Survival Essentials: How To Survive In The Wilderness

Survival Essentials: How To Survive In The Wilderness

Wilderness Survival for Outdoor Recreation

This page is about how to survive in the wilderness for a short period of time — such as might happen if you got lost on a bushwalking or camping trip. My earlier page on survival basics is more about long-term wilderness living skills, where you are going to be out in the wilderness for a long time. This page is for people who only want to stay out there for as long as it takes for a rescue/search party to find you, or for you to find your own way back. It also covers the most basic and important skills to learn for anyone who is just getting started with this kind of stuff.

Survival: The Wilderness - How To Survive In The Wilderness
Photo: Grose Valley, Blue Mountains NSW. With the right skills you can be safe and comfortable out in the wilderness. High Resolution (2260 x 1828)

Survival Rule One — Stay Calm

The first thing to do (to the extent that you can) is to stay calm. You are probably in much less danger than it might seem. (And quite often the dangers that are really there are completely different to what you think they might be).

Many people are killed every year because they panic and do the wrong kinds of things. If you stay calm and work out a plan of action you are going to be in a drastically better position than if you act without thinking.

If It Is Dark, Stay Where You Are

Lots of people get into serious difficulty trying to find their way out of places in the dark. Falling off cliffs in this kind of situation is much more common than you may think. You are also much more likely to trip over something and injure yourself. Unless you are in immediate danger (see below for what kinds of real dangers may be present), you are much better off to not do anything much at all (other than bed down somewhere) until it is morning and you can see properly. Bedding down somewhere includes taking measures to stay warm (and preferably also dry) during the night. If you are out somewhere that's going to get cold, this will probably be your first priority (see below).

Survival Rule Two — Determine Your Priorities

Depending on your situation, you will have different priorities as to what is most important. Usually either warmth or hydration (water/liquid) will be the your most important need, and the other of those two your second most important. If you are in a desert or hot arid area, shade/cooling may be your most important need. If you are injured, tending to the injury is likely to be high on your priority list (though, depending on the injury, maybe not the top priority).

To help work out your priorities, a good guide to go by is known as the "Rule of Threes".

The Rule of Threes

The rule of threes is only approximate (and can change a bit under certain particular conditions), but it will give you a good general idea of what is important. In its most basic form, which covers most circumstances, it goes like this:

  • You can survive for three hours without enough warmth.
  • You can survive for three days without water.
  • You can survive for three weeks without food.

Sometimes people add a few more "threes" to the list, here is an extended version:

  • You can survive for three seconds without blood.
  • You can survive for three minutes without air.
  • You can survive for three hours without warmth.
  • You can survive for three days without water.
  • You can survive for three weeks without food.
  • You can survive for three months without human company.

Another rule sometimes added to the front of the list is "You can survive for three seconds without thinking", meaning that it only takes three seconds (or less) to do something dumb enough that it could kill you, if you are not thinking straight. Which gets us back to Survival Rule One — Stay Calm.

Food Is A Very Low Priority

If you are stuck out there for more than a few hours, you are going to start to get hungry. However, as you can see by the rule of threes, food is actually a very low priority when it comes to short-term wilderness survival. Often one of the first things people stress about is where they can find something to eat — when there are many other things much more worthy of thinking about and spending time on.

I myself have fasted on juices (as in fruit and vegetable juices) for 10 days and I was certainly nowhere close to death by the end of it. Many people believe that fasting makes you more healthy, and I read somewhere once that animals who are periodically deprived of food have been proven scientifically to have longer lifespans than animals who have food available whenever they are hungry. In the modern Western world we are not at all used to the idea of having no food available for any period of time, though in the animal world and in many other parts of the world, it is common to not always have food available immediately. So if you don't have food, don't even worry about food, unless you have everything else completely under control and you want something to occupy your time with.

Your Top Priorities

According to the rule of threes, warmth is your first priority. This will definitely be the case if you are anywhere that is likely to get cold at night, and even more so if you are dangerously cold during the day. Wet skin loses heat 20 times faster than dry skin, so knowing how to stay dry can definitely save your life under certain circumstances.

If the weather is hot, you will need water in less than three days, and warmth is going to be less of a problem (especially in the daytime), so water is likely to be your first priority, and second may be warmth/shelter for night.

Assuming that you are lost, and that you have stabilised your immediate condition (that is, you are not about to die from exposure, thirst, etc.) — another high priority would be signaling. I will cover this in more detail later on (when I get the time to write more).

Survival Rule Three — Attend To The Priorities, In Order

Once you have determined what is the most important thing to be focusing on, you can start to attend to that thing first. At some point, either once you have made sufficient progress with that thing, or if you are not making much progress at all, you may decide that another thing is more important. This may be the case, for example, if you were both dehydrated and cold — if you could not find water but you could easily make a shelter or warm yourself by some method. In that case you would be be better off to get warm first (since you can do it) and then start looking for water.

I will be adding more pages about the specific things you need to know for each of the main priorities in the near future...

Priority: Stay Warm

In many areas that get cold at night, the greatest danger to lost bushwalkers is the cold (i.e. hypothermia). If you are wet, your body loses heat many times faster than when you're dry, so when its raining it doesn't need to be as cold before cold becomes dangerous.

The easiest thing that you can do in most places to stay warm is to stuff your clothes with as many dry leaves (or other material) as you can. Grass will also work, or anything that will puff up your clothes, keeping the cloth away from your skin, and creating spaces of trapped air. If its wet, look under logs or rocks and dig down a little and there will often be dry material. If you can't find dry leaves, and you're already wet, then wet leaves will do (since the air they trap will still be dry). The leaves work by creating a still air space which is what stops the heat from flowing out from your body. Still (non-moving) air is an extremely good insulator (that's why people make double glazed windows).

Ordinarily, people don't think of air as being a good insulator, but that's only because most air in everyday life is free to move, to flow around (like wind) — and flowing air can carry a lot of heat away with it. The technical term for this is "convection". Provided that air is trapped into small spaces and unable to flow, it will block the flow of heat away from your body.

Cotton clothing is particularly bad when wet, as not only does it lose its insulating properties, but it holds in water and keeps it against your skin where it will suck out your body heat. Cotton is so bad in this situation (i.e. when you are cold and wet) that a lot of bushwalkers call it "death cloth". If you're wearing cotton, and you're cold and wet, stuffing leaves or anything else between any cotton garments and your skin will keep you much, much warmer. In this case, you definitely want the leaves to be right up against your skin (not sandwiched between multiple layers of wet cotton clothing which you might think will feel more comfortable against your skin).

If its really cold, ideally you want a fire and some shelter. If you can only have one of these (e.g. if you have no means of making a fire) then you know which one to work on (the one that you can have). If you can have both, start with whichever you think will be the easiest and quickest, and most useful, and then get working on the other.


The next thing is to make some kind of shelter. The simplest "shelter" is to make a big pile of leaves or any other type of debris, and crawl into the middle of it. Not the bottom of it, since you want to be off the ground, surrounded on all sides by loose material (like leaves).

In rain and/or high wind, try to find natural structures to take advantage of, such as a tree log or large rock(s) or cave, to pile the debris around in a way that you will be as protected as possible from the wind and rain.

The Debris Hut

The next simplest shelter is the debris hut. A well constructed debris hut can keep you alive in almost any temperature, provided you pile on enough material.

To make a debris hut, create a framework from one long stick and many smaller sticks. The long stick needs to be reasonably strong (enough to carry the weight of the rest of the shelter). You can lean it against anything — a stump like in the picture below, or a rock, or a fork in a tree, etc. If there is really nothing to lean it against, you can make a support with another two strong sticks in a triangle shape.

Then pile on "debris" you can find — leaves, ferns, grass, etc. Branches with leaves still on are good to create a tighter structure that you can then place looser leaves on top. You want to use lots of debris, at least 2-3 feet (60-100cm). Keep some of it loose at the open end of the shelter to use as a door after you've gone inside.

Make sure you also cover the ground inside the shelter with lots of debris (at least 1 foot / 30 cm), to keep your body off the ground. (This part isn't shown well in the picture below).

The debris hut is meant to be small, think of it as a naturally built sleeping bag, that you crawl into backwards. It doesn't matter how neat and tidy it looks, what matters the most is how much debris you pile onto it.

Debris Hut - Survival: The Wilderness - How To Survive In The Wilderness
Debris Hut. Source: US Army Survival Handbook.


If you have equipment to make a fire, a fire will help you a lot to stay warm, and also to boost your morale.

To make a fire you need to start with a pile of light thin material (which people call tinder) that will burn from a single flame. This will go in the middle of what will be your fire. Then then keep piling gradually thicker fuel (e.g. sticks) on top. If you angle the sticks upwards they will burn well, since fire needs air and burns upwards. This shape is often called a "tee pee" fire.

The most common problems people have building fire (assuming you have a lighter or matches, etc.) is not using thin enough fuel to begin with, and having wet tinder and/or fuel (e.g. if it's raining). (In firemaking, "fuel" usually means wood.) When you have small sticks burning (like a few millimetres thick), then your fire will be able to burn sticks a few times thicker than that, but not thick logs. You need to use a gradual succession of thickness of wood, starting from thin and getting thicker until your fire is big and hot enough to burn thick pieces of wood.

If you can find dry tinder it will be much easier to start a fire in the wet. Look under logs, rocks, the undersides of tree branches, the insides of some plant parts (e.g. banksia flowers), etc. Wet wood will only burn once its dried out enough, so you can place it on top of a fire to dry out, and eventually it will burn if the fire is hot enough and its on there long enough.

If you want lots of smoke (e.g. to make signals for rescue), pile lots of leaves on top of your fire. Damp leaves will make more smoke than dry leaves.

See here for more on how to build a fire, or search the internet or YouTube.

Recommended Reading

Survival Essentials: How To Survive In The Wilderness - Wilderness Survival By Gregory J. Davenport Wilderness Survival By Gregory J. Davenport. This is the book I recommend for basic wilderness survival skills (of the type discussed on this page), rather than wilderness living skills (such as you would want for a long-term stay in the wilderness).

With concise explanations (that is, he does not fill out the text much with stories and other non-essential information) and detailed illustrations, survival expert Gregory Davenport covers the five basic elements of survival - personal protection, signalling, finding food and water, travel, and health — providing the reader with complete information on how to stay calm and alive until rescue arrives.

Table of Contents

Introduction; Climates of the Globe; Weather; Gear; Survival and Medical Kits; Pre-departure Survival Plan; Three Steps to Wilderness Survival; Health; Personal Protection; Sustenance; Signalling; Travel and Negotiation; Improvising; Children and Survival; Index.


"A must-read for anyone who goes outdoors. Informative and captivating. It covers the principles of survival better than any book I have read..." — Captain Scott O'Grady, Survivor, Bosnia.

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See Also

Wilderness Survival Books
Return to Basics and General Skills
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