How to Survive in the Woods


Surviving in the wilderness is much different than trying to survive in an urban situation. Even in the worst of situations, there are still resources available to use in an urban situation. There are in a wilderness situation as well, but they may not be as obvious to someone who is used to living in the city.

Just keep in mind that in the early days of our country, our ancestors had to get pretty much everything they needed from nature. If they could do it, we can too; we just need to learn the necessary skills to extract those resources from nature, as well as the eyes to see what resources are available around us.

Of all the possible wilderness situations, the woods are actually the easiest one to survive in. This is due to a combination of the resources that we can harvest from the trees and the fact that there will usually be more wildlife living in the woods, than there will be in other places. So, we are much more likely to find the resources that we need in the woods, rather than in a desert, open plain or rocky tundra.

Keep Focused on the Basics

In any survival situation, you’ve got to keep focused on the basics… the basic needs for survival that is. It’s very easy to get distracted, seeking things that are not as important or even allowing the top three survival priorities to get out of order. If you can’t keep focused on those needs, your time on earth will be limited. Those priorities are:

  1. Keeping warm
  2. Potable water
  3. Food

Of those three, the first one is actually the most complicated, but it is also the one which offers us the most opportunities. There are three different things that we can use to keep ourselves warm and we can use them in any combination. They are clothing, shelter and fire. In reality, we can keep ourselves warm in most situations with any one of the three; but when the weather turns severe, we need all three.

Many people think of shelter as the main means of keeping warm and I guess I have to agree. Shelter does more than provide insulation to keep heat in and cold out; it also provides us with protection from rain and wind. Both of those will work to take away our body heat, especially rain.

Always Travel Prepared

Whenever you go into the woods, even if you’re driving a car over the hills and through the woods to grandma’s, you should have a good survival kit with you. Ideally, you want a kit that’s on the level of a bug out bag. But if you can’t carry that much, then at least make sure that you have a good kit that provides the necessities for dealing with your basic survival needs.

You see a lot of articles around about people building a survival kit in an Altoids tin. While that’s better than nothing, I really wouldn’t want to depend on that small a kit to keep me alive. My everyday carry bag, which is a survival kit, is about the size of a basketball. That’s what I call a survival kit. While I also have a smaller one (about the size of a really thick paperback novel), this is the one I usually carry. It’s only about seven pounds, so carrying that weight really isn’t a problem when I’m hiking in the woods.

Find Some Water

I said that we had to keep our priorities straight, but now I’m going out of order. Ideally, you want to locate your shelter somewhere where you are near a water source. That way, you won’t have to make a long trek to find it, providing an opportunity for cold weather to steal your body heat.

One of the nice things about being in the woods is that trees need water. So, if you’re in the woods, you can’t really be all that far from water. Start working your way downhill until you find it. Once you do, you can build your shelter nearby. Don’t build it right at the water, as that will keep wild animals from being able to use that water source; stay back about 100 feet. That’s close enough for you and far enough for them.

Build Some Shelter

As I already mentioned, shelter should do three things; it should protect you from rain, protect you from the wind and help hold in heat. To build a shelter, you’re best off starting by seeing what nature offers you to work with. Often, there will be something available which can be used for shelter or for a starting point for building yourself a shelter. Some possibilities are:

  • A cave
  • A rock outcropping
  • An upturned tree’s root structure
  • A thicket of trees
  • A large pine tree

By starting with what’s already there, you can save yourself some of the work. You can also build a larger shelter, for the same amount of work. Always keep in mind how long you will need the shelter to last and build accordingly. If you’re lost in the woods and plan on hiking out the next day, don’t spend a long time building a shelter; build something to last the night.

If you are traveling, you always want to stop about two hours before sunset, so that you can have an opportunity to set up camp and build a shelter. The temperature will drop quickly after sunset and you don’t want to have to try and build a shelter or look for fuel for your fire after dark. You should be done and settled in by the time the sun goes down.

If you’re not sure what time it is or when sunset will be, measure the sun’s height above the horizon. To do this, hold your hand out at arm’s length, with your palm facing you. Measure how many fingers the sun is above the horizon. Each finger is about 15 minutes; so if the sun is two hands (8 fingers) above the horizon, you have about two hours.

Build a Fire

Once you’ve got a shelter built, it’s time to build yourself a fire. Gather enough fuel to last you the night, so that you won’t have to go stumbling around in the dark. Fortunately, you’re in the woods, so there should be plenty of wood available. Look for deadfall trees and branches, as they will be dry and easier to drag back to your campsite.

Safety always has to be a consideration when building a fire in the woods. Make sure you have a cleared space or a bed of rock, so that the fire doesn’t start the debris on the forest floor afire. Build a circle of rocks to hold it in, with a pile of rocks on the opposite side from your shelter to act as a heat reflector. Watch out for overhanging branches, especially dead, dry ones, as they can catch fire easily.

A big fire isn’t going to keep you much warmer than a small one will. The key is to get a good bed of coals going, as they will radiate more heat than the flames will. During the hours before going to sleep, you want to be burning a lot of wood, so that the fire will create a good bed of coals. Just before going to bed, lay a large diameter log or two on the fire, so that they can burn through the night. Just make sure that there’s plenty of airflow around those logs, or they won’t burn well.

Keep Yourself Hydrated

Most animals water early in the morning and at dusk in the wild. So, those are actually the times that you should stay away from the water, unless you are hunting. If you are at the water hole, and the animals can smell you, they won’t go there.

Keep all your water containers filled at all times, going to the water hole a couple of times per day to fill them. You never know when you might be forced to move quickly, so you’ll want to have water ready to go at all times.

Never trust water you find in the wild. While it might be clean, you can’t actually tell. The microscopic organisms which can hurt you are too small to see with the naked eye. Purify all the water you gather, so that you don’t need to worry about it making you sick. Diarrhea may be an inconvenience at home, but in the wild it can kill you.

When You Need Food

You can survive quite a while without food. Depending on whose statistics you believe, the average American can live anywhere from 30 to 100 days without food. I’ve never driven myself to that point, so I’m not really sure where the exact number is. But I do know this. If you’re only caught in the woods for a few days, food really isn’t an issue, no matter what your stomach tells you.

You will eventually need food, especially if you’re stuck in the wild for several weeks or months. In that case, you’ll need to be able to eat off the land. Fishing, hunting and trapping will be your main food sources. But don’t leave out the possibility of eating of the plant life around you. Make sure that you have a good book on edible plants, which is applicable to the area you are in. This varies from region to region, across the country, so what works in one part of the country won’t necessarily work in another.

One of the easiest ways to trap food is to create a snare for squirrels. All you need is a fallen branch and a piece of wire. I like to use guitar strings for the wire, as they already have a loop in one end.

We’re going to use a little squirrel psychology here. Squirrels will always climb a tree by the easiest route. So, if they see a branch leaning against the tree or against a branch of the tree, they’ll run up that, rather than running up the trunk. So lean your deadfall branch against the tree and make your snares on that.

The snares themselves are a simple loop of wire, allowing the loop to slip. Tie the end of the wire off to the branch, make a three inch loop and set the loop upright on the top side of the branch. When the squirrel runs up the branch, it will hit that loop and hang itself. You can even put multiple snares on the same deadfall branch, as one dead squirrel hanging from it won’t stop others from running up the same branch.

In Conclusion

How ready you are will have more to do with your survival than anything else. Learning some basic survival skills and having a survival kit can ensure your survival, when others would end up dying. Think of it as insurance; you may never need it, but when you do, you’ll be glad you have it.


About Author

Survivalist, woodsman, writer.

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