Survival skills

Survival skills
Astronauts participate in tropical survival training at Albrook Air Force Base near the Panama Canal. From left to right are an unidentified trainer, Neil Armstrong, John H. Glenn, Jr., L. Gordon Cooper, and Pete Conrad. Survival training is important for astronauts, as a launch abort or misguided reentry could potentially land them in a remote wilderness area.

Survival skills are techniques a person may use in a dangerous situation (e.g. natural disasters) to save themselves or others (see also bushcraft). Generally speaking, these techniques are meant to provide the basic necessities for human life: water, food, shelter, habitat, and the need to think straight, to signal for help, to navigate safely, to avoid unpleasant interactions with animals and plants and for first aid. Survival skills are often basic ideas and abilities that ancient humans had to use for thousands of years, so these skills are partially a reenactment of history. Many of these skills are the ways to enjoy extended periods of time in remote places, or a way to thrive in nature. Even hiking, backpacking, horseback riding, fishing, hunting, or some other activity, you need to make sure you have the basic wilderness survival skills to handle an emergency situation. Some people use these skills to better appreciate nature and for recreation, not just survival.



Airmen of the United States Air Force construct a survival shelter during Arctic Survival Training in Alaska.

A shelter can range from a "natural shelter"; such as a cave or a fallen-down (cracked but not split) thickly-foliaged tree, to an intermediate form of man-made shelter such as a debris shelter, a ditch dug next to a tree log and covered with foliage, or a snow cave, to completely man-made structures such as a tarp, tent, or house.


Making fire is recognized in the sources as to significantly increase the ability to survive physically and mentally. Lighting a fire without a lighter or matches, such as by using natural flint and steel with tinder, is a frequent subject of both books on survival and in survival courses. There is an emphasis placed on practicing fire-making skills before venturing into the wilderness. Producing fire under adverse conditions has been made much easier by the introduction of tools such as the solar spark lighter and the fire piston.

Fire is presented as a tool meeting many survival needs. The heat provided by a fire warms the body, dries wet clothes, disinfects water, and cooks food. Not to be overlooked is the psychological boost and the sense of safety and protection it gives. In the wild, fire can provide a sensation of home, a focal point, in addition to being an essential energy source. Fire may deter wild animals from interfering with the survivor, however wild animals may be attracted to the light and heat of a fire. The light and smoke emitted by a fire can also be used to work at night and can signal rescue units.

Water and food

A human being can survive an average of three to five days without the intake of water, assuming sea-level altitude, room temperature and favorable relative humidity.[1] In colder or warmer temperatures, the need for water is greater. The need for water also increases with exercise.

A typical person will lose minimally two to maximally four liters of water per day under ordinary conditions, and more in hot, dry, or cold weather. Four to six liters of water or other liquids are generally required each day in the wilderness to avoid dehydration and to keep the body functioning properly.[2] The U.S. Army survival manual recommends that you drink water whenever thirsty.[3][4] Other groups recommend rationing water through "water discipline".[5]

A lack of water causes dehydration, which may result in lethargy, headaches, dizziness, confusion, and eventually death. Even mild dehydration reduces endurance and impairs concentration, which is dangerous in a survival situation where clear thinking is essential. Dark yellow or brown urine is a diagnostic indicator of dehydration. To avoid dehydration, a high priority is typically assigned to locating a supply of drinking water and making provision to render that water as safe as possible.

Many sources in survival literature, as well as forums and online references, list ways in which water may be gathered and rendered safer for consumption in a survival situation, such as boiling, filtering, chemicals, solar radiation / heating (SODIS), and distillation (regular or via solar distillation). Such sources also often list the dangers, such as pollutants, microorganisms, or pathogens which affect the safety of back country water.

Recent thinking is that boiling or commercial filters are significantly safer than use of chemicals, with the exception of chlorine dioxide.[6][7][8]

The issues presented by the need for water dictate that unnecessary water loss by perspiration be avoided in survival situations.

To thus avoid these problems, culinary root tubers, fruit, edible mushrooms, edible nuts, edible beans, edible cereals or edible leaves, edible moss, edible cacti and algae can be searched and if needed, prepared (mostly by boiling). With the exception of leaves, these foods are relatively high in calories, providing some energy to the body. Plants are some of the easiest food sources to find in the jungle, forest or desert because they're stationary and can thus be had without exerting much effort.[9]

Also, many commentators discuss the knowledge, skills, and equipment (such as bows, snares and nets) necessary to gather animal food in the wild through animal trapping, hunting, fishing.

Some survival books promote the "Universal Edibility Test".[10] Allegedly, one can distinguish edible foods from toxic ones by a series of progressive exposures to skin and mouth prior to ingestion, with waiting periods and checks for symptoms. However, many other experts including Ray Mears and John Kallas[11] reject this method, stating that even a small amount of some "potential foods" can cause physical discomfort, illness, or death. An additional step called the scratch test is sometimes included to evaluate the edibility of a potential food.

Focusing on survival until rescued by presumed searchers, The Boy Scouts of America especially discourages foraging for wild foods on the grounds that the knowledge and skills needed are unlikely to be possessed by those finding themselves in a wilderness survival situation, making the risks (including use of energy) outweigh the benefits.[12] Given that most people have enough body fat to carry them through several days, using the energy to procure water, fire and shelter is a better use of available time and energy.

First aid

First aid (wilderness first aid in particular) can help a person survive and function with injuries and illnesses that would otherwise kill or incapacitate him/her. Common and dangerous injuries include:

  • Wounds, which may become infected
  • Bites or stings from venomous animals, such as snakes, scorpions, spiders, bees, stingrays, jellyfish, catfish, stargazers, etc.
  • Bites leading to disease/septicemia, such as mosquitoes, fleas, ticks, animals infected with rabies, sand flies, komodo dragons, crocodilians, etc.
  • Infection through food, animal contact, or drinking non-potable water
  • Bone fractures
  • Sprains, particularly of the ankle
  • Burns
  • Poisoning from consumption of, or contact with, poisonous plants or poisonous fungi
  • Hypothermia (too cold) and hyperthermia (too hot)
  • Heart attack
  • Hemorrhage

The survivor may need to apply the contents of a first aid kit or, if possessing the required knowledge, naturally occurring medicinal plants, immobilize injured limbs, or even transport incapacitated comrades.


These two pictures of the same tree trunk in the Northern Hemisphere are an example of a navigational terrain feature. The left picture shows the northern side of a trunk, where darker and more humid micro climatic conditions favor moss growth. The right picture is south, with sunnier and drier conditions, less favorable for moss growth. The shady side is not always opposite the noon side.

Survival situations are sometimes resolved by finding one's way to safety, or one may need to move to find a more suitable location to wait for rescue. The sources observe that to do either of these safely requires some navigation equipment and skills. Types of navigation include:

  • Celestial navigation, using the sun and the night sky to locate the cardinal directions and to maintain course of travel
  • Using a map and compass together, particularly a topographic map or trail map.
  • "Navigation by observation" of terrain features on a map or otherwise known
  • Using a GPS receiver, if one is available
  • Dead reckoning


Astronaut Susan Helms, a member of the second crew that will live aboard the International Space Station, gathers firewood during Soyuz winter survival training in March 1998 near Star City, Russia.

Survival training has many components, mental competence and physical fitness being two. Mental competence includes the skills listed in this article, as well as the ability to admit the existence of a crisis, overcome panic, and think clearly. Physical fitness includes, among other abilities, carrying loads over long distances on rough terrain. Theoretical knowledge of survival skills is useful only if it can be applied effectively in the wilderness. Almost all Survival Skills are environment specific and require training in a particular environment.

Survival training may be broken down into three types, or schools; Modern Wilderness Survival, Bushcraft, and Primitive Survival Techniques.

Modern Wilderness Survival teaches the skills needed to survive Short-Term (1 to 4 Days) and Medium-Term (4 to 40 Days) survival situations.[13]

"Bushcraft" is the combination of Modern Wilderness Survival and useful Primitive Survival Techniques. It normally splits its skill acquisition between Medium-Term Survival Techniques (4 to 40 Days) and Long-Term Survival Techniques (40 Days Plus).[14]

Primitive Survival Techniques or "Primitive Living" teaches the skills needed to survive over the Long-Term (40 days plus). Many primitive technology skills require much more practice and may be more environment specific.[15] Survival training may be broken down into three types, or schools; Modern Wilderness Survival, Bushcraft, and Primitive Survival Techniques.

Several organizations offer wilderness survival training. Course ranges from one day to field courses lasting as long as a month. In addition to teaching survival techniques for conditions of limited food, water, and shelter, many organizations that teach bushcraft and Primitive Survival seek to engender appreciation and understanding of the lifestyles of pre-industrialized cultures.

There are several books that teach one how to survive in dangerous situations, and schools train children what to do in the event of an earthquake or fire. Some cities also have contingency plans in case of a major disaster, such as hurricanes or tornadoes.

Different training is necessary to survive in different climates. Although one technique may work in a dry sub-Saharan area, the same methods may actually be a detriment to health in an arctic climate.

Mental preparedness

Shelter built from tarp and sticks. Pictured are displaced persons from the Sri Lankan Civil War

Commentators note that the mind and its processes are critical to survival. It is said that the will to live in a life and death situation often separates those that live and those that do not. Stories of heroic feats of survival by regular people with little or no training but a strong will to live are not uncommon. Laurence Gonzales in his book Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies and Why describes the story of a young teenage girl named Juliane Koepcke who is the victim of a plane crash in the Amazon jungle. With no formal training and wearing only her confirmation clothes, she walked through the jungle for several days with parasitic insects boring under her skin. After eleven days, with very little food, she reached a hut and collapsed inside. Three hunters found her the next day and took her to a local doctor. Of those who survived the crash, she was the only one to make it out alive. Gonzales believes that her simple and indestructible will to live made the difference.[16]

So stressful is a true survival situation, that those who appear to have a clear understanding of the stressors, even trained experts, are said to be mentally affected by facing deadly peril.

It seems that, to the extent that stress results from testing human limits, the benefits of learning to function under stress and determining those limits may outweigh the downside of stress.[17] After all, stress is a natural reaction to adverse circumstances, developed by evolution to assist in survival - at least, in terms of brief, perilous encounters (such as being caught in the middle of a natural disaster, or being attacked by a wild animal.) If stress lingers for a prolonged period of time, it tends to produce the opposite effect, impeding one's ability to survive. In particular, the commentators note the following adverse effects of stress: forgetfulness, inability to sleep, increased propensity to make mistakes, lessened energy, outbursts of rage, and carelessness.[18] None of these symptoms would seem to make survival easier or more likely.

There are certain strategies and mental tools that can help people cope better in a survival situation, including focusing on manageable tasks, having a Plan B available and recognizing denial.[19]

Survival manuals

Prime crew for the Gemini 5 space flight, astronauts Charles Conrad Jr., (in water) and L. Gordon Cooper Jr., (in raft) practice survival techniques following successful egress from their Gemini Static Article V spacecraft in the Gulf of Mexico.

A survival manual is a book used as reference in situations where a human's survival is threatened - expected or unexpected. Typically it will cover both preparation and guidance for dealing with eventualities.

A simple mnemonic for a situation such as getting lost is S.T.O.P. - Stop, Think, Observe and Plan.

There are many different types of survival manuals, but most have a section of standard advice. These are sometimes republished for public distribution: for example the SAS Survival Handbook, United States Army Survival Manual (FM 3-05.70) and United States Air Force Survival Manual (AF 64-4). Some are originally written for the public and can cover wilderness, winter and marine survival, natural and man-made disasters, home preparedness and financial survival all in one manual.[20]

Other manuals have been written for more specific uses, such as wilderness or maritime survival.

Much of today's teaching principles on survival are derived from the work of SAS Survival Instructor Lofty Wiseman.

Important survival items

Three important items can significantly improve a survival situation: a knife, a lighter and/or matches, and a compass. A knife cannot be easily replaced by anything that the wilderness has to offer, which makes it extremely important to have.[21] And its importance is heightened when you take into account a knife’s many uses.[22] A lighter is important because it ensures fire, providing many essential things (i.e. boiling water, cooking, warmth etc.).[21] A lighter is better than matches, for matches can easily become unusable, such as when they get wet.[23] Having both a lighter and waterproof matches is the best option. Finally, a compass is important because it allows you to travel in a straight line, which will eventually lead to a road, and thus your survival.[21]

A knife, lighter, and compass would make great additions to a personal "survival kit". Although certainly helpful in a survival situation, these "luxury" items (a knife, lighter, compass) are by no means essential to one's survival. By studying and practicing a few basic primitive skills, you can learn how to fashion your own knife out of stone (flint-knapping), start a fire without matches or a lighter (bow-drill, flint & steel, etc...), and travel without a compass (celestial navigation).

It's extremely important to maintain a vehicle survival kit: you can never be too prepared. You should always remain in your vehicle during a breakdown until the proper help arrives. If for any reason you feel that you need to leave your vehicle, only do so if the weather improves. You should never leave your vehicle in the winter. Your vehicle survival kit should be enclosed in a water proof and durable container. The first item needed is a cell phone. Secondly, you should pack appropriate clothing and warm blankets. A cook set, also known as a "mess kit," is important for heating liquids and cooking food. Having plenty of drinking water is essential to your survival kit. Energy bars and anything that is non perishable and high in calories is recommended. Other important items are a flash light, a flare, road maps, toilet paper, snow shovel, tarp, and tools. [24]


Civilian pilots attending a Survival course at RAF Kinloss learn how to construct shelter from the elements, using materials available in the woodland on the north-east edge of the aerodrome.
A simple tarp shelter
  1. ^ HowStuffWorks by Charles W. Bryant
  2. ^ Water Balance; a Key to Cold Weather Survival by Bruce Zawalsky, Chief Instructor, BWI
  3. ^ "Army Survival Manual; Chapter 13 - Page 2". Retrieved 2011-10-21. 
  4. ^ "U.S. Army Survival Manual FM 21-76, also known as FM 3-05.70 May 2002 Issue; drinking water". Retrieved 2011-10-21. 
  5. ^ "Water Discipline" at Survival Topics
  6. ^ USEPA[dead link]
  7. ^ "Wilderness Medical Society". Retrieved 2011-10-21. 
  8. ^ "Wisconsin Dept. of Natural Resources". 2008-03-11. Retrieved 2011-10-21. 
  9. ^ "Master The Great Outdoors". Retrieved 2011-10-21. 
  10. ^ US Army Survival Manual FM21-76 1998 Dorset press 9th printing ISBN 1566190223
  11. ^ John Kallas, Ph.D., Director, Institute for the Study of Edible Wild Plants and Other Foragables. Biography
  12. ^ Wilderness Survival Merit Badge pamphlet, January, 2008, at 38,
  13. ^ Zawalsky, Bruce (5 November 2007). "What is Modern Wilderness Survival?". Boreal Wilderness Institute. Retrieved 16 May 2011. 
  14. ^ Zawalsky, Bruce (5 November 2007). "What is Bushcraft?". Boreal Wilderness Institute. Retrieved 16 May 2011. 
  15. ^ Zawalsky, Bruce (5 November 2007). "What are Primitive Survival Techniques?". Boreal Wilderness Institute. Retrieved 16 May 2011. 
  16. ^ Laurence Gonzales Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies and Why.
  17. ^ Krieger, Leif. "How to Survive Any Situation". How to Survive Any Situation. Silvercrown Mountain Outdoor School. 
  18. ^ "Mayo Clinic". Mayo Clinic. 2011-02-19. Retrieved 2011-10-21. 
  19. ^ Leach, John. "Survival Psychology". NYU Press 1994 and Survival Psychology.
  20. ^ The One-Stop Survival Preparedness Guide at
  21. ^ a b c Atkins, Robert (2008). "Three Most Important Wilderness Survival Items". Grandpappy. Retrieved 28 May 2011. 
  22. ^ Falk, Erik (2011). "Wilderness Survival Guide". Retrieved 28 May 2011. 
  23. ^ "How to Build a Decent Wilderness Survival Kit". Retrieved 28 May 2011. 
  24. ^ Stroud, Les (2008). Survive! Essential skills and tactics to get you out of anywhere-alive. HarperCollins. 

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