Rachael Medina is the staff writer and content manager for California.com. She was born and raised just outside the Mojave Desert in Southern California and moved to the redwood forests of Humboldt C…See full bio
While it’s tempting to venture out into California’s wide-open wilderness at a moment’s notice—heading out on exciting coastal hikes, forested camping trips, and mountain getaways—understanding some simple survival skills can be the difference between having a great time and a not-so-wonderful adventure. Luckily, many outdoor survival lessons are fairly intuitive, so taking the time to consider where you’re going and what you might need beforehand is often the solution to your potential problems.
Before you head out on your next long-distance backpacking trip, multi-day camping excursion, or weekend hike in a new area, find out what you should know about thriving in the wilderness.
When it comes to wilderness survival skills, the most important by far are being able to satisfy your basic needs—so finding clean drinking water, creating shelter from the elements, and staying warm all fall under outdoor survival skills you should know before you go on your next trip.
1. Finding Water
Being able to locate and purify water in nature is an essential part of surviving tough situations. Even if you only plan to go on an hour’s hike or to camp for one evening, the weather can easily change and a seemingly benign fall can change everything, so knowing where to look for water and being able to make it safe for drinking are great skills to know.
In mountainous terrain, water will always flow downhill and tend to lie in the divots or crevasses of the hills. While stagnant water can be treated in desperate situations, flowing water is always the right choice if you have the option; still water offers a breeding ground for bacteria and viruses—plus, you never know what might have touched or been poured into the water before you got there. Sometimes, finding water is easier when you stop to listen than it is when you keep moving and look for it, so take a moment and pay particular attention to the sounds around you.
Once you’ve located a water source, it’s incredibly important to treat the water prior to consuming it. Filtering and purifying water greatly reduces your risk of consuming contaminants, so it’s a good idea to purchase a portable water filter and purification tablets, in addition to carrying a metal container and knowing how to start a fire to boil the water.
2. Safely Starting a Fire
Though we don’t condone starting fires in the wilderness—especially in protected nature areas—when it comes to survival, knowing how to create a heat source means you’ll be able to stay warm, cook food, and boil water. Starting a fire is infinitely easier with matches or a lighter, so it’s a good idea to add these to your pack, but handheld igniters also make a great option.
Since you’ve planned ahead and brought your selected lighting tool, you’ll only need to gather some materials to burn. When it comes to building a fire, drier items work best, so try to gather fallen branches, dead grass, dried leaves, and the like. Then, you’ll need to light the smaller pieces first; these will get a good fire going and ignite the larger branches while simultaneously saving you a ton of effort trying to get these bigger pieces of wood to burn.
3. Making Shelter
Being able to escape the rain, snow, hail, or other extreme weather conditions can make your time outdoors much more comfortable. While you can make a shelter out of materials in your environment, the type and effectiveness of our refuge depend greatly on the materials available. If you find yourself without any type of protection in your pack, hopefully, you’ve planned ahead and brought a knife or hatchet on your journey so you can more easily assemble fallen branches, trees, and whatever else you might find.
To take a bit more caution, consider investing in a bivy so you can fully escape the elements without much work. The North Face’s bivy makes an awesome choice and provides waterproof protection with enough space for you, your boots, and your pack.
Now that you’ve mastered the basic skills and stocked up on some of the essential wilderness survival gear, it’s time to consider where you’re going to go for your adventure. Every terrain requires a different type of preparation and a set of survival skills, so thinking ahead is vital. In addition to preparing for your expeditions, knowing how to stay calm in tough situations can take you far. If you start to panic, stop and remember your meditation practices; while this might not be your first instinct, if you’re frantic, you likely won’t be able to think clearly, so taking a moment to relax and recenter yourself helps. Once you’re in the right headspace, return to your survival skills and pull out the gear that’ll help you in your environment.
Regardless of where you’re planning to go, your outdoor survival kit should always include a map of the area and a compass that you know how to use so you can find help. If you get lost exploring in the hills of Lake Tahoe or somewhere else with mountains, try to find the highest spot around you to get a better vantage point. This could help you figure out exactly where you are, decide on a basic direction, or find a familiar landmark (such as a ranger post or cabin) where you might find assistance if you don’t know how to get back the way you came. If the higher ground doesn’t provide you with useful information, pull out your map and compass, and try to orient yourself. Since you’re on a hill, your location should be a bit easier to find if you’re working with a topographic map. This, paired with your knowledge of where you started your journey, could be enough to get you back to safety.
In addition to your basic survival skills and map and compass knowledge, carrying a first aid kit and knowing what to stock up on for your specific environment can make the experience easier.
For desert survival situations, you’ll want to make sure to have plenty of water, eye protection, sunscreen, and a hat at all times. Being able to escape the blazing sun and conserve your water are a few of the biggest challenges you should expect to encounter, but surprisingly enough, you’ll need to think about the possibility of flash floods, too. If you find yourself stranded in Joshua Tree, Death Valley National Park, or elsewhere in the California deserts, try to find high ground to avoid being struck by these natural disasters. You’re also more likely to experience a breeze when you’re off the desert floor—plus, it might even be a few degrees cooler up on a hill.
When it comes to forest survival, wild animals and poisonous plants are typical obstacles. Unless you know botany really well, it’s normally best not to eat berries or mushrooms you find in the woods and to instead rely on fish from streams as your food source. Packing a collapsible fishing rod can increase your chances of success. You’ll also want to pack calamine lotion, just in case, and be aware of potentially poisonous plants—such as poison ivy or poison oak—that might be lurking off-trail. If you’re packing any food to take with you, you will also need a bear canister or a bear bag to keep it (and you!) safe from the wild animals that have great senses of smell. Depending on where you’re going, you might encounter different species of bears, and it’s extremely important to know what to do in each situation to keep you safe.
Now that you know what you’ll need to pack in your wilderness survival kit and which skills to brush up on, you’re ready to plan your next camping trip or strenuous hike and get to know the Golden State in a whole new way.
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