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Survival Basics

The 4 survival components. Without one of these, you're screwed...

The four main components of survival are Water, Shelter, Fire, and Food.


...and usually in that order.


Of course, in long term survival, food is more essential than say a shelter or even fire, without it you can't live. However, if you die from exposure or get attacked by an animal from lack of fire or shelter, then you will be dead long before starvation occurs. And fire is intrinsically connected to water, as you need it to kill pathogens in drinking water, or you could get very sick, and in the bush that can be a death sentence.

However, the order of importance of the four survival components can vary depending on your particular situation. For example, in a cold winter environment, shelter may take precedent over all else. Wind chill can be a serious threat in the cold and can increase body heat loss substantially. Next will be fire for keeping warm and melting snow.

In a desert, water will almost certainly be the most important component, followed by either shelter from the burning sun, or fire for sanitizing water and keeping warm in notoriously cold desert nights.

In a jungle, fire becomes important for drying wet clothes, sanitizing notoriously pathogen rich jungle water, and keeping disease carrying mosquitoes and dangerous predators away. Shelter becomes key for staying dry in guaranteed rain.

In a mild woodland type environment, any one of the four survival components will become less urgent. Generally speaking, woodlands are the most ideal place for bushcraft living. Water can usually be found easily in creeks, rivers, lakes and ponds. Firewood and shelter are abundant, and many edible plants and animals can be found throughout.


Water is usually at the top of the priority list. It only takes a day or two of no water intake for serious and possibly fatal dehydration to set in. And in a hot arid desert environment you can be dead in less than 24 hours from dehydration if you are not careful. Even mild dehydration will cause a degradation of mental faculties and cause you to make poor decisions which could in the end choose your fate.

Where there is an abundance of snow, water is not even a concern. You can always eat snow if you have to, but be careful not to let it drop your core body temperature. If you are active like traveling or working, then eating snow is a lot less dangerous than if you are just sitting down ready for a long night at camp. If you feel your core body temperature dropping, then exercise! Squats are especially effective.

Always melt snow if possible. In a really dire situation where you cannot melt snow, at least let it melt in your mouth before swallowing, or try to melt it using the outside of your body's heat, such as putting a snow filled container in a jacket pocket. This will help prevent it from dropping your core body temperature, which is the most important factor when surviving in the harsh cold. Once your core body temperature starts to drop, that's when hypothermia comes a knockin'.

There are many ways to find and gather water in the wild, and they are covered in-depth on the "Water" page.


Food, in general, is usually the last priority on the list as far as short term survival goes, but obviously is essential for long term living. A healthy person can survive for weeks, possibly even months without food. Exposure and thirst are much more immediate dangers in the bush.

When it comes to acquiring food in the bush, get what you can, don't be looking for a five star delicacy. That doesn't mean you can't enjoy a delicious bushcraft meal, but take whatever you can when you can, regardless of the taste. The hunger pains and lack of energy will be much harder to endure than a few seconds of bad taste in your mouth.

Ensure that you do not spend more calories acquiring a meal than you get from eating it. This creates a calorie deficit, which will eventually kill you if continued. If food (or water) is a concern, expend as little energy as possible. The more effort you exert, the more water and calories you will use.

In cold environments, food is more important than in warmer climates. Your body burns extra calories to maintain core body temperature. So while food is usually on the bottom of the survival priority list, it can become one of the top priorities in very cold environments.

Beware of "rabbit starvation". If you consume protein without fat, you will become sick with diarrhea in about a week. The body cannot handle this diet. You must get fats! Once this "protein poisoning" kicks in, even after gorging on lean meat you will still feel hungry. In addition to diarrhea, you will develop a headache and feel uncomfortable. After a few weeks of this you can die.

It is called rabbit starvation because rabbits are completely lean, and many northern hunters have developed protein poisoning by eating only rabbits. You can mediate this by eating the entirety of the rabbit (or other lean animal) such as the brains, organs and bone marrow, in which some fat resides. But you will need to find a better source of fats in the long run.

If you acquire a bounty of meat or fish, you should preserve it for the long term by smoking meat, and drying fish. Cut slits in a fish to help it dry better. Smoke meat by hanging it on a stick over a fire where it just gets slightly warmed and smoked, and leave it there for several hours. You should not waste any part of an animal you kill. The organs can be eaten, the bones used for tools, the hide for clothes or shelter, and the entrails for bait.

What is available to eat will vary widely on location. It's a good idea to carry some form of fishing equipment, be it just a line and hook. Try to learn the native plants in the area, but never eat anything you cannot recognize. Many edible plants have poisonous look-a-likes.

Poisonous Taste Test

In a dire situation where you are desperate for food but can't recognize edible plants, you can perform the "poisonous taste test".

To perform the "poisonous taste test", first break open some of the juices of an unknown plant and rub some on your lip, then wait a couple minutes. If you don't feel a numb or zingy feeling on your lip, then take a small piece, with the juices flowing, and put it in your mouth and let it set there for a minute or two. If once again you don't feel any difference (other than taste), then chew it up real good and let it sit a little longer. If you still don't notice any odd feelings, then go ahead and swallow that one bite.

Now you need to wait 8 hours to see if you feel any sickness or discomfort. If nothing happens, then the plant is probably safe to eat, but on your first meal of it, keep it small, then after another 8 hours with no bad side effects, you can eat more and more. Some plants are only poisonous in large doses.

The "poisonous taste test" is a pretty safe and effective method for finding out whether a plant is poisonous or not. After all, most plants will not kill you in small amounts, but you should notice any negative side effects that will indicate you do not want to eat any more in the future.

This technique is most useful on fruits, somewhat effective on other parts of the plant like leaves and roots, and completely useless on mushrooms. Don't even mess with a mushroom if you aren't absolutely certain what it is. Some species can kill you from one bite.


Obviously, fire is usually of huge importance in the wild. It can do so many things, including sterilize water, cook food, dry wet clothes, warm you, ward off predators, keep insects away, signal for rescue, provide light, make tools and even improve your attitude.

There are many ways to start a fire, and they will be covered in-depth on the "Fire" page. Honestly though, the easiest and most reliable way to make fire is just to carry a lighter with you.

It's a good idea to have at least two methods for starting a fire, in case one fails or isn't suitable for the particular situation. I like to carry a lighter and a ferro rod, but practice friction fire with sticks whenever possible. It's good to develop skills that will relieve you of being dependent on modern technology.


Don't underestimate the importance of good shelter.

The number one cause of death in the bush is exposure, usually to cold, wet and/or windy environments. Anyone experienced in cold situations knows how wetness and wind can compound the pain and danger of a cold situation many times over. Like survival expert Cody Lundin says, "Cold, strike one. Wet, strike two. Windy, strike three. You're out." Even in temperate climates, wet, wind, and only mild coldness can be very dangerous and even fatal.

There are a number of ways to make shelters from natural materials and that is covered more on the "Shelter" page. But you need to be aware of what type of shelter is needed for your particular situation.

In a cold and windy environment, you will want to be insulated on at least 3 out of 4 sides, and have a shelter that reflects and traps heat from a fire. In a warm jungle, you may only need a rain-blocking roof and a raised platform to keep you off the ground, away from dangerous insects and snakes.

Usually the best, and my favorite, type of shelter is one that is already built, a "mother nature special". Solid caves, big hollow trees, or the occasional void under an evergreen tree in heavy snow, these natural shelters are the easiest and often the most effective.


Take careful consideration and observe your specific environment to determine which of the four elements to prioritize. Failing to do this properly can lead to a dangerous situation.

For example, if you spend a lot of time and energy building a shelter in a desert type environment only to suddenly realize you are very dehydrated and there is no water in sight, you're screwed! In a cold environment, make sure to give yourself plenty of time to establish a good, insulated shelter and build a fire if possible. The last thing you want to do is get caught out in the night when it's cold!

Always pay attention to how your body feels and accommodate its needs. It will tell you if you need water or food, and need shelter from the hot or cold. If you ignore this guidance then you are driving against mother nature, and that is a recipe for hardship and disaster.

I have seen a number of people who got lost in desert environments, then traveled during the day in the beating sun, dehydrating themselves and receiving serious sunburns, only to settle down during the night. The opposite should be happening! They just walk walk walk to whatever they think is civilization, refusing to take a moment and apply some common sense, realizing and accepting their situation, and working with it to find solutions rather than fighting to get to that imaginary projected safehouse, which is a form of denial.

One's psychology may in the end be the most important unspoken survival component of all.

Read about the "Five C's of Survival"

Please Leave A Comment!

Comments (8)

I am a biochemist, and I agree with the admin. If I were in a desert, I'd concern myself with water first, as dehydration and death can and WILL set in within a few hours, if even that long. You will NEED the water while exerting yourself on a shelter. There's no reason to start building a shelter in a desert where there's no water source. Water is first bc of the immediate death threat it becomes in the desert. Hours is all you have. If you even have that long. It's senseless to exert yourself on a shelter, sweating, losing fluid, getting high concentrations of blood potassium, only to die of cardiac arrest the second your shelter is built. Water is ABSOLUTELY #1 in a desert, not even arguable. And that isn't bushcraft knowledge...that's science.

Shelter in a desert will be difficult, and will most likely amount to nothing more than putting something over your head. Surviving a desert will depend on finding cactus for water, and yucca for shelter. Getting lost in the desert South West is survivable, but getting stranded in a sand dune desert, your best hope at that point is to just make yourself right with God.

The SINGLE BEST survival skill you can have to survive a dune desert, is to be smart enough to NOT to get stranded in the first place.

19th June 2017 5:39pm
rafer coetzee
" in a desert environment WATER will be your no one priority "..???.....REALLY??? when you are DYING of heat exposure during the day??... or freezing if its night...( yes FREEZING !!!..)..??.... WATER is your priority????......
27th August 2014 6:22am
Water may or may not be your number one priority in a desert, but it's probably near the top of the list.

I will not say anything as absolute as shelter must ALWAYS be the top priority, situations can vary and I prefer to view my surroundings without rigid belief structures such as "I must always find shelter as the number one priority no matter what!" That kind of thinking is just too strict for my liking.

In your scenario of a scorching hot & freezing cold desert, those characteristics of the environment would themselves tell me that I need shelter without my having to bring that knowledge to it.

27th August 2014 7:55am
rafer coetzee
thanks for your reply....however you must SURELY agree that unless your in some unknown climate that NEVER deviates ..( ??? )..... SHELTER must always be your no ONE priority??.... 3 HOURS is about all the body can cope with in ANY deviation of temperature....whereas we can go 3 days or MORE and still survive without water food etc.....our CORE TEMPERATURE is our worst enemy WHEREVER we may find ourselves.......
27th August 2014 11:29am
Here in Texas it gets so very hot at times, so hot, that you can die of the heat and hundreds do every year. Water helps to prevent heat stroke, keeps the brain functioning and shade and rest help the body. It is better to take a little too much water then a tent because you can use nature to make a shelter. Fire and a good metal bottle will serve you to make more potable water. As a boy I always carried 2 quarts of water but now as an old man I carry at least 3-4 quarts and the means to make more when camping at rest. I am an Eagle Scout and was an American Mountain Man. Good luck to everyone of you in the wilderness!
26th April 2016 3:46pm
rafer coetzee
WITHOUT exception.... in ALL environments!!....SHELTER is your no one PRIORITY....dont teach until YOU yourself understand this!!
26th August 2014 1:18pm
Ross Filippi
Mate - get it right; Survival priorities are ALWAYS as follows;
1 - SHELTER (including clothing)
2 - Water
3 - Food
The basis for this is a thing called the "Rule of Three's" look it up and think it through . . . You do no one a service publishing this . . .
22nd March 2014 9:29pm
I am using the word "priority" in the sense of what goals need to be focused on. In that sense, priorities vary by situation.

In a cold, winter environment where snow is abundant, water will be at the bottom of the "to do" list.

14th April 2014 12:15pm

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