A Focus on Wilderness Safety and Survival

Each year, millions of people visit the wilderness for hiking, camping, mountain climbing, and other outdoor activities. Although most of these visitors will stick to areas and activities designed for public use and safety, such as campgrounds and guided tours, there are many who will venture off the beaten path to explore on their own. While it can be exciting and fun, it can also be dangerous for the inexperienced outdoor recreationist.

The wilderness beyond a campground or trailhead can be unpredictable and even hostile. Search and Rescue (SAR) teams respond regularly to incidents involving those who ventured off on their own, then found themselves lost or in trouble. However, most of these incidents could be prevented if basic wilderness safety and survival skills were learned prior to the visit to the wilderness.

This article should not be a substitute for more in-depth training and certifications available through national parks, the American Red Cross, and other organizations.

The First Lesson of the Wilderness

Survival is possible in any climate or terrain - anywhere in the world. All you must do is keep your wits. This is the first article of safety and survival. It is when you panic that you are more prone to make decisions that can put you in danger. Nature and the elements are neither your friend or your enemy. However, you can become either one of these things to yourself.

Packing for Your Trip

When going into the wilderness, especially for a hike or climb, it is most people's first instinct to pack lightly. The lighter your load, the easier it will be. Right? Wrong. In fact, that is a dangerous mentality to have. It is important to pack for any circumstance or situation you might come across. For example: While it may seem sensible to pack just a few band-aids for a daytime hike, those band-aids are not going to help you if you have an allergic reaction to a bug bite or get a deep cut that needs to be sterilized. Packing for your trip is especially important if you plan to venture off the beaten path where you may not have immediate access to a cell signal or other people if you find yourself in even the mildest form of trouble.

Listed below are ten specific types of items you need to bring with you when wandering into the wilderness. These items are grouped into categories. 

-Navigational items, such as maps, compasses, and even GPS. That said, keep in mind that batteries in a GPS may die after a period of time. Maps and compasses do not take up much space and are always accessible.

-Lighting. Always bring a flashlight or headlamp, along with extra batteries. You may not plan to be in the wilderness after dark, but you want to be prepared just in case.

-First Aid. You should always pack a first aid kit, along with personal medications, anti-sting and allergy medications, sunscreen, and insect repellant.

-Tools. Tools such as knives, pocket knives, pocket saws, and even a tool kit do not take up a lot of space, but are important to have when you need them.

-Communication devices, such as signal mirrors, cell phones, whistles, and paper and pencils.

-Extra clothes. Depending the climate, you may need to back a base layer, middle layer, outer layer, and head covering in addition to gloves.

Interested in learning more? Why not take an online Basic Wilderness Safety course?

-Tools to start a fire, such as matches stored in a waterproof container and something to help start fires.

-Water. Always pack a water container, as well as a water purification system of some sort. If the unthinkable would happen and you would get lost, you will need safe drinking water.

-Food. Pack high-energy food items, such as energy bars.

-Shelter. Packing a poncho or tarp can protect you from the rain. A sleeping bag, ground pad, or space blanket provide overnight sleeping accommodations.

It is important to remember that you may not need all these things if you are camping in a designated area in a national or local park. However, any time you plan to wander into the wilderness alone or with friends, it is critical to be prepared for any situation or conditions. These supplies will be critical to keeping yourself safe until help arrives.

Preparing for Your Destination

Your destination's climate will help determine what you need to pack in order to remain safe and survive any predicament you may find yourself in while in the wilderness. In the space below, we have broken down the different global climates and given brief descriptions of each to help you. We even detail some of the problems you may face due to the climate.

Temperate Broad-Leaf Forests. Temperate broad-leaf forests have trees that lose their leaves in the fall. They are located in areas that have warm and moist summers, as well as mild winters. A temperate forest offers abundant edible vegetation and animal life, making it one of the best environments for survival in the wilderness.

Rain Forests. Rain forests are characterized by high temperatures and large amounts of rainfall. The extreme moisture makes it a perfect habitat for insects. The sometimes-steep terrain can make it hazardous to hike or make travel on foot difficult. Vegetation also flourishes, meaning the leaves create a canopy that blocks out sunlight. This canopy can also make getting cell signal nearly impossible.

Deserts. Deserts have extremely high temperatures during the day with drastic dips at night. There is also little rainfall; therefore, little vegetation. Those who venture into the desert face sun exposure, little to no access to water, little vegetation, and a sand-and-gravel like soil that can be irritating to the skin.

Ice Cap and Snow Climates. An ice cap climate is a polar climate. Temperatures rarely exceed freezing - or 32 degrees Fahrenheit. You can find ice cap climates in polar climates, such as Greenland, Antarctica, and mountaintops with extremely high elevations. Because of the cold tempeatures, battery powered equipment may have trouble functioning. In addition, frostbite and hypothermia are threats to those who do not have adequate clothing or protection from the elements. While snow climates are a bit warmer and experience primarily snow (instead of ice) the same dangers exist.

Knowledge is one of the biggest contributors to your safety. Knowing the climate, as well as the hazards, of your destination can help you to prepare and pack for your trip. Remember that your goal should never be to pack lightly. It should be to pack for your safety and survival if you should become stranded, lost, injured, or sick.

Forecasting the Weather


It should go without saying that weather forecasts are an essential part of planning any trip into the wilderness. In addition to checking weather reports for forecasted daily temperatures and precipitation, you will also want to look at things such as atmospheric pressure, barometric pressure, and fronts. These are the things that will help you know if you should go ahead and take the trip - or put it off for safety's sake. In addition, being able to read weather reports can help you when you are in the wilderness. Weather can drastically change at any time. You'll want to be prepared.

Although teaching you to predict weather would take up more space than we have in the article, let's cover the very basics to help you make basic predictions and educated decisions about your trip.

Atmospheric Pressure. Atmospheric pressure is also known as air pressure. It is the force per unit of area that's exerted on the surface of the Earth by the air. Atmospheric pressure determines wind and weather patterns. Clear, sunny days with little wind are the result of high pressure areas; whereas, air rises to form clouds and precipitation in low pressure areas. On a weather map, high pressure areas are marked by a blue "H". Low pressure areas are marked by a red "L". Atmospheric pressure is also known as barometric pressure.

A front is a boundary that separates two masses of air that have different densities, such as warm and cool air. While these air masses rarely mix, the lighter air mass will rise above and over the denser air mass. This causes foul weather and storms. A warm front is the boundary between a warm and cold air mass. Since the warm air mass is less dense, it will rise over the colder air. A cold front is a boundary of cold air that is moving toward warm air. For example, if you are in an area where it is warm, but colder weather is moving in, you may hear a meteorologist say a cold front is approaching.

Clouds can also give you clues about upcoming weather conditions. In addition to helping keep warmth in and keeping some heat from the sun out, clouds can reveal atmospheric disturbances and signal precipitation.

There are two basic types of clouds: stratus and cumulus. Stratus clouds might remind you of a high fog because they cover the sky with gray. Stratus clouds usually mean warm and mild weather - and maybe a drizzle. Cumulus clouds are the white cotton ball clouds that are isolated and fluffy. You can have a blue sky with a few or several cumulus clouds. Again, stratus and cumulus are the two types of clouds. The different types of clouds in these groups are named by adding a height prefix or suffix to the type. For example, cirrostratus.

Cirrostratus clouds are high level clouds that are above 20,000 feet. They are milky white and thin, but cover the entire sky. Typically, if you see these clouds, you can know that it will rain or snow within 24 hours.

Cirrocumulus clouds are also high level clouds that are above 18,000 feet. They tend to look like rippled sand. These clouds tend to mean that fair weather is expected, but a storm could also be approaching when these clouds are spotted.

Altocumulus clouds are also mid-level clouds found between 6,000 and 20,000 feet. They appear as isolated groups with flat bases and fluffy tops. The flat base is often darkened. They can indicate good weather, but also be a predictor of an afternoon storm following a humid morning during the summer.

Nimbostratus clouds are low level clouds found below 6,500 feet. They are dark gray in color and typically mean light to moderate precipitation. You will not be able to see the sun or the moon through the clouds.

Cumulonimbus clouds are high clouds that look tall and mountainous. The top of these clouds may look like an anvil, which usually means thunderstorms. Whenever you see these clouds, bad weather can be expected.

Stratocumulus clouds are low level clouds below 6,500 feet. They are between white and dark gray in color. These clouds can be seen in rows, patches, or rounded masses. You may see blue sky between the individual clouds. While these clouds can mean strong winds, they rarely bring precipitation.