Hiking and backpacking are wonderful, freeing activities. They help clear your mind, de-stress, and explore areas you wouldn't otherwise be able to see.
Yet, adventuring in the wilderness comes with some inherent risks. While it's unlikely that you'll have an emergency in the backcountry, you should always prepare and know basic wilderness survival skills.
Featured Photo by Siim Lukka
To help, we've put together the top 18 survival skills that every backpacker should know.
1. Be prepared for the area
Before venturing out, get very familiar with the weather, terrain, wildlife, and insects that you might encounter. It's much easier to make adjustments to your pack at home, than finding yourself unprepared on the trail.
2. Learn to make a fire
This is definitely one that every backpacker should know. Having a fire for cooking or warmth can save your life. Although there are a lot of fire-starting tools available, knowing the basics of starting a fire is still a critical skill. At the very least, bring a flint or strike igniter as a backup.
3. Learn how to find or make a shelter
Knowing how to make a quick shelter is especially important in areas that have extreme weather conditions. If you carry a tarp or tent, practice setting them up until it becomes second nature. It's also good know how to construct a basic lean-to shelter in case your primary shelter is not available.
A small, lightweight tarp that can be pitched in minutes is a great addition to your pack.
4. Learn how to tie various knots
Being able to tie various knots is a great skill to have. It will help you hang a bear bag, secure tent and tarp guy lines, or even climb up a mountainside, if needed. Read our illustrated guide of the five most useful knots.
5. Learn how to locate water
By the laws of gravity, you're more likely to find water at the base of a hill or mountain. You can also collect dew (early morning) if no water sources are nearby. Scouting Magazine and The Art of Manliness also have some great tips for locating sources of water.
6. Know what to do if you get lost
When lost, your best bet is to stay put. But, if it's been a while and rescue doesn't seem imminent, then you'll need to act. To give yourself the best chance, learn how to signal for help. This includes casting light by mirror or fire, whistling, or hanging up colored items in high visibility areas.
7. Learn navigational skills
This one, we can't stress enough, especially if you will be backpacking or hiking alone. Even if you don't get completely lost, it can be easy to get off track if map reading is not your strong suit.
Familiarize yourself with reading a map along with where you are/which way you are facing. Paying attention to landmarks can also help you remember where you are and get back on track.
If you do get lost, know how to use the sun to determine which direction you're heading and how much daylight is remaining.
8. Estimate daylight with the hand trick
In conjunction with the above, it's also useful to know how much daylight you have left. Here's a useful trick; hold your four fingers out horizontal to the horizon, aligning the top of your index finger with the bottom of the sun. Your pinkie should be closest to the horizon. Each finger represents 15 minutes. So, if you have your pinkie resting at the horizon and your index finger is right below the sun, you have roughly an hour left. It's simple and pretty accurate.
9. Set up shelter/seek warmth BEFORE you're wet or cold
This is more of a survival tip than a skill, but an important one nonetheless. Even if you use an emergency blanket, it won't reflect heat if you are already cold.
10. Learn how to deal with large predators
While up-close encounters with bears are not common, you should be aware of which type lives in the area. Generally, black bears are pretty skittish of humans. Grizzlies will also usually avoid an encounter, but can be more aggressive when they feel threatened.
In North America, it's also a good idea to read up on how to fend off mountain lion and bobcat attacks. For a quick summary; make yourself look bigger by putting your arms up in the air and creating noise.
11. Carry a basic first-aid kit and know how to use it
Always bring a basic first aid kit. It's also best to watch a few videos on how to treat the most common injuries. Also, learn to make splints and slings for fractures and broken bones. Trekking poles can be great for this purpose.
12. Learn how to use your gear
It won't do you any good having bear spray or an emergency blanket if you don't know how to use them. It's one thing to bring the right gear, but it's even more important to learn how to use them.
13. Learn tricks to warm up or cool down
There are a variety of ways to stay warm outdoors. First, you can ramp up your body temperature by moving and eating. To stay warm, make sure to wear the right amount of layers. But, try to avoid sweating, since being damp can cause you to lose body temperature. It's not intuitive, but wearing too much clothing and sweating can cause a problem later on. Try to stay dry as much as possible.
To cool off seek shade, take a rest, and drink plenty of water. Speaking of cold and heat-related illnesses...
14. Learn the signs of serious conditions
Frostbite, hypothermia, dehydration, and altitude sickness can quickly become life-threatening if ignored. It's important to learn the early signs of each to prevent them from getting worse.
15. Learn to identify edible plants in the area
While getting water is more important, it may still be necessary to find a food source if you find yourself lost in the wilderness. Learning to identify a type of berry or edible plant could be a lifesaver!
16. Learn the best way to melt snow
If possible, try to save some water to mix with the snow to speed up the melting process. This applies whether you're boiling it or shaking it up in a bottle. It's actually a lot more time-consuming to melt snow than you may think.
17. Learn what to do during a natural disaster
Whether it be an avalanche, forest fire, earthquake, or something else, natural disasters can happen. The best thing you can do is to educate yourself.
18. Always tell someone your plans!
Whether you're planning a day-hike or a week-long backcountry trip, always be sure to inform a friend or family member of your itinerary. At the very least, this includes where you plan on hiking and when you plan to return. This information can save your life if you become lost in the wilderness and rescuers come to look for you.
We hope this list helps you better prepare for your outdoor excursions. If you're serious about learning the skills on this list, take a wilderness training course. They are available throughout the country and are likely the best way to learn.
Are there any safety tips or wilderness survival skills that we missed? If so, let us know in the comments.
If you're looking to pick up more backpacking skills, check out our comprehensive list of backpacking articles that cover just about everything there is to know. Some popular articles include:
Tips for Hiking in the Rain
How to Handle Emergencies on the Trail
Keeping Insects and Pests Away on the Trail
Hanging Your Food in the Backcountry
Packing for Emergencies: Backcountry First Aid Kit
Travel Logistics for Backpackers