The Most Important Survival Tool

July 11, 2011

Wilderness Survival

Whether on an afternoon canoeing trip down a local river or on ten-day backpacking trip along a remote section of the Appalachian Trail, the most important item that you can carry with you is not a battery-operated gadget. It’s not a compass, or a fire-starting tool, or even a knife.


Knowledge Is Power

The most important thing weighs nothing, yet is invaluable. It’s the knowledge and resourcefulness you’ve acquired over a lifetime of experiences. When the chips are down, it’s your creativeness, your imagination, and your ingenuity that can help you survive.

What kind of knowledge?

  • Starting Fires. Knowing how to start a fire under less-than-ideal circumstances using impromptu materials can mean the difference in having potable water or suffering from dehydration, in having warmth or enduring a bitterly cold night without heat, in surviving or becoming a statistic. Learn and practice multiple fire starting techniques using a variety of supplies and you won’t be caught off guard.
  • Navigating Terrain. A good compass and a map of the local area should be one of the first things you pack before an outing. But devices can be lost or they fail, leaving you with little to guidance to find your way out. Additionally not all survival situations occur during a planned outing. Learning to determine direction during the day or at night without the aid of a compass or GPS can help lead you to rescue.
  • Purifying Water. The average person can sustain survival for three days without water. It’s quite literally the liquid of life. Without it, you die; the equation is that simple. Knowing how to turn contaminated water into clean drinking water should be very high on your list of skills to acquire. Learn how to filter dirty water, to make a solar still, and to boil water using heated rocks so that you can use any water that you find along the way.
  • Tying Knots. There is virtually no limit to the usefulness of cordage in a survival situation. From tying down a shelter to making a snare, from rappelling down an incline to making a hammock, cordage makes survival easier. But having cordage is only half of the battle; knowing a handful of knots and their uses allows you to make full use of your cordage. Learn to tie a timber hitch, a clove hitch, a bowline, and others. Even better, learn how to make cordage from vines and wild grasses.
  • Building Shelters. In inclement weather, having shelter from the harsh elements is second only to your immediate safety and air. Exposed and ill-equipped, you’ll only last a few hours or days. Knowing how to build debris huts, A-frame shelters, teepees, lean-tos, snow caves, and sleeping platforms can help you regulate your core body temperature and survive in an otherwise hostile environment.
  • Administering First Aid. Many people carry a simple first-aid kit with bandages and triple antibiotic ointment. That’s a good start, but it’s woefully inadequate for broken bones, gastrointestinal issues, and non-trivial lacerations. A good working knowledge of wilderness first-aid techniques can help you provide effective assistance to others in your group, or even give direction to them as they treat you.

Knowledge Is Confidence

Knowing what to do in an emergency situation and having practiced it when your life wasn’t on the line gives you the confidence to effect survival should you find it necessary. Knowledge is the one thing that you cannot accidentally leave behind. The skills you learn may be the skills that get you home.

In the coming posts I’ll expand on some of these topics – how to tie knots, how to build fires, how to erect shelters. But remember, reading about them is not enough. Go out and do it for yourself. Learn it and make it your own.

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16 Comments on “The Most Important Survival Tool”

  1. Jarhead Survivor Says:

    Excellent post and a very important point. I’ve been in the forest with people who had a GPS and *still* couldn’t find their way out much less start a fire with a firesteel or some other alternate way of doing it.

    Your experience can keep you alive, but to gain experience you need to get out there and get some dirt time in. People think that by reading a book or a web page that they’ll have the knowledge to survive and while having read about it is a good first step ya gotta get out there and do it yourself. Do it ten or twenty times. Then you can say, “I’ve tried that.”

    Ok… off my soapbox now! Good post and I hope that people get out there and give it a try.


    • Joe Says:

      Thanks, Jarhead. I couldn’t agree more and probably could have emphasized that point more in the post.

      For example, I think many, if not most, of us grew up hearing how Native Americans would start fires by rubbing two sticks together (fire bow, hand drill, etc). And we tend to think we can do it when the time comes. But if you’ve ever tried doing it, you’re well aware that it’s not nearly that easy. And it’s worse if you’re trying to do it for the first time in a survival situation.

      Better to practice, practice, practice in a safe environment so that when the time of need comes, you’ll be able to think to yourself “I’ve done this before; I know how and *can* do this now.”


  2. Dustin Says:

    Great article – there are lots of places to see how things are done, plenty of books, shows, YouTube videos, etc… until you PRACTICE the skills, you just have thoughts and assumptions – no experience.

    Your neighbor may not be too keen on having you brain tan in your backyard (especially in suburbia or apartment settings) but few people look twice if you use a ferro rod and natural tinder to start a fire in a charcoal grill, or practice orienteering in a park… start small, build from there.


    • Joe Says:

      Absolutely, Dustin. Until you’ve actually tried to start a fire with a ferro rod, until you’ve actually tried to navigate using a map and compass, until you’ve actually built a small debris hut from leaves and sticks, you don’t really know the little secrets for getting it done. Reading about it is great; increasing your book knowledge is fantastic, but actually doing it is invaluable.



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