How to Survive in the Woods

Two Parts:Preparing for the WoodsSurviving in the Woods

Have you ever been on a hike admiring the great views, gazing up at the tips of the trees, listening to the rustling of the leaves... and suddenly found yourself completely alone and lost? Naturally, the situation would give way to some level of panic and concern for your safety. While being lost in the woods can be a frightening experience, surviving alone in the wild is generally a matter of common sense, patience, and wisely using the gifts that nature provides. If you want to know how to survive in the woods, just follow these steps.

Part 1
Preparing for the Woods

  1. Image titled Survive in the Woods Step 1
    Do your research first. Don't just trek off into the wilderness; get a solid understanding of your surroundings first. Studying a map of the area where you're going -- and making sure to bring it with you -- will increase your chances of not getting lost tremendously. Educate yourself about the flora and fauna of the area you are exploring. Knowledge of the local plants and animals can save your life (for example knowing which plants are edible or knowing where the local colony of rattlesnakes make haven).
    • One of the most accurate and informative books about this subject is "Bushcraft - Outdoor Skills and Wilderness Survival" by Mors Kochanski.
  2. Image titled Survive in the Woods Step 2
    Make sure that you eat well before going into the woods, and tell someone where you are going, when you expect to return, when to know to call the cops, etc. Don't make the mistake that James Franco makes in 127, the survival movie based on a true story -- make sure someone know exactly where you're going and when. That way, if you do not return in time, someone will realize that you are lost, quickly alert rescuers, and be able to tell them where to start looking for you.
  3. Image titled Survive in the Woods Step 3
    Bring survival gear. Basic survival tools such as a knife, a fire steel (metal match), some matches (in a waterproof canister), some cord (550 paracord is best), a whistle, a space blanket, a signaling mirror, water purifying tablets, and a compass can mean the difference between life and death. Even if you are only out on a day hike, be sure to bring the essentials.
    • Having all this equipment is nothing if you cannot use it properly. Make sure to practice many times in a safe environment before venturing into the wilderness.
    • Don't forget to bring a first aid kit. You should bring band aids, antiseptic, and tweezers for removing splinters that could get infected.
    • If you need any medication or injections, bring them along – even if you don’t plan to be gone for long enough to need them. You never know when you might accidentally step on a snake and get bitten.
    • A compass is also an item of critical importance when traveling in the woods. You can point your compass in the direction of the city or wherever you are embarking from, and remember the direction the compass's pointer points in. That way, if you're lost in the woods, all you have to do is turn around until the compass points in the correct direction, and then follow your way back.
    • Before you leave, learn how to use a compass. If you have a map and can spot a few prominent landscapes, you can actually use the compass to triangulate your position and, from there, figure out where you need to go.
    • When choosing a space blanket (a light, thin sheet of extremely reflective Mylar), spend a little extra to buy a larger, more durable model. A space blanket can be used to block wind and water, wrapped around the body prevent/counteract hypothermia, or even placed behind you to reflect a fire’s heat onto your back, but none of this is useful if the blanket is too small or tears the moment you unwrap it.
  4. Image titled Survive in the Woods Step 4
    Bring a means of communication. A cell phone with a spare battery or a portable CB radio can be your best, quickest means of rescue if you are truly lost or injured. A cell signal may only be obtainable only from a hill or tree, but is better than nothing. Serious hikers may even consider investing in a personal locator beacon such as the SPOT Messenger for extended, precarious, or very remote, treks.
    • A SPOT Messenger is a satellite communication devices that allows you to contact emergency services, reach your own personal contacts for help during non-emergencies, or even simply check in with your friends and family as you trek so that they know you’re alright. A service subscription is required and is not cheap.

Part 2
Surviving in the Woods

  1. Image titled Survive in the Woods Step 5
    Don't panic if you’re lost. Panic is more dangerous than almost anything else, because it interferes with the operation of your single best, most useful and versatile survival tool: your mind. The moment you realize that you are lost, before you do anything else, stop. Take a deep breath and stay calm. Before you act, follow the tenets of the acronym STOP:
    • S = sit down
    • T = think
    • O = observe your surroundings
    • P = prepare for survival by gathering materials
  2. Image titled Survive in the Woods Step 6
    Get oriented. Wherever you are will become your "point zero." Find a way to mark it using a spare piece of clothing, a pile of rocks, a sheet of paper, or anything else easily visible from a distance. Learn your basic directions -- the sun rises in the East and sets in the West. Use this to tell directions as on a compass (in a clockwise direction starting at the top 12:00) North, East, South, West.
    • For example, if it is late afternoon and the sun is on your right you must be facing South.
    • Learning how to spot the North Star at night in your backyard beforehand will also prove invaluable.
  3. Image titled Survive in the Woods Step 7
    Stay in one place. This not only increases your chances of being found, but also reduces the energy your body expends and the amount of water and food you will need. Hunker down and stay put. Chances are that someone will be looking for you, especially if you let someone know your plans. Also, if you're with someone else, do not separate. Having strength in numbers will help you survive.
    • Also seeking nearby shade if it is hot out which greatly decreases your risk of dehydration and sunburn. Don't be tempted to remove clothing as this only increases these risks.
  4. Image titled Survive in the Woods Step 8
    Build a fire. Build a good-sized fire with sufficient coals to stay hot for many hours, and make sure that you have plenty of extra dry wood. Start the fire before you think you need it, even if the weather is warm; fires are easier to make under easy conditions than in a panic as the sun sets – to say nothing of the fact that having a fire nearby will give you a sense of comfort and safety as you get your bearings.
    • A good rule of thumb is to gather wood until you think you have enough to last the night, then gather three more piles of the same size, after which you might have enough to get through the night.
    • You should have access to dry wood in the understory of the forest. You can also use bark or dried dung. If you build a fire that is hot enough, you can also burn green wood, brush, or tree boughs to make a signaling fire that creates a lot of smoke.
    • The best wood for maintaining a fire is dead wood that you pull off a standing tree. Regardless of what type of woods you are in, there will certainly be some dry wood available.
    • Remember that a small fire is easier to keep burning than a big fire, though, because it requires less fuel. Once you have sufficient embers, keep the fire to a manageable size so you don't spend too much time looking for fuel.
    • Don't build a fire in an area where it is unsafe to do so. Your fire should be well away from flammable trees and brush, preferably in a clearing. Be careful with your fire. While you want to feed it, you shouldn't overdo it. Consider the weather and other factors and remember, a forest fire is a lot harder to survive than just being lost!
  5. Image titled Survive in the Woods Step 9
    Signal your location. Make noise by whistling, shouting, singing, or banging rocks together. If you can, mark your location in such a way that it's visible from the air. If you're in a mountain meadow, make three piles of dark leaves or branches in a triangle. In sandy areas, make a large triangle in the sand. Three of anything in the wilderness is a standard distress signal.
    • You can use the fire to send a distress signal. The universal distress signal is created by three fires in a straight line, or three fires that form a triangle.
    • You can also blow a whistle three times shoot three shots of a rifle in the air, if you have one, or shine a mirror that catches the light three times.
  6. Image titled Survive in the Woods Step 10
    Scout your area. Though you shouldn't move around too much, you should explore your immediate surrounds to find anything useful. You could find things someone left there before, be it a tin can or small lighter, it can be helpful significantly. Be sure you can always find your way back to your "point zero" as you search for water, shelter, or your way home.
  7. Image titled Survive in the Woods Step 11
    Find a good source of water. In a survival situation, you can last up to three days without water, but by the end of the second day you're not going to be in very good shape; find water before then. The best source of water is a spring, but the chances of finding them are slim. You should also look out for nearby birds, because they like to fly around fresh water. Drink your remaining water -- you should ration it, but not so much that you're thirsty right away.
    • A running stream is your next best bet; the movement of the water reduces sediment. Be advised that drinking water from streams can lead to some sicknesses, but when you're in a life-or-death situation, the risk of illness is a secondary consideration and anything you may get can be treated when you return.
    • If there’s dew and you’re desperate, you can gather it in your clothes and then suck the moisture out of the fabric.
    • You may also be able to find water in the crevices of a rock.
  8. Image titled Survive in the Woods Step 12
    Purify your water. A crude method of water purification is to take your handy pot and heat the water. For this to effectively kill bacteria, it must be at a rolling boil for at least three minutes.[1] You can also put (clear) water in a clear plastic bottle and set it in the sun for six hours to kill most of the organisms.[2]
    • However, if the water is so full of sediment that the sun can’t penetrate it, this method will not work. If you have any, add a pinch of salt to the water to try to bring the sediment to the bottom.
  9. Image titled Survive in the Woods Step 13
    Find or create shelter. Without adequate shelter, you will be fully exposed to the elements and will risk hypothermia or heatstroke, depending on the weather. If you are not properly dressed for the conditions, finding shelter is all the more important. Luckily, the woods are filled with tools and resources to make both shelters and fires (for warmth, safety, and signaling purposes). Here are some things you can use:
    • Look for a fallen or leaning tree. You can build an A-frame shelter by by stacking branches along both sides a fallen tree, then over the branches with brush, palm fronds, leaves, or other plants.
    • Use brush or green branches (boughs) from trees to repel water, block wind, keep out snow, or create shade. Close in your shelter on as many sides as possible.
    • Caves can be great, but be sure the cave is not already occupied by bears, large cats, snakes or other unfriendly animals; they know caves are good too, and they've been looking for good shelter for longer than you have.
    • If there’s snow, build a snow cave. Snow is a superb insulator and will keep you very cozy.
    • Just make sure that your shelter is not so hidden that you spend all your time in it and prevent anyone from finding you.
    • Don't exert too much energy in building the perfect shelter or you'll exhaust yourself.
  10. Image titled Survive in the Woods Step 14
    Find safe food. Know that most healthy adults can survive up to three weeks without food unless it's cold.[3] It's better to be hungry and healthy than ill. Make sure that you know food is safe before eating it. If there is anything that will lessen your ability to survive, it is being both lost and deathly ill. Starvation won't be a big problem.
    • Don't be afraid to eat insects and other bugs. While it may be disgusting to eat a few grasshoppers, they do provide useful nutrition. All insects should be cooked as they can harbor parasites that can kill you. Do not eat any caterpillars, brightly colored insects, or any insect that can bite or sting you. Remove the legs, head and wings of any insect before eating.
    • If you are near water, fish are a good choice. Minnows can be eaten whole.
    • Avoid eating any mushrooms or berries you see, no matter how hungry you are. It's better to be hungry than to eat something poisonous. Many berries in the forest, especially white berries, are poisonous.


  • You can use moss as a bandage, this helps you to not lose blood and is easy to find. You can mostly find it beside rivers.
  • For serious wounds, shirt sleeves can be cut off and used as bandages if necessary. Remember to only tie them around a wound so that they are still loose enough to stick one or two fingers between the bandage and the appendage/body.
  • You can survive several weeks without food, but only few days without water, and, in poor weather conditions, perhaps only hours without shelter. Keep your priorities straight.
  • Your primary survival knife should be a fixed blade with a solid, sturdy handle; a folding knife should only be used as a back-up, although it is better than nothing.
  • If you don’t have a lighter or any matches, you will have to start the fire by hand. If you find enough tinder (small material, such as dry grass, feathers or bark shavings, that burns easily) you can usually use the energy from the sun to start a fire with a magnifying glass, a lens from your glasses, a piece of broken glass, a cover to a watch or compass, or other clear, light-intensifying objects. It is very difficult to start a fire by friction; your best bet is to carry a variety of fire-starting implements.
  • The sleeves of a waterproof jacket can be used to hold water by tying one end of them.
  • If you cannot stay where you are until someone finds you, do not just pick a direction and start walking, even if you have a means of ensuring that you continue to go that direction. Instead, try to go either uphill or downhill. Going uphill offers a good chance that you will find a vantage point, which can help you get your bearings. If you go downhill, you will probably find water which you can follow downstream; in many cases, this will lead you to civilization. But don't follow water downstream at night or in fog as it may go off a cliff. Never go down into a canyon. Even if there’s no risk of flash flooding, a canyon’s walls can become so steep that the only way out is all the way through it. What’s worse, if there is a stream in the canyon, it may turn into a river with time, forcing you to turn around.
  • If it is cold and you are close to hypothermia, be sure not to fall asleep. It could lead to death.
  • One of the most important survival tools is something that most people never consider: a tin cup. Without a tin cup it is difficult to cook many foods.
  • At night, there is a greater risk of freezing to death. Stay dry. Bundle up. Get yourself off the ground. Make a "bed" of layers of branches, leaves, twigs, whatever is there, and cover yourself with the same stuff. To stay warm at night, you can heat rocks in the fire, bury them, and sleep on top of them, but this is a painstaking process; it’s easier to place yourself between the fire and a large reflective object such as a fallen log, a boulder, or your space blanket.
  • Rain, snow, or dew can be a good source of clean water. You can use anything from a cup to a piece of waterproof cloth to a large leaf to collect precipitation.
  • If you're not absolutely sure where you are and how to get back to familiar territory, don't proclaim, "I think it's this way." The more you move once you realize you're lost, the worse your chances are of finding your way back.
  • A belt can also be used to hold a bandage in place (not too tightly!), as an equipment strap, or as a snare.
  • Never waste water.
  • Trust your instincts.
  • If planning an extended trip into difficult or unfamiliar terrain, it is always a good idea to have a backup plan. Detailed maps/trail guides, extra food and water, and signaling devices such as a mirror, flare, or even (depending on the length and location of the trip) a satellite beacon (PLB) could save your life.
  • Don't panic! Try to get calm as soon as possible so you don't get too freaked out.
  • Tie bright clothing (jackets, bandannas, and even underwear) to the top of a tree to attract attention.
  • Consider taking a staff or walking stick with you. If you don't have one, any staff-sized stick will do. The little mark it makes in the dirt will help you retrace your steps better than Hansel and Gretel.
  • It is safer not to go into the wilderness alone.
  • Never, ever go into the woods without a compass. Note which direction you enter the woods from, say, a straight road or trail and if you get disoriented just head back in the opposite direction from which you entered. If you don't have one, use or learn your cardinal directions from the stars and the positions of the sun and moon.
  • Do not feed any wild animal, it could be deadly. Not even a small rabbit as it may attract other animals towards your dwelling.
  • A firearm has always been an essential tool of the woods. A .22 rifle or pistol can serve as a means of obtaining food, self-protection from humans or animals and a signaling device.
  • An important acronym to remember is "STOP" which stands for stop, think, observe, and plan.
  • Don't forget not even a small cut should be left unattended that can lead to infection and illness, maybe even death.
  • If you want to fish, you can make a fishing rod out of a stick about 2 meters (6 feet) long and 1–3 inches (2.5–7.6 cm) thick (just bring your own fishing hooks). Peel the bark off the stick and, with a knife, cut a notch about 2–3 inches (5.1–7.6 cm) from the top of the rod. Tie one end of any string or cord placed in the notch, then tie the hook on the other end of the string or cord. Also, you can try to bait the hook with a small piece of meat, an insect, or any other thing you want to try to use as bait.
  • It is best to leave details with at least two people you know and trust about where you're going, who you're going with, what equipment you have and when you will return. This way they can alert the authorities if you do not return on schedule.
  • Another under rated but important item for a survival pack is two large, lightweight trash bags. They pack down small but can be used for many purposes. Fill one with water and carry it to your site. Cut (the smallest hole possible) in one corner for your head and wear the rest over your body (and backpack if necessary). (Your arms can remain underneath – and probably should if it’s cold/raining or you will lose heat and your clothes will quickly soak.) Placing one bag inside another and filling the space between them with leaves, grass, and pine needles can form a makeshift sleeping bag if absolutely necessary. The best trash bags are orange contractor bags (they can be used for signaling too).
  • Generally, prepare for a survival situation so you will be ready when something happens.
  • Make sure you can defend yourself if necessary.
  • Bring your phone in a plastic bag so there is no chance of it getting wet.
  • Bring a knife and flint to light fires with sparks. Hit the back of the knife on the rock to send out sparks and as always, use dry tinder.
  • You can use thorns as fishing hooks if you want to go fishing.
  • Use glasses or a magnifying glass to start a fire. This way matches are not needed. If you need fire at night, find a way to use rock or sticks.
  • If you have something stuck in a wound do not attempt to remove it until you know how deep in it is, what it is, and if removing it would cause serious damage/infection.
  • If you don't have a compass, remember that moss always grows on the south end of a tree.


  • Don’t rely upon modern technology like cell phones, GPS units, or radios to save you if you are lost. Take one with you if it's available. But remember that these items are not foolproof; have a backup plan.
  • If you heat rocks, make sure that they are not wet (or from a water source.) When heating them in the fire, they will explode as the water inside the cracks turn to vapor.
  • If you encounter snakes, leave them alone. Snakes bite because they are hungry or because they are threatened. We are too big to be seen as prey to most snakes; they do not regard humans as food. Stand still and the snake will go away. Attack it and it will retaliate. If one curls up in your kit, move it out with a long stick and gently prod it away. If it comes in your direction, stand still. It doesn't know that you are causing its discomfort and if you do not jump around, it will probably not even notice you. However, if you kill the snake you can enjoy eating it. Since you probably don't know if it's venomous or not, a good rule is to cut off the head, and then cut the same distance back from that point down the body. This will remove the poison glands, if there are any.
  • Never travel directly in a river because water absorbs your heat much more than air, which can lead to hypothermia.
  • If you find yourself stuck in the wilderness during the winter, do not eat snow unless you fully melt and warm it first! If you eat snow your body temperature will drop and you risk hypothermia or death. An on-the-go method of warming snow is to place it in your water bottle and place that between your jacket and clothing.
  • Avoid cutting your clothes at all costs. Tearing off a sleeve for a makeshift whatever might seem like a good idea at the time, but come nightfall, you’ll wish you’d left it alone.
  • Most animals (such as bears) will not attack a human unless they are threatened. If you encounter bears, don't panic, just walk away slowly.
  • Keep your fire contained! Ensure that there is no combustible material near your fireplace and enclose it completely with rocks or a berm made of sand. Put your fire out with copious amounts of water: saturate it, so that there is no possibility of even the tiniest spark remaining. You should be able to touch the extinguished coals with your bare hand. It's one thing to be lost in the woods, but quite another to be lost and surrounded by a forest fire caused by your own negligence.
  • Drinking your own urine as a source of water is not recommended.[4]

Things You'll Need

  • Whistle with a compass in it (these are sold on a necklace of parachute cord sometimes, and you can use the cord, too, if you need it)
  • Water container
  • Fire starters: matches, lighter, flint/magnesium & steel, magnifying glass or lens (sometimes on the cord of a compass)
  • Pot to boil water/cook food
  • Universal tool/Swiss Army Knife
  • Map of area
  • Fishing hooks and a good quantity of fishing line. Coil it up and stow in a pocket. The hooks are good if you want to fish, but can come in handy for other purposes, too, and weigh almost nothing. Stick them and the wire into your wallet and put it in your back pocket.
  • Three or four protein bars, or small portions of trail mix
  • Space blanket or big bag (both high visibility of reflective)
  • Basic first-aid kit
  • Extra water bottles (unopened until you get lost)
  • Compass
  • Water-purifying tablets
  • Spare clothes
  • Cotton balls and Vaseline. Vaseline is useful for chapped lips but, more importantly, when you tear the cotton balls and mix them with the Vaseline, the result is very flammable and will burn smoothly and for a long duration. This is great for making torches and starting fires. Do not use on burns!
  • Rope/string
  • Sewing kit/floss (useful for repairs and fishing line)
  • Olive Oil (calories and fire starter)
  • A hatchet (to cut down wood and for defense needs)

Article Info

Featured Article

Categories: Featured Articles | Outdoor Safety | Camping