Wilderness Survival for Outdoor Recreation

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).

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.

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 signalling. 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…


Photo: Grose Valley, Blue Mountains NSW. With the right skills you can be safe and comfortable out in the wilderness.

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