It's bound to happen eventually. Anyone who spends any time in the wilderness is going to get stuck in the woods sometime. That doesn't mean that they will have done something wrong. Nor does it mean that they can't navigate in the woods. Things happen. Whether it is a car breaking down, and unexpected injury, or a fast-moving storm coming in, there are things that can leave you stuck in the woods, regardless of how well trained and prepared you are.
That's why you should never go into the woods without a survival kit. Even a small kit, carrying just the basics, can make a huge difference in your ability to survive. Of course, that kit must be made to deal with the climate and terrain where you are going to be. Don't count on a one-size-fits-all survival kit.
I recently went dove hunting with a couple of buddies. Even though we weren't going to be more than 100 yards from the truck at any time, I carried both a survival kit and enough of a trauma kit to treat a gunshot wound. Was I expecting to need those? No. but survival isn't a part-time game. You either stay prepared at all times, or you're treating it as if it is just a game.
The thing is, there have been enough times in my life where I did have something go wrong, that I know better than to walk around unprepared. That's why I keep an EDC bag in my car and carry a survival kit into the woods. I'd much rather have it and not need it, than need it and not have it.
My Survival Kit
So, what's in my survival kit? I'm sure that there's at least one or two people asking that question at this point. The one I took with me hunting consisted of:
- Aluminum foil (for cooking)
- Compact first-aid kit (bandages, antibiotic and OTC medications
- Flashlight and extra battery
- Waterproof paper and pencil
- Large plastic garbage bag (can be used as an emergency rain poncho)
- Ziplock bags (emergency canteen, or food storage)
- Pocket knife
- Straw-type water purifier
- Water purification tablets
- Waterproof match container with waterproof matches (container is also a whistle and has a compass in the end)
- Emergency fire starters (cotton balls with petroleum jelly)
- Ferro Rod fire starter
- Wire saw
- Rescue blanket
- Fishing kit (line, hooks, bobbers weights)
- Snare wire (I use guitar strings for this)
- 25" Paracord
- Sewing kit (needle, thread, safety pins)
This is clearly much more than one of those kits made in an Altoids tin. I've never been much for those. Even so, it's not all that big, only 4" x 6" x 2" and will fit in a cargo pocket, on my belt or on MOLLE gear, if I was carrying any. In addition to this kit, I was also carrying a number of things about my person, which would help me to survive, should the need arise:
- The shotgun and ammo I was hunting with
- My personal sidearm and extra magazines
- Sheathe knife
- My EDC pocket knife (yeah, three knives is a bit much, but that's how it worked out)
- Aluminum canteen filled with water
- Snacks (beef jerky & dried apricots)
- P-38 can opener (on my key ring)
- Miniature cigarette lighter (on my key ring)
- Flashlight (my EDC tactical light)
- Fresnel lens for fire starting (plastic magnifying glass) (in my wallet)
- $100 Cash (never leave home without it)
While I know enough to survive without the survival kit and just survive with the things I was carrying, I also know enough to know that it's a whole lot easier to survive if I do have those things with me. I can't see any reason to try and prove that I can survive without them either. My life is worth more than to cast it as dice, trying to prove how macho I am.
Know When You're in Trouble
The first step in any survival situation is to realize that you're in a survival situation. While that may seem a bit simplistic when you're sitting back and reading an article on the internet, when you're caught in the situation, it may not seem so obvious. Many situations sneak up on us, rather than hitting us suddenly. As such, they aren't so obvious.
The other problem is the normal human tendency to deny that there's anything wrong. None of us want to be caught in the middle of a disaster or to be thrown into a survival situation, regardless of what we might say when we're sitting around talking over beers. We expect things to return to normal, so wait for them to do so, rather than preparing to deal with them.
But the truth of the matter is, the sooner you realize that you're in trouble, the better a chance you have of surviving. The amount of time you have, before sundown, is critical. If you waste a couple of hours of it, thinking that someone is going to come along and rescue you, you might have a miserable night.
Of course, there's another way of dealing with this. That's to face every time you're in the wilderness as if you were in a survival situation. While that may seem a bit extreme, it's actually great training. By looking at it as a survival situation, you can go through the mental exercise of what you would do if such-and-such a thing happened. You will also be more aware of your situation; which will help you transition from normal to survival modes much faster.
The sooner you make that transition, the better. Basically, you're not going to start doing anything to help yourself, until you realize that you need to. That means realizing that you're in a survival situation and that you need to start taking care of yourself.
Evaluate Your Needs
Once you've come to grips with the fact that you're in a survival situation, the next step is deciding what to do about it. That means taking stock in your situation and what your immediate needs are. While there are certain things that we all need in any survival situation, the temperature, weather, your health, whether you are injured and a host of other things could modify your priorities.
A good starting point is evaluate your own physical condition. Are you sick? Are you injured? Did you fall in cold water? Then from there, move on to looking at the weather. What time of day is it? How soon is sunset? What's the current temperature? How cold will it get tonight? What is the chance of rain or snow? Then take stock in what you have available to you to work with. Am I carrying a survival kit? What else am I carrying? Is there anything from the activity you were doing which will help you survive? What kind of environment am I in? What materials does nature offer me to work with?
That's a lot of questions, but in a survival situation, you can answer them all faster than I was able to write them down. You won't be looking for the answers, because you'll already know them. Rather, you'll be telling yourself what your situation is.
That information is critical for determining your course of action. If you are injured, the first thing you're going to have to do is deal with the injury. If you fell in the water and sundown is close, the first thing you're going to have to do is to dry off and get warm. The same can be said for any time of the day in wintertime. On the other hand, if you were fishing, you might have fish that you caught, which solves the problem of food, at least on an immediate basis.
Your survival priorities have to follow your greatest survival needs. Other than taking care of immediate injuries, dangers and threats to your life, those follow the Rule of 3s:
- You can only survive 30 minutes without keeping yourself warm
- You can only survive 3 days without water
- You can only survive 30 days without food
It's very easy to get priorities out of order, especially for people who don't properly understand them. The Rule of 3s helps to keep that in perspective. However, the Rule of 3s can be trumped. If you are injured, that has to come first. If there is a bear out there that's about to attack you, that has to come first as well, even before caring for your injury. Each need has to be dealt with in the right order.
One of the biggest mistakes that novices make is to put more emphasis on food than is necessary. According to the Rule of 3s, you can survive for 30 days without food. Some of us, who are carrying a little more weight than we need to, can survive for a whole lot more than those 30 days.
So, if we can survive so long without food, how does it become such a pressing priority to so many people? Simply put, because they feel the hunger in their bellies, and they're used to obeying that command to eat whenever they feel it. But putting food before shelter and warmth can produce catastrophic results.
Establish Your Camp
If it looks like you're going to be stuck wherever you are overnight, you need to stop and establish your camp at least two hours before sundown. It will take you that long to get a camp built, and that's if you don't waste any time. So, keep your eyes open for good campsites, preferably ones which offer some natural shelter from the wind and rain.
How will you know if it's two hours before sunset? If you're like me, you don't carry a watch, but rather depend on your cell phone for that. But there are a lot of places in the wild where your cell phone doesn't have signal. If your phone is set to set its time from the network, being without signal can cause your phone's clock to stop functioning.
But as long as you have hands and arms, you can still tell how soon sunset it. Simply extend your arm towards the horizon, with your fingers held horizontally in front of you. Place the edge of your pinkie on the horizon and count how many fingers the sun is above the horizon (that might require two hands). Keep in mind that in the mountains, the horizon can be a whole lot higher in elevation than you are. Each finger is worth about 14 minutes. So if it take eight fingers to reach the sun, you've got two hours.
You also want to be near a source of water, although you really shouldn't be right on the water's edge. Not only is there a risk of flooding, but animals need to access that water to drink. If you are camping where they are used to watering, they will go without water, rather than risk meeting you.
Establishing a camp is your number one survival priority. A proper camp will help you meet all your survival needs, especially the ones included in the Rule of 3s. but it has to be properly situated in order to do that. That's why in the Old West, travelers constantly kept their eyes open for good campsites. Even if they didn't use it then, there was always the possibility that they might be passing that way again and need a campsite.
So, what does it take to establish a campsite? Basically, two things; shelter and fire. These are the two things that will most help you to fulfill the first priority in the Rule of 3s. Proper shelter protects you from the wind and rain, as well as providing at least some insulation to keep whatever heat you have inside. Fire gives you that heat, so that your body doesn't need to create all the heat that it needs to survive.
This is important, as your body has to burn a lot of fuel (food) in order to generate heat. In cold weather, or after you've fallen in the water, your body will probably struggle to generate that much heat.
I'm going to assume that you don't have a tent with you or even a tarp. That means either finding something that will provide you with adequate shelter or making shelter out of available materials. I always like to overbuild my shelters, assuming a worse situation than that which I see. In other words, if the skies are clear and the night is supposed to be comfortably cool, I'll assume that the temperature is going to drop another 20 degrees colder and its going to rain.
The reason for this is that trying to improve a shelter in the middle of the night, in the midst of a rainstorm is a miserable task. I know, I've done it. You can always open a vent into your shelter, if you find that you're too warm, but it's much harder to add to a shelter that isn't doing the job.
Rather than building a debris hut or a lean-to, the two most common types of survival shelter, I always try to look at what nature is providing for me and use it as much as possible. There are countless places in the wild, where there are naturally occurring shelters. With a few additions, they will keep you as warm and dry as anything you can make.
One of my favorite survival shelters is a large pine tree. The lower branches on these trees often touch the ground, although they are connected to the trunk a few feet off the ground. All you have to do to make that into a comfortable, dry shelter, is to clear out the dead branches underneath. Adding additional boughs around the edge or even piling snow around it will make it even cozier.
Along with your shelter, you're going to need fire. Fire does several things for us in a survival situation. First of all, it provides us with warmth. So, when you make your fire, be sure to build some sort of reflector behind it, so that the heat will come towards you and your shelter, rather than being lost in the woods. On top of that, we also use it for light and cooking our food. But we can also use that fire to protect us from wild animals. Most will naturally avoid a fire out of fear. If one ventures too close, a flaming brand is a good deterrent.
Building a fire requires more than just stacking wood and setting it ablaze. Not only do you need to prepare a safe place for your fire, where it will not spread, you need to gather fuel for it. I always try to avoid using the fuel that's readily at hand in my camp, as that can serve as an emergency reserve. Rather, I prefer walking 100 feet or so and gathering my wood there.
Not all wood burns at the same rate. The type of wood, how much moisture it has in it, how freshly cut it is and even the temperature can affect how fast it burns. So there's no fixed amount of wood that you will need. Hardwoods burn slower than softwoods, producing more overall heat, but they are harder to cut and gather.
As a general rule of thumb, I try to gather twice the amount of wood that I think I'll need. That way, if my wood burns faster than I expected it to, I'll still have enough. I also try to make sure I've got a couple of good sized, solid chunks of branch in there. While those are harder to cut, they'll burn longer; hopefully through the night. I try to use a "one campsite, one match" rule (even though I usually use a butane lighter). That means only starting a fire once from a match or other fire starter. From there on, the idea is to keep the fire burning, without it going out.
The Next Day
Establishing your camp, building a shelter and getting a good fire going is a lot to accomplish that first day, especially if you get started late in the day. You can go without food and water that night, even if your stomach does do a little rumbling. Remember, you can go 3 days without water and 30 days without food.
But the next day is something else entirely. You really don't want to put that 3 days without water to the test, especially if you are in a hot climate. As your body loses water, you'll find yourself getting weak, and that's something you can't afford. So, the number one priority on the second day, besides restocking your supply of firewood, is finding and purifying water.
You should drink eight - 8 ounce glasses of water per day. If I remember my mathematics, that comes out to a half gallon. Since standard military canteens are a quart, that's two canteens full of water. If you're in a hot climate, add another canteen full for good measure.
That's a lot of water to purify. My straw-type water filter that I carry in my survival kit won't do that. I can't fill a canteen with it, just drink from a stream or other body of water. That's why I also carry water purification tablets and an aluminum canteen. Plastic canteens are popular because they are lighter, but you can't put them in the fire, to purify your water. I can put my aluminum canteen there, as well as the aluminum water bottles I carry in my bug out bag.
Other than water and firewood, your biggest task on this day is to try and communicate with people. If you did like you should have, and let someone know where you were going to be and when you would be back, they should have raised the alarm first thing in the morning, when they tried to call you and you didn't answer. That will get search & rescue to work, first looking for your car and then looking for you.
But that doesn't mean that you just leave it totally up to them. Search & rescue can find you a whole lot quicker, if you advertise your location to them. Start with your cell phone. Can you call out? If not, would climbing a tree help? Don't decide to climb up a mountain, just to make a phone call, but try moving around a bit to see if you can get signal, all the while keeping cognizant of where you are in relation to your camp.
If you can't call out, you're left with signaling the rescuers as they are searching for you. Establish some sort of signaling manner, which will advertise where you are. This can be something reflective, smoky fires, blowing a whistle, using a signaling mirror or firing a gun.
Three of the same thing is the universal signal for "Help." Three smoky fires, three gunshots or three blasts on a whistle will all indicate that there's someone there who needs assistance. If rescuers are out looking for you, then you can be sure that they will respond and check out who is asking for help.
Don't try to walk out of the woods, unless you are sure of where you are, where your vehicle is and that you can make it there easily. The other possibility is if you can see civilization, and the terrain between you and it, clearly enough to know that you can walk there in less than a day.
However, if you aren't in the area you were supposed to be in or if you are more than three days past your due date, then it's time to try to make it out on your own. While search & rescue might stay in the field longer than three days looking for you, once those three days have passed, your chances of survival are statistically much lower. So, unless they have some reason to believe that you're alive, they generally quit after three days.
Let me say something about those statistics. They are based upon all the people who get lost or stranded in the wilderness. Most of those people don't have any survival skills, didn't bring a survival kit along with them, and don't know what to do. So, you've already beaten the statistics. It's just that the fine folks at search and rescue don't know that.The easiest and most secure way of walking out of most wilderness situations is to head downhill. No matter where you are, going downhill does two things for you. First of all, it takes you closer to water, which you'll need. You'll often find streams in the valleys, which will provide you with an ongoing source of water. You'll also get closer to civilization. Mankind has always build alongside water, because we need water to survive. So, as you are following whatever water source you find, while going downhill, you'll be getting closer to people who can help you.