Surviving in the wilderness is a true test of skill and perseverance. It’s an opportunity to see what you are made of and how much you really know. It’s fun and challenging. Of course, that’s when you have your gear along for the ride.
What if you had to leave your favorite knife and your trusty fire starter at home? Would it still be a walk in the park? Would you know how to survive in the wild with nothing?
The most important resource in bushcrafting and wilderness survival is preparedness. Having the right tool at the right time can make all the difference in the world. But life is not predictable and there’s always a chance you can get stranded without your pack. That’s when wilderness survival goes from weekend hobby to life or death challenge.
The Survival Triangle
If you are stranded without tools, survival boils down to three things: shelter, water, and food. Together this trifecta is known as the survival triangle. Although water is commonly regarded as the most important of the three, establishing shelter can be more time sensitive depending on the weather.
Most adults can survive up to three days without water. Hypothermia can strike in less than three hours if it is cold enough or you are wet. Compared to the repercussions of having no shelter or water, lack of food is relatively harmless. It is possible to last three weeks without consuming calories.
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Given these time frames, it is prudent to establish shelter first, seek a water source second, and then worry about food. Hopefully you are rescued long before starving to death becomes a possibility.
Survival Shelters and Heat Loss
A good survival shelter protects you from heat loss. It doesn’t have to be pretty. It just has to do its job. Your body loses heat through radiation, convection, and conduction. Building a place to sleep, or wait out a storm, that combats all three types of heat loss is critical to your survival when night falls and temperatures drop.
- Radiation: Your body is naturally warm. Every second you are emitting heat into the air around you. A good shelter will trap that heat and use it to keep you warm using insulation.
- Convection: When wind blows across your skin it sucks heat from your body in a process called convection. If you are wet, convection happens even more quickly. Making sure you are out of the wind when trying to stay warm is critical to survival.
- Conduction: If your warm skin touches a cold surface your body heat will be drawn from you. It is important to account for this conduction when you design your shelter. An insulating barrier should always be between you and the ground. Even an inch-thick layer of dead leaves will severely limit conduction. Your best bet is to be off the ground entirely if possible.
There are many ways to create shelter from materials commonly found in nature. But, without tools to process wood, many of the most popular structures may be out of reach. Also, lack of cordage will seriously diminish your ability to build an elaborate structure. The easiest structure to build when you have nothing is a primitive debris shelter. Make sure you have an emergency blanket on hand to help you.
How to Build a Primitive Debris Shelter
The following is a straightforward procedure on how quickly build your shelter in the wilderness.
- Gather materials. You will need a large amount of dried leaves. If you cannot find dried leaves on the ground, pine boughs will also work. Collect as many sticks and branches as you can find over four feet long. Be on the lookout for sharp stones, or rocks that can be flaked into sharp pieces. Anything you find that can be used as cordage, like vines, will be extremely useful so collect anything which looks promising.
- Choose a shelter site in a clearing. Do not set up camp under a tree, especially a dead one. If a branch breaks free in the middle of the night, or the entire tree goes down, you don’t want to be in the line of fire.
- Build a bed slightly larger than your body. Try to make your space as tight as possible while still providing enough room to sleep. Any extra room is more air that you will have to keep warm. Dried leaves arranged in a layer several inches thick make an excellent mattress. Pine boughs also work well. Remember, the ground will be cold at night so spend some time building up your sleeping area.
- Drive two straight branches with forks at the end into the ground with a rock. The branches should be approximately seven feet apart and the forks should be around thirty inches off the ground. If you cannot find suitable branches with forks, it is possible to split the branches a few inches down with a sharp rock. The idea is to give your ridge pole a place to sit.
- Lay a long straight branch in the forks to serve as a ridge pole. If you find cordage, lash the ridge pole in place.
- Place sticks from the ground along the perimeter of your bed to the ridge pole. If you have vines, lash each branch to the ridge pole. Lay stones on the ends of the branches to keep them in place. Ideally you will have enough of these sticks to create a wall, with the sticks touching each other. Close off one end with sticks and leave the other end open to serve as a door.
- Build a berm of dirt or stones several inches high around your entire structure keeping at least thirty inches between the shelter and the berm. This will keep your insulation in place.
- Pile leaves on your structure. This will take a lot of leaves so be patient. For proper insulation, you will need a layer at least thirty inches thick.
- Build a door plug. Once the shelter is finished, you will need something to block the opening you left as a door. Shrubs make great door plug frames when they have many small intertwining branches. Stuff the shrub with leaves to make a ball of insulation the size of your door opening. A thick layer of pine boughs also works.
- Crawl in and check for leaks. Enter your shelter feet first and pull the door closed. Check for light coming through the debris. If light can enter air can escape. Continue to pile on leaves until no streams of light remain.
The Quest for Water
Once shelter has been created, water should be next on your mind. Even though you may have a day or more before dehydration sets in, it’s best to establish a water source long before it is medically necessary.
If you are in an area with a ready supply of fresh water, you are in luck. You will not have to worry much about this leg of the survival triangle. But, some precautions should be taken to make sure the water you find is safe to drink. Or at least as safe as you can make it given the circumstances.
- Always try to take water as close to the source as possible. By drinking from the point of origin, you can eliminate the possibility of contaminants being introduced.
- Avoid standing water if possible. The faster the water is moving, the better. Again, this leads to less contaminants being present.
All water should be purified before being consumed. Unfortunately, in a survival situation this is not always possible. If you have the means to start a fire, and a container to boil the water, you should take every precaution and purify your water.
Drinking water without purification is risky. It comes down to accepting the lesser of two evils. Drinking unpurified water may make you very ill. Not drinking any water for a week will most likely kill you. Given the options, warding off total dehydration is most likely worth the risk.
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Most water borne pathogens do not act immediately. Many take several days to cause illness. Hopefully, you are rescued before any effects of bad water are felt. If you cannot find a water source, don’t panic. There are many ways to pull water from the wilderness.
- Plants. If you are fortunate enough to find a banana or plantain tree, you are in luck. Cutting the trunk a few inches above the ground creates a well that will provide water for several days. Bamboo often contains water inside its canes and the leaves and new shoots can be chewed to extract water. Many vines also contain water, although you will need a cutting tool to take advantage of this feature.
- Rain Catchment. If it rains, attempt to create a catchment using large leaves or concave rocks.
- Seep Holes. In the desert or near the ocean it is possible to create a small well by digging a seep hole. Sometimes you have to dig deep but the result is a plentiful supply of water, purified by being filtered through the sand.
Food Sources in the Wild
Most likely you will be rescued long before starvation becomes fatal. But, if you find food it is a good idea to eat. It will put you in a better mood and give you energy for other tasks. Here are a few wild edibles that foraging around your area may uncover.
- Salmon Berries
- Pine Nuts
- Pine Leaves
- Wild Onions
- Wild Garlic
Unless you are truly starving, don’t guess as to whether a plant is edible. Unless it’s do or die, eating an unidentified plant is not worth the risk. Small game is always a plentiful food source if you have managed to make a fire and have experience trapping with snares or deadfalls. Spit roasting over an open fire is just a matter of gathering sticks and sharpening them to use as skewers. Check out our piece on how to survive by eating edible snails to give you more information.
Signaling and Rescue
Once shelter, water, and food have been addressed it’s time to start thinking about an end game. With limited resources and no tools, the best way to ensure survival is to be rescued. And the best way to get help is to signal that you need it.
If you are able to start a friction fire you already will have a great signaling device at your disposal. Keep green wood on the fire and create as much smoke as possible at all times. Building a signal fire away from your camp in a clearing large enough to be seen from the air is an effective way of communicating you need help.
There are many ways to signal but the best method is to stick to “SOS” messages or highly visible objects in groups of three, which is universally recognized as a distress call. Three large piles of rocks or three lines of tree branches in an open field work well to get noticed. Check the video below for additional ways to signal for help.
The key to signaling is creating something that would not occur in nature. Something that will stand out to someone at a distance and be instantly recognizable as manmade and a call for help. Using contrast, color, and motion will call attention to your signal and draw rescuers in.
- Using light stones against dark earth creates contrast which can easily be seen. Dark branches laid out in an open meadow produce the same effect.
- Use color to signal if at all possible. The brighter the better.
- Human eyes pick up motion far more easily than motionless objects. Creating flags from your clothing and letting them whip in the breeze is a great way to signal that you need help.
Survival in the wilderness is not easy when you have your gear and plan your trip. When you are forced to survive with nothing, it becomes even more difficult. The key to success is prioritizing your needs. Establish shelter, find water, and forage for food. If you take care of these three things, your chances for survival go up dramatically.
Have you ever survived in the woods with no gear? Have you ever been stranded in the wilderness and had to stay alive until someone found you? If so, tell us your story in the comments section and share your experience with our readers and us.