How To Survive In The Woods | Wilderness Survival Guide

how to survive in the woods
Image Credit: David Monje

When you find yourself fighting for survival in the woods, remember to take a deep breath and analyze the situation. The first few hours into your involuntary forest holiday are the most crucial. It’s when you decide on a gameplan and prep for your first night in the woods. Without the proper foundation, your next few days will be much more difficult.

But, before you can start your plan, make sure you consider these three things:

  • Time of Year and Weather
  • Estimation of How Long You’ll Be in the Woods
  • Available Supplies

Obviously, it will be much easier to spend a night in the woods if you have a well-victualed backpack in the middle of the summer than if you were empty-handed in a snowbank.

These considerations will alter your gameplan, and help you decide what to prioritize.

Time of Year & Weather

It’s pretty obvious, but knowing weather patterns and the time of the year can really determine what you set out to do first.

In autumn and winter, building a shelter and a fire to protect you from the cold are of the utmost importance. But, if it’s late spring or summer, you can probably get away with just a fire and put some extra work into scavenging for food or working on an escape plan.

During hunting season, you’ll have to make yourself visible among the forest by adding bright fabric or plants to your clothing. While your chances may be slim, you never know when you’ll stumble across a hunter who can help you.

Considering the weather is also a no-brainer. If it’s raining, you’re doing to want to find shelter immediately. Even if it’s an early summer rain, getting soaked and cold for a prolonged period of time will increase your chances of getting sick.

Duration of Your Stay In The Woods

Everyone has a different story to tell when they get asked how they survived in the woods. Some people parachuted out of a crashing plane; others got lost during a camping trip. The situation behind how you got into the woods in the first place will play a part in your escape plan.

If you know that there’s a road nearby, you should probably start walking. But if you plopped down from the sky, you’re better off working on shelter and food before you figure a way out.

There isn’t an average timeframe from when a plane crashes to when its survivors are rescued. It could be a short as a few hours, or as long as 72 days, like in the case of Miracle Flight 571.

In any event, it’s best to plan on sticking around your wooded prison for at least a week unless you know an immediate way out.

Available Supplies

What kind of supplies you have at your disposal will greatly impact your likelihood of survival.

If you’re a lost hunter or camper, chances are you have a backpack with some gear in it. Hopefully, you’ll have some food, a lighter or matches, and maybe even a flare gun.

But, if you’ve got nothing but the clothes on your back, then your priority should be starting a fire and building some kind of shelter. This will ensure you’re safe for at least a few days while you gather food and figure out a way to get out.

A lot of the necessary survival tools have bushcraft substitutes, so if you don’t have everything, you can always make your own tools. We’ll talk about this later in the article.

For now, let’s dive into the most important steps to take for how to survive in the woods.

Survival Shelters in the Woods

Building survival shelters in the woods is very easy compared to other environments, like the tundra or the plains. The forest offers a lot of materials for makeshift huts and lean-tos, so in the span of an hour, you could probably make something to keep the rain or snow off your head.

Start by finding a natural feature that lends itself well to additional shelter elements. This can include:

  • Large rocks or boulders
  • Thick overhanging canopies (coniferous trees work best)
  • Fallen trees or thick brush
  • Caves or partial caves

Pick a place that shelters you from the elements naturally. For example, if it’s really windy, you’ll want to post up where the boulders or brush breaks the wind so you’re not shivering all night long.

The area should also be relatively dry, and preferably on an elevation so that rainwater runs down and away from your shelter.

After you find a natural shelter, build your project as fast as possible. For a simple lean-to, start off with a few long sticks. Prop up a long stick in the yoke of a tree or another solid surface, and then prop up smaller sticks against the ground and the long stick. It’s best if you tie off all of the sticks, and you can use non-essential items like shoelaces, belts, or necklaces to secure the sticks in place.

In this situation, you’re looking for saplings or large fallen branches that still have some leaves on them. Again, coniferous branches work best because even in the winter, fallen branches will still have needles on them. Layer all of your branches against the lean-to frame and supplement them with long grass, smaller branches, or ferns.

Alternatively, if you’ve got some gear, you can string up a line between two trees and throw a tarp over it to act as a makeshift tent. Weighting the sides down with rocks will help keep it from blowing away in the wind. While this solution might not be super great for windy biomes, it will provide greater protection from rain or snow.

Starting a Fire in the Woods

After you’ve sorted out the shelter situation, it’s time to start a fire. Now, depending on the weather, you might run into trouble with wet wood, but there are still ways to get a nice blaze going!

For sake of time, we’re going to explain the fastest way to get a fire started in the woods.

Gather as many small sticks and leaves as you can. Clear a small circle a good distance away from your shelter and out of the wind as much as possible. The best fire pits are hollowed out a bit, kind of like a bowl. The sticks and kindling should sit on top of the hollow, so there’s room for air to flow under the flames.

Once you’ve placed the kindling, light it with a match, lighter, magnesium sparker, or a buschraft fire starter. When it starts to heat up, add larger sticks in a teepee formation over the flames and continue to add in more kindling. Once the flames catch the larger wood, you’re in business.

It’s also a good idea to fashion a few torches if you plan on walking about the woods, whether to look for food, a route home, or just to scout out the area. Learn more about building torches here.

Survival Weapons in the Woods

While we don’t recommend weaponizing yourself in the woods, there are certain situations where some armament might just save your life. If you’re camping or hiking and get lost or come across a wild animal then having a nice ranged defense is crucial to surviving the situation.

For example, while looking for long sticks for the lean-to, grab an extra one you can fashion into a spear. You can sharpen the end with rocks or a knife, and harden the tip in the fire.

Sharp rocks and club-like sticks also work as defensive weapons.

While you might be tempted to use your pocketknife or multi-tool as a weapon, it’s too valuable to risk losing. Without your knife or tool, you have no way to make new spears, start fires, or gut any animals you’ve hunted. Keep your knife close to you at all times, and keep it as sharp as possible. You can use wet, flat rocks or broken glass to sharpen your knife in a pinch.

Survival Food in the Woods

If you’ve built yourself a shelter and made yourself weapons, congratulations! You’re not completely screwed. Now it’s time to find some food and water.

Your first instinct might be to go looking for berries or mushrooms, and that’s fine if you know how to identify those things. But, most people don’t know, so they end up running the risk of eating a potentially harmful plant.

It’s much, much safer to stick with trapping game rather than looking for plants. The good news is that you’re in the forest, which can harbor all sorts of game (red or otherwise). You can try making snares out of vines to catch rabbits, squirrels, turtles, and birds.

Plus, you can easily whittle down a twig into a fishhook and use shoelaces, paracord, or braided vines as fishing line.

While these skills are not common, they’re certainly going to save you from eating a deadly fungus.

But, if you’re having a hard time catching any kind of game, you can always stick with the plants you know. Acorns are toxic to humans in their raw form, but if you boil or soak them in water to remove the tannins before eating them. They’re full of iron and manganese.

Blackberries and raspberries are easy to find in the summer months and often grow in large patches. Plus, blackberries and raspberries don’t really have any poisonous look-alikes, so your risk of getting sick is very low.

Finding Water

Finding water might be a difficult task if you’re a far distance from any stream, creek, or river. Thankfully, there are a few simple methods you can use to gather great drinking water.

One such method is to tap trees, similar to how maple farmers tap trees to make maple syrup. While tapping a tree is easiest with a drill and a spile, you can make do with a sharp knife. Read more about tapping trees for water here.

A few other methods include:

  • Collecting rainwater with a tarp or waterproof fabric
  • Collecting rainwater with an underground still
  • Collect plant transpiration
  • Dew or condensation collection

These processes are sometimes labor-intensive, so you might want to focus on finding a natural source of water before investing time and supplies into a still or plant transpiration collector.

If you listen very carefully, you might be able to hear the sound of running water. Looking at animal tracks is another good way to see where the nearest water source is. And if you’re up before dawn, you can observe which way flocks of birds are flying, which might indicate how close a stream, pond, or creek is.

Make sure to check the quality of any natural water sources before drinking it. Normally, we’d suggest using a LifeStraw or other water purification methods, but not everyone will have them at their disposal. If the water is still and murky, you’ll definitely have to boil it before drinking it.

Always opt for running water over still water. Streams in oil-drilling areas might be polluted with runoff or other chemicals, but if you see critters drinking the water or fish and other life in the stream, you can drink it safely.

Escaping the Woods

After you’ve sorted out food, water, shelter, and a fire, it’s time to think up an escape plan. Think of surviving in the woods as if you’re packing for a vacation. There’s a lot of prep work that goes into deciding what to pack, how much to pack, and how to pack it. You want to be prepared as possible when you hop the flight to Cali.

In this way, how to survive in the woods is a lot like a vacation. You do the necessary steps to survive your first few days, gather food, water, weapons, torches, and other supplies before setting out.

Without packing, you get to Cali without any change of clothes, chargers, or money. Without prepping for survival, you wander through the woods, hungry, thirsty, cold, and losing hope.

Once all that’s squared away, you can tackle your return to civilization. Here are some tips on how to find your way out of the woods:

  • Travel downhill. Chances are, if you make it into a valley, you’ll find some signs of habitation.
  • Climb high. Climbing trees or getting to the highest point possible allows you to see how far you are from civilization. Spotting chimney smoke or a road is the first step in your journey.
  • Find north. Use the sun and stars to orient yourself. The sun rises in the east-southeast and sets in the west-southwest. (This largely depends on the time of year and the hemisphere you’re in). Alternatively, you can use the moon to determine north, as well as Polaris, the star at the end of the Little Dipper.
  • Follow the water. Streams and creeks all lead somewhere, and chances are there will be other humans there too. Following these water sources might bring you closer to a river, lake, or other populated area.
  • Track your location. Remember landmarks along your way, like weird tree formations or large boulders. Use your knife to scratch symbols in these landmarks, or arrange stones to indicate your direction.
  • Find cell service. If you were lucky enough to bring a working cell phone with you, hunt for service while making your way toward civilization. Calling 911 can help authorities place your location and find you faster. But don’t sit around and wait for them to find you, it might take days. Always have a backup plan.

How to Survive In The Woods In a Nutshell

At the end of the day, everyone’s jaunt into the wilderness is different. We all have different levels of survival skills and equipment, we all have different mindsets and bodies, and we’re all in different locations.

But if you follow these tips and tricks, you can increase your chances of survival in the woods.

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