Essential Wilderness Survival Skills for Backpackers

wilderness survival
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Boy am I glad that we have hiking trails these days. I would go absolutely insane if I didn’t have a way to get out, enjoy nature, get some fresh air, and stay safe at the same time. However, some backpacking adventures can be far from safe. It may start out as a normal hike, but sometimes the unexpected happens. You always have the potential for getting hurt, getting caught in a storm, or getting lost off trail. There are dozens of backpackers each year that find themselves in a wilderness survival scenario.

While the odds are that your trip will go as planned, you are better off to be prepared. I have spent countless weeks in the wilderness surviving with just the gear I brought with me. Of course, this must be limited on a backpacking trip. If you weigh yourself down, you may not enjoy your trip like you would otherwise. Because of this, it is vital that you are selective about the gear you bring and the weight and size of each item. It is also essential that you have the skills needed to go along with these items. This Backpacking Checklist gives you a good place to start.

A few years ago, I decided to attempt a long distance wilderness survival challenge. The goal was to travel on foot over 30 miles in about three days. I was off trail for this entire challenge. My terrain went from dense woods to briar patches to crossing rivers and traversing dilapidated bridges. It was quite the adventure and taught me a great deal about both backpacking and survival. I carried a standard size backpack, but it was weighed down with over 30 pounds of gear. While these items gave me peace of mind, most of them never left my pack. I completed the challenge safely despite losing over 20 lbs during the three days. That being said, there are so many things I would have done differently.

These days I go backpacking in a very different way. I focus on gear that has multiple uses, and I only bring the items that could potentially save my life. Anything unnecessary is left behind. I have also completed wilderness survival challenges with 50 pound interior frame packs, and came away with the same perspective. A light pack is important, this guide will get you started on Ultralight Backpacking. In this article we will cover the essentials of emergency survival on a backpacking trip. Hopefully we can help you be more prepared on your next trip.

wilderness survival

 

Four Pillars of Survival

If you find yourself stuck in the wilderness, there are four primary resources you need to survive. These are food, water, fire, and shelter. While they are all important, you will need to prioritize these resources. In most backpacking cases people are rescued within a few days. The primary exceptions are when you go hiking in extremely remote areas or when you do not tell anyone where you are going. Of course, giving someone a travel plan should be a priority. In addition, always keep the rule of three in mind. This states that you can survive three hours without warmth from fire or shelter, three days without water, and three weeks without food. This will help you prioritize your resources in a wilderness survival scenario.

Food

While lack of food will likely not be life threatening, it can greatly affect your ability to complete other survival tasks. A lack of calories can cause weakness, disorientation, and headaches. If you have a way to provide food for yourself, you should take it. I would suggest taking some lightweight food sources with you in your pack to get you through. This can be protein bars, MREs, jerky, or dried pasta or rice. For more ideas check out this web story with 25 backpacking food ideas. Any of these foods could get you by until help comes. In addition, it is a good idea to have a way to acquire food in the wilderness. Wire for trapping or a pocket fishing kit can go a long way when you need a meal. Likewise, a firearm for hunting can be smart but it means a large amount of additional weight and is only recommended if you’re an experienced hunter.

If you are acquiring food in the wild and need protein without having a firearm, trapping is a great option. With trapping you can set up a line and then just check it once or twice a day to collect your kill. However, trapping is a numbers game. It takes at least 20 good traps in a line to expect food on a daily basis. One trap that works well is a snare trap. If you have wire or cordage, you can build a snare. You simply tie an overhand knot with a loop at one end. Feed the other end through and you have your loop. Then you can secure it to a rock or tree so the animal cannot get away. Snares can be rigged upright to catch the head of the animal, or they can be parallel to the ground to catch the leg. When the animal presses against the loop it should close around them and hold them in place until you check your line.

You can also tie your snare to a spring pole to pull the animal up off of the ground. To do this you must also notch a stake and drive it into the ground, plus you must attach another stake to the spring pole with a matching notch. Then you can hold the spring pole in place until the trap is triggered. The loop should be just a bit larger than the head or leg of the animal you are after. In addition, the loop should be carefully placed to target those parts of the animal. Using food scraps, guts from another kill, berries, nuts, or insects can give you good bait to draw in your prey. You should also look for animal signs like game trails, droppings, or tracks to know the animals are active in that area. Finally, you should always put debris around the trap.

These same principles apply to deadfall traps. However, you use the weight of a rock or a log to crush the animal. Your best bet is to find a large, flat rock for a weight. You will also need a hard, flat surface on which to build your trap. This will ensure the animal cannot get free. Next, you will find a support stick and a bait stick. The support stick should hold the weight of the rock, and one end should be rounded off with your knife. The bait stick should be flattened at one end, sharp at the other, and slightly curved. To set your trap you will need to press the flat end of the bait stick against the rock with the sharpened end sticking back underneath. Then you will need to rest that flat area of the bait stick on the round end of the support stick. This holds everything together. Before you bait your trap, try it out to make sure it has a hair trigger.

deadfall trap

Fishing is another good option for protein if you have some minimal gear. With just a pocket fishing kit you can hand fish and have some success. You just need line, hooks, and either bait or lures. I sometimes bring a pocket fishing rod with me. They are fairly small and extend out to function as a full fishing rod and reel.

You can also build a V trap by using rocks or stakes to section off a portion of water. Two walls come out to a V in the center with an opening at the cleft. With any fish trap, the fish swim in and cannot find their way back out. Finally, consider taking a wild edibles manual with you. Plants like henbit, dandelion, plantain, oxalis, violets, and chickweed can be found in most moderate climates around the world and are all edible.

 

Water

You can only survive without water for three days, so it is a top priority. Water is heavy. There is only so much drinking water you can pack with you. Drinking tainted water can leave you sicker and more dehydrated than you were when you drank it. Purification is absolutely essential for long term survival. If you have fire you can boil water for purification, but you will need a container to do so. A more reliable option is filtration. Straw filters are great because they fit in your pocket and can eliminate 99.999% of all harmful pathogens. The only downside is that you either need a container or you must get down on your belly to drink from a water source. Be aware that all filters will clog with debris. When you are done drinking you should blow back through the other end of the filter and then let it dry. The Sawyer mini water filtration system is a popular and great solution for backpackers.

Another great option is a filter bottle. I have three and absolutely love them. They allow you to dip into a water source and carry water with you. There is a filter built into the lid that works just as well as a straw style filter. You can always have drinking water on you with this option. You can also buy pump filters that work like a straw but let you pump water into a container. This prevents you from getting down on the ground. Finally, there are gravity fed filters. These have a large water bladder that lets you carry at least a gallon. Gravity forces the water down through a tube that leads to a filter. These are perfect if you will be in the same location for several days or if you have several people that will need water.

Another option is chemical filtration. Both iodine and bleach will eliminate most pathogens in water. Just a few drops in a gallon can do the job. I am not a big fan of bringing liquids in my pack, so I bring iodine tablets. Just two of these in a bottle of water will purify it. You must wait 30 minutes before drinking, but you know your water is safe. A vial has about 50 tablets and can fit in your pocket. There have been plenty of times I let my filter get clogged and these tablets kept me alive.

water is essential to survive in the wilderness

Fire

Fire in the wilderness can be tougher than you would imagine. There have been plenty of times I have been out on survival challenges and spent hours trying to build a fire. Any moisture or wind can make the process difficult. The most important part is getting plenty of supplies. You will need a bundle of tinder big enough to wrap both hands around. This is the thin, fine material that will produce the first flame. In dry climates you can use small twigs, leaves, dry evergreen needles, bird nests, or other dry natural material. If everything is wet, you can use substances like birch bark or evergreen sap. These materials have natural accelerants built in. You can also bring items from home like char cloth, pencil shavings, dryer lint, or cotton rubbed in petroleum jelly. These can all serve as good tinder.

Kindlings are larger sticks about an inch in diameter and up to a few feet long. These sticks should also be dry, so getting them off of dead trees that are up off of the ground is best. You will want a bundle big enough to wrap both arms around if you want to get through a cold night. Finally, you will want fuel logs that are much larger. For a safe night you will want a stack of these about knee high. There is nothing worse than running out of firewood during the coldest part of the night, just before dawn. To build a fire I find the teepee method is the easiest. Start with your kindling and lean the sticks against each other to form what looks like a teepee with a door. Then lean a few fuel logs against them to enlarge your teepee and hold it together. Finally, light your tinder bundle and place it inside. Do not add more logs until the current ones are all burning well. Fire needs oxygen and you can smother it out if you are not careful.

photo of bonfire

If you want to be really smart about it, there are several items that are small and lightweight for backpacking that can help with fire. You will always need a firestarter, so plan on bringing a lighter. Zippo lighters are reliable, windproof, and can be refilled with any flammable liquid. Disposable Bic lighters are inexpensive and reliable but cannot be refilled and are less reliable when it’s windy. You should also always have at least one ferro rod with you. This device is windproof, waterproof, requires no fuel, and shoots out sparks at around 3000F. There is also waterproof tinder that you can buy such as Wetfire cubes. These waxy cubes allow you to shave off some powder and light it with just a spark from a ferro rod. If you throw the rest of the cube on top you have a windproof flame for a few minutes. Finally, you can always bring a backpacking stove. These either take natural tinder or a gas canister for fuel to produce a flame for cooking food, boiling water, or just getting a bigger fire started.

Shelter

In a wilderness survival scenario, shelter is fairly simple. You are either building one or setting up the shelter you brought with you. You can get small, lightweight backpacking tents, bivy sacks, and inflatable sleeping mats. I own them all and always bring them if there is room in my pack. You can set up camp with these items in minutes and block wind and rain comfortably while sleeping a couple inches off of the ground. However, you should always have a backup plan. I like to always carry a tarp style emergency blanket. This is a durable blanket that will reflect 90% of your body heat back to you. You can simply wrap up or you can build a shelter with it. All you have to do is use cordage to run a ridge line between two trees. Drape it over the top and stake down the corners and you are set.

You should also be able to build a shelter with only natural materials. The best way to do this is to build a lean-to shelter. You will need to start by finding a nice flat area and clear out any rocks or plants. Ideally you want to find two trees about eight feet apart with branches about five feet up. Then you need a ridge pole that is about ten feet long. Next you wedge the ridge pole in the crotch of the branches on these support trees. To build your roof you will want a bunch of straight poles about six or seven feet long. For cutting poles it helps to have a folding saw with you. These are small and lightweight, so they come in handy. You can also break dead poles simply by wedging them in between two close trees. Simply walk forward and eventually the leverage should snap the pole to length. This is much safer than trying to stomp on them or break them over your knee.

Building a lean-to shelter out of branches in the woods

Lean all of these poles side by side on the ridge pole. If you wedge them in tight, there should be no need to attach them with cordage. Next you need insulation. This could be dry leaves, dry grasses, or spruce boughs. Start at the bottom and start stacking up insulation at the base of your roof working up to the top. If there is no rain in the area, just a foot of insulation can keep you warm. If it is going to rain, you need insulation about four feet thick to keep out the water. Don’t forget about a bed. The ground will suck the heat right out of your body if you don’t have at least four inches of compacted insulation. I like to stack closer to a foot of insulation so I know I have four inches once my weight is on it.

If there are any natural features that you can use as part of your shelter, take advantage. This includes caves, rock faces, fallen logs, snowbanks, or large evergreen trees. These structures are always going to make for stable support for your shelter. Some of them can also block wind and rain better than anything you can build. Finally, watch for hazards. Flooding is a major concern, especially if you are trying to stay close to a water source. You should keep an eye out for areas that regularly flood and always set up camp at least 100 feet from water. ‘Widow makers’ are dead trees and branches that could potentially fall on you while you sleep. Always look up for these hazards before picking a final campsite.

If you’re on a multi-day backpacking trip you should have tent with you, which will be by far the easiest and fastest way to setup a shelter.

tent as shelter for wilderness survival

Other Essential Skills and Gear

Aside from these four pillars of survival, there are plenty of secondary priorities. First aid training is vital for backpacking trips, but supplies are important too. Always have a first aid kit with you to help with immediate medical needs. Signaling for help is another important skill for backpacking. Items like signal mirrors and emergency whistles can help get the attention of rescuers if needed. In addition, you can use items like your emergency blanket or bright colored clothing. You can even use light or dark colored stones or logs to spell out ‘SOS’ or just draw three parallel lines. This is the international symbol for distress.

Land navigation skills are obviously important for backpacking. While most of you will be following trails, these trails are not always clearly marked. You should have a map of the area along with a compass to help you orient the map. Just set the map down on a flat surface, set the compass on top, and then rotate until they match up. A map and compass are the most reliable way to get home in the wilderness. Of course, you can always take a dedicated GPS device or your phone with you. However, your signal may be spotty and the battery could always die.

Self defense should rarely be an issue when backpacking, but you can never be too sure. You can carry a firearm or knife, but there are also non-lethal tools like a stun gun or a tactical pen. These items could disable an attacker without killing them. Just be sure you know how to use any of these items properly before you pull them on someone else.

We have talked a great deal about knives and cordage. Both of these items should be in every backpack. I suggest going with a high-quality steel blade which is full tang. This means the steel extends all the way to the end of the handle. It makes for a much more reliable blade than a folding blade or a partial tang. I like to carry a knife with a blade somewhere between four and ten inches. This will allow you to use it for smaller work like removing a splinter or bigger jobs like batoning firewood. I usually carry two or three just to be safe. For cordage I like to carry 550 paracord as well as thin copper wire for snares. Paracord can be split open to use all of the interior strands for cordage. It is designed to hold 550 pounds of weight, but it is incredibly thin and light weight. If you don’t want to take up space in your pack, you can get paracord bracelets and lanyards. I even replaced my boot laces with paracord so I always have it with me.

As you can see, there is a lot to think about if you want to be prepared. The good news is that with each skill you learn you become more ready for potential disaster. We mentioned several different types of gear that you can buy for this purpose. I have two important things to say about that. One is that even the best gear will never replace wilderness survival skills. Get online and do some reading or watch some videos to learn as much as you can. The other is that this gear does you no good if you do not practice using it. When you buy something for a backpacking trip, get out in advance and try it out. As you go through this process, you will get more comfortable with every item in your pack.


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