How To Prioritize Your Actions In A Wilderness Survival Situation
It seems to me that much has been written about what should be in a survival kit, what gear is best, and a lot on teaching individual survival skills. But much less appears to have been written on what your actual needs are and what to do if you find yourself in a wilderness survival situation. So I offer you the following information to help you know exactly what the most important needs are and what you should do and in what order to get rescued.
Perhaps the reason not so much has been written on this topic is that there are so many different variables to consider and in reality much will just depend on the specific circumstances you face at that time. What may work for one situation, will probably not work for another. Have the right gear and knowing the right skills are all very important and will certainly make things easier on you. But equally as important is knowing what you actually need to survive and how you should prioritize your actions appropriately so that you don’t waste precious time, energy and materials on doing something that isn’t necessary.
It would be very difficult to cover every step you should take for every situation. But it is possible to use a prioritized list of action items that coincide with guiding survival principles and the 5 basic needs that we all have during a survival situation in order to guide you effectively towards making good decisions that will ultimately get you rescued and back with your family and friends as soon as possible.
When speaking about survival situations people will frequently say “the more you know about survival, the less you need to carry” and that is essentially true. But even if you have mastered the full gambit of individual skills, if you find yourself in a true no kidding survival scenario and you go about accomplishing tasks at random and don’t consider the proper priority outlined below you could very well be wasting precious time and energy. Or even making your situation go from bad to worse!
Survival situations and bad things can happen anywhere at any time to any person. They also usually look very different from one another. It could be that you are lost in a deep wilderness area in a remote location. You might hurt yourself while deer hunting in a small stand of trees surrounded by thousands of acres of farmland where no one may find you for days or weeks. Or maybe your car breaks down in a remote area, or perhaps you fall and seriously hurt yourself in your backyard and no one is home or close enough to hear your screams for help. The possibilities are endless. For the purposes of explaining the full process you should go through to be rescued, the example here will focus on a person who got lost in a fairly remote wilderness area. This type of a scenario offers the best opportunity to describe all actions that may be needed in any number of different scenarios.
Without question the most important intangible thing needed in a survival situation is having a positive mindset. You need to be positive that you can and will get home alive! Even if it seems like the odds are overwhelmingly stacked against you. You need to be positive that you know what to do next. You need to be positive that even though things may be uncomfortable, you have what it takes to prevail. You need to believe that you will get home to see your family again!
If you were forced to bet on who would live and who would die in identical survival scenarios who would you choose? A guy with a backpack full of gear and a pessimistic, uncertain attitude, and a low will to survive topped off by having little to no understanding of survival basics. Or a guy with no gear and a positive attitude, a strong understanding of survival basics and a strong will to survive. If it were me, I would guess the latter guy with no gear every single time, without hesitation. A positive mindset, will power and just a some basic knowledge will get you through a lot!
Being positive allows you to clear your mind focus on the tasks at hand and the tasks that will need to be done next. It helps you to focus on the here and now instead of obsessing with how bad things are or how bad they might get. Having the positive mindset is key to survival.
There are also five basic needs that every person in a survival situation should address that are key to getting you through any survival situation. In no particular order they are:
- Personal Protection (maintaining a 98.6 core body temperature)
- Sustenance (water and food)
- Health (first aid)
- Travel (walking out / navigation)
- Communication (signaling for rescue).
Every one of the five basic needs could be more important than the other depending on the time or circumstances. But all will play a role in your ultimate recovery. I have developed the following list which incorporates the five basic needs to assist you in knowing what to do and in what order. I have used the mnemonic “I AM POSITIVE” which will hopefully help you to commit these actions to memory. You can also print out the business card sized reminders on the last page and have it laminated, then throw one in your survival kit and one in your wallet, so you will have it if you ever need it. Here is a quick look at all of the items in a prioritized order that we will cover as we go along:
I = IMMEDIATE ACTIONS
A = ASSESS THE SITUATION
M = MEDICAL
P = PERSONAL PROTECTION
O = ORIENT YOURSELF
S = SUSTENANCE
I = IMPROVISE A SIGNAL
T = TRAVEL DETERMINATION
I = INVENTORY SUPPLIES
V = VECTOR TO CIVILIZATION
E = EVALUATE PROGRESS
Below is the list of actions you should consider in prioritized order. If you already have the first action item covered, just move to the next one in order and so on down the line.
I = Immediate Actions:
The very first thing to do when you realize that you are in an emergency or survival situation is conduct immediate actions. These are as follows:
- Make sure your safe
If you were in a car that is sinking in water – get out
If you were caught in a flash flood – get to higher ground
If your boat capsized – get to shore
If you were in an avalanche – get out
If you are in a remote area and get injured – stop, treat injuries, then follow this list
If you realized your lost and no longer know which direction to travel – stop sit down and follow the rest of this list
- Expediently treat debilitating injuries
If you had a large bleeding injury, apply direct pressure with a bare hand, or use your t-shirt or sock or other clean dry material to apply direct pressure
If you were in a wreck and found yourself contorted and have a compound fracture reposition yourself to a natural more comfortable body position
The objective here is addressing any injury that will affect Airway, Bleeding, or Circulation. Your treatment at this point is not final, but should be sufficient to contain blood loss, promote breathing, circulation and comfort.
- Find a place to sit comfortably for a few moments and clear your head.
- Breathe – take a deep breaths and settle down, try to let the adrenaline rush pass.
This step will also help you to avoid or lessen shock.
By skipping this step you are going to be prone to make rash decisions that could hamper the rest of your survival efforts. Stopping to think and making sure you have your wits about you is important.
A = Assess Situation:
Once you are safe, have temporarily treated major injuries and you are in a position to rest for a second, stop and assess your situation. Ask yourself a few of the following types of questions:
- Is anyone nearby who could help?
- How far are you from other people?
- Do you remember or know exactly where you are?
- Can you physically travel? Can your partner?
- What was the weather supposed to do?
- How bad are your injuries?
- Did you tell anyone where you were going?
- Did you leave a trip plan with your friends or family members?
- If you don’t return as planned will rescue be sent to look for you?
- What supplies and or equipment do you have that can be useful?
- Did you bring a Survival Kit?
Your overall objective at this step is to ask yourself some of the types of questions above. The exact questions for your situation may vary slightly, but should be focused on helping yourself to realize and understand how long you may have to be in this situation, what resources you have to help you, etc. You are mentally preparing yourself to be ready to do what it takes to survive. Having the answers to these type questions will also help guide your subsequent actions through the rest of the situation.
M – Medical:
Now that you have spent a few minutes assessing the situation and letting your pulse and breathing return to normal you should be ready for action. At this point re-address any injuries that you or your companions have. Do what you can to treat injuries to the best extent possible for your specific circumstances.
The extent of the treatment you can accomplish may be getting out your wilderness first aid kit or just as little as making a pressure bandage from the bottom few inches of your tee shirt. Your preparation and the medical supplies you have on hand will be a major factor in your ability to sufficiently deal with medical injuries, unless you have an extensive knowledge of primitive medicine.
Depending on circumstances you may need to improvise a crutch for walking with a sprained ankle. Or you could need to improvise a splint to immobilize a broken bone. Whatever the case may be the important thing on this step is that you want any injuries to be treated the best you can with what you have available.
This isn’t meant to teach wilderness medicine, but here are a couple of important items to remember. 90% of bleeding can be stopped by applying direct and sustained pressure. The need for a tourinquet is usually very rare even in instances of complete amputation. If a tourniquet is needed do everything you can to make sure that the tourniquest is at two to four inches wide. Using very narrow pieces of 550 cord and similar material can be highly damaging to tissue and can make your injury worse.
If you have to splint a broken bone remember the following. If you are trying to immobilize a bone you need to keep the joint above and below the break from moving. And if you are trying to immobilize a joint (dislocation) you need to immobilze the bone above and below the affected joint.
Also ensure to pad the splint braces with extra clothing or soft natural material if possible to keep the splint from aggrevating your wound.
P = Personal Protection:
Now that your injuries are stabilized you need to address personal protection. Essentially that means that you need to determine your current and future ability to maintain your body temperature at 98.6 degrees. Generally, your ability to maintain your core body temperature will be most affected by four things: clothing, shelter, fire and the equipment you have with you.
If you are wet and cold a fire may be the first priority. If it’s is raining or snowing like crazy a shelter may be most important. Maybe it’s early in the morning, sunny and 80 degrees. In which case you may not need to waste time on shelter or fire right then. Or maybe it’s a little cold and damp out but you have plenty of high quality outdoor clothing on and you can stay comfortable just using your clothes. If that’s the case you can move to the next step.
The guiding factor on this step is your current and future ability to maintain a 98.6 degree core body temperature. If your body temperature drops just a couple of degrees you will become hypothermic. Hypothermia is the number one killer in a wilderness survival situation. Know the signs and symptoms of Hypothermia before you head out to the woods.
If you decide to move forward without building shelter or fire, stay alert! When you get the very first hint that your core temperature may be changing (lower or higher), you need to stop immediately and address that need. Doing so may be as easy as taking off or adding a layer of clothing. In hot environments, it may mean finding shade, in colder environments it may be shelter or fire or both.
O = Orient Yourself:
Once you have taken actions to maintain core temperature you should attempt to orient yourself to your surroundings. If you already know where you are and what is around you, then you can move to the next step. The first thing you need to do now is determine cardinal direction (North, South, East, West). You should learn several methods of determining cardinal direction without a compass before heading out to the woods. Your overall objective in this step is to find out the most direct and feasible path to civilization.
If you don’t have a map, compass or GPS you may need to consider getting to a higher elevation where you can have an open view of the terrain around you. When you get up higher you should to look for signs of human presence. The best way to find a human presence in the wilderness is to look for lines of communication (i.e. coastlines, roads, rivers, power lines, railways, etc) essentially anything that represents civilization or will lead to civilization if you follow them long enough.
Usually just a slight increase in elevation will suffice to give you a good view, especially if there is a clearing or rocky outcropping on a hillside.
If you are on totally flat terrain then you will need to rely on memory. If you have to rely on memory, think big too small. In your mind, picture your state, then zoom down to your county, then try to remember where the major cities are in relation to you. Which direction are they? Then remember which direction the major highways and freeways are in relation to the area where you are. If possible try to think of where smaller roadways and towns were in relation to where you are currently. Work from big to small and that should help you to be able to at least determine the general direction that will take you on the most direct path back towards civilization or your vehicle/camp/etc.
The overall objective of this point is try to identify any signs of human presence that are close by. This could save you from walking in the wrong direction and being stuck even longer. The lack of precision of this technique also underscores the need to be able to determine cardinal direction. A good compass is the best option, but a small button compass will be better than nothing.
S = Sustenance:
So now that you have hopefully determined where you are or at least figured out which direction you may need to travel in, you should address your need for water and food. This step should be done in this order, water always takes priority over food.
In fact many experts agree that you shouldn’t eat anything until you have plenty of potable drinking water to help you digest it. The reason is because the digestion process will consume even more water and contribute to further and quicker dehydration. If you have food and water you can move to the next step.
Your environment will determine how much water will be enough. In moderate climates a couple of quarts a day may suffice. But in hot humid climates or desert climates, you will need to drink several quarts per day to function properly. Some people will be tempted to ration water. Rationing water is a bad idea. The best place to store water is in your body.
If you are thirsty, you are already 5% dehydrated. Drink before you become thirsty if possible. At 10% dehydration you can go unconscious. Hydration is also a major factor in your ability to make good decisions. In a situation like this you need to be on your game mentally. Don’t limit your own potential by not drinking enough water. If you don’t have water with you, you need to spend some time figuring out where to get some water and how to prepare it so it is safe for drinking.
The best and most fool proof way to make water safe to drink is to boil it for three to five minutes. At lower altitudes as little as one minute at a hard roiling boil will suffice. But at higher altitudes is takes a little longer, so a general rule of thumb for most of the continental United States is 3 to 5 minutes.
Food is really not much of a concern for the first couple of days. But if you have some food eat it the energy is useful and can help to avoid fatigue. If you come across an easy meal take advantage of it. But don’t spend a significant amount of time or energy dedicated to finding food at this early stage. As I said before water is another story entirely. You need to hydrate and stay hydrated. Proper hydration is a crucial element of your ability to survive.
Know the signs and symptoms of dehydration before going out. The first sign of dehydration is attitude change. This is your bodies ways of telling you; “Hey I’m low on fluid, fix it or I will make you miserable”. Pay attention to attitude. It is often a good measure of hydration.
There are several other very important signs and symptoms as well, so research those and know them as well. If all else fails you will know you’re hydrated if your urine is clear and you have to urinate frequently.
I – Improvise a Signal:
Before moving anywhere long term do a quick reconnaissance of the area to find the most open area with the best view of the sky. You may have already been able to do this if you had to go to higher ground to orient yourself. Once you have found an open area, fashion a ground to air signal for rescue to see.
Common signals that are easy to construct and have a universally known meaning are a “V”, which means need help. A “X” which means, I am injured and can’t proceed. An Arrow indicates the direction you have traveled or intend to travel. SOS is an international distress signal and so is three equally spaced fires.
When making a signal try to incorporate as many of the following characteristics as possible: straight lines, contrasting colors, shadows, movement, reflection and sound.
If possible you should try to make this signal primarily using natural materials. Make the signal as large as you can manage to construct given your situation. If your uninjured with plenty of daylight, spending a couple of hours to build a nice larger signal isn’t a bad idea. A good recommendation as a minimum size is at least three feet wide and eighteen feet long. The bigger the better.
Gathering all of the natural material is a lot of work. However, it is best to get a signal out early. Let it begin working for you as soon as possible. You never know when an aircraft could fly by and catch a glimpse. Even if they weren’t looking for you yet.
If you have manmade material that you can add to this signal, do it. But if you leave the area, ensure you bring the manmade material with you just in case you need to throw it out again later. However, leave the natural material in place, even if you decide to leave. Also add an arrow pointing in the direction you will travel.
Also consider stopping occasionally and blowing your whistle and flashing your signal mirror on the horizon. Proactive signaling is better than passive methods.
T = Travel Determination:
Now you have stabilized injuries, are maintaining your core body temperature, oriented yourself, have hydrated, possibly eaten, and put out an initial rescue signal. You’re doing well, but have a few more important actions left. Now you need to decide whether or not you should stay put or move out and try to affect self rescue. There is no one size fits all answer for this decision either. But if you consider the following few points it may help guide you to the best decision.
- When you left did you leave a plan with anyone?
- When will they expect you home?
- Will they know to come looking or will they call authorities if you are overdue?
- What natural resources are in your current area to help you maintain core temperature, hydration and signaling?
- If you leave are you certain of which direction you should travel?
- If you know which direction to walk, do you know how far you need to go?
- Will any injuries you have be aggravated by travel?
- Is the weather supposed to change for the worse? Are storm clouds rolling in?
If you are injured and currently have resources available, and you can maintain hydration, core temperature and you think rescue will be sent soon. It may be best to stay put.
If you are not able maintain core temperature, hydration, and have few resources, you are not severely injured and you don’t think rescue is coming soon, then it may be best for you to walk out.
Your decision to travel should primarily be based off of the following items:
- Environmental conditions
- Ability to maintain core body temperature
- Ability to stay hydrated
- Whether or not you think rescue is coming
- If you know which direction to travel
- How far you will need to travel
- I – Inventory Supplies:
At this point you should have been able to determine if you will attempt to travel and try to affect self rescue or if it would be better to stay in place and wait for rescue to find you. In either case this is a good time to stop and inventory all of your supplies, equipment and resources. If natural resources (i.e. water, tinder, food, cordage, etc) that will be helpful to you during your travels are abundant in your current area, go ahead and gather/prepare some now. Also go through your gear and make sure you know what you have and where it is packed. Try to think about which items you will need to build your shelter for the night (if you need one) and which items will be used for building a fire and signaling for rescue. You may also want to improvise a way to carry all of your gear, if you don’t already have a back pack or other type of bag.
Hopefully you will have the following items in a Personal Survival Kit (PSK) or just included in the gear in your backpack. I believe the following list of items are the bare essentials for most people in a wilderness situation. This includes those people who have had some training and spent a considerable amount of time in the woods. These are listed in no particular order, because each one could be equally important depending on your situation.
- Fixed blade knife w/sharpener
- Fire Ignition Source – fire steel, matches, lighter, etc
- First Aid Kit – many components can double as tinder
- Flashlight (LED) and extra set of batteries
- 50 feet of 550 Cord – minimum
- 32 oz stainless steel water bottle (one that can be put in a fire to boil water)
- Topographic Map, but as a minimum a folding state road map
- Compass – non-digital
- Shelter material – Bright color
- Signaling Devices – (mirror, glow stick, whistle, emergency blanket)
- Folding saw or machete or axe, or hatchet
- Written trip plan
The written trip plan is by far the most commonly overlooked and probably the most important item that you should have with you and that you should have left with your family or friends. As a minimum the trip plan should address the following items:
- Number of people in your party
- Your destination – either highlighted on a map or leave the coordinates
- Map or coordinates for where you plan to leave your vehicles
- The route you plan to take highlighted on a map
- Planned overnight locations highlighted on a map
- When you plan on returning home
- What color, make and model of vehicle(s) – include license plate numbers
- What gear you have, how much food and water you are carrying
- The type of signals you have in your gear
V – Vector to civilization:
Once you made the decision to leave, recall the step earlier where you oriented yourself. Find the direction that you determined you should travel in by using your compass, GPS or by using cardinal direction based on the sun, distant prominent terrain features, etc. Typically you should not travel at night unless it is absolutely needed. If it is within a couple of hours of sundown you should consider building a shelter and fire and waiting to travel until the next morning. Also keep your eyes on the horizon watch for changes in the clouds. Weather can change extremely fast especially in many areas, especially western mountainous areas. If a storm is on the horizon it is probably best to begin building a shelter and wait to travel until it passes.
Make sure you drink as much water as you can before you leave, if it is available. Travel at a moderate pace ensuring safety and being observant as your primary concerns. Speed is not going to work to your advantage and in the long run it almost assures injury. You may also miss important signs of civilization which could help you to be rescued more quickly.
When you leave your area you should attempt to travel towards the nearest line of communication (i.e. coastlines, rivers, roads, railways, power lines, etc). These things almost always lead to civilization eventually.
If you are on a road even if it is a back road in the middle of nowhere; don’t leave the road and travel cross country through the wilderness, unless you are absolutely certain it is necessary. You can travel faster and safer on a road or trail.
As you are traveling there are a few things you can do to help rescue locate you. From the time you begin traveling at the arrow you put out by your ground to air signal, break off a branch at eye level every 15 feet or so. Don’t break the branch off all of the way, but let it hang. Somewhere in between breaking branches drag your foot leaving a heavy mark on the forest floor. This will help if rescue has located your ground to air signal and is attempting to follow your tracks on foot. You can also rub your clothing on to trees every so often so that you leave a big scent imprint for rescue dogs to follow as well. But the overriding point here is do not just leave camp and start walking. Leave a trail of some kind for rescue to follow if at all possible.
You should also look back as you walk occasionally just in case you need to back track for some unknown reason. You need to know what the area you just walked though looks like from the other perspective.
E – Evaluate progress:
Once you begin to travel, or even if you stay in place you should stop every couple of hours to evaluate your status. Go back through this list if needed. Your objective here is to take a look at how you are able to satisfy the basic survival needs of maintaining your core body temperature, your overall health, staying hydrated, and signaling or traveling towards rescue. If all is well, continue doing what you were doing. But keep in mind what you will need to be doing in the next few hours. Plan ahead and stay busy by establishing a comfortable base camp, increasing the size and visibility of your signal and gathering natural resources including food and water. Or if you are traveling continue making progress towards civilization and marking your trail as you go.
In some environments weather can change fast, your hydration level is also likely dropping quickly. Be aware of this and constantly be evaluating how hydrated you are. Fatigue will also set in rather quickly, especially if you are dehydrated and have been unsuccessful in locating any food. Stop for breaks and do your best to stay out of the sun if it is hot. Obviously if you recognize landmarks or find a road and or are certain you are close to civilization you may want press through your breaks and continue on. But don’t under estimate the dangers of fatigue and dehydration. Aside from the physiological dangers associated with each, they also have a drastic affect on your ability to make good sound decisions.
Many people fall into the trap of telling themselves that “today” is the day I will find my way out or the day rescue will find me. This is a hard attitude to change because you are so uncomfortable and desperately want to return home. But you should try not to think in terms of days and nights. Try to think in terms of your current and future ability to meet your needs. When you are considering your ability to meet your needs try to do so in a careful thoughtful manner. If you can honestly determine that you are doing well and that you are hydrated and warm and have an effective signal(s) or are making progress towards civilization is there really any harm in staying out another day or two? If you stay positive and focused on your goals of meeting the five basic survival needs in this article your situation will be all over with before you know it. Years down the road you will be able to look back and tell stories about all of the perils (real or embellished) that you faced while stuck in a no kidding “Survival Situation”.
I AM POSITIVE:
Take a look at list below. Keep this with you so that you can refer to it if you ever need to. I printing it and laminating it, so that it is waterproof.
So here it all is again in a quick review:
I = IMMEDIATE ACTIONS
A = ASSESS THE SITUATION
M = MEDICAL
P = PERSONAL PROTECTION
O = ORIENT YOURSELF
S = SUSTENANCE
I = IMPROVISE A SIGNAL
T = TRAVEL DETERMINATION
I = INVENTORY SUPPLIES
V = VECTOR TO CIVILIZATION
E = EVALUATE PROGRESS
Can you think of any items to add to this list to help get out of a wilderness survival situation?
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