10 Wilderness Survival Skills for the Bug Out Prepper
This article will take it back to basics and cover the essential wilderness survival skills you need to know if you’re going to survive out in the wild.
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Wilderness survival is probably what most people imagine when the word “survival” is used. It is often glorified as the ultimate test of manliness. Many would claim that they have the tools and the wilderness survival skills to make in the wild.
In reality, there is nothing glamorous about it. It's a tough life! You have no home comforts, no way of purchasing goods you might need and often no other people to rely on.
If you’ve been forced into the wilderness because your home or town became unsafe, then you may even be traveling with your family and might not have had time to grab everything you could need.
Hopefully you managed to grab a Bug Out Bag with at least a few essential survival starters, but maybe not.
This article will take it back to basics and cover the essential wilderness survival skills you need to know if you’re going to survive out in the wild.
We’ll look at the following:
Wilderness Prepping for SHTF: Before, During and After
Wilderness Survival When SHTF: Before, During and After
Wilderness survival is usually the scenario which you have the least amount of time to prepare for.
You might be able to grab a Bug Out Bag, but then you have to venture out into the wild – leaving your home, food, comforts and life behind.
Here are some wilderness survival tips and tricks to make you more prepared for this survival scenario.
Wilderness survival tips: Preparation Before SHTF
To prepare to survive in the wild, there is only so much you can do.
Reading the wilderness survival skills in this article and becoming practiced at as many as you can is a great start.
Prepare a Bug Out Bag you can grab from home, or prepare many that you keep in your car, at work etc. in case you are not at home when SHTF.
If you want to take your wilderness prepping to the next level however, we advise you prepare a wilderness survival kit that should be equipped with specialized wilderness survival gear.
Wilderness survival tips: The First 72 Hours
If danger strikes and you are forced out of your home, the first 72 hours are crucial. Grab your Bug Out Bag and lead your family away from the danger.
Depending on the scenario, it may not be the wisest move to take the car, as they attract a lot of attention. Head to your nearest wild space away from people, and be prepared to cover a lot of ground in that first push to put you far away from danger.
When you find a secluded and covered spot, build a rudimentary survival shelter to keep everyone safe and lay low for a few days.
Wilderness survival tips: Long-term Survival After SHTF
If you need to survive in the wilderness for a long period of time, then you are going to want to find a spot where you have access to good shelter, water and a food source once the first wave of panic has subsided.
Locate a more permanent campsite and get to work building a sturdy shelter – camouflaged if needs be – which you can start to call home.
Remember to camp near enough water to have a potable source, but away from potential flood plain or natural well.
The following list of wilderness survival skills should help you on your way to become the ultimate wilderness survivalist, should you ever need to.
How to Build a Fire in the Wilderness
The first of the three wilderness survival essentials: Fire.
Unless you are fortunate enough to be in one of the few places in the world where it is possible to stay warm outside during the day and night without a fire… then this is a basic wilderness survival skill you need to learn!
Fires provide heat, light and fuel for cooking.
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Find dry wood
It doesn’t matter how good your fire-lighting skills are; if your wood is wet your fire will not light. The driest wood is usually downed wood – wood that is already dead rather than “green” wood fresh from a tree.
Search the forest floor for the smallest, driest pieces you can find and start to build a good stock of kindling, stored in a dry place – you’ll appreciate this down the line if it rains a lot and all the wood on the forest floor gets wet!
Assemble the fire
The next bushcraft skill lies in the art of assembling a fire. You want to lay the kindling close enough together that a flame will start to spread, but with enough gaps to allow decent airflow.
Remember, fire needs oxygen to breathe! Don’t put larger pieces on until your kindling has begun to burn well and there is a good level of heat.
Laying on a log that is too big or too wet early on can suffocate your fire and you’ll have to start over.
Insert your fire starters in between the kindling wood. This can be anything from paper, to sawdust, to small dry twigs and even bark.
Birch, red cedar and iron wood bark are all great as fire starters – peel them thin and small and use them to light your pile.
Light the fire
There are many methods you can choose to light a fire, depending on your location and the survival tools available.
Quickly striking two rocks to create a spark is a popular method requiring few tools – but does need to be mastered!
Another option is crafting a simple “bow drill” which uses a few pieces of wood and string to generate friction and build up heat, eventually resulting in a fire.
Watch this video from National Geographic on how to start afire with the bow drill technique.
Keep the fire well-fed
After a while, a fire will produce red-hot coals which produce heat long into the night. It can, however, take a long time to get your fire to this point, especially if your wood is wet or it is windy where you are.
Always make sure that someone is watching the fire and knows when to put more wood on, and how to arrange it so that it does not suffocate. If you must leave your camp – put the fire out!
An unattended fire, especially in the wild, is a recipe for disaster and you do not want to add wildfire onto your list of worries.
How to Build a Wilderness Shelter
The second of the big three basic survival needs: Shelter.
If you’ve had time to grab your Bug Out Bag, then you will hopefully be equipped with a tent or at least a tarp and lines for stringing it up.
However, if you find yourself completely without your shelter tools then you have to use the natural landscape to shelter you from wind and weather.
Look for caves, ditches and thick area of forest. Anything that can help to protect you to keep the elements off and your wood and belongings dry.
Check out this video from TA Outdoors on 5 tarp shelter setups in the wilderness.
Build a lean-to
A lean-to is the simplest and often most effective way of providing yourself with a shelter. It requires small downed trees, other sticks and foliage – so try to get yourself to a wooded terrain.
Use the larger, longer trunks to provide the structure – or “bones” - for your shelter, then weave smaller sticks and branches in-and-out of the bones. Finally, cover and fill with anything you can find.
Old bits of plastic, leaves, moss, bark or thick grass.
Your lean-to can be resting in between other trees for added support – or you can build a triangular shape which is free-standing and can be laid on the floor.
Try to insulate the floor of your shelter from the ground with moss, soft leaves and bark. This will help to keep you warmer and preserve your essential body heat!
Learn how to make a lean-to survival shelter from Bertram.
The final, but by no means least important, of the top three basic wilderness survival needs: Water.
When out in the wilderness, you have to pay special attention to water sources to ensure that you don’t drink water that could make you seriously ill, or even kill you.
Rain, snow and dew are all pure forms of water that can be drunk without purification.
Leaving a Buff or other absorbent materials out overnight and then squeezing into a container at dawn can be a great way of collecting dew fall for drinking.
Collect perspiration from plants
Plants “breathe” during the day, a by-product of which is water vapor.
In the morning, tightly secure plastic around the leaves of a plant making sure that there are no leaks, and this vapor will condense to water which you can drink.
Make a solar still
A solar still can turn the dirtiest, saltiest and most unappealing water into a drinkable source via a process called distillation. Dig a large hole in the earth and fill it with leaves, saltwater or even urine – anything that contains moisture.
Place a container in the very center. Cover the hole up with a sheet of plastic and secure the edges. Place a rock in the center to create a conical shape in the plastic, directly over your container.
Over the course of the day, water will evaporate from inside the hole, condense on the plastic and then travel to the tip of the cone and then drip into the container. Presto – clean drinking water made with essential bushcraft skills!
Watch this video from All 4 Adevnture on how to build a solar still.
Use hot rocks
Another neat trick for boiling water to sterilize it is to use the heat retention of rocks to boil your water.
Have some water ready in a container (which won’t melt!) and set aside. Use a natural dip in a large rock or boulder if you have nothing else.
Place a couple of rocks into your fire and wait until they are completely heated through. Carefully use sticks to maneuver the hot rocks into your water container, and watch the water boil.
Wilderness First Aid
When out in unfamiliar, wild lands – things can get dangerous pretty quickly. In truth, there are so many possible scenarios in which you or another member of your party might need urgent medical attention so it is impossible to list them all.
However, there are certain first aid skills you can learn to give you a good chance of survival – or saving a life – when out in the wilderness.
Treating an infection
Infections can set in quickly and often require antibiotics if not treated properly. If you sustain a cut, immediately flush with sterile water and try to seal the wound.
If you have no sterile dressings, then boil clothes to kill off any bacteria and use those to seal the wound.
If you notice an infection getting worse or spreading, urine can be used as emergency sterilization.
Submerge it in as hot water as you can manage for 20 minutes or so, three or four times a day until you can get it treated or it naturally takes care of itself.
If you start to feel chills or notice red lines spreading in the direction of the heart – then you need emergency medical attention and antibiotics.
Sealing an open wound
If a cut is deep or keeps reopening, then it needs to be sealed as soon as possible. Sterilize the wound as above then use sterile thread to sew the skin back up.
If the wound is too great to be sewn or is on the torso, then place a ziplock bag or other clean plastic over the wound and secure with medical tape, or anything you can, and seek medical attention immediately.
As a last resort, if bleeding is too severe to stop, then an emergency tourniquet can be applied. Remember that a tourniquet often means that you (or your “patient”) will lose a limb: hence the last resort. Paracord or other line can be used and cinched tight as a tourniquet.
Setting a broken limb
Broken limbs or injured muscles may not seem as dangerous as an open wound, but if you are immobilized then you may start to suffer from dehydration, hypothermia or heat exhaustion.
Knowing how to fashion a splint and set a broken limb will at least give you back mobility so you can get back to camp and rest properly.
How to Navigate During the Day & Night in the Wilderness
Navigation is an important wilderness tool to learn and one of the most important woodsman skills.
Ideally, you’ll have a compass in your Bug Out Bag; but if you find yourself totally without then there are some tricks you can learn so that you always know how to find north.
Navigation by Day
Natural landmarks such as rivers, lakes, mountains and woodland can all be used to determine your position on a map.
One you have determined your position, you need to know your compass bearings to know in which direction to head.
The sun always rises in the east and sets in the west, and depending on your hemisphere passes via north or south during the day.
If you are wearing an analogue watch, hold it horizontally (parallel to the earth) and point the hour hand directly at the sun.
Find the midpoint between the hour hand and the 12 marker and draw an imaginary line out from that point; this is true North.
Check out this video with 5 navigation techniques every woodsman should know by David Canterbury.
Navigation by Night
You can use the stars to navigate by night, if you prefer to travel outside of the heat of the day and under cover.
In northern latitudes, locate the North Star which is the brightest in the sky and located at the end of the ‘Little Dipper’ constellation – this will be true North.
In southern latitudes, the tip of the ‘Southern Cross’ points the way due South.
The moon can also be used to navigate, as it is another celestial body like the sun which moves in a roughly east to west direction throughout the night.
The easiest trick is to draw an imaginary line between the tips of a crescent moon and extend this line to the horizon – this will be due South.
How to Find Food in the Wilderness
The human body can survive a remarkable amount of time without food, but the effects of starvation are not pleasant and can set in pretty quickly.
Once shelter, water and warmth have been established, it is imperative to find a source or multiple sources of survival food as soon as possible.
Hunting & Fishing
Protein and fats are essential for the healthy functioning of your body.
Whilst it is certainly possible to gain these nutrients from plants and legumes, the easiest source of protein and fat comes from meat and fish.
A simple snare can be a very effective way to trap animals – whether large game animals or small rodents.
They can be made using sticks, rocks and a bit of paracord or wire, or sinuous tree fibers if you’ve got no man-made materials to hand.
Fishing is also an excellent option for those who find themselves near a lake, river or other populated body of water.
Although fishing is easier when using bait, it is possible to catch a fish with a simple line, hook and patience.
Alternatively, if you notice fish moving through a fast-flowing river, you can fashion a net out of paracord or interlaced branches to trap them as they swim.
Check out our article on using paracord to make various fishing rigs here.
Edible plants and fungi are another great way to give your body nutrients and vitamins as a source of survival food in the woods.
It is definitely worth buying a local plants book and familiarizing yourself with the various herbs and fungi you’re likely to find, before SHTF.
Sadly, there are an abundance of toxic edibles alongside the tasty ones – and taking an unknown risk could be deadly (we’ve all seen Into the Wild no doubt).
So, learn your local wild plants right away!
Knots for Wilderness Survival
Knot making is one of the basic survival skills everyone should know.
There are a multitude of knots that will benefit you in a wilderness survival scenario, but it is far better to learn a few really well, than try to learn them all and end up getting confused.
If you’re new to knots, then start with these four essential survival knots.
The bowline is your go-to knot. Every time.
It is not necessarily the perfect knot for every situation, but it is versatile enough to be used everywhere: securing a shelter, lowering yourself down a cliff, hauling up a heavy load, setting a snare, dragging a kill and so on.
It consists of a looped end perfect for fastening to all manner of things, and tightens as it pulls so you don’t have to worry about the knot loosening.
If you learn just one knot - learn the bowline!
Watch this demo from Animated Knots: Tying a Bowline
The figure-eight is the one of the easiest and most useful stopper knots there are. They can be used at the tailing edge of a line to secure it and stop the line slipping through a bight or loop.
Many people use them in conjunction with a simple overhand knot to stop the knot undoing; not the best setup but will often get the job done!
Watch this demo from Animated Knots: Tying a Figure-Eight
This is a popular survival knot and is often used to secure beams of a survival shelter.
The main benefits of this knot are that it doesn’t readily loosen or tighten, and you can adjust the line lengths either side of the knot without having to completely undo it.
It is not to be relied upon for heavy loads but is great for securing things in place.
Watch this demo from Animated Knots: Tying a Clove Hitch
Sheet bends are the easiest way to tie two lengths of rope together. They are especially useful if you are having to scavenge for bits of line and tie them all into one useful line.
It works well on lines of differing material and thickness; but isn’t the strongest knot and won’t perform too well under heavy loads, and can slip if the line becomes slack.
That being said – tying two lengths of rope together is a useful skill so get learning!
Watch this demo from Animated Knots: Tying a Sheet Bend
If other people or governmental bodies are a threat, then it is essential to know how to camouflage yourself and your camp so that others do not find you.
Think Gray Man – but in the wild! Forests are the ideal place to stay camouflaged due to heavy tree cover, so that is what we will discuss in this example.
Always build your camp under tree cover if you can, and set back from any lake or river shoreline.
Try not to seek a clearing, but build in and around the trees, using them for camouflage as well as structural support for your shelter.
Try to build your lean-to tall so that you can safely have a fire inside without the risk of burning your shelter, but also keeping the light from your fire hidden from view.
Dig a fire pit with a secondary airflow tunnel, to keep your fire under ground level. This will not only help to conceal your fire even more, but will eliminate more smoke as the fire burns much hotter.
Finally, cover your tracks and any evidence of snares or hunts that you may have done.
Nothing speaks more loudly than footprints leading directly to camp! If you are able, move around at night instead of day, and use only the light of the stars and moon to guide you for the ultimate stealth camouflage.
Another important wilderness survival skill is the ability to defend yourself from animals. Check out our guide on how to survive animal attacks for more info.
Signaling for Help in the Wilderness
There may come a time when you desperately need medical attention or are in a life-threatening situation.
If that is the case, then you will have to bite the bullet and come out of your wilderness hiding, in order to potentially save your life.
There is no guarantee that help will come – especially in some post-apocalyptic nightmare scenario – but it may just be your last shot at survival.
The most effective way to signal for help is to start a fire and send a smoke signal. Unlike building a normal fire in which you want to keep smoke to a minimum, signal fires want to be as large and smokey as possible.
Construct your fire as you normally would and when it gets going, start loading on greener, damper wood which will produce a lot of smoke.
Fan the flames to keep it burning and to produce even more smoke, and you will soon have a roaring signal fire.
An internationally understood symbol for “HELP” is three signal fires placed in a triangle.
If anyone is out looking for you or if there just happens to be a benevolent pilot overhead, a trio of smoke signals will send your message loud and clear.
Wilderness Survival Skills Checklist
Wilderness prepping for SHTF
Build a fire in the wilderness
Build a wilderness shelter
Find and purify water
Wilderness first aid
Navigate during the day night
Find food in the wilderness
Knots for wilderness survival
Survival signaling for help
Wilderness Survival Skills Conclusions
This wraps up our guide on the 10 wilderness survival skills you need to be prepared with in case of an emergency.
We hope you learned something new going through our article, and as always, we encourage you to take action: go and practice everything you've learned! It's the only way to be truly prepped.
Make sure you check out our other survival skill guides by navigating with the side menu.