How To Learn Survival Skills

If you click and purchase with one of our links, we earn a commission. Thanks.

Many campers (typically men) get a desire to learn “survival skills.” While this often translates into adopting a prepper or homesteading lifestyle, this is not required. For most people, this a hobby that also gives you additional capabilities to handle challenges life may through at you. Such as getting through a bad storm or a viral pandemic.

My father-in-law grew up in rural Texas in the 1950s. What we think of as “survival skills”, is what he called “growing up.” His boyhood house had a dirt floor. And he didn’t have an indoor bathroom with running water until he was in high school.

I believe many of us wish to learn these skills, not because we’re waiting on the impending apocalypse (though I am writing this during the 2020 Coronavirus and so it feels more real than it does normally). But for two more practical reasons. One is that many people now have jobs where it’s hard to see any progress. By day I work in IT. And while it’s a good job and I’m good at, there isn’t much in visible proof of a job well done. Meanwhile, if you lash together a simple tripod in the backyard, you have something to show for your time. And that feels good. This leads to the second reason why people want to learn survival skills - it’s fun.

At this point, while the slang term is “survival skills,” this is hyperbole. As survival expert Dave Canterbury refers to in his Udemy course (as I remember it), there is a difference between survival and a night of inconvenient camping.

Survival is something you have to do in order to prevent yourself from dying in the next 1 to 30 minutes. And that’s a very rare condition.

Here is an example. Last month I went on a hike on a mountain bike trail. When a biker would come around a corner at ten miles an hour, often unsteady, I had at most a minute to jump out of the way or be seriously hurt. That’s a survival condition.

Meanwhile, if I had sprained my ankle and needed to wait until morning to hobble back out that’s just a night of inconvenient camping.

Next, as you prepare to remember the coyote and badger. These two animals love to prey on the same critters - squirrels and prairie dogs. But the predators complement each other. And while they don’t share their kills, overall they never go hungry. You can read more about this in this article. The point of this that while we have a tendency to think we will be “on our own”, the reality is that a team is stronger. And you want complementary skills.

For example, someone who can hunt might not be a good cook. But a person who can cook might not be good at hunting.

Next, while it’s cool to learn how to make everything you need from the land, this doesn’t mean you should not utilize the proper equipment where possible.

Also, decide what type of survival camping you want to learn. For example, are you a hobbyist who likes to kill time in camp practicing the skills. Or are you more interested in participating in historical reenactments described in this article about buckskinng.

Lets now look at what skills to acquire.

Learn First Aid

Whenever I am asked what skills to learn, I always recommend starting with a wilderness First Aid class.

While it’s not as sexy as carving a chair out of found wood or as cool as starting fire without matches, it’s more important.

On any camping trip, you are more likely to need First Aid than know how to trap squirrels to make a stew.

Sprains and scrapes are the most common injuries. But there’s always a possibility for more serious injuries. People could break a bone. They could get cut themselves with a knife. They could get bit by a snake.

Thus it’s important to know what to do because first responders might be a long way away.

Plus in case of a natural disaster, the first responders will be overwhelmed.

While you can refresh training at home with books or online materials, it’s best to take your first aid classes in person from certified personnel.

Learn How To Make Water Safe To Drink

The next skill you should learn is how to make water safe to drink.

Just as you are more likely to need First Aid more than any other skill, learning how to make water safe to drink should be your next skill.

Many people will tell you that you need shelter more than you need water. However, you are unlikely to be in a situation where you need to build a shelter. If you’re dressed properly and have your rain-gear, you most likely don’t need to construct a shelter. In particular, if you can build a fire.

Meanwhile, you could be facing dehydration. And having something to drink will raise your spirits. But the water you find on the trail needs to be made safe to drink.

While you can boil it, this requires a fire. And a container to boil the water in. It’s better to make this your emergency option. And carry a filter with you. Sawyer makes one that will screw on any standard bottle. Hikers like to bring along an empty Smart brand water bottle. I believe this is because these bottles are larger than other brands.

Read our article on water filters for more information.

Learn Fire Making

Being able to make a fire is an important part of survival. Thus you want to make sure you know how to build one reliably. I like to practice using my fire pit. I don’t build big fires.

There are three important reasons to build a fire. The first is that a fire will provide warmth. Which can also be used to boil water to make it safe to drink if necessary. The second reason is to provide light and protection. And the third reason is that it’s going to mentally make you feel better.

If you haven’t picked up on it yet, there are many things we do in survival to improve our mood as much as it does enable us to survive.

While we cover how to learn skills later, the best thing you can do to assist in making fire is to always carry a Bic lighter on your body.

I know, Youtube is full of people starting fires with knives and Ferro rods. I call the Ferro rod fire making the “Campfire party tricks.” While they are useful, they take skill. And in an emergency, we want simple and reliable. A Bic lighter is much more reliable.

And contrary to popular belief, they can still work even if you drop them in the water. You just have to pour the water out.

Learn How To Build A Shelter

If you are camping, you should have multiple shelter options available to you. And more importantly, a way to leave if your tent got destroyed for some reason.

For example, if you are tent camping, then you will have your tent. If something happens to your tent, such as a tent pole breaks and you cannot repair it, then you can decide to go home.

Though if the weather is nice you could spend a night doing cowboy camping. We talk more about cowboy camping here.

Or if whatever disaster that cost you your tent happens too late for you to leave, you could just sleep in your car.

If you are out hiking, it’s always good to bring along a tarp that you could use to transform into a shelter if needed. They make backpacking tarps that pack up to the size of a man’s fist.

You should also pack in a few 6 ML contractor bags. There are heavy-duty trash bags used for disposing of construction waste. They have many potential uses in a survival situation. We can convert them into ponchos.

Or turn them into a small tent.

Or a bivy to add warmth to a sleeping bag.

Or fill with leaves and grass and paper to build an impromptu sleeping pad. This will keep you warmer and make you sleep more comfortably than completely on the ground.

If you have access to the properly sized tree limbs and simple lashing skills, you can even turn these into sleeping cots.

Learn Knot And Hitch Tying

It is important to learn how to tie knots and hitches, even in a non-survival situation. Knots and hitches are needed to secure objects such as our tents to the ground or our canoes to the top of the car.

The difference is that a knot are used to tie a rope onto itself. While a hitch is used to attach a rope to another object such as a tree or pole.

There are dozens (if not hundreds) of knots and hatches. But the good news is that you only need a few knots and hitches to have success.

As I was doing research for this article to see if there was an agreement about what were the essential knots, I found out two things.

One is that no, there is no agreement on what essential knots and hitches for people to know.

And two, everyone agrees the bowline is an essential knot to know.

But here are some basic knots and hitches to know.

Stop Knot – This is a basic knot that is intended to do what it says, to keep the rope in place., You use this most often in combination with the other knots. For example, you tie a stop knot on the tail of a bowline to strengthen the hold of the knot.

The Bowline – This basic loop knot is used to secure things. It looks like a slip knot (this is one of the weaknesses, because it can slip under load, which is why you want to add a stop knot) but this knot allows a rope to retain up to two-thirds of its strength.

Prusik Knot – Used when attaching a smaller diameter rope to a larger diameter rope. What makes it useful is that the knot allows the smaller diameter rope to be pushed along the larger rope but will then tighten under load. This is useful such as when you need to do a water crossing over a strong current.

Clove Hitch - This is a common hitch used to end lashings because you can quickly untie it by pushing the tail against the knot.

Trucker’s Hitch – This knot gets its name because it is commonly used by truck drivers to secure loads. In bushcraft we will pair this hitch with the blowline to secure a ridgeline.

I keep a few feet of paracord and a couple pieces of wood (such as basswood you might use for whittling or crafts projects) nearby my chair at home. And when I get bored, I will practice knot tying while watching TV.

Learn Lashing

We use lashings to create useful items including tripods, sleds, packs and even furniture from wood we collect.

Shear lashings are used to tie objects side by side. And diagonal lashings are for when we criss-cross each other.

Unfortunately, unless your house is in your own forest, it can be hard to find the wood to practice lashing around the house.

What I did was I went to my local big box construction store and bought some 2x4 lumber. I keep them in the garage and at least once a month I go out back and practice my basic lashings.

Learn Cooking

The military knows that keeping soldiers well-fed is important to unit cohesion and morale.

The same is true for campers in a survival situation. Plus one of the most fun parts of camping is cooking and eating by the campfire.

If you have ever watched shows like “Bizarre Foods”, you know that humans can eat almost anything. But I am not asking you to challenge your tastebuds here.

Rather, learn how to make tasty and nutritious foods from simple ingredients.

I also don’t want you to think that the only way to cook out in the bush is with berries you collect and animals you catch. Because, frankly, that’s harder (and more dangerous) than people think.

There’s a reason why humans invented the supermarket.

Nor do you need to spend a lot of money on those fancy dehydrated pre-packaged camping foods.

Rather, learn how to make use of things like dehydrated potatoes and beef jerky to transform into multiple meals.

Though, I do think every person who wants to learn survival skills should learn how to make pemmican and hard-tack. These were the original survival foods. And knowing how to make them (plus having some on-hand) will make any “survival situation” much more tolerable.

Navigation

It is important to learn the basics of navigation. You never know when you’re going to be lost without maps or phone GPS.

This is why you need to always have a compass when you’re going out. And learn how to read a topographical map.

Learn Navigation

It is important to learn the basics of navigation. You never know when you’re going to be lost without maps or phone GPS.

This is why you need to always have a compass when you’re going out. And learn how to read a topographical map.

Learn Fishing

Fishing is a great pastime on its own. Some of my favorite memories as a child are fishing with my mom’s oldest brother.

Fishing is also something most people can do. In particular, since many of us will camp along a river, lake or stream anyway. And it doesn’t require much equipment.

Heck, my two most prolific fishing trips growing up were with just poles.

Plus you can fish on any camping trip so you can get plenty of practice.

Learn Hunting

Hunting has been part of human society since the beginning of time.

And if you are planning to maximize your survival capabilities, you should learn how to hunt.

However, hunting is not a reliable way to provide food in a survival situation. You would use hunting to augment your other food.

And in a survival situation, you are most likely not going to be hunting for large animals. You are going to be going after rabbits and squirrels. And will be thankful for feral pigs.

This is why you should also become proficient in many forms of hunting as possible. Including firearms, bows, and even air guns. 22 caliber pellet rifles can be used to hunt small game at a much cheaper price (pellets are a lot cheaper than bullets) and quieter.

Learn Trapping

If you’re going to maximize your ability to put meat on your table, then you need to use every tool at your disposal.

We have already covered two methods. Hunting and fishing. Trapping is the third.

Traps and snares are not just for killing cute furry animals that act as supporting animals in a Disney cartoon.

You can use them to catch fish, frogs, crawfish, and even snakes. And you will likely want to some of your catch as bait for bigger animals on the food chain.

As was pointed out in the research I did for this article, a benefit of trapping is that your catch is still alive. This way you can determine when you will kill the animal. And thus guarantee fresh meat.

Learn How To Clean And Butcher Your Game

If you are going to make use of your kill, then you must process it so that you can cook it.

This includes being able to clean it. The first few times that you do this, you will be squeamish. You might even be disgusted. But you will get used to it.

And hunger will help you find the courage to do things that you will not want to do today.

Learn How To Make Jerky And Pemmican

If you bring down a large animal such as a deer or a cow you are not going to be able to eat the meat in a single meal. Thus you are going to want to be able to preserve it.

There are many ways to do this including salting it and smoking it. And of course you can pickle it. And maybe you have gotten a generator running to allow you to run a freezer (one can dream!).

But there are a couple of additional ways to make meat last a lot longer. And these methods are ancient ways of preserving meat.

One method is still common. You find it at every grocery and convenience store across the country. And that is learning how to make jerky.

The other food is pemmican. Pemmican is a mixture of animal fat, meat and berries. This is the original meal replacement bar. And when made properly it will last for a long time. It’s possible for pemmican to last for years.

Learn How To Forage

When I first started eating solid food as a baby, I refused to eat fruits and vegetables. I drove my mother nuts. And got her scared. Because she thought you were supposed to eat your fruits and veggies.

So she took me to the doctor. He told her, my weight was fine and I was otherwise healthy. So whatever I was eating, keep feeding me that.

And I am still not a fan of either fruits or veggies.

This doesn’t mean I don’t ever eat them. They’re just last on my list.

But if you are forced into survival mode, you may have to forage for food as well.

And thus you might be eating more fruits and vegetables than ordinary.

Just make sure that you have been trained on how to forage first.

Because many plants that can make you sick, also look a lot like the plants that are good for you.

Learn How To Garden

Instead of depending upon foraging for food, start a garden. You don’t need much space to grow many plants.

You can even grow potatoes in 5-gallon buckets which you can pick up for cheap at your big box hardware stores.

I would prefer to get the food-safe buckets because they have multiple uses besides your garden. For example, you can use these buckets to collect rainwater too.

But learning how to garden is a fun hobby on its own. And can provide food for your in a survival situation.

Learn Camouflage

If you’re already a hunter, you know the basics of this skill.

But if you are not a hunter, it’s something you will want to learn. Because learning how to camouflage yourself, your family and your possessions will help protect you.

Not just from being discovered by prey when you’re on a hunting trip but as well when you need to hide from people who may mean you harm.

Learn Driving Skills

I realized in all of the time I have researched survival and prepper skills, nobody talks about driving skills.

Everyone immediately into the bushcraft and bunkers (for the preppers).

Meanwhile, when disaster strikes, the ability to drive will improve your chances of survival.

Whether this is to get the heck out of danger, to get supplies or to a secret fishing spot, this is an important skill.

I know now that I have my Tacoma truck, with the ability to go into 4-wheel makes me much more confident in my ability to get my family into safety more than when I had my old sedan.

How To Learn Survival Skills

In-Person Courses

If possible, take in-person courses.

There are 3 benefits to doing in-person courses:

One is that you will have a structured approach in a safe environment. This way you will be learning skills in the proper order as you need them.

Second, you will be in an environment where you can learn the skills. Many of these skills can be challenging to learn if you are in an urban environment. For example, I don’t have any trees in my yard. So practicing setting up a ridgeline with a makeshift tarp in my backyard requires some planning.

Third, it’s a chance to make friends. Friends are good in the fun-times of practicing any hobby. But if you are facing a long-term survival situation, having friends who have these skills will increase your capabilities.

There are many schools around that can assist.

For example, there is the Self Reliance Outfitters which was founded by Dave Canterbury.

But you may have schools local to you as well. For example, the Texas Survival School is close to my house.

If you have an REI near you, they also offer classes and even trips.

I have taken a few REI classes and I have enjoyed them. They are either free or low-cost.

First Aid Courses

There are 2 national courses you should be able to take for Wilderness First-Aid:

Fishing and Hunting Guides

If you want to learn how to fish, I would look for local guides. And for hunting, make sure to take a gun safety class first.

Online Resources

As with anything there are many online resources you can use.

I prefer to use online courses over books for learning survival skills because the video and animations often make it easier to understand how to implement the concepts.

In particular, for things like knot tying.

I completed the Basic Survival Concepts course on Udemy

There are also many resources on YouTube. I really enjoy Corporal’s Corner, Cowboy Kent Rollins, and Homemade Wanderlust.

Finally, you can also look at government produced information.

Such as ready.gov provides a guide on how to make water safe to drink including distillation for dealing with potentially chemical contamination.

Books

There are of course many books. And the books are great for having access if you don’t have the Internet.

Two of my favorites are Bushcraft 101 by Dave Canterbury and Survival Hacks by Creek Stewart.

Pinterest image for How To Learn Survival Skills