The Elements of Survival

For ANY type of survival scenario the following elements of survival must be taken into account.

They are taught in the various wilderness survival schools you'll see on the internet or in good books on the subject. From what I have gathered it is as follows, and I’ll give more info on each of these later on, but for now the descriptions given below are by no means complete but general.

It is important to note that what is listed here below may also be applied to urban preparedness. You’ll understand better when I give more explanations later on.

Think about how the priorities of survival below can apply to an urban environment.

As an example, in the city you may be living in an apartment, to protect yourself from the rain and the wind. Well, in the wilderness you might use a tent to do the same thing. That would fall under 'Shelter' in the list of priorities.

Another example, is that you need heating during the winter in your home, like from electricity or gas. Well, in the wilderness you can use fire. That would fall under 'Fire' in the list of priorities. Continue as I have done and elaborate if you need to.

1. Attitude: A proper mindset will enormously help you when the emergency comes.

2. Shelter: No matter where you are you need to protect yourself from the elements. As a general rule, you can last 3 to 4 hours without it (if in very challenging conditions that is).

Shelter includes clothing, your primary line of defense against the elements.

3. Fire: Many purposes for it. Maintain body core temperature/avoid hypothermia.

4. Signaling: To attract attention to be rescued.

5. Water: As a general rule you can only go three or four days without it.

6. Food: As a general rule you can go three or four weeks without it.

7. Navigation: Know where you are and where you need to go. Have a look at Roaming Survival and Static Survival for important information.

8. Medical: Care for the injured, perhaps even yourself.

Please have a good look at the subject here, because even a seemingly well prepared individual who has all kinds of gear and supplies, knowledge and very good physical conditioning can become his own worse enemy, and ultimately do himself (and others) in if he doesn't have his head screwed on right.

The survival priority that is always number 1, ALWAYS, is having a positive mental attitude. Not taking this into account will cause you to make bad judgments and increase your chances of failure. If you panic, or you are scared stupid, you will make errors that can makes things worse for yourself, and if the case, the group you are in.

The Psychology of Survival

This has much to do with your core values and attitude. There are other things as well given the complexity of the subject. Having a proper attitude and ability to cope with stress is an essential element of survival to have, because whether someone is an 'expert' or not, whether you have great knowledge and skills in survival or not, whether you have gear or not, one thing is for certain, and that is that your attitude will greatly affect the outcome of the emergency that is upon you.

Fear, anxiety, anger, boredom, embarrassment, loneliness, depression and other potentially crippling emotions need to be dealt with before they send you down a path to ruin. Having a positive look at life coupled with hope and keeping your mind busy along with some other things, will give you the edge that can see you through your ordeal.

Fear I placed as a potentially negative emotion, however it may be a positive one as well depending on attitude. It can help us to be cautious to avoid making bad decisions that can make a bad situation worse.

Place a photo of your spouse, family, or other person that means a lot to you in your wallet or kit. This can help to remind you of what's really important to you, and encourage you to make it back to them. You should plastify this photo to make it waterproof and more resistant.

For this section I'll give you some links to be able have more details about the psychology of survival.

1. The Ultralight Backpacking Site

2. Wilderness Survival Home

Have a look at the video page as well, to learn more about the psychology of survival.

Survival Priorities

The elements of survival are also called survival priorities, and much debate exists on the subject. I have seen somewhere that there are 5 priorities, another place 6 and elsewhere it said that there are 7. Then the order of priority will vary as well between the different sources. I found 8 priorities in my studies. I didn't invent one, I simply compiled them more efficiently.

The order of priority is dictated by the circumstances in which a person or persons find themselves in. Make a good judgment call by knowing the elements of survival mentioned above, and apply them according to your circumstances.

I'll give an example here and ask you a question. However, one note before you read the question below. Out of the 8 elements of survival you'll see, this is one order the priorities are set out which you'll find as a course of action to take, but not always as mentioned above.


If a man fell through the ice while cross-country skiing on a lake, on a cold windy day in the backcountry and was able to get out of the frigid water with his supplies, what would be the order of priority for this man?

1. Attitude

2. Shelter

3. Fire

4. Signaling

5. Water

6. Food

7. Location/Navigation

8. Medical

In my opinion,

I think that at the same time as this man needs to have a positive mental attitude, that he should first head to the side of the lake where the forest will shield him from the wind, if the ice conditions will permit him to take that course of action. He needs to consider the wind direction as well, and what would be best to do. It is colder to walk against the wind but he may need to if the forest is closer in that direction and will give him protection once there.

If due to ice conditions he cannot, he should head back along the same route that he came from because the ice was stable enough to support him. He may have to deviate his course somewhat, because it depends on what direction the forest is in relation to his position on the ice, and seek shelter once he arrives there. This shelter I speak of should be the forest and any natural features and snow drifts that will help to block out the wind. He will not be able to build a shelter out of natural materials while he is quivering and going hypothermic. Building a shelter of this type can take many hours. So get out of the wind and build a fire.

Then once the fire is blazing and he can start to warm up while at the same time being shielded from the wind, change into some dry clothing. As for the rest he has of course other choices, such as does he build a shelter using natural materials or modern implements he may have and spend the night over there, or is he able to make it to safety elsewhere like making it back to the trailhead where his car is.

The possibilities are almost endless as to details and scenarios that can happen, and this is just an example here. There are variations to the above example that may be given, and then the order of priority can change.

It is always best to have a change of clothing in a waterproof pouch or other as part of your supplies, as well as having a wilderness survival kit equipped with what you need to get a fire going quickly. Having a good bush knife and an emergency blanket as part of your kit is also very important.

Having a wilderness survival kit is something that can literally save your life in a situation like the one above, so be certain to have one. This applies for other survival kits as well.

As for the other priorities you may not even need to consider them, or perhaps some you'll need to, others you won't. It all depends upon the circumstances. In the example above, lets say the person was able to dry off, eat some food to raise the basic metabolic rate of his body to generate heat, drink some potable water to be properly hydrated, and rest beside the fire. Now if this person decides to go back to the trailhead that may be two hours away, and it is 12:00pm and he is sufficiently strong to make it to the trailhead, there is no need to build a shelter and spend the night out there or place signals to be rescued, right?

This person would have addressed the needs for the conditions of his particular ordeal. He got out of the wind, built a fire, had a change of clothes and ate some food he had with him. He also drank some water he had in between the layers of his clothing to keep it from freezing, then rested beside the fire. His body was generating heat as he was walking towards the forest to take shelter from the wind and while quickly gathering tinder, kindling and fuel for his fire.

He still would be in a dangerous situation being wet and in the wind as he was walking, but he had a fighting chance by taking action and becoming physically active, verses sitting out on the lake not knowing what to do. Then after all his efforts the fire was helping him to warm up as well.

If he didn't have food or water, or the means to procure some water by melting snow or ice, or if he had an emergency blanket, or if he had no wilderness survival kit, or if he was injured when he fell through the ice, or while gathering wood for the fire... Like I said above, that there are variations to the above example that may be given, and then the order of priority can change.

Normally as listed above the 8 elements of survival are in that order, but remember that it depends on your circumstances. The more knowledge you have, the more options and the clearer it will become for you to decide the proper course of action to take in an emergency. Remember that this also applies to an emergency in an urban setting as well. You still need to get out of the wind, have heat, have food and drink and so forth.

For food however, it is not a priority that is high on the list. In fact it is the last thing to concern yourself with in the beginning of an emergency, or for a short term emergency because you can go up to 3 or 4 weeks without it, provided you have sufficient potable water etc. However, having said that, in the winter or at other times when it is cool out, having food high in protein, carbohydrates and fat are good in order to raise your metabolic rate which will create heat from within which is very important. Also, after a few days you will lack in energy making it more difficult to do what needs to be done so some food is always good to have with you or to obtain it in the environment.

Shelter is normally first, but I have seen attitude as being first or not even on the list, then fire, signaling, water and food, taking into consideration any medical needs that are present. However if someone is injured then medical will become a priority that you may have to consider before some or all other priorities (except a positive mental attitude). It depends on the circumstances. You need to know how to make that judgment call, which helps if your mental state is good. Do you see why having a positive mental attitude is important? Depending on the circumstances as well as the type of injury, you may need to erect a shelter for the injured person, and then determine what other immediate as well as foreseeable priorities will need to be addressed.

Other things to consider, and not necessarily in this order are:

1. Season

2. Environment

3. Location

4. How many people are in the group, or are you alone?

5. How many are injured if you are in a group?

6. What is the nature of the emergency, and what degree of severity is it?

7. Depending on the severity, you'll need to consider if you need to set up an emergency camp or evacuate.

8. Is an evacuation required? If so:

- Are you sufficient in number to accomplish this task?

- Is the group able or willing to carry the injured person back to safety?

- What is the level of experience of the group as well as their emotional state?

- What kind of terrain will you have to travel over?

- What are the meteorological conditions and what can be expected?

- How far is it to get back to safety?

- How much time will it take to arrive to safety?

- Is there a possibility of making the injured persons condition worse by moving him or her?

- What are the groups resources as well as the resources in your environment?

- Would it be better to send out for help, instead of evacuating with the group?

These are some of the questions you'll need to ask yourself or together if in a group. Group dynamics are extremely important for the sake of efficiency, emotional well being of all concerned and for your overall safety as a group or team. The life of the injured person or persons may very well depend upon it as well.

Proper pre-trip planning is essential if you are to avoid a variety of problems in the field should an emergency occur. 

The information given on this page in not complete, but is intended to give you an idea of what is involved when needing to make decisions and preparations. Do some more researching on the subject to get more details.

The priorities of survival (elements of survival) are important wherever you are. I had given examples in the wilderness on this page, however it doesn't matter where you are, not one bit, because:

  • You need to keep your head screwed on right to make the right decisions, like if you are driving in the traffic or you have to make important decisions while traveling in the wilderness. (Represents Attitude).
  • Protect yourself from Mother Nature like you do normally in an apartment or a house, just like you would need to in the woods with a tent or tarp. (Represents Shelter).
  • Have the means to stay warm and cook food if required to cook like you do at home with perhaps electric or gas for heating in your home to stay warm, and use a stove to cook food. In the wilderness you can use fire to stay warm and cook your food. A camp stove can be used for cooking if one is available. (Represents Fire).
  • Attract attention to yourself like honking the car horn to get the neighbors attention because you want to ask for help to lift something heavy an example. Or it could be you are stuck in a collapsed building during an earthquake and need some help so you attract attention to yourself by tapping on metal pipes or blowing a whistle (have one with you at all times). If you were in the wilderness and needed to attract attention to yourself to get some help you can make noise to get someone's attention by using a whistle or a gun if you have one. Fire can also be used as a source of light and smoke for signaling. (Represents Signaling).
  • Have water to avoid dehydration and the problems that might occur with that. Under normal conditions we have running water to drink, cook with and bathe in. In the wilderness if there is a water source like a lake or stream, you can get water for the same reasons you would at home, like to drink, cook with and bathe in. (Represents Water).
  • Food to sustain yourself like after a workout or simply your regular meals at home or at the restaurant if the case may be. In the wilderness you'll need food at some point and can eat what you might have with you, or what is in the environment like wild edibles or through hunting and fishing. (Represents Food).
  • Traveling to get home from work, go to the store or a friends place etc. In the wilderness you want to avoid getting lost just like in the city, and need to be able to get from one point to another. (Represents Navigation).
  • Exercise, going to the hospital or dentist and patching up small wounds at home as well as prevention. In the wilderness you need to avoid getting injured and need to be able to use first aid to deal with any injuries you may have sustained. (Represents Medical).

Granted that the examples I have just given are not detailed and things may be different for you and for how you would deal with an emergency.


Woodsman Ways Part 14 (Survival Priorities and Common Sense)
Woodsman Ways Part 15 (Long Term Discussion)
The Lost Hunter!

Have a look at this video of a lost hunter scenario. I liked it.

An Example Is In Order

I'll quote from the Map, Compass and GPS page:

"It is recommended to carry two quality compasses, not just for the sake of having a backup, but also for the psychological aspect. Under stress, a person might question the compass reading and disbelieve what it is telling them. They'll rationalize that their sense of direction is correct and the compass is 'off'. With another compass (not some cheap piece of junk) you can verify the initial readings, and if they concur, then you have confirmed that the compass reading was good after-all and that your sense of direction is what was 'off' :)"
Extreme Winter Survival Overnight
My article to the left I'd written in the past and had nothing to do with the video above, but when I saw his video I felt it went well with the article, so I put it here.

He gives some good ideas of how to survive a fall through the ice scenario. Despite any errors he had admitted to, he is definitely skilled enough to have made it through.

Surrounding yourself with fire is an idea I haven't thought of for awhile so it was interesting to see him make mention of it, it reminded me of a survival technique.

We all make mistakes, I made my share of them as well, but so what in that we are here to learn from one another. It takes people like him to get out of their comfort zone to teach the rest of the people who would rather only read about survival in the woods.

I do not advocate going to extremes however, and always have a backup to your plans and a means of getting help should you practice risky scenarios. Know survival skills and practice them in more controlled circumstances before going out further. Having a buddy along with skills, knowledge and proper equipment to 'save you' from yourself is a good idea as well :)

Don't go wander off a long distance away from your camp in the night like he did. To walk around to generate heat you can do but be careful and stay close to camp. Travelling at night is inherently risky for several reasons. What if he got lost, tripped and fell, twisted an ankle, or lost site of his small camp despite the small fires etc. He walked far away, about a mile he said but of course it might not be that far because of his condition out there and the difficulty of gauging distance at night and while tired and cold.

Don't get yourself killed in trying to learn survival techniques!

Making a handdrill fire as he did makes me think, 'I couldn't do that'. Maybe I couldn't but maybe I could. I wouldn't know to be honest unless I was in that stuation and needed fire badly enough. I know how to make a bow drill fire and know that plant stems can at times be used as spindles.

The thing I am bringing up here is this, that having a Positive Mental Attitude in a survival situation which is part of The Psychology of Survival, begins BEFORE you are in a survival situation. If you fill yourself with thoughts that say you wouldn't survive in such and such situation or under such and such conditions, and repeat it often enough, you predispose yourself for failure should that situation or conditions present themselves to you. You already played it out in your head and saw yourself fail. The mind is your most powerful asset it is said, but it can also work against you as well.

You also don't want to go the other extreme and lie to yourself and say you can get through it no problem if you haven't even any knowledge or skills about survival. Granted there are exceptions, however you put the odds in your favor at least a bit more if you have taken the time to learn and practice skills.

In a survival situation you will be at your best and at your worse. How is that for a twist! To be or not to be, to survive or not to survive, that is the question. Ok, enough philosophy here LOL.

It is true however, and therefore we need to learn, practice and be positive about our strengths and weaknesses to put the odds in our favor in an emergency situation.

Know what your strengths and weaknesses are at every stage of your life because it changes as you get older. Your level of knowledge, experience and skills, as well as any health issues that may have occurred, and the fact that growing older also means, at least for most of us, that we just cannot do what we once could many years ago.

Consider also that you may now have a family to protect, perhaps with younger children. Just look at the differences and changes as your life progresses and determine if anything would now make it more challenging than before to get through a survival situation, and prepare accordingly.