Know The Importance Of Basic Wilderness Survival Gear

Outdoor Survival—What To Know Before You Start Your Adventure

Know The Importance Of Basic Wilderness Survival Gear

By Jim Cobb, Wisconsin

This is the time of year when families begin planning summer vacations. Quite often, those trips involve spending some quality time out in the forests and such, enjoying Mother Nature in all her splendor. Unfortunately, this is also the time of year when we begin hearing stories about lost hikers and campers, folks who took a wrong turn and couldn’t find their way back to the trail. Usually, these lost souls are rescued within a day or two. Sometimes, though, it becomes not a rescue but a body retrieval.

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The reality is this: any time you are heading out into the forest, even if only for a half-mile hike, you should carry with you a few survival foods and other items with you, just in case.


While most folks today have a cell phone strapped to their hip or in their pocket, there are many areas where signals don’t reach. Shouting for help will likely only give you a sore throat. The human voice just doesn’t carry all that far in the woods. It can also be difficult to pinpoint if it is heard. A far better plan is to keep a loud whistle on a lanyard around your neck. It is best if the whistle has no moving parts, such as a pea rolling around inside. In cold climates, your breath will condense and freeze inside the whistle, possibly causing some problems with sound. The whistle should also be plastic rather than metal. When the temperatures plummet in winter, your lips could freeze to a metal whistle.

Patterns of three are universally recognized as signals for help. For example, three short blasts on the whistle or three rifle shots.

A glow stick, sometimes called a snap light, is a great signaling tool at night. Tie the light to a length of cord, such as a shoelace. Activate the light, then spin it in a circle in front of you. The glowing circle can be seen for miles, provided, of course, you are at the top of a hill or otherwise in a clear area.


Having a homemade fire starter or the tools necessary for building a fire is critical. Fire will keep you warm, dry you out if you’ve gotten wet, and light up the night. There is a strong psychological element at work, too. Sitting in front of a fire will help you to relax and feel better about your situation.

Personally, I like to have at least two different ignition tools with me when I’m out hiking. Three would be better but two should suffice. Good choices include strike anywhere matches inside a waterproof container, butane lighters, and ferrocerium rods with strikers. I tend to favor butane lighters and ferro rods. Both are capable of lighting hundreds, if not thousands, of fires.

Ready-to-light tinder is also recommended. Yes, there are many natural sources of tinder, such as seed pods and plant fluff of all kinds, but you cannot always count on finding it when it is most needed. What I suggest is keeping a small container of cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly in your pocket. If you can find one these days, an old 35mm film canister works great.

Building a fire is a skill that should be practiced regularly. It is not something that comes easily to many people. We do a lot of campfires in our backyard and I like to have my kids each practice using ferro rods and such. They get a kick out of it and they’re learning valuable skills at the same time.


A knife can be your most valuable survival tool. It need not be a giant “Rambo” knife, complete with builtin compass and hollow handle. In fact, I’d steer you away from any of that sort of nonsense. You have two basic choices, fixed blade or folder. I prefer fixed blades as they tend to be far stronger than most folding knives and the last thing I want in a survival situation is to have my knife fail.

For most camp chores as well as survival tasks, a blade of four inches or so should suffice. You’re not using it as a machete, you’re just making feather sticks, whittling, possibly cleaning small game and such. For the money, you can hardly go wrong with a GNS knife made by LT Wright Knives. Another, but more inexpensive, option is the Condor Bushlore.

However, you may not want to carry a fixed blade knife on your belt, whether because of legal restrictions or because of comfort. There are many high-quality folding knives on the market today. There are also a ton of cheap, knock-offs that will likely fall apart after the first day of any real world use. Look for recognizable brand names like Kershaw, Gerber, or Buck. Genuine Swiss Army knives are also good quality.

Knives should be kept as sharp as possible. Dull knives are a far greater danger to you than sharp knives. Learn how to sharpen your knife and always take the time to touch up the edge after you’ve been using it.


A compass might be all you need to self-rescue, provided you’ve done a bit of homework first. Take a look at maps of the area where you’ll be hiking or camping. Get to know the lay of the land a bit, especially where roads and such border the area. For example, let’s say you’ll be staying in a county-owned campground with hundreds of acres of wilderness. If you know that U.S. Highway BB is on the north end of the grounds, Highway 87 is on the west side, Silver Lake is to the south, and the Banff River is to the east, you shouldn’t have much trouble finding help if you have a compass telling you which way to go. Of course, that’s also a pretty simplistic example.

The idea is to have a reliable way of figuring out which way is north so you can better orient yourself and make a decision on which way to travel. If you spend enough time out in the wilderness, you’ll soon just sort of know which way you’re facing. But, even if you’ve reached that point, put a compass in your pocket to double check your intuition.


Always have a water bottle with you. It doesn’t matter if you keep it on your belt, sling it over your shoulder, or carry it in your hand, just be sure to have a full bottle of water with you when you hit the trail. Dehydration can sneak up on you, especially when hiking in hot weather. Stay hydrated as best you can and take frequent breaks when the temperature spikes.

Several companies now offer water bottles that have a robust filter built right in. This is an excellent option as it gives you the ability to refill from natural sources, such as rivers and lakes, without having to worry about giardia and other nasty stuff that can make you very sick. Never drink directly from natural sources of water. Even absolutely crystal clear water can harbor bacteria and such. The last thing you need is to add stomach upset to your list of woes.


Hypothermia is a very real danger and it can set in during even relatively mild temperatures. An emergency blanket is small enough to fit into a pocket and can quite literally save your life. They are made of a thin plastic material that reflects heat. Originally developed by NASA in the 1960s, hence the name “space blanket,” they quickly found use among hikers and campers.

To use an emergency blanket properly, it should be wrapped around the body, but loosely so as to allow for dead air space between the blanket and the body. Your body heat, trapped by the blanket, will warm that dead air, which in turn will keep you warm. These blankets can also be used to create shade if the problem is too much heat rather than not enough. SurvivalResources. com sells the Sportsman Hooded Blanket, which is an emergency blanket with a hood and hand pouches built right in for use as a poncho.

With the exception of the water bottle, everything else should easily fit into a pocket of your pants or jacket. We’re not talking several pounds of gear, just a few ounces. But those mere ounces could mean the difference between a tragic news story and a cool story you can tell friends and family later.

One last thing: Any time you are headed into the wilderness, whether for a half hour hike or an overnight trip, be sure someone outside your party knows where you’re going, when you’re leaving, and when you should return. If you don’t check in with them at the appointed time, they should alert the authorities.

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