What Basic Survival Skills Should I Know Before Hiking?

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So you’ve decided to embark on a hiking adventure, but before you hit the trails, it’s important to equip yourself with some basic survival skills. Whether you’re an experienced hiker or a beginner, having these essential skills can make all the difference in potential emergencies or unforeseen circumstances that may arise in the great outdoors. From navigation and first aid to fire starting and shelter building, this article will provide you with the necessary knowledge to enhance your hiking experience and ensure your safety along the way. Lace up your boots and let’s explore the fundamental survival skills every hiker should know.


Using a map and compass

When embarking on any outdoor adventure, it’s crucial to know how to navigate using a map and compass. These tools can be your lifeline when you find yourself off-trail or disoriented. Start by familiarizing yourself with reading topographic maps and understanding the symbols used. Learn how to orient the map to match the surroundings and use a compass to determine your direction of travel. By learning these skills, you’ll be able to confidently navigate through unfamiliar terrains and never have to rely solely on technology.

Reading trail markers

Trail markers are essential for hikers to stay on course and reach their destination safely. Familiarize yourself with the different trail markers used in the areas you plan to hike. These markers can include cairns, blazes, or signs with specific colors or symbols. Being able to interpret these markers will help you stay on the right path, prevent getting lost, and ensure you reach your destination without any unnecessary detours.

Following a GPS device

While map and compass skills are essential, technology can also be a valuable tool for navigation. GPS devices have become increasingly popular and can provide accurate coordinates and real-time location tracking. It’s important to familiarize yourself with how to operate a GPS device specific to hiking and outdoor activities. Learn how to input waypoints, create routes, and interpret the data provided by the device. However, always bring a backup map and compass, as GPS devices can fail or lose signal in certain situations.

Outdoor First Aid

Basic first aid skills

Having basic first aid knowledge can be invaluable in an outdoor setting. Learn fundamental skills such as cleaning and dressing wounds, applying bandages, and recognizing the signs of dehydration and heat exhaustion. You should also familiarize yourself with how to treat blisters, sprains, and minor burns. Knowing these skills will allow you to tend to injuries promptly and potentially prevent them from worsening while you seek professional medical help.

Identifying and treating common injuries

In addition to basic first aid skills, familiarize yourself with common injuries encountered in the outdoors. This includes recognizing the signs and symptoms of hyperthermia, hypothermia, altitude sickness, and insect bites or stings. Learn how to properly immobilize a fractured bone, administer wound care for more severe injuries, and address breathing difficulties. Being prepared to handle these situations can be critical in wilderness settings where medical assistance may not be readily available.

Administering CPR

Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) is a life-saving skill that everyone should learn. In emergency situations where someone’s heart has stopped or they have stopped breathing, administering CPR can keep them alive until medical help arrives. Be sure to take a certified CPR course that covers both traditional CPR and CPR specific to outdoor environments. Knowing how to perform effective chest compressions and rescue breaths can make a significant difference in someone’s chance of survival.

Fire Building

Selecting a safe campsite for a fire

Building a fire can provide warmth, light, and the means to cook food in the wilderness. However, it’s essential to select a safe campsite for your fire to prevent damage to the environment and ensure your safety. Look for established fire rings or cleared areas that are at least 10 feet away from any vegetation or flammable materials. Avoid areas with overhanging branches or low-hanging vegetation that can catch fire easily. Additionally, be aware of any fire restrictions or regulations in the area you are hiking.

Gathering firewood and tender

Once you have found a suitable campsite, gathering firewood and tinder is the next step. Look for dead and downed wood, which is both easier to ignite and minimizes the impact on live trees. Collect wood in various sizes, from small twigs to larger logs, to sustain the fire over time. Additionally, gather dry leaves, grass, or bark as tinder to help ignite the fire easily. Remember, it’s important to leave the surrounding area as you found it, so avoid unnecessarily stripping vegetation or breaking live branches.

Building and lighting a fire

Building a fire requires some know-how and patience. Start by creating a fire pit in the center of your cleared campsite, using rocks to form a barrier. Next, arrange your firewood in a teepee or log cabin structure, leaving enough space for air to circulate. Use your tinder to ignite the fire, and gradually add larger pieces of wood to maintain the flame. It’s crucial to monitor the fire continuously, never leaving it unattended, and ensure it is completely extinguished before leaving the campsite. Always abide by any fire regulations or bans in the area you are hiking.

Water Procurement

Identifying and accessing water sources

One of the most critical survival skills is knowing how to identify and access safe water sources. Familiarize yourself with the types of water sources available in the areas you hike, such as streams, lakes, or springs. Learn to recognize signs of clean water, such as clear and flowing sources, and be cautious of stagnant or discolored water that may contain harmful bacteria. In emergencies, remember that the safest option is to boil water before consuming it.

Filtering and purifying water

While some water sources may appear clean, it’s always best to filter and purify water before drinking it. Invest in a reliable water filter or purification system that removes bacteria, protozoa, and other contaminants. This will help prevent waterborne illnesses and ensure your hydration needs are met. In the absence of a filter, you can use chemical water treatment tablets or boil water for at least one minute to kill any harmful microorganisms.

Carrying enough water or hydration methods

In addition to procuring water from natural sources, it’s essential to carry enough water or have alternative hydration methods. Evaluate the duration of your hike and the availability of water along the trail to determine how much water you need to carry. Consider water bladder systems or portable water bottles that are easy to refill. Additionally, it can be helpful to carry electrolyte supplements or hydration powders to replenish essential minerals lost through sweating.

Shelter Building

Choosing appropriate shelter locations

Knowing how to choose the right location for your shelter can make a significant difference in your comfort and safety while camping. Look for flat areas that are elevated from potential runoff or flooding. Avoid camping in low-lying areas prone to collecting cold air or areas directly exposed to strong winds. Look for natural windbreaks, such as trees or large rocks, to provide some protection. Being mindful of environmental impacts, avoid damaging vegetation or sensitive ecosystems when selecting your shelter location.

Building different types of shelters

In emergency situations, it’s crucial to know how to build different types of shelters using available resources. Familiarize yourself with constructing shelters such as lean-tos, debris huts, or A-frame structures. These shelters can provide protection from rain, wind, and cold temperatures. Learn the basics of shelter building, including selecting appropriate materials and properly insulating your shelter to retain body heat. Practice these skills in non-emergency situations to build confidence and efficiency.

Using natural resources for shelter construction

Nature can provide an abundance of resources for shelter building. Learn to identify suitable materials like branches, leaves, and pine needles that can insulate and waterproof your shelter. Fallen trees or large rocks can serve as a solid foundation or windbreaks. Use vines or paracord to secure branches together, creating a sturdy structure. By utilizing natural resources, you can build a functional shelter that protects you from the elements while minimizing your impact on the environment.

Food Procurement

Identifying edible plants and berries

When in the wilderness, knowing how to identify edible plants and berries can provide additional sustenance in emergency situations. It’s essential to educate yourself on the local flora and learn to identify edible species accurately. Familiarize yourself with wild berries, edible roots, and edible greens that are safe for consumption. However, exercise caution as misidentifying plants can have severe consequences. Always cross-reference information from reliable sources and never consume any plant unless you are 100% sure of its identity.

Fishing, trapping, and hunting basics

For more sustainable food procurement, learning basic fishing, trapping, and hunting skills can be valuable. Research the local regulations and laws surrounding these activities in the areas you hike. Familiarize yourself with the proper techniques, equipment, and ethical considerations involved. Practice catch-and-release methods for fishing whenever possible and respect wildlife habitats. Remember, these skills require additional permits and expertise, so make sure to acquire the necessary knowledge and follow all regulations.

Carrying emergency food supplies

While foraging or hunting for food can be beneficial, always carry emergency food supplies in case you cannot find suitable sustenance. Pack lightweight, nutrient-dense snacks such as energy bars, jerky, nuts, and dried fruits. These items have a long shelf life and provide quick energy. Consider your dietary restrictions, if any, and ensure you have enough food to sustain you until help arrives or you can procure additional resources.

Weather Awareness

Understanding local weather patterns

Having a good understanding of local weather patterns is crucial for any hiker. Research the climate and weather patterns of the areas you plan to hike in. Learn about seasonal variations, average temperatures, and the likelihood of severe weather events. Being informed allows you to plan your hikes accordingly, pack appropriate clothing, and make informed decisions when faced with changing weather conditions.

Recognizing signs of approaching severe weather

While weather forecasts can be helpful, conditions can change rapidly in the outdoors. Learn to recognize the signs of approaching severe weather to stay safe. Look for darkening clouds, shifts in wind patterns, or sudden drops in temperature. Pay attention to any visible lightning or distant thunder. These indications can signal an approaching storm or other dangerous weather conditions. Having the ability to identify these signs allows you to take appropriate measures before it’s too late.

Taking appropriate measures during extreme weather

In the event of extreme weather, it’s important to know how to protect yourself. Take shelter during thunderstorms, preferably in a sturdy, enclosed structure. Avoid taking refuge under tall trees or near bodies of water. If caught in a lightning storm and unable to find immediate shelter, crouch down low, minimizing your contact with the ground. During extreme heat, find shade and stay hydrated. In extreme cold, take precautions to prevent frostbite and hypothermia by layering clothing and seeking shelter.

Risk Assessment

Evaluating potential hazards on the trail

Before embarking on any hike, it’s essential to evaluate potential hazards along the trail. Research the difficulty level, length, and elevation gain of the hike you plan to undertake. Consider factors such as steep terrain, river crossings, exposure to cliffs, or avalanche-prone areas. Be aware of any wildlife that may pose a threat and take necessary precautions. Evaluating potential hazards allows you to make informed decisions about whether a certain trail is suitable for your skills and experience level.

Avoiding dangerous situations

Awareness and prevention are key to avoiding dangerous situations while hiking. Stay on marked trails and avoid taking unnecessary risks. Avoid hiking alone, especially in remote areas, and inform someone about your hiking plans and expected return time. Familiarize yourself with basic self-defense techniques and carry bear spray or other suitable deterrents in bear country. By being vigilant and cautious, you can reduce the likelihood of encountering potentially dangerous situations.

Knowing when to turn back or seek help

Knowing when to turn back or seek help is a critical skill for any hiker. If you encounter unexpected challenges such as inclement weather, fatigue, injury, or dwindling daylight, be willing to reassess and make the prudent decision to turn back. Trust your instincts and read the conditions carefully. If you find yourself in a situation beyond your expertise or facing a medical emergency, don’t hesitate to call for professional help or use your emergency communication devices. It’s better to prioritize your safety than to risk your well-being unnecessarily.


Carrying reliable communication devices

Having reliable communication devices is essential for staying connected in case of emergencies. Carry a fully charged cell phone, if available, with backup batteries or a portable charger. However, be aware that cell service may not be available in remote areas. Consider investing in a personal locator beacon (PLB) or satellite phone for reliable emergency communication. These devices can transmit distress signals to authorities, significantly increasing your chances of being rescued in remote locations.

Using signal mirrors or whistles

Signal mirrors and whistles are valuable tools to attract attention in emergency situations. Learn how to use a signal mirror effectively by reflecting sunlight towards potential rescuers or passing aircraft. Whistles, with their distinct sound, can carry over long distances and alert others to your location. Carry these lightweight and compact items in your backpack or on your person, ensuring they are easily accessible in case of an emergency.

Developing an emergency communication plan

Before heading out on any hike, develop an emergency communication plan. Inform a trusted person about your hiking plans, including the trail you will be on, your expected return time, and any alternative plans you may have. Establish check-in times or waypoints along the trail to ensure regular contact. In case of an emergency, agree on a timeframe for when they should initiate a search or call for help. Having a well-thought-out communication plan can greatly enhance your safety and the response time in emergency situations.


Practice and experience

While this article provides an overview of basic survival skills, practice and experience are crucial for mastering these skills. Take every opportunity to practice navigation with a map and compass, build fires, filter and purify water, and construct shelters. Join outdoor workshops or courses to refine your skills and gain more experience in challenging environments. The more you practice, the more confident and prepared you’ll become in the outdoors.

Continual learning and updating skills

Survival skills and outdoor knowledge are constantly evolving, so it’s essential to continue learning and updating your skills. Stay informed about new techniques or tools that can enhance your outdoor experiences. Read books, attend seminars or webinars, and stay connected with experienced hikers and outdoor communities. By staying up-to-date, you can continuously improve your skills and adapt to changing conditions and technologies.

By mastering navigation, outdoor first aid, fire building, water procurement, shelter building, food procurement, weather awareness, risk assessment, communication, and continuously learning, you’ll be well-prepared to tackle any hiking adventure with confidence and safety as your priorities. Remember, nature is unpredictable, and unexpected challenges may arise, but with the right skills and mindset, you can overcome them and fully enjoy the wonders of the great outdoors. Happy hiking!