The relative hostility of the environment shifts according to season and location, so our efforts to survive may sometimes be passive, or they may need to be exceptionally active in the face of extreme conditions. But even in a seemingly non-threatening environment, an unfortunate turn of events can change everything, so you have to know what to do in case the day turns into a survival adventure.
To create a safe bubble, there are certain essential techniques and/or items of equipment that will help. We are about to explore what Dave Letterman might call the Top Ten Essentials. Keep in mind that the order of priorities among these essentials will vary with the situation, shifting position on the priority list to satisfy the specific challenges of the moment. The only one that always remains at the top of the list is the one I placed last here. When you read it, you'll understand why.
- Shelter: Without the ability to control the environment immediately surrounding your body, you won’t last long. Shelter begins with your choice of clothing. Ideally, dress with clothing that keeps your body temperature near normal and shields you from wind and precipitation. After clothing, shelter takes the form of a tent or tarp or whatever you can fabricate from natural materials. The ability to improvise shelter is an essential technique for survival when modern equipment is not available.
- Signaling: Countless people die in situations when they could easily be saved if they were able to signal their distress. Signal devices include such items as a cell phone, a two-way radio, a whistle, flares, a mirror, a smoky fire by day and a bright blaze by night. Cell phones don’t work everywhere. Compact amateur (HAM) radios are available in backpackable models (license required) that can reach out and touch someone who can relay a message to search parties. FRS (Family Radio Service) two-way radios are inexpensive, compact, and effective over a short range (no license required). Whistles are lightweight and easy to operate. Flares are appropriate for some circumstances, but not all, as they may set fire to a forest. Any shiny surface can serve as a signal mirror, flashing your position across miles of terrain. The ability to build a signal fire that can be seen at a great distance both day and night may save your life.
- Fire: The importance of fire cannot be overstated. It will signal for help, keep you warm, provide light around camp, cook your food and purify your drinking water. Among the highest priorities in any survival situation is to get a fire going, so you should always carry redundant fire starting equipment. You should also learn to start a fire by primitive methods in case you are caught without modern equipment.
- Pure water: To sustain life, it is essential to have adequate drinking water — a gallon a day, or more if the climate is hot or the work load is great. Technology has brought us water purification chemicals (iodine or chlorine) as well as compact water filters especially designed for camping and backpacking. If you are caught without a filter or chemicals, you need to know how to devise the means to contain and purify water by boiling.
- Knife: Among the most essential tools for outdoor living is a knife, because it is useful for fabricating a shelter, making the components of a primitive fire starting set, building traps, preparing food, cutting kindling, making tinder, and myriad other chores.
- Food: People often put food uppermost on their priority list when thinking of a survival situation, but death by starvation isn’t the most likely scenario. That said, food is still an essential because it helps maintain energy necessary to accomplish tasks and to keep your thinking clear and focused. High-calorie foods are best, and hot meals significantly improve energy and emotional strength.
- Insulation: You can still perish from exposure inside a waterproof shelter, unless you have effective insulation to keep your body warmth from escaping into the surrounding air. The job of insulation is to trap a layer of body-warmed air next to your skin. Insulation should be dry, fluffy, and as thick as possible. A good sleeping bag and insulation layers of clothing are very high priorities.
- First Aid: An injury can end life in a heartbeat, far more quickly than freezing or starving or dying of thirst. Proficiency at emergency medical care should be an essential part of survival preparation. Along with proficiency goes a well-planned first aid kit.
- Navigation: Map and compass, and the skill to use them to keep from getting lost, should be on everybody’s list of essential equipment and techniques. A GPS is wonderful, combined with a spare set of batteries and the knowledge of how to use this high-tech equipment. But electronics can fail, so you should have a USGS topographic map of the area you’re in and a compass to serve as backup. Conscientious navigators will use a pencil to plot their position on the map from time to time, transferring GPS information as well as the time of the last plot, so they have a running history written on the map of where their GPS positions were. That way, if the equipment fails, you have a pretty close starting point for continued navigation.
- Sound judgment: This one should be at the top of the priority list, regardless of the situation. But I place it last here so I can hammer it home as the final thing you think about after reading this. The ability to think clearly, understand not only the dangers you are facing but also the advantages offered by every resource ranging from your shoelaces to tree bark, is critical. The ability to remain calm and think your way through a situation can mean the difference between failure and success. And success in a survival situation means that you get to live.