Wilderness Survival Guide - Stay Alive in Emergencies

The headline is a couple sets out driving from their British Columbia home to Las Vegas Nevada in March of 2001. They decide to follow their GPS system, which indicated a shortcut. The couple became lost and stranded while looking for the shortcut.

The husband after three days decides to set out on foot looking for help. He never came back and his wife was stranded for 48 days before being discovered barely alive. Eighteen months later authorities discovered the husband's remains.

He apparently was using a handheld GPS system that led him farther into the wilderness. He did not have the means to build a shelter or make a fire. His remains were discovered six miles from Mountain City Nevada. His wife survived in their van on snow, trail mix and water from a nearby stream. The wife has since recovered from the ordeal. Authorities stated the couple was "woefully unprepared" to survive the treacherous mountain range (Daily Mail, 2012).

Being Prepared

A relaxing road trip can turn into a catastrophe and day hikes can turn into nightmares in a matter of minutes. Anything can happen to anyone at anytime. Tragic events like what was described happen much too often. You must understand that nature is not out to get you, it is not malicious, it is simply there, but you must accept nature on its terms and not yours.

To survive in any situation you must have clean air, shelter, water, fire and eventually nourishment. Being stranded for 48 days is extreme and after three weeks, food becomes critical. Having the proper tools and materials in your survival pack is essential to survival. You must have the means to build a shelter, make fire and collect and purify drinking water and if you are stranded for an extended period, you will need to forage for food.

The following is a list of survival essentials that should be carried in your car, your backpack on hikes, bicycle tours, cross-country ski trips or on any outdoor adventure. Food and water has been purposely left off the list. Your survival kit is in addition to supplies you would normally carry. The kit provides you the means to survive long after your traditional supplies have been depleted.

  • First Aid Kit

  • Multi-Tool With File Wire Cutters Pliers

  • Fixed Bladed Knife

  • 2% Liquid Iodine/Iodine Tablets/Chlorine Dioxide Tablets For Emergency Water Purification

  • Two Stainless Steel Canteens One Or Two Quart/Liter Size

  • Camp Axe/Machete/Folding Saw

  • Two Quality Rain Ponchos Can Be Used As Emergency Shelters The Ponchos Must Be Large Enough To Cover You And Your Pack When Shouldered

  • Cordage Such As 550 Para cord/Heavy String/Twine Have At Least 50 Feet

  • Fire Starting Material Such As A Magnesium Stick With Flint And Or A Ferrocerium Rod: Matches Are Unreliable So It Is Important You Have Alternative Ways To Start A Fire

  • Cotton Balls For Fire Starting Along With Petroleum Jelly

  • Signal Mirror/Orange Or Red Garbage Bags Can Be Used For Signaling Rescue Personnel

  • 15 To 20 Pound Monofilament Fishing Line

  • Assorted Hooks And Tackle

  • Coffee Filters/Charcoal For Water Filtration

  • Clean Cotton Cloths

  • 20 To 24 Gauge Wire Which Has Multiple Purposes Such As Shelter Building Gear Repair Animal Snares And Assorted Bindings

If you become stranded in a vehicle, it is your shelter so you must use it and not wander off from it unless you are prepared to build a shelter, have water and can make fire as you try to self-rescue. Typically, you want to stay in place for at least 72-hours. Stay in place if you simply do not have the means to survive away from your shelter. Rescue personnel will attempt to find where you went off the route to track you to your current location.

Wandering makes it harder for rescue personnel to find you. Additionally, panicking and running through the brush will cause you injury, burn energy and deplete your water supply faster. You must stay calm and make camp once you realize you are lost or stranded. Attach a brightly colored cloth or colored garbage bag to the vehicle so it can be seen from the air and ground. Start and maintain a signal fire in several spots, smoke can be spotted in daylight and flames can be seen at night.

Unless your life is in danger, hiking through the woods at night is dangerous and is never recommended unless you are being pursued. Nocturnal predators come out at night to include dangerous reptiles such as snakes. You also risk falling into a gorge or off a cliff and tripping and breaking an ankle or leg while trying to find you way in the dark.

Shelter Building

Shelter protects you from the elements, predators, and provides comfort. Without adequate shelter, your chance of surviving is dramatically reduced if you become lost or stranded. Therefore, when you realize you are lost while hiking or hunting stop, assess your area and if it is safe begin constructing a shelter.

Shelter can be made from forest debris such as snow, sticks, and pine boughs or with what you are carrying with you such as a poncho. If you plan to self-rescue then your shelter must be easily constructed after a long day of trying to find your way to civilization, so you do not want to spend a lot of time on it. If you plan to stay put for at least 72-hours then spend more time constructing one such as a tepee style shelter for more room and protection.

Constructed using two logs found lying in the forest, then propped on the tree branches for support, and covered with pine boughs, leaves and other brush. Note how the fire is directed toward the shelter to reflect down from the coverings on to anyone in the shelter.

You can also take advantage of natural formations such as trees and fallen logs for shelter. If you do not have the proper tools to construct a teepee type shelter and do not have a poncho or tarp, you can scoop out the soil next to a log and place broken branches and pine boughs, leaves and dirt against the log for cover.


Fire is needed to prevent hypothermia, cook raw foods to destroy parasites and bacteria, purify water, repel insects/predators and for comfort. Hikers, campers and hunters that have relied solely on matches to start a fire have been literally left out in the cold causing a life-threatening situation. Matches can become damp from being carried in your pocket due to body perspiration.

They also become useless when exposed to high humidity, from rain and snow even when in your pack. This is not to say you should not carry matches but do not rely on them to keep you alive. Magnesium sticks are easy to carry, are inexpensive and will start a fire under extreme conditions. Magnesium shavings combined with cotton balls dipped in petroleum jelly will start fires even in very damp or wet conditions.

To use a magnesium stick simply shave off some particles onto dry tinder or cotton ball with a knife, or use the scraper that is usually included with the stick. Note the black rod imbedded on the stick. The flint rod creates a spark when scraped with metal typically the backside of a fixed bladed knife.

You can also create a spark using a ferrocerium rod sometimes called a flint stick. The spark is intense and can be used to start fires without magnesium if you have dry, well-fluffed tinder. Roll the tinder between your palms to create surface for oxygen and the flame before attempting to light with just a spark.

Once you have scraped some magnesium particles onto the tinder use the backside of a fixed bladed knife to create a spark using the embedded flint. Do not use the back of a folding knife blade; the blade can close on your fingers. Apply downward pressure on the embedded flint bar as you push the blade toward your tinder pile.

Petroleum jelly on a cotton ball will burn up to four minutes allowing you to feed the flame with damp tinder. You can also use alcohol wipes found in your first aid kit to start a fire by squeezing the alcohol from the pad onto your tinder and igniting with a flint rod by scrapping the back of a knife blade along the flint rod. Alcohol burns fast and you cannot see the flame in daylight, so some people have allowed their fire to extinguish because they did not feed the flame thinking it was not ignited.


You can collect dew from windshields, hoods and roofs of vehicles. Additionally dew can be collected from vegetation and ponchos laid on the ground or over bushes. To collect take a clean cotton cloth and absorb the dew from any surface that is not obviously contaminated.

Water collected this way is safe to drink. Snow can be collected and melted for drinking without purifying if the snow has not been contaminated by animals or their droppings. Collect from tree branches or from the ground and allow the snow to melt before consuming.

Rivers, streams, ponds and lakes are also a source of drinking water but these sources must be filtered and purified before they are considered safe to drink. Filter any surface water to remove sediment, insects, cysts and other debris. Turbidity in the water makes boiling and chemical purification less effective. Use any filtering medium available such as coffee filters, charcoal, sand, gravel and cloth to filter your water before purification.

Boiling Water

At sea level water must rapid boil for one minute. If you are 500 feet/152 meters or more above sea level, boil for three minutes. Water boils at a lower temperature because there is less air pressure at higher elevations thus, you must boil longer at a lower temperature to destroy all waterborne contaminates. You may ask why not boil for three minutes regardless of your elevation.

Boiling causes you to lose water volume through evaporation. This is critical if you have a limited water source and fuel, because you can literally boil your water supply away if you are not careful. Allow the water to cool before drinking because hot water can cause stomach cramps and induce vomiting. Generally, for every 500 feet/152 meters above sea level, the boiling point of water is reduced by one degree.

Using Two Percent Liquid Iodine

Ideally, you will have two water containers when chemically treating water. Collect water with one container then filter into a clean container. The container used to collect water will have contaminates around the drink line making it unsafe to drink from even when the contents have been purified. There is however, a method to disinfect the drink line if you only have one container, which will be discussed later. The ratio is five drops of iodine to a one-quart/liter container

Once you have filtered the water into a clean container, add the five drops of iodine seal the canteen and shake well. Then wait 30 minutes to allow the iodine to work. If the water is cloudy, even after filtering double the drops to 10 per quart/liter and wait 60 minutes. Do not exceed 10 drops per one-quart/liter of water. Follow the manufactures directions when using water purification tablets.

To purify the drink line, cap and canteen threads add the recommended amount of liquid iodine or the correct number of purification tablets. Shake the container well to dissolve the tablets and or to mix the liquid iodine and then loosen the cap and tip to allow the treated water to flow over the drink line/threads of the container ensuring you also disinfect the inside of the cap. Seal the container and wait 30 minutes. Never combine purification tablets with liquid iodine in the same container. Only use one or the other to purify any one container.

Daily Mail (2012, October). Retrieved from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2211532/Albert-Chretien-Remains-Canadian-lost-Nevada-wilderness-miles-town-18-months-later.html


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