9 Essential Survival Tips and Why Day Hikers Are Most At Risk

There’s one simple reason that day hikers are the most at risk for getting themselves into a life or death situation and it’s not what you think:

They assume nothing will go wrong.

“The biggest mistake people make is thinking nothing can go wrong” 

-- Survival Expert

When you think of survival, you may be thinking of catching wildlife with hand-made traps or starting fires with sticks.  But these tactics are far from the first things you need to know to keep your ass alive in the wilderness.

You might also be thinking you need to carry some survival gear with you but you’re not sure what to take or how to put together a survival kit.  Of course, some survival gear is going to help you survive but there’s one thing that will help you more than any amount of gear ever could -- knowledge.

“The more you know, the less you need.”

-- creed of survival expert Cody Lundin

I’m Not Going Deep in the Wilderness, Why Do I Need to Know about Survival?

Perhaps the biggest misconception about surviving in the forest is that day hikers that aren’t going too deep into the wilderness aren’t at much risk.  This is completely false. 

According to National Geographic, day hikers are most at risk.  If you’re a backpacker deep in the wilderness and get lost, you’ve already got overnight gear with you and maybe some other things that will help (tor example, a water filter, matches, extra clothes).

But day hikers are typically unprepared in terms of the stuff they have with them and the knowledge they have.

Four times as many search and rescue operations in national parks are for day hikers than for overnight backpackers.

The most common reason?  Wandering off the trail.

Hiker wanders off trail
Wandering off the trail is the #1 reason for getting lost in the wilderness

I’m going to assume you’re just a regular day-hiker with no special survival gear.  Here are 9 essential tips you need to understand to get yourself out of survival situation.

1) S.T.O.P. What You’re Doing and Use Your Brain

Panic is the quickest way to make things worse. Every situation is different so you’re going to want to take a minute and just relax. Remember the acronym STOP:

Stop: stop walking, stop panicing, and stop doing anything so you can gather yourself and assess your situation with a cool head.

Think: that thing on your shoulders isn’t just a hat rack.  The human brain has been used for millennia to help mankind survive in the wilderness, so now it’s your turn to use it for what it’s best at.

Observe: have a good look at your surroundings, what you have with you, and take account of how you got to where you are now.  

Plan: decide what you will do next to help your situation, rather than just “winging it” as you go

Calming yourself and thinking through your scenario will likely only take 10 or 15 minutes and might actually save your life.  Not only does it force your to stop doing something stupid (like wasting energy or getting more lost), it also helps you identify the right thing to do next.

2) Rescue is your #1 priority

A yellow rescue helicopter
Rescue is your #1 priority in a survival situation

Anything else you think need to survive is rendered unnecessary if you get rescued before you need it. So how do you increase your chances of getting rescued?

Within Hearing Distance?

There are stories of people dying in the forest within shouting distance of heavily traveled trails.  There are also stories of people being rescued simply by banging on something loud. You want your story to be the second one, not the first. 

Take the story of Annette Poitras who was rescued after three days in the forest when she was injured just out walking her dogs.  Searchers located her thanks to her dogs barking.

It’s not worth shouting until you lose your voice because you might need it later but a few shouts (or loud whistles if you can) might result in your rescue. Also look for something loud you can bang on with a big stick.

Leave or Make Visual Signs of Where You’ve Been

Before you worry about running out of food or building a shelter, take a moment to think about how you could make it easy to get rescued by leaving easy-to-see clues.  

Do you have any bright colors? Put them high in a tree nearby.  

Can you safely start a fire?  Try to get the smoke above surrounding trees.

Does anyone know where you are?  If so, when will they expect you back?  This gives you a time frame you might expect to get rescued so you can plan around that.  If no one knows where you are, you might have to reevaluate your strategy.

Leave signs that you have been around, especially if you have decided to move from your current location.  This is no time for leave no trace outdoor ethics (although these should be followed at all other times).

3) Protection from the Elements is Your Next Priority

Man in hot sun on beach with life preserver
Protection from the elements is critical to survival and there are many ways to do this without building a shelter.

Protecting yourself from the elements does not necessarily mean building a shelter.  In fact, some simple, common sense advice is the most important.

Paraphrasing from survival expert Cody Lundin’s book 98.6 Degrees: The Art of Keeping Your Ass Alive:

If it’s hot:

  • Reduce heat gain: get out of the sun and off the hot ground.
  • Protect your body with light-colored, loose-fitting clothing. Pay special attention to the head and neck.
  • Wet your clothing if water is abundant.
  • Don’t move around during the heat of the day.
  • Drink your water! If water is plentiful, force yourself to drink until your pee is “clear.” Clear urine means your body is fully hydrated.
  • Get familiar with your area early and “make camp” before it gets dark, even if you plan on moving during the night when it’s cooler.
  • Rest and conserve your energy.
  • Maintain a calm, positive attitude.
  • Be prepared to signal rescuers at all times.

If it’s cold:

  • Reduce heat loss: get out of the wind, off the ground, and remove wet clothing.
  • Put on dry, insulated clothing and seek or make shelter. Pay special attention to protecting your head, neck, and torso.
  • Build a fire if necessary. Gather extra wood for the night.
  • Drink your water (hot if possible with a few dissolved hard candies or sugar). Clear urine means your body has enough water.
  • Eat high-energy foods (carbs) throughout the day.
  • Get familiar with your area and “make camp” early before it gets dark.
  • Rest and conserve your energy unless you are performing vital tasks or exercising to keep warm.
  • Maintain a calm, positive attitude.
  • Be prepared to signal rescuers at all times.

Remember, it’s easier to keep yourself warm than warm yourself up after you get cold so be proactive about maintaining your body temperature. Also, once you get cold, your thoughts and judgment start to get cloudy and tasks that require dexterity (for example, using a lighter) become harder.

Here is a good video on how hypothermia affects the body:

4) Food is Probably Less Important Than You Think

Of more than 100 survival stories analyzed in a study by smokymountains.com, more than half of the survivors ate either the food they had or didn’t eat at all until they got rescued.

Another 18% ate fruits, berries, or plants that they found.  Only 3% actively foraged or hunted. 

Unless you’re a trained expert, spending energy trying to get food this way is likely to use more calories than you will get from it.

The average person has 30 days of calories to survive on stored in their body.

This isn’t too say food is not important -- you need it to keep your energy up so you can think your way out of your situation and you may need the calories to keep warm -- but starving should not be your main concern and you should not waste energy trying to catch animals unless you really know what you’re doing.

5) Water is Massively Important

You can only survive 3-4 days without water and that will be significantly reduced if it’s hot or if you have to do work, like hike your way out of somewhere or build a shelter.

What’s more, once you start getting dehydrated, you can become disoriented and unable to think clearly, making it harder to make smart decisions about how to survive.

If clean water is abundant, drink until you pee clear.  You might have to force yourself to drink, but you should while you have access to clean water.  

Well hydrated blood circulates better so it can help keep your extremities warm if it’s cold and keep you cool if it’s hot.

One of the best ways to find water is to go downhill and follow drainages until you find water, but don’t do this if it’s taking you away from somewhere you might get rescued.

Dew and rain water that collects on leaves can also be great sources of water. Here’s a great video from the show Dual Survival on finding water in survival situations:

Should I Ration the Water I have?

To an extent, yes.  But don’t be too conservative.

If you’re starting to get dehydrated, you should drink.  Your body will adsorb what it needs and pee out the rest.  

There are stories of people dying of dehydration while there’s still water in their water bottle.

At the same time, you don’t want to chug your last liter of water if you’re currently totally hydrated.  So use your judgement.

Should I Drink my Pee?

This is one that divides the survival experts a little but most say no.

The main reason is that your kidneys would have to work extra hard to filter out stuff they already tried to get rid of. You’re likely to do some pretty serious damage to your internal organs (especially your kidneys) if you drink urine over a period of time.

On the other hand, there are a number of stories where drinking urine likely saved someone’s life. Take that guy from 127 hours (Aron Ralston). Also, the story of Shen Peiyun in China, who survived for 6 days trapped in a building after an earthquake by drinking his own urine.

So drinking your own pee to survive is a controversial question. I would just say that if it’s that or most certainly dying of dehydration, I’m going to have a drink.

Should I Drink from an Unclean Water Source?

Pond water with grass and lily pads that may contain harmful bacteria
Drinking unclean water is very risky in a survival situation but dehydration can also kill you

If you’re lost and out of water, your chances of dying from dehydration are greater than dying from infection.

On the other hand, if you’re currently plenty hydrated and come upon nasty water which will almost certainly make you sick, it might be best to pass until your situation becomes more dire. 

You’ll have to use your judgement but most survival experts agree that you should lean towards drinking water rather than passing it up when clean water is not available.

If you get a nasty disease, you have a day or two before it will knock you on your butt with diarrhea and vomiting so you better find rescue quick.

6) Take It Easy

Dirty hiker boots putting feet up while taking a rest by a creek
Working or hiking too hard in a survival situation can dehydrate and exhaust you, costing you your life. It’s very important not to sweat and take breaks often.

Remember, energy and clear thinking are your friends.  Don’t take any action without it being part of a clear, deliberate plan.

If you find yourself doing anything frantically, STOP (see Tip #1 above).  You’re more likely to make your situation worse and you are wasting precious energy.

If you’re sweating while you’re building a shelter or gathering firewood, you’re working waaaaaaay too hard.  You’ve got your core temperature elevated, your metabolism up, and you’re losing water through sweating.  In other words, you’re using way more energy and water than necessary for the job you’re doing and that might be the difference between life or death.

If you are on the move (e.g. trying to hike your way to survival), stop and rest often.  Exhaustion will lead to bad decision making which will kill you.

Despite what you might see in the movies, survival is not an action-packed adventure.  It is a well-thought out set a clear, deliberate, smart actions.

7) Hypothermia is Very Common in the Desert

Footprints in the sand in the desert
Temperature swings in arid climates can be dramatic, catching people off guard and leading to high rates of hypothermia

Think that because it was sweltering hot today while you went out hiking that there’s not chance for hypothermia tonight while you’re lost?

You might be surprised to learn that hypothermia is extremely common in the desert for one simple reason -- people are unprepared for it.

Most people vastly underestimate the temperate swings between night and day in arid climates.  

So be ready for a cold night if you’re out in the Southwest US or other arid climates and stay warm (see Tip #2).

8) Alcohol Does Not Keep You Warm

An empty bottle of wine in the snow
Alcohol might make you feel warm but it does not actually keep you warm if you’re lost in the cold

Do you enjoy that burn of warm whiskey when it hits your belly?  Well, that could kill you if you’re lost in the woods.

It is a massive misconception that alcohol somehow keeps you warm in the cold.

It may give you the illusion of being warm but it is not actually doing anything good for your body.

Alcohol dehydrates you which is a major concern (see Tip #5). Furthermore, it clouds your judgment which could get you killed in a survival situation.

About the only thing that whiskey is good for in a survival situation is disinfecting a cut.

9) Man-eating bears aren’t your biggest concern…but be aware of wildlife

A bear and her cub playing with each other showing their teeth
If you’re lost in the woods, your chances of dying from a bear or wolf attack are still low…but still be smart about where you keep your food, especially at night

Another unfounded fear for which we have Hollywood to thank are man-eating bears or packs of wild wolves.

Don’t get me wrong -- you should be keenly aware of wildlife that may be in the area.  But also know that most wildlife doesn’t want to bother you. You are a large mammal and they would rather find an easy meal.

There are two main reasons most wildlife would bother you -- they feel threatened by you or they smell some food you have.

If you are in an area that might have bears, don’t keep food on you at night.  Put it somewhere protected from animals and away from where you’re sleeping.

Never approach any wildlife that has offspring nearby.  Even cute, docile animals can become vicious if they feel you’re threatening their young.

You should make noise as you hike so as not to surprise any bears or other animals you may come upon (something you should do regardless of being in a survival situation).

Conclusion

Hopefully you’ll never find yourself in a survival situation, but if you do, the most important tool you have is your brain. Keeping yourself calm and using common sense to identify and solve your problems could save your life. Remember, rescue is your top priority, after that it’s water and protection from the elements which may or may not involve building a shelter. Every situation is different which is why a little knowledge and a little common sense can make the difference between life and death.

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