Essential Survival Skills for Hikers

​Survival can be summed up in three words​: Never Give Up. That's the heart of it really. Just keep trying. ​​ - Bear Grylls​​​

Bear Grylls

​True story: A 66-year-old woman survived for 26 days in the wild. Don’t worry about the fact that she didn’t make it. Seriously - if you can survive for this long, chances are you will be found and rescued. Most lost hikers are found within 72 hours.

Another story about getting lost is the Stephen King short story Survivor Type. This one is fictional but it’s a cautionary tale of what can happen to a person with no survival skills. The first thing you should do is to remember to STOP. Staying calm and having a plan can make all the difference.

In this definitive compendium of survival skills for hikers, you will find a number of links to essential resources, which further expand on this important topic and are well-worth checking out. We have identified five crucial ​areas to discuss: Navigation Skills, First Aid, Building Shelters, Winter Survival Skills, and Survival Gear & Gadgets.

Although not recommended, you can skip Winter Survival Skills if you live in the tropics or navigation skills if you plan on staying put, and so on. One thing is sure: You have to know how to start a fire. ​Fire can be used to send smoke signals, boil water from questionable sources, stay warm, dry wet clothes and gear, repel wild animals, and much more, including cooking​.

Related Post: Bear Safety (How To Stay Alive)

19 Essential Survival Skills For Hikers (That Save Lives)

Navigation Skills

Although not recommended, you can skip Winter Survival Skills if you live in the tropics or navigation skills if you plan on staying put, and so on. One thing is sure. You have to know how to start a fire. You can use a fire to send smoke signals, boil water from questionable sources, stay warm, dry wet clothes and gear, repel wild animals, and much more, including cooking if lucky and skilled enough to hunt.

In this day and age, a GPS is good to have but it shouldn’t replace basic navigation skills with paper maps and a good compass. Paper maps and compass never fail, which is a thought as comforting as any when you’re in survival mode.

Basic Map Reading

Topo maps are the most useful maps for hiking. The contour lines on a topo map denote elevation. Check the bottom left corner of the map for the contour interval, which is the difference in elevation between two contour lines. Areas of steep incline have bunched contour lines, while gentle slopes have contour lines that are further apart. We also recommend these very useful offline maps by Cairn.

Using a Compass

​If you remember how a compass works from school, congratulations! An explorer’s compass adds a baseplate under the compass and a direction-of-travel arrow in the shape of the compass needle, and preferably, you should get one with declination adjustment.

If you remember how a compass works from school, congratulations! An explorer’s compass adds a baseplate under the compass and a direction-of-travel arrow in the shape of the compass needle, and preferably, you should get one with declination adjustment.

Finding North

​Declination is the difference between the compass’s magnetic north and true north. Magnetic north is guided by the Earth’s magnetic field which changes slightly over time because of the movement of molten iron alloys in the outer core.

True north is assumed to be the top of the map but this is actually wrong because maps are flattened images of the Earth. In the United States, for example, some places on the East Coast can have declinations as much as -20 (20 degrees west) and places on the West Coast can have declinations as much as +20 (20 degrees east).

Estimating Distance Traveled

True north is assumed to be the top of the map but this is actually wrong because maps are flattened images of the Earth. In the United States, for example, some places on the East Coast can have declinations as much as -20 (20 degrees west) and places on the West Coast can have declinations as much as +20 (20 degrees east).

When you’re lost, it is very helpful to estimate how far you have traveled. You can do that by knowing your estimated pace of travel through different terrains.

Finding Food and Water

We can only last a few days without water. Luckily finding water in the wild is quite a bit easier than finding food.

Signal Distress

​Besides smoke signals and your phone, there are other ways to signal for help, which include whistles, flares, flags, mirrors, and much more.

Besides smoke signals and your phone, there are other ways to signal for help, which include whistles, flares, flags, mirrors, and much more.
survival skills hikers_compass

First Aid

First aid skills are handy even if you are not lost. Start by packing a first aid kit. Pack light but as comprehensively as it suits you. For example, if you have an iron stomach, you might just skip the Imodium.

Heat and Hydration

Heat exhaustion, or worse, heat stroke, is what you can’t afford when you find yourself in the middle of nowhere. It’s much more preferable to prevent heat exhaustion than to have to treat it in the wild. Make sure to find water first to stay hydrated, and you need treat water to treat heat exhaustion.

Cuts

Even minor cuts and abrasions in the wild can lead to infection. Learn how to clean the cut, dress cuts that are beyond superficial, and close deep wounds.

Slings and Splints

In the wild, a broken bone is a lot more than just painful, it can diminish your chances of survival and even your will to survive unless you can stabilize it with a makeshift splint and sling (in the case of a broken arm). Having a SAM Splint in your backpack can make your life much easier. If not, there are ways of making improvised splints with extra clothing. For a broken arm, you can make a sling with a rope and a long sleeve.

This is why I love bushcraft.

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Burns

The ability to start a fire is essential to survival but it comes with the risk of getting burned. Learn how to treat burns and you can truly claim dominion over fire.

Skin Ailments

Skin ailments are annoying and can affect your spirit. It’s in your best interest to know how to treat rashes and fungal infections, and also learn to recognize plants that can help with skin problems and cuts.

Snake Bites

​The chances of you getting bit by a snake are not that great but it is one of those things that can happen when the “excrement” really hits the fan. This is what you can do in case of a snake bite.

The chances of you getting bit by a snake are not that great but it is one of those things that can happen when the “excrement” really hits the fan. This is what you can do in case of a snake bite.
survival skills for hikers

Building Shelters

​It’s much better to build a shelter before dark. Use this method to estimate the remaining hours before sunset with just your hand. Let’s keep it light at first by watching this classic 4-minute ​Ray Mears video on how to build a shelter:

It’s much better to build a shelter before dark. Use this method to estimate the remaining hours before sunset with just your hand. Let’s keep it light at first by watching this 4-minute BBC video on how to build a shelter:

Selecting the Location

One of the main reasons the 66-year-old woman who survived in the wild for 26 days was not found alive was that she chose to build the shelter under thick foliage where it couldn’t be seen by rescuers from the sky. This is but one of several aspects of where to build the shelter.

Types of Shelter

Not all shelters have to be built from scratch. You might run into natural formations such as caves, rocky overhangs, and naturally formed tree shelters. If not, you can build a shelter in not much time if you have a poncho or tarp. Otherwise, you can build simple lean-to and double lean-to shelters from fallen branches and leaves. In the winter, you can even build a shelter out of snow. Here’s a more in-depth discussion on the different types of shelters.

Building the Shelter

​The type of shelter that you decide to build depends on the tools you have available and the amount of time you think you would have to dig for. With a hatchet, you can even build a log cabin. Creek Stewart of Willow Haven Outdoor School shared with us how to build a surprisingly simple Ultimate Survival Shelter. Check out these 15 shelter designs and building guide for more ideas.

The type of shelter that you decide to build depends on the tools you have available and the amount of time you think you would have to dig for. With a hatchet, you can even build a log cabin. Creek Stewart of Willow Haven Outdoor School shared with us how to build a surprisingly simple Ultimate Survival Shelter. Check out these 15 shelter designs and building guide for more ideas.
survival skills for hikers

Winter Survival Skills

Winter presents a whole new set of challenges. Many people shy away from hitting the trails in the winter but of course, not you 🙂 The snow-laden trails and snowcapped hills are too magnificent, and the silence of winter in the wild is the very definition of tranquility.

Further Reading: Winter Camping: Backpacking Tips & Gear Guide

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Winter Weather Gear

You cannot survive without a fire in the winter so bring several types of fire starters and tinder with you. In addition, you can maximize the heat by using a reflective tarp to build your shelter. Even better, invest in a seriously good four-season backpacking tent. You could also bring heavy-duty trash bags that can be turned into a makeshift raincoat to reduce the risk of catching a cold.

Water

​The only way to obtain drinking water in the wild in the winter is by melting snow and ice. Most bacteria and other pathogens cannot survive in freezing temperature so water from melted clean-looking white snow is considered safe for drinking. Of course, you can always just eat the snow and pretend its Italian ice or something, but here are a few ways to melt snow for drinking water with or without a fire.

The only way to obtain drinking water in the wild in the winter is by melting snow and ice. Most bacteria and other pathogens cannot survive in freezing temperature so water from melted clean-looking white snow is considered safe for drinking. Of course, you can always just eat the snow and pretend its Italian ice or something, but here are a few ways to melt snow for drinking water with or without a fire.
survival skills for hikers

Frostbite and Hypothermia

Frostbite is a serious condition of frozen blood vessels and surrounding tissues, and hypothermia is rapid loss of heat from prolonged exposure to cold. Both are easier to prevent than to treat in the wild. Learn to recognize the early signs of frostbite and treat as soon as possible.

​Avalanches

​Avalanche is a rapid movement of snow down an incline. Snow is the keyword here, not rocks, so you can survive an avalanche, though it’s better to learn to spot areas of potential avalanches.

Survival Gear & Gadgets

Avalanche is a rapid movement of snow down an incline. Snow is the keyword here, not rocks, so you can survive an avalanche, though it’s better to learn to spot areas of potential avalanches.
Avalanches

​Here’s the top 12 list of survival gear and gadgets for your backpack:

  1. Cell phone: without a doubt the first thing anybody tries when they’re lost.
  2. First aid kit
  3. Compass
  4. Area map
  5. Whistle: to signal for help.
  6. Signal mirror: to signal search helicopters.
  7. Fixed blade survival knife: for cutting branches to make a shelter, sharpening sticks, skinning game, just to name a few.
  8. ​​​Paracord/Nylon cord: Paracord is a nylon kernmantle rope used in parachutes. A good cord can be used for anything from climbing to dragging game.
  9. Fire starters: lighter, waterproof matches, magnifying glass, and magnesium fire starters are a just few to start with. There are things in life that you can’t have enough of and a fire starter is one of them.
  10. Water purification tablets: for purifying water.
  11. Water container: self-explanatory.
  12. Personal locator beacon: this can be more expensive than a cheap phone but you can use it to transmit your coordinates to search-and-rescue centers so a team can be out looking for you right away.

​Trail End

Trail End
Cell phone: without a doubt the first thing anybody tries when they’re lost.
First aid kit
Compass
Area map
Whistle: to signal for help.
Signal mirror: to signal search helicopters.
Fixed blade survival knife: for cutting branches to make a shelter, sharpening sticks, skinning game, just to name a few.
Paracord/Nylon cord: Paracord is a nylon kernmantle rope used in parachutes. A good cord can be used for anything from climbing to dragging game.
Fire starters: lighter, waterproof matches, magnifying glass, and magnesium fire starters are a just few to start with. There are things in life that you can’t have enough of and a fire starter is one of them.
Water purification tablets: for purifying water.
Water container: self-explanatory.
Personal locator beacon: this can be more expensive than a cheap phone but you can use it to transmit your coordinates to search-and-rescue centers so a team can be out looking for you right away.
                                 

​Hopefully by now you will have a good idea of the essential survival skills for hikers. We highly recommend you read and reread this resource – and those linked to – before setting out on any lengthy hikes in remote areas. It really does pay to take safety seriously in those situations. If you have any tips we should add, please let us know in the comments. =ZIP=

Hopefully by now you will have a good idea of the essential survival skills for hikers. We highly recommend you read and reread this resource – and those linked to – before setting out on any lengthy hikes in remote areas. It really does pay to take safety seriously in those situations. If you have any tips we should add, please let us know in the comments. =ZIP=

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