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How to Survive in the Woods
Ever been on a hike admiring the wild flowers, gazing up at the tips of the trees--and suddenly found yourself completely alone and lost? What would happen to you if you couldn't find your way back to safety? While being lost in the woods can be a frightening experience, surviving alone in the wild is generally a matter of common sense, patience, and wisely using the gifts that nature provides. If you want to know how to survive in the woods, just follow these steps.
Part 1 of 2: Preparing for the Woods
1 Do your research first. Don't just trek off into the wilderness; get a solid understanding of your surroundings first. Studying a map of the area where you're going -- and making sure to bring it with you -- will increase your chances of not getting lost tremendously. Educate yourself about the flora and fauna of the area you are exploring. Knowledge of the local plants and animals can save your life.
2 Make sure you eat well before you leave and someone knows where you're going and how long you'll be gone. Don't make the mistake that James Franco makes in 127, the survival movie based on a true story -- make sure someone know exactly where you're going and when. That way someone will realize that you are missing, quickly alert rescuers, and be able to tell them where to start looking for you.
3 Bring survival gear. Basic survival tools such as a knife, a fire steel (metal match), some matches (in a waterproof canister), some cord (550 paracord is best), a whistle, a space blanket, a signaling mirror, water purifying tablets, and a compass can mean the difference between life and death. Even if you are only out on a day hike, be sure to bring the essentials.
- Having all this equipment is nothing if you cannot use it properly. Make sure to practice many times in a safe environment before venturing into the wilderness.
- Don't forget to bring a first aid kit. You should bring band aids, antiseptic, and tweezers for removing splinters that could get infected.
- If you need any medication or injections, bring them along – even if you don’t plan to be gone for long enough to need them.
- Before you leave, learn how to use a compass. If you have a map and can spot a few prominent landscapes, you can actually use the compass to triangulate your position and, from there, figure out where you need to go.
- When choosing a space blanket (a light, thin sheet of extremely reflective Mylar), spend a little extra to buy a larger, more durable model. A space blanket can be used to block wind and water, wrapped around the body prevent/counteract hypothermia, or even placed behind you to reflect a fire’s heat onto your back, but none of this is useful of the blanket is too small or tears the moment you unwrap it.
4 Bring a means of communication. A cell phone with spare battery or a portable CB radio can be your best, quickest means of rescue if you are truly lost or injured. A cell signal may only be obtainable only from a hill or tree, but is better than nothing. Serious hikers may even consider investing in a personal locator beacon such as the SPOT Messenger for extended, precarious, or very remote, treks.
- A SPOT Messenger is a satellite communication devices that allows you to contact emergency services, reach your own personal contacts for help during non-emergencies, or even simply check in with your friends and family as you trek so that they know you’re alright. A service subscription is required and is not cheap.
Part 2 of 2: Surviving in the Woods
1 Don't panic if you’re lost. Panic is more dangerous than almost anything else, because it interferes with the operation of your single best, most useful and versatile survival tool: your mind. The moment you realize that you are lost, before you do anything else, stop. Take a deep breath and stay calm. Before you act, follow the tenets of the acronym STOP:
- S = sit down
- T = think
- O = observe your surroundings
- P = prepare for survival by gathering materials
2 Get oriented. Wherever you are will become your "point zero." Find a way to mark it using a spare piece of clothing, a pile of rocks, a sheet of paper, or anything else easily visible from a distance. Learn your basic directions -- the sun rises in the East and sets in the West. Use this to tell directions as on a compass (in a clockwise direction starting at the top 12:00) North, East, South, West.
- For example, if it is late afternoon and the sun is on your right you must be facing South.
- Learning how to spot the North Star at night in your backyard beforehand will also prove invaluable.
3 Stay in one place. This not only increases your chances of being found, but also reduces the energy your body expends and the amount of water and food you will need. Hunker down and stay put. Chances are that someone will be looking for you, especially if you let someone know your plans. Also, if you're with someone else, do notseparate. Having strength in numbers will help you survive.
- Also seeking nearby shade if it is hot out which greatly decreases your risk of dehydration and sunburn. Don't be tempted to remove clothing as this only increases these risks.
4 Build a fire. Build a good-sized fire with sufficient coals to stay hot for many hours, and make sure that you have plenty of extra dry wood. Start the fire before you think you need it, even if the weather is warm; fires are easier to make under easy conditions than in a panic as the sun sets – to say nothing of the fact that having a fire nearby will give you a sense of comfort and safety as you get your bearings.
- A good rule of thumb is to gather wood until you think you have enough to last the night, then gather three more piles of the same size, after which you might have enough to get through the night.
- You should have access to dry wood in the understory of the forest. You can also use bark or dried dung. If you build a fire that is hot enough, you can also burn green wood, brush, or tree boughs to make a signaling fire that creates a lot of smoke.
- The best wood for maintaining a fire is dead wood that you pull off a standing tree. Regardless of what type of woods you are in, there will certainly be some dry wood available.
- Remember that a small fire is easier to keep burning than a big fire, though, because it requires less fuel. Once you have sufficient embers, keep the fire to a manageable size so you don't spend too much time looking for fuel.
- Don't build a fire in an area where it is unsafe to do so. Your fire should be well away from flammable trees and brush, preferably in a clearing. Be careful with your fire. While you want to feed it, you shouldn't overdo it. Consider the weather and other factors and remember, a forest fire is a lot harder to survive than just being lost!
5 Signal your location. Make noise by whistling, shouting, singing, or banging rocks together. If you can, mark your location in such a way that it's visible from the air. If you're in a mountain meadow, make three piles of dark leaves or branches in a triangle. In sandy areas, make a large triangle in the sand. Three of anything in the wilderness is a standard distress signal.
- You can use the fire to send a distress signal. The universal distress signal is created by three fires in a straight line, or three fires that form a triangle.
- You can also blow a whistle three times shoot three shots of a rifle in the air, if you have one, or shine a mirror that catches the light three times.
6 Scout your area. Though you shouldn't move around too much, you should explore your immediate surrounds to find anything useful. You could find things someone left there before, be it a tin can or small lighter, it can be helpful significantly. Be sure you can always find your way back to your "point zero" as you search for water, shelter, or your way home.
7 Find a good source of water. In a survival situation, you can last up to three days without water, but by the end of the second day you're not going to be in very good shape; find water before then. The best source of water is a spring, but the chances of finding them are slim. You should also look out for nearby birds, because they like to fly around fresh water. Drink your remaining water -- you should ration it, but not so much that you're thirsty right away.
- A running stream is your next best bet; the movement of the water reduces sediment. Be advised that drinking water from streams can lead to some sicknesses, but when you're in a life-or-death situation, the risk of illness is a secondary consideration and anything you may get can be treated when you return.
- If there’s dew and you’re desperate, you can gather it in your clothes and then suck the moisture out of the fabric.
- You may also be able to find water in the crevices of a rock.
8 Purify your water. A crude method of water purification is to take your handy pot and heat the water. For this to effectively kill bacteria, it must be at a rolling boil for at least three minutes. You can also put (clear) water in a clear plastic bottle and set it in the sun for six hours to kill most of the organisms.
- However, if the water is so full of sediment that the sun can’t penetrate it, this method will not work. If you have any, add a pinch of salt to the water to try to bring the sediment to the bottom.
9 Find or create shelter. Without adequate shelter, you will be fully exposed to the elements and will risk hypothermia or heatstroke, depending on the weather. If you are not properly dressed for the conditions, finding shelter is all the more important. Luckily, the woods are filled with tools and resources to make both shelters and fires (for warmth, safety, and signaling purposes). Here are some things you can use:
- Look for a fallen or leaning tree. You can build an A-frame shelter by by stacking branches along both sides a fallen tree, then over the branches with brush, palm fronds, leaves, or other plants.
- Use brush or green branches (boughs) from trees to repel water, block wind, keep out snow, or create shade. Close in your shelter on as many sides as possible.
- Caves can be great, but be sure the cave is not already occupied by bears, large cats, snakes or other unfriendly animals; they know caves are good too, and they've been looking for good shelter for longer than you have.
- If there’s snow, build a snow cave. Snow is a superb insulator and will keep you very cozy.
- Just make sure that your shelter is not so hidden that you spend all your time in it and prevent anyone from finding you.
- Don't exert too much energy in building the perfect shelter or you'll exhaust yourself.
10 Find safe food. Know that most healthy adults can survive up to three weeks without food unless it's cold. It's better to be hungry and healthy than ill. Make sure that you know food is safe before eating it. If there is anything that will lessen your ability to survive, it is being both lost and deathly ill. Starvation won't be a big problem.
- Don't be afraid to eat insects and other bugs. While it may be disgusting to eat a few grasshoppers, they do provide useful nutrition. All insects should be cooked as they can harbor parasites that can kill you. Do not eat any caterpillars, brightly colored insects, or any insect that can bite or sting you. Remove the legs, head and wings of any insect before eating.
- If you are near water, fish are a good choice. Minnows can be eaten whole.
- Avoid eating any mushrooms or berries you see, no matter how hungry you are. It's better to be hungry than to eat something poisonous. Many berries in the forest, especially white berries, are poisonous.