Most campers can head outside without needing to know outdoor survival skills. (That’s especially true if you’re heading to a campground that comes fully equipped with running water, electrical hook-ups, and a swimming pool.) But even if your camping accommodations tend to be more comfortable than challenging, it can be confidence-building to learn new outdoor skills. And you never know when you’ll have to ride out a thunderstorm or rappel into a canyon.
The following list of skills won’t prepare you to be the next contestant on Alone, but they might impress your friends and family. These are basic outdoor survival skills every camper should know. Master these and you can move on to the next level.
Spend enough time outdoors, and the day will come when you lose your phone, break your phone, or its battery dies when you need it most. Without Google maps or any other type of GPS, it helps to know how to navigate by what you can see. During the day, the sun is your best bet for knowing what direction you’re heading. Read this how-to from expert navigator and author Tristan Gooley to learn how to navigate using the sun. Or, you can make sure your camping gear always includes a compass.
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A cloudless night is probably the easiest time to navigate. First, find the north star. (You may have heard that it’s the brightest star in the sky but that’s not always true. Plus, it can be easy to confuse it for a brightly shining planet.) To find the north star, look for the Big Dipper. Draw a line straight through the two stars on the outer edge of the Big Dipper’s “bowl” or “ladle.” This will lead you to Polaris, the north star, and help you determine which direction is north. (With both forms of navigation—by day and by night—you’ll need a paper map or know the general direction you want to go.)
3. Find a suitable campsite.
The best place to build a shelter (or pitch a tent) is somewhere high and dry. Don’t set up camp in a valley, canyon, near a stream bed, or at the very bottom of a hill. And when choosing a site, don’t forget to look up too. Stay away from dead trees and branches that could fall on you or your shelter.
4. Create a basic shelter.
If you’re ever lost outdoors and have to spend the night, building a shelter should be your top priority. Hypothermia is possible even on summer nights and you never know when it could rain or storm. One of the simplest shelters you can make is a lean-to using a fallen tree. Check out these instructions and don’t forget to insulate your shelter with dead leaves or pine branches.
5. Stay warm.
If you’re in a survival situation and need to keep warm, first put on all the clothing you have (but layer appropriately). Then you can use natural materials like dead leaves for extra insulation. Focus on stuffing them inside the main part of your shirt or coat to keep your core warm. And when you sit or sleep on the ground, be sure to have something act as insulation between you and the cold coming from the ground. A pile of leaves could work or a fallen log.
6. Find firewood.
Experienced campers know that not every type of wood is good for creating a fire. The best wood is old and dry. Look for dead lower branches on trees or gather sticks from the ground. If you break them and they snap, they’ll probably be dry enough. If not, they might just create a lot of smoke or not catch fire at all.
7. Build a fire.
One of the most important basic survival skills is the ability to efficiently start a fire. Fires are essential for warmth, cooking, and they boost morale. To build a dependable fire you’ll need three types of wood: fire starters such as very small sticks or bark shavings, kindling (larger sticks), and larger pieces of wood. Here’s a video tutorial on three different methods for building a fire. And since most people don’t get lost with a lighter or box of matches, here are seven ways to start a fire without matches.
8. Purify water.
Even when water in a stream or lake looks clean, don’t drink it without purifying it first. Water filtration systems are obviously ideal but if you don’t have one, there are ways you can purify water in an emergency situation. One way is to strain the water through a T-shirt (to remove obvious impurities), then boil it to kill off any microorganisms. (But keep in mind that not all harmful things in water can be killed by boiling so consider your water source. Contaminants like pesticides can’t be destroyed through boiling.) Don’t forget that rain, snow, and dew are good sources of water too.
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9. Tie knots.
Knot-tying seems like a skill you’d do just to earn a scout badge. It turns out, it’s a skill that can come in handy if you’re ever in a survival situation. Knots can be used in building a shelter, creating a net to catch fish, climbing to safety, or performing first-aid. Here are 9 knots every camper should know that are worth learning.
10. Signal for help.
If you’re in a survival situation where you can see people, a town, or a plane, it’s important to signal for help. You can build a signal fire or use one of these methods from outdoor expert Les Stroud.
11. Identify edible plants…but be careful.
Depending on where you are in the world and what season it is, you may have many edible plant options or none at all. It’s best to read up on common edible plants where you are before you’re ever in a survival situation. But if you didn’t do that, there are some common edible plants in North America including: clover, cattails, burdock, chicory, and dandelion. That said, edible plants often have toxic lookalikes, so be sure you know what you’re eating before you take that first bite. Also, some plants taste better or are easier to digest if they’ve been cooked first.
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12. Dress a wound and set a broken bone.
Even if you never plan to head to the wilderness, basic first aid is a good skill to have. Most outdoor activities involve some amount of risk. Brush up on basic first aid skills, and consider taking a wilderness first-aid course. At the very least, learn how to dress a wound or set a broken bone without a first-aid kit.