Today our society is largely dependent on what we refer to as “the system.” We rely heavily upon the services and utilities that bring us things like water, heating, electricity, and food. Pretty much everything we could ever need or want is provided by a complex network of harvesters, manufacturers, transporters, and sellers. Aside from the handful of people who have basic survival skills, pretty much all of us have forgone learning what it takes to survive in the wild so we can acquire other skills that help us make money and subsist in modern times. Hopefully you’ll never find yourself suddenly lost in the middle of a forest or stranded hundreds of miles from civilization, but should you ever happen to be in such a situation, here are seven essential survival skills you can learn that could save your life.
If you can imagine a world without digital maps or GPS, you might start to get a sense of what our ancestors were dealing with when they had to travel far from their shelters in search of food and other materials. Thomas Wynn, a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Colorado proposes that humans possessed the capacity for modern spatial cognition as early as 500,000 years ago, and it likely played a critical role in navigating the terrain. While we still retain our excellent spatial sense and mental map making ability, these days we’re mostly reliant on navigational aids to direct us whenever unfamiliar terrain is expected.
Knowledge of what wild plants are edible used to be passed down from generation to generation but today it’s largely a forgotten survival skill. However, if you ever find yourself confronted with a situation where you need to rely on unidentified plants or berries as a food source, you could try the “universal edibility test.” It involves the progressive introduction of a given plant to the body in a graduated series of steps. It starts by placing the plant on your skin, the next step is to apply it to an area with an abrasion, then your lips, tongue, and finally ingesting a small amount. Between each step, it’s recommended you wait and assess your body’s reaction to the plant. It should be noted that this test certainly isn’t 100 percent reliable as some plant chemicals, particularly those found in fungus, have a delayed onset reaction that would take much longer to detect than the test allows.
5. Tracking and Hunting
As humans developed greater cognitive ability, we required a fattier, protein-rich diet to support our bigger brains; and to get those proteins, we developed the skill of animal tracking. Harvard researcher Louis Leibenberg suggests that tracking played a pivotal role in human evolution since it involves the same intellectual and creative abilities as mathematics and physics. It’s also thought that humans likely started tracking animals before they began hunting them, since following large predatory animals like lions and hyenas could lead to potential scavenging opportunities. Today, people in hunter gatherer societies are taught from birth to observer the subtle nuances of animal behavior so they can better predict what their prey will do and where it will go when on a hunt.
Capturing or taming an animal is one thing, but butchering one takes a kind of tempered resolve that most people would find hard to muster in this day and age. Even proficient hunters have trouble sometimes knowing exactly how to properly butcher an animal. Still, good butchering is important because if it is not done correctly, you could end up losing good meat, or worse, spreading harmful disease.
3. Food Cultivation
Sadly, with more and more people moving into increasingly dense urban cities, the idea of having a home vegetable garden is becoming less feasible for the average household. But even with available land, growing a vegetable garden isn’t as simple as you might think. Getting a hearty crop of medium to large vegetable requires vigilance and it can take years to figure out what the optimal growing conditions for certain plants are. The good news is there are tons of excellent resources for learning how to grow just about anything you could want. With some studying and a little trial and error you could be a regular green thumb.
2. Carpentry and Woodworking
It doesn’t take a genius to see that knowing how to make basic home repairs is a very useful skill. An understanding of carpentry and woodworking can go a long way when building and maintaining a viable survival shelter, and being knowledgeable about different wood types is indispensable for making tools, weapons, traps, and other survival items.
1. Herbal Medicine
Modern medicine has its roots in herbal medicine. Before there were pharmacies stocked with manufactured drugs, doctors had to make all their own medicines by hand. In addition, just a few generations ago many women learned to formulate herbal remedies from various plants commonly found in the surrounding environment. Although treating patients with herbal medicine is often viewed as old fashioned today, if you’re trying to survive in the wilderness, it could mean the difference between life and death.