Top 25 Survival Skills to Know & Why

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I’m a firm believer in the following saying: “It’s better to know something and not need to use it, than need to use it and not know it”. Basically, it means that knowledge is the key to any survival situation. The more you know, the more likely you are to get home alive. Below, we’re going to cover 25 survival skills that can save your life. These range everywhere from staying hydrated, dry, and warm, to navigation, medical care, and more. By the end of this article, you’re going to feel like a warrior with all of your newly-discovered knowledge. Let’s get started.

#25: Thaw Cold Feet

Prolonged exposure of your feet to the cold can result in frostbite– an injury caused by the freezing of skin and its underlying tissue. In the first stage of frostbite, you won’t experience any permanent skin damage. However, if you don’t begin thawing your cold feet, it can progress to a more serious form of frostbite. When frostbite becomes really severe, all of the skin in your feet, as well as all underlying tissue, will turn black and die. In these instances, it’s not uncommon for people to have their feet amputated. This is one of those survival skills that can really come in handy, especially if you find yourself in a blizzard survival situation.

How to Do it: Begin swinging your leg back and forth forcefully (sort of like a pendulum). Inertia will begin forcing blood back to the tips of your toes. Believe it or not, this simple act can be very effective at fighting the effects of frostbite. What you should not do is rub or massage frozen skin. This will likely make the symptoms worse. This tip won’t necessarily “prevent” frostbite from happening, but it can buy you some time.

24: Estimate Distanced Traveled

Whether you’re lost in the wild, or going on a hike, this is one of the most important survival skills to know. For example, if you’re stranded somewhere with no map, compass, or GPS, you can estimate how far you’ve traveled (and thus how far you are away from civilization). With some basic math skills, you’ll be able to calculate the distance traveled within a certain period of time. I can personally vouch for the following technique and tell you that it works. It won’t give you the exact distance you’ve traveled, but you will be able to make a very close approximation. Keep in mind that the following method is only one of many ways to do it.

How to Do it: The average person walks about 3 MPH on flat ground. If you’ve walked for three hours without taking a break, then you can assume you’ve walked approximately nine miles. But this method only works if you’re walking on flat terrain. If the terrain is rugged, a different method is needed. Another way to do it is to track the # of steps you’ve taken. Since the average person’s stride is 30 inches (about 2.5 feet), we can assume the following: taking 1,000 strides means you will have walked 30,000 inches (or roughly half-a-mile).

23: Find the North

This is one of those survival skills that goes hand-in-hand with the previous one. While the technique in #24 showed you how to estimate distance traveled, the following technique will tell you the direction you’re traveling. Think about it: calculating your distance traveled means nothing if you’re going in the wrong direction. This is incredibly useful for when you have a map but no compass (either you lost it or forgot to bring one). Plus, you don’t need any fancy equipment or specialized knowledge to apply this skill. In fact, you don’t need anything more than a wristwatch.

How to Do it: Take an analog watch and hold it flat. Make sure the hour hand is aimed towards the sun. South will be halfway between the hour hand and 12. Additionally, north will be 180-degrees in the opposite direction. I know what you’re probably thinking, “There’s no way that’s accurate!” I can assure you that it’s pretty accurate. Next time that you’re on a hike, or have some free time, test it out. It’s one of the most important survival skills you can have.

22: Orient Yourself Using the Moon

I’ve never been good at science. In fact, in high school, I received an “F” in astronomy class. But just because you suck at science, doesn’t mean you can learn survival skills involving celestial objects. Being able to navigate and orient yourself using the moon is not only really useful, but it’s also pretty cool! There aren’t many survival “experts” out there who know how to do it. It’s something that people did several hundred years ago when traveling, and it can be used equally effectively today. I hope that you remember it the next time you go for a hike.

How to Do it: If you see a crescent moon (a moon that’s partway between a between a half moon and new moon) before the sun goes down, then the side that’s illuminated will be facing the west. Pretty simple, wouldn’t you agree? Additionally, if it rises after midnight, then its bright side is going to face the east. In general, using the North Star is an easier and more reliable way to navigate, but this method can come in handy for when you can’t see the stars.

21: Create a Natural Bandage

Let’s say that you’re all by yourself in the woods. No doctors and no hospitals. What would happen if you cut yourself very deeply? If you didn’t have a first aid kit handy, you’d be in deep trouble. That’s why survival skills like creating a natural bandage can be so powerful. They provide you with the ability to prevent a bleed out until you’re able to seek medical help. Even if you never have to use this technique, it’s still really good to know. That way, if you or a family member become severely injured in the wild, it won’t necessarily commit you to a death sentence.

How to Do it: Upon cutting yourself, immediately gather some dried sphagnum moss. These soft, bushy green clumps can be gathered from either swamps or bogs. Believe it or not, soldiers in WW1 would use this moss to treat wounds. Why? Because it A) Serves as an absorbent, and B) Acts like an antibacterial agent. Once gathered, press it against your open wound and wait for the blot to clot. Then, seek professional medical help as quickly as possible.

20: Escape Biting Insects

When in the wild, you should make it your goal to expose yourself to as few insects as possible. The more you come in contact with them, the more likely you are to get bitten. This applies to all types of insects. For instance, the longer you expose yourself to mosquitoes, the more likely you are to acquire malaria (a blood-based disease passed on through mosquito bites). Also, other bugs can bite you and inflict pain. In some cases, these bites can lead to an infection. For these reasons, survival skills that help you “escape” biting insects is are always good to know.

How to Do it: The best thing you can do is to seek out a windy spot. This makes it particularly difficult for mosquitoes and other flying bugs to bite you. You can also apply mud exposed areas of skin. This creates a “barrier” between your skin and the bugs. Also, keep in mind that mosquitoes are attracted to dark-colored and/or wet clothing, so try to avoid this type of clothing if possible. Finally, you can take bits of birch bark and then rub it on your skin (as well as your clothes) since these are known to act as a bug repellent.

19: Identify Coral Snakes (EDIT: Identify Venemous Snakes in General!)

First and foremost, you should do your best to avoid all snakes when in a survival situation (unless you’re going to use them as food, in which case, you should pursue them). This is especially true if you don’t have the ability to distinguish venomous and non-venomous snakes. One bite from a venomous snake and you could be in a world of hurt – and possibly killed.

The reason I recommend survival skills like identifying coral snakes is because quite frankly, this is the one people mess up on the most. Specifically, they confuse coral snakes with scarlet king snakes, which aren’t venomous (refer to the video below). Hopefully you’ll come to appreciate how important this can be in a survival situation.

How to Do it: Here’s one of the favorite quotes people use regarding coral snake identification: “Red on yellow, kill a fellow. Red on black, friend of jack”. BUT this is not 100% accurate. Coral snakes, which are venomous, USUALLY have red and yellow bands (it sometimes differs, because of variations from snake to snake), but will almost ALWAYS have a black head.

They reside mainly in the southeast (think NC to FL, to LA). Scarlet king snakes, on the other hand, have alternating red and black bands, and are relatively harmless. They reside in places throughout the east, and southeast regions of the US. Be extra attentive regarding survival skills like this one, and it could save your life.

Here are a couple of videos to get you started on honing your snake identification skills:


18: Re-Warm Frostbitten Skin

Earlier in the article, we showed you how to thaw cold feet (by swinging your feet like a pendulum to bring blood back to your toes). But what about the rest of your body? If you experience frostbite on say, your arm, what should you do? Most people don’t know the answer. In fact, many people answer with, “Massage the affected area.” But this is plain wrong, and could actually make your frostbite even worse. That’s why you need to learn survival skills that teach you the right way to re-warm skin that’s been affected by frostbite.

How to Do it: Place the affected area (which will probably look white and waxy) in lukewarm water. Or you can press some hot wet cloths against the skin until blood flow returns to it. Never apply dry heat. The reason why is because skin that’s frostbitten burns very easily. It’s also recommended that you take some ibuprofen to not only help manage the pain, but also reduce the chance of getting a blood clot. As mentioned, never rub frostbitten skin since this can make the symptoms worse.

17: Survive a Bear Attack

Most people don’t realize that your actions during a bear attack largely determine whether you live or die. Specifically, people have a difficult time distinguishing between “Predatory” and “Defensive” attacks. As I’ll reveal shortly, you must react differently to each attack, otherwise, you’re as good as dead. Also, people enter the wild not knowing how to prevent a bear attack in the first place. These are survival skills that you must know, especially if you’re going to be spending a large portion of our time outdoors.

How to Do it: First and foremost, don’t run. You can’t outrun a bear. The only thing running does is activate their biological response to chase you. Instead, what you should do is raise your arms as wide as possible, and scream loudly. The exception to this tip is if it’s a defensive attack (when a mother is protecting her cubs). In this particular case, it’s better to lie down and play dead with the hopes that the bear no longer considers you a threat and moves on. To prevent an attack, hike in groups. Bears are less likely to attack a group of people. And make a lot of noise as you hike so that you don’t “spook” the bear.

16: Splint a Broken Arm

If you’ve ever broken your arm, you know how painful it is. Fortunately, with today’s medical technology, fixing a broken arm is pretty easy (a quick visit the hospital will get you fixed up). But this doesn’t apply in the wilderness. In the wild, if you break an arm, there won’t be any doctors there to patch you up. This is bad because a broken arm will severely limit your ability to make fires or build shelters– two things that are imperative to survival. There’s no “quick fix” to healing a broken arm, but I will show you survival skills that teach you how to splint one.

How to Do it: Take a deflated sleeping pad and wrap it tightly around your broken arm. You can then secure the arm in the air (like a sling) using pack straps. If you don’t have a pad, you’ll need to improvise. You can also use sticks as splints, placing each one on either side of the arm (to help secure it in place). If you have pain medicine, take it, because once your adrenaline dies down, it’s going to hurt…a lot.

15: Escape an Avalanche

According to National Geographic, avalanches kill approximately 150 people each year. Interestingly, they estimate that up to 90% of these avalanches are triggered by people. Victims tend to be skiers, snowboarders, and people on snowmobiles. Avalanches can reach speeds of up to 80 MPH. Due to their large size, this isn’t always evident when you watch them in videos. Because of their mass and high speeds, they can be difficult to survive. But there are things that you can do to increase your chances of getting out alive. And we’ll show you these survival skills now.

How to Do it: If you’re caught in an avalanche (you’ll know because the ground will immediately begin to shift) then immediately begin moving your arms and legs in a “swimming motion”. This might keep you near the surface of the avalanche as you move down the mountain. The deeper you are in the snow, the lower your chances of survival. Also, cup your palms around the front of your face so that you can have enough room to breathe once the snow settles (and keep your lungs expanded too).

14: Estimate Daylight

If you’ve lost your watch, it can be difficult to estimate the amount of daylight you have left. If you don’t know how much daylight is left, you can’t make good decisions. For example, if it’s getting dark soon, you should begin building a shelter to hunker down for the night. But if you overestimate the amount of daylight you have, you may not begin building your shelter until it’s too late. Then you’ll be stuck building it in the dark. That’s why you must learn how to estimate daylight without knowing the exact time. Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to do.

How to Do it: As far as survival skills are concerned, this is arguably the easiest one to learn. Simply place four outstretched fingers between the horizon and the sun. Each one of your fingers represents 15 minutes of daylight. So if the sun is sitting on the second finger from the top, you know that you have about 30 minutes of daylight left. Likewise, if the sun sits just above the top finger, you know that you have approximately one hour of daylight left. It’s easy, fun, and can really come in handy when you’re in a survival situation.

13: Know Your Water Needs

One of the biggest killers in the wild is dehydration. Unfortunately, it can also be one of the more difficult things to detect. Most people don’t realize just how much water they lose when hiking. Not only do you lose water through perspiration (sweating), but you also lose water with each breath that you exhale. Urination also causes you to become more dehydrated. When you add all this up, it can result in a significant amount of water lost. That’s why you must learn survival skills that teach you how to estimate your water needs.

How to Do it: In normal climates, the average person loses about 1.5 liters per 24 hours (through urination, breathing, and sweating combined). If you physically exert yourself, or if you’re somewhere like the desert, you lose much more. In these instance, you can lose as much as an additional 1 liter per hour! That’s quite a bit, and just goes to show how surviving in the desert can be one of the most challenging places on earth to keep yourself alive without modern technology.

12: Build a Water Still

I’m a first believer that everyone (not just hikers) should learn how to build a solar water still. Why? Because you never know when you’ll be stuck in a survival situation. Most people die because they aren’t able to acquire enough drinking water. You can’t drink straight from a pond, lake, or stream, since this will likely get you sick. But if you have something that can remove impurities and make the drinking water safe, you’re much more likely to survive. That’s where learning how to build a solar water still comes into play.

How to Do it: Begin by digging a hole in the ground. Place a container, like a plastic water bottle, in the center of the hole. Place anything moist (plants, urine, dirty water, etc.) around your container. Place a plastic sheet over the hole, and then press on the tarp so that it dips right over the water bottle opening. Within a few hours, water will begin to evaporate, hit the tarp, and drip into your container. It will be distilled drinking water that’s perfectly safe to drink. This is one of the more important survival skills for collecting water in the wild.

NOTE AND EDIT: By the way, one technology that is gaining considerable attention in recent years is the “Atmospheric Water Generator” where the technology creates potable water from the, well, atmosphere (hence the term). Something you might want to check out!  

11: Make Rope

In the wild, rope can serve a wide variety of functions. For example, you can use it to build a shelter, climb, or make a trap. But rope isn’t something that all hikers carry with them into the wild. If you happen to find yourself lost without rope, it would be in your best interest to make some. Making rope can be traced back thousands of years. It’s not difficult to learn, and the final product will be stronger than you think.

How to Do it: Start by peeling off some of the outer bark of a dead tree trunk. The goal is to get those strands from the inside of the dried inner bark that are as long as possible. Once you’ve gathered enough individual strands, you can braid them together to create a single strong rope. The # of individual strands that you braid together will be based on how strong you need the rope to be. If the rope is designed to hold a lot of weight, then obviously you’ll need to tie together many more strands. For making a shelter, you can get away with branding fewer strands together.

10: Signal Distress

When you’re lost in the wild, the goal should be to stay alive long enough until help arrives. Sustaining yourself with no intention of getting home defeats the purpose of survival. There’s a right and wrong way to signal for help when in the wild. If you don’t know how to create “universal signals of distress”, then it makes it unlikely for rescuers to find you. There are dozens of ways to signal for help, each one depending on where you’re lost and what you have available.

How to Do it: Using rocks or gear, build a large “X” in the ground. This is a universal sign of distress, and if someone sees it, they’ll know you’re in trouble and will send help your way. The signal for SOS is three dots, three dashes, and three more dots. This can be done using a flashlight, mirror, or whistle. If you’re building a signal fire, try to burn petroleum-based products so that you can get a lot of black smoke in the air. If you’re spotted, wave your arms in a circle to let rescuers know that you need to be rescued.

9: Find Edible Bugs

There may be times when you have no choice but to find and eat edible bugs. As gross as it sounds, most bugs are very nutritionally dense. They contain essential fats, carbohydrates, and proteins needed to keep your body running optimally. But you can’t just eat any bug that you find. The key is to find the right bugs. Otherwise, you run the risk of getting an infection from a parasite that may be within the bug. Also, if you cook the bugs, you’ll be less likely to get an infection. Let’s look at how to perform survival skills like this one.

How to Do it: Earthworms are one of the more common bugs that you can find in the wild. All you really need to do to find them is dig in moist soil and you’ll almost always find them. Despite being easy to catch, make sure that you cook them to reduce your risk of a parasitic infection. Termites are another quality option. The reason I like them is because due to the fact that they’re located deep in wood, they are less likely to contain parasites. Simply break open a dry rotted piece of wood and shake it vigorously (to prevent the termites from going deeper into the wood).

8: Build a Fishing Spear

Similar to bugs, fish are an excellent source of energy when in the wild. Plus, when you cook them over an open fire, they taste amazing. This can provide you with the psychological boost you need to trek forward. Building a fishing spear is an effective way catch fish. Once built, simply stand over an area of the water where fish normally are, and wait. Once you see a fish within striking distance immediately lunge the spear forward towards the fish. With a combination of luck and skill, you’ll have yourself a delicious meal by the end of the night. Personally, it’s one of my favorite survival skills on this list.

How to Do it: Find a long piece of bamboo stalk. Then, using a knife, separate the end of the bamboo into four individual prongs. Finally, use some rope to keep the prongs separated. If you don’t have any rope, use the survival skills discussed in #11 to make some. It may take some trial and error, but once you have a fishing spear built, you’ll be in a better position to catch fish. Note, it can also be used to defend yourself against predators, or even catch other smaller animals (particularly rodents).

7: Build a Trap

While on the topic of food, let’s look at another set of survival skills that can keep you fed. Specifically, it’s important that you know how to build a trap for catching land animals. One of my favorite designs is the 4-Figure Deathfall Trap. With this trap, the goal is to hold up a heavy rock that will eventually fall onto an unsuspecting animal, resulting in instant death. Similar to the fishing spear, they’re relatively easy to build, and don’t require that many resources. Let’s take a look at how to build one.

How to Do it: Find three sticks and a heavy stone. Cut notches into the stick. Hold up the rock while you position the sticks as shown in the illustration above. Once everything is balance, you can let go. You’ll need some kind of bait to entice an animal underneath the rock. Bugs can be a good option for this. It will require some tweaking to get right, but once you do, you’ll experience a huge boost in moral.

6: Build a Lean-To Shelter

The lean-to is one of the most common shelters out there. Since it doesn’t require much materials or experience, it’s typically the “go to” method for beginners. If you’re left in the wild with nothing more than the shirt on your back, being able to build a lean-to shelter can save your life. It will keep you warm, protect you from bugs and other animals, and provide a nice psychological boost. Survival skills that show you how to build lean-to shelters are something that should be learned by everyone. Let’s take a look at how to build it.

How to Do it: As you can see from the image above, start by leaning larger sticks against a solid object, like a rock or tree. Then you can fill the gaps between the large sticks with smaller ones. Finally, you can top everything off with moss or another kind of “filler” material. When built properly, these shelters are actually incredibly sturdy. Keep in mind that they’re not that useful for cold weather (since they don’t insulate well). For this reason, I wouldn’t advise making it in a blizzard. You’d be better off building a snow cave instead.

5: Learn to S.T.O.P.

What’s the biggest mistake that people make when lost in the wild? Is it lack of knowledge? Is it predators? Dehydration? While these are all valid answers, it’s not the biggest mistake people make. Believe it or not, the biggest mistake people make is panicking. This is by far the worst thing you can do once you’ve gotten lost. First of all, panicking does nothing but cloud your judgement. If you can’t think logically, you’ll have little hope of staying alive. Secondly, panicking consumes vital bodily energy. Fortunately, if you learn how to “S.T.O.P”, you’ll be much better off.

How to Do it: S.T.O.P. is one of those survival skills that we all learned back in boy scouts. It stands for Stop, Think, Observe, and Plan. You should follow this acronym, in that order, once you’ve become lost. Repeat this to yourself on a daily basis. Make it your mantra. S.T.O.P. can actually be applied to any area of life, which is why it’s so useful. People who panic almost never make the best decision possible for the particular situation they’re in. People who remain calm and collected are usually the ones who achieve the results they’re looking for.

4: Make a Fire Without Matches

If you asked people what they thought the hardest part of survival is, they would probably answer with, “Making a fire”. It’s true- making a fire without matches is one of the most difficult things for a beginner survivalist to accomplish. But just because something is hard, that doesn’t make it impossible. Once you learn the proper survival skills, making a fire without matches will become easy. But it will require a lot of practice on your part. In fact, you should practice the following techniques far before you ever find yourself in a survival situation. That way, you’ll know exactly what to do when the time comes.

How to Do it: There are dozens of ways to make a fire. I’ll show you that one I like the most. It’s called the “Hand Drill Method”. Is it hard? Yes. But if you can master this one, all of the others will be a piece of cake. Basically, all you need is a fireboard, some tinder, and a stick. Then use your two hands to spin the stick as quickly as possible. This will create heat by friction, which will then help the tinder catch fire. It’s time consuming and difficult from a physical standpoint, but once you have it down pat, you’ll be able to start a fire from anywhere in the world without matches.

Check out our article on survival fire starting techniques for more on this topic. 

3: Catch Live Game with a Wooden Cage Trap

Back when I was 16 years old, my best friend I used to build improvised traps designed to capture escaped chickens on my father’s farm. While it was quite fun, we also learned a lot about building traps in the process. That’s why I want to share with you yet another trap that you can use to hunt smaller game. For this particular trap, you’re going to build a wooden cage that can be used to catch rabbits, foxes, and other small animals. It will require some practice to get right, but once you’ve mastered the steps, it will be easy to reproduce in the wild.

How to Do it: With the wooden cage trap, you’ll be building a hybrid of a snare trap and a wooden cage. In all honesty, the steps are pretty complicated and extensive. For this reason, I think it’s better to “show” you how to build one rather than “tell” you. The video below will show you exactly how to build one and catch game when you’re in the wild.

2: Create a 2-Liter Bottle Fish Trap

Earlier in this article, we showed you how to build a fishing spear. While it’s one of the better survival skills to know, a fishing spear requires a lot of physical exertion. Plus, it’s more of an “active” way to catch fish. Wouldn’t it be better if you had a more “passive” way to catch them? That’s exactly what the 2-liter bottle fish trap is for. It doesn’t require all that many resources, and can be built relatively quickly. I would recommend learning how to build it as well as a fishing spear. That way, you’ll have multiple ways to catch fish when in the wild- thus, increasing your chances of actually catching one.

How to Do it: Similar to skill #3, it’s a lot easier to show you how to build one of these traps than it is to explain it in writing. Keep in mind, the reason this skill is so important is because when you’re in the wild, chances are good that you’re going to stumble upon garbage. No matter where you go in the world, people liter. So it’s almost inevitable that you’ll encounter a plastic bottle somewhere along your journey (which is the main part in this trap). The video below will show you how to do it.

1: Be Positive

I know it sounds cliché, but the most important survival skill that you can have when in the wild is a positive attitude. I would much rather be stuck in the wild with someone who knows nothing about survival (but has a good attitude) than be stuck with someone who has some descent survival skills but they’re attitude sucks. The people who survive in the wild, especially for the long-term, are usually those people who never give up. You must learn how to control your emotions and see the positive side of things even when they aren’t there. Not only is this a good tip for the wilderness, but it’s also a good tip for life.

Bottom Line
I hope that you’ve enjoyed this extensive list of survival skills. This article took me a long time to write (about 15 hours), so sharing it on social media with family and friends would really mean a lot to me. I understand that this page is quite long. So, if you didn’t get a chance to read this article all the way through, make sure that you bookmark this page for easy access in the future. As always, thanks for reading, and leave a comment letting me know what you thought of this article.

Note: Thanks to the author of this info-packed post!

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