Tips for short-term wilderness survival
In the Southeast, most people who become lost are often day hikers or hunters who fully expect to sleep in their own bed (or at least in their own sleeping bag) that night. But a turn onto the wrong trail or an extra twenty minutes of late afternoon hunting can result in an unexpected overnight stay. Although I don’t carry a “survival kit” as such, there are a few inexpensive yet essential items I seldom venture far from home without. Among these are:
- A reliable, sturdy knife (I recommend the sloyd-type, made in Mora, Sweden).
- A good-quality retractable or folding pocket saw.
- A length of 3/16 inch solid-braid nylon cord. Parachute cord will also work, but it is not as versatile as solid-braid nylon.
- A competent knowledge of how to use these three items will allow you to cut poles, prepare kindling, lash together a shelter, make a bow-drill fire, and perform a host of other tasks.
Other items include:
- A foil emergency blanket. Can also be used as an improvised poncho, ground cloth, or tarp.
- First aid kit. It should include gauze, bandages, butterflies, antibiotic cream, and diphenhydramine (Benadryl).
- Compass: Worthwhile if you know how to use it, or know the approximate direction of nearby major landmarks.
- A knit hat (even in warm weather). In addition to keeping you warm, it can be used as a bag.
- Matches or a lighter. A magnesium striker kit is a good backup--just learn how to use it first.
- A method of water purification (such as iodine tablets). You can make it quite a while without food, but not water.
- Several sheets of 320 or 400 grit wet/dry sandpaper for knife sharpening.
- A whistle. In really remote areas, a signal mirror is also a worthy addition.
- Learn to construct a simple cold-weather survival shelter. It doesn’t take a freezing night to bring about fatal hypothermia. Temperatures even in the fifties can be disastrous if you are improperly dressed or wet.
- Always carry or wear a bandana. It can be used as a bandage, sling, or carrying bundle. A belt is useful, too.
- Wrap a quantity of duct tape around your water bottle. Use good quality tape.
- Colors are good. If you’re a commando engaged in an escape-and-evade mission, you know who you are. For the rest of us, it’s a good idea to avoid camouflage clothing and gear, as bright colors will be spotted more easily by rescuers. Also, it’s frustrating to spend valuable time searching through leaf litter for earth-toned objects.
- Stay put: You arrive at “lostness” from one direction, a single degree out of 360. You have 359 chances to depart your situation in the wrong direction.
- Make a base camp: As humans, our sense of well-being is improved when we have a place to call home, even if it is a temporary one. Locate it in an area that is out of the wind, and where it won’t be flooded during a rainstorm.
- Learn how to tie and use half a dozen or so simple but useful knots. Overhand knot, square knot, clove hitch, bowline, sheet bend, lark’s head, timber hitch, and variations on the half-hitch are good suggestions.
- Customize your list: Include items specific to your needs such as daily or emergency medications, inhalers, or epi-pens.
- Avoid “swinging tools” like axes and machetes. While these sound like a good idea, they can inflict life-threatening injuries in a survival situation.
- Also avoid multi-functional tools, specifically the kind based on a pair of pliers. While useful, tools made to perform multiple tasks usually perform none of them especially well. The pliers on these tools are generally their best feature, but the need for pliers, screwdrivers, and can openers in a wilderness situation is limited. On these tools, the most needed items-- the knife, and sometimes a small saw-- are typically poorly designed and uncomfortable to use for prolonged periods. Just carry a good knife and folding saw, and know how to use them.
Practice your skills and become familiar with your gear before you need them, so you know what to expect! When the time comes to use them, it is too late to learn them. Also, knowing “primitive” skills such as flintknapping, fire-making by friction, and cordage are excellent insurance against the failure or depletion of items in your kit, but nothing beats old-fashioned preparedness.
Feel free to make copies of this. Just give credit for original authorship:
Scott Jones 2008