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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 information to it
Some of you probably got a little overwhelmed by my article where I listed out pretty much every survival skill you can think of. There’re over 120 of them! I’ll probably add more when I realize I missed one. I can understand that, between family and having a job, it’s hard to find time to improve one’s skills.

In this article I’m going to give you a short list of the basic survival skills that are most important for SHTF situations or even just smaller scale critical events. Let’s focus 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 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 shelter you can have with your in your bug-out bag or build 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.

worm farming

Bivvies are cheaper, smaller 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.

Military Ponchos

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.

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

tarp shelter

photo: Joseph


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.


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.

My 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). If you’re looking for something a little more permanent, the next option will be much better.

lean-to shelter

Lean-To Shelters Made of Branches

This is the poster-boy of emergency shelters and you can see it on the left. You will need either a fallen tree branch or something to lean into the main branch.

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 gonna 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 or you’re gonna have a bad time…

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.

Walking, Running and Hiking

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 for it first.

Starting a Fire

Starting a fire is definitely one of the most important basic survival skills you can have. It’s not enough to know how to use a bic 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 The Bow Drill Method

Probably the most popular. You need the right wood to make it work. You need a board, a spindle, some tinder ready, and lots of patience.

Using The Hand Drill Method

This is similar with the previous method, the only difference is that you don’t have a bow, you just have to rub the stick with your hands. It’s pretty exhausting but might save your life one day.

Using Flint and Steel

You will need a flint rock, char cloth, and and the back of the blade of a knife. Simply strike the steel against the flint until sparks start flying and the cloth catches fire.

Using a (Makeshift) Lens

If you have a fresnel lens, a pair of reading glasses, or just a transparent plastic bag filled with water, you can focus the sun’s light into a single point that will burst into flames. You can use tinder or a piece of paper colored in black ink.

Using Batteries and Steel Wool

You will need a standard 9V battery and some steel to make it work. Simply put both terminals in contact with the wool and sparks are gonna pop up instantly.

Once you get that initial spark going, you’ll need tinder to quickly catch it and turn it into a flame, then you add kindling that will light up from the tinder (straw, twigs and tiny branches) and then you need fuel (large branches and logs).

That’s it! Just take care of your fire and on’t forget to out it out before you leave.


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” such as 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

I’m no doctor but having basic medical skills is crucial. 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
  • use herbal medicine to treat various problems (I wouldn’t categorize this as a basic survival skill but still, it’s important)
  • deal with severe 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

I’ve written a pretty big article on all the various ways to cook on an open fire, you can read it here.

Using HAM radio

There are lots of ways to communicate during an emergency but here at Survival Sullivan we think HAM radio is the best. You can’t just own such a radio, you need to get a license first, but it’s well worth it as you can talk to people across the Globe with no need to rely on phone lines or satellites.

You can read more about emergency communications here.

Shooting a Gun

It would be pointless for me to try and teach you how to shoot a gun right here in this article. You obviously need to practice it. However, I do want to give you a couple of tips: always squeeze the trigger, don’t pull it and always keep the gun pointed out of harm’s way, even when it’s not loaded.

Tying Basic Rope Knots

Oh so many knots… You don’t have to memorize all of them but it’s fun to try them. Start with these seven:

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, 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. Pigeons, of course, are another option, though not a lot of people are going to fancy this option.


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.


  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.

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