We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again. Wilderness survival isn’t about starting a fire with sticks, killing animals with elaborate traps, or drinking your own urine. Survival is about not dying – simple as that.
So we called our friend Tim MacWelch, an 18-year survival skills instructor and the author of a new book that teaches a wide berth of skills – from building a generator to catching fish with a PBR can – and asked him for some practical, no-bullsh*t survival tips. This is what he told us.
5. Learn to signal and communicate
You don’t need to learn Morse Code or those weird flag signals to communicate in the wilderness anymore (and no one under the age of 80 would know how to read your signals anyway), but calling for help and communicating your location are still essential to not dying in the wilderness.
The easiest way to stay in contact is the most obvious – bring a charged cell phone. Even if you can’t make a phone call in a remote area, you may be able to send a text message. With no service at all, search and rescue crews may be able to use your charged call phone to triangulate your position.
Without a phone, remember the golden rule of signaling: three of anything in succession signals distress. Set three fires or place three headlamps in a prominent location, blast your whistle three times or fire three gunshots, and any knowledgable person in the area should recognize this as a call for help.
4. Know how to build a fire
Starting a fire with a bow drill or hand drill is a neat trick. But in a survival situation, you’ll be grateful for a book of matches or a lighter. A good fire can be the difference between life and death on a cold night, so all backcountry travelers should have the tools and the skills to build one quickly and easily.
MacWelch recommends his students bring no less than three different ignition sources when traveling the backcountry. A Bic cigarette lighter works best, but waterproof matches and magnesium spark rods are also good options.
Practice fire building skills in camp or at home before your trip. MacWelch expects his students to build and light a fire with a single match, or to be able to build and light a fire in ten minutes with a cigarette lighter.
3. Understand shelter building
In a survival situation, shelter is your top priority. So if you find yourself lost or stranded, you should think about sheltering yourself from the elements long before you feel the need. And that doesn’t necessarily mean starting to work on a log cabin – just the clothes on your back count as shelter.
If you are concerned that you might be under-dressed, look for natural materials that might provide some additional insulation. Stuffing your shirt of jacket with leaves, pine needles, or moss can help you retain a surprising amount of body heat. If your concern is heat or sun, try to wet your clothes or use them to shade yourself.
You’re not likely to bring a tent or sleeping bag on a short day hike, but pack something that you can use for shelter if things take a turn for the worse. This can be a tarp, a space blanket, a poncho or even a spare jacket.
2. Use the buddy system
Sharing our backcountry adventures with other people is usually considered a social choice, not a survival skill. But grouping together has been one of mankind’s strongest survival skills since time immemorial – and that’s no less true today than it was in the days of sabre-toothed tigers and 8-track cassettes.
It only takes a quick look through the news to see why. Take the story of Aron Ralston: the solo hiker who famously liberated his own forearm to escape a Utah canyon. Solo adventurers are more likely to get lost or to make bad decisions in the backcountry, and are less likely to recover from the dire situations that result.
In a survival situation, an extra person can go for help, and can keep the a fire going while the other sleeps. So don’t be shy about asking that office acquaintance to join you on your next hike – it just might be what gets you home alive.
1. Develop a survival game plan
Above all else, MacWelch advises his students to approach every potential situation with a three-step game plan. First and foremost, he suggests filing a plan with someone before heading out. Let someone know where you are headed, when you plan to be back, what car you are driving and when you plan to park. If something does go wrong, a person with this knowledge can be your lifeline.
Secondly, he stresses the importance of a “survival mindset,” which pairs mental toughness, creativity, and a plucky, upbeat attitude. As a situation deteriorates and becomes dangerous, cultivating a sense of optimism will keep your mind active and open to potential solutions.
Finally, MacWelch suggests students always plan for the very worst. On a rock climbing trip, be ready to deal with an 80-foot ground fall. When hunting (or hiking during hunting season), be aware of the danger that you or someone from your party may be accidentally shot. It’s not paranoid to prepare for unlikely eventualities – and it just might save your ass.
Tim MacWelch is a Virginia-based survival instructor and author. His twitter handle is @timmacwelch