The Only Outdoor Survival Guide You’ll Ever Need: Make It Out Alive When You’re Lost in the Wilderness
Our whole lives are plugged in and speeding at a million miles per hour. Hiking, climbing and camping can make for an amazing weekend re-connecting with nature. Inevitably, Sunday rolls around and it’s time to head out so you make your way back to the… wait, you’ve passed that tree before. And were you supposed to make a left back there? What’s that sound? You’re officially lost in the wilderness.
Your key to outdoor survival is staying safe from the elements and wildlife, keeping hydrated and fed and eventually making it out alive. You may think you’ve got the skills to brave the wild, but it doesn’t hurt to double check what you think you know against the facts. This is your life on the line so don’t let your ego get you into trouble—plus, you don’t have to tell anyone you read this.
What to Do Before You Even Begin
Nobody sets out for a weekend in the woods hoping to get lost—and if they do, it’s in a “I hope I get lost so I don’t have to go to work on Monday” sort of way and not a “I hope my life is in peril because I’m lost in the harsh wilderness for weeks on end” sort of way. It pays to be smart before you even leave the house.
This begins with the one thing that may save your life quicker than any skill you’re going to pick up here—tell somebody where you’re going. We’re serious. And be specific. It’s not enough to say “I’m going camping up north”—no, no. North is a big place.
Be sure to tell at least two people:
- When you’re heading out
- Where you’re going with as much accuracy as possible
- Where you will park your car
- What activities you’re planning—it’s good to know if you’re kayaking or rock climbing
- When you’re planning on returning
- When exactly to sound the alarm—you may plan to return Sunday afternoon, but should they wait until midnight to sound the alarm?
Do we sound like a nagging mother? Oh, yeah? Well, she was right, and you’ll be thanking her and us when someone has this info on Monday morning when you haven’t shown up for work.
What to Pack
Of course, you’re not going to pack for the off chance you’ll be stuck roaming the great outdoors two weeks longer than you planned. You can pack some “just in case” items that won’t weigh you down or hinder your enjoyment out in the wild.
- A Bivvy. A what? A bivvy—these self-contained shelters are lightweight, compact to hand held size, water resistant, bright colored and heat reflective
- Pack some extra clothing—you don’t have to go crazy, but one extra set of thermals and socks can go a long way
- First Aid Kit—if you don’t have a travel sized kit you can make one in a zip-lock bag. We’re talking just basic minor injury, a few OTC pain meds and antibiotic ointment—all of which come in compact, travel sized foil packs
- Extra water and water filtration system—if you’re carrying your own water, take a liter or two more than you think you’ll need
- Extra food—throw in a few extra protein bars
- Pocket knife—you don’t have to get fancy here. You’re just going to need a knife—there won’t be a need for a Phillip’s head screwdriver or teeny tiny scissors in the middle of the woods
- Waterproof matches—you’ll be so happy you have these when the temperature plummets. For good measure, you can soak some cotton balls in Vaseline and take those along as fire starter
- Compass—know from which direction you came so you know by which direction to leave
- Flashlight—just a small, lightweight one will do, either hand held or head lamp—replace your batteries before you set out
- Sunglasses—whether in the sun or snow, these puppies will help prevent sight issues
Most of these things you were probably planning on bringing with you anyway and if you weren’t, seriously consider it—they’re essential to outdoor survival.
And Now You’re Lost
You’re not only lost from where you need to go but from where you were too. The very first rule is to stay calm. Remember the acronym S.T.O.P:
- S—stay calm. Panic can make people do some really stupid things and it will cause you to waste energy. Breathe deeply and take it minute by minute
- T—think. What route did you just take? What was the terrain like? How long have you been walking? Just try to piece together as much information as you can
- O—observe. Do you know which way is north? Can you see any footprints other than your own? Are there recognizable landmarks visible? This will help you determine if you’re as far away from civilization as you might think
- P—plan. How much time do you have until dark? You’ll want to put up shelter at least an hour before if possible. Where can you start a fire? Is there water nearby? It may be time to settle in and put your plan into action
A few things to keep in mind as you’re sitting with the idea of being lost—if you’re near water be sure to make camp at least 20 feet away in case it rises or rains or you shift more than you thought you would in the night. If you’re not near water, can you hear any? If so, move that way.
Go near a clearing or open space. If you need shade take it but keep the open space in view. People will see you better and you’ll be able to see animals easier. If you’re in a forest, try to get to higher ground so you can survey your surroundings. If it’s hilly, go downhill—you’re more likely to run into people in a valley.
First Things First
Before you go foraging for wild berries, take care of your immediate safety. Remember the rule of 3s. You can survive:
- 3 minutes without air
- 3 hours without shelter—if you’re out in the elements
- 3 days without water
- 30 days without food
We’re not saying any of this will be comfortable, but it’s important for your peace of mind you know you can survive this long. It may also help light a fire underneath you to put a plan into action instead of sitting in resignation.
If you know you’ve got to settle in for the night, look around at your surroundings. Pick a place by a tree or two. Check the ground for anything immovable poking up until you find a semi comfortable area. Next check the weather and estimate where rain would flow and end up—move away from that spot.
If you’ve gotten separated from you bivvy or just didn’t pack one (eye roll) you’ll need to build a shelter. The easiest shelter to build is an A-frame.
- find a tree with a fork in it
- place a log in the crotch of that fork and run it to the ground
- lean as many other logs against the support beam on either side as you can find
- cover the sides with branches and leaves
We’re assuming if you didn’t bring a bivvy, you don’t have a tarp (more eye rolling). If you do, your life just got easier because your tarp instantly makes your shelter water proof—just hang it over the support pole before adding the other logs.
Now tackle the ground. If you don’t have a sleeping bag, bed down a lot of leaves to absorb and trap your body heat while you sleep. A quick note—you’re not shooting for architectural digest here—make it functional and just big enough for you or your party.
We Have Fire!
Just because you have a match doesn’t mean you have a fire. Fire is important to your outdoor survival for a few reasons—it keeps you warm, it will give you peace of mind by not being in total darkness, it keeps wildlife away and can signal for help.
You need gather three pieces of fuel for the fire from the forest:
- Tinder—think of this as a bundle of small, fine sticks that can catch fire quickly. Grab a lot of it—the more tinder you have the bigger the flame can get which will allow you to add kindling to your fire
- Kindling—these are bigger, medium-sized pieces of wood that will catch fire from the tinder. Use the driest pieces you can find from dead trees—they don’t hold moisture
- Logs—these are what you imagine throwing in a fireplace. Once your fire is roaring, keep it going with fuel logs.
Gather as much fire wood as you think you’ll need overnight plus a few pieces more. To build the fire, build a tee pee out of your tinder pieces. Put some dried bark shavings at the bottom of your tee pee. Light the bark or on that Vaseline soaked cotton ball we suggested you pack.
Fire needs oxygen so once you’ve got a little flame, blow on it just enough to see it flare. Once the tinder has caught fire, slowly add kindling and wait for the fire to blaze then add fuel logs. You have a fire. You are awesome.
You’ll Catch Your Death
You have elements to contend with and this can make or break your outdoor survival. Unless you’re in a perfect 72 degree, partly sunny day with a light breeze, you need to assess the weather and act accordingly.
Outdoor survival is even more challenging during winter months in cold climates. If you are unlucky enough to get lost in the freezing woods, you can survive it. Your shelter becomes even more important when you realize you’re lost for the night. There are a few things you can do immediately to protect yourself:
- Cover your head—it’s true you lose 45% of your body heat from your head, wrap it in whatever you can, including your ears to keep warm
- Don’t work up a sweat—yes, time is of the essence but when you sweat in the winter, the cold temps will cool your skin and that’s dangerous in frigid temps
- Keep your clothes dry—do what you can to not sit in the snow or let your socks get wet. Wet clothes mean frozen clothes
Be sure to position your shelter so the wind isn’t hammering it. If it’s snowing, always put down a layer of branches so you and your clothes aren’t directly on the layer of cold snow. If your socks and clothes get wet, hang them up high inside your shelter. Your body heat will rise giving them the best shot at drying overnight.
If you’re lost in extreme heat, your survival skills will differ greatly from your freezing counterparts. Before you head out be sure you’re wearing light colored clothing. You don’t want to be traipsing around the desert in a black t-shirt and shorts. Other ways to ensure you survive the heat:
- If possible, soak your hat and shirt in water—if you don’t have extra water, don’t waste it doing this
- Keep your light-colored shirt on—you won’t want to but the sun can do real damage to your skin.
- Find shade and sit in it often—don’t be a hero, rest
- Don’t overdo it—move at a slow pace, don’t climb or run if possible,
- Water—and only water. Don’t think caffeine, sugar or alcohol will hydrate you, they’ll do the opposite
The best times to travel or build a shelter in the sweltering heat are dawn and dusk. The sun won’t be at its hottest and you’ll be able to exert yourself a little more without overheating. If you start to feel lightheaded, dizzy or disoriented—rest and drink water.
Just like being caught in a blizzard, being stuck in 90+ degree heat is something you must plan for. When you’re going out on your journey, check the forecast for three days longer than you’ll be there. Think twice if extreme heat is on the horizon.
Water, Water and More Water
If you aren’t lugging all the water you need on your back, please be sure to bring a personal water filtration system. Even if you’re right next to a river, the water needs to be filtered. Experts say no matter what water you’re drinking in the wilderness, it could absolutely be riddled with bacteria that could give your body a beating.
If it comes down to dying of dehydration or bacteria—we’d make the same choice you would. You can pick up a personal water filtration system or water purifying tablets for as little as $20—honestly the best $20 you’ll ever spend… well, unless you spend $20 on winning lottery tickets, then that wins.
So, Where Do I Find Water?
Lakes, Streams and Rivers
The running water in streams and small rivers is ideal if you’re not filtering because running water isn’t as conducive to bacteria growth as still. If you can’t see a stream, close your eyes and listen—you may hear it.
You can also check for animal tracks that might lead to water or swarms of bugs could indicate you’re getting close. Water runs downhill so your best bet is being in a gully, valley or ditch and following it to water.
You can collect rainwater in that tarp we hope you brought—tie its corners to trees and place a rock in the center of the tarp on the ground. This keeps it weighted down and creates a tarp funnel and bowl.
If you don’t have a tarp, your best bet is to put any and all containers or container like objects out in the rain. Even rocks with deep depressions are worth looking for if it’s all you’ve got. In the mornings, before the sun comes out, you can tie a piece of clothing around your ankles and walk through grassy areas. Your clothes will soak up the dew, you can wring them out and drink it.
Oh—and about drinking your own urine to survive? It’s not a great idea. It’s going to maybe buy you one extra day, so give it a shot when all else fails. Any more than that and the buildup of waste that naturally occurs in your urine could lead to kidney failure. If you’re on the brink of death, it’s worth trying.
Those Hunger Pangs Are Brutal
Remember, this should be last on your list of things to spend your energy on. You can live 30 days without food as long as you have water and shelter. If you’ve got the first two covered, then feel free to forage while you wait for help.
Let’s start with what to avoid while you’re looking for edible plants:
- Milky or discolored discharge
- Bitter or soapy tasting leaves
- Spines and fine hairs
- Plants with a three-leaf growth pattern
- Almond smelling leaves
- Any grain tips with purple, pink or black spurs
If you’re unsure about a plant being poisonous, err on the side of caution. There are plenty of plants you can eat out there. Be sure to look these up before you take off on your trip. Learn what grows near you or where you’re traveling.
You can feel comfortable with—albeit probably not raving about—these edible plants:
- Wild asparagus
- Prickly pear cactus
- White Mustard
- Wood Sorrel
While most of these plants may have parts that taste bitter, you can eat all of it—minus the cactus. You’ll want to carefully remove the spines first.
Lions and Tigers and Bears—Bears!!
It’s everyone’s biggest nightmare—lost in the woods, you hear a low growl from behind just as you spot two little bear cubs frolicking in front of you. So, how can you survive a bear attack? Start by not startling the bear by just walking into its path. Make noise, like singing or whistling, every five minutes or so to let animals know you’re approaching. Always carry bear pepper spray in bear country—it’s a thing and you need it.
Always use the pepper spray as your first line of defense with any bear. If you’re face to face with this nightmare and the spray doesn’t work, here’s what you do:
With a black bear you have to stand your ground. Stand tall, wave your arms and appear as big as you possibly can. Make a ton of noise—black bears are great attack fakers so that may cause them to back off.
If they charge you, don’t run or climb a tree—they will think you’re prey, and they can both run and climb better and faster than you can. Fight back if they attack. Use everything you’ve got and do everything you can—aim for their snout and eyes. Black bears will generally walk away if they sense their opponent will fight to the death.
This is the king of the forest—we don’t care what that Lion sang about. These guys are territorial predators and not at all friendly. If a grizzly is squaring off with you and the pepper spray didn’t work, stand still—don’t run and don’t make yourself look big like with the black bear. Wait for his next move.
If he charges you drop to the ground and take the fetal position covering the back of your neck with your hands. Curl up as tightly as you can. If he attacks you, play dead. These bears normally give up if they think threat is over. If he tosses you to the side, don’t get up. They’ve been known to hang around to see if their opponent gets back up. Just count to one million.
I’m Safe, but I Want Out!
While you’re knee deep in your outdoor survival, always be thinking about rescue or self-rescue. If for whatever reason you can’t continue walking to find help be diligent about:
- Keeping your fire brightly lit at night and smoky during the day
- Staying in an open area
- Continuing to make ongoing noise—whistling, singing, banging on things
- Displaying anything brightly colored in the clearing
As long as you let someone know where you will be, people will look for you. If you’re positive they’re coming or you’re hurt, it’s best to stay put. Many a person would have been found in mere hours if they had just stopped walking.
If you keep moving, follow these guidelines to have the best shot of running into civilization:
- Keep moving downhill
- Always look for signs of people and stop to listen for them
- Follow waterways downstream
- Use landmarks to avoid walking in circles—it’s a thing
Outdoor Survival Mode – Mistakes Not to Make
Let’s learn from those who’ve gone before us. Read this and make a mental note to heed this advice:
- Don’t let a hypothermic person sleep—getting sleepy after crazy shivering is a sign the body is shutting down—keep them awake
- Don’t eat raw meat or seafood—the pathogens make it dangerous. If you’re starving and it’s 20 days in, it might be worth the risk
- Moss doesn’t always grow on the north side of trees, don’t count on it for navigation
- Don’t build a fire in a cave—heat expands the rock, rocks break, caves cave-in
- Don’t eat snow to hydrate—snow is 90% cold air and 10% water—this can cause hypothermia. Melt the snow first
- Never rub frostbitten skin—it causes more tissue damage
- Rubbing two sticks together without a ton of practice and even more luck won’t start a fire
- Wet matches won’t work when they dry out—just sayin’
Go Have Fun
It’s ridiculously unlikely you’ll end up lost or in peril, so go enjoy the great outdoors. Just know, people who have survived unexpected dangerous conditions in the wilderness weren’t expecting to get lost, stuck or injured either.
Soak up this information, let someone know where you’re going and head off with a prepped backpack of supplies. Your trip will be awesome and if you get lost? You’re going to look like a rock star emerging from the tree line without even having to drink your own pee thanks to your crazy outdoor survival skills.