The wild is a genuinely untamed and unforgiving place. The truth is, there are far too many dangers that can lead to death. We've covered many survival tactics and situations, yet, there is always room for more knowledge, more survival tips, and learning better ways to survive when lost—because there's no way to predict the unpredictable, especially when far, far away from anything remotely considered civilization.
So what do you do when you're stranded and lost in the wild? What's the most crucial first step? What are your priorities? The two most significant factors that contribute to being able to survive in the wild come down to luck and your survival skills. Here are some of the most important to get you well on your way to ensuring you can survive to the best of your ability.
Let's get to it.
Master Your Emotions, Quickly
The moments you spend in a panic are precious moments that should be spent formulating a plan and going through with it. While it is entirely human faced with such a haphazard situation as being lost in the wild to panic, it does no good for you nor your situation. The first thing to do is to immediately focus to the best of your ability to be proactive and begin:
- Developing a plan
- Create an inventory of all resources you have
- Identify and prioritize the basics of survival needs: Water, Shelter, Warmth, then food
- Gather your determination: it's often true that grit will separate a survivor from a non-survivor
- Recognize feelings, then focus on the facts. You can feel helpless, but keep your thoughts focused on what you can do at that moment.
Your body can roughly survive 3 days without clean water, where it can survive approximately 8, up to 21 days without food. Your next essential thing to do to ensure survival is finding a source of water. There are three types of water found in the wild: surface water, such as rivers and lakes, groundwater from spring, and rainwater.
When you begin to search for water, start with the obvious. You'll be looking for streams, rivers, or lakes. But how do you go about finding them if they aren't easily seen? Our senses can help. First, try and stand as still as possible and listen intently. You may be able to hear running water, even if it is a great distance away.
Next, use your eyes to try and see if you can pick up any animal tracks, which could help lead you to water. And while highly annoying, insect swarms can be another indication that water is nearby. Occasionally, in the early morning and evening, following the flight paths of birds may also lead you to your much-needed water. If you're lost in an arid area, birds may be the best way to lead you to a source of water. Be mindful of the surroundings. Remember that water runs downhill, so follow valleys, ditches, gullies, and so on. Finding your way to lower ground will often lead you to water.
What happens if you can't find a river, stream, or lake?
- Collect rainwater. Collecting and drinking rainwater is one of the safest ways to get hydrated without the risk of bacterial infection, especially true in the wild. There are two primary methods. First, use any and all containers you might have on you or around you—bark, stones with shallow places, large leaves, etc. Next, if you're lucky enough to be stranded with a tarp or poncho, tie the corners around trees a few feet off the ground and place a small rock in the center to create a depression and let the rainwater collect.
- Collect heavy morning dew. You can, with some absorbent clothing or tufts of grass around your ankles, collect up to a liter of water per hour with morning dew. Take a pre-sunrise walk around where you are.
- Melt snow and ice.
- In desert climates, it will be a bit more of a challenge. Start digging wells anywhere you spot any dampness or green vegetation. You will likely find water seeping into any wells you dig, even in a dry river bed or at the feet of cliffs and in valleys or low areas. Since arid climates experience extreme temperature variations between night and day, condensation will form on metal surfaces if you have any metal on you. Before the sun rises and vaporizes this moisture, collect it. Make sure to keep your metal items in the open instead of storing them.
What happens now that you've found a source of water that is a lake, river, or stream? A few things. Before you drink it:
- Clear does not necessarily mean clean.
- Check for signs of life. If you find a beautiful pool of water and think it looks clean—but there is nothing living in it, don't touch it. Life wants water, and if algae can't even grow in it, it's most likely not safe to drink.
- Ensure there are animal tracks from the water source, swarms of bugs, and green vegetation nearby.
- The faster the water is running, the better. Prioritize finding fast-running sources of water over groundwater.
- Boil the water before drinking for 10 minutes and let cool. Suppose you're lucky enough to have a container to do so. You can use aluminum cans, tin cans, a large shell, glass jar, or a hollowed-out log and drop hot stones into the water to bring to a boil.
- Invest before the worst happens in a Lifestraw, water purification tablets, portable filters, or purifiers, and do your best to carry them with you no matter where you go.
You've mastered staying calm, focused on what you need to do, and found a source of either collection for water or a source of water and can purify it. Now you can focus on either finding or building a shelter.
Having a shelter is extremely important to protect from the elements, and in climates of extreme heat or cold, for survival and fighting sunstroke or hypothermia. We've covered several excellent means on how to build a shelter for harsh environments and temperate, but here are a few handy things to keep in mind:
- Think small. Body heat will be your primary source of warmth, as well as any fire you might be able to build. So if you are lost, build a shelter large enough to accommodate your body when lying down. If lost with someone else or a group, build a shelter just large enough for your body to fit.
- Use any available resources, such as fallen trees, branches to construct a framework or dig. Use anything nature provides as well, such as alcoves or caves.
- In frigid climates, add insulation. Cover the sides with bark, leaves, pine needles, moss, or snow. The thicker the material, the more protected you will be. And don't forget to layer that on the ground to keep the cold from you and any snowmelt making you damp.
When the water has been found and the shelter has been built, you can begin to think about food sources. Should you like, we have several articles that go further in-depth on food sources in survival situations, such as Identifying Edible Flowers (1), Two Different Types of Simple DIY Traps (2) , and Survival Tips for Hunter, which has excellent info on understanding what kind of game can be caught for food sources.