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Essential Survival Skills

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What skills do you need to survive? People spend a lot of time and effort on gear, but all the gear in the world is useless without the skills to use it. Better yet, with more knowledge or skill, the less gear you will need.

Maintaining Situational Awareness

This is an essential skill and one that is not talked about enough. This, in essence, is using your senses to interpret your surroundings, how this impacts you and what dangers you may be facing. This is a useful skill whether you are trekking in the wilderness or navigating the streets of Brooklyn. Be aware of your surroundings.

If you are hiking in the mountains and notice the skies are darkening and the wind is starting to pick up, it may be a good idea to get below the treeline and seek shelter from the elements and be less vulnerable to lightning strikes. If you are in a not so good part of town, it’s getting late and you are starting to get ugly looks from some tough-looking characters, maybe it’s a good time to leave. If you are fishing in bear country and notice a great deal of bear tracks and scat, this may impact where you clean and cook fish to keep bears away from where you sleep.

This is a skill that can be developed yet can never be developed in some. Yes, it is true, some do get by solely on luck and the kindness of strangers. Be aware of your surroundings and what is going on in them.

PRO TIP: It is hard to determine situational awareness if you are walking around with your nose buried in a cell phone. Yes, we all love our devices and live in a busy world, but if you are focused on your phone in the wrong environment, somebody may be focusing on you.

Planning and Preparation

This can be as simple as, “I’m going hiking on the Blue Mountain Trail. If you don’t hear back from me by tomorrow night, start looking for me there.” It can be as complex as a detailed written plan on what you are doing, how you are doing it, and how you will deal with any contingencies that may arise. Many tragedies could have been avoided just by letting someone know where folks were going and when they were planning on returning.

This also entails what equipment you may realistically need. In the wilderness this may mean wearing the proper clothes and having the gear to provide you shelter, fire, food, water, etc etc. In everyday life this could be as simple as having a flashlight, serviceable spare tire, jack, tire iron and a full tank of gas in your vehicle before a trip.

Do you have the skills and equipment to do what you are planning to do successfully? What will you do if something does not go according to plan? Sooner or later, something will go wrong. One resource that I have found that does an excellent job of addressing these topics can be found here: Survival Mindset: A Guide on What to Do When Things Go Wrong (Deluxe Color Edition): Crittenden, Peter: 9780578974606: Books (

Build a Shelter

This is primarily a wilderness survival skill. In an urban environment, if the weather takes a turn for the worse, you can simply go inside. What happens if you are somewhere where there is no “inside”? Can you make a shelter from a poncho or tarp to keep you dry and out of the elements? Do you know how to make a debris shelter? Do you have cordage that will help you lash together a shelter? Did you bring a tool to chop or hack limbs, branches, bushes, and foliage that you can use to make such a shelter? The elements can kill you. A shelter can stop

Build a Fire

Fire can be a form of shelter. In cold environments, everything is harder because you are trying to stay warm and maintain your core temperature. Fire is so important, in my humble opinion, you should carry more than one tool or way to start a fire. Even with these necessary tools, do you know how to find dry tinder and kindling in wet conditions? Do you know what materials in your environment are especially flammable? Birch bark and lighter knot or fat wood are examples of this.

Can you construct a pyramid or cone campfire? Do you know how to start a fire by producing heat through friction? If you have never started a fire during ideal conditions, how can you expect to start one during inclimate conditions? As with most skills, perfect practice makes perfect. Next time you go camping, see if you can get the campfire started without dousing firewood with charcoal fluid.

Land Navigation

This is a crucial skill and has been the bane of young lieutenants since the beginning of organized militaries. GPS and navigation apps are great, you still need to know how to use them. Once again, perfect practice makes perfect. That said, batteries die. Can you navigate using a map and compass? Can you read a map? Do you know how to use a compass to shoot an azimuth, what the colors of the map represent and how large or small the scale of a map may affect how useful it is for land navigation?

There are also methods not involving a map and compass that can help you determine direction? Do you know how to use a simple wristwatch to determine which direction is south? Have you ever used the Big Dipper to find the North Star and ultimately, determine which direction is north. If you know one direction, you know them all.

Many books have been written about the topic of land navigation, This is a good one:, us army land navigation manual. Of the skills mentioned in this article, this one requires a great deal of practice. Many areas have orienteering clubs. This is a great way to learn and practice land navigation.

Sharpen a Knife or Edged Tool

Again, primarily a wilderness skill. Knives are useful tools in the woods and a dull knife is not only less useful, but it is also dangerous. There are many tools and techniques available to sharpen a knife, but in its simplest form goes something like this:

Hold a whetstone or sharpener so that it matches the angle of the blade of your knife. Apply equal strokes to each side of your knife edge with progressively lesser pressure by running the knife down the whetstone or sharpener. This is sometimes easier said than done and once again, perfect practice makes perfect.

With larger edged tools such as an ax, machete or kukri, use a mill bastard file and apply the same number of strokes on each side, matching the angle of the blade. Instead of running the blade down the whetstone, run the file down the blade, in the direction the blade would be cutting. Sometimes it is easier (and safer) with large cutting tools to place them in a bench vise while you are doing this.

Knot Tying

Knot tying is a useful skill and could come in handy while constructing a shelter, building a snare, making a hasty stretcher, or a host of other tasks. Once again, entire books have been written about the topic. A few basic knots that can be mastered easily are the square knot (for general use and securing running ends of rope), a round turn with two half hitches (used for anchoring a line) and a bowline (for creating a non-tightening loop). There are many other knots that are useful in a primitive setting. Start small, master one at time and as always, perfect practice makes perfect.

Skills take time and perfect practice to master. The above are some that may serve you well in a number of settings. Knowledge and skills are invaluable and they can’t be taken from you. The best time to learn new skills are ten years ago and right now. Good luck out there.