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How to Survive in the Wilderness with Nothing

Most of us are not Bear Grylls. We don’t know how to build a three-bedroom bungalow from banana leaves or zip line across a ravine using braided wild goat hair. The majority of us don’t know how to extract copious amounts of water from a dried-up river bed. For the more common type of folk, here are some general guidelines as to how to survive in the wilderness with nothing.

Thousands of hikers get lost in the backcountry each year. One of the most common mistakes that hikers make when they realize they are lost is continuing to plow ahead in the direction they were going, states Robert Koester, the creator of the International Search and Rescue Database. If you ever find yourself lost and in a survival situation, making the right decisions could mean the difference between life and death.

#1 Keep calm and assess the situation.

The worst mistake you can make if you’re lost in the wilderness is panic and keep plowing onward. Rob Koester suggests backtracking until you know where you are. However, if that is not a choice, assess the situation carefully. Decide whether leaving or staying put is the best option. If you’re on exposed land, seek sheltered terrain. If you find yourself in a location area where predators are a threat, fashion some simple weaponry.


#2 Find shelter.

Even during warm summer months, nighttime temperatures can plummet. Add some rain into the equation, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for hypothermia. Rocky overhangs, felled trees, and shallow caves make suitable impromptu shelters. You can also create a lean-to by leaning branches against the trunk of a tree or some other sturdy object and cover the branches with pine boughs, leaves, and anything else that will keep out wind and rain.

#3 Build a fire.

Photo Credit: Art of Manliness

Hypothermia is the most likely cause of death in the wilderness. Quickly making a fire can be the difference between life and death. It also provides the psychological edge necessary to reign victorious in a survival situation. It seems as if the guys on TV just rub two sticks together and viola, but starting a fire is actually rather difficult. Check out some methods on how to do it here. Personally, I always like to wear a survival bracelet anytime I go into the backcountry. That way, you have a handy fire starter if it ever becomes necessary.


#4 Find water.

Photo Credit: Eski Paper

While shelter and fire can keep you from freezing to death overnight, if you want to make it past a few days, you’re going to want to start looking for some water sources. Water generally flows downhill, so start by losing elevation. It’s your best bet in terms of finding creeks, streams, and other sources.

If you’re fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to encounter some rain, rainwater is typically safe to drink. If rainwater is not an option, you will have to purify your water before drinking it. Boiling it is a surefire way to cleanse your water of most dangerous impurities. At a minimum, allow any water intended for drinking to come to a rolling boil.

If you don’t have a container suitable for boiling water, use the hot rock boiling method. Heat rocks in the fire for about 15 minutes. Then, line the bottom of a water-filled plastic container with straw, leaves, or any other type of insulation. After the rocks are thoroughly heated, toss them into the insulated container. The heat from the stones will quickly bring the water to a boil.

If you are unable to build a fire, some plants can be used to filter water. Similarly, many trees and plants house significant amounts of water inside. You can also catch the morning dew before it evaporates by tying a cloth around your leg and walking through patches of high grass and then squeezing out the collected water. Click here for several other ways to find water in a pinch.


#5 Find food.

Photo Credit: Freshare

Now that you’ve got shelter, fire, and water, you can survive out in the wilderness for at least a few weeks. Woo hoo! While the human body can go three weeks without food, you will not be able to carry out other tasks necessary for survival without it.

Fat is the most important component of the survival diet, and bugs are 100% fat. Bugs are low-calorie foods, but they are easy to find. Just lift up any fallen log, and you will find a smorgasbord of snails, slugs, spiders, and other creepy crawlies. Yum.

Wild game and other small critters are high in calories, but catching them is not easy. Keep a slingshot, club, or some other weapon with you if you’re serious about finding meat, but don’t deprive your body of valuable energy by embarking on an all-day deer hunt.

Your best bet when attempting to survive in the wilderness with nothing is collecting wild berries, tree nuts, and other low-calorie but easy-to-find nutrients. Plants are also an easy source of nutrition in the wilderness. Generally speaking, if a plant has any of these characteristics, it is poisonous and should be avoided:

  • Milky sap
  • Bitter or soapy taste
  • Spines or thorns
  • Three-leaved growth pattern
  • Heads of grain with pink, purplish, or black spurs
  • Beans, bulbs, or seeds inside pods

Of course, some toxic plants won’t have these traits, and some non-toxic plants may exhibit these characteristics. Check here for a concise list of edible plants.


#6 Devise an escape plan.

Photo Credit: Ali Express

Perhaps you’ve taken a liking to your newfound home in the wilderness, and that’s perfectly fine. More power to you! However, if you don’t want to rename yourself Captain Plays With Squirrels and live out the rest of your days in the woods, you’re going to have to devise a plan of getting back home.

Should you attempt to make your way back to civilization, a makeshift compass will come in handy. If you choose to stay put and wait for rescue, a signal fire can help you get the attention that you need.

Start a fire in a location where those passing by can easily see it. The higher up, the better. With three being an international symbol of distress, light three fires to signal to passing aircraft that you’re in need of assistance. Finally, adding certain substances to your fire will create black smoke. Plastic items, oily substances, live evergreen boughs, and poorly combusting vegetation will darken your smoke and make it more visible against overcast skies.


Other tips and warnings on how to survive in the wilderness with nothing

  • Research the area before heading out. Familiarize yourself with the surrounding area, prominent landforms, and check for rivers that you can follow out in case of an emergency. Do a little research on the vegetation of the area as well. Know which ones are edible and of which you ought to steer clear.

  • Don’t drink water unless it’s purified. As mentioned before, you can typically drink rainwater without purification. But resist the urge to drink water from streams, ponds, etc. without first purifying it, regardless of how clean it looks. Parasites in water can lead to illness and vomiting. Vomiting will intensify dehydration.

  • Always let someone know where you’re planning on going and when you anticipate returning. That way, if something goes wrong, people know where to come looking for you.

I’ll end this post by saying that things are always easier said than done. Until you’re actually in a situation where you have to survive in the wilderness with nothing, it’s hard to tell how it will actually go. Have you ever found yourself in a survival situation, or have you ever purposefully put yourself in a survival situation to put your skills to the test? Let us know how it went by commenting below!


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