5 Most Important Wilderness Survival Skills To Learn
Updated: Feb 4
The field of wilderness survival is vast but there are 5 key skills that are the most important to learn. They will help you whether you are lost, injured, or find yourself in a survival situation for just about any reason.
People often confuse survival with bushcraft and living off the land. While these are great skills to have they aren't a priority when your life is on the line. If you find yourself in a survival situation you are trying to stay alive long enough to get back to civilization or get help.
The most common issue for people is having an unplanned night out either due to injury, running out of daylight, or getting lost. When you are out on a day hike, especially in mountainous terrain, it is easy to underestimate how long it will take to get back. Chasing the setting sun can see you left in the dark making hiking out dangerous even if you know where you are going.
This is different than being on a backpacking trip you may get lost but at least you have all of your camping gear with you. Even a warm summer hike can become a hypothermia risk when the sun goes down. Having the skills and knowledge of what to carry with you can be the difference between an unplanned camping trip and a life-threatening situation.
Top 5 Survival Skills To Train
The skills are in order of priority. Like an emergency room triage, you need to deal with the most severe issues first followed by the next. When you are competent in all these you will have the basic skills to survive for 72 hours which is what you need to facilitate a rescue or get yourself back to your car.
1. First Aid
Whether it is you or a member of your group who is injured or sick, it is the first priority to get the person stabilized. When you are well away from emergency services you need to be able to manage on your own for longer. Rescue can take hours to come in so it is up to you to keep alive until they can get there.
You should always carry a first aid kit but it will do little if you don't have the skills to use it. A basic CPR and first aid course will get you started but when you spend a lot of time in the wild then a wilderness first aid course will expand on your skills.
Common issues include:
Ankle and knee injuries
By having strong navigational skills you will avoid the common issue of getting lost. You want to know how to use a map and compass, GPS, and your phone. Additionally, you want to have the basic skills so knowing where the sun is during the day as way of figuring your rough general direction.
As you hike or ride pay attention to your environment rather than just the trail in front of you so you have an awareness of where you have been and are going.
3. Shelter Building
If you do get stuck out overnight, getting protection from the elements is key. Being able to use the gear you have in your kit (ie. Tarp and cord) as well as natural materials you find to build a shelter can be the difference between an impromptu night out and a life-threatening situation.
Included with this will be campsite selection, knot tying, and identifying and using natural materials. To practice, it is fun to go into a local forest and make your own fort. Just remember to practice leave no trace and return the area to its natural condition when you are done.
4. Fire Making
Once you have shelter then a fire is next in importance. Giving you warmth, light, and a way to cook and boil water, fire is also psychologically reassuring. You want to practice multiple types of fire making so you aren't caught off guard when it is time to build a fire in an emergency.
Practicing these skills can be a fun thing in a back yard fire pit or fire bowl. Make sure to practice making fire with wet wood and in inclement conditions.
You can only carry so much water with you so it is crucial to know how to find and process safe drinking water in the wild. You can survive for around 3 days without water so it isn't as pressing as first aid but still important.
Learn the health risks of drinking untreated water and how to make it safe to drink. See our article on safe drinking water in the backcountry for more information.
If you have a metal container you can boil it in concert with the fire you have built for warmth. Bring to a rolling boil for a couple of minutes (5 minutes if you are over 5000 feet of altitude).
Always Bring The 10 Essentials
We cover the 10 Essentials for hiking more in-depth in its own article but you should never head out on a hike, climb, or wilderness mountain bike ride without the following.
Map, compass, GPS, and app on your phone are all great. Just know how to use them. Bring more than one type as electronics can fail on you so a backup is key.
Snacks are good. Bringing some food with you will be both a physical and mental boost if you get in an unexpected situation.
Hydration is important so bring water and a way to process safe drinking water on your adventures.
A fire kit of ignition sources and tinder material will help you make a fire even in extreme weather conditions.
5. Tools and Repair
A knife, multi-tool, and duct tape can get you through most situations.
Many emergency situations can be avoided by just carrying a headlamp and spare batteries. Your phone can act as a backup light source especially if you have to change the batteries of your headlamp in the dark.
An ultralight tarp or rain poncho can be used to make a rain and windproof shelter. Make sure to pack some cord to tie the tarp up.
8. First Aid
Bring a first aid kit equipped to cover the most common injuries and illnesses.
Even in warm temperatures, you should carry some warm layers and a light rain jacket to handle unexpected weather.
10. Sun Protection
Hat, sunglasses, sunblock, and long sleeves are important to protect you from the sun.
How To Reduce The Risk
When you go on a hike let someone know where you are going and when you will be back. Leave them the contact information of the local first responders or park rangers if you miss your check-in time.
Many tragedies could have been avoided if people had used the check-in buddy system so people start looking for them right away rather than many days after the fact.
In the wild having the right gear matters but even more important are the skills to use it. As the old saying goes, the more you know, the less you need.
With all of the skills, you want to practice them regularly so they require little thought or work when you have to apply them under stress. Practice, practice, practice.
Do you agree with our list or do you think other skills are more important? Let us know in the comment section below.