Keep it Simple and Survive!™: 8 Keys to Outdoor Survival, Part 1

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8 keys to survivalThe first axiom of survival is that the most successfully handled emergency is the one which is prevented. However, if you are in the outdoors long enough, or even if you are not the outdoor type, you will eventually happen upon a survival event in progress or be part of one. You don’t have to be in the great outdoors for it to happen – it’s only a matter of time. Consider the following:

Some Food For Thought

Your family is on a hike during a beautiful spring afternoon. Three miles into the hike, someone in the group falls and severely twists an ankle.

You and your older kids are on day two of a four day float trip you have been planning for all winter. The water flow is a little heavier than anticipated and as you enter a class III rapid, the raft high-sides on a rock and flips, spilling everyone and everything into the water.

You are realizing a life-long dream of summiting a fourteen thousand foot peak in the Colorado Rockies during fall colors. Half way up the climb you and your partner get caught in a severe late season thunder storm, lightning is lighting up the sky.

You and your family are on a road trip to visit friends in another state. The day is waning but you decide to take a scenic shortcut through the mountains, avoiding the same old freeway route. 25 miles from the last small town, in the middle of nowhere, the car makes a strange noise and stops running. After pulling over to the side of the road and unsuccessfully trying to start the car several times, you check your phone to call for assistance and there is no cell service. It’s getting dark and it looks like rain.

In any one of these scenarios, a survival event has begun. Would you and your loved ones be prepared to meet the challenge?

Be Prepared For The Unexpected

The second axiom of survival is be prepared for the unexpected, because it will happen. As soon as something goes wrong and a survival situation arises, myriad factors come into play. Just a few of these factors are embarrassment, fear and stress, severity of the survival event, anxiety and panic, medical issues, impatience and frustration, weather, fatigue and hopelessness, terrain or insecurity and loneliness are but a few.

Each factor must be considered and dealt with in an effective, efficient manner to maximize you and your family’s ability to survive. Are you prepared to deal with even 50 percent of these factors? How about 10 percent?

When analyzing what is most important in a survival situation, 8 over-arching keys come into play:  4 core and 4 psychological. I call them the 8 keys to survival. The four core elements are:

  1. Knowledge
  2. Skills
  3. Experience
  4. Tools

Gathering Survival Knowledge

Foremost of the 8 keys to survival is knowledge. It is the foundation upon which everything else is anchored.  Knowledge is the master key which unlocks all the other elements of survival. It is the thing you must seek first on your path to gaining skills, experience, and an understanding of the tools and resources you might need or use during a survival event.

I wouldn’t trade the survival knowledge, skills, and practical experience I have gained over a lifetime in the outdoors for any amount of gear! I know this is a bold statement, but hear me out.

Knowledge is paramount to survival and acting on that knowledge in a systematic and pragmatic way will maximize you and your family’s chances for survival in an emergency. Unless help comes your way during a severe survival situation, without the right knowledge you simply won’t survive. (Please don’t count on dumb luck.)

The Right Information

How do I decide what is the most pertinent information to start with and how do I garner this knowledge, you ask? By finding resources  focused on the fundamentals and basics of survival! There are many great sources to start building your knowledge base and library.

great sources of survival info

There is nothing new about any of these categories. You can find the key survival knowledge you are looking forby searching the Internet, doing diligent research, and getting recommendations from like-minded friends. Being in the information age, it’s mostly a function of sifting, sorting, and prioritizing the massive amount of data that regularly comes our way on any topic of interest. Just try to avoid information overload while gleaning the needed particulars.

The Fundamentals of Survival

What are the fundamentals and basics of survival? To start with, most survival experts would have you focus on:

  1. Shelter 
  2. Water
  3. Fire
  4. Food
  5. Signaling
  6. Navigation
  7. First Aid

This list is far from complete, but it’s a good beginning and base point to expand from. After you start to gather this basic survival knowledge, acquiring skills to test and practice that information is next.

Practice Makes Perfect

If knowledge is the foundation of survival, practical skills are where the rubber meets the road. It’s where the theoretical turns into the practical. It’s where all you think might work in a survival situation is tested, tried, refined, and honed into a solid set of skills that can really be used to help save you and your family when you are in survival mode.4 keys to survival

You can read all the best books and watch countless hours of instructional YouTube videos on every aspect of survival, but at best, all of this untested head knowledge is a sure formula for a false sense of security. It won’t do you one bit of good without practice and lots of it.

The old adage of “practice makes perfect” could never ring more true, and for good reason. Someday, your life may depend on it.

Noted survival expert Dave Canterbury, owner of The Pathfinder School, and co-owner of Self Reliance Illustrated Magazine notes,

I have always believed that if people understand basic concepts and the multiple uses of a few basic items they can greatly affect the outcome of a bad situation.”

I also believe with some basic knowledge and skills, you can significantly increase your ability to successfully weather the majority of survival events that might befall you or your family. How can you start practicing and honing your survival skills?

Where and How

The most natural way is to incorporate survival skills practice in any outdoor activity you and your family engage in: hiking, camping, canoeing, rafting, kayaking, mountaineering, climbing, fishing, hunting. Even activities like bird watching have the potential for a survival event.
If you or your family don’t do much in the way of outdoor activities, do what noted survival author John D. McCann describes as “backyard survival” in his book Stay Alive!: Survival Skills You Need. This is the practice of working on and perfecting survival skills in your own backyard. Try it! You might be amazed by how much fun you have – and how little it costs!
Another option is to find a weekend outdoor survival class run by a reputable school or survival expert. They can put you on the fast track to being able to perform many basic survival skills (see the additional resources section below).

Building Your Skills

However you choose to build your skill set, be patient and persistent. Start by learning to:

  • Start a small fire without using matches or a lighter
  • Build a simple lean-to
  • Practice basic first aid (American Red Cross offers classes)
  • Purify water at least 2 different ways
  • Test your ability to go from point A to point B using a compass (no GPS!) – Orienteering clubs can be a great resource

This is only the beginning. Whatever you and your family work on, practice until each of you can do it quickly and efficiently, flawlessly without mistake. Only then will you begin to perfect survival skills which you can count on in an emergency. Remember, some skills are only perfected over time.

Start now! It’s never too late – but sooner is better than later. If you ever have to use your survival skills, with proper training and practice, you will be miles ahead of the average person.

Gaining Survival Experience

Experience is like an earnest prepper’s food larder, growing over time.  When your knowledge increases and you start practicing your skills, finding opportunities to gain experience is important. Do I mean go looking for survival situations? Sort of… let me explain.

Experience is know-how gained from doing; the application of knowledge and skills in the field. It is taking the survival expertise and practical skills you have been building on and having them available whenever you are in the outdoors, as well as every day life.

For Example…

  • Use your first aid training and skills to help the person in physical distress at the eatery where you stop for lunch.
  • You are on a family hike and it starts to rain. You come upon a wet, shivering, disoriented hiker huddled on the side of the trail with no rain gear on. Without delay, you assess the victim and begin treating him for the onset of hypothermia as someone else in your group breaks out an extra jacket and survival blanket.
  • While commuting into work, traffic comes to a screeching halt in front of you. Six cars ahead, you observe four cars and a truck tangled in a wreck. You decide to use your skills and help any injured until rescue workers arrive.
  • Near the trail head at the start of a day of back country skiing, you and your partner witness two guys on snowmobiles activate a small avalanche on a hill 200 yards away. In the aftermath, you only see part of one snowmobile sticking out of the snow. Your partner immediately calls 911 to activate the local rescue service, while you turn your avalanche beacon on and switch it into receive mode as you ski towards the visible part of the snowmobile.

Your survival knowledge is growing, skills are being sharpened and you have been gaining experience. What about the tools you need to help in a survival event?

The Tools You Will Use

The fourth key to survival is tools. Are they necessary in a survival situation? Yes! Whether it is the best tool of all (your brain), the purchased tool in your survival kit, or the one you improvise, working through a survival event will involve tools. survival factors: knowledge, skills, experience and tools

Any instrument you use to help yourself or someone else survive is “the” right tool in the moment. The trick (or is it the knowledge and experience you have gained over time?) is to know which one you need to get the job done in a safe and expedient fashion.

Tools, gadgets, and gear are a poor substitute for knowledge, skills and experience. Yes, tools are an integral part of successful survival, but they need to be treated as a team player with the other three keys: knowledge, skills and experience.

Remember this,  if you want to be effective at survival, you should have both the skills to use your tools, and the skills to survive if you have no tools-other than your brain.

Tailoring Tools to Your Needs

What tools do I need for my survival kit? That is a BIG question and there are whole volumes, websites, blogs, and journals devoted to this subject. For the purposes of this article, I would suggest that as your knowledge, skills and experiences grow, you tailor your kit to your needs.

You might create a kit for your vehicles or boat or, even more focused, you might tailor a kit to fit each outdoor activity you and your family love to participate in. There are some great books listed below to begin to help you in this endeavor.

Your Survival

A survival situation is never simple. Just stay focused on the knowledge you have, skills you’ve mastered, expertise gained and tools at your disposal and I believe you will be ready to meet most survival challenges  head on and prevail.

In part 2 of this article we will delve into the 4 key psychological components of survival.

I look forward to your questions, comments and suggestions. If you have a question I can’t answer, I will find an expert who can.

If you know of additional key resources related to this subject: Books, videos, magazines or Internet sites etc., I would appreciate you taking a moment and adding them in with your comments.

Additional Resources

Want to learn more about survival basics including kits and tools? Check out these excellent resources:


Stay Alive!: Survival Skills You Need by John D. McCann 

Build the Perfect Survival Kit, 2nd ed., by John D. McCann

Camping & Wilderness Survival, 2nd ed.: The Ultimate Outdoors Book by Paul Tawrell

Survival Gear You Can Live With (Practical Survival Series) by Tony Nester 

98.6 Degrees: The Art of Keeping Your Ass Alive by Cody Lundin

Survival Schools

 BOSS: Boulder Outdoor Survival School

The Pathfinder School

Ancient Pathways

Jack Mountain Bushcraft School


Outdoor Survival Basics – Part 1, Dave Canterbury, Pathfinder School

Outdoor Survival Basics – Part 2, Dave Canterbury, Pathfinder School

Basic Wilderness Survival Kit & Contents, Ryan J Cus

1 thought on “Keep it Simple and Survive!™: 8 Keys to Outdoor Survival, Part 1”

  1. Pretty good article, son! I like the graphics– I really have no suggestions for change-after all, who am I??? It makes me think of issues that fit my particular life now, at my age and living circumstances. I have already decided if a tumultuous event happens, I will shelter in place. So…you know some of my preps here. A car situation? I keep stuff in the trunk, but the right stuff???? Food for thought.
    Love you–

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