Survival School 101: The 27 Most Crucial Survival Skills (and they will surprise you)

The aim of Holistic Survival School (HoSS) is to find the middle ground between the very different worlds of “Survival” and “Holistic Health”. On one end of the spectrum is the yang, masculine, direct, survival, military, “me-vs.'-nature”, skills-based, challenge oriented side of things. On the other side of the spectrum is the yin, feminine, community oriented, song-singing, gratitude based, meditation world.

Both sides are amazing and are very much needed in our world, but most schools usually only offer one end of the spectrum. Often times, schools are run by former military folk where connection and community isn’t mentioned, OR you are a hippie school and there is no edge-pushing and challenge.

HoSS classes change that paradigm and strive for balance of both worlds. We want to encourage you to push your edges, while holding space for what you are feeling inside. We want to give thanks to all our non-human relatives and also learn the skills that will keep us alive in a survival situation.

In this spirit of embodying both sides of the same coin we present the 27 most important “hard” and “soft” survival skills to learn. All of these skills are at the core of our teachings at HoSS and can be learned in our 9-month adult wilderness immersion program, Deep Remembering.

I am proud about this list because like in true Holistic Survival School fashion, they skills are extremely applicable in both survival situations and in everyday life!

1. Follow the Tao - The Tao (from Taoism, meaning “the way”) is the unifying source, principle, and pattern that creates and consists of all things. Basically it is the sum of everything inside and outside of us. Awareness (see number 2) is the entry way for understanding the Tao. The more we gain awareness of ourselves, our surroundings and the natural way of things, the more we can begin to catch small glimpses of the Tao or how the universe is unfolding. In turn, that understanding of the tao allows us to to flow within it all instead of fighting the tides. One true life example:

While working in wilderness therapy I witnessed a student trying to use two types of wood for two different purposes. One bendy and flexible piece of wood was needed to create an external frame backpack, while another type was needed for keeping the fire going. The new student, with their lack of awareness of the bio-region and local woods, tried to bend the dry, rigid stick (which did not work) and tried to burn the wet, flexible stick (which also didn’t work).

The student sadly, was not able to read the tao of the woods and the moment. From an outside perspective it’s very easy to see that a slight change in their understanding and awareness would create much more ease in that person’s situation.

Survival is nothing but listening and following the tao. Survival is the opportunity to hear what the universe is saying/giving us, and respond with good action in order to help us live within the flow of it all.

2. Awareness - Awareness can be defined as intentionally paying attention in the present moment, without judgement. As mentioned above, awareness is the entry way to understanding ourselves and our world. It is square one for self development and survival. If you aren’t paying attention you don’t even know what needs to change or what is working.

Awareness sounds simple enough but because of our often busy and hectic lives, our senses (the operating system for our awareness) are often over-stimulated and dulled because of it. In other words, our brains cannot interpret the mass amounts of sounds, smells, and overwhelming noises that are happening to us almost daily. Therefore, when we finally get into the woods and slow down, our brains are still playing catch-up.

Luckily there are many fun, easy ways and games to help us pay attention. One of my personal favorites that I use during classes is called Kim’s game. During class time, I unexpectedly tell students to close their eyes. “Pay attention. What do you feel?” I ask. “What do you notice?” “With your eyes still closed, point to the moon.” “Where is the nearest source of water?” ‘‘What type of tree is closest to you?” On and on these questions go, and the goal is not to answer all of them perfectly, the point of the game is to notice what you notice. Where are your blind spots? What do you more often notice? After that first round of the game, I see students pay more attention to their surroundings much more often.

3. Fire - Fire is the ultimate equalizer. Our hominid ancestors were using fire some 5 million years ago. For us as a species fire is our safety, warmth, community, food, power, vision, ancestry and so much more. We as a species evolved out of the African savannah and we still prefer those type of climates where the temperature never gets below freezing. Fire is the biggest reason why we as a species were able to leave our African Savannah behind with very few hairs on our bodies.

Beyond warmth, fire also cooks our food, sanitizes our water, helps us see into darkness, and keeps away predators (less of problem now than it was 10,000 years ago).

woman making fire survival smoke

Fire is an essential skill to learn no matter who you are and where you live. It is literally one of the defining characteristics of being human! Learning how to make fire with a lighter, sticks from your landscape, or any other means is extremely important for our survival.

Beyond survival, I believe there is medicine in creating fire and sitting by a fire. Something deep within our bones is always happy to sit by a fire (who doesn’t walk toward a bonfire when they see one in the distance?). We are meant to live with fire. Why else would we invite something so dangerous into our homes?

4. Gratitude - Our brains are shaped by hundreds of millions of years of evolution and because of those infinite trial runs, our brains possess the “negativity bias”. The negativity bias the proven fact that our minds remember bad things waaay more than we remember the “good things”. Basically, our memories are velcro for shitty experiences, because that helped our ancestors survive for millions of years. If left unchecked, our brains will focus and obsess over ONLY THE BAD. In order to live a life more in balance, we can learn how to flex the other muscle. We can flex and exercise this muscle by practicing, gratitude.

Gratitude, or speaking what we are grateful for helps us realize how much we do have, as opposed to seeing all that we don’t have. When we can do that we literally re-shape our brains and we can then live in a world that feels much more abundant and safe!

5. Cutting tool - Humans are special in the fact that we have evolved to not need (very) sharp teeth or sharp claws. Most all animals in the world have a sharp(-ish) cutting tool on their body somewhere. How did we as a species evolve to not even be able to cut our own food? Well the neat thing is that the natural world provides us with incredibly sharp rocks, generally grouped together and called flint. Flint is naturally occurring rock that is mostly made up of silica dioxide and breaks incredibly sharp (obsidian can be 100X sharper than surgical steel). Humans and our human ancestors learned how to break flint (and work other material like bone and wood) and our hands evolved to make tools to help us do the work our bodies used to do.

Look at your hands. They are literally shaped that way to hold tools and make sharp things! Your body is meant to make sharp things from the natural world, without that knowledge or ability you are an animal that is severely lacking in it’s survival abilities.

flint knapping hands stone

Sharp edges are really important for many outdoor tasks; cutting rope or cordage, to skinning animals, to harvesting plants, to killing animals, to making other tools, a cutting edge is extremely important for survival and everyday life!

6. Community/ connection - We as a species are not meant “to do it alone”. Rambo is bullshit. To try survive alone was and still is a very dangerous thing. Evolutionarily (seeing a trend with survival and evolution) we have been in small groups of close-ish relatives for millions of years and our success as a species is highly dependent on our ability to work together. We cannot do it alone! Read that again. WE CANNOT DO IT ALONE. This advice is so powerful for survival on a physical and emotional/social/ everyday level.

To better understand this concept imagine watching a single, lone ant try and build an ant nest and survive. The ant might work his ass off and try as hard as he could but it would never be enough. You might watch this ant and think to yourself, “buddy, it ain’t in the cards for you to do it alone! Go back to your family!” The same goes for us. We are just as dependent on others as the ant is to his colony.

happy students wilderness woods program

7. Adaptation - Humans are so successful because of our ability to adapt to nearly every environment on this planet. Adaptation (used here in a non-genetic way) is a crucial ingredient in survival. For success in survival (and life) we can first identify a problem, figure out the essence of the problem (awareness, following the dao) and then adapt, make a change. Life and survival is really that easy. Observe, understand, adapt, overcome.

8. “Embrace the suck” - This is a phrase my good buddy, Bear, uses to remind us of the joy that can come from embracing and overcoming challenging situations. Fear of challenge, not the challenge itself, is usually the thing that causes pain and suffering. Once we move into the “suck” we realize that it’s not as bad as we thought it might be. Furthermore, as we move into the pain, it quickly lessens.

Survival is not comfortable and there is usually plenty of suck to go around. If there isn’t, well then we aren’t learning much. Therefore, if we can learn to “embrace the suck”, we lean into pain and discomfort but eventually reap the benefits of doing so.

9. Shelter / Cover - Our greatest “Super power” as a species is our ability to get rid of extra heat in our bodies. That’s why we don’t have fur on us, that’s why we have the ability to run marathons in extreme heat (99.9% of animals cannot do this).

But with this great ability comes a great cost. We are very bad at staying warm. As far as animals go we have a very small range of temperatures that we can live in without the help of clothes, hides and shelters.

Knowing how to make a quick shelter in order to keep things out (wind, rain, snow, etc.) or keep things in (warmth, radiation) is a deeply human thing and can provide comfort and life in survival situations.

woman sleeping in natural shelter

10. Reason for living (Purpose) - In Viktor Frankel’s book, “Man’s search for Meaning”, he writes about his survival story and perspective during his time in a concentration camp during the Holocaust. One of the many perspectives that he noted was that people only survived the most horrible conditions if they had a reason to live. Some refused death because they had a greater vision of why the suffering was enduring, while others didn’t have a reason to go on, so they didn’t fight to live.

This is true for us in everyday life as well. . When life is good and easy we don’t need much more encouragement to continue. But when life is hard and things start going poorly, it can be hard to continue and find meaning in the suffering. That is why if we get to know ourselves, and know what makes us feel the most alive, and what our strengths and gifts are, we can dedicated ourselves and our lives to something greater, which will give us purpose, direction and reason to live and endure suffering when it inevitably comes.

So once again, we see a survival tactic that helps us and is extremely applicable to everyday life.

11. Stories - Our brains are designed for story, for myth, for metaphor. we are the only species that can tell stories in the depth that we can. This ability to tell and understand stories can be our greatest or worst attribute, depending on what story we tell. For example, Hitler told lots of stories and many people believed them and did some of the most horrible things because of them.

Alternatively, people like Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King told stories of hope, love and unity and inspired folks around the world to do loving things.

These are extreme examples of how subtle, often conscious stories influence our lives and actions. These stories make up our belief systems. Stories like “good people don’t ask for help” or “I believe everyone is trying their best” can greatly influence us!

When it comes to survival in the physical realm our stories are important to examine! If one of your stories is that you are weak and cannot overcome hard things, then that will come true! If your story is you are capable and in balance with nature then that will come true as well!

This examination of our stories and sometimes, re-writing our stories is extremely important for survival but also for our daily living.

12. Tell someone where you are going! - It’s not the sexiest advice but almost every modern day survival situation could be avoided if you told someone where you are going and when you plan on being back. That way if anything goes wrong (like it did with that woman hiking in Hawaii) someone will know where to send help. Our search and rescue teams are good at their jobs and will find you if they know where to look.

13. Cordage -Ancient duct tape! Before we had adhesives we had strong plant and animal fibers to attach things together. While bringing your own cordage or rope into the wild is easy to do, it’s even more important to know how to make your own just in case! A reverse wrap twist is very easy to learn and can help you in a million ways in the wilderness.

14. Slowing down - Our modern world values getting lots of stuff done. We are constantly bombarded with messages that we need to do more, have more fun, connect with more people, never miss a party, and be successful financially, while still enjoying our own hobbies. Because of those messages we can often be sped up, drinking our coffee and trying to do all things in one hour.

The same principle can be found in survival situations. We are stranded, distressed, cold maybe hungry and we want to fix all of the problems NOW! So we speed around the woods trying to accomplish all the tasks but never finishing one.

Slowing down is the first step. Take a big breath (see #27) and sloooooowww doooown. This will give your adrenal system a break and will allow you to fully focus on one thing and then you have a better chance of actually doing it well.

Life and survival is simple. Slow down, focus on one problem, fix it, move on to the next.

15.Physical fitness - I want to be very careful here; I know there are a lot of factors that may cause people to have a hard time attaining physical fitness. This is not shaming those people. This is rather a reminder that our physical bodies are so important to take care of and they are one of our daily connections to the here and now.

I personally have found so much joy and pleasure in learning how to push my body and myself physically. It is important that we work with both sides of the dynamic, one side of physical challenge and pushing ourselves without fierce judgement, and the other of accepting where we are at and taking good care of our bodies without having a “victim” mindset and not pushing ourselves.

Having good physical fitness (which can look different for different body types) is essential in survival situations and in life.

16. Self-soothing (follow your pleasure) - Following your pleasure? In a survival situation?!

Yeah! Like in life, listening and following your bodies desires (pleasure) is really just your body telling you what is best for you from an evolutionary standpoint. Now obviously not all the creature comforts would be available in a survival situation but that shouldn’t stop you from following your pleasure.

For example, when I have been surviving off the land for weeks at a time (check out my Naked and Afraid experiences for reference) I really want to feel comfort, and I would find ways to get that even when I was living with nothing. I would take naps in the shade, swim when it got hot and found just the right tree stump to sit on and relax. If you’re not feeling like comfort is accessible, then make it happen! Do something and move toward that pleasure!

17. Mindfulness - Mindfulness is nothing more than paying attention. We like to think of survival situations in terms of big disasters like a bear attacking you but MUCH more often than not, bad situations arise or get worse because of a simple lack of paying attention.

“Where did I leave my lighter?” “What trail were we on again?” Little things like this can add up very quickly and put you in a much worse scenario. Same goes in life; pay attention and you’ll be able to avoid lots of bad things

man with beard meditating

18. Knowing your patterns - “How you do one thing is how you do all things” is a mantra I repeat a lot to my students to help them become aware of their patterns. Knowing what you do when things go wrong is a great way for you to get through hardships easier. The main 5 patterns that I teach and have studied are:

  1. Leaving Pattern - leaving the situation physically and sometimes emotionally/mentally.

  2. Merging Pattern - Losing your center and appeasing by looking to someone else

  3. Enduring Pattern - “Waiting it out” digging into our stubbornness and refusing to be affected or budged.

  4. Aggressive Pattern - Taking control of the situation, often by intense means

  5. Rigid Pattern - Looking to rules and black and white thinking to make sense of it all.

    Do one of these sound like you? Wanna learn more about your patterns? Luke is trained in Holistic Counseling and has been helping people do their “inner tracking” for years. You can schedule an appointment with him here

19. Stories of Nature - What do you believe nature is, is your reality. If you believe nature is a harsh and horrible and does nothing but want to kill you then you will find that when you are outside. In contrast, if you believe that nature is sweet and you are part of it and everything is going to be ok then that is what you will find as well.

Both of these stories can be true and the stories themselves aren’t the point I am illustrating. The point is tell stories about nature that are useful to you in your life.

20. Joy / Humor - Humor is such a powerful tool in survival situations. From my experience, humor is a way for us to accept things that are hard to accept. If we can laugh about it then we can move past it. Laughing about the situation or how hungry we are is sometimes the only thing we can do. So laugh about your hardships and maybe they might not feel so horrible.

21. Dirt time” - Experience & Failing - Many people come and take a class from HoSS and then “check it off their list”, and they never do the skill again. I often see people make 1 friction fire and then think they “got it”, only to find that if one small variable changes, they cannot make fire with sticks again. Or perhaps a student takes one tree ID class and then feels critical of themselves if they can’t remember a tree later on.

I am always reminding people that we need to practice over and over again. Our relationship with the land and with specific skills is like a human relationship, if we only interact with a person once every 6 months, it’s probably not going to be a strong relationship.

In order to gain experience we need to fail, that is the only way to learn. We need to put ourselves in positions to fail over and over and then we can learn and gain insights for our next experience.

22. Gear - While I am against the “gadgets over knowledge” mindset, it is still important to know what gear works well for what you are trying to do. This brings us back to experience and failing (see above), we need to try some gear in the field, have it fail, and then revamp our stuff. This is where online reviews can be really helpful.

Gadgets and gear can be useful and not burdensome as long as we use it as a way to further our connection with the landscape, and and not as the sole way to connect

23. Landscape relationship- Do you feel connected to the land? Do you know your landscape like you know your own best friend? The more we can “know” our landscape the more likely we are to survive and to not get ourselves in a dangerous situation to begin with. Furthermore, the more we can relate to a place the more likely we are to bounce back from a dire situation. For example:

I remember when I was living off the land in Africa and I had secured some meat from a kill in a tree so that predators like lions and hyenas would not get it. Over the night, a leopard came and climbed the thorny acacia tree and stole my meat. It was a big loss for me food wise, in one quick swoop, I lost around 30 pounds of meat!

However, earlier in my journey I had been praying to the leopards in the area to teach me how to be a better hunter, to teach me how to be patient and how to be fierce at the right time.

Because of my connection to leopard and my seemingly answered prayers, I didn’t let the loss get to me. The connection point served as a way to feel OK about my loss. The greater our connection to a place the greater our ability to tell a story that helps us accept our circumstance.

24. Empowerment / Do something! - We are all powerful beings that can change our internal and external states. Sadly, in our current culture, many of us learn from young age something called, “learned helplessness”

25. Curiosity - “What is that?” “Why did that happen?” What’s that sound?” All these questions are amazing tools that can help us in a survival situation as well as everyday life. Curiosity can be a driving force for us to gain awareness and understanding about our lives and surrounding. Hundreds of times in the wild, curiosity has led me to find amazing, useful and fascinating things! Like following the sound of buzzing to find a bee-hive and honey, or watching a bug crawl on the ground and then finding tracks and blood and then finding a dead animal! Without curiosity we would be lethargic blobs sitting on our butts!

The same curiosity allows me to learn about patterns in my own life. “Why did I say that?” “What is my motivation in doing this?”. Curiosity allows us to explore without judgement, to understand our patterns with child-like wonder.

man with little turtle

26. Resourcefulness - Making it work is a super-important skill to practice. We as a society love playing victim and giving up on tricky situations. Something broken in the house? Don’t try and fix it just call and pay the person to come fix it. We have lost our resourcefulness because of our abundance as a society. Next time something is broken or you don’t have the right part, try and fix it yourself, you might not fix it but I am sure you will learn something.

27. Breath - Generally speaking, we can go 3 days without water, 3 weeks without food, and 3 months without company but we can only live 3 minutes without air. Breath is our life-force that we take for granted. It is our connection to the “here and now” and our attention. Where our breath goes so does our attention.

I have been in intense survival situations where it felt like I had nothing. No comfort, no joy, nothing to hold onto. It was in that dire state that I found my breath. It felt so good to know that I had my breath and I found breathing to be entertaining and pleasurable!

Furthermore, breathing can help change our internal state, for example, from fear and panic, to more centered and calm. Breathing is an extremely useful tool that can help us in survival and in life!

Well.. What do you think? Do you agree? Did I miss any?

If you liked the flavor of these skills check out our 9-month adult, wilderness skills immersion program below: