Wilderness Survival Handbook: Primitive Skills for Short-Term Survival and Long-Term Comfort

Wilderness Survival Handbook: Primitive Skills for Short-Term Survival and Long-Term Comfort

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by Michael Pewtherer

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Part 1 of the Wilderness Survival Handbook arms you with the know-how to survive a week or more of accidental exposure-for example, as a lost hiker or stranded motorist-in any backcountry terrain or season and with minimal or no gear and provisions. Part 2 shows you how to travel, retreat, or reside in the wilderness for weeks or even months at a time, comfortably


Part 1 of the Wilderness Survival Handbook arms you with the know-how to survive a week or more of accidental exposure-for example, as a lost hiker or stranded motorist-in any backcountry terrain or season and with minimal or no gear and provisions. Part 2 shows you how to travel, retreat, or reside in the wilderness for weeks or even months at a time, comfortably and without loads of gear, using such skills and techniques as preserving fire, building hidden shelters, toolmaking, stone boiling, and trapping and hunting animals with handmade tools and weapons.

If you'd like to attain true wilderness mastery, thriving by your wits rather than by what you can buy from the shelves of an outdoor store, this is your book.

Pack a useful survival kit

Use a signal mirror

Create a shelter from snow, fiber, or debris

Stay hydrated using unconventional methods

Avoid common navigational pitfalls

Make and use natural lamps

Create simple tools that can save your life

Prevent or treat common injuries

Navigate with or without a compass

Prepare nutritional teas

Catch a fish with your bare hands

Hunt with handmade weapons

Go unseen with natural camouflage

Tan hides for buckskin

Fashion bark canteens

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McGraw-Hill Professional Publishing
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7.40(w) x 9.14(h) x 0.73(d)

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Copyright © 2010 Michael Pewtherer
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-07-174304-4

Chapter One


Camping equipment, cookstoves, tents, sleeping bags, and the like are not addressed in this book because, well, then it would be a book on camping. If you practice surviving only with a tent, a sleeping bag, and all of your other camping amenities, then you will suffer if you find yourself without one or more of these items. If you prepare for the worst, then anything short of that is a bonus. Clothing, however, is covered, because most people don't leave home without it, and if you are putting together a survival kit for your car, boat, plane, pack, or home or are venturing into areas in which any of the aforementioned survival situations is a possibility, then dressing appropriately is a wise move. Whether I'm in an arctic or a desert environment, with a car or on foot, I make sure that I have clothing, including footwear, that is sufficient for dealing with local weather should the need arise.


Different climates and weather conditions call for a great variety of clothing. It is to this end that I strongly recommend that you pack for any excursion, short or long, with the most severe weather the region can offer in mind. It may be warm now, but what will the temperature drop to at 2:00 or 3:00 A.M.? Or at seven thousand feet? Do you have enough clothing to change into if you become soaked? Are you prepared for any eventuality? Keep these questions in mind as you prepare for a trip.

For colder weather, this includes an outer shell that effectively blocks the wind and repels the rain and an inner layer (or layers) that creates plenty of dead air space that can be heated effectively by your body. In cool weather, just the outer shell may be all that is required, but as the temperature drops, more of the insulating layer is called for in order to slow the heat exchange with the outside air.

In warmer areas, the outer shell is called for, but this time it is to protect your skin from the sun. The insulating layer used in cold-weather garments will provide no benefit here, because the goal is to promote heat exchange. Thus, loose-fitting outerwear is the name of the game. In excessively hot and humid climates, forgoing underwear is sometimes a good idea, as jock itch and heat rash can become issues.

I have been surprised, when spending extended periods of time in hot climates, at how quickly my body has adjusted to the high temperatures. While living in Australia's western deserts, I seldom wore short pants and instead preferred to go in jeans, a long-sleeve, button-front shirt, and a wide-brimmed hat unless the thermometer hit 52°C (125°F) in the shade; then shorts were nice and water was necessary.

The clothing options available for today's outdoor enthusiasts easily outstrip those of the past, so I'll touch on some basic rules and describe how to improve inadequate clothing if that is all you have.

A common expression in outdoor apparel is "cotton kills." Why? Because cotton loses its insulating qualities when it is wet and holds moisture next to your skin. Water pulls heat from your body twenty times faster than air, so between that and cooling through evaporation, it should be clear that cotton is only a fair-weather friend. Wool, on the other hand, retains heat when it is wet, and while this may be uncomfortable, it is certainly preferably to developing hypothermia.


There are places on this fine planet of ours where shelter is not to be had, the ground is too hard to dig into, there is little or no vegetation, and no loose stone is available with which to create even a simple windbreak. The likelihood of getting stranded with nothing in such a place is nonexistent for the bulk of the population, and I cannot imagine the scenario that would place anyone in it. Adventure racers regularly traverse extreme terrain with little in the way of supplies, but most are carefully watched and teams are closely scrutinized before being allowed to participate. While accidents do happen out in the field, others happen in the planning stage—inadequate clothing, poor route planning, or no emergency plan. Clothing is easy to carry and can offer protection when the environment cannot. Keep clothing clean for better insulation and to avoid odors when you are hunting. Many thinner layers are preferable to a few thick ones. Even in subzero weather, a moderate amount of activity can get a person sweating. This causes the clothing to become moist (even with a wicking layer next to the skin, the moisture will freeze in your clothes before it makes it to the outside) and often results in dangerous cooling of the body. The key to maintaining the viability of the insulation provided by your clothing is to keep it clean and dry. Therefore, as you increase your aerobic activity, take off layers to prevent overheating and excessive perspiration. Mountaineering suits come with plenty of closable vents but sport a pretty high price tag, and for rigorous activities like building snow shelters or snowshoeing, the vents of these suits are often inadequate.

Covering Your Body

For cooler climates, I wear one to three pairs of thin wool or polypropylene (poly-pro) long underwear with a couple of fleeces—either wool or synthetic—over them. A jacket and/or a wind-breaker up top and snow or ski pants below leave me well prepared for anything from about 75°F down to -40°F. Large boots that allow for at least two pairs of wool socks to be worn at a time keep feet warm and blister free. Mors Kochanski (see the Appendix) recommends wearing three pairs of thick wool socks inside boots. Coats with a tie at the hem and at kidney level (like the U.S. Army coats) can make a great difference in maintaining warmth, because they prevent cold air from coming in and hot air from going out as movement creates a bellows effect inside your coat. As you heat up due to activity, you can doff layers until you are able to maintain a comfortable working temperature. Remember to start putting layers back on once you cease your activity, because cooling happens fast and can cause you to become chilled.

In desert climates, I found that once I was acclimatized, wearing boxers, long pants, loose, button-front shirts, socks, and cowboy boots as well as a wide- brimmed hat kept me the most comfortable while doing moderate work, even as the temperature rose past 110°F and into the 120s. The long pants protected my legs from the prickly desert foliage, and the boots made me feel better about snake strikes. (The trade-offs with cowboy boots are the lack of tread on the sole and lousy ankle support.) Exposure to the sun is an important consideration, because sunburn can be debilitating and cause sickness or even death. Evaporation of moisture from your skin also must be taken seriously. I can remember sweating with no moisture perceivable on my skin—just the slow growth of salt crystals on my cheeks and in my eyebrows. A pair of jeans just out of the wash dried completely in less than fifteen minutes—a third of what it takes in a dryer! The point is: don't strip down and expose your skin directly to the sun if you want to cool off.

Head and Hands

We use our head and hands for everything, not only in survival, but in day-to- day living as well. Hats are vital in most cases, whether they protect us from the sun or the cold. In high heat, a wide-brimmed hat with a crown is advisable, although baseball-type hats with tails in the back can provide adequate protection. To improvise, use a handkerchief or other cloth draped over your neck and hold it in place with a cap.

In colder climates, a snug hat that covers your head, neck, and ears is advisable, and hoods can be of tremendous value especially if they are deep, because they provide shelter from all but a direct head wind. Additionally, hoods greatly reduce the heat that is lost through the collar of your coat.

Mittens are the way to go in cold climates. I use a pair with a fleece insert and a pad for wiping my nose on the thumb ... a great perk. Mittens keep all of your fingers (except the thumb) in the same compartment, making it easier to keep your digits warm. The trade-off is a loss of dexterity unless you remove the mittens, which, depending on the task at hand, could be no big deal or something that must be done between hand-warming sessions. Wool or synthetics are good options, because they will keep your hands warm even when they are wet. I like to have a spare set of liners at the least but prefer to carry two pairs of mittens if I can.

If you plan a trip or think that you might, get the clothing you want and try it out. Note what works and what does not, and make the appropriate corrections. The knowledge that you gain in practice can save you trouble down the road. Just because a clothing item is "rated to -60°F" or "waterproof" does not mean that you should take the manufacturer's word for it. Test it out!


Determining what footwear works for you is an individual process, because some people have easily warmed or cooled feet, dry or sweaty feet, and a number of other individual characteristics. Women tend to hold their heat in their torso and often suffer from cold feet, thus spurring the production of sleeping bags with extra insulation at the feet for women. In really cold climates, I'll wear two pairs of wool socks inside my insulated boots, making sure that my feet are not too cramped (thus reducing circulation and making it impossible to keep my feet warm). If I have a pair of new leather boots, I'll wear them in water (or in the shower) in the morning and walk them dry. After such treatment, I never suffer blisters or any discomfort, because the softened leather stretches and conforms to my foot. From then on, I'll treat them with oil to keep the leather supple and waterproof. New synthetic boots should be worn and broken in prior to any trip. I cannot count the times I have seen hikers with debilitating blisters due to new boots. In a survival situation, blisters can herald a death sentence ... if you can't move, you can't support yourself, and if the blisters become infected, then the clock is really ticking.


Survival and first-aid kits can be purchased almost anywhere from gas stations to Internet sites that specialize in the emergency preparedness market. They are available in all colors and sizes and contain everything from Band-Aids to blimp puncture kits. However, with all of the options, you would be hard pressed to find the kit that fully meets your precise needs. Often the store-bought kits sit in some corner of the car or rattle around under a seat with the owner unaware of the contents, which is why it is a good idea to build your own. I do not recommend starting with a store-bought kit and building on it. I once purchased an emergency kit for my wife's car when we lived in Montana; the quality of the gear in the crappy bag was utter junk. The flashlight was fragile and broke when it was dropped, the tow strap was never intended to pull a kid in a wagon let alone a vehicle, and the tools were molded in what can only have been a sand mold. If you start from scratch, you can choose the quality of the items included and will not be disappointed when you need them. You also will become very familiar with the contents and will know immediately what is needed and where it is when an emergency situation arises.

There are so many little items you can take with you on a hike that will provide a backup for just about any system you are likely to have with you. Fire starters abound in camping stores, water-treatment options grow with new filtration systems showing up all the time, shelter options with space-age materials are folding up smaller than ever before (although my money says that you can't get them back to the size they were when you purchased them), and high-energy foods are being condensed into ever smaller, multimeal bricks. So which ones do you take with you and which ones do you leave behind?

I keep my kits quite simple, and, depending on the trip, I may add or remove something. Consider all of the following items, then personalize the kit to fit your needs and your environment. After each trip, remember to replace items that you have used or that get worn out.

A good survival kit should include:

• First-aid kit

• A sheath knife with a full tang. This is the heaviest item, but the thick, full tang on my knife is shaped like the handle, and even if the wood rotted off, I would still have a completely functional knife.

• A lighter with an adjustable flame and with glued to the outside of the lid. The striker gets worn and needs to be replaced or carefully packed to avoid wear.

• A metal match is good to have as a standby. Also known as a Swedish FireSteel, it is a rod composed of ferrocerium, iron, and magnesium and is scraped to produce very hot showers of sparks.

• A film canister with four petroleum-jelly-impregnated cotton balls. I really knead the jelly into the cotton, which means that these take up more space. If you want more fire starters, do not add as much jelly and you will be able to squeeze a few more of them into the container. I have inserted these balls into a prebuilt tipi fire, after burning for eight minutes, and they still had enough flame to get the fire going with no fussing. They catch easily and are a godsend in cold, wet, dire situations. See Chapter 4 for basic fire-making techniques.

• A Mini Maglite flashlight with the spare bulb in the end cap is worth getting. I have left mine out in the woods for more than a year, and it still worked when I picked it up. I have also used it under water with no leakage.

• Spare batteries labeled with the date they were added to the kit. In truth, every time I go on a trip, I replace them, or, failing that, I change them out every three months and use them around the house.

• One-gallon Ziploc bags—great for holding water.

• A Space Blanket. I used a bag version of one of these when I was camping in the Rockies on the Canadian border one February. It was wickedly cold (around -30°F), and my sleeping bag was not doing the trick. The Space Bag worked, although the noise was pretty impressive, and the condensation that collected on the inside and consequently wet the outside of my sleeping bag was a little concerning. I did sleep that night, so even though I could not get that silver devil back into its container, I was happy to have thrown it in my bag. The blanket poses a challenge when you try to keep it on top of yourself. Placing pebbles in the corners with the material bunched around each corner and tying it with cord works well as a way to anchor the blanket. Beware of sharp rocks, because they will tear the material.

• Parachute cord—the real stuff with a core use made up of multiple smaller strings. These smaller, inner cords can be pulled out and used individually for tasks that do not require the strength of the full cord.

• A signal mirror. This takes a little practice to use (see the sidebar) but can be visible from miles away, so try it out where you will not alarm or irritate anyone.

• A candy bar or Power Bar. I prefer the Three Musketeers bar over the Power Bar, because I can actually bite through the candy, while the Power Bar provides a challenge. Kidding aside, the Power Bar has more substance and has a longer shelf life, but the candy provides quick energy and tastes good, too. Carry at least two Power Bars with you.

• A wallet magnifying glass. This cheap, lightweight little guy is easy to carry and provides yet another way in which you can get a fire started. With a prebuilt fire and a tinder bundle ready to go, place the lens between the sun and the tinder. Move the lens from a few feet away ever nearer to the tinder, and watch the area of brighter light coalesce and form a small pinprick of brilliant white light (do not look directly at the light spot; it can damage your eyes). Hold the lens in place, and watch the smoke curl up from the tinder. With practice or observation, you will learn when the tinder is smoldering and can be blown into flame.

• A large garbage bag. Good for collecting rainwater, wearing as a poncho, or keeping a treated wound dry, among other uses.

• Tweezers

• Bandanna

• Tourniquet

• Compass

• Topographical maps

• Cell phone

• Emergency transponder

• Sewing kit


Excerpted from WILDERNESS SURVIVAL HANDBOOK by MICHAEL PEWTHERER Copyright © 2010 by Michael Pewtherer. Excerpted by permission of McGraw-Hill. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Mike Pewtherer has been practicing and teaching wilderness living and survival skills for over 15 years. Coauthor of Wilderness Survival: Living Off the Land with the Clothes on Your Back and the Knife on Your Belt, he is founder of Woodland Ways, a company teaching wilderness survival, rites of passage, and living skills to youth and adults. He has taught in venues ranging from private high schools to conferences. Mike also teaches blacksmithing, tracking, woodwork, and ceramics. Mike has traveled widely and studied with native tribes in North America, Fiji, and Australia, and has acquired and practiced survival skills in military settings as a combat engineer, in Australia's Outback, and with various wilderness instructors across North America. He has also worked with the National Parks Service on the Wilderness Rescue Squad in numerous back-country settings, assisted on black bear studies, and worked as a hunter of feral hogs in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

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Wilderness Survival Handbook 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 14 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I did a wilderness test for my black belt andby reading this i passed with flying colors! I was alone out in the wilderness(big bear,california) for a week!a week! And not only did i survive, i was healthy and was full, comfortable, and relaxed. I didnt need to be stress about everything. It helped me be organized about what i was doing.i recomend greatly!!!
Nkosi More than 1 year ago
The guy knows his stuff. Clear reading. Useful for campers and outdoor lovers who are "out there" for extended times.
Karen Dambach More than 1 year ago
very interesting worth buying precautionary there were many things I
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