The Three Steps to Survival

About: Music, Photography, Science, Technology, Outdoors.

Over the years I have seen many how-to’s, books, and articles on wilderness survival. However, usually these either cover one element of survival, or contain endless pages of information. I am creating this Instructable as a how-to general guide to survival. I will be going over the steps that should be taken in the event of being lost, step by step. Also, I will not just be using specific tools or objects to create, find, or gather. Assuming that there are tools that can make things easier, not always are they available to everyone who needs them.

Whenever out in the wilderness, it is impossible to have a complete list of everything that should be needed. It is always a good idea to have a knife, water, some food, and a sweater/jacket. These things come come in handy a lot from anything like fishing to shooting photos. Whether someone is lost, or simply not getting back to camp before dark, these items can always come in handy. Whenever going in to the wilderness, some other items to keep in mind are,

  • Flashlight
  • Water filter and/or purification methods
  • First aid kit
  • Extra knife
  • Matches and/or lighter
  • Protein bars
  • Whistle
  • Length of Para-Cord
  • Map of the area

And finally, some less practical, but still wanted items are,

  • Sunglasses
  • Lip balm
  • Sun Screen
  • Plant identification book
  • Fishhooks and fishing line

I recommend carrying most of these items when practical, they can really come in handy while out exploring, and can possible help keep you alive while lost.

I will be showing the "Three Steps To Survival". The steps in order are, shelter, food and water, and getting rescued.

Step 1: Shelter

When lost in a forest, the first step is finding shelter. Finding shelter is the first most important thing to surviving. It’s easy to go a night without food or water, but come nightfall, having a place to sleep is mandatory.

Start out by picking a good location to spend the night. Personally, I’d avoid climbing trees. A good spot to look is up against a tree, or between two trees, where it would be easy to construct a roof and sides. A shelter should never be big, the smaller it is, the warmer, and easier to build and find materials. These are some photos of a quick shelter I built. I used sturdy sticks as a supporting frame, and thinner sticks stacked across the larger ones to finish the stick frame. Next, I took some tall weeds and laid them over the sticks to create a nice surface to pile leaves on top for the final layer. This shelter took me about an hour to build, and I used no tools (except a rake to gather the leaves a bit quicker), so basically this shelter can be made with no tools whatsoever. The night after building this it rained, and to my surprise the shelter was still standing in the morning. It probably let some water in, but overall it held up and retained most water from leaking in.

Steps for shelter,

Location and materials,

  • Find good location, optimally against a tree or between two trees that are about 1-3 feet apart. Make sure the ground is clear of any sharp objects/plants.
  • Start gathering sticks, find thicker ones to use as a frame and thinner ones to cover the frames with to hold foliage for the final layer
  • Gather the final layers, if possible get tall weeds to cover the sticks with, and then gather leaves and branches with leaves for the final outside layer.

Building the shelter,

  • Create a frame for the shelter with the thickest sticks. Try to strategically build this part (look for “Y” shaped sticks to use as support and other shapes that can help build a sturdy frame)
  • Cover the frame with thinner sticks. This keeps all the top layer from falling through. Its best to use a mixture of thin and medium thickness sticks.
  • If possible cover the frame in long grass/weeds. This is the best way I have found for keeping leaves from falling through, and acts a good insulation.
  • Pile leaves on top of the whole thing. Hopefully there are enough sticks and weeds to keep the leaves from falling through.
  • Check to make sure its strong and sturdy.

I forgot to take a photo of the front when it was finished... :( The inside was big enough for somebody to curl up and sleep in.

Step 2: Obtaining Food and Water

This can be the most tricky part of surviving, because the situation varies at every location. After researching, I found that a person can live up to 30-40 days without food, although only 3-5 days without water. So when lost, the best thing to get first is a water source.

Getting water. This can be really hard to find, and if possible should always be be purified to prevent disease and sickness.

Some places to look are,

  • Lakes, rivers, streams. If possible it is always best to boil the water to purify it, or use a water filter or water purification tablets. Always keep in mind that moving water will always be the cleanest (especially in a river if the water is constantly running over rocks. If the water is clear, cold, and moving over rocks, it is most likely safe enough. However, if there is a way to purify it, it's always a good idea.
  • If there is any dew or rain at night, find some large leaved plants and see if there is enough water to start collecting some. This is extremely time consuming, but having water is mandatory for survival. This type of water is scarce and not enough to risk boiling, so as long as the plants are not poisonous the water should be fine.
  • Eating edible plants are also a source of hydration, as plants are filled with water to grow.

The best way to boil water is over a fire in a METAL water bottle or container. Let boil for two minutes.

Food. Getting food is another hard one, but is often easier if the person looking for food has knowledge in edible plants. I would recommend getting a pocket book to edible plants in your area and becoming familiar. I cannot list any plants because some can be mistaken for poisonous ones.

Some tips for finding food are,

  • Looking for edible plants (be more sure they are edible read the “notes” at the end of this section)
  • Trying to get fish. If no fishing gear is available, building a spear or net, would work (see the bottom of the section for more details)
  • Small animals. This can be hard to do because the animals are fast and smart. Try rigging a few traps, and one might just get lucky. Remember to ALWAYS cook the meat until it is well done. (for traps, see below)
  • BUGS! Ants, termites and most other bugs can be eaten, just make sure you cut the heads off so they don't bite. It may sound nasty but it is a great source of protein.



If you think you have identified an edible plant, but want to be more sure, test it on an area of skin. Do this by rubbing a small piece of it on part of your arm, and wait about 20 minutes. If there is no irritation, then try rubbing some on your lips, then wait a couple hours. If there is still no irritation or rash, then eat a little bit and wait 12-24 hours. After that time if there are no complications, then it is probably safe to eat. However this should be used as a last effort to find food, it is not completely reliable, and it is ALWAYS better to have a book to properly identify plants.


Building a spear would include getting a long straight stick and sharpening the end a trying to construct a barb a couple of inches from the end. The barb is basically a sharp notch to keep the fish from sliding off the spear. A fish net can be constructed from rope and a frame with a handle. Build a stick frame for the net (this can be tricky) and either build a rope net or use a shirt. Also just a rope net can be used without a frame.

Small animals,

As far as the small animal trap goes, basically use thin rope and construct a small slipknot (a noose) and suspend it over a game trail (a small path through grass and brush that small animals frequent). This is extremely unreliable though, so the more traps the better. Check these often, and if there is any animals in it, be sure to kill them by snapping the neck.

Step 3: Getting Rescued

The next step is finding rescue. Hopefully there are items available such as a whistle, something shiny, and something to start a fire with.

Whistle. Its always good to use a whistle, however if the area is not frequented by people, then it may not be much good

Using a reflective object. Remember, whenever there is overhead aircraft, try to use something reflective to glare the sun, hopefully getting a pilots attention. Find the location of the sun, and the plane, then try to get the reflective item to reflect in the area of the aircraft, then wiggle the item around for a better chance of signaling the pilot.

Starting a fire. Clear an area big enough for the fire and about 6 feet around it. Then start gathering dry twigs and leaves (if its wet outside check under the top layer of brush/leaves for dry stuff). Hopefully there are matches available, if not, maybe a flint and steel. Fires can also be started by friction; rubbing two sticks together fast enough. The best way to do this is create a small "bow" (like from a bow and arrow) and then loop the string around a straight stick, and make the tip of the stick going into a notch of another stick that is on the ground. Then if the "bow" is moved back and fourth, the stick will turn, creating friction with the other stick. When the fire starts, blow very softly on it to give it extra oxygen, however if too much air is blown, it can snuff it out. After the fire is hot, then add some green leaves or brush. This will create more smoke and therefore easier to see.

Step 4: Conclusion

Getting lost in the woods would not be fun. I have never been lost before, and hopefully never will be. Now you know some great things to do in the event of being lost. In the future I hope to get more Instructables up on each individual thing (and go more in-depth). If there are any ideas I have missed, or any questions you would like me to answer, feel free to comment!

- Cody (@macgyver97)



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    3 Discussions

    Moose Dr

    4 years ago on Introduction

    I like your short list of steps. I think your priorities are right -- shelter, then water/food then rescue. Too many get themselves really lost by placing rescue first.

    I think, however, the the fear of contaminated water is very overblown! I have consumed water from flowing mountain streams hundreds of times, and never become sick from it. Water becomes contaminated from human & animal waste mostly. The best source of such waste is civilization and stagnant ponds. If you are not near civilization or stagnant pond country, flowing water is very likely safe to drink.

    Further, sand, gravel and rocks are effective water filters. If water has flown in these conditions for a mile or more, it is no longer contaminated.

    The concern I have is that fear of contaminated water will bring on the much more deadly condition of dehydration. Even if dehydration doesn't immediately kill you, it can permanently harm your kidneys. Further, failure to address it can fog your thinking, making survival more difficult. If "better safe than sorry" is the adage, then drink flowing water, because is is safer than the alternative.

    BTW, lake water away from civilization (not swamp water) is almost always safe also.

    1 reply
    Macgyver97Moose Dr

    Reply 4 years ago on Introduction

    Thanks for the advice! I do agree with you on most of that. I find running water to be pretty safe (if it flows over rocks). Lake water however can have lots of algae and bacteria by shore (depends on the temperature, and the area). For me it's better safe then sorry when it comes to purifying water, so if possible it should be done. I do agree if water is needed for survival and no purification method is available, by all means drink it. I just don't encourage drinking water from any given place when out in the forest (its up to the judgment of the individual). I have found some really clean lakes and streams, and also some that are pretty unclean. I feel it is up to the individual person and what the water source it is. Thanks for commenting.


    4 years ago

    nice instructable, i skimmed the shelter part but did u mention ground insulation a good bed