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Welcome to Ahwatukeelife Survival Skills

Knowledge of what to do outdoors, can make your activities more enjoyable and can save your life. For tips on what to carry with you, please see the Outdoors page. Remember that the single most important thing you can do in any survival or emergency situation is to slow down and not panic. Take stock of what you have available, keep it clean, dry, and organized so as to be of use when you need it.
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Getting Lost
Food & Water
First Aid

Getting Lost

You should always carry a compass because you never know when you will need one. If your venturing off the path or wandering in an area you have never been to before, make sure you have one in your pack and another in a coat pocket. If you don't have one there are a couple of other ways to get a bearing on where you are.

In the daytime
Find an area that is receiving direct sunlight. Push into the ground a straight stick (about 12-18 inches tall). Make a mark where the tip of the stick's shadow lies on the ground with a stone. Wait anywhere from 15-30 minutes and the shadow will have moved a small amount to one side where you will make another mark at the shadow's tip. Wait 15-30 more minutes and mark the tip of the shadow again. At this point you will have three stones that form a line pointing due east. Add a directional arrow after the last stone to serve as an eastward pointer and draw a bisecting line at a 90 degree angle to the stone line to depict north and south. This will help line up landmarks in the direction you wish to travel.

At night
The North Star (Polaris) is the most well known directional sign in the night sky. The two outer-rim stars of the Big Dipper form an imaginary line that, if you extend it locates Polaris, which is the last star on the handle of the Little Dipper. The extension is approximately five times the length. Polaris represents true north.

The very best maps to use when you are traveling outdoors is a topographic map. These maps have contour lines and will indicate the elevation of the terrain. These maps can be difficult for most people to interpret, so you will want to familiarize yourself with the legends and symbols before venturing out with one. Some standard information:

Blue indicates water
Green represents vegetation (often forests)
Red land grids and important roads
Purple for features that have been updated using aerial photography, but not field verified
Brown lines represent elevation (contours)
Black shows man-made structures like trails, railroads and buildings, other roads, boundaries

Lines - may be straight, curved, solid, dashed, dotted or a combination. The contour lines generally show regular intervals of elevation usually of 20 or 40 feet.
The value of these is that they can indicate the actual "lay" of the land. Tightly bunched lines indicate sharp relief in the terrain, such as a cliff or a steep mountain face. Tight clusters of brown lines on either side of a blue line show where a stream or river cuts through a steep canyon. High elevation lines, evenly spaced and running roughly straight indicate a ridge; it ends where the lines suddenly crowd. A trail that cuts back and forth into a tight cluster of brown lines (switchback trail traversing steep country) will be a slow, hard climb. A mostly straight trail cutting into widely spaced "sergeants stripes" would be an easier valley descent. For more information on topo maps and how to interpret them see our sources section below.

U.S. Geological Survey, Information Services, Dept. SA, Box 25286, Denver, CO 80225
1-800/USA-MAPS or 1-800/HELP-MAP
Topographical Maps


Whether you need shelter for camping or as an emergency in the wilderness, the most important part will be the selection of the site. If you have a tent, even a small slope can mean a night spent sliding downhill. A raised, level section is better than a low area which can collect water, bugs and cold air. Look for overhanging tree limps, rocks or anything that may be brought down on you in a storm. The higher, the dryer is usually the case, so remember to stay back from stream beds or washes as these can quickly become flood zones, even with small amounts of rain miles from your site.
Once you have your location selected, clear it of any tree debris, rocks or stones. Make sure that you keep your tent zipped against mosquitoes, spiders, snakes or other unwelcome visitors. Also remember to check for obvious bear signs, and even if you see none, bear proof as best you can.
If you don't have a tent you will need to build a shelter or find shelter, sometimes in the middle of a sudden storm or oncoming nightfall. There are several ways to approach this and they all depend on your preparedness and your ability to stay calm given the situation. If your vehicle is brook down and you cannot get help immediately, sleep in the car and use a blanket or coat to keep warm. If you are lost and have no tools, you cannot build very much. The best you can do is protect yourself from hypothermia and try to get some needed rest. If you have a tarp, space blanket or large coat, use this to roll up in leaving some airspace at the top, but keeping your head covered, to stay warm. For additional warmth, add layers of natural or artificial insulation (dry leaves, boughs, dirt).

If you have a little bit of time, you may want to construct a small hut made of nothing but available debris. You will want a strong ridgepole with a minimum of wrist-thick trunk which you will angle up on one end. This needs only to be big enough to encase your body. The ribbing will need to be steep enough to help with drainage. Try to setup over a dry spot. Being filling in with sticks or branches in all directions. Over this you will want to build a wall of evergreen boughs, bark, branches or grass. Continue to pile on whatever you can for insulation - leaves, grass, dry dirt, as thick as possible. You will want a minimum of two feet, but four feet or more will keep you warm even with below zero temperatures. Try to cover the roof with a tarp or anything you have, if you do not have anything, use clumps of brush and stones of logs to weight down. Line the inside floor and walls with anything dry you can find. Remember to leave some insulation at the door also to close up at night.

If you are in the open desert and the problem is the sun, again you will want to use anything you can to protect yourself. Try a tarp or space blanket, jacket or shirt. Use a stick to prop up or stack rocks to elevate or anchor.
For brief protection from rain, use a tarp on a log or make a lean-to.
If you are stuck in the snow, you can dig a trench 2 1/2 to 3 feet deep (use whatever you have to with your hands being the last resort). Make it only as long and wide as you need to for your body. Leave a little deeper section at the bottom or foot end of the trench. Line the bottom with dry insulation (boughs, leaves etc.). Cover with a tarp or thatch a roof with natural materials and cover with boughs or snow slabs.

Food & Water

Once you have a shelter, if your are going to be somewhere more than on night, you will need to know how to gather safe drinking water and food. No matter how beautiful the water looks, you can get sick from it, so you need to know how to purify your water.

The is the most traditional method and is excellent if done properly. With "cold" wilderness water the main concern is Giardia, you will need to boil for 5-10 minutes. With warm, cloudy, stagnant or standing water, you will need to boil for the full 10 minute plus before drinking. If necessary strain the water before boiling.

You can use pumps or filters, check with your local vendor for the appropriate one for the regions you travel to as they can all work with different bacteria and viruses. Also popular is tablets for filtering. Tincture of iodine works, make sure no one is allergic to iodine or pregnant before treating with this method. Both the tablets and the iodine work best with water that is not colder that 68 degrees F. Colder water will need to be warmed first. Chlorine products, should be avoided for back-country use.

In the Desert
Daytime temperatures over 100 degrees and every movement and every inch of skin deprives the body of moisture. You risk dehydration (vertigo, nausea, loss of judgment and coordination), heat exhaustion, heat stroke or volume shock. The last two are generally fatal. Carry enough water which is one gallon per person per day. Water weighs 8 pounds per gallon, so there is a limit to how much you can carry. If half your water is gone and your on a day trip - head back. When traveling in a vehicle, carry 3 gallons per person per day. Make sure you minimize sweating, not water intake. So if your thirsty, drink what you have. You cannot overdrink for the moment. Your body will store what it doesn't need. If you are short or run out - find a place in the shade and stay there. Travel in the evening. Don't travel at all if help is on the way. If you stay still and conserve, a single quart of water can keep you alive for up to two days in 120 degree F shade. This includes, no eating except for juice-bearing fruits and succulents; no smoking, no drinking of alcohol, minimal talking, breathing through the nose not the mouth, dressing to minimize sun contact and moisture-loss. Wear long sleeves, long pants, broad-brimmed hat and bandanna for neck protection. Loose, baggy clothes soak up less sweat and create a less evaporative microclimate next to the skin. Do not ever plan on finding drinking water in the desert.


Making sound food choices can be one of the most important parts of surviving in an emergency or survival situation. You will want to maintain your energy and stamina if possible. Generally you are looking for energy foods. All food is simply fuel for your body. Trail food is high-energy food like fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain mixtures. These will help keep you at peak levels of activity, alertness and reaction. They are high in carbs, vitamins, electrolytes and fiber. Low in saturated fats and sugar. Survival food is not generally health food, it is for surviving. It tends to be high in protein and saturated fat, includes carbs, vitamins and fiber. If you are going to be in the wilderness, camping, hiking or even just traveling any distance, pack a few "energy bars" or trail mix with you. The have an excellent mix of nutrients, fiber, electrolytes, protein and fat and make great survival food.

If you do not have any food with you, eventually you will have to forage for your food. This is the least desirable way to obtain your food as you will have to know what and how to find what you need, while expending the least amount of energy looking for it. Insects and bugs can be a good source of nourishment. Grass-hoppers, wood grubs, bees and nearly all aquatic insects are edible. Earthworms, frogs, tadpoles and minnows also. Do cook them first since some can transmit harmful parasites if eaten raw. Boiling, mashing and frying, roasting (on a stick or on a flat rock in fire) make food safer and more palatable. Plants - acorns are edible but must be soaked and boiled repeatedly before eating. Other nuts, beech, hickory, pinon pine, butternut and hazelnut are easy to identify, reasonably palatable and nutritious. Inner tree bark is generally edible, and best in spring. Pine needles of any species can be steeped in hot water to make a tea rich in vitamin C. Fresh shoots of young pine saplings can be eaten raw, but are better if boiled to near transparency. Algae from unpolluted lakes and ponds can be skimmed, boiled and eaten. Knobby berries such as raspberry, blackberry and thimbleberry can be eaten and mixed in to improve flavors of other wild foods but avoid smooth-skinned berries that you cannot identify. Stay away from unfamiliar mushrooms and don't eat any plant unless you can confidently identify it as edible. Prickly Pear - The pulp and fruit (remove the seeds) can be eaten fresh.
Beyond those things just mentioned, the information for this section is too lengthy to cover here, and includes hunting, fishing and foraging and the tools to do so. We will try to cover this with a link to a new page in the next month or so.

Caching Food
No matter what food you have or find, you will need to keep it safe from bears, bees, ants and anything else that likes to eat! If possible, make sure all food is covered in some manner. Make sure everything is put away at all times you are not eating. You can hang food, pack in a container, or stuffsack. Do not store, cook or handle your food near where you will sleep. Make sure it is downwind of you and that you clean up thoroughly after eating.

Fire will warm you, cook for you, purify your water, signal help, ward off insects and help to keep you calm. Everyone should know how to start a fire quickly and efficiently. Choose a good site, out of the wind and on a dry-ground base. If you need to, make a windbreak by piling up some rocks or digging a pit. If the ground is wet or snowy, layer dry sticks of flat rocks to provide a base. Steel wool is excellent as tinder, but you can use fire-starter blocks or cubes that burn when wet or in the wind. Natural tinders include dry conifer needles (undersides of large, low boughs) tiny conifer twigs, gumlike pitch, dry bark flaps and peels, grasses and weed stalks and thin shavings from wood branches. Kindling is basically tinder in larger form. Small dry crackable twigs or split dry branches, nothing much thicker than a pencil. Fuel - larger dry branches and dean tree trunks and thicker branches. Don't bother cutting or breaking fire log size, just feed larger pieces in bit by bit when the fire is larger. Arrange the fire lay: tinder at bottom, kindling loosely teeped over it, fuel over that. In high winds you can use a lower horizontal crosshatched pattern in the same order. Don't suffocate the tinder and kindling by placing to tightly. Leave room for air circulation to feed the flame. Light the fire from the windward side so the match flame is pushed into the heart of the combustibles. Wait until the blaze is roaring then add more and larger fuel.

First Aid

If you are lost or hurt and need rescue, the first thing you will need to do is try to signal for help. Make sure anytime you are going somewhere you let people know where your going and when you expect to return. The first thing you will probably want to do is use your cell phone. For the sake of this section we will assume you either did not bring one or you cannot get a signal. Signals are generally seen or heard by someone. If you are in a situation where visibility is low or hampered by fog, rain, snow, smoke or anything else, you will want to use sound. For hunters in trouble, that signal has always been three gun shots spaced evenly 10-15 seconds apart. The three blasts are also used for whistles, air horn or whatever is available. Always keep a whistle in your vehicle and on your person as they can be used repeatedly and is better than shouting. You can also use rocks or sticks. Visual signals are generally the most common used. Remember to think about the perspective of the potential rescuer. Do not use one fire to signal for help, as anyone passing overhead, may mistake it as a simple campfire. Light three spaced a bit apart and easily viewed.

Making sure your medical kit is appropriately stocked can make your trips more comfortable. The most important painkiller you can carry is acetaminophen, aspirin, ibuprofen or naproxen. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) can be used for pain and fever and is safe for children, but won't help reduce inflammation. Aspirin, is an excellent anti-inflammatory, but cannot be used in children under 16 years of age. Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and naproxen (Aleve) are nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) that are good at relieving pain. Safe to take for many days, with minimal side effects. Naproxen and ibuprofen can irritate the stomach linking and should be taken with food and a full glass of water. Do not use any analgesics in a patient with a suspected head injury, neurological illness or compromised respiration. The most common side effect is constipation, so use of a laxative may be necessary or large quantities of water, coffee, fruit or fiber.


Typical signaling devices have been Morse code, flags and the International Surface-to-Air Emergency ground signals. The Air to Ground signals are in almost all survival manuals, books and pamphlets. Although there are several (18) different codes, you should only need to memorize the following few:

Up and down means "Yes"
Side to side means "No"
Arms outstretched head looking up means "I Need Help"
One hand waving, other hand down at hip means "All ok"
If you use something brightly colored it acts as a flag and is more easily seen.
On the ground you can make a very large V which means "Help"
On the ground you can make an arrow to indicate that you have gone in this direction
On the ground you can create an SOS
For any type of signaling, try to be in the most open area you can find. Make use of the most contrast possible. Use reflective materials if possible (mirrors or anything shiny).