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Basic Survival Skills (Focus On These FIRST)

NOTE: This article has been updated with more basic skills you should learn and/or other relevant information. We’ll continue to add more to it over time.
Some of you probably got a little overwhelmed by my article where I listed out pretty much every survival skill you can think of. I’ll probably add more, though I realize no one can ever become good at all of these skills.

I know that, between family and having a job, it’s hard to find time to improve one’s skills, so in this article I’m going to give you a short list of the basic survival skills that are most important ones for you to focus. Let’s work on these first before we move on to more advanced things such as woodworking, butchering an animal, or making homemade beauty products.

Note: in the aforementioned article you’ll be surprised to notice there’s already a “survival skills list”.  That particular list encompasses every skill you can or should master for any type of SHTF situation. The list below, however, contains the only essential techniques you need to have.

making a primitive shelter

Making Shelter

The rule of threes states that one can live up to 3 minutes without air, 3 hours without shelter, 3 days without water and 3 weeks without food. Needless to say that making shelter is of utmost importance whether you’re bugging out through the woods or just wandering around and trying to stay under the radar in a city ruled by gang members.

Let me tell you about all the different types of shelters you can have or make for yourself out into the wild.

Bivvi Shelters

A bivvi bag is a waterproof jacket that you wear over your sleeping bag to make yourself waterproof. Obviously, it really isn’t a shelter to the average Joe but from a survivalist’s perspective, it will do the trick.

Bivvies are cheap, small and require less space for you to sleep in. The newest ones also have a support to keep it off your face.

Recommended Bivvy Bag: Snugpak Special Forces Bivvi Bag.

Ponchos

Military ponchos are outer garments that one usually wears as rain gear, however, they can be used to make a quick and easy survival shelter in more than one way. You will need paracord and trees or stakes to make lean-to shelters and so on.

Recommended: the Frogg Toggs Men’s Ultra-Lite Ponchos

tarp shelter

photo: Joseph

Tarps

You can make a survival shelter from a tarp just as you would with a poncho. You can make an A frame or a lean to shelter, you just have to be good at tying knots if you’re going to succeed, and that takes practice.

Tarps won’t protect you from wind, insects, or cold temperatures but they are lightweight and easy to pack in your BOB. Ideally, you would want to have both but keeping your bug out bag light is also very important.

Recommendation: the Ultimate Survival Base Hex Tarp.

Tents

Though it sounds cool right now to have a poncho as an emergency shelter, when it happens and if it’s going to be a longer term disaster, you’re gonna be thankful you have a tent.

Tents have a lot more advantages that you simply cannot ignore. They give you more space, they protect you from insects, they are easier to set up, and easier to get in and out of compared to bivvi bags, for example.

Recommendation: the MSR Carbon Reflex-2 Tent.

Mylar/Emergency Blanket Shelters

Emergency blankets are also knows as space blankets or Mylar blankets (that are waterproof and windproof). Keep in mind you won’t be able to make a full shelter from them, but they can help reflect heat from a fire or patch a hole. They’re also good at keeping your core temperature steady when you wrap them around your body (so if you’re already cold, that won’t help).

 

lean to shelter

A Lean-To Shelter

This is the poster-boy of emergency shelters and the one that requires the least amount of gear to make. You will need either a fallen tree branch or something to lean into the main branch, such as a large rock (see above).

After that, all you have to do is place branches and twigs of various sizes left and right of the main one. To isolate the makeshift shelter even better, use moss or dry leaves.

Last but not least, you’re going to need to make an opening to allow yourself and the heat from the nearby open fire to get in.

Tip: make sure the entrance is not directly facing the dominant direction of the wind.

Tip #2: If you can’f find anything to lean the main branch from, you can use paracord and/or duct tape to secure it from the adjacent smaller branches.

 

cardboard box

photo: Nelson Cunnington

Cardboard Boxes

The cardboard box emergency shelter is for urban scenarios only. City dumpsters are full of cardboard boxes which will be more than enough to keep you warm, especially since the buildings walls will already keep wind away. Beggars use them all the time…

Filtering Water

There are easy ways and not so easy ways to filter water…

If you have a LifeStraw, for instance, you don’t really have to do anything except to sip in the water.

Probably the most complicated (and unsafe) way of filtering water is to make your own filter using an empty bottle which you fill with filtering agents in a certain order. Charcoal, sand,  small rocks and even a cotton cloth can be used.

You can use charcoal from your camp fire and a bandanna or something similar to put at the top of the filter to remove big particles first. You should also place a second cotton cloth or a coffee filter at the bottom of the filter to be the very last thing the water passes through before reaching the second container.

Starting a Fire

Starting a fire is one of the most important basic survival skills you can have. It’s not enough to know how to use a lighter. It’s what you do when you don’t have these options available that matters.

The following are the main ways to start a fire without matches or lighters:

  • using sticks (the bow drill method, the hand drill method)
  • using a ferror rod
  • using a magnesium firestarter
  • using a fresnel lens
  • using batteries and steel wool
  • and many more

 

Self-Defense

If you can’t defend yourself without a knife or a gun, what will you do when you don’t have access to them?

Yes, the best way to go about it is to learn a martial art (such as Krav Maga which has a lot of natural movements like kicking and punching) but you don’t have to.

At the very least you should know the most sensitive body parts of the human body and practice ways to hit them. You won’t be able to kill your attacker but you might gain precious seconds that will allow you to flee.

The eyes, the ear, the neck, the nose, and the groin are the places you’re most likely to cause the most damage if you hit.

Another important thing you could learn is using everyday items as weapons. Your house keys, a pen, a mug, and even dirt can successfully be used against an attacker that’s even bigger and stronger than you.

first aid chest compressions

Basic Medical Skills

At the very least…

  • you should know what’s in your first aid kit and how to use each item
  • you should be able to do chest compressions
  • treat bruises, cuts, and wounds
  • how to stop a wound from bleeding
  • take care of fractures
  • solve breathing problems such as tongue blocks
  • and you should know what to do in case of electric shocks, stings, and bites

Cooking On an Open Fire

We have several articles on outdoor cooking, you can read the biggest one here.

Communications

Whether you wan to use a HAM radio, a walkie-talkies or CB radios to communicate in an emergency, you should know how to operate them. You should also know a HAM radio requires you get a license first.

ruger 10 22

Shooting a Gun

Owning a gun without knowing how to use it is pointless and even dangerous. That’s why proper firearms training is paramount. You should also be able to pick the right gun for your needs (whether you live in the city or in a small town, in a house or in an apartment building, whether you want to bug in or bug out when disaster strikes and so on).

Navigation and Orientation Skills

A few of the things you should know:

  • how to tell time without a watch
  • how to navigate using landmarks
  • how to read a topographic map
  • how to find your way back when you get lost

Finding Food and Water

Finding water can be tricky because it depends on the latitude, altitude, location,, and so on. Lakes and rivers are a good source of water provided you can filter it before you drink it but what happens if you can’t find any?

Birds, bees and insects could mean water is nearby, although parrots and reptiles are not good indicators of water.

You might find water inside rock crevices, in valleys and other low locations, or you can be smart and collect it from dew, tree leaves or by digging the earth. City dwellers have their emergency water sources too: lakes, ponds, fountains, swimming pools, vending machines, and so on.

A good rule of thumb is to always have means of purifying most of these water sources such as purification tablets tat should not only be part of your bug-out bag but also of your everyday carry kit.

As far as food is concerned, you’ve got lots of options in theory (and, hopefully, in practice as well). Fishing, hunting, foraging, trapping small game (such as rabbits), and finding bird eggs are all good options in the wilderness. Inside cities, you can look for vending machines and city ponds that usually have ducks and fish.

Fitness

Why do I list this as a skill? Because surviving any SHTF event requires that you’re fit and in shape, at least just a little bit. You’ll need to be able to walk through the forest for miles on end, jump, climb, and even run for your life if need be. You can’t do that unless you train.

Frugality

Last but not least, being frugal isn’t just something you need to do, it’s about becoming a frugal person. You can start by checking your house, attic, and garage for old things you might actually use or, at the very least, stockpile for when things go down the hill. You can continue with reducing your expenses, keeping track of everything you buy, and finding ways to get things for little or no money.

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About Dan F. Sullivan

My dad was military. My grandfather was a cop. They served their country well. But I don’t like taking orders. I’m taking matters into my own hands so I’m not just preparing, I’m going to a friggin’ war to provide you the best of the best survival and preparedness content out there.

5 comments

  1. You really don’t need a 9v battery to make fire with steel wool. It might be a little easier, but any battery will do, just touch the steel wool to the positive and negative terminals.

    Also, be careful not to burn yourself. The steel wool will warm rapidly before catching fire, and break into fire almost instantly.

    BTW, if you are storing steel wool, store it in an airtight can, glass jar, or something that will keep it from corroding. I once had a bag sitting on my work bench. It was open, partially used. Reached up to grab a pad that had a bit of rust on it (from humidity in the air…Pacific Northwest then) and as I stretched the pad, it burst into flame. Evidently well known that rusty steel wool can self-ignite.

    • Dan F. Sullivan

      Yeah, I always wondered whether this can be done with a regular battery. As you said, it’s more dangerous, but still, it might be the only choice in an emergency situation. All you need is steel wool and one of your flashlight’s battery.

      A zipper bag should work as far as storage is concerned.

  2. I enjoyed this very much, thanks for posting.

  3. Excellent article, but I have one correction.
    HAM License: I teach the HAM Licensing Class in our city
    In an “emergency situation” you DO NOT need a license to communicate. Even if you never get a license, a “hand held” (HF and UHF) transceiver with power up to 10 watts is reasonably priced and should be in every preppers kit. If you never use it to transmit, you can listen in on what is happening in your area and react accordingly.

  4. Beggars use them all the time…
    .
    How very un-PC.
    .
    Love it!

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