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Survival skills

Survival skills

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Survival skills are techniques a person may use in a dangerous situation (e.g. natural disaster
Natural disaster
A natural disaster is the effect of a natural hazard . It leads to financial, environmental or human losses...

s) to save themselves or others (see also bushcraft
Bushcraft is a long-term extension of survival skills. A popular term for wilderness skills in Canada, The UK, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, the term was popularised in the southern hemisphere by Les Hiddins in Australia as well as in the northern hemisphere by Mors Kochanski and...

). Generally speaking, these techniques are meant to provide the basic necessities for human life: water
Water is a chemical substance with the chemical formula H2O. A water molecule contains one oxygen and two hydrogen atoms connected by covalent bonds. Water is a liquid at ambient conditions, but it often co-exists on Earth with its solid state, ice, and gaseous state . Water also exists in a...

, food
Food is any substance consumed to provide nutritional support for the body. It is usually of plant or animal origin, and contains essential nutrients, such as carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, or minerals...

, shelter, habitat
* Habitat , a place where a species lives and grows*Human habitat, a place where humans live, work or play** Space habitat, a space station intended as a permanent settlement...

, and the need to think straight, to signal for help, to navigate safely, to avoid unpleasant interactions with animals and plants and for first aid. Survival skills are often basic ideas and abilities that ancient humans had to use for thousands of years, so these skills are partially a reenactment of history. Many of these skills are the ways to enjoy extended periods of time in remote places, or a way to thrive in nature. Even hiking, backpacking, horseback riding, fishing, hunting, or some other activity, you need to make sure you have the basic wilderness survival skills to handle an emergency situation. Some people use these skills to better appreciate nature and for recreation, not just survival.


A shelter can range from a "natural shelter"; such as a cave
A cave or cavern is a natural underground space large enough for a human to enter. The term applies to natural cavities some part of which is in total darkness. The word cave also includes smaller spaces like rock shelters, sea caves, and grottos.Speleology is the science of exploration and study...

 or a fallen-down (cracked but not split) thickly-foliaged tree, to an intermediate form of man-made shelter such as a debris shelter, a ditch dug next to a tree log and covered with foliage, or a snow cave
Snow cave
A snow cave is a shelter constructed in snow by certain animals in the wild, human mountain climbers, winter recreational enthusiasts, and winter survivalists. It has thermal properties similar to an Igloo and is particularly effective at providing protection from wind as well as low temperatures...

, to completely man-made structures such as a tarp
A tarpaulin, colloquially tarp, is a large sheet of strong, flexible, water-resistant or waterproof material, often cloth such as canvas or polyester coated with urethane, or made of plastics such as polyethylene. In some places such as Australia, and in military slang, a tarp may be known as a...

, tent
A tent is a shelter consisting of sheets of fabric or other material draped over or attached to a frame of poles or attached to a supporting rope. While smaller tents may be free-standing or attached to the ground, large tents are usually anchored using guy ropes tied to stakes or tent pegs...

, or house
A house is a building or structure that has the ability to be occupied for dwelling by human beings or other creatures. The term house includes many kinds of different dwellings ranging from rudimentary huts of nomadic tribes to free standing individual structures...



Making fire is recognized in the sources as to significantly increase the ability to survive physically and mentally. Lighting a fire without a lighter or matches, such as by using natural flint and steel with tinder
Tinder is easily combustible material used to ignite fires by rudimentary methods. A small fire consisting of tinder is then used to ignite kindling. Anything that can be ignited by a match can be considered tinder; or by more rigorous definition, anything that begins to glow under a shower of...

, is a frequent subject of both books on survival and in survival courses. There is an emphasis placed on practicing fire-making skills before venturing into the wilderness. Producing fire under adverse conditions has been made much easier by the introduction of tools such as the solar spark lighter
Solar Spark Lighter
A Solar Spark Lighter or Sunlighter is a pocket-sized stainless steel parabolic mirror, shaped to concentrate sunlight on a small prong holding combustible material at the focal point...

 and the fire piston
Fire piston
A fire piston, sometimes called a fire syringe, is a device of ancient origin which is used to kindle fire. It uses the principle of the heating of a gas by its rapid compression to ignite a piece of tinder, which is then used to set light to kindling.-Description and use:A fire piston consists...


Fire is presented as a tool meeting many survival needs. The heat
In physics and thermodynamics, heat is energy transferred from one body, region, or thermodynamic system to another due to thermal contact or thermal radiation when the systems are at different temperatures. It is often described as one of the fundamental processes of energy transfer between...

 provided by a fire warms the body, dries wet clothes, disinfects water, and cooks food. Not to be overlooked is the psychological boost and the sense of safety and protection it gives. In the wild, fire can provide a sensation of home, a focal point, in addition to being an essential energy source. Fire may deter wild animals from interfering with the survivor, however wild animals may be attracted to the light and heat of a fire. The light and smoke emitted by a fire can also be used to work at night and can signal
Smoke signal
The smoke signal is one of the oldest forms of communication in recorded history. It is a form of visual communication used over long distance.-History and usage:...

 rescue units.

Water and food

A human being can survive an average of three to five days without the intake of water, assuming sea-level altitude, room temperature and favorable relative humidity. In colder or warmer temperatures, the need for water is greater. The need for water also increases with exercise.

A typical person will lose minimally two to maximally four liters of water per day under ordinary conditions, and more in hot, dry, or cold weather. Four to six liters of water or other liquids are generally required each day in the wilderness to avoid dehydration and to keep the body functioning properly. The U.S. Army survival manual recommends that you drink water whenever thirsty. Other groups recommend rationing water through "water discipline".

A lack of water causes dehydration
In physiology and medicine, dehydration is defined as the excessive loss of body fluid. It is literally the removal of water from an object; however, in physiological terms, it entails a deficiency of fluid within an organism...

, which may result in lethargy, headaches, dizziness
Dizziness refers to an impairment in spatial perception and stability. The term is somewhat imprecise. It can be used to mean vertigo, presyncope, disequilibrium, or a non-specific feeling such as giddiness or foolishness....

, confusion
ConFusion is an annual science fiction convention organized by the Stilyagi Air Corps and its parent organization, the Ann Arbor Science Fiction Association. Commonly, it is held the third weekend of January. It is the oldest science fiction convention in Michigan, a regional, general SF con...

, and eventually death. Even mild dehydration reduces endurance
Endurance is the ability for a human or animal to exert itself and remain active for a long period of time, as well as its ability to resist, withstand, recover from, and have immunity to trauma, wounds, or fatigue. In humans, it is usually used in aerobic or anaerobic exercise...

 and impairs concentration
In chemistry, concentration is defined as the abundance of a constituent divided by the total volume of a mixture. Four types can be distinguished: mass concentration, molar concentration, number concentration, and volume concentration...

, which is dangerous in a survival situation where clear thinking is essential. Dark yellow or brown urine is a diagnostic indicator of dehydration. To avoid dehydration, a high priority is typically assigned to locating a supply of drinking water and making provision to render that water as safe as possible.

Many sources in survival literature, as well as forums and online references, list ways in which water may be gathered and rendered safer for consumption in a survival situation, such as boiling, filtering, chemicals, solar radiation / heating (SODIS), and distillation
Distillation is a method of separating mixtures based on differences in volatilities of components in a boiling liquid mixture. Distillation is a unit operation, or a physical separation process, and not a chemical reaction....

 (regular or via solar distillation
Solar still
A solar still is a low-tech way of distilling water, powered by the heat of the sun . Two basic types of solar stills are box and pit stills. In a solar still, impure water is contained outside the collector, where it is evaporated by sunlight shining through clear plastic...

). Such sources also often list the dangers, such as pollutants, microorganisms, or pathogens which affect the safety of back country water.

Recent thinking is that boiling or commercial filters are significantly safer than use of chemicals, with the exception of chlorine dioxide
Chlorine dioxide
Chlorine dioxide is a chemical compound with the formula ClO2. This yellowish-green gas crystallizes as bright orange crystals at −59 °C. As one of several oxides of chlorine, it is a potent and useful oxidizing agent used in water treatment and in bleaching....


The issues presented by the need for water dictate that unnecessary water loss by perspiration be avoided in survival situations.

To thus avoid these problems, culinary root tuber
Root vegetable
Root vegetables are plant roots used as vegetables. Here "root" means any underground part of a plant.Root vegetables are generally storage organs, enlarged to store energy in the form of carbohydrates. They differ in the concentration and the balance between sugars, starches, and other types of...

s, fruit, edible mushrooms, edible nuts, edible beans, edible cereals or edible leaves, edible moss
Edible moss
Edible lichens are lichens than can be eaten.They include:* Cetraria islandica * Cladonia rangiferina * Umbilicaria...

, edible cacti and algae can be searched and if needed, prepared (mostly by boiling). With the exception of leaves, these foods are relatively high in calories, providing some energy to the body. Plants are some of the easiest food sources to find in the jungle, forest or desert because they're stationary and can thus be had without exerting much effort.

Also, many commentators discuss the knowledge, skills, and equipment (such as bows, snares and nets) necessary to gather animal food in the wild through animal trapping, hunting
Hunting is the practice of pursuing any living thing, usually wildlife, for food, recreation, or trade. In present-day use, the term refers to lawful hunting, as distinguished from poaching, which is the killing, trapping or capture of the hunted species contrary to applicable law...

, fishing
Fishing is the activity of trying to catch wild fish. Fish are normally caught in the wild. Techniques for catching fish include hand gathering, spearing, netting, angling and trapping....


Some survival books promote the "Universal Edibility Test". Allegedly, one can distinguish edible foods from toxic ones by a series of progressive exposures to skin and mouth prior to ingestion, with waiting periods and checks for symptoms. However, many other experts including Ray Mears and John Kallas reject this method, stating that even a small amount of some "potential foods" can cause physical discomfort, illness, or death. An additional step called the scratch test is sometimes included to evaluate the edibility of a potential food.

Focusing on survival until rescued by presumed searchers, The Boy Scouts of America especially discourages foraging for wild foods on the grounds that the knowledge and skills needed are unlikely to be possessed by those finding themselves in a wilderness survival situation, making the risks (including use of energy) outweigh the benefits. Given that most people have enough body fat to carry them through several days, using the energy to procure water, fire and shelter is a better use of available time and energy.

First aid

First aid
First aid
First aid is the provision of initial care for an illness or injury. It is usually performed by non-expert, but trained personnel to a sick or injured person until definitive medical treatment can be accessed. Certain self-limiting illnesses or minor injuries may not require further medical care...

 (wilderness first aid in particular) can help a person survive and function with injuries and illnesses that would otherwise kill or incapacitate him/her. Common and dangerous injuries include:
  • Wound
    A wound is a type of injury in which skin is torn, cut or punctured , or where blunt force trauma causes a contusion . In pathology, it specifically refers to a sharp injury which damages the dermis of the skin.-Open:...

    s, which may become infected
    An infection is the colonization of a host organism by parasite species. Infecting parasites seek to use the host's resources to reproduce, often resulting in disease...

  • Bites or stings from venom
    Venom is the general term referring to any variety of toxins used by certain types of animals that inject it into their victims by the means of a bite or a sting...

    ous animals, such as snakes, scorpions, spiders, bees, stingrays, jellyfish, catfish, stargazers, etc.
  • Bites leading to disease/septicemia, such as mosquitoes, fleas, ticks, animals infected with rabies, sand flies, komodo dragons, crocodilians, etc.
  • Infection
    An infection is the colonization of a host organism by parasite species. Infecting parasites seek to use the host's resources to reproduce, often resulting in disease...

     through food, animal contact, or drinking non-potable water
  • Bone fractures
  • Sprains, particularly of the ankle
    The ankle joint is formed where the foot and the leg meet. The ankle, or talocrural joint, is a synovial hinge joint that connects the distal ends of the tibia and fibula in the lower limb with the proximal end of the talus bone in the foot...

  • Burn
    A burn is an injury to flesh caused by heat, electricity, chemicals, light, radiation, or friction.Burn may also refer to:*Combustion*Burn , type of watercourses so named in Scotland and north-eastern England...

  • Poison
    In the context of biology, poisons are substances that can cause disturbances to organisms, usually by chemical reaction or other activity on the molecular scale, when a sufficient quantity is absorbed by an organism....

    ing from consumption of, or contact with, poisonous plants or poisonous fungi
  • Hypothermia
    Hypothermia is a condition in which core temperature drops below the required temperature for normal metabolism and body functions which is defined as . Body temperature is usually maintained near a constant level of through biologic homeostasis or thermoregulation...

     (too cold) and hyperthermia
    Hyperthermia is an elevated body temperature due to failed thermoregulation. Hyperthermia occurs when the body produces or absorbs more heat than it can dissipate...

     (too hot)
  • Heart attack
  • Hemorrhage

The survivor may need to apply the contents of a first aid kit or, if possessing the required knowledge, naturally occurring medicinal plants, immobilize injured limbs, or even transport incapacitated comrades.


Survival situations are sometimes resolved by finding one's way to safety, or one may need to move to find a more suitable location to wait for rescue. The sources observe that to do either of these safely requires some navigation equipment and skills. Types of navigation include:
  • Celestial navigation
    Celestial navigation
    Celestial navigation, also known as astronavigation, is a position fixing technique that has evolved over several thousand years to help sailors cross oceans without having to rely on estimated calculations, or dead reckoning, to know their position...

    , using the sun and the night sky to locate the cardinal directions and to maintain course of travel
  • Using a map and compass together, particularly a topographic map
    Topographic map
    A topographic map is a type of map characterized by large-scale detail and quantitative representation of relief, usually using contour lines in modern mapping, but historically using a variety of methods. Traditional definitions require a topographic map to show both natural and man-made features...

     or trail map.
  • "Navigation by observation" of terrain features on a map or otherwise known
  • Using a GPS receiver, if one is available
  • Dead reckoning
    Dead reckoning
    In navigation, dead reckoning is the process of calculating one's current position by using a previously determined position, or fix, and advancing that position based upon known or estimated speeds over elapsed time, and course...


Survival training has many components, mental competence and physical fitness being two. Mental competence includes the skills listed in this article, as well as the ability to admit the existence of a crisis, overcome panic, and think clearly. Physical fitness includes, among other abilities, carrying loads over long distances on rough terrain. Theoretical knowledge of survival skills is useful only if it can be applied effectively in the wilderness. Almost all Survival Skills are environment specific and require training in a particular environment.

Survival training may be broken down into three types, or schools; Modern Wilderness Survival, Bushcraft
Bushcraft is a long-term extension of survival skills. A popular term for wilderness skills in Canada, The UK, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, the term was popularised in the southern hemisphere by Les Hiddins in Australia as well as in the northern hemisphere by Mors Kochanski and...

, and Primitive Survival Techniques.

Modern Wilderness Survival teaches the skills needed to survive Short-Term (1 to 4 Days) and Medium-Term (4 to 40 Days) survival situations.

"Bushcraft" is the combination of Modern Wilderness Survival and useful Primitive Survival Techniques. It normally splits its skill acquisition between Medium-Term Survival Techniques (4 to 40 Days) and Long-Term Survival Techniques (40 Days Plus).

Primitive Survival Techniques or "Primitive Living" teaches the skills needed to survive over the Long-Term (40 days plus). Many primitive technology skills require much more practice and may be more environment specific. Survival training may be broken down into three types, or schools; Modern Wilderness Survival, Bushcraft
Bushcraft is a long-term extension of survival skills. A popular term for wilderness skills in Canada, The UK, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, the term was popularised in the southern hemisphere by Les Hiddins in Australia as well as in the northern hemisphere by Mors Kochanski and...

, and Primitive Survival Techniques.

Several organizations offer wilderness survival training. Course ranges from one day to field courses lasting as long as a month. In addition to teaching survival techniques for conditions of limited food, water, and shelter, many organizations that teach bushcraft and Primitive Survival seek to engender appreciation and understanding of the lifestyles of pre-industrialized cultures.

There are several books that teach one how to survive in dangerous situations, and schools train children what to do in the event of an earthquake or fire. Some cities also have contingency plans in case of a major disaster, such as hurricanes or tornadoes.

Different training is necessary to survive in different climates. Although one technique may work in a dry sub-Saharan area, the same methods may actually be a detriment to health in an arctic climate.

Mental preparedness

Commentators note that the mind and its processes are critical to survival. It is said that the will to live in a life and death situation often separates those that live and those that do not. Stories of heroic feats of survival by regular people with little or no training but a strong will to live are not uncommon. Laurence Gonzales in his book Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies and Why describes the story of a young teenage girl named Juliane Koepcke who is the victim of a plane crash in the Amazon jungle. With no formal training and wearing only her confirmation clothes, she walked through the jungle for several days with parasitic insects boring under her skin. After eleven days, with very little food, she reached a hut and collapsed inside. Three hunters found her the next day and took her to a local doctor. Of those who survived the crash, she was the only one to make it out alive. Gonzales believes that her simple and indestructible will to live made the difference.

So stressful is a true survival situation, that those who appear to have a clear understanding of the stressors, even trained experts, are said to be mentally affected by facing deadly peril.

It seems that, to the extent that stress results from testing human limits, the benefits of learning to function under stress and determining those limits may outweigh the downside of stress. After all, stress is a natural reaction to adverse circumstances, developed by evolution to assist in survival - at least, in terms of brief, perilous encounters (such as being caught in the middle of a natural disaster, or being attacked by a wild animal.) If stress lingers for a prolonged period of time, it tends to produce the opposite effect, impeding one's ability to survive. In particular, the commentators note the following adverse effects of stress: forgetfulness, inability to sleep, increased propensity to make mistakes, lessened energy, outbursts of rage, and carelessness. None of these symptoms would seem to make survival easier or more likely.

There are certain strategies and mental tools that can help people cope better in a survival situation, including focusing on manageable tasks, having a Plan B available and recognizing denial.

Survival manuals

A survival manual is a book used as reference in situations where a human's survival is threatened - expected or unexpected. Typically it will cover both preparation and guidance for dealing with eventualities.

A simple mnemonic for a situation such as getting lost is S.T.O.P. - Stop, Think, Observe and Plan.

There are many different types of survival manuals, but most have a section of standard advice. These are sometimes republished for public distribution: for example the SAS Survival Handbook, United States Army Survival Manual (FM 3-05.70) and United States Air Force Survival Manual (AF 64-4). Some are originally written for the public and can cover wilderness, winter and marine survival, natural and man-made disasters, home preparedness and financial survival all in one manual.

Other manuals have been written for more specific uses, such as wilderness
Wilderness or wildland is a natural environment on Earth that has not been significantly modified by human activity. It may also be defined as: "The most intact, undisturbed wild natural areas left on our planet—those last truly wild places that humans do not control and have not developed with...

 or maritime
Seamanship is the art of operating a ship or boat.It involves a knowledge of a variety of topics and development of specialised skills including: navigation and international maritime law; weather, meteorology and forecasting; watchstanding; ship-handling and small boat handling; operation of deck...


Much of today's teaching principles on survival are derived from the work of SAS Survival Instructor Lofty Wiseman
Lofty Wiseman
John "Lofty" Wiseman is a British author and survival consultant, and a former member of the Special Air Service , the British special forces unit....


Important survival items

Three important items can significantly improve a survival situation: a knife
A knife is a cutting tool with an exposed cutting edge or blade, hand-held or otherwise, with or without a handle. Knives were used at least two-and-a-half million years ago, as evidenced by the Oldowan tools...

, a lighter
A lighter is a portable device used to generate a flame. It consists of a metal or plastic container filled with a flammable fluid or pressurized liquid gas, a means of ignition, and some provision for extinguishing the flame.- History :...

 and/or match
A match is a tool for starting a fire under controlled conditions. A typical modern match is made of a small wooden stick or stiff paper. One end is coated with a material that can be ignited by frictional heat generated by striking the match against a suitable surface...

es, and a compass
A compass is a navigational instrument that shows directions in a frame of reference that is stationary relative to the surface of the earth. The frame of reference defines the four cardinal directions – north, south, east, and west. Intermediate directions are also defined...

. A knife cannot be easily replaced by anything that the wilderness has to offer, which makes it extremely important to have. And its importance is heightened when you take into account a knife’s many uses. A lighter is important because it ensures fire, providing many essential things (i.e. boiling water, cooking, warmth etc.). A lighter is better than matches, for matches can easily become unusable, such as when they get wet. Having both a lighter and waterproof matches is the best option. Finally, a compass is important because it allows you to travel in a straight line, which will eventually lead to a road, and thus your survival.

A knife, lighter, and compass would make great additions to a personal "survival kit". Although certainly helpful in a survival situation, these "luxury" items (a knife, lighter, compass) are by no means essential to one's survival. By studying and practicing a few basic primitive skills, you can learn how to fashion your own knife out of stone (flint-knapping), start a fire without matches or a lighter (bow-drill, flint & steel, etc...), and travel without a compass (celestial navigation).

It's extremely important to maintain a vehicle survival kit: you can never be too prepared. You should always remain in your vehicle during a breakdown until the proper help arrives. If for any reason you feel that you need to leave your vehicle, only do so if the weather improves. You should never leave your vehicle in the winter. Your vehicle survival kit should be enclosed in a water proof and durable container. The first item needed is a cell phone. Secondly, you should pack appropriate clothing and warm blankets. A cook set, also known as a "mess kit," is important for heating liquids and cooking food. Having plenty of drinking water is essential to your survival kit. Energy bars and anything that is non perishable and high in calories is recommended. Other important items are a flash light, a flare, road maps, toilet paper, snow shovel, tarp, and tools.

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