The sacred order is: Shelter first – then water, fire, food. In a survival situation, you need to conserve energy and resources. If it’s late in the day or you are in a place with limited resources, what you do first matters. Panic and frustration get in the way of success in any situation – they can be deadly in the outdoors.
The point of building a shelter first is that for the energy it takes to gather branches and leaves, you can build a debris shelter without tools, ensuring a way to maximize your body heat. The worst thing that can happen in the woods is not starvation or animal attack – it’s hypothermia.
Hypothermia occurs when your body temperature suddenly and profoundly cools to below 96 degrees F or 35.5 degrees C. This can happen on a warm sunny day, when perspiration drenches your clothing, drawing heat away from your body. You can also be at risk for hypothermia from exposure to wind, breathing in cold dry air, or simply being improperly dressed. Shivering is a sign that your body is cooling off. Your survival depends upon your ability to warm up.
While it’s tempting to build a fire, even if you have all the tools and dry wood available, you still need to keep feeding the fire. By contrast, building a debris shelter allows you to get a night’s sleep and stay warm. When you’re rested, you make better decisions.
Another advantage of building a debris shelter is that even if you need to use wet leaves, the air space between the leaves will collect your body heat and keep you warm. I’ve slept in a wet leaf debris shelter. When I woke the next morning, my fingers were wrinkled like I’d been in the tub too long, but I was warm. While it was no where near as comfortable as sleeping on dry leaves, cattail fluff or pine needles, I was able to relax and sleep, knowing I was safe.
Once you have shelter, water becomes your next concern. When in a survival situation, never eat unless you have enough water to keep you from becoming dehydrated. If you’re in deciduous woods, you can use an absorbent cloth, like cotton to collect the dew that forms on plants… I make it a point to carry one or two bandanas. You can wipe them along the surface of the plants or you can tie them to your legs and walk through wet vegetation. Ring the cloth into your mouth, or suck on it.
I also carry pint and gallon size plastic bags. These can be placed around the green leaves on a tree branch with one corner of the bag hanging lower and tied off. The moisture that forms from condensation will collect in the plastic bag. This is potable water.
In winter, DO NOT EAT SNOW, unless you have water and a container to melt the snow. Eating snow will reduce your body temperature and lead to dehydration.
There are other ways to gather potable water, but these are the easiest.
Now that you’ve got your shelter and a way to get water, if you are still in a survival situation, fire is the next challenge. On a recent camping trip, two of my three lighters failed. It wasn’t sunny, so my magnifying glass was not an option, and although I’m told fine steel wool and a 6-Volt battery (or even two AA batteries) will also start a fire, I typically do not carry them.
The only other alternative when you have no fire-making tools is to build the apparatus to start a fire. Making a bow drill or hand drill apparatus for fire by friction takes skill and practice. Understanding how fire by friction works and knowing something about wood is essential.
Starting a fire is only part of the process. You need to keep the fire going, which means gathering some kind of fire starter – dried grasses or leaves, lint from your clothing or small twigs. Once the fire is started, you need to keep it going with branches for kindling. When the fire is stronger, you can add large pieces of wood, like split logs.
It’s necessary to have your tinder, kindling and fuel gathered before you start the fire.
Once you have access to fire, then you can turn your attention to food. All grasses in North America are edible. You chew the plants, extract the juices and spit out the pulp. Pine needles can be steeped in boiling water for an excellent source of Vitamin C.
Many wild edible plants have poisonous look-alikes. Never eat anything if you have even a shadow of a doubt, especially in a survival situation.
In the winter, you won’t have access to plants or even insects. If you don’t have the ability to trap animals, you will be at a serious disadvantage. Learning to make and set different kinds of traps is an extremely useful skill.
The best preparation for a survival situation is to practice skills before you get into that situation.
Even without mastery of these skills, if you respect and follow the sacred order: shelter first, then water, then fire, and food last – your chances of survival are greatly improved.