Basic Survival Skills (That Are Actually Useful!)

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 to it, though I realize no one can ever become good at all of them.

Urban or rural, bugging in or out, this short list of the basic survival skills are most important ones for you to focus regardless of what disaster or emergency you prep for. Work on these first before we move on to more advanced things such as woodworking, butchering an animal, starting a greenhouse etc. etc.


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.

If you’re prepared for emergencies, you should have at least 2 or 3 ways to make immediate shelter, such as:

  • a 2 person tent is probably going to be the most comfortable type of shelter you can have in a bug out situation
  • using a poncho, a tarp or a bivvi bag to set up a lean-to shelter
  • having a few emergency blankets that can keep you warm

If, for whatever reason, you don’t have these options, you should always be learn one of the most basic bushcraft skills out there: building a shelter with whatever you can find in the wild.

lean to shelter

A lean-to shelter is the most common type, 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 inside.

Tip: make sure the entrance is not directly facing the dominant direction of the wind. In fact, the location of your shelter is critical for your survival.

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

Urban Shelter made of 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. Homeless people use them all the time, so why can you in an emergency?

Filtering and Purifying Water

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

If you have a LifeStraw or a Sawyer Mini, for instance, you should be covered. Of course, pre-filtering water before running it through your filter is always a good idea.

A second option would be to use water purification tablets. They are cheap, lightweight and will kill all microorganisms. If the water has dirt and debris, you’ll want to filter that first.

Probably the most complicated (and unsafe) way of filtering water is to make your own using activated charcoal, sand,  small rocks and even a cotton cloth.

You can use charcoal from your camp fire and a bandanna or something similar to put at the top of the filter to remove large 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.

start a fire demo

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 this option available.

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 (either this or a ferro rod should be your back-up fire starting option)
  • using a fresnel lens
  • using batteries and steel wool
  • and many more


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, remember 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 them.

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 First Aid

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

How? You should probably take a first aid course. Much better than watching youtubes, and hoping to remember to do it right when the time comes.

Bugging In, Bugging Out and Getting Home

These aren’t just actions you should take when SHTF, they are skills that you should practice to get better at. In an emergency, lots of things will go wrong, and when things don’t go according to plan, you have to think fast, improvise and find alternatives.

Bugging in should be your plan A, bugging out should be plan B, while getting home is something you might have to do in both situations.

family in the outdoors

Outdoor Cooking

Knowing how to start a fire is just the beginning. You need to be able to keep it going, you need to make sure it’s not easily seen from afar, and to make sure you don’t set anything around you on fire.

If you don’t have an open fire, then maybe you have a small camping stove. Whatever you have, you should be able to use them to cook the freeze-dried food you carried with you, to cook using sticks you cut for yourself and even using a cast iron for more complex meals.

We have several articles on outdoor cooking, you can start with this one.


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, but it’s perfectly ok to use it without a license in an emergency.

You should also have ways to gather information in an emergency, be it using the obvious choices such as a TV or the Internet, to using a hand-crank emergency radio, or by developing a prepper group to keep each-other informed.

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.

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. Within cities, you can look for vending machines and city ponds that usually have ducks and fish.

food stockpile


Finding food and water can be risky in an emergency. Much better to think ahead and stockpile your own at home and at your bug out location. You need to worry about shelf life, space restrictions, pests, and keeping it safe from prying eyes.

Start by stockpiling cheap, long-shelf life foods such as beans, rice, honey, dried fruits and veggies, freeze dried fruit and more.

seed- starting

Starting Seeds

If dealing with a long-term disaster, eventually you’ll need a safe, secluded place you can live off grid. And one of the easiest ways to have a renewable food source on your homestead retreat is to plan vegetables. Knowing how to start seeds either indoor or outdoors, and WHEN to do it is critical. Once you know that, you can move on to other long-term food sources such as raising livestock.


Like I said in the beginning, these are just the basic skills. If you want a more detailed list, check out this other article.

updated 05/02/2018 by Dan F. Sullivan

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. Avatar

    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.

    • Avatar
      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. Avatar

    I enjoyed this very much, thanks for posting.

  3. Avatar

    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. Avatar

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

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