Like any other skill, wilderness survival needs to be practised. Here's everything you'll need

Call me crazy (you wouldn’t be the first), but I’ve been known to grab a small survival kit, hit the bush and spend three or four days making a go of it for no other reason than to ensure I can. Wilderness survival is a skill, and as with any other skill, it needs to be practised. Sure, many people know how to build a shelter or make a fire without matches, but knowing how to do something and actually being able to do it are quite often two different things—and in a survival situation, the ability “to do” can save your life. You don’t think this applies to you? Consider the following.

The scenario

It’s the opener of deer season, and you’re in a brand new area for the start of a three-day hunt. Having canoed in early, you’ve had time to set up camp, and can still manage a few hours in the treestand before last light. As night approaches, you spot a buck hung up just out of bow range. You freeze, hoping he’ll come in a little closer. Fifteen minutes later, just as the last seconds of legal light are ticking away, he starts walking toward you. You raise your bow, plant the pin just behind the shoulder and release—a hit! You sit and listen as he runs, and you’re sure you hear him hit the ground 50 yards or so into the bush. You give him an extra 20 minutes to ensure he’s down for good, then grab your flashlight and start trying to find him. Unable to find the blood trail right away, you decide to head back to camp and return in the morning. After a half-hour of walking by flashlight, you’re sure camp is just ahead, but you speed up a little anyway. Another half-hour later it hits you—you’re completely lost. Panic starts to set in as you assess your situation: it’s pitch black, the flashlight batteries are starting to die and most of your gear is still at the stand. All you have is your bow, a knife, the small survival kit you wear on your belt when hunting (see our DIY survival kit) and the clothes on your back. Worse, no one will even begin to miss you for at least three days. What to do?

SURVIVAL STEP 1: Plan

The first thing to do in any such predicament is to calm down, assess your situation and set your priorities. In this case, it’s clear you could end up even farther from camp if you keep walking, so you should stay put and wait for help. You know that if you aren’t back in three days, friends will come looking for you, so you need to plan on at least a four-day stay. Your job will be to stay put, stay visible and stay healthy. Since you’ll likely have a limited amount of resources and energy to invest, you need to establish what is most important—food, water, shelter or fire—and plan accordingly. With this particular scenario, it’s late fall, dark and the temperature is creeping toward zero, but at least the forecast is calling for clear weather.

SURVIVAL STEP 2: Fire

The obvious priority for night one is fire. With temps dropping and your flashlight batteries dying, you’re going to need the heat and light. Gather enough wood to get a fire going, and use the resulting light to find even more fuel. The rule of thumb is to gather enough wood to last the night, then gather five times that much. Chances are you won’t be sleeping much the first night anyway, so use the time to gather fuel and keep warm. Come morning, the real work begins.

SURVIVAL STEP 3: Water

With the arrival of daylight, your next priority is water. You can have a huge supply of firewood, a ton of food and a great shelter, but without drinking water, these things have no value. At least in most places in Canada, water is generally easy to come by. Ideally, you’ll have a filter or some purification tablets in your survival kit, so clean drinking water is simply a matter of finding a source. If you don’t have a filter or tablets, you’ll either have to boil the water or collect rainwater, dew or snow. Such naturally distilled water is the least likely to carry spores, bacteria or bugs that can make you sick. In extreme cases, where you absolutely must drink unpurified water from a ground source, look for fast-moving, clear streams. Never, ever drink standing water without first purifying it. Dehydration is not good, but getting beaver fever in the backwoods can be a death sentence.

SURVIVAL STEP 4: Shelter

With fire and water taken care of, shelter should be your next priority. If the weather turns, you want something to help keep you dry, as well as help conserve heat from your fire. A traditional lean-to is both easy to build and effective. Some tips:

  • Smaller is better. Your lean-to should be just big enough so you can lie beneath it out of the elements. Anything bigger, and it won’t retain the heat from your fire as effectively.

  • Positioning: Construct the shelter with the opening facing your fire and the backside meeting the prevailing wind. This offers the best protection from the elements as the radiant heat from the fire warms the shelter’s interior. Plus, the prevailing wind will carry the smoke and flying embers away from you.

  • Construction: If you have a Mylar survival blanket, drape it over the frame of your shelter; layer pine boughs overtop in a thatch pattern to hold it in place while providing additional insulation. This gives you a waterproof roof, which will also reflect heat from the fire onto your body.

  • Get off the ground. This is the single most important aspect of a survival shelter. To stay truly dry and warm, you need to be separated from the ground by an insulating layer. Spruce or cedar boughs, field grass or old man’s beard all make good sleeping pads.

SURVIVAL STEP 5: Food

For some reason, it seems every book or TV show about survival focuses primarily on food, yet in most situations, finding food is the least important short-term priority. Not only that, food is the easiest thing to find in the wild—it’s just a matter of knowing what’s safe to eat. Edibles such as nuts, berries, cattails and wild leeks can be found throughout most of Canada. Make note of the most commonly found plants in your hunting area and rely on that knowledge when the need arises. The other main source of food is small game such as squirrels, as well as reptiles, amphibians and fish. It’s extremely counterproductive to expend your precious energy by actively hunting for these animals, however. Instead, small mammals, frogs and fish can all be caught with simple snares (there are plenty of books and online resources to show you how). On the other hand, maybe this is just the time to start that long-overdue crash diet.