am surprised with the people I encounter that have no business being in the outdoors. Numerous times I give out food, water, and even loan equipment because someone is completely unprepared to even deal with a sudden change in weather. Not to mention the people I encounter that are wholly unprepared to deal with a survival situation.

It takes time to learn and practice basic survival skills. Yet these skills are easy to learn and could some day save your life. Furthermore, going beyond the basic and learning to live for an extended period in the natural environment takes time, patience, study, and practice. This will not happen over night. The more skills you have the more comfortable you are going to be in the outdoors.

I strongly recommend purchasing field guides for your area and learn as much as you can about the natural world.  You need to learn the different species of plants and animals, how they relate to one another and how to utilize those resources. Such knowledge was the very foundation of the survival of our ancestors in their natural world. 

I am not recommending that you become a hard core survivalist.  However, in a survival scenario, knowledge is your friend. The more you know the better off you will be if you ever find yourself in a difficult situation. Consequently, the more you know, the better equipped you will be to think for yourself and improvise in an emergency while others are in a state of panic. 

Instead of having some vague idea of what you would do in a survival situation, go out of your way to acquire some basic skills and knowledge that could save your life.

You cannot necessarily depend on someone else to save you. Do not allow someone to convince you to base your survival plan on a three day go bag, aka bug-out bag.  Take responsibility for your own care and safety.  Get outside. Observe. Study. Learn. Practice. This is how you develop the right mental attitude, as well as the confidence and skill to survive.

Remember,”Chance favors only the prepared mind.” 

The obvious answer to this is be prepared. It's your choice!

Additional Posts of Interest

Learn to Read the Clouds

The Ten Essentials Needed for Survival

How to Maintain a Safe Water Supply

Go off grid and live well,


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