10 Skills for Backwoods Survival

By author of Brow Tines and Backstrap

From shelter building to drying meat (and of course hunting and fishing), these tips are for life in the rough

Being self-sufficient and able to survive in the absence of modern conveniences isn't just for doomsday preppers. It's necessary for all hunters. Plus, there's a great deal of confidence and satisfaction that comes with being self-reliant. These are skills everyone should know, and if you can master them all, you'll be ready for whatever challenge the wildnerness throws at you.

Glen Reich, director of marketing for Insights Hunting, understands survival. Now retired from the U.S. Army, he served as an elite member of the military and logged years of survival training. He also experienced the real thing . . . on more than one occasion.

“I served in the US Army,” Reich said. “I deployed to Iraq with the 4th Infantry Division in 2005 and the 1st Cavalry Division in 2008. I was a sergeant during my last tour in Iraq. While there, I served as a team leader on the PSD Platoon (Personal Security Detachment) for 2-7 CAV. I'd be remiss if I failed to mention that my service pales in comparison to the dedication and sacrifice of our fellow PSD Platoon NCO (Non-Commissioned Officer) Sergeant Reuben Marcus Fernandez III, who gave his life on October 11, 2008, defending our great country.”

Learning how to bowhunt is crucial. It’s a skill that will provide you and your family with wild game. (Elite Archery photo)

1. Know How to Hunt

Since you're on Realtree.com, you're probably already interested in this one, so I'll keep it brief: Hunting isn't an optional skill if you're going to survive in the woods. Become proficient with a variety of weapons, including guns and archery equipment.

Reich says general hunting experience prepared him most for survivalist situations. It’s key. Know how to scout for and locate the species of animal you’re hunting. Learn how to identify feeding, watering and the day-to-day habits of wildlife, and use them to your predatory advantage. After you kill something, learn how to gut it, skin it and process it yourself.

If you’re new to hunting, you still probably know someone who hunts. Ask to tag along and see what it's all about. Chances are they'll be happy to take you. We hunters are a friendly bunch. 

2. Be a Fisherman

Fishing tactics — even for the same species of fish — change throughout the year. To best accommodate survival needs, learn how to fish for at least one species of fish for each month of the year, even if it's only two or three species of fish altogether. That way, you know you’ll always have the knowledge to catch dinner. Once you've mastered that, keep trying new things, like new species or new types of fisheries. There may not be a pond full of bluegills when you need it, but maybe there's a trout stream nearby.

Learning how to kill a deer, and then skin it, are skills every backwoods man and woman should know. (Josh Honeycutt photo)

3. Cleanse Your Water

Clean drinking water is critical to survival, and you may not always have access to tap water from the city. You need to know how to purify water in the wild that has not been pre-treated. There are several ways to do this, but the easiest and most effective is to collect your water and then boil it over an open flame. So the first step is to collect the water you need in a metal container, preferably a pot or kettle.

Now, drive two sticks into the ground on either side of where your fire will be. Then run another stick horizontally from one vertical stick to the other. Tie the horizontal stick off at the tops of the vertical sticks with rope or string. It needs to be sturdy enough to hold the weight of your kettle and water. If you don’t have sticks or string, you can also stack three piles of rocks in a small circle around the perimeter of where the fire will be. The pot or kettle will rest on these three “legs.”

Next, build a small fire and hang or set your kettle over the flame. Allow the water to come to a boil. According to the CDC, boiling water for one minute in lower altitudes will be enough to kill all bacteria. If at an elevation higher than 6,562 feet, boil the water for at least three minutes to ensure purification.

Once you have your water, make sure you pack it up efficiently (along with the rest of your gear and personal effects).

"Hydration is a priority for soldiers and hunters alike. And I still pack out my gear when hunting in the same manner I did when we were going on a dismounted patrol or mission," Reich said. "Balancing gear needs, such as water, while being mindful of weight is a key component when hunting. That is why I demand so much of our packs at Insights Hunting, because I know how important freedom of movement is when stealth is of the utmost importance.

4. Dehydrate Meat

Jerky is a great food choice to have with you in the backwoods. It’s easy to keep, slow to ruin, and provides a source of protein for the hardy backwoods guy or gal.

Start by freezing the wild game meat for 30 to 60 days. This will help suppress any diseases the animal might have. Then, thaw out the meat, cut into small strips, trim the fat, season to taste, and allow it marinate overnight if you wish.

Then, place the strips in the oven — heated to 160 degrees fahrenheit — for about 30 minutes. Next, transfer to a dehydrator, and allow it to dry for five to 10 hours (at no less than 150 degrees), depending on the scenario. You know your jerky is done when it bends and cracks apart. If it breaks in half, you’ve dried it too long.

Unrefrigerated jerky will last seven to 12 days, sometimes longer. To keep long-term, freeze what you will not eat within the first couple of weeks. You don’t want this good stuff going to waste.

Don't Miss: Know H2O: How to Purify Drinking Water

5. Forage for Food

This is a lost art that many have forgotten throughout the last century. But knowing how to identify wild edibles is an extremely useful skill that could save your neck if you're in the wilderness for very long. There are many categories, but these are the primary options: plants, mushrooms, soft mast, hard mast, (safe) bugs, etc. I strongly encourage taking a course on foraging. You don't want to pass up a good food source if you're starving, but a misstep could mean ingesting something toxic — and then you have a new set of problems.

Some other top options include:

  • Edible flowers
  • (Safe) berries
  • Some seaweeds
  • Some seeds
  • Sassafras
  • Dandelions
  • Syrups (tapping maple)
  • Etc.

While nowhere near all-inclusive, do not consume things with these characteristics:

  • Three-leafed plants
  • Grain-like heads with rich coloring
  • Brightly colored plants
  • Pod- and bulb-based seeds
  • Plants with discolored sap
  • And more

6. Build a Shelter

According to Reich, shelter is critical. Caves, overhangs, large trees and other like places will shield you from the elements. But building one is a crucial skill. Complete a simple structure with these easy steps:

  1. Use a saw to cut as many 6- to 8-foot poles as you can. At least 25 to 30 poles that are at no less than 2 inches in diameter should do. Make sure they’re as straight as possible.
  2. Drive two poles into the ground (vertically) with a 2-inch gap between them. Repeat this step 6 feet in front of the first two.
  3. Run one post horizontally from the front pair to the back pair. Tie it off with paracord on each end.
  4. Begin leaning the remaining poles against the horizontal one. Continue doing this until the structure is enclosed. Secure each one with paracord. The more poles, and the closer they are together, the better.
  5. Fill the gaps with other items, such as small sticks and mud.
  6. Drape a tarp over the sides of the A-frame enclosure. While not as effective, trash bags or other lightweight plastics serve the same purpose. Secure either with paracord.
  7. If possible, create an elevated bed, even if it's only a few inches. This will keep you up off the damp ground and awat . Use forest duff and soft materials you have on hand to add comfort. Then sleep tight and survive until help arrives.

Foraging is a skill that dates back to the beginning of time. While we’ve since lost touch with this craft, it’s still an important one. Identifying plant species, and recognizing quality food sources when we see them are very important to backwoods survival. (Josh Honeycutt photo)

7. Recognize Heat Sources

Humans never would have made it to the top of the food chain without fire. In order to survive in cold weather, we have to be able to build fire or at minimum, find other sources of heat. I always carry matches with me when in the backwoods. Another great tool to have on hand is a flint and steel. It lasts much longer than matches do and packs light.

I also pack a Mylar reflective emergency blanket with me. This works to keep me warm if I ever hit hard times, or just get really cold. Know how to find natural sources of heat. Some bodies of water are naturally heated. If you're in an area with cave systems, they can provide outstanding shelter. Temperatures stay about the same year around once you get far enough underground.

8. Know First-Aid

Anyone who goes into the woods should know simple first-aid practices. The first is CPR. Know how to do this in case you have to perform CPR on someone else. Secondly, know the Heimlich maneuver (and how to perform it on yourself). Knowing how to stop someone from choking is an important skill if you're far from help. Third, know how to suppress blood loss and stitch a laceration. Always carry thread and needle for this purpose. Being able to address these types of issues could save your life, or someone else’s, in case of an emergency.

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9. Be Seasonal

You must think seasonally when in the wilderness. Always consider the time of year and what it means in terms of resources and supplies. Food sources change as the seasons do, so wasting time and precious energy pursuing one food source when another is more nutritious or easier to obtain is a huge mistake. Always think ahead and plan for the coming weeks and months. Map out in advance what food sources you’ll key on as the days pass by.

10. Use Everything

Rule No. 1 in the backwoods (but No. 10 on this list) — is to never waste anything. You can always find a use for everything in the backwoods. And if you have no use for it at the moment, keep it anyway. There will come a time when you need it. Save the bones and hides from animals killed. Eat edible organs — like the heart — from game that you kill. Keep an eye out for sticks, rocks and other resources that are shaped for specific tasks, especially those well-suited for shelter building.


Every backwoods hunter needs good equipment. The new Elite Valor budget bow fits the bill. Click here to learn more about it.


Additional Tools and Thoughts

"All in all, my ability to know what to do in the military started with knowing what to do in the hardwoods of northern Michigan, and both lifestyles complement each other quite well," Reich said.

And according to him and other survival experts, the tools you carry are extremely important.

  • Weapon (See more on the Elite Valor.)
  • Efficient pack (See more on Insights Hunting.)
  • Good boots (See more on Nike boots.)
  • Matches
  • Flint and steel
  • Tape (See more on Duck Tape.)
  • Heat blanket
  • Dry bag (See more on High 'N' Dry gear.)
  • Metal container (See more on Calcutta products.)
  • Cup (See more on Calcutta products.)
  • Sewing kit
  • Knives (See more on RaptoRazor gear.)
  • Rope
  • Navigational tools (compass / map)
  • Emergency / distress signal (whistle / flares)

These things don't cover the complete scope of backwoods survival and gear needs. Other trade crafts include creating an SOS by starting a large fire, dumping green vegetation on it to make it smoke, using landmarks and stars to navigate, and much more.

Becoming distinguished in survival takes training and preparation. We hope we set you on the right path.

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