Basic Wilderness Survival Skills for Solo Survivalists

By Colleen •  Updated: 01/23/24 •  11 min read

The world is becoming more chaotic, and the need for basic wilderness survival skills is something every person should learn. Or perhaps you like to set out alone and embrace nature; the feeling of freedom is unparalleled. However, with this freedom comes the responsibility to be self-reliant, especially when it comes to survival.

Key Takeaways

Thriving Alone: Mastering the Wilderness

Whether you’re out for a day hike or a prolonged backcountry adventure, the skills you carry in your head can be just as critical as the gear in your backpack. Let’s walk through the essential survival skills you’ll need to enjoy your solo journey confidently and safely.

Why Every Outdoor Enthusiast Should Know These Skills

It’s not just about being prepared; it’s about being empowered and knowing how to handle unexpected situations in the wild, which increases your chances of a safe return and enriches your outdoor experience. You’ll learn to appreciate nature’s resources, understand its signals, and respect its challenges. These skills aren’t just for survival but for thriving in any environment.

Maximizing Safety in Solitude: What to Know Before You Go

Preparation is key. Before you step out the door, make sure to inform someone about your plans, including where you’re going and when you expect to return. Pack a well-thought-out survival kit that includes a first aid kit, fire starter, knife, water purification method, map, and compass. And most importantly, take the time to learn and practice the skills you’ll need to use this equipment effectively.

Securing Safe Water

woman in survival gear gathering water from a stream.

Searching for Water: Common Sources in the Wild

Water is life, especially in the wilderness. You can last weeks without food but only days without water.

Purification on the Go: Simple Techniques Without Gadgets

Even the clearest stream can harbor unseen pathogens. Boiling water is the most reliable method to kill bacteria and parasites. If you can’t boil water, use natural purifiers like sunlight or clear plastic bottles to disinfect it using the S.O.D.I.S. method—U.V. radiation can do wonders. Use chemical treatments like iodine or chlorine tablets as a last resort, but be aware of their aftertaste and potential health effects.

Here’s how to purify water with minimal equipment:

Shelter: Your Home Away from Home

Shelter is your second priority after water. It protects you from the elements, conserves your body heat, and provides a sense of security. When looking for a place to set up camp, consider the following:

Choosing a Safe Location: What to Consider

Choose an elevated, dry, flat spot to avoid water runoff and flooding if possible. Stay clear of hazards like dead trees, high winds, avalanches, or rockslide areas. While proximity to a water source is convenient, balance this with safety and the potential for animal encounters.

Nature’s Building Materials: Crafting a Shelter with What You Find

Now, let’s turn nature’s bounty into your personal haven. Look for materials like branches, leaves, and moss. A simple lean-to can be made by leaning branches against a fallen tree or rock. Cover the frame with foliage to block the wind and retain heat. If you’re in snow, a snow cave can be a warm option, but it requires skill to ensure proper ventilation and avoid collapse.

Woman dressed in survival clothing making an emergency survival shelter in the wilderness.

Here’s a quick guide to building a lean-to shelter:

Fire Creation: The Spark of Life

Fire Basics: Understanding the Fire Triangle

To start a fire, you need to understand the fire triangle: oxygen, heat, and fuel. Without any one of these, a fire cannot start or continue to burn. Find dry wood, leaves, or grass for fuel, and use a lighter, matches, or a spark from a Ferro rod for heat. Airflow will come naturally, but you can also fan or blow gently to provide additional oxygen.

woman with backpack making a fire in the forest.

Tools of the Trade: Using What Nature Provides

Nature provides the absence of manufactured tools. Dry wood is your best friend here, but not all wood is created equal. Look for dead branches that snap easily, indicating dryness. Birch bark, due to its natural oils, is an excellent fire starter despite being from a live tree. Pine resin can also sustain a flame.

Keeping it Lit: Maintaining Your Fire in Adverse Conditions

Maintaining a fire in wind or rain requires creating a barrier. You can build a windbreak with additional wood or position your fire near a natural shield, like a rock face. In wet conditions, you may need to spend extra time finding dry tinder or use a waterproof tinder like pitchwood. Remember, the heart of your fire is the embers; keep them hot, and your fire will last.

Example: To keep a fire going in the rain, stack wood in a teepee shape, which allows for airflow while protecting the core of the fire from the rain.

Navigating the wilderness can be daunting, but with a few essential skills, you can find your way and avoid getting lost. The key is to stay calm and use the tools you have–whether modern gadgets or ancient techniques.

Map and Compass: Back to Basics

Carry a topographic map and a compass, and know how to use them. A map shows where you are and the terrain features around you, which can be vital in survival. A compass helps you determine direction. Using these tools together lets you orient yourself and plot a course to safety.

Landscape Reading: Natural Landmarks and the Sky

In addition, you can navigate using natural landmarks and the sky. Mountains, rivers and the sun’s position can all guide you. At night, the North Star (Polaris) in the Northern Hemisphere remains relatively fixed in the sky and indicates north. Learn to recognize constellations like the Big Dipper, which points to Polaris, as a backup navigation aid.

Finding Food: Foraging and Hunting

Edible Plants: How to Identify and Harvest

Foraging for wild edibles is a skill that can sustain you. However, it’s crucial to know which plants are safe to eat. Learn to identify a few common, calorie-rich plants like dandelions, cattails, and wild berries.

Always be cautious. If you’re unsure about a plant, don’t eat it. The rule of thumb is: when in doubt, go without. The “Forager’s Guide to Wild Foods” (Paperback edition) is a top-rated book.

The Forager's Guide to Wild Foods book cover image“Forager’s Guide to Wild Foods” (Paperback edition)
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Here are some tips for foraging:

Trapping Skills: Catching Your Next Meal Safely

If you’re out for an extended period, trapping can be a more efficient way to secure protein than hunting. Simple snares or deadfalls can catch small game like rabbits or squirrels. Be sure to set traps in areas with clear signs of animal activity and check them regularly.

To set up a basic snare:

Distress Signaling: When You Need to be Found

Visual Signals: From Smoke to Mirrors

Signaling for rescue is crucial if you find yourself in a dire situation. Smoke signals during the day, fire, or flashlight at night can attract attention. If you have a mirror or any reflective surface, use it to flash sunlight towards a search plane or party. Remember, three of anything (three fires, three whistle blasts, three flashes) is an internationally recognized distress signal.

Audio Signals: Whistles and Echoes

Whistles carry further and require less energy than the human voice. Blow in sets of three to signal for help. Use the echoes to your advantage if you’re in a canyon or mountainous area; sounds can travel far and bounce off surfaces to cover more ground.

And remember, always stay put if you’ve signaled for help. Moving around can make it harder for rescuers to find you.

First Aid: Handling the Unexpected

Common Injuries and Illnesses

Injuries like sprains, cuts, and burns are common in the wilderness. Knowing how to treat these can prevent them from becoming severe. Keep wounds clean to avoid infection, immobilize sprained joints, and cool burns with water. Also, familiarize yourself with the symptoms and treatments of heatstroke, hypothermia, and dehydration.

D.I.Y. First Aid: Necessities and Natural Remedies

First aid extends beyond bandages and antiseptics. Nature provides many remedies, such as using sap as an antiseptic or cobwebs to help clot wounds. But always have a basic first aid kit on hand, including items like adhesive bandages, gauze, antiseptic wipes, and pain relievers.

Here’s a simple first-aid tip:

Final Thoughts: A Checklist for Survival Preparedness

Armed with these skills, you can confidently take on the wilderness. Remember, practice makes perfect. The more you use these skills, the more second nature they will become. Now, go explore the great outdoors and put your newfound knowledge to the test!

Frequently Asked Questions (F.A.Q.)

How much water do I need to survive in the wild?

You should aim to drink at least two to three liters daily. However, this amount can increase depending on the climate, activity level, and individual needs. Always have a method to purify water and know the signs of dehydration.

What are the best materials for building a shelter?

Natural materials such as branches, leaves, and moss are ideal for building a shelter. Look for sturdy branches to create a frame and layer it with leaves and other foliage for insulation. In colder environments, snow can also be used to build an insulating snow cave.

How do I signal for help without any devices?

Use visual signals like a fire or a mirror to reflect sunlight, or create symbols on the ground using rocks or logs. Use a whistle or create noise by banging objects together for audio signals. Three of any signal is an international distress call.

Can I eat any plant I find in the wilderness?

No, not all plants are edible, and some can be poisonous. Learn to identify common edible plants and always err on the side of caution. If you’re unsure about a plant’s edibility, do not consume it.


Living in a world where uncertainties can arise, Colleen has taken it upon herself to master the art of survival in the face of natural or civil disasters. With a background in outdoor activities and a keen interest in learning essential survival skills, Colleen has dedicated time to acquiring knowledge in areas such as wilderness survival, first aid, and emergency response.

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