Wilderness Survival Priorities You Need to Know to Stay Safe

sur•viv•al | sərˈvīvəl | noun

The state or fact of continuing to live or exist, typically in spite of an accident, ordeal, or difficult circumstance.

It is unlikely that one will be in a life or death wilderness survival scenario. This unlikelihood does not mean you should not be prepared. Storms, taking the wrong trail, or misjudging how long you will be out in the woods are scenarios that are more probable. Having the know-how of what to do if that situation should arise can make a significant difference. Following a few simple steps and pre-planning is important for being aware of what is needed while in the wilderness.


Pre-planning is one of the most important aspects of a well-rounded emergency plan. Before going into the woods, it is important to outline and assign a few different aspects of the upcoming trip.

1. Identify where you are going and how long you will be gone

This approach seems to be obvious, but thinking about this allows one to pack appropriate equipment and mentally prepare for the adventure ahead.

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2. Pack emergency gear

This does not mean that 20-lbs of survival gear needs to be packed. Having items to start a fire, set a shelter, and boil water can make a dramatic impact in survivability. These items will most likely be incorporated into a normal survival kit.

3. Identify an emergency contact

Find someone with whom you are comfortable and can positively handle a crisis situation. Remember this person is going to be the connection between a lost/stranded and the authorities.

4. Set a plan for emergency contact

Remember this contact is doing you a favor, so do not add more responsibility to them. Explain to them exactly whom to call, when to call, where to look, etc. before leaving.

5. Develop an emergency plan

If one does get caught out in a bad storm or takes the wrong trail that is a bit longer, how is that going to be handled? Is there a cutoff time to turn back? If you are lost, are you going to stay in place until rescue arrives? 

Once these items are taken care of, it is out the door and onto whatever adventure is planned. Say though, that during that adventure something happens? You get lost, injured, or caught in a bad storm, what do you do? What should you do? How are you going to do it? That is where the survival priorities come into play.

Survival priorities are the four main components needed in order to maintain health and life. No matter what the situation, these priorities should be followed in order to stay alive.

These survival priorities include:

1. Fire
2. shelter
3. water
4. food

The order of these priorities will vary depending on the situation, but if you understand how to utilize the priorities themselves then the rest is easy.

1. Fire

Fire is a lifeline. It has the ability to keep us warm, dry our clothing, boil and disinfect our water, keep wildlife away, and even cook our food. In many circumstances starting a campfire is going to give you a dramatic positive mental boost to keep going.

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2. Shelter

A shelter is what protects people from the environment around us. A shelter starts with clothing. Many individuals overlook this as a resource that can be controlled before leaving the house. As a good rule, always dress in layers and dress in enough appropriate clothing for the weather conditions. For example, taking a hike in Virginia on the AT during fall is going to yield temperatures between 60 and 30 degrees. Clothing should be able to keep people comfortable throughout that entire temperature range. Underdressing is always a bad choice. Remember it is an option to remove clothes to cool down but clothes cannot be added if they are not available


3. Water

Water is one of the most important human needs. Hydration plays a dramatic role in physical and mental performance. Without water, mental capacity diminishes and major bodily functions begin to suffer. Water is a necessity within the first 24 hours of any situation. Ideally, it is preferred to boil the water as it will kill all bacteria and make it safe to drink. Warm water can also help warm the body in a cold environment. Having the task of boiling and drinking will help keep the mind occupied until rescue occurs.

4. Food

Who does not love to eat?! It is unlikely that too many people go through their week and not look forward to a meal. Unfortunately, food ranks quite low on the list of survival priorities. Yes, people need to eat to give our body the fuel it needs to function; however, people can survive an extended amount of time without food. It might not be enjoyable but in a situation in which someone is lost and waiting for rescue, food can be the last thought.

These survival priorities can shift and it is almost impossible to predict what is going to take precedence in your situation. What can be assured though is that these priorities are going to need to happen in order to stay safe.

About the Author


Coal Cracker bushcraft
Dan Wowak, Owner and Instructor, of Coalcracker Bushcraft and the Appalachian Bushman School, has been an avid outdoorsman since childhood. His love and passion for the outdoors began while fishing and hiking with his grandfather in the hills of Appalachia. Over the years, he continued pursuing his love for the outdoors through backpacking, camping, hunting, and trapping. As time went on, Dan’s enthusiasm for the outdoors compounded with his drive for reaching his physical and mental limits.

The collision of these two passions launched him into the unforgiving, highly dynamic world of survival and bushcraft. He spent years honing this craft and was driven to inspire individuals to pursue a love of wilderness skills. Dan has been formally teaching and sharing knowledge of survival and wilderness living for several years. Most recently Dan has had the opportunity to put his lifetime of knowledge and foundational survival approach to the test on History Channel’s Alone Television Series.