How to Teach Wilderness Survival

How to Teach Wilderness Survival
Knowing the ins and outs of wilderness survival is essential to anyone who goes outdoors beyond the city limits. Teaching wilderness survival can be a great way to get kids (or anyone about to head on a trip) excited about the outdoors. The most important thing to remember when teaching any class is to keep your audience engaged. When they stop having fun, they often stop learning.


Difficulty: Moderately Easy

Things You’ll Need:
  • Classroom (indoors or out)
  • Chalkboard (something for the teacher to write on)
  • Pens/pencils (for participants)
  • Paper (for participants)
  • Edible plant Identification books (multiple copies are nice)
  • P-cord (thin ~3mm rope)
  • Tarps
  • Firewood
  • Matches, lighters or flint and steel
Step 1
Ask the participants about things they know about. Ask them about things they do every day, things taken for granted--the fact that they had breakfast, woke up in a warm house or tent, etc. As the participants throw out examples, write down the things they say that relate to the four basic needs of survival: air, water, food, shelter. Move to the next step after an example has been given for each of these basic needs.
Step 2
Ask the participants why they did a certain activity: "Why did you put on your coat to go outside?" A typical answer will be "Because it was cold," but the answer that you're actually searching for is "So I can stay warm." Go through this for each of the needs.
Step 3
Give the participants this rule of thumb: A person can live for three seconds without shelter, three minutes without air, three days without water, and three weeks without food. Shelter is fairly all-encompassing, as anything from clothing to a house could be thought of as shelter.
Step 4
Ask how one would fulfill each of these needs in differing situations. Within these situations, talk mostly about the scenarios participants will encounter--if a trip is in the woods of Canada, focus on scenarios and resources available there.
Step 5
Emphasize the necessity of water for life (and the necessity of maintaining good hydration on the trail). When acquiring water, if there is no means of filtration or chemical purification, it is a survival choice of whether to drink water straight from a lake or stream or to stop and boil it. If the expected rescue is within 24 hours and there is no extreme heat, water is probably not a major issue, but if rescue is not expected at all (five or more days), water must be boiled in some way. If boiling is not an option, find the cleanest, swiftest moving stream and drink from this. NEVER drink from any water that has any dead animals or feces near it.
Step 6
Go off on a hike (with the participants in tow), looking at a number of different plants along the way--showing five is usually enough. This can be a good time to have participants take a book and find a plant they think is edible and then bring it back to show the group. Stress not to eat anything unless it is a survival situation or you are completely sure that you know that the plant is edible and that there have been no pesticides sprayed.
Step 7
Discuss the pros and cons of different shelters, such as lean-tos, wigwams, debris huts, trenches and quinzees. At this point it is often beneficial to hand out rope of varying lengths (and tarps, if you like) to individuals or groups and have them go build their own shelters.
Step 8
Build a fire, but do not light it right away. Discuss surface area and emphasize that starting with small twigs and moving on to bigger logs is necessary in starting a fire, always lighting fires at the bottom because fire burns upwards. It is also helpful to discuss the shapes and styles of fires, most often tepee or log cabin.

Tips & Warnings

This is a general overview of how a wilderness survival class could be taught. It can easily be customized to class size, ecosystem, age or experience of participants, etc.
If there are two instructors and a large group, it is often helpful to teach the basics as a large group, then split the subjects, having one instructor teach each subject.
Other good topics to cover are the "10 essentials," building survival kits, Leave No Trace basics and knot tying.
Fire building can be dangerous. Make sure you have a permit.
Shelter building can also be very dangerous as people are apt to put large logs precariously into trees.
Be sure to give the participants full warnings about the hazards of eating poisonous plants.

Article Written By Alex Steiner

Alex Steiner graduated from Northland College with a Bachelor of Science in environmental studies, emphasis in human engagement. His educational training includes, sociology, psychology, interpersonal communication, adventure education, and environmental law. Steiner continues his work as an environmental education professional in Southern California.

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