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8 Basic Survival Skills Every Adventurous Traveler Should Know

In the modern world, you don’t really need to know how to hunt for food to survive. Or how to start a fire with sticks and stones. But it’s still important to know at least the basic skills of surviving in the wild.

Each year, in developed countries, thousands of people get lost while going on hikes in jungles, deserts, and mountainous areas. In the United States alone, over 2,000 people get lost every year. The fortunate ones are eventually rescued, but many others perish due to dehydration, starvation, sun exposure, and other predicaments caused by their inability to cope with their surrounding.

You never go hiking? Well, besides getting lost in jungles, these skills are also useful in other unforeseen circumstances, such as natural disasters, extreme change in weather, and accidents. So, never say never. You might find these skills handy someday!

small stream
Credit: Canoehead / Wikimedia Commons

Water is the number one most crucial element in a survival situation. Humans can survive for weeks without food, but in extremely hot climates, they can die within just a matter of hours without water.

Therefore, when you find yourself lost, one of your first priorities should be to find water. But water is pointless if it’s not safe to drink. Here are some tips on finding drinkable water:

  • If you’re in hilly terrain, keep in mind that water always flows downhill. You have a great chance of finding a stream in crevasses where hills meet. Take a moment of silence and see if you can hear any sound of water. Follow that sound.
  • Look for signs of life. Animals and insects tend to frequent areas with drinking water.
  • Beware of stagnant water, as it is likely to be full of bacteria that can lead to a far worse situation.
  • If you can, purify the water — either by boiling, filtering, or using purification tablets. Even flowing water can sometimes contain harmful parasites.
  • Digging for underground water should be your last option.

2. Starting a Fire

Starting a fire from scratch
Starting a fire from scratch. Credit: Dirk Beyer / Wikimedia Commons

After finding a water source, your next priority should be to start a fire. In the wild, a (controlled) fire is your best friend. It can give you life-saving warmth, help you purify water, cook food, scare away predators, and even signal for help.

In an ideal world, you’d always have a lighter and matches with you, but in the real world (which is usually less than ideal), you could easily be caught without any. These tips will help you start a fire from scratch:

  • Find your tinder in the form of wood, twigs, sticks, dry grass, etc. The drier they are, the better. Avoid anything that looks even remotely green, unless you’re only trying to make a smoke signal.
  • There are a few different techniques to start a friction-based fire: the hand drill, the fire plow, the bow drill, and stone and steel. Click here for a more detailed explanation of each one of them.
  • Go from small kindling to bigger ones. Start the fire with the smallest fibers you have, as they will be easier to light up, and once you’ve got a flame going, gently add on the bigger sticks.
  • If you have a magnifying glass, or anything similar, you can use it to concentrate sunbeam to ignite your tinder.
  • Be patient and don’t easily give up. Even a small spark can turn into a big fire if done correctly.

3. Building Temporary Shelter

Credit: Ryan Bushby / Wikimedia Commons

If you’re unable to find your way back before nightfall, you need to know how to build a temporary shelter to protect yourself from the elements and wild animals. Depending on the kind of environment you’re in, these are the common shelter types you can build:

  • Lean-to: Leaning your building materials (branches, twigs, etc) against a pre-existing structure, such as a rock face, a wall, or a fallen tree trunk.
  • Round lodge: Built with a large number of branches leaning together to form a conical-shaped teepee or wigwam.
  • Ramada: A shelter with a roof but no walls, or partial walls.
  • Other environmentally-dependent shelters, such as igloos, quinzees, and snow caves.
A good place to build your shelter is on a high and dry land, not too close to water (in case of flash floods) or areas that seem frequented by wildlife (look out for footprints or droppings).

4. Hunting and Foraging for Food

If your emergency situation stretches into days, you will need to know how to forage or hunt for food to survive. There are a number of different ways to do this:

  • Foraging for edible plants. While these won’t give you as much energy as meat, they should be enough to keep you alive. Before going to a particular place, it is good to familiarize yourself with the local plant life to identify which ones are edible. As a general rule, avoid anything that look potentially poisonous, like brightly hued plants, or mushrooms.
  • Fishing, if you are near a body of water and have something to use as a fishing line and hook.
  • Trapping. You can build small game traps out of the materials you can find in the wild. Click here to read how.
  • Hunting, if you have the tool or the ability to build one, e.g. by sharpening a long sturdy stick into a spear.

5. Basic Cooking

Cooking in the wild
Cooking in the wild. Credit: Dan Edwards / Wikimedia Commons

If you manage to catch some wild game, you need to know how to cook it, in order to eliminate the risk of food poisoning. Here are some points to remember:

  • Unless you’re absolutely sure which parts are safe to eat, get rid of ALL the innards, especially the digestive tract.
  • To be safe, it is better to overcook than undercook — even if you like your steak rare!
  • Once you’re done with cooking and eating, dispose of all waste. Ditch it far from your shelter or if possible, bury it. This is to avoid attracting bigger predators.

6. Navigating and Reading a Compass

Credit: Shyamal / Wikimedia Commons

If you go hiking on your own, one of the most important things you need to know is how to navigate. The following are a few ways to help you:

  • Read a compass. Have a basic understanding of how the device works. The biggest advantage of using a compass is that it will continue to work when your other devices fail.
  • Find higher ground. Though not always necessary or practical, going on top of the nearest hill or up a tree can help you gauge your location and orient yourself better.
  • Use the directions of sunrise and sunset to determine your east and west.
  • Follow water source. If you can find a river, follow the flow. Even if you don’t find civilization along the way, at least, you will have constant access to drinking water.

7. Tying Knots

Credit: Tom Murphy VII / Wikimedia Commons

Tying different types of knots is a skill that is typically used in sporting activities like sailing, camping, rock climbing, and rappelling. But it is also incredibly helpful in survival situations. Knots can help secure hunting traps, fishing lines, bandages, survival shelters, and also rescue somebody.

There are dozens of different types of knots, each for different purposes. Try to learn a few basic ones.

8. Basic First Aid

The worst case scenario is if you’re lost and injured, as it can really hamper your survival efforts. It’s extremely important to know how to take care of common injuries, in order to minimize damage, blood loss, and/or the risk of infection. Here are the steps you can take in the event of an injury:

  • Close the wound. Closing the wound with a bandage or plaster will help stop blood flow and prevent infection. Try to clean the wound as well as you can before bandaging. Tourniquets should only be considered as a last resort because the tight binding can result in limb loss.
  • Change the bandage and clean the wound often, as a dirty bandage can lead to a festering wound.
  • If there’s a broken limb, you need to bind it to stop it from getting worse. Find a sturdy and straight tree branch, and tie it to the limb with some rope or cloth. Do not attempt to reset a broken bone yourself, unless you’re a medical professional.

Basic Survival Course by LORAS

In 2018, I realized that I didn’t have the first clue about surviving in the wild. And that’s a pretty embarrassing thing to admit for someone who prides herself in being an independent woman. True — I had gone camping a couple of times before, but on both occasions, everything had been prepared for me by the porters.

I realized that I could have gone hiking in so many amazing places on my own, had I learned the necessary skills. It would have saved me a lot of money, and as a bonus, I wouldn’t have had to deal with people. What could be better than that?

So, I searched online for basic survival courses near me, and found one at Kem Alang Sedayu, near the border of Selangor and Pahang. That’s not too far away from Kuala Lumpur — perfect!

Basic survival course by Lusuh Adventure
Basic survival course by LORAS

The course was organized by LORAS, a company that also owns a shop selling camping gear in Kuala Lumpur, that has been around for more than a decade. The instructors had had extensive experience in the field.

One of them had even represented the country to climb Mount Everest and ski to the south pole. So, it was safe to say that they really knew their stuff.

The first thing they taught us was what to pack each time we set out into the woods. Next, they taught us how to use each of these items. I never knew that a cord was so crucial on a camping trip.


Our next lesson was how to start a fire without a matchstick or a lighter. Traditionally, people would rub two sticks or stones together until they sparked, but that would require a lot of time and effort. These days, you can buy fire starters from adventure stores.

We learned both methods.

Learn to start a fire - basic survival skills - Ummi Goes Where?
Identifying different types of tinder.
Basic survival skills - starting a fire | Ummi Goes Where?
We also learned seven basic knots (which I now remember none of).
Learning to tie knots - basic survival skills | Ummi Goes Where?
Me, learning the ropes about ropes.

The instructors told us of the time when they had a group of kids from an international school in KL, and how surprised they were to find that those 7-year-olds already knew everything they were going to teach them.

And here we were, miserable adults struggling to learn the most basic survival skills that the kids had nailed at kindergarten.

I unfortunately didn’t have that kind of childhood. That is why I have to go out and actively seek this sort of activities — to educate myself and make up for all the years I lost, being holed up with school books in order to conform to Asian society’s standards.
Basic survival skills for beginner hikers | Ummi Goes Where?

After that, it was time for us to put our new knowledge into practice. Our challenge was to cook rice in a coconut.

Each of us was assigned a partner. I was paired up with the youngest member of the group, a teenage schoolboy, who didn’t seem very eager to do the challenge. Honestly, I wasn’t very eager either, knowing that I had to be the ‘adult’ in the team.

We were given a coconut, some rice, a knife, a fire starter, and some cotton balls.

basic survival skills for beginners - Ummi Goes Where
Watching the demonstration before we began.

The first thing we had to do was find wood for the fire. My teammate helped with this, while I looked for pandan leaves and wet clay, punctured holes in the coconut shell, and put the rice in. The wet clay was to coat the coconut to prevent it from cracking.

Starting the fire wasn’t so hard for me. I got the cotton balls lighted up on the first try, but maintaining it was another story. The fire kept dying and we ran out of cotton. Somehow the wood we had collected just wouldn’t catch fire.

We only succeeded when the instructor came to help. Then, we placed the coconut on it and waited for it to cook, while occasionally prodding the fire.
Basic survival skills for beginners - Ummi Goes Where?
Our disastrous coconut rice.
After about half an hour, the instructors went from one team to another to check our work. The pandan leaf gave a nice aroma to the rice. Paired with the coconut juice, it made the rice taste and smell almost similar to nasi lemak.

My team’s finished product, however, was the only one that was inedible. It was my fault — I hadn’t coated the coconut shell with enough clay to protect it from the heat. The shell had cracked and caused the juice to seep out, leaving the rice hard and half-burnt.

We had to rely on other people’s mercy to spare us some rice for lunch.


After lunch, the instructors showed us how to set up an emergency tent using a piece of tarp. This was where the knot lesson came in handy. We also learned what to do and not to do when choosing a spot to set up camp.


That was followed by a river-crossing practice, where we formed a line, linked arms, and tried to cross the river together without breaking the chain. First, we went across the river. Then, we went upstream.

The current was not so strong, but the rocks were very slippery, even with our hiking boots on. Guess who fell down? 


Done soaking in the river, we went for a short hike in the forest to learn about edible and medicinal plants.

The class ended at around 6 p.m. But we were in for a little more surprise. The instructors had prepared a charcoal paste to be painted on our faces as a ‘graduation gift’ before we were handed our certificates. 

Basic survival skills for travelers - Ummi Goes Where?
We were the only 3 female participants of the day.
Basic outdoor survival skills for camping - Ummi Goes Where?
With one of the instructors.
Basic outdoor survival skills for travelers | Ummi Goes Where?
With the rest of the group.

The day was fun-filled and the course was packed with useful knowledge that everyone should know before they go camping. For only RM85, it really gives you bang for your buck.

However, some of the skills — like the knot-tying and identifying edible plants —  I had promptly forgotten almost as soon as the lesson was over. I think the best way for me to remember something is to experience it hands-on. That means I have to go camping, pitch a tent on my own, tie those knots, and really survive on wild plants. Otherwise, the only thing that’s going to stick in my mind is how to make that coconut rice.

How many of these skills do you already know? Did you learn them from young? If you’d like to join this basic outdoor survival course, do follow them on their website or Facebook page to keep yourself informed about their upcoming events.

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    • ummi

      Betul tu Iza. Tak rugi kita menambah ilmu pengetahuan ni. Walaupun kita rasa ilmu tu mungkin tak perlu untuk kita buat masa sekarang, setidak-tidaknya kita boleh turunkan pada orang lain, contohnya anak-anak kita sendiri. Dan siapa tahu, mungkin apa yg kita pelajari tu satu hari nanti boleh menyelamatkan nyawa kita sendiri atau orang lain.

  1. Kak Su

    This reminds me when I was young, I enrolled in a Brownies club where they taught us all the basic surviving skill like tying knots and all and yes, just like you I don’t remember how to todo any of those. Sad isn’t it guess I have to sign up for such courses again

    • ummi

      Oh, you’re so lucky, Kak Su. I wish I had the chance to learn all these when I was young. Instead our parents and education system these days seem to only care about us getting straight A’s. For those like me, we have to create that opportunity ourselves by joining classes like this one. And just like first aid courses, we should keep repeating it every once in a while to make sure that we don’t forget.

    • ummi

      Betul tu, Marshaliza. Pengetahuan ni wajib ada, sama ada kita selalu masuk hutan atau tak. Sebab kita tak tahu bila perkara2 yang tak diingini boleh menimpa kita atau orang lain di sekeliling kita.

  2. Tekkaus

    These are all very important skills that will prove to be useful one day. Being an avid campers when I was younger, reading this post really brings back lots of fond memories.

    • ummi

      That’s right, Tekkaus. These skills are important and will come in handy at some point. I was never an avid camper, so I felt like I was really missing out. Glad that I took this course to educate myself. You’re lucky for having learned this from young.

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  4. Sis Lin

    Kawan ada ajak camping dan jungle tracking, tapi sebab perkara ke semua di atas tu Sis tak mahir dan takut… makanya memang Sis tak berani nak sahut cabaran.. kecuali pergi dengan kelompok yang ramai.. sejenis seriau dengan keadaan panik huhuhu…

    • ummi

      Takpe, sis. Cuba la dulu pergi berkumpulan. Tak pun, cuba sis ambik kursus yang macam ni untuk tingkatkan keyakinan diri. Saya pun masih tak berani lagi masuk hutan kalau tanpa guide.

  5. Kitkat Nelfei

    This is an interesting course, right! Important skills for everyone as a preparation for the worst.. Back in school, we had to go through this but after so many years, i tend to forget those skills now.. maybe it’s time for a refresher 🙂

    • ummi

      That’s right, Kitkat. These are important skills for everyone to learn. Always be prepared for the worst. You’re lucky to have learned them in school. But you’re right — we’ve got to take refresher classes every now and then. I’ve already forgotten how to tie those knots.

    • ummi

      You’re welcome, Jen. I’ve already forgotten some of what I had learned too. I think it’s important for us to repeat the course every few years or so to refresh our memory.

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