Let me ask you a question about outdoor survival.
Have you ever wanted to go to the woods?
Maybe you spent time in Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts and developed a love of nature (and a good eye for dangerous plants.)
Or perhaps, like me, you roamed around the woods behind your home when you were a kid.
It might be instinct, the forces of consumerism driving us back towards a "simpler" time, or a need to connect with something more natural inside of us.
(In my case, all it took was seeing Captain Fantastic with my girlfriend ONE TIME).
Whatever the reason, the woods exist in our Romantic imagination.
Unfortunately for us, though, the woods are a real place and can get dangerous quickly. And when that happens, you're going to need to be prepared for outdoor survival.
So, if you're interested in tapping into your primal state, we've got you covered!
And since going to the woods without preparation can lead to some pretty rough consequences, you should definitely read up before you go!
Here's what you need to know:
Where Are "The Woods?"
If you want to go to the woods, how do you pick a site?
It takes a little more foresight than just grabbing the nearest knife and heading out to brave the wilderness alone.
But with a combination of common sense and some helpful tips, you'll be out in the woods in no time.
According to author and wilderness expert Heather Menicucci, picking a campsite can be an exciting part of the experience!
Consider these factors:
Don't blaze a trail
Pick somewhere other people have camped
If you're in a campground, you must camp where designated sites are.
It's also a good idea because park rangers know where dangerous animals and plants live, where resources like water and shelter are, and how to help keep park visitors safe. Don't go it alone.
But on the other hand:
Primitive camping requires you to know where other people have camped, but that's easy!
Choosing already used spots helps reduce the number of campsites in the forest or park, and if other people have camped there, it was likely safe.
Charred ground, fallen logs for sitting, or fire pits are great signs of human presence, and they'll help you pick your campsite.
Safe distances from what you need to be close to
Everyone knows that staying close to water is important, but you can be too close to water.
All the animals in the forest need the water too, and some of them are not friendly. It's important to know where it is, but be pretty far away from it.
Also, water will make the ground wet and attract mosquitoes. Yuck.
Stay 200 feet from trails, water, and cliffs.
The writing is on the wall, er... signs
Stay away from protected areas
It's important to remember that being in the woods isn't just about you!
Here's the bottom line:
Outdoor survival is about your relationship with the environment — and that relationship goes two ways!
So when the park says "Don't go over there because of bears," it's closer to saying "You two should not meet" than "You might be harmed." They are equally concerned about the bears' safety.
We'll go over not being a bad camper later, but many national parks were specifically created by the government to preserve the wildlife of North America.
Suffice it to say that you can do some serious damage to nature if you don't follow the rules.
So you're in the woods. What now?!
Let's get extreme for a second:
Imagine what it would be like if you were just dumped in the woods. What would you need to know? What would you try to know first?
Everyone who said "Use my cell phone to call help," is disqualified. We're doing a thing here.
While that's an extreme example of outdoor survival, it's helpful to think that way when preparing for your trip!
Think to yourself, "It'd be terrible if I were stuck in the woods and I didn't have ______," and then pack that thing.
And though not everything about outdoor survival is common sense, some of the answers to these questions can seem obvious.
Outdoor survival first steps
The first step is one of the most important:
Anxious and excited people do dumb things. The first thing that you're going to want to do is figure out what kind of world you're living in now.
Warning: Most of this article is going to be concerned with spring/summer/fall camping. Obviously, what you have to do to not die in winter is VERY different.
Is it cold or hot? What kind of forest is it? Can I see/hear water nearby? Is there snow on the ground? Can I hear animals?
Balancing these will help you determine what you need to do.
If it's cold, is it a good idea to take that cave for shelter? Not if there's a bear in it.
You should also scout the area for the geographical features we discussed earlier, like water, cliffs, and trails. Look out for things like wood you can use for kindling and stones you can use for a fire pit.
Assessing the situation
After checking out your environment, it's time to take stock of what you've got. See if you've got any of these handy things on you:
Matchboxes or lighters
First aid kit
Flashlight with extra batteries
Tools like (good) knives
Keep your packing as light as you can, but always pack your dream list. If something's going to be "make or break" in the forest, pack it.
Finding your way back to camp
Nothing can be quite as scary as losing your way in the woods.
But here's a big tip for finding your way back!
Know your footwear.
Leaving footprints is one of the easiest ways to track your way back to camp, and you do it naturally! But that will only work if you know what your footprint looks like.
Be sure to give those boots a whirl and learn what your tracks look like, so you can follow them back to your (temporary) home.
Conserving your energy
One thing you're going to want to pay attention to is conserving your energy when you're in the woods.
To humans, many animals like lions and bears can look lazy, but they're doing what you should when you're in the woods — conserving energy.
Make sure that all your tasks are oriented towards your outdoor survival and you're not wasting unnecessary energy (like spending it panicking.)
A bear sleeps all day so it has enough energy to hunt. You should relax so you have enough energy to run away from a bear.
The facts of life (i.e. pooping in the woods)
In all honesty, to most people, going number two in the woods might sound somehow freeing and more primal than our ordinary lives. But in reality, there's a right way to poop and a wrong way to poop.
Here's everything you need to know about poop:
Leave no trace
If you leave your business hanging around, it can attract animals, and you don't want that.
So do yourself and the earth a favor (we all know number 2's make great fertilizer) and bury that bad boy about six to eight inches deep.
Count and evaluate your deuces
When you're doing outdoor survival, you don't have a doctor handy, and bowel movements can be a great indicator of your health.
So, before you pull out that trowel, take a good look, and see what you can learn. Infrequent timing, diarrhea, or strange color can alert you to things you need to know.
Don't get uncomfortable — your health in the woods is much more important than your pride!
Fire, Shelter, Direction, and the Subtle Art of Not Drinking Poison
Though most people do have a compass on their phones, it might shock you to learn that there are no outlets in the woods.
So you’re going to have to find different ways of getting around.
Here are a few options:
A compass is the simplest way to catch your bearings in the woods, and you absolutely should not be doing outdoor survival without one.
However, let's assume you lost yours or forgot it at home. What do you do then?
Yup, as in the green stuff growing on rocks in the forest.
It always grows thickest on the south side of a tree or rock. Or the north. Or evenly spread moss means good luck. I'm not sure.
But that's mainly because no one is — IT'S A MYTH.
Despite hundreds of years of people swearing you can tell direction why where moss is growing, evidence suggests moss grows in favorable conditions, pretty much everywhere.
So the plants will NOT be guiding you home.
But stars might:
Now this one is not junk science — stars really can help you orient yourself!
One trustworthy way is by using Polaris, the brightest star in Ursa Minor, also known as the Little Dipper.
Polaris can help you find where South is, and conversely, where North is. Even though you will probably be a degree or two off, that's not actually that important for finding your way out of the woods.
Humans have used stars for thousands of years to find our way around without a compass, and you can do it, too!
Besides being a banging track by Maroon 5, the sun can really save your bacon without a compass. And for you astute readers out there, yes, the sun is a star!
Here's an ingenious solution:
Take a stick about the with of your thumb, stick it in the ground, and place a rock at the end of the shadow.
Wait 15 minutes (if you don't have a clock or watch, you're gonna have to count it roughly yourself) and then place another rock at the end of the new shadow.
You are now facing North.
Warning: This only works in the Northern hemisphere, but for the Southern, all you have to do is reverse it.
With all these options, you'll be able to orient yourself in the woods with ease!
So by now, you've learned how to tell your direction, and what you need to know about shelter, fire, and conservation of wildlife.
But how do you even build a fire? How do you build a shelter?
Luckily, it's not hard!
It's probably going to take a few hours, but it's definitely going to be one of the things worth spending your energy for.
Shelter should be your number one priority.
Bears have caves, birds have nests, and you are just a person in the woods. Get to it!
You can't just drink any water that you find in the forest — it can be filled with bacteria and viruses!
And you're going to want to think about this one BEFORE you get thirsty.
Thankfully, the process is easy:
Purifying water is not a difficult task, and hopefully, you brought some filters with you on your trip.
If you didn't, a great way to purify it is by boiling it. But then you'll use up your firewood.
It's helpful to think of outdoor survival as a zero-sum game. Something gained, something lost.
If you boil your water, you'll lose firewood. When you don't, you'll risk viruses. If you make your shelter, you spend energy. When you don't, you risk cold and sick.
Everything you do in the woods has a certain opportunity cost, meaning that it affects your opportunities for the future.
Being successful at outdoor survival means that you can balance these considerations with each other.
To build a fire
Fire is one of the most important (and deadly) substances that humans constantly need.
If you don't make your fire well, the worst outcome for you is that it's ineffective. If you really don't make it well, it could have potentially disastrous consequences for wildlife.
Most parks have guidelines and resources for building fires that you should know before you even start.
Different types of wood
In general, there are three types of wood that you'll need to build a fire.
Tinder catches fire quickly, but it doesn't last long (a fitting name for a dating app.)
Pine needles can be great for tinder, but you can also use dry bark and leaves.
Kindling lasts a bit longer than tinder, and it's what's going to give your fire some sustainability.
They're going to help ignite the fuel wood.
Fuel wood is where the magic happens. These are the heavy logs that are going to keep your fire going as long as you want.
Although it's tempting, you really can't add them to the equation too soon, or you'll smother the flame! (If this is not a metaphor for relationships, I'm not sure what is.)
There are some easy structures to start off with, like the teepee.
And by knowing your different types of wood, you'll be able to construct a fire like an outdoor survival pro.
What if the weather sucks?
This one is a skill you should practice before you ever find yourself in the woods.
Luckily, there are still options!
- Fire starters
- Multiple lighters
- Waterproof matches
As I said, this is pretty difficult for a newbie, but trying it at home before you get out there can really improve your skills.
Properly extinguishing the fire
Did you know that more than four out of five forest fires are caused by people?
Don't be that person.
Remember that water we kept around for your fire? Now's the time to use it.
There are also a few more things to remember about properly extinguishing a fire:
- Pouring water on the fire will produce smoke. Don't breath it in.
- There may be embers burning underneath even after you douse it in water.
- Stir dirt in the embers. When you extinguish a fire, COMMIT.
Weapons and Hunting
Maybe you wanted to do outdoor survival to connect with the primal urges of humanity. In that case, there are options for you in the woods.
Hunting and foraging were two foundational tasks for humanity, and they're still important today.
Let's talk about hunting first:
Where the wild things are
What weapons you choose to bring to the forest depends on what game you're going to hunt. However, you should not kill anything that you won't or can't eat.
This means you don't just run in the woods with a knife and hope to kill a deer. It also means you don't just kill something without a plan to gut, skin, and cook it.
Anything else and you're just killing animals for sport. Not cool.
In North America, the animals you'll likely find in the forest are:
- Various other kinds of birds
But be careful — each kind of game comes with its own challenges.
Unless you come to the woods prepared to kill a deer, you're not killing a deer.
Waiting to do so is a good way to starve yourself. By nature, deer are quick, evasive, and the males' antlers can be deadly.
To catch birds, you're free to use traps like snares, but without a detailed understanding of where you are, an animal's likely movements, and the season you're in, you're going to be out of luck.
Small game (raccoons, jackrabbits, squirrels, etc.)
According to Wilderness Awareness School, a non-profit dedicated to outdoor education, it makes the most sense to hunt small game in an outdoor survival situation.
This is for multiple reasons, but the most obvious is that they are the most abundant.
Don't neglect insects!
Insects can be a great option for food in the forest if you're really in a pinch.
Conservation of energy
You want to take into consideration a HUGE factor when hunting — is it worth it?
Always make sure that what you're hunting will give you enough calories to count for the energy you spend getting it.
You may catch a squirrel for dinner, but if your body is too cold at night, you're metabolizing those calories too quickly to keep yourself warm.
A deer may keep you fed for weeks, but it could take a month to bag.
Outdoor survival is a zero-sum game. Every choice and activity costs something. Choose wisely.
Examine your kill
You know how everyone says grocery shopping while hungry is a bad idea?
The same goes for hunting.
According to Field and Stream, you'll want to examine the animal for signs of disease, tick infestations, and sunken eyes.
It can be disappointing to through the trouble of killing an animal that you find is too sick for you to eat.
But that's why it's best if you go hunting before deep hunger sets in, so you're less likely to make compromises on your meat.
In an outdoor survival situation, you're going to have to get primitive with it.
So while a 0.22 caliber would be great for hunting game, that may not be in your tool box.
Here are some weapons you can use instead:
Yes, rocks. As I said, being successful at outdoor survival means letting go of a bit of your pride. Remember, it was good enough for your ancestors, and you don't have a gun.
Even if you can't kill the game immediately, you may be able to immobilize it for long enough to reach it and kill it with a knife.
Similar to a rock, a projectile like a throwing stick can really help you out.
Instead of chasing a squirrel around the forest like a maniac, a throwing stick can help you conserve some energy.
It's hard to overstate the value of a good knife in the wilderness.
But what makes a knife good?
Even if you don't have famed serial killer Dexter's arsenal of cutlery, you've still got options.
Here at Wilderness Today, we think your best option for an outdoor survival knife is going to be a fixed blade, rather than a folding knife.
If something happens to that hinge or it gets dirty or rusty, you could be stuck with just the blade.
One fish, two fish
Fish deserve their own category for hunting.
They can be the easiest choice in an outdoor survival situation because they are high in protein, not difficult to catch, and bound to their specific environment!
Catching fish is also a great idea because you can set up traps and do other things while you're catching fish for your next meal (assuming, of course, that you're not catching them by hand.)
A spear is a good choice when it comes to catching fish, and you can make it in a survival situation.
In actuality, though, there are tons of good options for catching fish — just hope you're not competing with a bear!
Preparing hunted meat
Words can't adequately convey how to kill, gut, skin, dress, and prepare an animal. But there are some good rules to follow for anything that you kill in the woods:
- Avoid gut shots. You don't want your meat contaminated by intestinal matter.
- Prepare the food you eat at a steady pace. You don't want bacteria to develop!
- Keep your meat cool.
- Always wash your hands or wear gloves when handling your meat.
And for rules and a more in-depth look at what it takes to properly take an animal from field to fork, check out this list and this video tutorial!
One last thing on meat:
There is no such thing as wasting assets in the woods. And if you don't know how to prepare your meat properly, you're going to waste a lot of it.
So read up!
A holistic mindset is the best way to make it through your outdoor survival adventure.
You Know That I'm No Good — Dangerous Plants and Animals
Let me tell you a story.
"Dave ate that plant. Dave died. Don't eat that plant."
That's the whole story. That was how we used to discover which plants to eat and which ones not to. But 200,000 years later, there have been enough Daves, and you have the internet.
Make no mistake, in outdoor survival, plants can be every bit as deadly as animals. But some are friendly.
How do you know?
Can you tell which is which?
In large part, which plants you encounter is going to depend on where you are. So you should read up on your region before heading out to the wild.
But remember this:
In an emergency situation, there are ways of telling which plants are food and which ones are foes.
As with hunting, plant whispering is something to do before you get hungry.
Even though you can go days without food, you might make a rash decision based on hunger. But having something bad in your stomach is definitely worse than nothing at all.
Here are some counterintuitive things you can do to test if plants are poisonous (but ONLY in emergencies.)
- Place the plant against your mouth
- Place it in your mouth without swallowing
- Chew the plant without swallowing
- Swallow a small portion of the plant
In all cases, you should discontinue the activity if you notice any bad reaction from the plant, wait at least eight hours after ingestion before making a decision, and immediately reverse course and drink lots of water to combat a bad reaction.
Another good thing to know about plants is that if they have leaves in groups of three, leave them alone.
Leave alone sappy milk plants, white berries, and anything with thorns, spines, or hairs. They are up to no good.
Fantastic (and dangerous) beasts and where to find them
With outdoor survival, you want to stay far, far away from dangerous animals. Here are some easy ways to avoid dangerous animals:
Be aware of your surroundings. Seeing a bear across the forest is better than seeing them 20 feet away. This is especially true with snakes, which are ambush predators. A snake will not chase you, so the key is not to get too close accidentally.
Look for animal tracks.
Be especially wary near water. Every other animal in the forest needs water just like you. So if you meet anywhere, it might be there.
Do not approach baby animals (they usually have dangerous parents).
For insects, you should bring tons of repellant to keep them out of your tent, your clothes, and shoes. Some ants, like fire ants, can really pack a punch!
Never leave food lying around.
Always bury your poop properly.
If you're allergic to bees, bring an EpiPen! (It also depends on what type of bee. Honeybees are not aggressive, but in any case, it's best to slowly walk away without agitating it, rather than asking it.)
Above all, remember:
Most animals do not care about you and will not hunt you. However, they may hurt you because you seem like a threat. You are always in the woods as a guest.
First aid is a critical outdoor survival skill, but so is knowing when to use it. For some nicks, scrapes, scratches, and even deep cuts, first aid can definitely be effective.
For broken bones, serious loss of blood, or concussions, you will want to focus all your resources on finding some humans to help you out.
The most crucial thing you can do with first aid it to prepare for calamity. When packing your kit, think of the absolute worst thing that could happen, and pack for that.
Another great idea, if you haven't already, is to get CPR-certified.
Before you head out, learn all about properly bandaging wounds, and how to treat various animal bites, plant infections, poisons, and venoms.
How to protect wildlife
If there's one thing to burn into your brain about outdoor survival, it's this:
DO NOT BE A BAD CAMPER.
As much as outdoor survival is about making sure your environment doesn’t hurt you, it’s also about making sure you don’t hurt your environment.
Bad things happen when people don't respect their environment.
Good campers fully extinguish their fires
Good campers properly dispose of all human waste
Good campers don't pollute
Good campers don't litter the forest
The moral of the story is that the forest has to go on without you, so treat it with the Hippocratic Oath and do no harm.
It can take a while to get the hang of outdoor survival, which is why you should probably go with those with experience when you're first starting out.
But if you study, prepare, and get good advice from knowledgeable sources, you're going to be able to conquer the woods — or at least keep the woods from conquering you.
Good luck! At some point, you'll probably need it. Do you have any other tips on outdoor survival? Share them with us in the comment section!
Hey, look at that! You found me! Lucky for you, because when I’m not writing articles all about the wilderness life, I’m out in the bush. Camping, fishing, canoeing, and sometimes even getting lost. You know the drill.