Wilderness survival skills: how to thrive in the bush

By Sim Gibbs 2 April 2014
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To survive anything life throws at you in the bush, keep these basic skills in mind.
  • Survial skills in the wilderness, part I

Survival skills: staying warm and sheltered

Being a well-prepared bushwalker you are already wearing lightweight, long-sleeved, sun-protective clothing. You have a fleece packed, and a raincoat, but could also easily improvise these items from plastic bags, and layers of clothing stuffed with grasses or leaves. Evening will soon approach, and while you have your signal tools hanging from tree branches, an SOS signal set-up, three small triangular fires burning, water transpiration bags on trees, and all the water you could gather from the car, including the windscreen wiping water, you will soon want a shelter.

In constructing your shelter – as in all survival activities – keep an energy output-for-benefit ratio in mind and make smart decisions. Do not build in the heat of the day for example, when physical exertion will mean maximum fluid loss through sweat. Where possible, identify where natural formations such as rock shelters already exist for your use. Conversely, make the effort to construct as good a shelter as possible earlier in your experience rather than later – not only will it keep you more comfortable, but you must allow that you may not sustain your initial energy levels as days and possibly weeks pass.

The urgency of creating warmth will depend on your environment, but in all cases, staying warm is not only physically central, but psychologically important. Increase the benefits of a fire by constructing a heat-reflective shelter with a space blanket or tarp, or by using fire-baked rocks to bury under a sleeping ground-space.

Survival skills: hunt and gather

As you eat the last of your Vegemite sandwiches thinking of the burger roadhouse you passed 250 km ago, you can be comforted by the fact that according to Bob Cooper’s studies, nobody in Australia has ever died from hunger in a survival situation. Bob has been conducting wilderness survival courses since 1980, and to the vast number of outdoor people less ignorant than me, he is Australia’s premier survivalist.

Contrary to popular belief, the body can withstand many weeks without food, as opposed to the days that it may not survive without water. In warmer environments, food should be the last priority on your list of survival concerns. In colder situations however, where the body requires calories to burn for warmth, some food is required to keep the home fires burning.

Ration the food you have available to you, and if possible, avoid dry and dense foods until you have sufficient water to assist with their digestion. When it comes to relying on the wilderness for food, you are left with two approaches; hunting or gathering.

Most methods of hunting, no matter how refined, are likely to require the expenditure of a large amount of energy. Fishing is an exception however, being easy to improvise, with hooks, lures and baits from rubbish, food, and all manner of random objects. It can be practised at different times of the day and night, and can be left to a ‘sleeper line’ while you are busy or resting.

Bob’s course teaches how to gather seeds, roots and other edible plant matter in the bush, as well as how to apply universal poison indicator tests to potential foods. He teaches the poison indicators that apply to plant leaves, roots and seeds, and on our course spent a whole morning walking our group through the scrub of Dwellingup, where in a one kilometre radius he identified and discussed no less than 20 plant varieties to provide all manner of foods, antiseptics, soaps, strings and fluids, passing on many of the skills learnt from his time spent with Indigenous people of Australia and Africa.

Survival skills: travel by the stars

You are feeling confident. You have several water collection methods on the go. Your signalling tripods and messages are loud and clear, the Queen CDs are swinging gaily in the sun. You have added a patio extension to your shelter, and you have such an over-abundance of edible plant seeds that you are considering setting up a market stall. It occurs to you that it may be time to have a look around. The map you are carrying shows the road you are on, and a parallel larger road 20 km due east which is likely to carry more traffic. You are aware that once you are mobile, all of your five concerns (water, signalling, shelter, warmth and food) will require new solutions. Above all, you are conscious of not wanting to lose the direction home to your cosy campsite, or direction at all. Just how rusty is your nav?

There are a number of methods for finding your bearings in the bush, during both the day and night. By far the simplest method is to observe the movement of the sun. At any time of the day, stand a stick or pointed object upright in the ground so that it casts a shadow. Mark the tip of the stick’s shadow with a stone. Wait 10-15 minutes and mark the end of the stick’s shadow at its new position. Now draw a line between the first and second markings to gain an east-west bearing. Estimate a perpendicular line through the east-west line to find your north-south bearing.

After only three days on Bob’s course, in a group of people whose nav skills ranged from good to non-existent, every member of our team was able to travel at 283º within two degrees, using the sun-and-stick-method. We did a similar exercise at night using the stars, with equally satisfying results. By the end of our short course, every student had the skills to comfortably use a map and compass, refer to map grid references, and travel specific distances through dense scrub in complete darkness.

Survival skills: Carry a survival kit

You have packed your bag with all the water you can carry, all the tools you think you will need and have left a detailed note of your intentions with your car. You are about to travel into scrub in the direction of your clearly-marked ground arrow and are excited to finally be doing some bushwalking! You have everything you will need to survive, and you know this, because you are carrying Bob Cooper’s Mark III Mini Survival Kit.

The product of a life of survival expertise, Bob’s latest survival kit is designed to cope with any bush survival situation; in the tropics, desert or even at sea. Every item has been selected with extraordinary care, and Bob himself has lived from the kit alone for weeks in the Pilbara region in Western Australia.

Survival skills: Lessons learned

• Control your emotional responses, and be aware of negativity, fear and despair.
• Think before you act, and act with purpose, even if the purpose is to lift the spirits.
• Carry water everywhere. Drink lots, all the time, and then drink some more.
• Be aware of the tools and resources around you and of how everything – even waste items – can have a multitude of uses.
• The body does not need large amounts of complex foods to be perfectly satisfied.
• If you are going to communicate something important, do it efficiently and with care.
• Do not assume anything of other people orsituations.
• Think creatively in your problem solving.
• Be aware of the provisions of the natural world, and appreciate the sustainability of what can be taken from the earth. Respect your surroundings.
• Keep a positive attitude in all things – it can conquer the seemingly impossible.