Realistic Wilderness Survival, Staying Alive in the Real World

Written by Tim Smith from Jack Mountain Bushcraft


Survival is not dying. Wilderness survival is not dying in the wilderness. The simple fact that one is in the bush does not mean that rationally solving the problems associated with survival must now entail enormous, overpriced knives, combat-style clothing, and a mindset derived from exposure to countless Hollywood-style survival dramas.


There is an amazing amount of garbage and misinformation available on wilderness survival. If you think I'm kidding, type in "wilderness survival" on a search engine, and see how many hits you come up with.
Now sift through all of these sites and determine how many contain useful, practical information. My guess is that few or none of them do. The term wilderness survival has been used to sell everything from automobiles to knives to real estate. Take a walk into any sporting goods store or department and you will inevitably see numerous products with "wilderness survival" in the name. The term has been so well used that it has lost any semblance of what it actually means.


What we are concerned with in this article is keeping the body alive in a situation of duress in a wilderness setting. What can we, as thinking people, do to maintain life when the deck is stacked against us?

To understand what we're up against, we need to examine the physiological issues of survival. Maintaining ideal body temperature is crucial. Our bodies operate within a narrow temperature range, and any deviation from this can have immediate and disastrous effects, one being death. I won't belabor the point. Suffice it to say that you
can't get too hot or too cold, or you'll die. After we have secured our body temperature, we need to remain
hydrated in order for biological processes to take place. Our bodies are over 70% water, and need a constant supply of water to function. Transportation of heat energy throughout the body, disposal of both cellular and digestive wastes, proper brain functioning, and countless other bodily functions depend on water to take place.Lastly, as humans we need a certain amount of sleep to remain rational. Without sleep, our minds begin to hallucinate and we become unable to make conscious decisions to better our situation.


Much has been written over the years about the importance of eating in a survival situation. The popular conception is that once someone determines they are lost, they must immediately begin searching for something to eat. This is completely untrue. An average, healthy, lean person can fast for a minimum of 40 days with no lasting ill effects. The average wilderness survival episode lasts a day or two, and very few last a week. Any reasonably numerate person will see from this that there is no need to worry about starving to death if you miss a meal, or even several weeks of meals. I have fasted on water only for 11 days, as well as completed a dozen 7-day fasts. What this information on fasting means, then, is that you don't need to know how to hunt, fish, trap, identify wild edible plants, or any other way to gather food in survival.


So if you ever find yourself in a wilderness survival situation, you should fast, stay warm or cool, stay in one place, and wait it out. Much of what is passed off as wilderness survival skills are actually wilderness living skills. To a well-trained person they can make a survival situation of any length tolerable, but to the beginner they can create an unrealistic idea of what needs to be accomplished.

Survival Rules

  1. Know how to make fires from numerous primitive materials. Also, NEVER forget your matches. You'll only forget your matches once. Even if you're at the top of your game, starting a friction fire from scratch is a difficult proposition in the northern forest. If its been raining and things are damp it can be almost impossible unless you have started several hundred fires; if things are wet, it might not happen no matter
    how good you are. After you struggle through such an episode, you'll always remember your matches.
  2. Know how to make shelter from numerous combinations of local materials. Also, NEVER forget your tent and sleeping bag. The most difficult shelters to construct are those that contain no manmade materials. It is possible to waterproof a natural shelter. It isn't hard to do. But it takes significant time and energy. If it's for real, you'll want that time and energy for other purposes.
  3. Know how to purify water. Also, NEVER forget your filter, or stove and pot, or other way to purify the water you find.
  4. Know the wild edible plants in your region. Also, NEVER forget to bring enough food with you.
  5. Know how to gather enough wild game to keep you fed. Also, NEVER forget to bring enough food with you. In this case, you might need a good lawyer as well, as the most effective methods of gathering food are also often illegal.

Hopefully the underlying trend is evident here; as one progresses to a high level of competency in wilderness skills, the romantic notions of doing without manmade gear seem to fall by the wayside in place of practical ways to get certain things done. Thus, as your skill increases, often so does your judgment. The end result is that those who have developed their wilderness skills to a high degree will likely never need to use them. They will never let a survival exercise become a survival episode. My late father was a commercial pilot his entire adult life. When I was a little boy, I asked him if he had ever come close to crashing. He looked at me and said, "I use my exceptional judgment to avoid situations where I would have to demonstrate my superior skill." In survival courses, this is the type of attitude I teach. It can take a long time to become proficient in wilderness living, where you rely on learned skills and an understanding of the natural world to meet your needs. Wilderness survival skills, on the other hand, can be learned in as little as a weekend. Good judgement is the most important skill of all, and hopefully grows at a faster rate than do any of the physical skills.

There are many good books on the subject. There are even more inferior ones. Regardless of what book you read, remember that no book can take the place of a good survival course, and no course can take the place of experience.


Written by Tim Smith from Jack Mountain Bushcraft

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Comment by Ryan Johnson-Hunt on July 20, 2010 at 7:13
To bushcraft fits more into the "wilderness living" box rather than "wilderness survival" in this context. Which is why I never mention survival skills when I define bushcraft, even though these do overlap.

Bushcraft will help you survive if it ever does hit the fan, but that's just a bonus!

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