Wilderness Survival Basics: A 4-Step Survival Strategy

It’s tempting when you’re first taking steps to learn survival techniques to focus on the popular skills or try to find the hottest gear. If you’ve already gone down that path, chances are you’ve found yourself overwhelmed by the seemingly infinite variety of choices. Should you learn fire by friction first or hunting skills? What kind of knife should you get? Wool or high-tech synthetic fibers? It’s all too easy to get lost in the details.

Before you start looking at any of the details, though, you need to establish a framework or strategy for approaching a given survival situation. No gear in the world will save you if you don’t know how and when to deploy it properly. And knowing the hottest skills will help in some situations, but what if you face a situation where that particular skill doesn’t really apply?

By definition you never know what you might face in an emergency. Any planning you can do must by necessity be broad and generic. You must focus on skills that can be modified to suit many different scenarios and gear that can be applied universally to meet a wide variety of needs. And on top of all this, you need a way to organize your thoughts so you recognize what your situation actually is, not simply what your fears conjure up, and so you can develop a plan to meet the specifics of the emergency.

It’s critical to practice this strategic approach to survival before an emergency arises, because once you’re in a survival situation primal emotions can arise that will create panic and confusion if you aren’t prepared. So take these four steps and internalize them as a general pattern for resolving emergency situations.

Step 1: Calm Down

It’s critical in the first moments of an emergency to gain control of your emotions. Your body chemistry is working against you as it pumps adrenaline and cortisol into your system. While these hormones are helpful for getting you ready for fight or flight – and in some extreme cases that may be an appropriate response – they essentially shut down your higher thinking skills. It’s these capacities to assess and plan that are going to be critical to successfully surviving whatever ordeal you are facing.

There are of course exceptions to every rule. If you are in extreme danger: facing down a wild animal, caught in a deadly lightning storm, etc. Then taking immediate action to ensure your safety is your number one priority. I’ll cover this in detail in a separate post.

So the first thing you have to do is calm your body and your mind down. The easiest path to calm your body and your mind is through your breathing. Take deep breaths through your nose, hold your breath for a second, then slowly release your breath through your nose or mouth. Keep your thoughts focused on how the air feels moving through your nose. Keep repeating this sequence until you feel your heart rate slow down and some of the tension leave your body.

You may find it helpful to speak encouraging phrases to yourself while doing these breathing exercises. Saying things like, “I’m OK. I can do this. Everything is going to be fine.” will reinforce a calm emotional state and prepare your mind for the next step.

Step 2: Take Stock

Now that you’re gaining control of your mind, you’re ready to really think about your current situation. Your goal in this step is to gain perspective on the situation and gather all the  information you need to make an effective plan.

The first question you need to answer is, what is the threat you are facing? In other words, what factors in your current situation are most likely to do you harm? Are you facing a hostile environment such as weather conditions of extreme heat or cold, environmental hazards like a wildfire or potential rock slide, or dangerous animals (or people) nearby? Are you lost in a remote location and you don’t know how long it might take for someone to find you? Are you injured in some way? Try and be as objective as you can and identify everything you can think of that might be a threat.

Next, you need to consider what resources you have at your disposal. Do you have a cell phone? A lighter? A knife? A stick? You also need to look at what the area around you has in terms of resources. Are there signs of people nearby? Is there water nearby? What does the terrain offer in ample supply? Grass, leaves, wood, rocks? Consider anything that can prove useful in meeting your needs or reducing the threats to your well-being.

Now you can use the information you’ve collected to set some priorities. If you’ve done some reading or study in survival, you’ve likely come across the concept of the Rule of Threes. Put simply, the rule is that you can live three minutes without air, three hours without shelter, three days without water, and three weeks without food. I’ll explore the Rule of Threes in much more detail in a separate post.

While this is a useful general guideline, the severity of the threats you face combined with the availability of resources to eliminate those threats help you customize your priority list.  For example, if you’re in an environment that is cold and damp finding or making a warm shelter might be your most immediate priority, but if you’re in a very dry environment you may need to prioritize finding or processing water.

Step 3: Make a Plan

With your priorities established, you can now create a plan to remove or reduce your threats and meet your needs. Starting with the highest priority, think through the steps necessary to solve that issue. Supposing your highest priority is finding water, your steps might be:

  1. Locate a source for water
  2. Find a way to collect or carry water
  3. Find a way to treat the water

It’s at this point that you’ll need to revisit your resource list and determine how those resources are best used. You may also need to find some resources that weren’t obvious to you in your first survey of your environment. Perhaps you found some water sources – a lake and a creek, say – but you didn’t see anything obvious for collecting or carrying that water. Now is the time to explore your environment a little more closely to see if you can find some container that you can improvise for this purpose.

It’s important to keep in mind the core principle of energy conservation at this point, and solve your priority needs in the simplest, most direct way that is feasible. Continuing our example, while it’s entirely possible to find and process clay into a container for collecting water, you would spend less time and energy finding someone’s discarded soda can or beer bottle for the same purpose with a little exploration.

Step 4: Take Action

As soon as you have a viable plan, start working the plan. The steps you’ve taken so far have helped calm you down and given you some focus to improve your situation. However, it’s easy to allow fear to creep back in and start questioning the plans you’ve made. You have to gain control of your emotions – repeat the breathing exercises from Step 1 if necessary – and focus on trusting and following your plan.

As you work through the steps of your plan, you’ll almost certainly experience setbacks and roadblocks. You’ll have to remain flexible in the detailed steps that are necessary to complete your goals. Stay calm and keep working your plan. Unless you gain new information and understanding about your environment and situation, don’t abandon your overall plan. If water is your priority, you’ll need to complete the essential steps of sourcing, collecting, and treating the water in some way unless you come across a new resource that meets the need – say an old well that’s still operable.

As you complete each step of your plan, take a moment to celebrate your accomplishments. You may not want to do Tom Hanks’ fire dance, but allow yourself to enjoy the emotional boost of your success. Ultimately, each success can help you gain confidence in your ability to meet every challenge.

This strategy for approaching an emergency or survival situation can help you meet any challenge nature presents to you. Hopefully, it can provide an overall structure to your thinking as you assess your situation and ultimately, survive.

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