9 survival skills every Canadian should know

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If you’re a cottager, chances are you like the outdoors. Maybe your activity of choice is a long hike along the hydro cut, a bike ride along that old logging trail, or a paddle through those back bays that no one ever goes to. Whatever you do, if you’re doing it outdoors and reasonably away from built-up areas, you should know these basic survival skills. Here’s hoping you’ll never need to use them.

1. How to build a fire

Building a fire is important for a number of reasons: it’s a source of warmth, light and comfort, and can keep curious (or hungry) wild animals away. Ideally, you won’t have ventured out on your walk/bike ride/paddle without a basic survival kit, which would include waterproof matches and other ways to start a fire—but if you don’t have that, there are still ways to create a flame. (Check out this article for details about each of the following methods.)

  • If you’re carrying a pocket knife (and you should be), you can strike it with quartzite to create a spark and build a fire from there.
  • If you’re wearing glasses, have a pair of binoculars or are carrying a magnifying glass, you can use those lenses to focus the sun’s rays.

2. How to find and purify water

Water is probably your most pressing concern if you’re lost—but if it makes you sick, it won’t do you much good, so finding water that’s as clean as possible is important.

  • Stand still and listen for the sound of a river or stream, and head towards it. A flowing stream is your best bet for clean water, as lakes and ponds can be stagnant and bacteria filled.
  • If you can’t hear anything, look for several types of animal tracks in one place, indicating many animals converging on a common water source.
  • Head downhill—rain and stream water naturally drain downward.
  • Collect rainwater if you can—use any containers you have, or tie the corners of a poncho or tarp to some trees, put a rock in the centre to weigh it down, and drink what’s collected.
  • If it’s winter, don’t just eat snow without melting it first. It can lower your body temperature, which will (ironically) dehydrate you as your metabolic rate goes up in order to keep you warm.

3. How to build a shelter

After water, shelter is one of your top priorities—something that will keep you out of the elements and insulate you from cold and heat. One thing to keep in mind: it’s better to be off the ground and not have a roof than it is to have a roof and sleep on the ground.

  • Leaning branches against a fallen tree and covering those with debris like leaves and moss is the simplest kind of shelter. Cover the floor of your shelter with debris to get up off the ground as much as possible.
  • In the simplest case, you can simply pile up debris on the ground, then burrow into it. It may be cramped and dirty, but it will help keep you warm. Just remember not to sleep directly on the ground if you can help it.
  • There are lots of other types of wilderness shelters, many of which are outlined in this article.

4. How to stay positive

Maintaining a positive attitude may seem like an afterthought when faced with life-or-death questions of finding food and water—but your mental attitude will be key to ensuring you survive long enough for someone to rescue you.

  • Try and stay calm, assess your situation, and prioritize problems to solve so you don’t become overwhelmed. If you maintain a positive attitude (or at least don’t give up completely) you’ll be more creative and more likely to come up with ways to get yourself out of your present situation.
  • If you find yourself panicking, remember STOP: Stop, Think, Observe, Plan. It’s easy to rush into trying to solve problems without thinking them through, wasting energy and precious resources. Take things slowly, and your solutions will be much more effective.
  • Figure out ways to keep yourself busy. Boredom is a drain on your mental energy, so work on sprucing up your shelter, carve something with a rock and a piece of wood—anything to keep yourself occupied during the inevitable hours of waiting.

5. How to find food

You can last a while—like, at least three weeks—with no food, but you won’t be happy, and you won’t have the cognitive energy and physical stamina needed to do all the other things you’ll need to survive. So, while finding food isn’t as important as finding water or shelter, it’s still up there on the priority list.

  • If you don’t know what it is, don’t eat it. In that handy survival kit you should be carrying, you should have a plant identification guide that tells you what’s good to eat—and what could potentially kill you. (Of course, you should also have a source of food in that kit too.) There are a lot of poisonous plants and mushrooms out there—don’t risk eating something you’re not sure about.
  • Insects—true insects, with six legs, a three-part body, an exoskeleton and one pair of antennae—are generally safe. Grasshoppers, crickets, ants and termites are all fine to eat and, once you get over the ick factor, quite tasty, especially if you can roast them.
  • Earthworms, snails and water animals like crabs, clams, eels and fish are OK too (although many of these should be cooked if possible). Avoid anything with multiple legs, a hairy outer body (like bees) or bright colours.
  • Look for bird and turtle eggs—just be aware that, unless you’re truly in a survival situation, it probably isn’t legal to collect wild animal eggs. If you’re starving, though, go for it.
  • Try and cook food when possible—digesting raw stuff take a lot more energy, and conserving energy is a key to survival.

6. How to do basic first aid

If you get injured, you’ll need to know basic first aid. No matter whether it’s you or a companion who is injured, it’s important to stay calm—panic will just make things worse. For details on wilderness first aid, take a look at this article from B.C. Adventure.

  • If you are bleeding, elevate the wounded area above the heart and apply pressure using something to absorb the blood: a bandage, a strip of clean cloth, dried seaweed, or sphagnum moss. Don’t apply a tourniquet unless the bleeding is extremely severe.
  • If you have fractured a bone, immobilize the affected area using a splint. This could be sticks or pieces of wood tied with strips of a ripped t-shirt.
  • With heat exhaustion—which occurs when a body gets dehydrated and salt stores are depleted—make sure to get lots of water and, if possible, some salt. While heat exhaustion causes clammy skin and a weak pulse, sunstroke causes a flushed face and a rapid pulse. Lots of water and the opportunity to rest in a shaded place will help.

7. How to signal for help

Assuming that you have no technological method of communicating with the outside world, you’ll have to come up with a way to let people know where you are.

  • A signal fire is one of the best, most visible ways to let people know where you are. Find a high, prominent spot if possible, although a fire will still be effective even if it’s hidden by trees. If you can, light three fires—an international symbol for help. And add things to your signal fire to make the smoke more visible: anything plastic that you don’t need, birch bark, wet leaves, live evergreen boughs—anything that’s not ideal for combustion will make smoke.
  • If you have a whistle, blow three short blasts periodically. If you don’t have a whistle, even beating a large stick on a tree in a rhythmic way can act as a signal.
  • Add a signaling mirror to your survival kit—but if you don’t have one, a regular mirror will do. Even the reflective surface of a cellphone can work.
  • Tie a brightly coloured piece of cloth, a space blanket, or section tarp to a tree to act as a locator flag.
  • If you have access to a large open area, spell out the words “SOS” or “HELP” on the ground using debris.

8. How to navigate without GPS

It’s tempting, but dangerous, to rely solely on a smartphone or GPS to help you navigate an unfamiliar area. After all, there may be no signal. Your battery might run down. Or your device may get damaged. Regardless of how you find yourself without an electronic device, it’s important to know how to navigate the old-fashioned way. Oh—and if you’re not sure where you are, stay put. Wandering aimlessly will just get you more lost. If you do have to strike out on your own (to find water or food, for example), make sure to mark your trail so you can find your way back.

  • Use the sun—but be cautious. You may think that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, but that’s not actually true for most of the year, especially the higher your latitude gets. This handy article gives you some detail about how to properly use the sun to calculate direction.
  • Use a compass. If you have a topographical map and a compass (the one on your phone doesn’t count), you can orient yourself and follow your map to safety. Use this guide for a basic lesson on paper-map orienteering.
  • Use the stars. Usually, walking through the woods at night isn’t recommended (it’s too easy to trip and fall, plus animals), but if it’s a clear night and you know which way you need to go, you can use the stars to find your direction. Polaris, the bright star in the handle of the little dipper, is called the North Star for obvious reasons. If you can see Orion’s belt, you can use it to roughly find east-west.

9. How to avoid encounters with dangerous animals

If you’re in an area with dangerous animals, you’ll want to keep your wits about you. Generally, making lots of noise and appearing larger than you are (wear extra layers of clothing or stand up as tall as you can) can deter many large predators, although try to avoid making sudden moves or appearing aggressive. Don’t leave food lying around, and be observant so you don’t unwittingly stumble between a mother and her offspring.

  • Don’t try and outrun bears. They can run faster than you (and, depending on what type of bear they are, they’re also better tree climbers.) Back away slowly, and try not to make eye contact. If a black bear attacks, fight back with whatever you have at hand, including rocks, sticks or any sharp objects. You may just convince the bear that you’re not worth the bother. If a grizzly attacks, get into the fetal position on the ground and cover the back of your neck with your hands. The grizzly may lose interest if it thinks you’re dead.
  • It’s not just large animals that can be a problem. Be wary of insect bites and stings, and poisonous snakes. And watch out for porcupines and skunks.