Woodland Survival

see also subpage Find your way out and Grizzly bear

Ever been on a hike admiring the wild flowers, gazing up at the tips of the trees--and suddenly found yourself completely alone and lost? What would happen to you if you couldn't find your way back to safety? While being lost in the woods can be a frightening experience, surviving alone in the wild is generally a matter of common sense, patience, and wisely using the gifts that nature provides. All you need to survive for a few days is shelter, warmth, water, and food.

Ecologically, a woodland is an area covered in trees, differentiated from a forest. In these terms, a forest has a largely closed canopy – the branches and foliage of trees interlock overhead to provide extensive and nearly continuous shade. A woodland, on the other hand, allows sunlight to penetrate between the trees, limiting shade. Woodlands may support an understory of shrubs, herbs, or grasses. Woodlands may form a transition to shrublands under drier conditions.

Useful tips

  1. Plan ahead. Don't just trek off into the wilderness, do some research first. There are a lot of resources regarding survival, both online and in libraries, but warning: many of the techniques used in these manuals are wrong or incomplete. One of the most accurate books about this subject is "BUSHCRAFT - OUTDOOR SKILLS AND WILDERNESS SURVIVAL" by Mors Kochanski. Educate yourself about the flora and fauna of the area you are exploring. Knowledge of the local plants and animals can save your life!
  2. Make sure someone knows where you are going every time you go into the wilderness, and how long you intend to be gone. That way someone will realize that you are missing, quickly alert rescuers, and be able to tell them where to start looking for you.
  3. Be prepared. Basic survival tools such as a knife, a magnesium stone, some matches, some cord, a whistle, and a small pot can mean the difference between life and death. Even if you are only out on a day hike, be sure to bring the essentials. Having all this equipment is nothing if you cannot use it properly. Make sure to practice many times in a safe environment before venturing into wilderness.
  4. Don't panic. Panic is more dangerous than almost anything else, because it interferes with the operation of your single best, most useful and versatile survival tool: your mind. The moment you realize that you are lost, before you do anything else, stop. Take a deep breath and stay calm. Even if you're hanging from a rope halfway down a mountainside with a broken leg, remind yourself that people have survived exactly this situation.
  5. Stand still and look around carefully!. Wherever you are will become your "point zero." Find a way to mark it using a spare piece of clothing, a pile of rocks, a sheet of paper, or anything else easily visible from a distance.
  6. Stay in one place, and you not only increase your chances of being found, you also increase your ability to survive by reducing the energy your body expends and the amount of water and food you will need. Hunker down and stay put. Chances are that someone will be looking for you, especially if you let someone know your plans, (see above).
  7. Signal your location to maximize the odds that someone finds you. Make noise by whistling, shouting, singing, or banging rocks together. If you can, mark your location in such a way that it's visible from the air. If you're in a mountain meadow, make three piles of dark leaves or branches in a triangle. In sandy areas, make a large triangle in the sand. In a forest, you might want to prepare three small fires ready to ignite at a moment's notice, with heaps of wet leaves nearby in order to make smoke. Three of anything in the wilderness is a standard distress signal.
  8. Start scouting your area, carefully keeping track of your location. Be sure you can always find your way back to your "point zero" as you search for water, shelter, or your way home.
  9. Find or create shelter. Without adequate shelter, you will be fully exposed to the elements and will risk hypothermia or heatstroke, depending on the weather. If you are not properly dressed for the conditions, finding shelter is all the more important. Luckily, the woods are filled with tools and resources to make both shelters and fires (for warmth, safety, and signaling purposes). Sadly, there's trash just about everywhere, but search for cans, bottles, etc - water carrying vessels, wire, lengths of string or cord, etc. Look for a fallen or leaning tree. Use brush or green branches (boughs) from trees to repel water, block wind, keep out snow, or create shade. Close in your shelter on as many sides as possible. Caves can be great, but be sure the cave is not already occupied by bears, large cats, snakes or other unfriendly animals; they know caves are good too, and they've been looking for good shelter for longer than you have. Also make sure it's not going to collapse on you- this reduces your chances of survival considerably.
  10. Find a good source of water. In a survival situation, you can last up to three days without water, but by the end of the second day you're not going to be in very good shape; find water before then. The best source of water is a spring, but the chances of finding one are slim. A running stream is your next best bet; the movement of the water reduces sediment.use jacket sleeves to tie around your ankles when it's morning walk in the grass to get dew on the sleeves. Be advised that drinking water from streams can lead to some sicknesses, but when you're in a life-or-death situation, the risk of illness is a secondary consideration. A crude method of water purifcation is to take your handy pot and heat the water. For this to effectively kill bacteria, it must be at a rolling boil for several minutes (7-15 is recommended).
  11. Get a good fire going -- one with sufficient coals to stay hot for many hours -- and make sure that you have plenty of extra dry wood. A good rule of thumb is to gather wood until you have enough to last the night, then gather three more piles of the same size, and you *might* have enough to get through the night. In the wilderness you should have access to dry wood in the understory of the forest. You can also use bark or dried dung. If you build a fire that is hot enough, you can also burn green wood, brush, or tree boughs to make a signaling fire (one that makes a lot of smoke). The best wood for maintaining a fire is dead wood that you pull off a standing tree. Regardless of what type of woods you are in, there will certainly be some dry wood available. Remember that a small fire is easier to keep burning than a big fire, though, because it requires less fuel. Once you have sufficient embers, keep the fire to a manageable size so you don't spend too much time looking for fuel.
  12. Find safe food. Just because you are starving and happen to see a beautiful mushroom growing out of a rotting log doesn’t mean that you should eat it. Make sure that you know food is safe before eating it. If there is anything that will lessen your ability to survive, it is being both lost and deathly ill. Starvation won't be a big problem in the short term anyway, so focus on your water supply and consider fasting for this three day period.
    • Critters:
      • Don't be afraid to eat insects and other bugs. While it may be disgusting to eat a few grasshoppers, it might also be the difference between life and death. A general rule of thumb is that you can eat insects less than an inch in length raw, but larger ones should be cooked. Make sure to remove the legs or other parts that look like they might hook you on the way down.
      • If you are capable of bringing an animal down you might consider eating it, instead.
    • Berries:
      • Color test: White and yellow berries are poisonous 90% of the time, blue and black berries are good to eat 90% of the time (however, deadly nightshade berries are dark blue or black and they taste sweet, but a couple can kill you fairly quickly), and red berries are a 50/50 shot.
      • Aggregate berries, (bumpy ones like raspberries, blackberries, etc.), are almost 100% good to eat. The only exception to that rule is a white berry that grows only in Alaska.
      • Another good way to check if berries are poisonous is to place them on your lips for a few minutes. If you get a bitter taste you know the berry is probably poisonous and you shouldn't eat it.
  • You can survive several weeks without food, but only few days without water, and perhaps only hours without shelter. Keep your priorities straight.
  • If you're not absolutely sure where you are and how to get back to familiar territory, don't proclaim, "I think it's this way." The more you move once you realize you're lost, the worse your chances are of finding your way back.
  • Consider taking a staff or walking stick with you. If you don't have one, any staff-sized stick will do. The little mark it makes in the dirt will help you retrace your steps better than Hansel and Gretel.
  • It is safer not to go into the wilderness alone.
  • Most "survival knives" with big blades and hollow handles are not worth the money because the handle can break off easily, leaving you with a blade and a handle and no way to reattach them. An authentic military survival knife is a much better bet, especially since it is approved for the military.
  • One of the most important survival tools is something that most people never consider: a tin cup. Without a tin cup it is difficult to cook many foods. A tin cup guarantees that you are not going to starve since you have nothing to cook food in.
  • Another under rated but important item for a survival pack is a large light weight trash bag. They pack down small, but can be used to carry water from a stream, can be wrapped around a leafy branch end to trap the water vapour given off from the leaves, and can be used as an emergency poncho in wet or cold weather after cutting a hole for head and arms. Stuffing your makeshift poncho with extra leaves or grass can also give additional insulation when cold.
  • If you are in a situation where you could possibly walk to safety, or could get to a better vantage point for signaling, do not wander off with no direction. Instead, make sure you have a map of the area and a compass. A compass is an absolute necessity for survival, because knowing what direction you are going can be very calming to a distressed mind.
  • Machetes are not better than a Swiss army knife on long term hikes. When hiking long distances the extra weight adds up. Also Machetes are not as functional overall as a Swiss army knife. They should not be used for protection; bear mace and pepper-spray are much better. The chances that you will come up against an animal with no eyes are quite slim. Overall, machetes are adapted for clearing brush and not much else, and are bad choices for hiking.
  • Don’t rely upon modern technology like cell phones, GPS units, or radios to save you if you are lost. Take one with you if it's available. But remember, while technology can come in handy, relying upon a battery or a telephone signal is just asking for trouble.
  • If you don’t have a lighter or any matches, you will have to start the fire by hand. If you find enough tinder (small material, such as dry grass, feathers or bark shavings, that burns easily) you can usually use the energy from the sun to start a fire with a magnifying glass, a lens from your glasses, a piece of broken glass, a cover to a watch or compass, or other clear, light-intensifying objects. If you don’t have any such objects, you will have to start a fire with friction, which requires that you fashion a device that rubs wood and tinder together quite rapidly. Basically, just carry several types of fire with you whenever you're in the wild: lighters, matches, and strikers (flint and steel). By far one of the best tools to start a fire is a magnesium stone. It's a necessity to be included in your survival kit. A cheap and effective supplement to the magnesium stone is the lint that collects in your dryer. Dry lint can be carried in a ziplock bag, weighing almost nothing, and is exceptional tinder - the sparks from the flint part of your magnesium stone will catch in lint much quicker than other materials.
  • You can also use pine sap to start a fire. This sap obviously seeps from pine trees and is very flammable, also remember during winter, do not build a fire directly under a tree or anything that might cause the snow to melt and drop down and put your fire out.
  • An important acronym to remember is "STOP" which stands for stop, think, observe, and plan.
  • Whenever you go out in the wilderness, (for example, going on a hike), bring a whistle. 1 blow means "I'm lost", 2 blows means "I'm coming" (if you hear someone else blow a whistle), and 3 blows means "This is an emergency" (if you are hurt).
  • At night, there is a greater risk of freezing to death. Stay dry. Bundle up. Get yourself off the ground. Make a "bed" of layers of branches, leaves, twigs, whatever is there, and cover yourself with the same stuff. To stay warm at night, heat rocks in the fire and then bury them. Sleep on top of the buried rocks. Make sure you bury them deep enough or you will burn yourself.
  • If you happen to have a reflective object on you (a mirror, a belt buckle, whatever), use it as a signal by facing it towards the sun. Contrary to popular belief, CDs DO NOT make good signaling devices, but are still better than nothing - a signal mirror is recommended instead. You can do the same at night with a flashlight.
  • If planning an extended trip into difficult or unfamiliar terrain, it is always a good idea to have a backup plan. Detailed maps/trail guides, extra food and water, and signaling devices such as a mirror, flare, or even (depending on the length and location of the trip) a satellite beacon (PLB) could save your life.
  • Rain, snow, or dew can be a good source of clean water. You can use anything from a cup to a piece of waterproof cloth to a large leaf to collect precipitation.
  • If you cannot stay where you are until someone finds you, do not just pick a direction and start walking, even if you have a means of ensuring that you continue to go that direction. Instead, try to go either uphill or downhill. Going uphill offers a good chance that you will find a vantage point, which can help you get your bearings. If you go downhill, you will probably find water which you can follow downstream; in many cases, this will lead you to civilization. But don't follow water downstream at night or in fog as it may go off a cliff.
  • Never, ever go into the woods without a compass. Note which direction you enter the woods from, say, a straight road or trail and if you get disoriented just head back in the opposite direction from which you entered. If you don't have one, use or learn your cardinal directions from the stars and the positions of the sun and moon.
  • Shoe/Boot laces make good rope in an emergency situation, but remember once they're removed, walking will become more difficult.
  • Shirt sleeves can be cut off and used as bandages if necessary. Remember to only tie them around a wound so that they are still loose enough to stick one or two fingers between the bandage and the appendage/body.
  • A belt can also be used to hold a bandage in place (not too tightly!), as an equipment strap, or as a snare.
  • The sleeves of a waterproof jacket can be used to hold water by tying one end of them.
  • If you want to fish, you can make a fishing rod out of a stick about 2 meters (6 feet) long and 1-3 inches thick (just bring your own fishing hooks). Peel the bark off the stick and, with a knife or axe, cut a notch about 2-3 inches from the top of the rod. Tie one end of any string or cord placed in the notch, then tie the hook on the other end of the string or cord. Also, you can try to bait the hook with a small piece of meat, an insect, or any other thing you want to try to use as bait.
  • If you have fire, water, and a container such as a water bottle you can improvise a sleep warmer. Filling the container with hot water and placing it at the bottom of a sleeping bag, under a blanket, or close to your body while asleep can be a good way to add warmth. Be careful not to burn yourself, and be certain that the container will not leak. Being wet can be very bad for your health. It is not advisable to fill the container with anything but water. Be sure to wash away any remains of hot chocolate, Gatorade, fruit punch drinks, etc. Many beverages (especially sweet ones) will attract animals or insects. This can be the same for food and candy, even crumbs and scraps can invite visitors. You may want to clean your face and hands with water or leaves (those that you know are safe to touch).
  • You can also have a pocket knife as your knife.

Limber Pine woodland in the Toiyabe Range of central Nevada.

Mediterranean eucalypt forest in Australia.

A woodland ecosystem at Morton Arboretum in Illinois.

Tropical and subtropical grasslands, savannas, and shrublands

Temperate grasslands, savannas, and shrublands

Montane grasslands and shrublands

Mediterranean forests, woodlands, and shrub

Deserts and xeric shrublands


  • Keep your fire contained! Ensure that there is no combustible material underneath your fireplace and enclose it completely with rocks or a berm made of sand. Put your fire out with copious amounts of water: saturate it, so that there is no possibility of even the tiniest spark remaining. You should be able to touch the extinguished coals with your bare hand. It's one thing to be lost in the woods, but quite another to be lost and surrounded by a forest fire caused by your own negligence.
  • If you encounter snakes, leave them alone. Snakes bite because they are hungry or because they are threatened. We are too big to be seen as prey to most snakes, so they cannot eat us and do not regard humans as food. Stand still and the snake will go away. Attack it and it will retaliate. If one curls up in your kit, chivvy it out with a long stick and gently prod it away. If it comes in your direction, stand still. It doesn't know that you are causing its discomfort and if you do not jump around, it will probably not even notice you. However, if you kill the snake you can enjoy eating it. Since you probably don't know if it's venomous or not, a good rule of thumb is to cut off the head, and then cut the same distance back from that point down the body. This will remove the poison glands, if there are any.
  • Chewing leather is bad advice for most modern, chemical-tanned leathers, (great way to poison yourself with chromium and other toxic chemicals)! Besides, do you really want to trade your only real foot protection for a couple of calories? Protect your shoes so you can take a hike to look for nutrition!
  • Make sure that, if you heat rocks for warmth, that they are not wet. When heating them in the fire, they will explode as the water inside the cracks turn to vapor.