Wilderness Survival Guide: How To Stay Alive if Lost, Hurt or Stranded
Imagine a fun afternoon hike around Mt. Baker. You're enjoying the quiet of the forest, the dappled light shining through the trees, and the intoxicating smell of the leaves when thick fog rolls in unexpectedly at 4:00 p.m. In a panic, you follow the wrong trail for hours along a progressively steeper face until you've run out of daylight.
Imagine being on a snowmobile in the back-country with friends, zipping through the powder and chasing each other between the tree trunks when a blizzard sets in and the last snowmobile doesn’t show up at the rendezvous point.
Or imagine the mountain biking trip you’ve been daydreaming about for months, bombing down the mountain with the wind in your face. You get separated from your group on a tricky portion of single-track, and decide to press on when you come to an unknown fork in the trail. Feeling exhausted and dehydrated, you take a corner too fast and crash, breaking your collar bone.
Lost, hurt, stranded – scenarios like these play out over 3,000 times per year in the United States. Those heading outdoors in search of adventure don't plan on getting lost or hurt in the wilderness, but it can happen to the best of us. And when it does, people underestimate the challenges of the wilderness and overestimate their own ability.
To help you avoid becoming a statistic, this wilderness survival guide explains the dangers of the wilderness and ensures that you are physically and mentally prepared for any snags during your adventures.
- Stay Found
- Fear the Weather
- Buddy Up
- Survival Kit Essentials
- Survival Priorities: Remember the Rule of 3
The goal is to never end up on the six o’clock news, to never experience the escalating confusion that becomes genuine fear as you realize you’re lost – to never need your survival training.
In the wilderness, feeling lost releases adrenaline and provokes the classic fight or flight response. This is accompanied by many symptoms of a panic attack:
- Shortness of breath or hyperventilation
- Heart palpitations or a racing heart
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Trembling or shaking
- The feeling of choking
- Feeling unreal or detached from your surroundings
- Nausea or upset stomach
But as opposed to a panic attack, the danger is real and significant if you are lost in the wilderness. Bad decisions can lead to injury, hypothermia, heat stroke, dehydration and death. Prevent this by staying found – know where you are at all times.
- Keep a topographic map of your area readily available.
- Refer to it constantly.
- Continuously match up features around you with points on the map.
- Take note of when you are able to pinpoint your position exactly – stream crossing, switch back, etc.
- Learn and apply a rough idea of your trail pace.
- Look forward along your trail and set expectations for arriving at chosen landmarks.
- If the landmark is not reached within a reasonable time, stop and reassess.
- Use your trail speed to get a better idea of your general location.
The best survival situation is the one that never happens. Keep track of your position during your entire wilderness experience, and you will have one less thing to worry about if there are other challenges – such as bad weather or an injury.
A GPS unit is only valuable if you know how to use it. Confirm your position on the map, plot waypoints, follow bearings, and monitor your distance traveled. If you only switch on the device when you feel lost, you won’t know where you are, where you were, or where you should go. Don't get emboldened with the false sense of security that a GPS unit can provide, as this can lead to even greater danger.
Unexpected nasty weather in the mountains can turn a pleasant day hike into a life-or-death situation for the unprepared. Fortunately, being prepared for the weather is often as simple as bringing the right clothing. Appropriate clothing will keep you cool in the heat, warm in the cold, and dry in a storm.
You probably don’t need to be prepared for both sub-zero temperatures and triple-digits on the same excursion, so find out the weather forecast before heading out on your adventures (never expect it to be the same as your current location) and plan accordingly.
Start at the top:
- The right headgear: A hat with a full brim for sunny weather, or a stocking cap for cold weather
- Sunglasses: To ease eye strain
- The right top: Long-sleeved polyester is a great base-layer for hot and cold; bring an extra jacket or wool shirt in case the temperature drops
- The right bottom: Avoid cotton, especially jeans if there is any risk for rain – cotton does not insulate when wet and can rapidly lower your body temperature, risking hypothermia
- Rain gear: Don’t leave home without it – even a trash bag will work in a pinch
- The right footwear: Protect your feet from the specific hazards you’ll face, and bring an extra pair of wool socks
The bare minimum extra clothing can make a big difference in your experience if the weather turns sour. Take a few moments to add the gear to your pack – you’ll be glad you did if you need it.
The less time you spend lost, the less time you will have to spend surviving. But just in case, the best way to reduce the amount of time between a misadventure in the wilderness and getting the necessary help is to communicate your plans to family or friends before you go (and to let them know when you've safely returned).
Do this by creating a trip plan, and share it with them. Be sure to include:
- Where you're going, which route you're taking and whether the return route will be different.
- When you're going and when you expect to return.
- Others going on the trip, along with their phone numbers.
- What you will be doing – such as climbing, canoeing, dirt-biking, snowshoeing, horseback riding, or hunting.
Robert Koester is the search-and-rescue incident commander for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, creator of the International Search and Rescue database, and author of the book Lost Person Behavior. According to the data he has collected and processed, solo hikers account for 58% of all lost hikers – yet they make up only a small percentage of all hikers, making the statistic that much more impressive.
Being male is also a risk factor. 40% of all lost hikers are solo males between the ages of 20 and 50. So if you're a man planning to hit the trail alone, bring a friend and stay found.
As Benjamin Franklin once said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” This is why we've taken the time to explain how to avoid a survival situation. But if despite your best efforts at prevention you find yourself injured or lost, you'll be happy these essentials are in your backpack.
The Boy Scouts of America handbook includes a list called the “Ten Essentials.” We’ve borrowed this list, expanded upon it, and rearranged it. These items are organized by priority, based on how quickly they will need to be used if a survival situation develops.
- Map and compass: You must always know where you are. Practice staying found.
- Mobile phone: Because you don’t want your experience made into a movie.
- Whistle: Louder and more effective than yelling, whistles can be used if separated from your group, to attract the attention of nearby adventurers, or to hail the Search and Rescue group as they approach. Remember, three blasts mean “Emergency!”
- First-aid kit: Use a quart-sized self-sealing plastic bag for the bare minimum.
- 6 adhesive bandages (2 large and 4 small)
- 2 sterile gauze pads, 3-by-3 inches
- 1 gauze roll, 3 inches by 4 yards
- 1 roll adhesive tape
- 1 triangular bandage
- 1 tube antiseptic ointment
- Bonus: moleskin to prevent blisters; ibuprofen or acetaminophen for pain relief
- Rain gear: A cool rain shower with wind can be enough to cause hypothermia.
- Extra clothing: You may need an extra layer or replacement for wet clothes.
- Matches and fire starters: “Two is one, one is none.” Carry waterproof matches, a lighter, and a magnesium fire starter. Dryer lint or toilet paper work as tinder, and a candle can hold a flame.
- Water bottle: Do your best to limit sweating in a survival situation, but replenish as necessary.
- Multi-tool: Wear it on your hip. Cut your bandages, scrape your magnesium fire starter, build a shelter, carve a spear, fend off wild attackers.
- Extras: The following items are important, but are listed as extras because they only serve to support the highest priorities of getting found and preventing blood loss, hypothermia or dehydration.
- Toilet paper: You’ll need it within 24 hours. Keep it in a self-sealing plastic bag.
- Signal mirror: An additional method for attracting attention that can reach farther than your whistle and works when your mobile phone doesn’t.
- Sun protection: Sunburn is an injury, and preventing it will prevent unnecessary stress on your body.
- Parachute cord: Build shelter, set up a snare, make a cool bracelet.
- Flashlight: Don’t use it to travel at night. A headlamp provides hands-free illumination if you waited too long to build your shelter or start your fire.
- Duct tape: Uses are limited only by your imagination.
- Garbage bag: Doubles as a poncho or ground cloth.
- Trail food: You can live three weeks without food. Bring enough to keep the edge off.
Survival kit lists can be, and often are, customized for the individual. Some kits are separated into their own bag, which can stand alone for a short adventure or be tacked onto a bigger gear pile for an extended excursion. The goal is to have a collection of gear only to be used in an emergency.
- You will die in 3 minutes without air.
- You will die in 3 hours without warmth or shelter.
- You will die in 3 days without water.
- You will die in 3 weeks without food.
1. Stay Calm
Your mind is your best tool and your most important resource in a survival situation. All the knowledge and equipment in the world won’t save you if you’re panicking.
It is natural to experience feelings that transition from confusion to fear when you realize that you’re lost or stranded. Accept the situation and prevent these natural emotions from taking over your ability to think and make decisions.
This memorable acronym helps with the basic steps of how to respond, should you ever become lost in the wilderness, stranded or injured:
- S is variously interpreted to mean Stop, Sit, or Stay. Whichever one you remember will be helpful. As soon as you feel lost, quit moving. Never travel just a little bit farther in the hopes of finding a clue to your whereabouts.
- T is for Think. Take the time to study your map and look for landmarks that provide clues to your location. Look back along the trail you’ve been taking – are there any signs or obvious clues? Try to remember the last point at which you were 100% certain of your location. Which direction have you been traveling since then? Make note of the time, how many hours until dark, and whether the sun is in the expected direction.
- O is for Observe. Assess the current situation. Are there additional issues that need to be addressed: blisters, first aid, thirst, over heating or sunburn, cold temperatures? Are the weather conditions changing? Is there a good place for shelter nearby? Are you near a water source? What supplies and equipment do you have that can help? Stay put while you think and observe.
- P is for Plan. Stopping to think and observe helps to keep you calm for planning a course of action. Is there enough daylight to get going again, or should you build a shelter for the night? Will you move out in the morning, or wait for help? Don’t feel rushed to get out of the woods – the pressure will not help you make a good decision.
3. First Aid
To prevent the situation from worsening, treat life-threatening injuries immediately. Stop any bleeding, splint any broken bones, and make a plan to obtain more advanced care if necessary.
You should be prepared to render first aid for the following situations:
- Hypothermia: When the body loses more heat than it can generate. Warm the victim internally with warm liquids, and replace wet clothing with dry clothing. Body heat from another person can aid in rewarming.
- Frostbite: Localized tissue freezing, i.e., toes, fingers, nose, cheeks, or ears. Frozen parts should be rewarmed slowly with body heat or lukewarm water. Never rub or use friction.
- Dehydration: When the body gives off more water than is taken in. Drink enough water so that urine is lightly colored, even on cold days.
- Heat exhaustion: When the body is barely able to maintain sufficient cooling on a hot day, only at the expense of other body functions. The victim should move to a cooler place out of the sun, eliminate exertion, and drink cool water.
- Heat stroke: When the body has been unable to provide sufficient cooling for an extended period – the core temperature will be above 105 degrees F. Body temperature must be lowered quickly and hydration restored.
- Sunburn: When the UV-protecting ability of the skin has been exceeded. There will be pain and swelling, possibly blisters. Prevention is the best method to protect against sunburn. Use sunscreen, a sun hat, and loose clothing that covers arms and legs.
- Minor injuries: Cuts and scrapes can become infected, and should be cleaned. They may heal in the open or be protected by bandages. The best treatment for serious bleeding is direct pressure.
- Blisters: When the skin has been subject to excessive friction, it bubbles up. Hot spots give warning, and should be treated right away with moleskin. Once a blister has formed, protect it with a bandage.
- Bites and stings: Insect bites and stings cause a range of symptoms, from mild irritation to anaphylactic shock. Know the local varieties and best methods for prevention and treatment. The same is true for snake bites.
Since the human body can only adapt to a narrow range of temperatures, extreme weather can kill in as little as three hours. Extend the survival range first with clothing, which protects from cold temperatures best when it is dry. Prevent your clothing from getting wet by using rain gear, taking shelter during a storm, or even using a plastic trash bag if necessary. Wear clothing in layers so you can adjust to changing weather with more precision.
Extend your range of temperatures even farther with shelter. A good shelter will block the wind, protect from precipitation, and add some insulation to conserve heat. The guidance from S.T.O.P. applies in shelter building. Stop, Think, Observe, and Plan. Take inventory of the available materials, and develop a plan to build a shelter with minimal exertion and maximum effectiveness.
- Locate the right site:
- Avoid hazards from avalanche, flood, lightning, high winds, and drifting sand or snow.
- Take advantage of natural shelters – caves, overhangs, fallen logs, large rocks, etc.
- Try to build where natural materials are abundant and limit your exertion.
- Proximity to water is an advantage, but may have risks and is not critical.
- Build your shelter:
- Build the smallest shelter that is adequate for your needs.
- A lean-to configuration is simple and effective.
- Protect your body from heat loss through the ground by insulating the floor of your shelter.
- Snow shelters:
- Snow can insulate you from the cold and block the wind.
- Tree pit: The area beneath the branches of a large evergreen tree forms a natural shelter.
- Snow pit: In deep enough snow, dig a long narrow pit. Be sure to insulate the bottom.
- Snow cave: Best protection, but most difficult to build.
- Be sure to mark your shelter location so that it can be easily found by Search and Rescue.
In cold weather, a fire can be important for maintaining body warmth, melting snow for water, drying out clothing, signaling for help, and raising your spirits. It is so important, that you should practice starting fires in non-emergency situations – don’t try to learn when it’s critical for survival. Of course matches and lighters are the most simple and cost effective, but you should know how to start a fire using other methods as well.
All fires need fuel – heat and oxygen – to support the ongoing chemical reaction of combustion. You can’t start a fire by holding a lighter under a log because the ratio of heat to fuel surface area is too small. Rather than carry a blowtorch, reduce the size of the fuel.
You’ll need fuel in three sizes to start a fire in the woods:
- Tinder: Fine, dry material that will burst into flame at the touch of a match. Pine needles, dryer lint, and wood shavings are good examples. You’ll need a double handful.
- Kindling: Material that will burn with a little encouragement, like twigs the size of a pencil. You’ll need a small armload.
- Fuel: Full-size wood that will keep the fire going once it’s started. This wood is smaller than you think – it should be no bigger than your forearm and must be as dry as possible. Gather four times as much as you think you need.
Only after all of your fuel is gathered should you start the fire. As in so many things, the extra time spent in preparation will make all the difference in the final outcome.
Make the fire lay:
- Place your tinder in the center of your fire site.
- Place the kindling around the tinder in the form of a tepee. Allow for air circulation.
- Place the smaller fuel around the kindling in the same tepee formation. Leave an opening on the side from which the wind is blowing so that the air will push the flames toward more fuel.
When the fire lay is complete and you have a large supply of additional kindling and wood on hand, you can ignite the tinder:
- Lighter: Kept warm and dry in your pocket, a lighter is small and effective. The flame persists allowing you to keep adding heat to more stubborn tinder, if necessary. Don’t leave home without it!
- Matches: Classic and effective, matches can be waterproof and kept in a waterproof container. Their flames may be short-lived, so extend burn time by transferring the flame to a birthday candle.
- Magnifying glass: This method is more difficult than you might expect and requires certain favorable conditions. Do not overestimate your abilities.
- Flint and steel: There’s a reason we start fires with matches and lighters today – they are effective and reliable. Flint and steel can be that as well, but it takes practice. Magnesium fire starters, a type of flint and steel, can be useful for damp fuels due to the high burn temperature of magnesium shavings.
- Fire by friction: This is the classic method of using a bow and spindle to start a fire, and is very satisfying if you can do it. Practice at home before you head out, and you may be glad you did.
- Chocolate and soda: Polish the bottom of a soda can with the very fine abrasive of chocolate (or toothpaste) until it's as shiny as a mirror. The parabolic shape will catch and concentrate the sun’s rays enough to ignite dry tinder. Don’t eat the chocolate, though, as it will be full of aluminum dust – a known health risk.
Three days is the longest you will live without water, and it can be even less with greater exertion or higher temperatures. Dehydration is a serious problem, and can also happen on cold days. If you venture into the wilderness, you should always carry plenty of water. It’s a good idea to also have a plan to replenish your supply – a method for treating the water you find in nature so that it is safe to drink.
Methods for treating water:
- Boiling: This is the surest way to make your water safe. Just bring the water to a full boil.
- Chemicals: Tablets containing iodine or chlorine kill bacteria and protozoa, and neutralize viruses. They affect the taste and take an hour to work, but they’re light, small and effective.
- Filtering: Most filters designed for backcountry use are hand-operated pumps that force water through a screen with pores so small that bacteria and protozoa cannot get through. They don’t weigh much or take up much space, but they can be expensive. They are intended for use on extended trips, rather than for single emergencies. The LifeStraw, however, is designed for survival use.
If you have no ability to treat water, and are faced with dehydration, it is better to drink than die. Allow muddy water to stand until the silt settles to the bottom. Then use your t-shirt to strain out any remaining debris. Be alert to places where water may have collected, and prepare for outdoor adventures by learning other methods to obtain water.
A note regarding food: Being hungry is unpleasant, but is also low on the list of survival priorities. It is more important to regulate your body temperature, find shelter, drink enough water, and signal your location to Search and Rescue.
Do not waste your time and energy looking for edible plants, setting a snare for a squirrel or fashioning a spear for a fish. Many plants are dangerous, making the risks outweigh the benefits. And effort spent hunting and preparing an animal for food would be better spent improving your shelter or gathering water. Pack an extra granola bar or hunk of jerky.
Signaling for help is low on the list of priorities for survival, yet should be employed immediately and frequently during an emergency situation. Consider these methods for attracting attention and getting help:
- Cell phone: Call 911 for emergency help if you are within range of a cell tower. If signal strength is too weak for that, even the process of trying to call or sending a text may leave an electronic “breadcrumb” that can help Search and Rescue triangulate your position.
- Whistle: Blow three sharp blasts when you cannot find yourself on your map. Blow three sharp blasts while you construct your shelter. Blow three sharp blasts as you gather wood for your fire, and three more as you start it. The repeating pattern of three is a distress signal and may attract attention of passersby you didn’t even know were near.
- Lights and reflectors: Use a signal mirror if you have one, or improvise with anything else reflective during the daylight. At night, use a flashlight to send three flashes in the direction you believe rescuers might be able to see them.
- Color and motion: Draw attention to your location with bright-colored clothing or camping gear. Hang them where a breeze can move them, perhaps by waving it like a flag.
- Smoke and fire: Having already started a fire for warmth, the light at night and smoke during the day may broadcast your location. Experiment with ways to make the fire smoky without putting it out. Add damp leaves or green vegetation. Start second and third fires about 100 yards away from each other in a large triangle (a group of three is a distress signal).
Once you have attracted attention, it won’t be long before a rescue response is set in motion. Learn basic air to ground signals before you go. For instance, a large “V” means “Require Assistance,” and a large “X” means “Require Medical Assistance.”
Even the most experienced veteran of the outdoors can become lost, injured, or stranded. Make every effort to avoid a survival situation by knowing your location at all times, and coming to a S.T.O.P. as soon as you have any doubt.
Keep calm, and decide to act not on your feelings, but on your logical plan for survival. Focus on true survival priorities, and conserve your energy. 95% of all rescues are successful in less than two days, so your unexpected challenge should be quickly resolved.
If you remember nothing else, remember this: Always tell someone where you're going and when you will return.