You’re interested in training survival skills and learning how to use all your gear but don’t know where to start? Then this post is for you.
There are several different approaches. Some of us were lucky enough to get used to the great outdoors by being lots of time in the countryside as kids or joining girlscouts/boyscouts. But if you didn’t have the opportunity it’s a lot harder to start. Children don’t care as much about what could go wrong. Grown ups usually do and, to be honest, it’s part of our passion to be prepared which includes planning for the worst. So starting out into the big outdoors can feel overwhelming. Let this guide be a stepping stone to you finally feeling at home outdoors.
Others joined the armed forces or emergency services and learned a bit about surviving outdoors. To what I learned it depends a lot on the training you received if you have a solid base to start from. No matter what, you will find a way to improve on what you already have.
I’d really not worry too much if you’re more of a prepper, urban survivalist, tactical gearhead, bushcrafter, whatever. We’re talking about starting and there are basic skills every one could use before starting to specialize.
Of course, most of us think of thrilling adventures to live through but remember that a lot of what we’re practicing and planning for is safety related. So jumping heads on into what feels like your goal might not be a good idea. It’s not just about dangers but even more about the chance that you won’t enjoy your first tries if you start too big. Start small and build up.
Is this technique for you?
If your’re more the survivalist type, you might say that it’s not about enjoying but merely staying alive. There are two reasons why you want to use this technique anyway. One is that if you don’t enjoy training you have to put in much more effort in doing it. You will train more often and more profound if you actually enjoy it. The other one is that morale is a very important factor in survival. If you have to worry and feel miserable all the time not only because of your situation but also about details like problems with fire starting, your chances drop that you make it out unharmed.
If it’s the other way round and you’re not sure if you really want to put much effort in training survival skills when it’s not likely that you’ll end up needing them, there are more reasons. Most of these skills can be used for recreational purposes, too. Having them ready if you need them could just be a nice side effect. And don’t just think about life threatening situations. These skills can help in miserable but harmless times, too. You’ll know how to start a fire, make hot beverages outdoors, set up sun shields, make yourself comfortable when sleeping not at home and so on. These are all skills that can help you make yourself more comfortable when something didn’t go as expected.
One potential and very promising way is to split the whole bunch of survival skills into separate topics. Then choose one and cut the topic into small pieces and get comfortable with every single one before trying to combine them. Learn about that method after a small summary of sources of knowledge.
Resources for training survival skills
If you don’t know where to start, there are lots of resources you can use. Your goal at this stage should be to gather information about the mere basics. If you like digging into a topic, let nothing stop you from learning about advanced techniques. But what you need for a start is still basics.
A very good way of starting with basics when training survival skills is to have a quick look at several sources. Like some books, several videos and a set of blogs. All from different people. The things all of them show are the ones you’re looking for.
If you don’t know, which topics to learn about: start with firestarting. That’s fairly easy to start with, a very wide topic and has lots of resources available. The thing is, as soon as you start, you’ll find more and more topics you could need. We’ll stick to fire starting as an example, you’ll find other topics further down.
If you do have the chance, the best way to learn is by example. If you know someone who is actively practitioning skills you want to learn, why no ask them if they can show you around? Be honest about your level of knowledge and ask them about an introduction.
If you never met someone who has that knowledge, try finding a group. Some of us are not very open about what we do, for very different reasons. So it might help to actively search for people with the same interest. Like with every new group you’re joining, it might be a good idea to have a look at what they represent or if they have any agenda aside from training survival skills. If that’s the case and it doesn’t match your ideas then look elsewhere. There are enough nice people around in our “bubble” so you don’t have to settle for people you won’t go along with.
There’s an abundance of books about training survival skills available. Just remember, many books are collections of theories, anecdotes and sometimes just here for your entertainment. So always take them with a grain of salt.
Books work great with the method we’re describing. They just might fail you if you only rely on them as your single source of truth.
Key to making good use of “survival books” is taking them as a source of inspiration not ultimate truth. What works for one person in one situation might totally fail under different circumstances. And some methods might not work at all. So read about how to do the things you want to and try them before you take them into your skillset.
Just like books you’ll find a lot of videos about how to survive in the great outdoors. What’s true for books is even more true for videos. A lot are simply there to create clicks and followers. Some methods that work need special gear, special circumstances or other preparation.
But videos work great if you already know a bit and just want to see details if you have no one to show you. For example, you might read everything about starting a fire with a ferrocerium rod but seeing someone do it might give you the last hint you need to succeed.
Blogs and websites
You can find lots of useful information when you search the internet for information about survival techniques. Again, take them as an inspiration, not as source of truth. (Safe for our blog, that’s of course your ultimate source of knowledge. 😛 )
It’s never wrong to attend a course about things you want to learn. They can give you a great head start or complement the knowledge you already have. Just don’t rely on a course to teach you everything you need to know.
If you really want to have the confidence that you know what you’re doing, you need practice and experiments. More than a course could give you in a few days.
You won’t find many specialized courses only on a single topic. And if you do find one, they usually show advanced techniques and just assume you know all the basics. So if you want to take a course, prepare to learn a lot about a lot of things. That shouldn’t stop you from going back to single bits for practicing.
Actually start training survival skills
Now that you have at least some theoretical skills, go get the basic gear you need if you don’t do already. And I mean really basics. Sticking to the fire starting example, get a ferrocerium rod a.k.a. fire starter and a sharp knife and get going. If you want to make it even easier to start, get one of the gigantic ferrocerium rods available. Like the Origin Outdoors “Goliath”. They are easier to handle and produce a lot of big and hot sparks. A common joke we had, when testing this model was that it looks like it could light up a big log without tinder (it’s still a joke – you definitely want tinder)
Don’t let your situation stop you. If you want to train on a regular basis don’t wait for your next vacation or even weekends where you can get into nature. Start where you are. Depending on the skill you’re training you can use your own garden, woods nearby or even parking lots or parks. Just make sure not to disturb anyone or break any laws.
This is the core of the method of training survival skills we’re talking about: Start a single task and get comfortable with it.
Your actual first step of learning survival skills
So take a walk, start a very small fire and put it out again. And by small I really mean tiny. If you’re an absolute beginner here’s the most basic variant I can think of:
- Find a place where you can’t set anything ablaze. And I mean it. Do not underestimate how easily a wildfire can start. Safe places can be beaches or wider river banks. Make sure there’s sand or cobble all around and get close to the water. If you’re not lucky enough to have nature close by, you can practice on an empty parking lot
- Wait for a dry and windless day. I know, I told you to start right away, but for the first steps make it as easy as it can get
- Rip up a piece of tissue or newspaper into small pieces and pile it up
- Put the ferrocerium rod into the pile and strike it. Keep in mind:
- Most ferrocerium rods have a dark coating that will keep them from igniting. So unless you see the silverish part, don’t expect them to spark but keep striking
- The key to a flame is the right mixture of striking tool, angle and speed. So if it doesn’t work don’t keep trying the same way but vary at least one of them. Even more so there’s different combinations that will produce different sparks. So when you see bright sparks but they don’t ignite anything after a few tries, keep changing. Knives make excellent strikers but they might show scars afterwards
- A good approach is to make long scratches along the rod, with quite some pressure but not very fast. Keep the rod in your pile of tinder to not move it around. Make sure you scratch as far down as you can without dampening out every flame or shoving your tinder away
- Congratulations. You should now have made your first fire! If not, stop trying after some tries. As said before, you need practice. So try it the next day. New tissue/paper, different weather, complete new setup. It will work sooner or later
- Now put it out. That’s it. You now know how to start a fire. Basically
Doing it once is great and should give you a significant motivational boost. But what now?
Keep going. Don’t start running, yet. On the very next occasion repeat what you just did. Make really sure that the most basic steps feel natural to you. Yes, I really mean just keep starting tiny fires and put them out. Ok, don’t overdo it – when you did it 3-4 times, get to the next part.
The next part includes collecting some small, dry twigs, breaking them into short sticks (about 5cm) and pile them up over the tinder you used to start your fire. Even within a city you should be able to find some of these now and then. If you can’t find dry ones, you could even take them home and let them dry there. When your tissue/paper set fire to the sticks, you achieved your next step. Put it out again and wait for the next occasion.
If you can start your small fire but can’t get twigs to burn they might be too damp or too big. And remember there’s a rule about tinder (the stuff you’re igniting in the first place like tissue or paper). “Collect enough to be very, very, very sure it’s sufficient. Then go get at least 3 times as much. That should do”
You don’t have to repeat every step many times. The more you progress the less repetition you will need. It will feel more and more natural to do these things. So, let’s proceed.
Next up could be using a bit bigger branches you pile over the small sticks. We’ll dedicate an extra post to starting fires, so that should do it for now.
The important part is: Start with basics, repeat often and proceed slowly at first. Be aware that when you train more advanced topics most of the time you will still be repeating the basics as well. Even when you’re trying to light damp wood in a snow storm, you’ll still use the same technique to spark a flame from the ferrocerium rod.
The idea is that sooner or later you’ll feel comfortable to start a fire without giving it much thought. At least under good conditions.
Use your knowledge
Now that you have an idea about how to start a fire you might need your next motivational boost. A great idea and a good next step when learning survival skills is to make something you can enjoy. An easy example is tea.
As said before it can be tricky to control a fire so a great help is using a stove. Especially so called “hobo stoves” not only help with controlling the fire but use the “chimney effect” to keep your fire going. Giving all relevant details about hobo stoves is beyond the scope of this post. So in short: There are quite cheap ones available that will perfectly do. If you just want to give it a try, punch some holes in the side walls of a can just above the base. A wider can of canned food works great but a can of beer should do, too. Congratulations you built a replica of the original hobo stove.
Make some tea
Find a metal cup that can be put on top of the stove but won’t seal it shut. Maybe you’ll need some skewers or nails to improvise a rack. Light up your fire, put on more fuel bit by bit and then place the cup filled with fresh water onto the stove. It might be easier to start the fire outside, then place the burning twigs into the stove and keep slowly piling up more.
You should have the water boiling within no time. Then place a teabag into the cup and expect the string to burn off. If you can’t get the water to boil, there’s several things to try. Bigger holes in your selfmade stove, drier wood, a warmer day and so on. Don’t worry if it doesn’t work the first time, see it as an extra round of practice for your fire starting skills.
You will need a way to get the cup off the fire. Either wait until it’s died out or use a multiool with pliers to take the cup off without burning yourself.
You started training survival skills
I’d say, being confident about makig tea outdoors is a big step. From there it’s up to you what you want to learn. Outdoor cooking, worse conditions like light rain and later on snow, other tinder, other methods of starting the fire. There’s plenty you can enjoy but the important part is that, if you need a fire, you won’t start thinking about what you could need but instead just get going.
Use helpful additions if you can get hold of them. Like building a tinder box. You can always choose not to use it if you want to train a new technique. But carry it with you so you can still achieve your goal when your tests for new methods fail. It’s also a good start for your survival kit. Remember, you’re not just training survival skills you will also want to have the kit you need to apply the skills. The more you learn, the more you can do without any kit but still having tools with you will safe you time and that’s valuable in a real survival situation.
Keep on training survival skills
You’re now in a very interesting phase. You know the basics of one thing and you have something very important: A method that works and helps you with building your knowledge.
Where to go from here? As I said before, it’s about a basic skillset you need to build upon. As I see it, you should learn enough until you reach the following state: Imagine it’s a nice, warm and dry day. Some friend asks you if you want to go to the nearby woods, make dinner there and stay the night. You should not start wondering, what you could need. You should just ask yourself if you want to do it and if you do, start packing your pack and go. Being outdoors for a night should feel more or less natural.
When you reached that state of mind, learning more sophisticated skills will become way easier. When you don’t have to think about how to cook your meal, you can concentrate on learning new skills, introducing more difficult scenarios or even try not to use specific tools.
With the remaining skills you can go the same way like with fire starting. Take your time on a hike, set up a tarp, take it down and go on with your hike. When you’re sure you know how to fix the tarp, on your next hike, build a small camp, dismantle it again and go on. Even this will help with identifing things you might have to look into or get gear for. Like:
- You need knots or connectors for your straps
- You need some cordage
- You might need tent pegs
- You need the right location
And so on. All of this are more or less obvious but you’ll find them a lot easier, when you actually do it, not only think about it.
When you’re confident, stay outside in a warm and dry night with an option to go home easily (like from your garden or even a commercial camping ground).
Maybe don’t even bother with making a fire. Take something with you you can eat cold. But if you have the time and energy you can always start your fire because it will give you a morale boost even if you don’t cook anything on it. When you’ve done that some times you can scratch that from your list and look into other skills you should have identified by now as important.
If you’re still wondering, think about first aid, knots, water purification, easily identifiable plants to eat, navigation. If the skill you’re learning needs a reference to check whether you’re successful or not, make sure you have that reference. For example, train navigation in a place you already know. And start identifying plants with plants you know. Pretend you forgot what you know and start with the new technique. If the outcome matches what you already knew, good.
Go even further
The obvious next step is combining your skills. You should very soon be able to stay outside and do everything you need to have a nice stay without bothering too much. That’s when you start training advanced topics or addons to the ones you already learnt.
Where you go from here depends on what path you want to follow. .If you’re really interested in training survival skills you will go for harsher scenarios with less gear. Like do your overnighter in light rain or don’t use your tinder box. When trying the next level go back to safety so you can go home easily when your rain proof gear fails you. Also take your tinder box with you and just use it if you really can’t do without it. When it worked out you can always skip your “safety belt” next time. When you feel confident about light rain, you can go on with heavy rain. After that with snow. You get the picture.
If you’re more the bushcrafting type of person, you can go for more sophisticated and “elegant” techniques. If you’re more into military survival or escape&evasion you might even stock up on gear and improve your camouflage skills. Whatever your interest, you have now a basis to start from. Same goes if you don’t want to specialize but learn from different skillsets.
Never forget to use every possible occasion to use your knowledge and gear. Starting a barbecue? Use your fire steel. Staying at a friends? Bring your sleeping bag and maybe even stay outside. Incorporating your skills and gear in your daily life is not just fun, it helps with training, too.
There are others who promote the same approach even to more sophisticated techniques. One example I want to tell you about inspired by a video by David West about a very advanced skillset: fire drilling. Thanks to Deepforest from PineSurvey for pointing me to it.
Getting your setup right for fire drilling can feel like it takes forever and it can be very frustrating. So starting this as basic as it gets is the following:
- Go into a do it yourself store and get pieces of wood pre cut. Since it’s important which kind of wood to use for what part of the toolkit don’t bother searching and identifying just buy it pre cut
- Use oil for the slippery parts and even consider using a metal bearing
- Maybe even use a power drill instead of a fire bow
- Do it on your balcony or any other dry, warm, fireproof and windproof place you can think of
- If you get your fire going, great. You can now start replacing pieces of wood with some you gathered or replace the power drill with a bow
- If you can’t get the fire going with this rather extreme setup, take a step back, get other ressources on the topic and double check that you didn’t get anyting wrong. Congratulations, you just saved yourself hours of frustrating experiments
Conclusion or “How to start training survival skills in easy steps”
There are a lot of different approaches to training survival skills but the one I’ve shown you today is the following in short:
- Break down the whole topic into smaller sub topics. Then split the sub topics into single steps
- Learn about these steps from several resources. There’s a lot of good and a lot of bad information available. Don’t just rely on one source of knowledge. When you found information you believe will work, go test it
- Try to master the first step, then the next step and so on until you reached a level where you can actually make use of it
- Then switch to another sub topic and do the same thing with it
- When you’re confident in several sub topics combine them and use them to stay outside for a night
- From there you can start learning advanced skills, incorporate more difficult scenarios and so on
- The goal of this technique is that you won’t have to bother about what to pack and how to stay outside and provide for yourself for a night.
- When you reached that level you are free to choose what to do. Specialise in one way like survivalism or bushcrafting or stay with a more widespread approach. You can go on to have these so called micro adventures and make them more and more interesting and fun. Or you can focus on skills that might not be that much fun for the most of us but could safe your life in a disaster. Many of these topics overlap so it might be a good idea not to focus too much but stay with a more widespread approach
- Since you (hopefully) won’t be in a real survival sitation all too often, don’t forget to incorporate your knowledge and gear in your daily life. It helps to keep your skills sharp and is fun. Regular usage is the best way training survival skills
About the author
widhalmt is what you might call a tactical gearhead with a focus on collecting. Like your average nerd he likes to dig into topics he’s interested in and learn as much about them as possible. Then he tries to get hold of his items of interest (he’s quite picky about brand and model when he chose a certain item) and put them to the test. Be it while walking the dog in the woods or go for overnighters outdoors.
In his daytime job he works as lead support engineer for an open source IT consulting company. Since his work involves a lot of travelling and going to customers he has quite some experience in choosing items that are rugged enough for constant travelling but still work in an office environment without offending anyone by being “too tactical” (although he tends to stretch that last part a bit). It’s safe to say that he has some tactical gear on him when he walks out the door (and sometimes even when he stays at home).
In tactical gear he has very widespread interests but if he had to pick something, it’s be knives, bags/backpacks and camo patterns (especially PenCott)