For the average hunter or outdoor enthusiast, overcoming a survival situation does not have to be as complicated as you will see dramatized on television. Jumping off a cliff into freezing cold water then proceeding to eat an already dead animal, drinking your own urine, and sleeping inside a dead camel are all major no no’s that any trained survival expert will explain otherwise.
In this article you will learn the 5 basic skills required to get you through an emergency. Remember; simple advice used with common sense will go a long way.
There are hundreds of ways to build shelters, light fire, procure tinder, purify water, collect food and thrive with minimal gear. It can be daunting the extent of information out there, so learning these base level skills that you can adapt to any situation will set you up for success.
A common theme to search and rescue operations throughout New Zealand, Americas, and Europe, is that people find themselves in a place and at a time they did not expect. You may be a prepared hunter with years of experience in the backcountry, but it is usually one or two small unfortunate events that can lead to an emergency. A recent study conducted by a group of researchers in North America found that Over 90% of land rescues occur less than 20km from populated areas in Northern America and Europe, with a high percentage of these being day trips.
So, what does this mean? Always head out prepared.
It doesn’t help a reliance on technology is ingrained in our society, and thus false confidence. People who rely on GPS are not used to navigating their way through towns without modern technology or using their cognition to navigate dense bush or backcountry.
Search and Rescue teams are highly competent and organized people; however, for their own safety they will not be out looking for you once darkness falls or the weather gets too severe. They will wait until first light the next morning. This could be a brutal night out if you are caught unprepared or injured in bad weather.
A Lean-to survival shelter being prepared. The barrier out front provides a good spot for a fire and will send more heat into the shelter for those inside. Care must be taken when sleeping so close to a fire and all flammable debris should be well clear of the fireplace.
So, what survival skills should I learn?
Not only are survival skills engaging to learn, but the senses are sharpened and your ability to adapt and improvise is developed. This in turn leads to increased self-confidence. With self-confidence comes the ability to adapt to rapidly changing environments and overcome difficulties. It is also a great skill base for the young hunters starting to venture out on their own.
Survival Rules of 3
This is a tool used to prioritize energy and tasks in emergencies. Remember, these skills can be significantly altered by your mental or physical state.
You will survive 3 Minutes: Without oxygen, being submerged in icy water or a loss of blood from severe bleeding. Blood loss from a massive arterial bleed can kill you just as fast as a blocked airway. Learn how to use a tourniquet and learn how to clear someone's airway. We'll talk more about this later.
3 HOURS without shelter (in an extreme environment i.e. driving rain and wind, snow etc). Protection is a priority; without either proper clothing or emergency shelter building skills, you could well suffer or lay your head down for a forever sleep.
As the famous explorer, Sir Ranulph Fiennes put it “There is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing”.
3 DAYS without water (if sheltered from the extreme environment). You will feel the effects of dehydration after 12 hours so don’t think you have 3 days before you start to feel miserable. After 72 hours you will be crippled with dehydration and near the third day, you could well be nearing the light at the end of the tunnel.
A few years ago on an exercise with the Army; I had only realized I was dehydrated after a thought popped into my head. Why was I zig-zagging back and forth across a road rather than walking down it? It wasn’t until I looked down and saw fireworks exploding from my boots that I realized I should sit down and drink some water.
Severe dehydration will sneak up on you while doing extended physical activity.
Lastly, 3 WEEKS without food (if you have water and shelter). Good luck having the energy to do anything after eating no food for more than a week!
What does this mean for you? We now have some theory to back up our priority of energy allocation while you still have it.
Below are five hard skills that you can learn, practice or teach your children. Every wilderness emergency or survival scenario differs depending on the incident that has occurred, items carried, time of day and geographical location.
Preparation for fire starting is essential in wet weather, ensure you have much more fuel than you think you need.
Skill #1 - Observation, Awareness & Navigation
Practice using your mind instead of the GPS. Always have a map and compass on you for the area you are in. Stop now and then to check where you are, using the terrain around you and a map, then confirm on your GPS if needed. This is a great way to ignite the grey matter and open your awareness to your surroundings. At least you're not being dutifully motivated by some heinous whiskey and cigarette smelling corporal recently back from the ‘ghan, angry at life, and wants you to die on a navigational exercise for no good reason.
Simple mental notes of prominent features along your route are a lifesaver, helping you to know your direction back to safety.
Learn to observe the natural patterns around you i.e. observe what star clusters are up each night, and what they mean for navigation. Learn which is the prominent direction of river flow or which direction the mountain ranges run in your area, you can observe this on a map before going into an area.
Note where the prominent features or ridgelines lead to and in which direction, then physically point that out to yourself once you're on the ground. This is precisely how special operations soldiers do it when moving into unknown ground with only a map study of the area. If they can do it... you're a hearty outdoors person... you can do it too.
Skill #2 - First Aid
I have conducted an appreciation test of sleeping in one of those silver survival blankets. It was one of the coldest nights of my life. Let’s not forget the people who throw one in their pack then forget it for years and end up like a close friend of mine who, when he needed it the most caught out on a day hunt, had to spend the night out. When throwing the space blanket open, he watched a bag of silver confetti explode in front of him as his morale plummeted. He then spent the rest of the night cold and dragging his bottom lip around the forest floor.
ALWAYS carry warm gear, a lightweight jacket, warm layer, gloves and a beanie, these are the minimum standard even in summer. You will thank me later.
Understand what is in your first aid kit and seek professional first aid training. If it is a medical emergency you are in, this will take priority over all else.
We highly recommend a New Zealand based realistic first aid training organization called Pracmed. Check them out on Instagram @pracmed for courses near you.
Skill #3 - Fire & Signaling
Fire will give us the ability to stay warm, cook food, dry clothing, sterilize water, illuminate areas, keep predators away and boost morale. To truly say you are good at fire lighting, you need to be proficient at lighting outside with wet materials when it's windy, raining or snowing.
First, you must understand and be familiar with the materials that burn well where you live or go hunting. Before lighting your fire, you must have everything well prepared and lots of fuel ready to go, especially if you are using wet materials. Grab more than you think you need.
Tinder- This must be dry and combustible (Tyre tube/ dry grasses or leaves rubbed/ thin wood shavings)
Kindling - This should be smaller than the thickness of your finger.
Fuel - This is what then turns into a steady fire; should be no thicker than your wrist to start with. Hardwoods such as Manuka or Beech will create good coal to keep burning whereas softwoods such as Mahoe or Pine will burn faster into ash.
Next time it is raining, go search around your campsite for dry tinder, you will find little dry spots up in Punga trees, search for dry leaves, mosses, dry bark, toi toi, Raupo etc try different things to see what burns well when you have the time. When you desperately need a fire, you have already done your research.
The biggest mistake people make that will waste energy is either trying to light the wrong materials, or not having enough fuel to feed it once it’s going. Start with fine tinder and have lots and lots and lots of kindling and fuel prepared for when that flame is alive.
Matches will always fail you when you need them the most. The most sensible item to always carry, especially in your day bag is modern fire-making equipment. Invest in a decent windproof lighter and place it in a dry bag or medkit. I always carry two. One on my person and one in my medkit or brew pouch for backup
The most effective waterproof fire starters I have found can be made with cotton wool rubbed in Vaseline stuffed inside plastic containers or bike tyre tubing.
Fatwood is wood that is full of a resinous substance called terpene which is present in evergreen trees such as pine. This is the main ingredient in mineral turpentine that you buy in the shop. Highly flammable and super easy to find if it's in your area. It will burn furiously once touched by a spark. You’ll find it built up in elbows and the knots in dead trees. Look in the area where gravity will sink the resin to. It is a rich color compared to surrounding wood and smells like turps (mineral turpentine).
Fatwood, Note the darker color. It almost looks like it is soaked in oil. Found in evergreen trees such as pine, it is highly flammable and will burn furiously when hit with a spark.
SKILL #4 - Protection from the Elements
A simple emergency day tarp or the ability to create adequate survival shelters will allow you to sleep comfortably, or at least weather out a storm. Understand that when sleeping at night, most of your heat loss occurs through conduction; this is where warmth is transferred out of you and into the ground or something colder than you.
The simplest form of shelter is a debris shelter, this will trap your body heat inside. This can be made from a structure of branches and as much organic debris as you can pile on top, underneath and all around. The priority here is to create a very thick thermal layer of vegetation between yourself and the ground to battle conduction.
You need to minimize airflow and ensure that it is tight to move inside. This way your body heat can circulate and not escape.
You can then upgrade if you have time and create a lean-to shelter that is based on the same principles, but you now have room to create a fire close to the entrance or bring mates inside too.
A student gathering firewood. Adapting to nature and becoming energy efficient is sometimes a lesson in itself. Taking a moment to look at tasks from different angles will take time, but save you loads of valuable energy.
Skill #5 - Water
This is usually never a worry in New Zealand. But sterilization must be used if you don’t want to play Russian roulette. I have seen large warriors hit the deck with severe dehydration resulting from explosive… chocolate rain.
There are a few ways to sterilize water:
Boiling; there is no need to boil water for 5 minutes. Most pathogens die well before boiling temperature so just bringing water to a boil for a minute or two is adequate for sterilization.
Iodine/Betadine; using the Betadine liquid from your first aid kit. Betadine contains Iodine which has been used for almost a hundred years as a water sterilizer. It is poisonous in large quantities so measure carefully. Add four drops per litre to clear water and 10 drops per litre to cloudy water. Mix well and leave for 30 minutes. Purification tablets also use iodine which you can purchase from any outdoor shop or supermarket. I like the Betadine system, as I carry it in my first aid kit anyway. This limits the need for more stuff.
Filtration of dirty water; does not sterilize water but it will remove larger organisms and sediment. You will still want to boil afterwards if you can. This can be made by using a bottle or even a sock. The most basic form of this is layering moss and charcoal from the fire, then pouring your dirty water through multiple times.
Water Filtration. A simple water filter made with all foraged materials can make thick dirty water clear and palatable.
The fact of the matter is that unpredicted events will happen to anyone, it happens to the best of us, even experienced hunters are prone to mistakes and unforeseen accidents.
By learning a few basic survival skills and understanding the importance of being prepared, you can set yourself up for success. It pays to always leave home or camp with the essentials in your day bag.
Stay tuned for our next article in the Survival Series.
About The Author
Ash Budd, the Senior Instructor and founder of New Zealand Survival Academy has developed a system based on collecting and refining survival teachings into easily understandable practical skills.
Information and skills are applied on top of real-world practical military operational experience. This has been gathered from a professional career where survival is a daily consideration.
Military survival helps create a ‘baptism of fire’ environment, often fast-paced and rapidly changing scenarios require a solid skill base, level head and the ability to adapt.
From this, you can discern practical skills, tools, and information that is life-saving as opposed to amusing common craft skills.
Workshops include primitive bushcraft skills, survival shelter, tracking humans and animals, situational awareness activities, celestial/survival navigation, foraging, trapping animals and fire-making. If you want to get hands-on and fully involved in a great learning environment then these workshops are for you.