These Basic Survival Skills Could Save Your Life in the Wilderness

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No one ever plans on getting lost, which is why it's smart to have some rudimentary knowledge about how to handle such a situation.

Last summer, while having backyard drinks on a friend's patio, I met a woman who told me an unforgettable story. While camping at a provincial park in Ontario a few years ago, her two teenage daughters headed into the bush to explore and didn't come back. After a couple hours, she notified the authorities who launched a full search with a canine unit, dive team, helicopter, and searchers on the ground. They looked for a day and a half, and finally found the girls on the edge of bog, several kilometres from the campsite. They were fine, but very hungry, cold, and mosquito-bitten.

The girls' mother said they stayed calm the whole time. They knew they were lost, and they were scared, but they did not panic. They spent the night huddled together to stay warm and filtered water through moss to drink. They made a plan that, if they weren't rescued by the second evening, they would eat frogs, since they figured it was the easiest prey to catch and consume without a knife; fortunately they didn't have to resort to that. Following their rescue, despite being shaken up, the girls chose to finish the week-long camping trip, instead of returning home. Needless to say, they did not wander far.

I couldn't help but think of my own kids. We also go camping a lot and spend time at their grandparents' home in the Muskoka forest. What would they do alone in the bush? Would they know how to survive? For that matter, would you know what to do?

Many readers undoubtedly live lives that seem very far removed from the wilderness, but taking time to learn some basic survival skills is worthwhile. In a worst case scenario, knowing these things could mean the difference between life and death. What follows is a list of basic skills that I think every American and Canadian should know. These are based on skills my parents taught me when I was a kid growing up in the bush, things I've read in nature and survival books, and information I've gleaned online. Please feel free to add your own thoughts -- and any intriguing survival stories! -- in the comments below. NB: These tips assume the absence of a cellphone or reception, which obviously would be one's initial go-to source for orientation and help.

Prepare for Your Time in the Wilderness

I realize you cannot exactly prepare for getting lost in the forest, but you can equip your kids (and yourself) with some basic skills that would make it less terrifying.

Spend Time in the Forest

Go for hikes and camping trips. The more familiar you are with those surroundings, the less frightening they will be in a stressful situation. Teach your kids that the forest is not meant to be feared, but rather revered and loved. Get accustomed to recognizing landmarks and watching the sun track through the sky as you move through the terrain.

Get Used to Carrying Tools

Always make sure you have a knife and matches somewhere. A hatchet is even better.

Tell Someone You're Going and When You'll Return

Make it a habit to tell someone when you're heading into the forest and roughly when you expect to be back. Leave a note if there's no one around or send a text to a friend. Make sure you let them know when you're back home.

What to Do If You Get Lost

Don't Panic

Your chances of survival are much better if you keep your wits about you. As soon as you realize you're lost, don't try to walk out of it, unless you have a compass, recognize key landmarks, and are confident you can find your way; you don't want to expend any unnecessary energy. Move only if you see a better location, i.e. more visibility where rescuers can see you (like the edge of a lake or pond, or the top of a hill), a better source of dry firewood or evergreen boughs for building a shelter.

Build a Fire

Hopefully you have some dry matches stashed in a pocket; otherwise, start rubbing two sticks together. When you're in the forest, look for dead sticks, branches, and dry birch bark; green sticks will be wet, hard to catch, and prone to smoking. Please note: This may not be the best thing to do if you're in the drought-prone West. Be cautious with fire at all times.

forest shelter

Mike Petrucci -- Build a shelter kind of like this one, except be sure you can close off the entrance./CC BY 2.0

Build a Shelter

This is more important in cold or wet weather than on a clear summer night, but it will make you feel safer and more secure at any time of year. You can snuggle up under an evergreen tree with low-hanging branches, or hack off branches to mound against another tree to create a fort of sorts. In "The Big Book of Nature Activities," Drew Monkman and Jacob Rodenburg give directions for building a debris survival hut, which can help you to survive in cold weather.

"Begin by making a waist-high mound of leaves at the base of a tree. Prop a branch pole about 9 ft. long against the tree and over the mound with the other end on the ground. Use branches to create a frame on both sides. Pile leaves, evergreen branches, or whatever you can find to cover the frame on both sides. Heap on as much material as you can, up to a thickness as long as your arm. Pile the same depth of material inside the hut, too. Make sure you leave a pile of dead leaves or evergreen branches in front of the entrance. After you crawl in, seal your hut by enclosing the entrance with this leafy 'plug'... A well-constructed debris hut can help people survive even in sub-zero temperatures."

Protect Yourself From Insects

If you have the extreme misfortune to be lost in the wilderness during blackly or mosquito season, protecting yourself from insects is a top priority. Make a huge pile of dry leaves and climb inside it. You'll have to put up with some creepy-crawlies, but at least they don't bite like the flies do.

Drink Water

A good rule of thumb is never to drink water from a still source; the best thing is to find a spring, though this is difficulty, or look for a swiftly moving stream. I hadn't heard of the moss trick that my friend's daughters used, but Survivopedia informs that, "Because of the high acidity and the antibacterial properties of sphagnum moss, it can be included in your filtration system to help filter your water." Another suggestion from prepping expert Tess Pennington is to walk through dewy grass in your clothes to collect the dew, then wring it out to drink.

Know What You Can Eat

You can go without food for days, but if there's still no sign of rescue after a while, you must nourish your body. Stay away from mushrooms and caterpillars, but you can eat other insects. It's best to cook them, if possible, and to remove wings, heads, and legs before ingesting. My father, whom I spoke to prior to writing this article, also informed me that it's safe to eat any plants growing below the waterline, a useful tip. Try to catch some minnows and swallow them whole.

Stay Dry

Wet clothes are a bad idea. Take them off and dry in the sun or beside a fire. It's better to be naked and dry, than wet and covered, especially in cold weather.

Build Distress Signals

Three of anything is commonly recognized as a sign of distress in nature. Build three small fires, or three triangular piles of sticks, or three big marks in the sand.

Move Around in Freezing Temperatures

Keep moving. If the temperature is below freezing, you cannot risk lying still. Make a snow shelter with evergreen boughs or dig a hole in a snowbank to sit in, but force yourself to get up and move around frequently.