You don’t need to get a group together to enjoy the great outdoors—sometimes the peace and quiet is best enjoyed solo. But heading into remote territory by yourself isn’t something you should undertake lightly. Even for short trips, it’s good to be prepared for the possibility that something might go wrong—and you’ll get even more out of your experience if you start out with some basic wilderness skills. Take a cue from survival experts by studying these essential skills before your next big adventure.
1. STARTING A FIRE
Whether you’re looking to grill some hot dogs or are trying to survive in an emergency, you’ll need to know how to start a fire safely, especially in less than ideal conditions, like just after a rain. There are several different methods you can master, but the basics should include how to use a single match to start a fire without fail, how to choose materials that will burn well, and the best way to construct your firewood. After a downpour, for example, experts suggest cutting down limbs that are high up, which are more likely to have dry spots than fallen limbs resting on the rain-soaked ground.
As an alternative, look for so-called “fatwood”—dried wood that is “fat”, and nearly petrified, with pine resin. This wood is easy enough to spot, and is often located in the stumps of dead pine trees. The resin is extraordinarily flammable—all the better to quickly build a life-saving fire with.
2. BUILDING A SHELTER
Yeah, you should figure out how to set up a tent before you leave home. But it’s good to have some low-tech ways to shield yourself from the elements, too. You’ll need to find high, dry ground away from trees that are liable to fall in rough weather. The shelter should be small enough to retain your body heat. It’s easiest to build a shelter if you already have something like a tarp, but you can also make a lean-to out of tree branches and leaves or hide out under a crevice.
3. OBTAINING SAFE WATER
You can only survive a few days without water, so it’s vital that you know how to find it when you need it. It’s too heavy to carry enough of it to last for a whole multi-day trip, so you’ll need to figure out other ways to get the water on the go. Heading downhill and looking for dark soil are good places to start as far as finding water sources go, but then you’ll need to boil it or use some kind of water purifier before you start drinking. In cold conditions, you can make snow into drinkable water by mixing it with liquid water and placing the bottle near your body between layers of clothing.
4. IDENTIFYING PLANTS
You should know the difference between poisonous plants (especially ones like poison oak or poison ivy), edible plants, and plants that can be used for first aid purposes. Some moss can be used as bandages or wound treatments; coconut shells can be used to make rope; and others provide a last-ditch food source.
5. KNOWING WHAT TO BRING
When traveling by foot, each extra item you bring adds weight to your pack, making your journey that much harder. Learn what exactly your trip will demand of you, and figure out how to pack accordingly. Even better, learn how to repurpose different items for multiple uses—you’ll be able to save that much more space.
6. WHAT TO DO DURING ANIMAL ENCOUNTERS
Learn to identify poisonous and harmless snakes that frequent the area you’ll be traveling. You’ll also need to learn how to deal with bigger predators, like cougars and bears, should you stumble upon them. Take precautions, like making a fair amount of noise to prevent startling a predator, and keep an eye out for tracks. If you happen to run into a wild cat, keep in mind that though they may be near the top of the food chain, they’re also pretty easily intimidated. If one crosses your path, don’t be afraid to shout, wave your arms, or throw sticks. It will most likely slink away.
7. NAVIGATING WITHOUT THAT SMARTPHONE
It’s relatively easy to navigate by the sun and the moon; people have been doing it for thousands of years. Take a basic natural navigation course to learn how to find your way around without a compass, using the positions of the sun, moon, and shadows, ensuring you never head in the wrong direction for miles. While you’re at it, make sure you know how to read a trail map, and keep the ones you have on hand updated.
Find yourself without a map? Nature provides plenty of hints as to which direction you’re heading. If you’re wandering on a sunny day, place your hand on a nearby rock. In the morning, the eastern-facing side will feel warmer; in the afternoon, the rock’s western face will.
8. ADMINISTERING FIRST AID
Accidents happen, and the wilderness is the last place you want to be caught unprepared. Should you twist an ankle, scrape a leg, or receive a snake bite, you need to know how to take care of yourself before you can make it to help. What you should have in your kit depends on where you’ll be traveling, but in any case, you should be packing bandages and gauze at the very least.
If you’ve been bitten by a snake, remove jewelry or tight clothing in case the site begins to swell. Keep the injury at or below heart level, and allow it to bleed for 10 to 15 seconds. Next, do your best to clean the wound (do not, however, flush it with water), and do your best to seek medical attention as soon as possible.
9. ESTIMATING DISTANCE AND TIME
When you’re out in the wilderness, you may need to track the progress you’ve made in your journey and how much time there is left in the day. A footstep is about 30 inches long, and most people on flat terrain walk at a speed of three miles per hour. You can use your fingers to estimate how much sunlight you have left: if you place your hand between your view of the sun and the horizon, four fingers represent an hour of sunlight left, with every finger after that representing 15 more minutes.
10. RECOGNIZING HYPOTHERMIA
Hypothermia can be incredibly dangerous if left unaddressed. Learn to recognize the signs, both in yourself and in others. Mild hypothermia can result in what some experts refer to as the “umbles”: stumbles, mumbles, grumbles, and fumbles, due to decreased coordination. (Shivering is also a telltale sign.) Severe hypothermia, surprisingly, is marked by a lack of shivering, as well as an inability to form coherent sentences. It’s important to treat mild hypothermia before it gets to that critical point—add layers where you can, hydrate, and try moving around in quick bursts as a way to raise your body temperature.
11. KNOWING YOUR LIMITS
It’s especially important as a beginning hiker, backpacker, or general wilderness enthusiast to be able to recognize what is and isn’t possible for your body and skill set. If you’ve never hiked before and have never needed to use an ice pick, it may not be a great idea to set out on the Pacific Crest Trail. If you’re headed into the desert on a hot day and start running low on water, it may be smarter to turn back than to continue on to finish your hike.