September 10, 2021 9 min read

Although a healthy and invigorating activity, backpacking can actually be very risky. You risk going out into the wild and potentially encountering things like large predators, sketchy terrain and sudden storms. If you're careful when you start out, though, you're going to pick up a lot of tricks that will help you stay safe while you're on tougher hikes.

Here are seven survival skills that just might come in handy:

1. Using a Compass

Most people without a ton of outdoor experience probably think of a compass as a relic of the past that was cast aside with the rise of modern technology.

And some people may have never even heard of a compass before. But the truth is that the most experienced outdoorsmen consider a compass and map as essential navigational tools. Nowadays, we've got Google Maps on our gadgets, and you can even download a compass or GPS app to your phone, so it's understandable that you may not have ever handled a physical compass.

But batteries die and geography can get in the way of cellular, or even GPS signals. If you get lost in the woods, there is no guarantee that you'll be able to connect to all these fancy apps. And then, you could be in big trouble--unless you've got the old-fashioned stuff.

Here's a simple yet effective video that can teach you the basics of getting a bearing and navigating with a compass and map.

2. Water Collection

Collecting water is one of the most critical survival skills for the backpacker who's doing more than simple overnight trips. Out in the woods, you won't find water fountains or spigots very often. As long as you plan carefully and know the basics of collecting water, you won't need to bring all that much water with you to begin with. 

Once you find a water source, you will need to collect some water, then filter it and then purify it. This will require a minimum of two containers most of the time. You can filter out solid particles using something like a coffee filter or bandana as you pass the water from one container to another. To then purify the water you can use a portable water filtration pump if available. Alternatively, you can boil water or treat it with iodine tablets.

Even if you think it's probably fine, it's generally not a good idea to drink collected water you haven't purified. This is especially true of stagnant water, since running water does get some filtration as it flows along through rocks and debris. But one animal carcass in the water upstream from where you fill your canteen and you're gonna have a bad time.

If you don't find yourself anywhere near a lake or a stream, you can always collect the dew from the plants. Dew forms on bigger leaves, and the best approach to do so is to locate them before sunrise and use a light towel to collect moisture.

After that, you can squeeze the collected dew into a container. It's a laborious process, and very time consuming. So try to be around water at intervals if your terrain allows.

3. Building a Fire

Building a fire is going to be part of the routine to you if you are a regular backpacker, and there are a number of ways you can get the spark that builds into your camp fire. But before we get into lighting the fire, it's important to understand some basics.

Anatomy of a Camp Fire

  • Fire pit - Before you build your fire, make sure you've prepared the area. Many popular campsites already have fire pits, which really streamlines this step. If not, it's a good idea to dig out a round, level patch with nothing hanging directly over it and nothing that could catch fire within a good 15 feet - depending on how big you need the fire to be. If it's just a cook fire, you may go smaller. If the fire is for warmth and protection, you may go bigger. Just recognize that the larger the fire, the more attentive you must be, the more fuel you'll need to sustain it, and the larger the risk you place on your surroundings. Best practice is to surround the dug-out patch with stones, to help contain the fire in place.
  • Tinder - Your spark goes here. Tinder is the lightest, fastest burning stuff you can find and the basis of any fire. This could be dried leaves, wadded paper, pine needles, bits of cotton, shredded bark, frayed rope, even greasy crushed potato chips. Because your spark may only last a moment, you need it to find a very fast burning fuel.
  • Kindling - Here you'll need some twigs, sticks, and/or small dry branches. Nothing thicker than your pinky finger ideally. Once your tinder is lit, the flame needs to move onto something that'll burn for more than a few seconds. Depending on how wet your surroundings are, you may need a lot of kindling on hand before you've got enough sustained burn going on. Be sure to gather more than you think you'll need before you begin.
  • Fuel wood - This is what you'll be burning for most of the duration of the fire. In a perfect world you'd have cured, split logs on hand, and if you're at a managed campsite you may. But as a backpacker, the best you're likely to find are fallen branches about the same thickness as your wrist. You should gather a bunch of these up and snap them to as uniform a size as you can manage before getting started. 

Preparation is key to getting it right without wasting time or fuel. If you have matches or a lighter, you'll generally want to set up your tinder under a sort of teepee of kindling that can catch quickly. Once the kindling is burning hot and fast, you can start adding fuel wood. Just be sure to leave room for air and flame to circulate and not to smother the fire by adding too much fuel too fast.

Getting the spark to the tinder can be either the hardest or easiest part of building the fire. If you've got a lighter, matches, or even a flint and steel - and your tinder is try - you'll be in great shape. If you are seriously into bushcraft, you might explore how to make a bow drill friction fire

If you can, keep water nearby to help extinguish the fire, and be sure to know the local rules on fires. Never leave your campsite behind while a fire still burns. Spread those embers out and cover them with dirt if you need to. #LeaveNoTrace

    4. Tying Knots

    If you've got 10 minutes and some rope to practice on, check out wilderness survival expert Craig Caudil's video on knots:

    It is amazing what you can do with a bit of rope or paracord. You can secure a hammock, rig up a makeshift rain shelter, tie down gear, secure your tent's rainfly, suspend food where bears can't get to it, build a raft, trap food animals... the uses are endless. 

    Boy Scouts are trained in all sorts of knots, and for good reason. It's a theme that comes up time and time again through life. 

    5. Signalling Rescuers

    (Don't be like Homer)

    No matter how experienced you are when you head out for a hike, things don't always go as planned. You never know when an emergency situation might cause you to need to signal for help.

    You'll be much better prepared if you have the following items with you:

    1. Whistle - It may sound silly to some, but carry a whistle. They take up almost no weight and can be heard a half mile away or more. If you're in trouble you can always blow the good-ol' morse code S.O.S. Or if you just get separated from your group, you'll be easier to locate if you get separated.
    2. Small mirror - Sometimes, you've just got to check yourself out in a mirror. Joking! You can reflect sunlight right in a potential rescuer's eye if you have something reflective with you. This is better for the rescuer who might be in a noisy vehicle at a distance. You can spread your middle and forefinger in a "Y" shape to use as a makeshift sight to aim the reflected light through.
    3. A bright headlamp - Sunlight won't help you at night. You should always bring a fully-charged flashlight of some kind when you're out on a trek. You can use your light to signal S-O-S if in danger at night.
    4. Bright clothing - In a pinch, you can rig up a bright base layer as a sort of flag. Rescue pilots will typically check out anything out of the ordinary they spot on the ground and a bright shirt could make the difference. Feel free to save the earth tones for hunting.


    6. Wilderness Medicine

    natural medicine


    Aside from food and hydration, survival in the wild would also come down to preventing injuries from going from bad to worse. Anti-inflammatories, antiseptics, and coagulants are plentiful in nature. Identifying these plants could mean the difference between life and death in an actual emergency.

    Everything from antacid to aspirin has its roots in botanical medicine. While technological advancements have developed modern compounds, the plants from which advanced medicine evolved can still be found in the wilderness.

    Here are six useful medicinal plants that you can encounter while hiking or backpacking, and their application, including natural anti-virals, bug repellents, and more.

    Trembling Aspen (anti-inflammatory, sunblock)

    Aspen leaves and inner bark has salicin, an anti-inflammatory similar to that contained in aspirin. Chew raw or make a decoction to relieve pain, fever and diarrhea or to alleviate inflammation due to injury. The powdery coating from the aspen bark has an SPF of 5. Rub it all over your skin to prevent severe sunburn.

    Pineapple Weed (digestive relief, calmative)

    Rub pineapple weed leaves on skin to repel insects or soothe itching. Pineapple weed tea from its leaves and flowerheads is great for relieving indigestion, diarrhea, upset stomach, menstrual cramps or for even calming nerves.

    Narrow-Leaved Yucca (soap, anti-viral, fungal, bacterial)

    Yucca roots are a natural source of soap. They have a high concentration of saponin, an antibacterial, anti-fungal, and anit-viral foaming and detergent agent. To make a soap from it, dig up plant with a stick to access the root. Cut root from plant and rinse away the dirt. Peel off the outer layer. Lay root on a hard surface and crush with a smooth clean rock. Hold crushed root in hand and add water while quickly swishing hands together. This will produce a foam like commercial soap. WARNING: Test on a small area of skin before using it in case of allergy.

    Wild/Big Sage (bug repellent, antiseptic, deodorant)

    For an insect repellent, rub sage on your skin to repel insects. For infections, when made into a tea, sage is anti-bacterial and anti-viral. Use for fevers, colds and even Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Inhale steam from boiling tea to soothe asthma and cure lung infections. Gargle with sage tea to fight mouth infection or sore throat from virus or bacteria.

    Topical Wound Treatment: Sage leaves can be also chewed and put on to cuts and wounds to prevent infection. Use sage tea as an anti-bacterial rinse to pour on cuts and wounds to kill infection.

    Rocky Mountain Willows (anti-inflammatory, poultice)

    The bark contains salicin, with qualities like aspirin. Use as an anti-inflammatory, tonic, or diuretic. Poulticed leaves promote wound healing. Decoction of the tree bark is used to ease headaches, fever and diarrhea.

    Prickly Pear Cactus (poultice, burn relief)

    Make a poultice of peeled cactus pads and apply to wounds, cuts, burns, etc. To prepare the fleshy pads, burn off the spines. If some of the small spines remain, carefully cut off the outer skin containing the spines. CAUTION: The smallest spines are difficult to see, but in spite of their small size, they can cause aggravating skin wounds for several days.

    7. Building a Temporary Shelter

    Sometimes, storms will roll in. And when you've got all the stuff you'll have with you for a while on your back, you really ought to keep dry. Hopefully you have one of our tents, and you can quickly just click the poles into the footprint and stake down the rainfly over it.

    Even if you have just a tarp and some rope, you can get a shelter up quickly. Find two trees about seven or eight feet apart, use your handy trucker's hitch to tie a line between them about 4.5 feet off the ground and hang your tarp over it. Or if there are large rocks available, you can pin down either end of the tarp so it's taut. You'll want to lean some long sticks or trekking poles against the line - and quickly lash them down - before you toss the tarp over it to give the shelter some body inside. Be mindful of elevation and careful not to put yourself where water will be flowing.

    If you need more robust makeshift overnight shelters, good old Boy's Life magazine has some helpful suggestions.

    Remember, being out on your own and connecting with nature recharges our spirit like nothing else. But there are dangers great and small out there, and it's best to think like a Scout and "Be Prepared."


    PS. Need an affordable, ultralight backpacking tent with a minimalistic footprint? The Yosemite 1P Backpacking Tent is just over 4lbs and packs down to less than 6" thick. It's the smallest, lightest tent we make.

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