A woman with curly hairs holds a pile of firewood with a forest campground behind her.

4 Wilderness Survival Skills You Can Practice in Your Backyard

Be prepared by honing your backyard bushcraft
Spring is in the air, and as the winter months melt into summer many of us are planning outdoor excursions. But before you head into the backcountry, it’s a good idea to step into your backyard to practice a few basic wilderness survival skills. After all, you wouldn’t trek into the woods without breaking in your hiking boots. So why venture into the wilderness without breaking in your survival gear?

Being stuck in a storm miles away from civilization isn’t the time to learn how to build a shelter, use a compass, or start a fire. Whether you’re planning an overnight camping trip with a couple of friends or a monthlong trek on the Appalachian Trail, the time to learn and practice wilderness survival skills is before you go.

So we’ve compiled a list of some of the most important wilderness survival skills that you can practice right in your backyard. Start small, build from there, and you’ll be an old pro in no time.

Just remember that the information is meant to provide you with starter skills—anyone planning a backcountry excursion should pair the tips below with professional wilderness survival training.
A man with a beard crouched in front of a fire blowing on it at an angle.

1. How to start a fire with sticks

Knowing how to start a fire is one of the most important wilderness survival skills, and given that you might find yourself in an emergency situation without matches or a lighter, it’s a good idea to be able to start one without them. So how do you do it?

First, it’s helpful to understand fire basics. There are three main elements to all good fires:

  • Kindling: These are the small pieces of wood and tiny branches that give the starter flame its fuel. Try to find twigs that snap easily when you break them—these burn well. And remember to look for the driest wood possible.
  • Tinder: This is the easily combustible stuff like pine needles or cattail fluff that helps ignite the kindling—leaves, dandelions, wood chips, and dry grass all work great. In a pinch you can use things like cotton balls, gum wrappers, rubber tire shavings, steel wool, or even potato chips.
  • Firewood: These are the larger pieces of wood that keep the fire burning once it’s lit. In your backyard, you can search for pieces of existing wood or purchase some ahead of time for the drill.

To start a fire without matches or a lighter, you’ll also need two other things:

  • Medium-sized stick: This should be made from either a hardwood (oak, birch, maple, hickory) or a dry weed stalk (ragweed, yucca, cattail, thistles, etc.) You’ll want to sand and round one end to make it smooth. (In survivalist terms, this is referred to as the “drill.”)
  • Dry, flat board: This should be a rectangular shape, about 6”x12”, made from a softwood such as pine, cedar, poplar, beech, Douglas fir, or cottonwood. (This is usually called the “fireboard” or “hearth board.”)

Before you start, gather the kindling, tinder, and firewood all together, along with the drill and fireboard.

Starting a fire: the hand drill method

  1. Once you’ve collected everything, create a tepee shape with the firewood on the bottom, the kindling in the middle, and the tinder at the top.
  2. Next to the tepee, place the flat piece of fireboard—this is where you’ll spin the stick to create the smoke.
  3. Carve a small V-shaped notch in the middle of the fireboard.
  4. Place the stick, or “drill,” in the V-shaped notch and spin it between your hands quickly to create fiction and heat. Spin the drill steadily for about 10 to 15 minutes.
  5. When you see smoke start to rise, begin adding dry tinder (leaves, pine needles, etc.) to spark an ember.
  6. Once you have an ember, carefully transfer it from the board to the kindling pile, blowing gently to produce a flame.

Keep in mind that friction fire methods can be difficult and time-consuming. Even hardcore survivalists often struggle to produce a flame—and in wet climates or places where only softwood is available, it can be nearly impossible. That’s why it’s important to be patient and practice at home before you really need it.
 A man in a red shirt squats next to a river splashing water into his mouth.

2. How to find water in the wild

How long can you survive without water? The maximum time frame is about three days, so knowing how to find water in the wilderness is a critical part of backcountry survival. Not only that, you need to be able to collect it and make it drinkable.

When it comes to finding and collecting water, start with the easy natural sources first—rivers, lakes, creeks, ponds, and springs. Use a container to collect what you need and boil it to make it potable. You can also use iodine tablets or water purifiers.

If there aren’t any natural water sources, try gathering rainwater or even collecting morning dew. Do this by hanging a tarp and placing a rock in the middle to create a depression for the water to collect in. If you’re near a field with tall grass, tie a shirt or bandanna around your leg and walk through the field to absorb small amounts of water that you can wring into your mouth.

Another method is plant transpiration, which involves gathering water from the underside of leaves. To use this strategy, wrap a plastic bag around a cluster of leaves. (They can be hanging from a tree branch or connected to a shrub.) Place a small rock in the bag to weigh it down and funnel the water to the bottom of the bag. When enough water has been collected, remove the bag from the leaves and carefully transfer the water to a jar or other container. Just make sure to not use this method with poisonous or toxic leaves.

All of the above methods can be practiced in your backyard or at a nearby park or field. Once you’ve mastered the skill of collecting potable water you will be one step closer to surviving in the wilderness.

3. Wilderness first aid

One of the cornerstones of knowing how to survive in the woods is understanding wilderness first aid. You can opt to make your own kit or buy one that’s already stocked. Some of the basics you might include are:

  • Bandages
  • Gauze
  • Antibiotics
  • Aspirin
  • Ibuprofen
  • Benadryl
  • Antidiarrheals
  • Sunscreen
  • SPF lip balm
  • Alcohol wipes
  • Moleskin
  • Gel pads
  • Iodine tablets
  • Electrolyte mix
  • Tweezers
  • Scissors
  • Non-latex gloves
  • Face masks
  • Multi-tool
  • Duct tape
  • Emergency blanket

Once you’ve got your kit put together, practice your skills in the backyard with a friend. Trade off playing the “victim” in various injury scenarios.

When it’s your turn, begin by identifying the problem. Do a quick head-to-toe check to see if there is anything life-threatening and be sure to communicate with the injured person.

Practice things like bandaging wounds, wrapping limbs, and using splints. Once you’ve mastered your backyard first aid wilderness survival skills, consider enrolling in a first aid class to take your skills to the next level.

*The above information is not intended as comprehensive wilderness first aid instruction. Before administering backcountry first aid, it’s recommended that you seek professional first aid training”

4. How to build a shelter

In addition to knowing how to layer properly and how to stay warm in cold weather, learning how to build a shelter is a vital wilderness skill to keep you warm and dry. It will also give you a place where you can rest and escape the elements.

First, you'll want to survey the terrain to find a place that is flat and protected. Look down to make sure you’re not in a flood area, and look up to be sure there aren’t any dead trees or limbs that might fall in the wind.

Next, insulate the ground using dry leaves, branches, and pine needles to help get your body off the ground. Once you have a base, you can make an A-frame shelter using branches and logs to connect at the peak—this creates an angle for rain or snow to slide off.

Once the frame is in place, add debris such as branches and pine needles to the exterior to provide insulation and additional protection. The thicker the better when it comes to keeping you warm and weather-protected.

Once you’ve learned the basics, try other options and designs until you’re confident about building a suitable shelter.

Master these survival skills and you will be well prepared for wilderness living.

You should also check out our list of camping hacks. While these hacks may not save your life, they will save you time and effort.
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A woman in a pink shirt with a baseball cap climbs up a muddy trail in the woods with a waterfall in the background.