Civilization has come a long way from the days when living outside was commonplace. These days you see outdoor adventures planned for with grand ideas of accomplishing personal goals and reconnecting with the natural world.
The comforts of home may have dulled our understanding of what it is like to survive in the woods.
A lot of the information in this guide will work year-round; however, it is geared towards surviving in woods that fall into the Carolinian and boreal forest zones. These would include trees such as maples, oaks, beeches, pines, and spruce trees.
Depending on the time of year and your location you will have to make adjustments to your strategy and gear. Individuals from other climates will be able to use the majority of this knowledge as well.
While having beneficial items and tools will help your survivability rate in the woods, sometimes you have to use the natural resources around you to supplement or replace an existing tool.
A good thought to keep in your mind is that a lot of the tools we use today were modeled after natural tools, as thus, you can recreate almost anything you use today (primitively, of course).
Different scenarios call for different strategies when it comes to surviving in the wilderness. Some of the situations in which people have to survive in the woods include:
- An errant hiker getting turned around and eventually getting lost
- A backcountry trip where you’ve lost your way
- Vehicular breakdown in the middle of nowhere
- Deciding to sell everything and live off-grid
It’s a good idea to have a small emergency kit with some essentials to help support you while you establish your tactics, and an inventory of what you have and need to survive for an undetermined amount of time.
Table of Contents
The Power of Your Fight or Flight Instincts
Whether incidental or planned, surviving in the woods is always a mental battle along with the physical.
We have certain mechanisms within us, usually driven by instinct, that our nervous system will fall back on in times of crisis.
This can be managed with a few practices and the realization that humans have been doing this since the beginning of time and that the natural world has an abundance of resources that we can use to keep us well.
In the circumstance of getting lost in the woods, the fight or flight mechanic is strong. This is because we are not accustomed to not knowing where we are.
Couple this with a reliance on the current societal systems and you could think you are in big trouble. The important thing to do in this scenario is to sit down and breathe.
Taking a few minutes to gather your racing thoughts allows your body to relax, and muscles to unclench. This allows your brain to start thinking in a rational sense instead of in fear and panic that you initially felt.
Once you have come to terms with your situation, it is ideal to take stock of the inventory you have on hand. This includes things such as food, water, extra clothing, heat and light sources, cutting tools, and first aid equipment.
If you are planning to live out in the woods then your mental battle will be a little different. Instead of the fear of not being able to provide for yourself in the short term, yours becomes a long-term battle.
Keeping yourself grounded and ready for the changing seasons is how you’ll navigate this new landscape of living.
Prepping months in advance and identifying natural resources at key times of the year are your paths to success.
Essentials of Surviving in the Woods
Regardless of the climate or area, there are some basic needs that need to be met in order for you to survive in the woods.
Without water, fire, shelter, or food you won’t make it very long, even less if conditions are adverse or you have underlying medical conditions that need attention.
Those four items should be your first priorities when planning how to survive in the woods and luckily, in many temperate climates, these can be met with ease as long as you know the signs.
Let’s take a look at each of the necessities for surviving in the woods in more detail.
Regardless of if you are in a survival situation, or are looking to survive in the woods, it is imperative that you find a source of clean water that you have access to for refilling your supply.
The human body can only go a few days without water and even before that threshold, your cognitive and physical actions can be limited by a lack of this life-sustaining substance.
Setting up camp near a water source has several benefits for someone looking to survive in the woods.
First, you will always be near water for drinking and cleaning purposes which saves you on using energy to haul water back to your camp.
The second and less thought-about benefit is that animals tend to gather near water sources as well, which can help you later on with getting food for yourself.
There are some things to note when searching out water sources, these include:
- Clear water and clean water aren’t necessarily the same thing. If nothing is growing in the water or you see no signs of life, steer clear.
- Water can have things such as fecal runoff, dead animals upstream, or campers who don’t know how to clean up for themselves after using the washroom.
- Finding a spring is a great way to get water, but you should still filter it as chemicals could have leached into the source.
Always have a couple of backup water filtration systems so that you can purify the water without having to guess if the source has been tainted or not.
Iodine is a powerful antiseptic, and has been used throughout history for sterilizing wounds, cleaning tools, and water purification.
This kind of water filtration usually comes with two tablets, one of which is iodine and the other is a vitamin C tablet.
Let the iodine tablet work for about 30 minutes in your water container and then add the vitamin C tablet to eliminate the iodine taste. It’s a small system with a powerful effect which makes it great to store in an outdoor kit.
Personal Water Filter
The Lifestraw is a good example of a membrane-style filter that doesn’t let things like microplastics, bacteria, and protozoa.
One of the main draws towards a product like Lifestraw is the no-hassle use concept. You can put the filter right in the water and drink directly from the source.
Ultraviolet (UV) Light
Commonly used in residential homes or as a final step in reverse osmosis filtration, UV light is designed to kill all viruses and pathogens in the water.
The light penetrates the organisms and destroys them at the cellular level and has proven effective at purifying water in all situations without the use of chemicals.
Wilderness survival equivalents come in a stick form, and the idea is to swirl the device around in your water bottle to purify.
The downside is the portable UV lights can only purify small quantities of water, which makes large-scale water purification either tedious or potentially harmful if you don’t manage to disinfect all of the water.
Gravity Water Filters
If collecting large amounts of water for filtration is your strategy, either due to availability or other factors, then a gravity filter is an option you might be interested in.
This type of system consists of a large collection bag with a membrane-style water filter attached.
You fill the large reservoir bag with water from your source, hang it on a tree or other object above the height of the actual filter, and gravity will push the water through the filter and into your desired container.
Gravity water filters like this come in volumes upwards of 10 liters. While this is a lot of water that can sustain you for a few days, it is also extremely heavy.
Keep this in mind if your water source is at the bottom of a hill or other physical hazards that could make it difficult to haul that much water back to camp.
These are some of the items you can have on you depending on what the situation needs. As a rule of thumb, you should always bring a backup filter or purifying system.
A combination of both a membrane-style filter and iodine tablets could be handy in multiple situations. Remember, you want tools and gear that work in a variety of situations.
Now, if for some reason you don’t have any kind of water filtration equipment on your person and you need a way to get some water, these tips can help in a pinch.
This is the most common and effective way to purify your water in any situation. Bring the water to a boiling point and let it boil for 5 minutes.
This will destroy any pathogens and bacteria that can’t handle heat that high. It is also an effective means of disinfecting bandages for medical situations.
Ensure you have a container on you that can handle boiling water (such as a metal camp pot or cup).
Titanium is excellent for boiling water because you can sit it inside fire for faster boiling and it cools down really quick to something like stainless steel.
This method of purifying water uses the sun to create evaporation and condensation to produce clean water.
The general idea is to use a container with a surface that absorbs sunlight (black is the best color) and to fill it with water from your source. Then, using either glass or plastic, cover the container so that the sun can get through.
You’ll start to see water droplets appear on the glass or plastic that you used and that’s a positive sign of the process working.
The water in your container will evaporate and when it hits the surface of your covering, will cool down and condense.
Since only the water will evaporate, this leaves the unwanted stuff in the container and only purified water in the droplets.
You can then transfer the condensation to another container and you will have fresh, purified water.
Generally found in the northern hemisphere, sphagnum soss is one of those hidden treasures in the woods.
You can find it near bogs and other marshland types, which is ironic since wetlands are what purifies the water that flows into our lakes and rivers.
Sphagnum moss is antiseptic because of its large concentration of iodine, which is used as a product to purify water. So that means that any water within the moss is also purified and safe to drink.
Moss is also excellent at filtering out large sediment which makes for an unpleasant thirst quencher.
This is more of a survival product than a sustainable way to get water but it’s worth mentioning because if you are surrounded by stagnant swamps and you see some sphagnum moss, you can pick it up and squeeze a refreshing drink out of it.
This is great if you are traveling or haven’t found a location yet for setting up.
Finding Clean Water Sources
Sometimes you’re dealt a poor hand in terms of water scarcity and quality and have to make due with what’s around you.
Here are some tips to help you make an informed decision on where to collect water from when surviving in the woods:
- Usually, water sources that are flowing fast (such as creeks or rivers) are the best to get your water from. This ensures there is no stagnant water for bacteria and algae to grow.
- Never drink from swamps or any wetland in general. These are decomposition sites for plant material that produce a variety of dangerous bacteria and pathogens that you don’t want in your system.
- Don’t drink water directly from the ocean. The salt content is incredibly high, and will actually make you more thirsty, eventually dehydrating you.
Building and maintaining a fire is not an easy task, especially in changing climate conditions and temperature variations. However, with a few basic abilities and tools, it doesn’t have to be a daunting task.
Fire is important to the survivalist because of what it provides, both physically and mentally. It can cook your food, boil your water, and keep you warm for sure, but that’s not all it does.
Historically, fire has been a morale booster for the lone person trying to make it in the wilderness. It brings a sense of comfort in the way that it protects from predators and staves off the cold chill on a winter night.
One of the first steps in creating a long-lasting fire for your camp is to look for the right fuel source. In the case of surviving in the forest, that fuel source would be wood.
Finding the Right Trees
Not all fires are created equal and that goes the same for the wood that you use to fuel it. One skill set every outdoor enthusiast should learn is how to identify dead trees.
Dead trees make for excellent fuel for fires because they don’t have much moisture locked within the trunk.
If you ever try to burn “green” or live trees you’ll often find that the fire it produces tends to be difficult to start up, and once you get it going, will smolder or not stay hot as long.
This is due to the moisture locked within the tree from it transporting water up through the trunk. Your fire will have to burn through all of this moisture to actually catch the wood.
There are some general rules to understand when identifying dead standing trees, these include:
- Trees that are standing but missing large sections of bark are generally dead
- If you’re in doubt, knock something hard against the tree and listen. If it’s a hollow knock then you have a good chance that it’s dead. If it sounds muffled or like the sound is being absorbed then it’s either alive or really rotted on the inside.
- Try not to use fallen trees if it has been raining for a few days as they will absorb the water from both the rain and the ground. Over time they will rot and become punky.
What Types of Wood Are the Best For Fires?
You can use any combination of wood types to get a great fire going. There are two types of wood that you’ll be working with to get your fire built, soft and hardwoods.
Softwood comes from coniferous trees and is great to get your fire started as they are rich in fire-starting resin. If you are able to find dry, resinous trees then your fire-starting job becomes really easy. Trees to look out for are:
- Eastern White Cedar (Thuja occidentalis) is a softwood that is perfect for fires. Not only is it rot-resistant and incredibly light to carry. It also burns very hotly, very quickly. It also has a nice light peppery smell when burning (which adds to the morale-boosting aspects).
- White Pine (Pinus strobus) is plentiful across the northern hemisphere and provides a good fire-burning wood that is both hot and soothing to the senses.
- Red Pine (Pinus resinosa) is another common softwood tree that can provide a really quick and warm fire with its resin-impregnated wood.
When burning hardwood you’ll find that it takes a little longer to get the fire going but it will eventually work its way up to a hot fire that will keep for a significantly longer amount of time than softwoods.
This is the type of wood you want to go after for logs that will burn during the night, so you don’t have to stoke the fire as often to stay warm. Popular hardwoods that you’ll come across are:
- Red or White Oaks is a dense, heavy wood that will burn for an extended time.
- Maple trees are another hardwood that burns really hot and keeps the heat longer.
- White Birch (Betula papyrifera) is a dense hardwood that has the additional benefit of papery bark to jumpstart your fire.
A good combination of softwoods and hardwoods would be ideal to get your fire started.
Commonly, people will start their fire with something like white pine to get it hot and then add the hardwood to continue the fire while extending the burn time substantially.
Once you get your fire down to the coals you can throw whatever wood you want as the fire will sustain itself.
Building Your Fire
One of the common problems that beginners have with building a fire is that it can get smothered pretty quickly if it’s not hot enough.
This happens when you put too much wood on your fire before it has enough time to get going.
It can be frustrating to put a lot of work into getting the materials prepared but then having the fire fizzle out from a lack of oxygen. It’s even more disheartening to have your precious tinder get used up in the process.
Fire requires three things to come into existence: ignition, oxygen, and fuel. A balance of all of these things will ensure your success in creating and sustaining a fire.
As such, the process to start your fire should begin very small and end where you have a manageable heat source that you can easily maintain.
It is wise to begin your fire prepping activities by looking for kindling in the form of small twigs, about the size of pencil lead.
Work your way up through pencil-sized, small branches, medium branches, and eventually logs. Introducing each level of wood size when the fire is strong enough to handle it will build up your fire with minimal chance of snuffing it out.
High-Quality Tinder Makes Starting Fires Easy
Tinder is an important item for your fire kit and can be found in many different forms, both commercial and out in the wilderness. If you’re the crafty type then you can make your own tinder and bring it with you.
Since birch bark is an obvious choice and is easily found in the northern hemisphere, looking at other sources of tinder that you can either bring in with you or that can be found in the forest will be beneficial to your arsenal of fire creation tools.
Cotton Balls and Petroleum Jelly
Cotton balls and petroleum jelly is common homemade tinder that is efficient, inexpensive, and easy to pack away.
Cotton balls are extremely flammable and petroleum jelly slows down the burning process so that you have enough time to get some kindling onto the flame.
Look no further for the perfect tinder to start your fire. You’ll be able to find fatwood inside dead pine stumps or on damaged parts of pine trees.
The tree will send resin-rich sap to damaged areas to seal them off from insects who might capitalize on getting inside.
When a pine or spruce tree is cut down, the roots will continue to pump sap into the stump, and as it hardens you get a waxy texture to the wood that is both flammable and waterproof.
All you have to do is shave some of the wood with your knife and light with your preferred method. While the fatwood is generally better than pine, spruces also produce a flammable pitch.
Starting Your Fire
Ferrocerium is a metal alloy that causes sparks when struck with another metal. These sparks can reach upwards of 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2760 degrees Celsius). They come with a black coating that needs to be scraped off before use.
Don’t confuse a Ferro rod for a magnesium bar as they aren’t the same thing.
The idea is to scrape little shards of the metal onto your tinder, and then light it by striking the bar with a metal object to ignite the pile of metal shavings and start your fire.
Make A Friction Fire With A Bowdrill
This method of starting a fire is primitive in nature and requires a lot of patience and consistency.
Instead of using a flame or Ferro rod, you’ll be using friction to generate heat which will turn into a tiny ember.
To pull this off you’re going to need a few components made out of dry wood found around you, as well as elbow grease. Be warned, it can be a tiring process.
To use a bow drill involves spinning a dowel-shaped piece of wood until a depression is formed where the heat can be contained.
Keep applying the pressure and you’ll see smoking starting to rise up from the wood you’re working on.
Once you’ve created enough heat, an ember will be formed in the depression you were working in.
This is a very tiny ember that can easily be put out, ensuring you have a tinder bundle made of grass or tufts of fibrous bark to put your glowing ember inside will prevent it from going out.
Using Fire To Your Advantage
Fire has an abundance of uses beyond keeping you warm and able to cook for yourself.
You can use fire to create tools and items that can make it easier for you to survive in the woods or even help you get help in a survival situation.
Signaling For Help
Using your fire for this purpose is generally something you would do in a survival situation.
It involves building three smoky fires (using leaves or duff from the forest floor) in a triangular pattern on the ground.
This is the international symbol for distress and is a great way to get the attention of any planes or other passerby hikers.
Making Char Cloth
If you have any old jeans or linen hanging around then you have an incredible opportunity to make some char cloth.
Char cloth is where you can take natural fibers such as cotton in the form of jeans or linen, even scraps of jute, cutting them up and heating them in a metal container until they become a form of charcoal.
This burnt material ignites with a spark and can create an ember to put in your tinder bundle. It allows you to reuse old materials and have a backup method for creating a fire.
Avoiding Setting The Forest On Fire
Fire safety is still a factor outside in the woods and all precautions should be taken.
You are creating a fire in a forest of flammable objects so, along with some common sense, here are tips you can use to keep you and the woodland safe:
- Ensuring that your fire is put out if you’re going to be away from it for an extended period of time is crucial to avoid root fires. Roots in the ground can catch fire for up to 6 months after a fire has been “extinguished”. The fire travels along the root system, and can catch trees up to a mile away on fire. This is a common cause of fires due to negligence in the outdoors.
- Saturating the ground is the best way to make sure your fire is out. You want minimal (if any) heat coming off the fire site when you are done. There must be no steam coming off the ash pile.
- Don’t burn your fire close to any overhead branches. If the tree is dry, dead, and lingering over your flame, there is a chance you can catch it on fire.
Once you have your water and fire situation sorted out you can get to work on building a shelter to keep you safe from the elements.
Shelters consist of a walled enclosure and some basics like a bed to rest when needed.
The possibilities for creating a shelter are endless; however, you can narrow down the type you need based on the environment and situation around you.
Hands-down one of the most versatile pieces of gear to have in your loadout, a tarp can be pitched in a variety of ways and provides all-around protection from the elements.
A 10 foot by 10-foot tarp can pack up small and provide a lot of floor space if set up within the trees. Try to pick one out that has multiple tie-out points for maximum stability and configurations.
Not to be confused with an igloo, a quinzee involves piling a large amount of snow into a mound that should be taller than you.
After a period of setting, an entrance is tunneled out that goes into the structure. Since snow is an excellent insulator, a quinzee is excellent for blocking out the elements and keeping the heat inside.
It is designed as a temporary structure and after a few days of using it, you will notice a loss of insulation as the air gaps in the snow disappear.
Snow trenches are excellent shelters when the show is deep and dense. It involves digging down into the snow and creating a small, winding trench that leads to your sleeping area.
Build up the sidewalls and use something like pine boughs (or a tarp) to cover the top of your sleeping area. The winding tunneling is used to diffuse wind gusts which helps keep the heat in.
The following structures can be used in almost all situations and are designed to be easy to build. If the weather is nasty out you want to make sure that you can get sheltered as soon as you can.
The A-Frame Shelter
This is usually the first shelter that bushcrafters learn to make and it is the simplest to put together.
Using a couple of large “Y-shaped” sticks to hold up a sloping ridge pole will create a small area underneath where you can sleep.
The name A-Frame comes from the shape of the structure as the entrance will always represent a capital “A”.
Line the sides with poles and debris from the forest to create a wind-resistant shelter that can hold up in the rain.
This shelter is similar to the A-Frame shelter although one of the sides is open and exposed. This is an excellent shelter idea if you are relying on fire to keep you warm.
With one side open to the fire and the other closed off, the heat will circulate behind and around you to keep you warm.
It is important to note that this shelter works best with a bed to keep you elevated off the ground. All you need is a ridge pole between two trees and then create a nice wall behind you with long wooden poles and debris.
Places To Avoid When Setting Up A Shelter
- Avoid low-lying areas in cold temperatures. Don’t make your bed in a gully or other depression as cold air falls to the ground and can make you cold through the night.
- Don’t make camp in a swamp or marshy area as they are prone to having wet ground and flooding, especially after a rainfall.
- Watch out for widowmakers (precarious branches that could fall and damage your shelter and you) as wind storms tend to jar them loose from the tree they’re attached to.
A high-calorie intake is vital when you’re out in the woods. Without it, you won’t be able to function properly and that is a slippery slope no survivalist wants to fall down.
Emergency rations can only get you so far and it’s important to establish a sustainable form of nutrition.
There are many sources of food in the woods that you can take advantage of at any time in the year.
During the spring and summer months foraging for wild edibles helps sustain your diet while hunting and preservation methods can help store food for those cold months where nature has gone to sleep.
Be mindful of mushrooms and don’t attempt to eat them without proper training, or a detailed guide. Eating the wrong fungi could spell the end for an avid survivalist.
Having fishing gear, even a minor kit of line and hooks should be included in every pack. Fishing has sustained civilizations for centuries and is a great resource of omega-3 oils and protein.
If you stumble onto an animal carcass, using some of the small bones to fashion a J hook work in a pinch.
Making cordage from tree bark can help create a fishing line which then you can fashion around a small branch that acts as your reel.
Find some nightcrawlers for bait and you can troll from the shoreline or a rock overlooking deep water.
Much like those dog toys where you can launch a tennis ball by using a wand to give you more mechanical leverage, an atlatl uses a hooked stick to connect to a dart or spear.
The idea is to be able to extend your arm more so that you can launch the object up to 100 yards at startling speeds. Primitive hunter-gatherers used atlatls for small and large games.
Snares and Traps
If you’re hunting small game such as rabbits or squirrels then a snare or trap might work better for the survivalist out in the woods.
Wire snares are popular for hunting rabbits as you can set them up within runs that the animals have been using. Thin wire makes it almost undetectable for the creature to notice until it’s too late.
Remember to look up the trapping regulations for the area that you are in as some require that you have a specific license for trapping in that area.
You also wouldn’t want to encroach on someone else’s trapping line as it could interfere with their traps.
Do you have a pesky mouse problem in your shelter or are you looking to get some extra calories?
Look no further than a deadfall trap for all of your mice hunting needs. This easy to create trap consists of a large rock that is supported by sticks.
The idea is to bait the trap so that the mouse triggers the sticks to move, thus dropping the rock on the unsuspecting critter.
Be wary of hantavirus in mice as it can make you very sick, quickly.
Eating mice isn’t recommended unless completely necessary. Ensure that you cook the rodent thoroughly and dispose of any guts that you take out.
Defense and Predators
If you’re surviving in the woods you will most likely come across predator animals from time to time.
Bears, coyotes, and wolves are the apex predators of the forest in much of the United States and luckily, they don’t like to bother people.
Some are unnerved by the haunting howling of a pack of wolves or the noisy rummaging of a black bear in some blueberry bushes, but that’s just life at work in the forest.
Black bears in particular are not aggressive, and in fact, are curious by nature.
The only time you will generally come across aggressive bears is if they are mothers protecting their cubs or habituated bears who have been fed by humans for a long time.
Otherwise, a nice fire and maybe a bang or two on some metal will have them scampering away from your camp.
If you want to have a can of bear spray with you, that is also a good choice for deterring multiple animals. However, with limited usage and an expiry date, it is only a temporary solution.
Another popular item is an air horn for animal deterrent.
Dealing with wolves is almost the same as bears, although if you have a dog with you they have been known to try and lure the animals away from unsuspecting owners. Having a big fire and making lots of noise are excellent deterrents for predators.
It is of paramount importance that you store food away from your camp, and preferably hang up in a tree away from reach.
A hungry animal will always investigate potential food sites and that can have a negative impact on your forest experience.
Basic Gear For Woods Survival
Here is a list of inexpensive gear that you should have in a kit that can travel easily, even if you are surviving out in the wilderness:
- Sturdy backpack
- Compass (one with a signal mirror included is best)
- Ferro rod and striker (plus matches)
- Safety Whistle
- Water purification tablets and/or personal water filter
- Duct tape
- (Hand crank) flashlight
- Some tinder in a zipper bag
- Knife (make that two knives) or…
- A machete plus a survival knife
- Saw (the hand crank kind is smaller and lighter)
- Hatchet or axe
- Metal cup or pot
- Compact camping stove
- Harmonica (for morale)
- Solar or hand crank headlamp
Surviving In The Woods: Is It For You?
Living in the woods has been romanticized through movies and social media campaigns, but the truth is it’s not all glamour shots and stress-free living.
Being free from societal grips means taking on nature itself in a battle for survival. Once you have systems in place and have understood the rhythm of the seasons, it frees you up to experience true freedom.
Restrictions and property ownership are important to be aware of if surviving in the woods. In the United States, you’re not allowed to live in national forests or on public land without permits.
There has been much controversy on this as more and more people flock to a different life on the frontier.
It’s important to remember that surviving in the woods is not for the faint of heart and should be something you study extensively before trying it out for yourself.
Easing into it through extended camping trips is a great way to get your feet wet without drowning in the responsibility you’ll have.
Remember, there are no amenities out in the forest aside from the ones you create yourself.
Perrin is a nomad surviving and thriving in in the Canadian forests. His areas of expertise include wilderness survival, primitive living, tracking wildlife, and teaching others about this way of life. He has has a “first-responder” certification and is a “leave no trace” expert.