What Are the 5 Survival Skills? Survival Essentials to Master
When you're physically and mentally fit to handle backcountry hunting, as you grab your gear and make your way to the mountains, there's a level of confidence that comes with that. But what if you removed the majority of your gear from the equation, leaving you with only your mind and body to make it through? This scenario isn't all that unthinkable in the wilderness, so if that gets your heart pumping, you need to master the 5 skills of survival.
The 5 survival skills every mountain athlete should master include building shelter, starting a fire, procuring food and drinkable water, foundational first-aid, and signaling for help. While there are many useful skills to aid you in survival, these 5 are essential to short-term and long-term safety.
This isn't to say skills like reading the sky for weather and time aren't important for survival, rather, the 5 skills above are the bare minimum for finding some degree of safety as quickly as possible. Although we hope you'll never need to put these to practice, this post will topline all 5 survival essentials, to help you assess your preparedness for whatever heads your way in the backcountry.
5 Survival Skills Every Backcountry Hunter Must Master
In a world that's predictably unpredictable, being prepared for any situation that may come your way could make all the difference. And few places will test your readiness like the wilderness.
Before we jump into the 5 survival skills, you should know the context of why these 5 skills matter.
The Physiological Reason Behind 5 Survival Skills
These 5 survival skills weren't picked by some Gen-Z urbanite for a cute BuzzFeed listicle - not in the least. This list is purposefully built to meet the physiological demands of survival, which has everything to do with how your brain and body operate in a survival situation.
The moment you realize the hunting trip has gone awry, your brain will flip the survival switch. There's nothing you can do about it, you're in survival mode, and this automated physiological trigger is wired to react like a wild animal - survival is your only goal. This is your sympathetic nervous system at play, the "fight or flight" period has begun.
It sets off a massive release of hormones from your adrenal glands that send your heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing through the roof. This takes a lot of energy, which is a treasured commodity in survival mode. This survival instinct can get you out of tough situations but it won't provide you with any knowledge or skills needed to make it through. So the idea is to shift away from it as quickly as you can.
That's where the 5 survival skills come into play since they create some layer of safety, warmth, nourishment, and hope for a way out. Once you satisfy these basic human needs, you're more likely to be able to shift your mind out of a reactionary state and into the higher-functioning cortex, which is ultimately your most valuable tool for survival.
So whether you've been hunting the backcountry for decades or you're getting ready to start your first mountain expedition, these 5 survival skills will help you in immediate survival and buy you the space to think clearly.
1. Shelter Building
When you find yourself in a survival situation, shelter should be your top priority. You may not have the ability or resources to set up camp like image above. In that case, the clocks ticking, because exposure to natural elements can be dangerous, even in weather that isn't harsh. If you're western hunting, then you're likely facing high altitudes and cold temperatures. It's going to be tough. Especially at night.
A lack of shelter can make it difficult to maintain body temperature, leading to hypothermia. And there's the whole part of creating some barrier from predators, it's more a sense of security rather than a fortress to keep predators at bay, but it may buy enough time to protect yourself.
This is why the ability to construct a shelter from natural materials is a fundamental survival skill that everyone should have.
Finding a Suitable Location
Location is just as important as the shelter itself, and your goal is to find a place that's dry, flat, and protected from the wind. One of the most common mistakes when building a temporary shelter is not considering the terrain.
- Water Proximity: We'll go into further detail about finding a water source in a minute, but if you can help it, try to drop your shelter as close to your water source as possible. You can't afford to spend your day trekking to get fresh water. But if this is too much work, don't spend all your energy figuring this out. Your first job is shelter.
- Shoreline and Low Ground: Even though you want to be close to a water source, that doesn't mean it's a good idea to set up on a shoreline. The same goes for low terrain. A flash flood, rain, or any condensation would be life-threatening.
- High Altitudes and Slopes: Although you don't want to build on low ground, that doesn't mean you should build as high as possible. Temperature drops and conditions like avalanches are more likely at higher altitudes. And most certainly avoid building on a slope. Any sort of precipitation will wash you out or open you up to landslides. Always choose a flat and dry area for building your shelter.
- Widowmakers: Call them widowmakers or whatever you like, but broken branches and unstable overhangs can be deadly. The same goes for rocks nearby - if you see rocks laying on the ground and others sitting on a hillside, this is your sign to find another spot. So look up when you think you've found the right spot and make sure everything above you is stable. It could save your life.
- Wind Direction: Figure out the direction of the wind and build your shelter where your opening doesn't face it. This will not only keep you warmer but also protect your fire.
Using Natural Materials for Your Shelter
When building a shelter from natural materials, the goal is to minimize the amount of work you need to do to create basic protection from the environment. This includes natural formations as well as utilizing the right natural materials in abundance nearby.
Here are natural materials to be on the lookout for:
- Frame: Look for sturdy branches that are straight and at least as long as your body. You'll need them to form the frame of your shelter.
- Roof: Foliage can be used to create a thatched roof for your lean-to. Grass and ferns are easy to pack between branches, creating a barrier from the wind and rain.
- Anchor: If you can find large rocks, drop them at the base of your shelter to keep it anchored. They can also be helpful as a heat source if you build your fire near them.
- Ties: Natural cordages such as vines or strips of bark are great at tying branches and logs together for a sturdier shelter.
- Bedding: Look for evergreen tree boughs or dried grasses to use as bedding; pay close attention to every material you grab, avoiding sap and insects.
You may have noticed insulation missing from that list - that's because it requires a bit more explanation. It's a finicky thing and temperamental to your environment. The consequences of getting it wrong can be extreme. Not enough insulation can cause heat loss, while too much can create moisture buildup.
So here's a cheat sheet on how to navigate insulation for a temporary survival shelter.
What Materials Are Best for Insulation?
Pine needles, moss, grass, ferns, and other foliage are great insulators. Birch bark is also a great insulator and especially useful for starting a fire. You can strip the bark off trees to use as a covering for the shelter walls.
Wet or humid environments require materials that are waterproof and quick-drying, while dry and cold environments require materials that provide maximum insulation.
Constructing Your Shelter
There are a lot of different shelters you could make in a survival situation, but the lean-to is famous for its simplicity and how common the materials are to construct it.
A lean-to is a single-sloped shelter with a roof that is angled down toward the ground. You can lean it against something, as the name implies, but you can also create a lean-to without support. They're typically tight quarters, this helps your body conserve body heat. After you've found the right location, here are the steps to building a lean-to:
- Gather Materials: Find long sticks or branches to frame out your shelter, and smaller sticks and foliage for insulation and cover. Look for sturdy, straight pieces of wood for the ridge pole.
- Clear the Site: Remove any debris or rocks from the ground where you'll be building. This will make it easier to create a level surface for your shelter. Also, rocks are easy to move, but roots are not. Don't set up over roots.
- Frame: Lean your longer sticks or branches against a sturdy tree or log, making an "A" shape. Use cordage or vines to tie the frame together securely.
- Ridge Pole: Lay a sturdy, straight piece of wood across the top of your frame to create a ridge pole. Secure it with cordage or vines.
- Lattice: Place shorter sticks or branches horizontally across the frame, creating a lattice-like structure.
- Covering: Cover the shelter with additional leaves, branches, or a tarp if available. Make sure the covering is securely fastened to the frame.
How Can I Build a Shelter If I Don't Have Any Tools?
To build a shelter without tools, maximize the terrain and surrounding resource. Using the terrain might include finding a natural depression in the ground or building your shelter where one side is protected. Surrounding resources could include larger rocks or reliable branches and logs, as well as foliage.
Without tools, you have to be creative, the idea is to find materials and locations that nature has already cut to size. This will save you time. For instance, locating logs and branches at the right thickness and length will always be more efficient than trying to figure out how to cut less-than-ideal options to size without tools.
You're not a carpenter. You're a survivor looking to make it. So take what nature has afforded you and maximize it in every way possible.
2. Building and Maintaining a Fire
If shelter is the first mission, building a fire and keeping it going is easily the second. A fire can provide warmth, light, and a source of cooked food, as well as a signal for rescue if necessary, and ward off predators.
Unless you know how to do this proficiently, starting and maintaining a fire can be challenging, especially in wet or cold conditions.
Here are some tips to help you build and maintain a fire in the backcountry:
Choose the Right Location for a Fire
Before you start building your fire, choose a safe location. This means trying to avoid areas with dry grass, leaves, or branches that could catch fire quickly. That's most likely not a huge concern in wetter periods of hunting season, but something to still be aware of.
You also want a spot that's as protected from the wind as possible, and near your shelter. Wind can spread fire quickly, pushing it around but also stoking it up. Make sure there are no overhanging branches or dead trees that could catch fire.
You'll need three types of firewood: tinder, kindling, and fuelwood.
- Tinder: Small, dry materials that will easily catch fire, such as dry leaves, grass, or bark.
- Kindling: Kindling is slightly larger than tinder and can sustain fire, such as twigs, small branches, or pine needles.
- Fuelwood: Think of larger logs or thick branches that will burn for a long time, keeping your fire going. This is the main source of heat and light for your survival situation.
However much firewood you think you'll need, double it. It's always a good idea to have more on hand than you think.
How to Build and Maintain a Fire
- Arrange Tinder: Start by arranging your tinder in a small pile or nest in the center of your fire pit. Crumple dry leaves or tear the dry grass, then place them in the center of your fire pit.
- Add Kindling: Once you've arranged your tinder, you'll begin arranging your kindling in a teepee-like formation. These small sticks and twigs shouldn't be tightly packed in. The space between them will help air circulate and feed the flames.
- Light the Tinder: We'll go into the specifics of starting a fire in a minute, but for this step, light your tinder, not your kindling. You'll start the flame in a few spots on the tinder, and blow gently on the spots to help them fan out. This will eventually catch the kindling.
- Add Fuelwood: As the kindling catches fire and begins to burn, gradually add larger pieces of fuelwood to the fire. Place the logs around the outside of the kindling, being careful not to smother the flames.
- Maintain: Once your fire is burning steadily, keep an eye on it and make sure it stays under control. The fire should burn evenly, if it doesn't and you don't have any appropriate tools to move logs, use long and thick greenwood sticks to move pieces around. Keep your fire burning by adding fuelwood from the bottom up, and avoid adding too much wood at once. A large log can smother the fire, and it will take a long time to catch fire.
How to Start a Fire Without Any Tools
It'd be great if you had a lighter or matches on hand. However, survival typically lacks luxury items. In that case, knowing several ways to start a fire, including primitive techniques, can be a lifesaver.
Flint and Steel:
Your survival kit should include some form of flint and a steel striker. And hopefully, in this survival moment, you have it on you. When they collide, they create sparks which will hopefully be enough to get your tinder going. They're far easier to use than more manual methods too.
- Hold the flint in one hand and the steel striker in the other.
- Strike the steel against the flint to create sparks.
- Aim the sparks at your tinder until it ignites.
Far more tedious and difficult than flint sparks, but the hand drill can still start a fire. In a true survival scenario, you might not be able to access flint or anything else. This method uses a stick and a board to create friction and generate heat.
It's primitive which is a codeword for challenging, but that also means the resources needed to do this are readily available and simple. You'll need to find a softwood stick and a hardwood to start a fire this way.
- Place the hardwood on the ground and hold it in place with your foot.
- Create a hole in the hardwood the size of the stick.
- Place some tinder underneath the hardwood and start rotating the stick back and forth in the hole to create friction.
- Eventually, the heat generated from the friction will ignite the tinder.
The bow drill technique is a version of the hand drill that won't waste as much energy. It still uses friction to start a fire but as the name implies as well as crafting a small bow. So it requires more materials, but less work than the hand drill.
You'll need an arched but sturdy branch or firm stick and cordage, ideally man-made like a shoelace. You'll also need hardwood and a spindle.
- Create a notch in the hardwood
- Wrap the cordage around the bow and the spindle
- Use the bow to rotate the spindle against the fire board.
- This creates friction and generates heat, which will eventually ignite the tinder.
Starting a fire and maintaining it is another essential skill in any survival situation. Fire satisfies several needs in survival - it provides warmth, light, and the ability to cook food and purify water, etc. Knowing how to start a fire with natural materials, such as sticks and dry leaves, is a valuable skill that is essential before you go backcountry hunting.
3. Food and Water Procurement
Without access to clean drinking water and a source of sustenance, your chances of surviving for an extended period are slim to none. And the window is tight - you can survive three days without water and a week without food. In this section, we'll cover the basics of finding and procuring food and water in a survival situation.
Finding Water Sources
Finding suitable water can be a challenge. In the backcountry, water sources may be scarce, and it may not be safe to drink from them without filtering or purifying the water first. Plus, methods like solar stills may be a way to find drinkable water, but you may not have the proper gear to construct it.
That's why you should know the most primitive way of locating a water source.
- Moving Water: Rivers, streams, lakes, and springs are obviously sources of water but you might not be in the right location to find them. So the trick here is to look for water that's flowing and moving, as stagnant water can be a breeding ground for bacteria and other harmful organisms. You should still always filter or boil the water before drinking it, even if it's from a flowing source.
- Wildlife: Animals need water to survive, so if you see signs of wildlife, such as tracks or droppings, it's likely that a spring or another source of water is nearby.
- Rainwater: Collecting rainwater is another option, but you'll need a container to catch it in. Tarps or other waterproof materials can be used to make a simple rain catchment system.
- Snow and Ice: In colder climates, snow and ice can be melted to provide drinking water. Melt it first though. If you're surviving in this type of climate, eating snow or ice directly can lower your body temperature and lead to hypothermia. Plus, it should still be purified.
- Vegetation: Certain types of plants and foliage can catch or hold a significant amount of water. If catching, be sure to purify the standing water first. If it's part of a plants flesh, you'll need to be able to safely identify the plant species as well.
Assuming you have little to no gear on you, purifying water can be extremely challenging. In this situation, imagine you didn't have tablets, iodine drops, or a UV light purifier.
If you were lucky enough to have a pot from camp, this will be your best method for purifying water. With your fire going, you can boil water to kill harmful bacteria and viruses in the water. Simply bring the water to a rolling boil for at least one minute. If you're at a high altitude, you should boil it for longer.
Without a container to boil water, you could create a filter by layering some resources around you. Layers of charcoal, sand, and gravel in any type of makeshift container (long stalks for example) will help filter impurities when water is run through it.
If you're stumped on how to get charcoal, your fire pit has the answer. Charcoal is formed right before coals can turn to ash, so if you're able to remove coals before they oxygenate further, and simply cover them in the dirt, you'll have created charcoal you can use for a layer of filtering.
It's still best to boil even after filtering, but better than drinking completely untreated water.
Practical Tips for Foraging Food
If you're a backcountry hunter, hopefully, the idea of finding food is an area that you're confident in. While hunting, fishing, or trapping any type of game is a great source of protein and fat and keeps your calorie intake up, it may not always be an option in survival mode.
Assuming you have the hunting, fishing, and trapping part of food in working order, let's focus the food component of survival on foraging.
In the absence of knowing exactly where you'll be hunting or when you'll be there, both of which are important parts of knowing edible vegetation, we'll instead pass along some helpful rules to live by in the foraging world.
- You Aren't An Elk: For whatever reason, some people believe that if an animal eats a certain type of vegetation then it must be okay for humans to do the same. This is a terrible idea and a quick way to poison yourself. Deer can survive on mostly toxic plants, but that's not an invitation to find hemlock and scarf it down. Don't let other animals' vegetation choices guide your own.
- Smell, Touch, Taste: In non-survival situations, the rule is to avoid foraging matter you aren't familiar with. Survival has different rules. A way to reduce your risk of poisoning is to smell the plant first. If there's a strong odor or one that's offputting, move on. If there's no odor at first, crush the plant up and try again to make sure. Then you can get a little more serious and touch the plant or fungus to your lips, then tongue... finally working your way up to a bite. Tingling, bitter smells, puffiness - these are all sensations to be alert toward.
- Lookalikes: Many plants survive with a lookalike strategy. While something like a morel mushroom is delicious and edible, it's a lookalike to a toxic mushroom known as the false morel. If you're going to go in for a taste, be certain that you're eating the real deal rather than an imposter plant.
- Sample: You can gather as much as you like, and store in the earth to help preserve and prevent pests. However, it's a good idea to taste just one small bite of whatever you've foraged and give it at least an hour before downing the rest. If there is a negative reaction, hopefully, the small amount ingested won't be enough to completely sideline your efforts of survival.
- Leaves of 3: You know the saying, "leaves of three, let it be." This little quip has saved many people from annoying poison ivy reactions, and this same statement is true for edible plants.
Foraging can be tough around September and nearly impossible in dead winter. This has two important consequences if foraging for survival. First, you're more likely to come across edible vegetation in a spoiled state. If it doesn't look like it's in a condition to be in the grocery aisle, then it's not a good choice to forage.
Secondly, foraging may be your last resort for nourishment given the months that makeup hunting season and where you're hunting. So if it's late in the season and everything has wilted outside, don't waste your time foraging unless you know what you're looking for specific to your location.
Outside of survival purposes, it's always a great idea to study the local ecosystem before you head into the backcountry. Learning more about what type of local vegetation is consumed by specific game can only help you, and uncovering what you can tap into in emergencies could help as well.
4. Fundamental First Aid
What's more essential than being able to manage an injury to survive? Unfortunately, if you find yourself in this type of situation, there's a high likelihood that you'll need to pull out your first aid knowledge at some point. While it would be great to work in the ER and know how to handle any situation, that's impractical. So if there's one element of first aid to master before it's time for the backcountry, you should make it treating wounds.
This section is going to hit some of the highlights for treating wounds, it's by no means exhaustive. Plus, first aid knowledge is far more exhaustive than a wound. This isn't your destination on first aid knowledge, more your on-ramp.
Why First Aid Knowledge Matters
Survival is tough. The only thing that could make it even more difficult is going about it with an injury. Injuries in the mountains can easily be what causes your survival situation. So having a strong understanding of the basics for treating a wound can help you prevent infection and further complications. Or simply improve your pain management and improve your recovery time.
Accidents happen all the time, whether it's losing your balance or simply not paying attention when cutting some cord. In an emergency, knowing how to handle this is critical. Let's look at several essentials you should know.
How Do You Safely and Properly Close a Wound?
To safely and properly close a wound while in the wilderness, clean the wound thoroughly with soap and water, antiseptic solution, or saline solution. Use a clean cloth or sterile bandages to apply direct pressure to stop bleeding.
Once the bleeding stops, use butterfly strips or medical tape to close the wound's edges, making sure to leave room for any fluids to escape.
Now, if you don't have items like butterfly tape or antiseptic solution, there may be a natural alternative nearby.
For cleaning out the wound, treated water may be your best option. Apply pressure and look for ways to close the wound. Tree sap, specifically pine sap, can be used to close the wound. It's a natural antiseptic as well as anti-inflammatory. Garlic is also an option.
A bit harder to come by, but honey has similar properties as pine sap. Both are sticky and antiseptic substances that can close and safely seal the wound.
How Do You know if Stitches Are Needed?
You can assess the need for stitches based on the depth, length, and severity of the wound. If it's bleeding heavily or gaping, stitches are most likely needed.
How Do You Make a Tourniquet?
A makeshift tourniquet can be made by using a rope, cord, belt, or wire. Tie the material around the limb above the wound, and loop it through a stick or rod. Twist the stick or rod to tighten the tourniquet until the bleeding stops. Remember to loosen the tourniquet every 20 minutes to avoid tissue damage.
It's important to know how to clean and dress wounds, stitch as needed, and make a tourniquet in extreme situations.
But other first aid knowledge will cover dehydration, hypothermia, and heat stroke, and know how to recognize the symptoms and take appropriate action. Carrying a solid first aid kit and simple guidance is a great idea. Make sure you know how to use everything in it.
Because even a small injury can become a big problem if left untreated in the backcountry, and every step you take in the hazards of the wilderness can easily put your safety at risk. So take the time to learn some basic first aid skills and always be prepared.
Signaling is your lifeline. If you want off that mountain you need to tell rescuers where you're at. There are various ways to signal for help, including using smoke signals, mirror signals, and other signs that can be seen from a distance.
You don't need to head into your yard and practice spelling SOS with pine logs, but you do need a plan and know a few different ways to communicate when you're stranded. We'll quickly hit a few of the big ones to get you thinking of how to get out of the worst-case scenario, and possibly some small items to bring along with you.
Fire and Smoke Signals
If it's nighttime or you're in an area with low vis, a large fire is your best option. Make it in a controlled area, and not directly in camp. If it's daytime or clear skies, throw greenwood and foliage on the fire to build a smoke signal - you need moisture to get the job done here.
It's always a good idea to keep a small mirror or reflective surface in your pack. Holding the mirror or surface (metal or glass) up to the sun during the day and aiming the reflection toward a target can make you immediately noticeable to any help in the sky.
Other signs, such as building a large SOS sign out of rocks or sticks, can also be effective. It needs to be carried out in a clearing so it's more likely seen from the skies.
Arranging objects in an X, as you'd find on a map, or creating a large arrow pointing in a direction can also be ways to approach this environmental signal for help.
Knowing a few key phrases in morse code can be beneficial in survival moments. You should already know S-O-S which stands for “Save Our Souls”, but add to that with important survival messages like “Need Water” and “Aircraft Above”.
Morse can be applied to a whistle (which you should keep in your pack), clapping, and mirror signals. It makes your communication intentional and less likely to be mistaken for some sort of natural imitation.
So brush up on your morse code and always carry a whistle and a signaling mirror with you in case of an emergency. Your ability to signal for help can be the difference between life and death in a survival situation.
Mental Toughness to Survive
Your ability to maintain a resilient mind in survival will make you more productive and also keep you hopeful. MTNTOUGH places high value on mental toughness, it's baked into our hunting fitness programs. Our training is as much physical as it is mental, each workout builds your fortitude. You can put your mental toughness to the test with our Hellfire workout. Hellfire will break you if you don't have the right fortitude.
And while there's no simulated match that can compare to the stress test of wilderness survival, our training is the closest a mountain athlete can get to building their mental toughness to be ready for a do-or-die scenario.
Mental toughness is the brain's endurance training, it can help break a terrible situation into more manageable pieces so you aren't overwhelmed by the scenario. And when you torture test it in training, you at least have some experience in pushing through. This will be a calming voice at the time you need it most. So in addition to mastering these 5 physical skills for survival, we'd challenge you to work on your mental toughness. The positive waves of doing so will ripple throughout every part of your life, and keep you sane and motivated in dire situations.